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[p. 86]

Marm Betty.

A beloved teacher in ancient Medford.

The recent dedication of Medford's newest school building, named in honor of Lorin Low Dame, suggests a contrast between the Dame School of today and the dames' schools of a time long past.

It seems fitting to make mention and do tardy justice to the memory of one of those ‘vestal dames, whom it would not be profanation to call sacred, who never seemed young to their pupils and who with fidelity administered kisses, alphabet and birch.’

Motherly care, useful knowledge, salutary discipline, and all for nine pence paid each Monday morning, was thus dispensed to the Medford youngsters under the age of seven years, till as late as 1813.

In mention of these, historian Brooks said: ‘Our town rejoiced in a “Marm Betty” ’; but of her, nothing more, which seems to have been a singular omission.

The story of Marm Betty harks back to the ancient mansion across the Mystic, now known as the Royall House, then in Charlestown; and to colonial days.

Marm Betty's name was Elizabeth Francis. She was the eldest daughter of Joseph and Elizabeth (Usher) Francis. Joseph was a younger brother of Nathaniel Francis, the great grandfather of the talented authoress Lydia Maria Child. It is, however, on the maternal side, that the interest in Marm Betty's memory attaches. Her mother, Elizabeth Usher, was the youngest daughter of John Usher, Lieutenant Governor of New Hampshire, who took up his residence here about 1697, and died in 1726. She was then about twenty years of age. She had been reared in luxury, and her appearance as she walked the highway from the paternal home and over the ‘great bridge’ to the market place in Medford, was one of ‘pride and lofty carriage.’ Two black servants attended her; one to hold over her head an umbrella to protect her fair face from the sun, the other to carry her train. [p. 87]

The death of Governor Usher wrought great changes in the family fortunes. In 1732-3, the estate passed into the possession of the elder Colonel Royall. Probably a little later Elizabeth Usher was married to Joseph Francis. Little is now known of him, save that he died on February I, 1749, leaving his widow in reduced circumstances, with their children, Elizabeth thirteen, Lydia twelve, and John eight years of age, dependent upon her for support and a mother's care.

At about 1757, (it is impossible to fix a more exact date), she opened a school in a building on the northerly side of the country road leading from the market place toward Woburn; the present High street. This was probably her humble dwelling and was located just below the present savings bank. She installed as her assistant, the eldest daughter Elizabeth, who in time came to be her successor and to be known as Marm Betty. The first child to be placed in their care was John Bishop, and their school might properly be styled a kindergarten, for the children were sent when very young.

The reverse in Elizabeth Usher's fortunes was a source of mortification to her and preyed upon her health, and that soon gave way. Long and severe illness followed, and in 1764 she was laid entirely aside from life's activities and for twenty-two years was an invalid, shut — in and helpless.

Mrs. Samuel Swan, one of Marm Betty's scholars, who was placed in her charge when less than two years old, and was but eight when the elder Elizabeth died, retained a vivid recollection of both. Over fifty years ago, on the first day of her seventy-ninth year, Mrs. Swan wrote:—

‘I have often heard my grandmother tell of the pride and lofty carriage of this Miss Usher. They lived in regal splendor. The proud lady married Mr. Francis. I never learned his employment, but from the circumstances of the family they were poor.’

This letter was written to her brother-in-law, who added numerous notes of comment and wrote somewhat critically of Mr. Brooks' slight mention of Marm Betty. He [p. 88] was over a dozen years younger than his sister-in-law and took pains to ascertain from her, facts so fixed in her memory and to write and preserve them.

That Marm Betty was a dutiful daughter, keeping the fifth commandment and receiving its reward, is evident.

After fifty-two years the Register publishes for the first time (so far as is known) the words written by Mr. Swan soon after the receipt of the letter alluded to.

The daughter would take up her aged, infirm mother, as one would an infant, place her in a comfortable arm chair, wash her face and hands, set her breakfast on a little table before her, make and warm her bed, and then take her in her arms, and carefully laying her down would kneel by her low bed and smooth everything nicely about her.

The old lady who was a devoted Christian, would extend her shrivelled hands and placing them on her daughter's head would bless her in these words; “ The Lord bless you, Betty—the God of Jacob bless you; our God will take care of you, Betty, you will never want bread for your kindness to your poor old mother.” The daughter kept religiously the fifth commandment, and her days were long in the land, and she never wanted bread. Kind neighbors supplied all her wants, and she had every comfort. She died in 1824, aged 98, [probably 88].

A respectable number of neighbors followed her to the grave, among whom were her first and last scholars, viz. Mr. John Bishop and Miss Lucretia Bartlett. “She left no relative, she was the last of her race.” Her sister Lydia married Mr. Benjamin Tufts, of Medford, who was born 1721. Miss Francis continued to keep school until within a few years of her death. Kind friends and neighbors united with true Christian kindness and furnished her daily food as follows:—

On Sunday, Mrs. Nathaniel Hall, d. December, 1841, ae. 69.

Monday, Mrs. Jonathan Porter, d. October, 1852, ae. 87.

Tuesday, Governor Brooks, d. March, 1825, ae. 73.

Wednesday, Mrs. Joseph Manning, d. August, 1835.

Thursday, Mrs. Duncan Ingraham, d. August, 1830, ae. 87.

Friday, Mr. John Bishop, d. February, 1833, ae. 77.

Saturday, Mrs. Abner Bartlett, d. April, 1867, ae. 89.

Governor Brooks always treated Miss Francis with great kindness and polite attention.

Mrs. Samuel Swan supplied her with coffee for roasting for several years before 1823.

Marm Betty must have filled a worthy place in Medford's [p. 89] history, none the less important because limited to the little home and her little charges. Her long life overlapped the first half-century of the new nation, but it was a day of small things with Medford's school system even, when she passed to her reward. A tribute of affection was it, and one perhaps without a parallel, that her first and last scholars should come to do her honor.

The invalid mother may have heard the clattering hoof beats and the shout of Revere on that eventful morning when he aroused Captain Hall. It is more than probable that Marm Betty, his near neighbor, was also aroused and saw the minute men set out for Lexington. Probably some of those sturdy youngsters Marm Betty taught, became ‘young rebels’ and fought against King George.

Then weave no bridal wreath for me,
But brew instead a cup of tea

was in her case appropriate. This ancient spinster1 was ‘a great tea-drinker, and at one time was deeply mortified because Governor Brooks found her drinking from the spout of her teapot.’ A case of ‘Ephraim joined to his idols’; and the Governor could have been more ceremonious in calling. We may query if her ‘flowered bed curtains of fine needlework the wonder of all beholders’ may not have been relics of the ‘regal splendor’ of the old mansion ere it became the Royall House. Who knows but that Marm Betty may have had a soldier lover, that never returned from the colonial wars, one to whom, as her mother's assistant, she taught the ‘alphabet’ and manners in that ancient ‘dame's school?’ We may only guess at these, but must remember that the Medford of those days was but a little hamlet, into which this reminiscence of Marm Betty gives us of the twentieth century a glimpse.

1 See Register, Volume 3, Page 96.

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