Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Woeful Demise of Little Sophie Major

On Thursday, February 7th, 1878, a small notice appeared in the Washington Post obituaries:

MAJOR -- At 7 p.m., February 5, 1878, after short illness, Olivia S., oldest daughter of David and Elizabeth Major, in the 20th year of her age.

Her death ignited a controversy which, though brief, was fiery. Possessing all the best elements of a good Victorian melodrama, the story of Sophie’s death and burial ignited passions and touched nerves across Washington.

By all accounts, 19-year-old Sophie Major was a beautiful girl of sweet disposition. With long dark hair, brown eyes and fair complexion, of medium height, and weighing 140 pounds, she possessesd what one Post reporter called a “faultlessly proportioned figure.” She had attended Grace M. E. Church Sunday school all of her life, though she was not an official member of the church as was her mother. She worked at Lansburgh’s Dry Goods store for a few years, but at the time of her death, had been “furloughed.” She lived at 229 Q Street, N.W.

At the age of 16, Sophie met a young man named John W. Hurley, a plumber and gas fitter who lived at 925 Massachusetts Avenue and worked nearby. He lived with his mother, Mrs. Amanda Hurley, a dressmaker. Tall, slender and red-headed, John was said to be a bit wild, but not to the extent that his reputation suffered. He was known to spend his evenings at a restaurant near Mt. Vernon Square (7th and NY), in present-day Shaw. The two saw each other for the next three years, and it was generally accepted that they were engaged to be married, though no announcement was made.

However, in November of 1877, according to newspaper accounts, friends and family noticed that Sophie, normally cheerful, looked more contemplative than usual. They made no comment. In December, thinking that her daughter was suffering from a cold, her mother consulted the family physician, Dr. Richard Mauss, asking for a remedy.

Dr. Mauss, in his mid-thirties, had been born in Germany and had studied medicine at the Georgetown Medical College.

When the medication failed, the doctor examined Sophie himself and confirmed his suspicions: Sophie was pregnant—-something she admitted “with much confusion and innocence of manner.” According to Dr. Mauss, he suggested to Sophie’s mother that the young couple should marry; she told him that Hurley had refused to marry Sophie. At this time, Sophie grew quite emotional, and she begged the doctor to help her in ending her pregnancy. It was Mauss’s contention that he scolded her for the danger and wickedness of her suggestion. “I saw the girl was so bent upon self-destruction,” he later told jurors, “that I had recourse to every artifice in my power to keep her from injury.

However, John Hurley told the Evening Star a different story: That it had been Dr. Mauss who had performed the abortion.

Oddly, a marriage license had been issued December 27, 1877 at DC’s City Hall; later, according to the Washington Post, many persons would go to City Hall and try to get that license back-dated. Were the young couple ever really married? John Hurley offered contradictory accounts. Yes, they had been married, he later told Dr. Mauss. He also stated that he had planned on marrying her on December 28th, but did not end up doing so, “for reasons, which while they exhibit a great degree of baseness,” Dr. Mauss did not care to disclose to the press. His grandmother later told a reporter that she did not know why, but that Hurley had insisted to her the couple had never been married. Hurley told his mother, however, that he had been married, though failed to show her the certificate, nor identify who who had officiated the ceremony. But Dr. Mauss said the young man had given him a reason: Later, Dr. Mauss told reporters that John confessed the two had actually been married on December 20th,

It was then that Sophie allegedly answered an advertisement in the newspaper and consulted a woman named Mrs. Pierce, who advertised in a city paper. Whether any such woman existed and who really performed the abortion is not known.

An inquest into Sophie’s death was held on February 6th, the day after she died, at the Second Precinct Police Station. The first to be questioned was Dr. William H. Triplett, who said he had been called that Monday afternoon, by the Major family physician, Dr. Mauss, to attend to the girl, whom he found in a “feeble” condition. Triplett testified that Sophie had told him the following: that on January 29, suffering from a “severe internal hemorrhage,” she had visited a Dr. Woodworth at his offices on 7th Street, between G and H. The doctor had performed an operation on her, which did not hurt until later. She described Dr. Woodworth as a tall man with black hair and said that she had paid him $50 for the procedure. On examining Sophie, Dr. Triplett said it had been his impression that she suffered from septicemia, caused by the abortion, though he could find no evidence of an instrument having been used.

The coroner questioned the family physican, German-born Dr. Mauss (b. 1843, approximately 35 years old), who insisted that he had seen nothing of the girl since she had declared her intention of obtaining an abortion. He testified that Mrs. Major had sent for him the Thursday before [January 31st), and finding Sophie in such bad shape, he had called Dr. Triplett in for consultation. His story varied only slightly from Dr. Triplett’s; he stated that Sophie told him she had answered an advertisement by a Mrs. Pierce, who brought the mysterious Dr. Woodworth to perform the abortion at the Major’s house. Mrs. Pierce visited the house several times after that to check on the girl, and was paid $50.

The cornoner apparently did not investigate Hurley’s claims that Dr. Mauss himself performed the abortion, and the jury, in the end, ruled that Sophie Major had died of complications of an abortion procured by “Dr. Woodworth” with Mrs. Pierce as an accomplice.

Initially, newspapers announced that funeral services would be held at Grace M.E. Church, at 9th and S Streets, NW, site of the present-day New Bethel Baptist Church. That, however, was before the circumstances of her death were made public, and several members of the church threatened to leave the church if the funeral were held there. The church’s board of trustees met and decided against the funeral; three members of the board—Mssrs. Humphrey, Riggles and Tinkler, informed Sophie’s brother John that the family that they would have to hold the funeral elsewhere. It was a decision that would create great dissent within the hurch and outrage the city. Within days, four out of seven of the church’s trustees had left to join other churches, and other churchgoers complained that Church matters had long been run by the trio of trustees.

The bereaved Major family held the funeral on the afternoon of the 7th at their Q Street home. The occasion attracted a large throng of friends and strangers, who had read about Sophie and had been attracted by her sad tale.

Sophie lay in an open casket, amid a “profusion of flowers,” a single white tea rosebud on her breast. But what astonished funeral-goers most was the small silver plaque attached to the coffin that read, “Olivia S. Hurley,” which most mourners believed was only a gesture by John to protect his own reputations.

Most outragous of all, John attended the funeral himself, leaning on the arm of Sophie’s sister and lamenting Sophie’s loss as emotionally as anyone else present. “A deal of indignation,” wrote the Post, “was manifested by many persons at his presence, and some strong language was used, particularly by ladies, in reference to his part in the affair.” Mourners set aside their feelings long enough for Sophie to be laid to rest at Rock Creek Cemetary, but talked freely to the press afterward.

“It’s too late, it’s too late!” lamented one mourner. “His name cannot do the poor girl any good now!”

Two days later, a reporter hunted John Hurley down at his favorite restaurant, determined to settle the matter once and for all. The dialogue was reported as follows:

"Were you or were you not married to Miss Major?"

"I was married, and have already told the reporters so."

"Have you any objections to stating where and by whom the ceremony was performed?"

"Yes, I have. I don’t want this thing talked about in the papers any more."

"If you will give the minister’s name who married you, or the names of any of the witnesses, or produce the marriage certificate, it will settle the question and put a stop to all the talk."

"Well, all I have to say is, I was Miss Major’s husband when she died, and that is all there is about it."

On April 29th, 1891, Dr. Mauss, suffering from a serious case of pneumonia, shot himself in the heart in his own bedroom, saying afterward, “I was in such pain, and I thought I’d shoot it away.” He died two days later.

As for John Hurley, a check of the 1880 census found him still living with his mother Amanda; the 1900 census showed him married to one “Catherine J.,” and by 1910, he had a son, John W., Jr., who eventually went into the plumbing business with his father.

C.H. ©2009
Image,"Poor Sophie Major," Julia Holmes, ©The Washington Post, 1877-1954): Feb 9, 1878; Proquest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post 1877-1991) pg. 2

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