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Together for 97 years, twin sisters meet tragic end

Martha Williams, left, and Jean Haley on their 90th birthday.
Martha Williams, left, and Jean Haley on their 90th birthday.(family photo)

BARRINGTON, R.I. — They were born in November 1919, on the kitchen table at home in Rhode Island, to a mother who didn’t know she was having twins.

For the next 97 years, those baby girls were inseparable — through marriages, the bearing of their own children, and then into widowhood.

On Friday, what would be their last day together, Jean Haley and Martha Williams dined at The Lobster Pot in Bristol, police said, with their little sister, who is 89. Then they headed to Haley’s house in Barrington.

No one saw what happened when they arrived. What is known is that the twins were found the next morning — one lying in the driveway, the other on the nearby garage floor — having spent the night outside, unnoticed in the bitter cold. Both appeared to have suffered falls.

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Days later, neighbors are heartbroken that on a night so frigid — 16 degrees with a windchill index near 2 — nobody was on the street dog-walking or stretching their legs after 8:30 p.m., to discover the sisters in distress.

A neighbor spotted Williams in the driveway Saturday morning. Haley was still moving in the garage when authorities got there shortly after 8 a.m., police said, though rescuers could not save her. The twins were pronounced dead at Rhode Island Hospital. Officials say Williams apparently fell getting into her car; Haley likely tripped as she went to call for help.

“They spent almost 10 decades together,” said Haley’s neighbor, Peter May. “They were born on the same day and they died on the same day. It’s a beautiful story of sisterhood.”

Williams’s 67-year-old daughter, Sue, said the twins, whom she calls “the girls,” lived with grace and integrity, and a warm openness about how much they loved the people in their lives.

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“They made it so none of us feel we left something unsaid,” Sue Williams said, speaking of her family. “And that is unbelievable, because we all leave things — ‘I wish I had said this, I wish I could do one more hug. I wish. I wish. I wish.’

“I know they expressed their love to everybody who came across them,” she said. “I’ve had boyfriends from 50 years ago call me in tears, barely able to talk because they loved my mom so much.”

The twins grew up in Providence in the Jazz Age with adventurous parents. Their father ran a manufacturing company in Pawtucket — Douglas Young Inc. — that made boxes for the jewelry industry. Their mother, Louise, was a pianist and organist. The twin girls were the couple’s first children; a third daughter was born about 1928, according to US Census records and a family history.

In September 2015, Martha Williams (left) sat with her twin sister, Jean Haley, on a ferry en route to Nantucket.
In September 2015, Martha Williams (left) sat with her twin sister, Jean Haley, on a ferry en route to Nantucket.(Susan Williams/AP)

The family traveled extensively. A ship’s manifest that turned up in an online records search shows the entire family sailed to New York from Bermuda over two days in April 1938, when the twins were 18.

Martha married Charles Roger Williams Jr., a former Eagle Scout who served in World War II in Europe. Jean married John Williams Haley Jr., who served in the Battle of the Bulge. Both of the husbands, now deceased, worked many years at Douglas Young Inc.

At 97, the twins were still driving; still going to their favorite restaurants, said Sue Williams.

Sitting in Haley’s home on Monday evening, her three sons remembered an enduring bond among the twins and their younger sister. They rarely went longer than a day without seeing one another, and their families were so close that the twins’ children grew up just across the Barrington River from one another, shuttling back and forth on a small motor boat.

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The easy-going, dark-haired Jean and the sensitive, light-haired Martha were always there in mutual support, family said. “That’s why they lasted so long, because they had each other,” said Dwight Haley, one of Jean’s sons.

When the sisters were together, they were a force, often sitting at the bars of their favorite restaurants, drinking water and chatting up strangers.

Dwight would come and help with household chores, but Haley enjoyed doing things for herself. She even dealt with pestering geese, shaking a cane at them or barking to try to scare them away.

Martha lived in East Providence with her daughter Sue. She was wholly devoted to her family. “She became what I called my scullery maid,” Sue Williams said. “She got a big kick out of that. I would cook for her and she would do the dishes. And she loved having that. It was something she could do for me.”

Martha loved to sew, even at 97. “The girls were shrinking more and more over the years and she was constantly taking up her hems because her pants and skirts were too long,” Sue said.

John Haley, another son, said that when he found out at the hospital that both women had died, he felt an odd sense of relief. “I just got this incredible feeling,” he said. “Everything is going to be OK because they’re still together.”

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He asked the hospital staff to keep the women’s bodies near each other.

• • •

A memorial service for Jean Haley and Martha Williams will be held March 18 at 11 a.m. at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

Jean Haley and Martha Williams when they were about 25 years old
Jean Haley and Martha Williams when they were about 25 years old(Family photo)

Eric Moskowitz of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark. Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.