When 48-year-old Mary (Callahan) Lewis of Pawtucket discovered secret letters written to her husband Benjamin by another woman, she decided to keep the discovery quiet for the sake of her children. …
When 48-year-old Mary (Callahan) Lewis of Pawtucket discovered secret letters written to her husband Benjamin by another woman, she decided to keep the discovery quiet for the sake of her children. However, it wasn’t long before 47-year-old Benjamin left Mary and moved into the house of his 43-year-old admirer, Mrs. Tillie Cole of Warwick.
Theresa “Tillie” Isadora (Johnson) Cole was the ex-wife of Frank Cole, whom she had been divorced from during the fall of 1892 after 14 years of marriage. At that time, she was working as a book-keeper for the Singer Sewing Machine Company on High Street. That was where she first met Benjamin after he had given up his career as a barber to take up book-keeping.
In 1894, after Benjamin had left her, Mary filed charges against Tillie, accusing her of causing an alienation of her husband’s affection. Mary’s petition charged that, in the two years since he’d abandoned her, he had given her no money for the support of herself or their two youngest children; Frank, who was 16 and Annie, who was 12.
In addition, she claimed he had taken nearly every single thing from their home, including the furniture, and brought it to Tillie’s house. She asked the court to order Tillie to pay her $5,000 in damages.
By the time she and Benjamin had begun to cohabitate, Tillie had been transferred to the sewing machine compa-ny’s Providence store. She had her own income and also owned land in Warwick. A portion of that land was sold to her sister Hattie Peck for $1,600 the month after Mary filed her petition.
Whether or not Mary ever got the thousands she was seeking isn’t known, but she was granted a divorce from Benjamin and, by 1900, was living with her children on Saunders Street in Pawtucket where she remained for many years. Benjamin and Tillie were living on Ninth Street in Providence with Hattie.
The couple moved around a lot, although they never married, with her often being the owner of the residence. In 1910, they lived at her place on Prospect Street in East Providence and Benjamin was listed as her “boarder ” She was a saleswoman at the Singer store and he was a book-keeper at a livery stable.
By 1920, they had moved to Henry Street in East Providence. He was now working as a clerk for a horse dealer and she was still with the Singer Company, as a fore-lady at their store. They told the census-taker that Benjamin was her uncle. Five years later, they were back on Prospect Street and were passing Benjamin off to that year’s census-taker as Tillie’s “companion”.
By 1930, Benjamin was a patient at the State Infirmary in Cranston. He died there the following year. His gravestone, in Woodland Cemetery in Coventry, bares his name, his birth date and death date, and the name of Theresa Cole. The spaces for her own dates remain empty. When she died of a cerebral hemorrhage five years later, she was laid to rest in Oakland Cemetery in Cranston instead.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.
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