A Disembodied Foot

A woman’s foot, encased in a black boot, thought perhaps to be Bertha’s, was discovered in a meadow along the Connecticut River in August 1898. The flesh of the foot, so the New York Times reported, was badly decomposed, and the tall grass of the meadow was searched, apparently unsuccessfully, for other portions of the body.

The phantom body seen floating down the river a month after her disappearance and the disembodied foot were, as far as I know, the only physical remains associated with Bertha.

At first, I hope that the Mellishes never read that article and that no one ever told them about it, or sent it to them–the article or the foot. Yet, they might have welcomed such a relic of flesh and bone, if they thought that it was Bertha’s. They might have wrapped it carefully in cloth, placed it in a small, plain casket, and buried it gratefully in the space that, to this day, is empty. At least they could have had a funeral, with just that foot.

At least they would have known, with just that foot. “The disappearance of the youngest member of our household. . . .which has involved us—father, mother, and daughter—in such a depth of affliction, “ John Mellish wrote in April 1898, “is, and probably will continue to be, an unsolved mystery.”  How long did the family keep hoping, when they might have—should have—given up?  They must have realized, consciously or not, that the moment they convinced themselves of Bertha’s death—a blameless, accidental death—they would no longer have to wonder. They could grieve, simply and purely.

But, for a few years at least, the story of the missing college girl lingered in the public imagination and the family was not left in peace to absorb and accept the finality of Bertha’s absence. The phantom body seen floating down the river a month after her disappearance and the disembodied foot were, as far as I know, the only physical remains associated with Bertha.  But there were a number of live sightings, and each one can only have added to the family’s uncertainty and, when it inevitably proved false, to their anguished disappointment.

Not surprisingly, given the Mellish family history, Bertha was spotted at least twice in mental institutions, the first time in June 1898. “The report that Bertha Mellish, the missing Mt. Holyoke student who it was supposed committed suicide last November by drowning, is in a New York Hospital in a demented condition, has caused intense excitement in South Hadley,” observed the Springfield Republican.   The Mellish family, however, was more circumspect.  According to the New York Tribune, “the Rev. John Mellish was asked as to the truth of the report” and he “stated that he knew nothing of it, and believed it hardly possible.” Still, the Tribune noted, he did ask his brother (George Mellish, whom I have, until now, conveniently left out of the picture) to investigate.

Some people might have doubted John Mellish’s claim of ignorance.  According to the Republican, more than a few were convinced that Bertha wasn’t really dead and they suspected the family in a plot to hide her whereabouts. If Bertha had in fact drowned in the Connecticut River, this reasoning went, her body would certainly have been discovered, so thorough was the search at South Hadley and downstream.  On the other hand, the unceasing efforts of the Mellish family physician to locate the missing young woman might finally have born fruit. He could have found her and, “if, as is claimed, Miss Mellish is partly demented,” secreted her to a hospital.  “It is thought that the sensitiveness on the part of her relatives may have led to their trying to keep the facts from the public,” the Republican concluded.

Recollections of a demented Miss Mellish resurfaced three and a half years later, in February 1902,  thanks to the receipt of a letter by Hartford’s Chief of Police from his counterpart in Methuen, Massachusetts. A girl calling herself Lucy Dudley was recently committed to the retreat for the insane in that city, and the matron believed she answered to the description of Miss Mellish. There is no record that, this time, Mr. Mellish sent his brother or Dr. Hammond, or any other emissary, to investigate.