October 2017

Scandal Found on the Family Tree

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Through the Looking GlassI had done a fair amount of genealogical research before someone mentioned to me that there were some old family letters with a cousin living in Williamstown, Mass. Without really knowing what they were, I drove to Williamstown and met a lovely lady who trusted me to take the letters home and work with them. They turned out to be written either by or to my 4th great grandfather Ziba Tompkins at a time when he was having marital difficulties. Since that time was 1796, I trust that discussing the scandalous nature of Ziba’s situation will no longer hurt or embarrass anyone.

Ziba Tomkins married Elizabeth Crowell in New Jersey around 1787, and they became parents to three children. But the marriage was not a good one and Ziba complained of having a difficult wife. Shortly after the birth of their third child, a daughter named Abigail, an angry and resentful Ziba took the baby and ran away with his wife’s younger sister Lois Crowell. The letters reveal the pain and disruption caused by the flight from New Jersey to Amsterdam, New York where Lois and the baby stayed on a farm owned by friends and Ziba took off into the woods to work as a surveyor.

What I gather from the letters is that Elizabeth (referred to as “Betty”) was not much of a mother or housewife – as Ziba puts it “my misfortune of being troubled with a bad companion.” His explanation for leaving her was that he needed “to gain satisfaction for that misfortune and to extract my vengeance.” Evidently he had also been flirty with Lois to annoy Betty. I don’t think you could characterize Lois as a villainess in this story. She was young and innocent, “with a halo” (Ziba’s words) before leaving New Jersey with Ziba and the baby. Ziba’s two older children went to live with his parents presumably because Betty was neglectful of them. Ziba’s brother writes about her, “for their own mother is not a mother to them for she takes no care of them then if they were cattle about the house….” That neglect is probably what caused Ziba to take the baby with him.

I’ve not found a divorce record for Ziba and Elizabeth and I don’t believe the February 1796 date given by most genealogists as Elizabeth’s death date. The letters indicate that Elizabeth was alive in March, April, and July of 1796. I found an entry in the “U.S. Presbyterian Church Records, 1701-1970” that shows an Elizabeth Tomkins died in Philadelphia in January of 1801. The reason (besides name and birth date) I think this refers to Elizabeth Crowell Tomkins is that Ziba and Lois did not start having children until 1802. They had been together since 1796, but I believe they waited to start a family until they could legally marry.

Baby Abigail whom Ziba and Lois took when they ran away grew up to become the ancestress of my father and many other people.

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