Sarah Elizabeth “Lizzie” Manchester

Sarah Elizabeth “Lizzie” Manchester

1862 – 1946

Essay by Anne Tripp Hopkins

Oral History Excerpt from Anne Tripp Hopkins

Oral History Excerpt from Florence Jean Letourneau

Oral History Excerpt from Abe Quick

Oral History Excerpt from Edith Manchester Peckham

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Lizzie Manchester. Courtesy of Anne Hopkins.

Essay by Anne Tripp Hopkins

Sarah Elizabeth Manchester, always known as Lizzie, was born to Sarah Cook Taber (1828-1904) in the Victorian house at 10 Westport Harbor Rd. built by her father, Philip Manchester. She lived in that house throughout her lifetime of 84 years and died there in 1946. Lizzie attended the local public school and the Packer Institute in Brooklyn, NY. She was an active member of the Free Will Baptist Church (Old Stone Church) in nearby Tiverton, RI and took great pleasure in participating in the annual clambake there.  

The Abraham Manchester store, located about a hundred yards up the road was a focal point of Lizzie’s existence. Abraham (1851-1919) and Deborah (1857-1938), her brother and sister, owned and operated the  store. These three Manchester siblings always remained single and ate their meals together in the family home managed by Lizzie. Abraham slept on the second floor of the store all his life beginning at the age of six.

The Manchesters’ oldest sibling, Lydia Maria Manchester Wheeler (born 1848), succumbed to tuberculosis in 1880, followed shortly by her husband, and they left two young children, Philip and Agema Wheeler. Lizzie and her sister, Debbie, took care of their orphaned nephew and niece for about six months of the year while Wheeler relatives in Brooklyn, NY cared for them the rest of the year.

In the early 1900’s Dr. John Hathaway built a water tower on his property (4 Westport Harbor Rd.) north of the Manchester home that obstructed the view between the home and the Manchester store. The “Spite Tower”, as it came to be known, refers to the local legend that says Lizzie would hang a dish towel in the window when dinner was ready so Abraham could lock up the store and go home to eat. A rumor circulated that the Hathaways had a grievance with the Manchesters, however it was never substantiated.

Lizzie was a colorful and outspoken character who prided herself on knowing everything that was going on in the village. She claimed to be the town historian and boasted of her remarkable memory for dates and names. Lizzie had strong opinions and her stories were sometimes off-color. She often dressed in a masculine way, wearing a man’s shirt, bow tie and bobbed hair.

In 1936 George Hibbitt of Columbia University came to Little Compton to study the colloquial speech of the town elders. He invited a group of them to review town history and tell stories while he recorded their speech using a hidden microphone. Lizzie was among those recorded and was outraged when she learned of his tactic when it was described in an article published in the New York Herald Tribune on December 2, 1936.[1]

Lizzie loved to have me stop in after school in her later years. She would always reach into her pocketbook and give me a $1 dollar bill with instructions to spend it. World War II was on and I bought Savings Stamps which were collected in a booklet and when full I bought a bond with it that furthered the war effort.

Anne Hopkins, Grandniece

March 2020


[1] Collections Number 2007.2673, Box A39, LCHS

An Oral History Excerpt from Anne Tripp Hopkins

Lydia Maria and Stafford Andrew Wheeler had two children, my grandmother, Agema Villette Wheeler and Philip Manchester Wheeler, my great-uncle. Then very sadly, Lydia Maria and her husband died of consumption leaving my grandmother and my great-uncle orphans. From then on they were brought up half of the year in Brooklyn, New York by a Wheeler relative, and they came to Adamsville for six months of the year and lived with Debbie and Lizzie. They had a hard life. The Manchesters were well to do, and so were the Wheelers in Brooklyn, so they were fine that way, but emotionally, I think they felt that they didn’t belong in either place.

Debbie died the year I was born, but I do remember Lizzie. She was quite a character. She dressed like a man with a shirt and bow tie or neck tie and had a man’s haircut. I would drop in to see her after school, and she would always get a brand new one dollar bill out of her pocketbook for me and tell me to spend it. I always put it into savings stamps because World War II was on, and we put everything into the war effort.

Based on an oral history interview with Anne Tripp Hopkins.

First published in “Remembering Adamsville” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2013.

Frank, Get the Gun

[Lizzie Manchester] always had her hair cut in a boyish bob. My father went to her house to cut her hair. Very gruff, but a nice, nice person. She scared me to death one time. We went out trick-or-treating, and we went to her house, tapped on the window, and I remember her saying verbatim—because her nurse and the [nurse’s] husband lived there with her, Frank and Mabel Lehane—“Frank, get the gun. There’s somebody out there.” We were so afraid. I think I was about thirteen at the time. She stayed in the house. I never saw her very much. But she scared the devil out of me.

Based on an oral history interview with Florence Jean Letourneau.

First published in “Remembering Adamsville” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2013.

Placing the Monument

[William Tripp] was the originator of the Rhode Island Red and he lived down at the corner of William Sisson Road and Long Highway. But over here in Dr. von Trapp’s house was a family named Tompkins, Harold Tompkins and his brother, Lester. They were “poultry-fanciers” and they bred show birds. They bred the birds for nice color and conformity, and body, and all the things that go with “fanciers.”

The RI Red that was the first RI Red was nothing like the RI Red is today. It was kind of a scrubby-looking thing. It had kind of blondish feathers on its back, and the hackles were kind of a mahogany color, and the tail wasn’t the same thing. But the Tompkins, they really made a Red out of it

So they prevailed on Deborah and Lizzie Manchester to get this monument erected here in Adamsville. Well it was a big furor. Everybody in downtown Little Compton was terribly against it. They thought that was no place for the monument, and they were probably right too. But Deborah and Lizzie prevailed and the monument was dedicated in 1926. My father and I walked up from our place on Mullin Hill Road.

Based on an oral history interview with Abe Quick.

First published in “Remembering Adamsville” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2013.

Lizzie and Debbie Manchester

They lived in that house next to McKinnon’s and there’s a glass porch there. Debbie was missing a leg but she had this nurse, Swailsie, and she used to sit on that porch all day long. Lizzie, she dressed like a man, had a man’s haircut, and she used to walk through the village with this hound dog, trailing along behind her. They owned the store. Then when Lizzie and Debbie died, it went to Alice Tripp, who was the nearest relative and Bordie Tripp [her husband,] who ran Bojuma Farm. [Alice] had him go in. He went up and ran the store. By that time, Walter had retired. They took that house and made it into two apartments, and the town didn’t like that. But it was quite a village.

Based on an oral history interview with Edith Manchester Peckham.

First published in “Remembering Adamsville” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2013.

Outdoor exhibit panel from the 2020 special exhibition, The Little Compton Women’s History Project.

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

There is a story that Lizzie Manchester’s parents forbid her and her siblings to marry. The story is probably not true. Her older sister Lydia did marry, while Lizzie, Debbie, and Abraham, the proprietors of Manchester’s Store, did not. The story is more likely a community-generated explanation for why Lizzie lived as she did.

From a very young age Lizzie chose to openly wear men’s haircuts and clothing. She liked detective magazines and on occasion is said to have answered her door with a shotgun. She had strong opinions and told off-color stories. Sometimes she worked at the store, but her main occupation was to cook and keep house for Debbie and Abraham while they ran the family business. After Lydia’s death, Lizzie and Deborah cared for their orphaned niece and nephew six months each year. Lizzie was a long-time Vice President of the Little Compton Historical Society, an active member of the Old Stone Baptist Church, and a leader on the local Republican committee. Lizzie did not fit the typical gender binary of the early 20th century, and yet her active leadership roles in a variety of local organizations show that the community accepted and respected her.

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