The cruelest play on the Mellish family’s hopes came at the hands of Henry S. Robinson, a hired man on a farm in Waterford, Connecticut. (I call him Hank Robinson in The Button Field, to avoid confusion with the other Henry—Dr. Henry Hammond.) For more than two years, from late 1897 through early 1900, Robinson tormented the Mellishes with claims to have located their missing daughter until, at last, John Mellish took him to court for attempted blackmail and extortion. Robinson was, from all evidence, a greedy, paranoid little man (in truth, I have no evidence that he was little, and am reverting to stereotype: I see him as small and furtive, with weasely features and squinty eyes), motivated by the money and, it seems, goaded on by wounded pride, by the suspicion that he was being cheated of his due by better-educated, higher-class snobs who underestimated the shrewd customer they were dealing with, who thought they could lie to him and get away with it.
Every one of those letters must have offered a frightening possibility that could not be ignored —
what if it really is Bertha and we do nothing?
In mid-December 1897, Robinson came across a newspaper notice announcing the $500 reward for information leading to Bertha’s discovery alive (and he cannot have been the only unscrupulous person tempted by that sum). Robinson became convinced, it seems, that a girl living at his employer’s farm was Bertha, and he wrote to Mr. Mellish making that claim on December 18th and then again slightly later. He did not divulge the specifics, but promised that if Mr. Mellish met him in New London, he would be taken to his long-lost daughter.
They must have been so tired by then, John and Sarah and Florence, of all the tantalizing hints and clues dangled in front of them and then cruelly snatched away. “After I heard from Robinson, “ Mr. Mellish testified at the trial, “I hardly thought it best to take any notice of it, as I had had so many letters from which nothing came.” Every one of those letters must have offered a frightening possibility that could not be ignored —what if it really is Bertha and we do nothing?—and another even more terrible to consider—what if, once again, it isn’t?
So, despite his initial reluctance, Mr. Mellish eventually succumbed to Robinson’s enticements. On January 25, 1898, he traveled to New London. That night, Robinson took him to his employer’s farm where, according to Mr. Mellish’s testimony, he was shown a woman who called herself Mary Shepard. “This woman was not my daughter,” Mr. Mellish said, “She was about 27 years old and much taller than Bertha. Robinson returned as far as his house with me. I do not remember whether I told Robinson that the woman was not Bertha at that time.”
Robinson remembered the meeting somewhat differently. He testified that Mrs. Hedden asked the old minister: “Is this the daughter you are looking for?” Mr. Mellish did not respond but, as he was leaving, Mrs. Hedden heard him say: “I never expected to see her alive again.” And on the way back from the farm to New London, Robinson asked Mr. Mellish if the girl resembled his daughter. “He replied, ‘Yes, but she is a little taller.’”
Yet Mr. Mellish left with no firm admission that the girl was his daughter, and Robinson began to stew. It must have eaten at him, to be so positive that he had found the missing girl, so sure of his entitlement to the $500 reward, and yet so far from claiming it. By the next morning, he was convinced that Mellish was putting up a job to defraud him of his rightful reward, and he wasn’t going to surrender without a fight.
Threatening letters followed—Robinson claimed, for example, that he had found a scrap of cloth marked with Bertha’s initials at the Hedden’s back door and if the Mellish family didn’t want their daughter brought to court and identified, they had better settle—but these letters apparently went unacknowledged. In the spring, Robinson paid what must have been an unwelcome visit to the Mellish home, where he was met by Florence. She later testified: “I saw Robinson in April, 1898 at my father’s house. He asked me if I had lost a sister. I answered that I had. He said he had his eye on a girl who he thought was Bertha. I brought him Bertha’s latest picture. He said it did not look like Bertha, but like me when I was 18 years old.”
So, another Mellish ploy to cheat him—the sister passing of her own picture as Bertha’s. There must have been more letters, because Dr. Hammond made a journey to the Hedden farm sometime in the second half of 1898, probably to insist that Robinson stop his harassment of the unfortunate family. And, according to a witness of that encounter, Robinson apologized, admitted that Mary Shepard was probably not Bertha Mellish, and promised there would be no more trouble about it. But he didn’t keep his word, and on February 9, 1900, wrote the letter that, finally, was too much for the family to bear.
A typescript of that letter is in the archives of the Connecticut State Library—it’s unfortunate the original isn’t there as well. I like to think it was scrawled in pencil, although it was probably written in ink, in letters as crude and semi-literate as its text. “Mr. Mellish Sir,” it begins, on a note of misleading gentility,
I thought I would drop you a few lines in regards to your Bertha Mellish I hav Kep good track of her ever sience she left Heddens she has changed her name a bout 12 times. . . .I still claim that reward you oferd. . . .you and all the rest tried to lye me out of the reward you oferd to save Paper talk there will be paper talk a nuf if you don’t settl with me I will take no more Bluff from mr hamond he nows what I have told is the truth and god in Heave noes and so do you . . . .I have not told half about this a fare I know a nuf to tell a Boston Paper and will Public this if you don’t settl with me
Now under stand when this youn Lady left Heddens she was a bout to Become a Mother She left heddens the first of June 18,98 now I can Prove this and went to new york and I Know where she was confind and now Prety well whare she is now and if you don’t settle with me I will have her a rested for travling under Falce names and Identiyed By Cort
Henry S Robinson
Somehow, on May 10, 1900, in the Superior Court of Willimantic, Connecticut, after two hours of deliberation, a jury found Robinson not guilty of blackmail and extortion. Apparently, the jurors believed the testimony of four neighbors who agreed that it was it possible to mistake the girl living at the Hedden farm for Bertha Mellish, and not the testimony of the Hedden family, who reported that Mary Shepard had lived with them once before in 1894, and therefore could not be the missing college student. Mr. Robinson’s confusion, the verdict implies, was natural and without malice, his claim to the reward sincere if misguided.
Perhaps Robinson was sincere. Perhaps in the two years that he hounded the Mellishes, Robinson was absolutely convinced that he was right, that he had located the missing girl and that, for reasons of their own—probably to disown their ruined daughter and save themselves not only the money but the shame of her return—her family refused to acknowledge and accept her. I don’t know which is worse—Robinson the delusional sociopath, or Robinson the heartless money-grubber—and, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. There must have been enough of both kinds of people, writing all those letters.
I hope that some of the letters the Mellishes received from strangers brought solace instead of pain to the family, that there were messages of comfort and understanding offered by the similarly bereaved, hopeful stories of reunion, prayers of fortitude, patience, acceptance. I hope not many of those letters laid blame, consigned Bertha to hell, counseled despair, painted vivid pictures of her possible death. I suspect that among them there were notes from clairvoyants advertising second sight, mediums offering to search the spirit world, cards from fortune tellers, astrologers, mind readers. I wonder if the family was tempted by them, if not John and Sarah, then Florence, and I imagine her, shortly after her father’s death and without her mother’s knowledge, riding a streetcar into Providence and, in a shabby house on a side street, holding hands in a circle of the bereaved. She is ashamed to see herself reflected in their sad, foolish faces. Bertha does not appear, and Florence does not try again.