I’ve touched on the beginnings of Bertha’s life in my post about her father Frank. By the spring of 1892, Frank’s work with the American Endowment Company had fallen apart and the family suffered financially.
Perhaps to look for another opportunity, Frank ended up staying in South Berwick, Maine at this
time, leaving his wife Jennie, 16-year-old Bertha and 14-year-old Edwin back home at 34 Cedar Avenue in Lynn, Massachusetts. Bertha dropped out of school the previous winter so that she could work to help pay for the interest on their house. Instead of following in the footsteps of so many who lived in Lynn in the shoe industry, Bertha gave piano lessons.
Bertha’s job must have been paying somewhat well, for she decided that she needed to buy a new piano, so she went to see a local dealer, Eugene Green. It was there where she became acquainted with employee Percy St. Clair, a handsome and charismatic 29-year-old, new in town with his wife Annie. I imagine that Bertha must have told Percy the reason she needed the piano; it was not long before Percy would be opening a piano shop of his own on 94 Union Street, and Annie would need help with bookkeeping and other administrative duties. Bertha seemed to be a good candidate for the job, which was offered to her on May 26.
The Percy St. Clair Organ Co. soon moved to the second floor of the MacNair Building on 113 Market Street. (Personally, I think the second floor is a heck of place for a piano shop!) Annie chose not to go along with the move here and got a job elsewhere, leaving Bertha as Percy’s sole employee.
Bertha was a pretty girl, and now that they were alone together, Percy seemed to make his move. It was later assumed that he had downplayed his marriage of just under a year and made it clear that it was Bertha that he wanted. If Bertha was at all reluctant to proceed with a relationship, Percy was able to prey on her vulnerability: her financial situation. He knew that she loved her mother and was willing to
do anything to help Jennie. Perhaps he made a promise to help, too, contingent on Bertha’s cooperation.
On Sunday, June 12, Bertha went to church with Jennie and Edwin yet seemed preoccupied. The next morning, Jennie asked what was the matter, but Bertha just said she wasn’t feeling well. Jennie supposed that perhaps Bertha was feeling burdened by having to work and sad about her father not living with them.
Bertha began her walk to work and ran into one of her neighbors. For some reason, she confided in him that Percy had wanted to take her to Chicago, but she wouldn’t be going. Later that day, Percy stopped in on John Greenwood at the Lynn Loan Company, which was next to his own store. They talked for a while until Mr. Greenwood had to step out. This was when Percy noticed an uncashed check for $200 on Mr. Greenwood’s desk. Percy swiped the check, swept Bertha out of the store, locked up, and left for nearby Boston. The couple stopped by Hallet & Davis Piano Company on Tremont Street (did Percy have a friend there?), where Percy cashed the check he forged. Percy put $25 in an envelope with a quick letter to Annie and brought Bertha on a train heading to Albany, New York.
Once it was apparent that something had happened to Bertha, Jennie began looking for her daughter. Finding the door locked at Percy’s shop as late as the following morning, Jennie notified the police.
Annie, meanwhile, received Percy’s letter, in which he confessed his indiscretion with Bertha and called himself a “most despicable wretch, unworthy of pity or forgiveness”. As Annie did not blame Bertha, she went to the Colomy home so that she and Jennie could try to piece together what happened and to offer some comfort. Although Annie was unsure of Percy’s backstory, she had a suspicion that there were “some crooked transactions” during their short marriage.
On Wednesday, June 15 a telegram was dashed off to Frank in South Berwick. The telegram was returned the next day, stating that Frank could not be found. Jennie must have felt a sting of betrayal. She informed reporters that “[i]f her father had not forced her to go to work, I would have my Bertha as good and as pure as she ever was.” Annie, meanwhile, left for her parents in Webster, Massachusetts, wanting “nothing further to do with” Percy.
Frank was finally located on Tuesday, June 21. He was told of his daughter’s disappearance and his wife’s disparaging remarks. “To the best of my ability, and in the face of ill success, I have tried to faithfully perform the duties of a husband and a father,” he stated. What else could he say? Frank pledged to hire detectives to track down Percy and Bertha, though I don’t know if he actually did that.
Meanwhile, Percy and Bertha were traveling under the aliases Mr. and Mrs. Thornton. By late June, they stayed in Buffalo at 472 Pearl Street, boarding with Mrs. S.E. Terry. Percy claimed to be a music instructor, though Mrs. Terry never saw any of his clients. After they had left in late July, Mrs. Terry read a music publication that had a picture of Percy St. Clair and explained how he was a wanted man. She quickly contacted Jennie to inform her of what she knew, and Jennie passed on this information to the police.
Percy and Bertha ended up in Detroit, where it appears they may have had a falling out. Bertha worked as live-in servant with a family and Percy worked in a piano store in another part of town. The Detroit police soon learned that Percy was wanted for abduction and grand larceny and arrested him on August 25. The police were also able to locate Bertha, who for some reason seemed unable to explain why she was with Percy. The police in Lynn were notified, and Detective Joseph E. Shaw traveled to Detroit to bring the couple back home.
Bertha was glad to return to Jennie on Tuesday, August 30, which was surely a tearful reunion. Bertha “expressed deep contrition for her sins” to her mother. Meanwhile, Percy was thrown in jail and was scheduled to face Judge Berry of the Lynn Police Court the following day.
Percy’s return must have been the talk of the town, for the courthouse was packed the next day. Jennie accompanied Bertha, who testified against Percy. Percy, who faced charges of grand larceny and adultery (the abduction charge was abandoned), was not his usual gregarious self. Dumbstruck, he was prompted by the judge to plead not guilty, and bail was set for $500 for each count against him. Unable to come up with the money, he stayed in jail until the following Tuesday (the day after Labor Day) when the trial continued.
Percy was found guilty in October 1892, but his sentence was deferred. His wife Annie was granted a divorce that December. Once he paid his dues for his crimes, Percy was free to move on. Ironically, he moved back to the city where he was arrested, Detroit. There, on August 19, 1896, he married 18-year-old Mary A. Knoll. His occupation was listed as a piano tuner. Ten months later, they had a daughter named Mable. I was not surprised to find a later newspaper article stating that Mary was looking to divorce Percy due to abandonment.
As for Bertha and her parents, I will continue their stories in future posts.