Monday, November 18, 2013

Bertha Mellish Disappeared on November 18th, 1897: 116 Years Ago Today

The disappearance of Bertha Mellish is the greatest unsolved mystery of Mount Holyoke.
Bertha Lane Mellish of Killingly, CT, was the daughter of an Episcopal clergyman. She received excellent grades in school and was a scholar of ancient languages, rhetoric, classics, and science as well as a respected member of the debate team. The description of her given by newspapers is as follows:
"She is 20 years old, about 5 feet 5 inches in height, medium build, dark auburn hair, fair complexion, brown eyes, round face, full lips. Sometimes wore her hair parted and sometime combed straight back. very small faint scare [sic] in the center of forehead. When last seen wore a black dress, shaggy black jacket, black cloth tam ‘o shanter."
    She was also very reclusive, and some of the other students found her to be a rather peculiar figure. Helen Calder, also of Porter Hall, sat alongside Miss Mellish at mealtimes. She wrote to her mother that Miss Mellish was not noticed to be absent from campus until Friday night (she was last seen the Thursday afternoon prior). She was in the habit of placing a large signed saying “Engaged” on her door so that she might study in peace. She was frequently absent from the dining table for days at a time, and it was not until the house mother knocked on the door and opened it that she found the girl missing. Miss Mellish is described by Helen Calder as being “the most peculiar, quiet, reserved girl in college.”
    On November 18th, Founder’s Day activities were in progress. At the midday meal, she was reported to be “bright and cheerful”. Miss Mellish was last seen walking towards the South Hadley post office, dressed as normal and carrying a book under her arm. Her closest friend, Miss M.L. Eaton, reported that Miss Mellish frequently took walks in the woods and was very “venturesome.” Just before her disappearance, she had written a brief composition about a young girl who met an untimely end by leaping into a river. This raised a great deal of suspicion after she could not be found, and led to the Connecticut River being dragged thoroughly in several accessible locations. Another clue that suggested drowning was the discovery of footprints near the riverbed that matched her shoe style and size.
     The sensation caused by her disappearance caused no end of interest in the press, and led to her being identified in several different locations. One article reported that she had been identified in a New York mental hospital, although this rumour was disproved. Many reports speculated that known mental illness in family may have been passed down. Newspapers popularized the idea that she had been possessed by a fit of temporary insanity or was overcome by stress from her strenuous coursework. She was also seen at the train station in Hartford. These leads were followed although inconclusive.
     One particularly sordid account from a contemporary newspaper recounted this gruesome version of the story: a young farmhand allegedly identified the mutilated body of a young woman that was discovered in Yellow Mill Creek as that of Bertha Mellish. She had arrived at his workplace shortly after her disappearance from Mount Holyoke, and although she gave a different name the farmhand thought he recognized her from her image in the papers. Her father was informed and came to meet her there, but she refused to return with him and he did not notify the press. She lived on the farm for a brief period of time while receiving steady visits from a gentleman caller until one day he came to pick her up and it was surmised that they went to New York City together. Law enforcement authorities posited that the body found in the creek was dismembered by the practiced hand of a surgeon after a failed abortion. The search commenced for “Old Nance”, a known abortion provider in the area. As staggering as this version of the story is, it was never confirmed. Although a reward was offered and her story was circulated widely throughout New England, she was never found. Her older sister Florence wrote to Mount Holyoke in 1915 and asked that her sister be removed from the general catalogue, listed as deceased in the year of 1897.
    Several authors have attempted to capture the tale of this enigmatic young woman through works of historical fiction. Available in our archives only is the entire manuscript of Titan’s Pier by Gail Husch, a novel told through the eyes of another student to illuminate the event of Miss Mellish’s disappearance. Another author, Katharine Beutner, has shared an excerpt of her forthcoming novel Killingly, which tackles this intriguing riddle yet again. It can be read here: .
The disappearance of Bertha Lane Mellish has captured the imaginations of many. Perhaps there are clues yet to be discovered in the Archives and Special Collections? If you are interested in this case or any other mystery that strikes your fancy, visit us from 9:30-12:00, 1:00-4:30 Monday through Friday in the basement of Dwight Hall.


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