Buried in a plot in the southeast section of the Valley Cemetery is Eliza Eaton, one of Manchester's early mill girls. She was born Eliza A. Thompson in 1818 in Londonderry, Vermont. Her Scots-Irish ancestors had come from Londonderry, Ireland, to Londonderry, New Hampshire, before moving to the Vermont town by the same name. Her family was poor so when Eliza was 12 years old she went to work in a cotton mill. She became a skilled weaver and found employment in Peterborough and Nashua, New Hampshire, and in Lowell, Massachusetts, before coming to Manchester in 1841. Here she found ready work in one of the new cotton mills on the east bank of the Merrimack River.
One day, Eliza was looking out the window of the factory, when she spotted a young construction laborer at work on a nearby mill building. She told her friend "There is the man whom I am going to marry." That man's name was John S. Eaton. She made his acquaintance, and after a proper courtship they were married in Vermont in 1845.
John became a fireman for the railroad. His job was to feed the steam locomotive's firebox with wood or coal to power the engine. One tragic day in 1861 John's engine jumped the tracks at the north end of the millyard in Manchester, crashing into the canal. He was terribly scalded, but somehow had the strength to rescue a child by pushing him out the window to safety. John was carried to the Eaton's little cottage on Orange Street, where he died within a few hours.
Eliza continued living in her Orange Street home. She had a lovely garden, and her beloved pet cats roamed the property. She became well known and gained wide respect for her abilities as a clairvoyant and herbal healer. Although she was a talented psychic, she did not identify herself with the popular spiritualist movement of that era. Spiritualism existed side by side in Manchester along with more traditional religious beliefs. It was not unusual to see an announcement in the local newspaper of an upcoming séance on the same page as an item about a new Catholic church being built.
During this era there were always five or six clairvoyants advertising their services in the city directory, but Eliza chose not to promote herself. She didn't have to, as she easily found clients through word of mouth. Eliza told fortunes, and helped people find lost objects. She also was knowledgeable about the natural healing qualities of plants, and developed an active practice as an herbal healer.
According to a newspaper article about her published after he death, "She laid no claim to spiritualism, but described her alleged gift this way: She said there appeared to be a lamp or light just above and behind her, which shed light before her and enabled her to see the future and things hidden from common mortals." When President Franklin Pierce, a New Hampshire native, was ill at the end of his life, there was great worry among the local citizens. Eliza would put herself in a trance and report Pierce's condition. Everything she said was later proven to be true.
One would think that such a woman would be a superstitious person by nature. Eliza, however, was an avid student of science. She frequented the city library, and was a regular reader of the Scientific American magazine. Although she did not trust doctors, she had many medical books and read everything she could on medical topics.
After her death, a headline in a local newspaper read, "A Peculiar Character — Mrs. Eliza A. Eaton Was a Woman of Whom Poets Dream." The article described her supernatural profession, but said that she was also a practical person, and that "….she was a bit sarcastic and was kindly and good-natured at the same time." When Eliza died in 1889 she bequeathed her estate to the city library. This amounted to the impressive sum of $3,000. She had specified in her will that the money be used to purchase books on biography, history and travel.
Next week: A Valley Cemetery story, the Stark family..
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org