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HOLLISTON

Despite the cold, onlookers packed a Framingham courtroom in early 1875 to watch as Mary Reynolds faced accusations of child abuse, neglect, and murder. At the time, ghoulish stories swirled around the Holliston woman, her husband Nelson, and their farm about 30 miles west of Boston: dead children taken away in secrecy, some buried on the property, and bodies carried away on a train to Boston. Neighbors would testify they could hear the cries of children at night. During her arraignment that January, the Boston Herald reported, Reynolds looked “careworn, dejected, and haggard” while she faced charges that she poisoned to death five children in her care.

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The 50-year-old woman and her husband, 49, operated a so-called baby farm. That is, they earned a living taking in children whose parents were unable or unwilling to care for them. Over the course of three years, about 200 children were taken into their custody. Not all of them survived.

Today, the prosecution of Mary and Nelson Reynolds is a distant memory in Holliston; I only stumbled across it while searching the Globe archives for old stories about my hometown. Old newspaper stories about the case capture a bleak inflection point in the history of the American family — a moment when society hadn’t yet taken responsibility for the well-being of poor and abandoned children and instead left them to their fate at unregulated baby farms and elsewhere.

Yet the case, which generated news coverage in at least 12 states, unfolded in a recognizably modern media environment, and it hints at how the press influenced the legal and social protections that took root in subsequent years. The Reynoldses’ case led to hearings on Beacon Hill and, ultimately, to an early child protection law in Massachusetts.

“The old-style progressive reformers were very critical of these institutions and wanted to get rid of them,” said Sonya Michel, a retired professor of history, American studies, and gender and women’s studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. “And that’s where the impetus for a lot of the regulation came from — reformers who were concerned about the fate of children in these places.”

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Joanne Hulbert, who studied the case as Holliston’s town historian, said the Reynolds farm was symbolic of the kind of dangers faced by abandoned and poor children during the 1800s.

“This wasn’t the only baby farm out there, this was just one of many,” said Hulbert. “And maybe [the Reynolds farm had] a more heinous history, the worst of the worst, but none of these places had any oversight.”

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Located just inside Interstate 495, Holliston today is a town of about 14,000 people. In 1875, the population was just shy of 3,400. The Reynolds farm was on Adams Street, well west of the town center. It would have been an isolated spot, said Hulbert, who researched the Reynolds case from clippings kept in town archives. She believes the Reynoldses wanted a remote location to run their baby farm. “Out of sight, out of mind, way at the end of the road,” Hulbert said. “Out there on Adams Street, everything to the west of that, there’s nothing. . . you can get away with a lot.”

The Reynolds farmhouse itself was “a large, rambling, unpainted and dilapidated structure,” with smashed windows in the back and a “wretchedly furnished” kitchen, the Herald reported after a visit.

That unsparing portrayal may, to some degree, have reflected broader attitudes toward baby farms. In an era without widespread child protection laws, such enterprises operated on the margins of American society. An ancestor of today’s day care center, there were likely hundreds of these unlicensed and unregulated operations in place during the 19th century, Michel said. Seen as a last resort for supposedly irresponsible parents incapable of handling their own children, baby farms lacked respectability in the public eye.

If a working class or poor parent turned to a baby farm, the best they could hope for was that their child would be safe, fed, and relatively clean, she said. If the child was abandoned, then baby farmers might sell the child to another family to earn money.

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Or worse. Ten children died at the Reynolds baby farm during its roughly three years of operation. Those deaths did not go unnoticed at the time. Holliston’s constable, J.D. Shippee, started an investigation in late 1874 after officials noticed that babies there were “dying rather fast,” the Herald reported.

In January 1875, two women who worked at the farm, Mary Colby and Eliza Shehan, came forward and reported Reynolds was poisoning children with laudanum, a powerful narcotic. Reynolds and her husband were arrested — Reynolds was charged with murdering five children and her husband was charged as an accessory, newspapers reported. The case later focused on the death of Thomas McMahan, a child who had lived with the Reynoldses for about a year, the Herald and the Globe reported. The murder charges were replaced with a single count of manslaughter against Mary and Nelson Reynolds, and each pleaded not guilty. A coroner’s jury — a panel that, in an age of scant forensic evidence, helped a local coroner establish the cause of a death — was formed to hear testimony from prosecution and defense witnesses.

Colby and Shehan testified the poisonings began with McMahan, whose death on Nov. 18, 1874, had been attributed to diarrhea, according to town records.

About a month later, a five-month-old named James died. And over the course of eight days in mid-January 1875, three young girls all died: 12-week-old “Little Maud” Straton, three-week-old Agnes Forbes, and a girl whose name was reported as Fredelina Pierce, Fredelyn Pierce, or Fredelyn Appleton.

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Colby and Shehan also testified the couple would get drunk and fight each other, and that Mary Reynolds would strike the children, who themselves had little to eat.

Ellen Cratty, a neighbor, testified that seven children died at the farm in 1873 and that she had seen Nelson “take the bodies away in a sly manner as though he wished to conceal his departure.”

The Reynoldses had defenders: The mother of one of the children who died — Agnes Forbes — dismissed claims that Mary abused or poisoned children. Sarah A. Williams, who also had a child in Reynolds’s care, spoke about Reynolds’s “good character” in an affidavit.

Also behind the Reynoldses were officials from the Temporary Home for the Destitute, located at that time off of Pine Street in Boston. The home sent children to live at the Reynolds farm.

Anne L. Gwynne, the home’s “matron,” told reporters in January that Reynolds was a “kind hearted, charitable woman” she had known for 27 years, according to the Boston Journal.

Another backer was Boston philanthropist Russell Sturgis Jr., who defended Reynolds’s “good character” and “and knew her as a woman of absolute kindness,” the Herald said. Presumably through his influence, the impoverished couple also secured a sitting assistant US attorney, Prentice Cummings, to serve as the couple’s defense counsel. And Sturgis posted Mary’s bail when she was charged in McMahan’s death. The reason behind Sturgis’s generosity isn’t clear, but Sturgis and Reynolds were close, despite their different stations in life.

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Ryan Huddle/Globe Staff

We know all this not through contemporaneous court records — which, it seems, are lost to history — but through other historical documents, and because the newspapers of the day followed the Reynolds case closely. Mary Reynolds, during an interview with a Herald reporter at her home, blasted her neighbors. “She accused the people of Holliston of being uncharitable, and said that as soon as this matter is [adjudicated] she will remove her home to some town where her good work will be recognized and encouraged,” the Herald reported.

While Sturgis testified that he had visited the farm, apparently no one at the Temporary Home for the Destitute checked to make sure children were safe, according to the group’s meeting records, now archived by the University of Massachusetts, Boston. No one was responsible for visiting an outside placement like the Reynolds farm. A review discussed during the board’s meeting the following month found at least 61 children were sent out to temporary placements, but no one had checked up on them. The historical record captures some stirrings of conscience, however belated. It was only after the Reynolds case that members “suggest” they “open a book to contain records of all children who have been placed or adopted during the month,” according to meeting minutes.

For her part, Reynolds would later testify in court that she abandoned trying to keep track of all the children that passed through her farm. On Feb. 3, 1875, the coroner’s jury found her responsible for the deaths of four of the children; the exception was Agnes Forbes, whose mother supported Reynolds. Jurors found Reynolds caused the deaths of the remaining children due to an “excessive use” of laudanum. She also abused and neglected them. Mary and Nelson Reynolds were “entirely incompetent persons to have the care of children,” the panel found.

But its conclusion did not settle the criminal case against Reynolds, whose defenders worked in court and in the media to undercut the charges against her and her husband: In one case, an anonymous letter writer in Boston called those involved in the prosecution “thieves and prostitutes.” The Herald’s coverage later included a story on employee Colby’s background in Lawrence, highlighting her status as a single mother. Colby’s reputation “is anything but good,” the Herald said.

In the 1870s, in the absence of lab tests, criminal cases were reliant on testimony of witnesses, said Daniel S. Medwed, a professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University. That also meant that either damning or exculpatory testimonies could be overvalued and affect the outcome of a case, Medwed said.

Constantine Canaris Esty, the judge in the case, dismissed the charges against Mary and Nelson Reynolds on Feb. 5, after the children’s deaths had been weighed by the coroner’s jury but before the case went to a criminal jury. The poisoning accusation, he told the court, “was not substantiated in government evidence in the least.”

Less than two weeks after facing charges they murdered children, Mary and Nelson Reynolds walked out of court. They were warmly congratulated “by the few friends who have remained steadfast to them during their trying ordeal,” the Herald reported.

But that homecoming may not have been an entirely welcome one: “the legal tribunal can never convince the people of Holliston but that the accused parties were certainly morally guilty, either directly or indirectly, in the cause of the death of some of the children,” the Framingham Gazette reported a few days after the case ended.

Medwed, the Northeastern professor, said it is highly unusual for a judge to end a murder case before it got to a jury. “It really doesn’t pass the sniff test,” Medwed said. “Judges are not in the business of dismissing cases readily where there is some evidence.”

Indeed, the evidence against Mary Reynolds — the five deaths, the time frame of about two months, and her work as a caregiver — checks some of the boxes for categorizing her as a serial killer, said Marissa A. Harrison, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg. Harrison led a team that studied female serial killers, and examined 64 women who committed their crimes in the US from 1821 to 2008.

Ultimately, Harrison stopped short of branding Reynolds a serial killer. We don’t know what her motive would have been. And the number of deaths of children in Reynolds’s care seems below the expected mortality rate for the time, Harrison said.

Still, she asks, “why bury them in the yard or sneak them away versus reporting their deaths?”

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Ryan Huddle/Globe Staff

Reynolds went free, but the well-publicized legal case against her led to significant changes.

In March 1875, town officials from Holliston testified before the Legislature’s Committee on Public Charitable Institutions, demanding that local authorities have the power to oversee baby farms. The following year, legislation was enacted that required baby farmers to submit to health inspections, plus they would have to register the names of children in their care and report their deaths.

Even so, the baby farm system would continue for decades, and the risks children faced could be nightmarish. Amelia Dyer, who worked as a baby farmer in Britain during the latter half of the 19th century, is believed to have murdered hundreds of children during her spree. She was hanged in 1896. In New Zealand, Minnie Dean became the only woman executed in that country’s history when she was hanged in 1895 for murdering a baby in her care. Investigators reported also finding three dead children buried in her garden.

Even in Boston, the law that Reynolds inspired did not eliminate risks faced by children. In March 1895, the Globe reported on a baby farm on Shawmut Avenue where a child was “willfully exposed to a draft” and died so the farm’s operator could claim insurance taken out on the child.

In Holliston, residents could have done more to help children living at the Reynolds farm, Hulbert said. “When those kids died, who knew? Who cared? Probably no one,” said Hulbert, the town historian. “They were abandoned. This was the horrible thing people did for abandoned kids.”

The Reynoldses themselves did not live long after their case ended. Mary died of cancer on Aug. 6, 1876; Nelson died of consumption later that year. Their farmhouse burned down in 1893,(cq) the Gazette reported. Today, the location is a vacant, grassy lot near comfortable, modern suburban homes.

Mary and Nelson Reynolds are buried about 6 miles away, in Vernon Grove Cemetery in Milford. Though their prosecution was a turning point in Massachusetts’ approach to child welfare, no visible marker remains over their graves.


John Hilliard, a Globe correspondent, can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com. Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.