Elizabeth “Bessie” Amelia Gray
1862 – 1941
Essay by Juanita Goulart
Poet George Burleigh declares her “the sunniest of sunny girls”, postcard photographer O.E. Dubois captures her image among fields stretching to the Sakonnet River, and author David Patten portrays her as a woman who dreams only of the past. But at the time of her death in 1941, Bessie Gray’s obituary is brief, focusing on where she’s lived rather than what she’s accomplished.
Elizabeth Amelia Gray is welcomed into a family whose Little Compton roots run deep. Grays, Howlands, Hicks, Wilbours, Wilbores and Wilburs – families intertwined through generations of intermarriage, creating a cloistered gene pool that some fear will diminish their numbers. The town’s midwife laments that the old families will die out, and though her prediction proves wrong, Bessie will indeed be the last of her line.
Born in 1862 to Elizabeth Howland and George Gray, Bessie’s childhood is idyllic. Her home is the historic Betty Alden house, and the homestead includes a well managed farm and expansive gardens. Her encouraging, doting parents provide piano lessons and private schooling for their only child, and when she graduates from high school, they afford her the opportunity to travel. But though she is fluent in both French and German, her feet are firmly planted in Yankee soil, and she chooses to remain a part of her parents’ household.
Sydney Richmond Burleigh’s circa 1880 watercolor of Bessie shows her as a pensive young woman, dressed in white, head slightly bowed, gazing toward something just out of reach. Her portrait reveals that she is not a classic beauty, but Bessie will have suitors aplenty and according to Janet Lisle in A Home by the Sea, will become “a central character in the town’s late 19th and early 20th century community”. She will support social reforms such as woman’s suffrage, contribute financially to public health efforts in both Little Compton and Providence, and serve on the town’s library board. Like her parents before her, she will entertain paying summer guests from across the country, and in the process cultivate a circle of family and friends including authors, activists and artists. The world will come to her.
Lisle also writes that “many summer people who later owned homes in the area had the first experience of Sakonnet when they rented Bessie’s house for a month or two. As one renter recalls long afterwards, the house always came with Bessie in it – ‘Where else could I go?’ she would ask.” The question “Where else could I go?” resonates as we are asked to socially distance from one another for the safety of our community. Bessie’s life may have seemed insular, much as ours seem now. In a time when the role of women in America was changing, Bessie chose her own path and tended it with intelligence, compassion and fidelity to family and community. Perhaps these are the lessons she leaves as we struggle to meet the challenges of our own changing world.
Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition
Bessie Gray bridged two centuries. She was born during the Civil War into a world of ox carts and one-room schoolhouses and died during World War II in an era of automobiles and airline travel. On both her mother’s and father’s sides, Bessie descended from 17th-century Little Compton families. After generations of producing large families, Bessie was an only child, the last of her line.
Bessie’s childhood on a traditional New England farm was idyllic. Her parents provided her with piano lessons and sent her to high school in New Bedford where she learned German. Bessie inherited her family farm, and like her parents, welcomed paying guests from across the country to enjoy Sakonnet summers. Though she had suitors, she chose to be single.
Her circle of friends included authors, activists, and artists. Bessie supported Woman’s Suffrage, public health efforts, served on the town’s library board, and traveled to visit friends who became like family. She left her sizable estate to her second cousin twice removed who, in time, sold the property and donated many Gray family items to the Historical Society.