Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Abby Sage, woman of destiny despite a bumpy start
July 01. 2013 7:53PM
A short distance south of the E. A. Straw monument on Pine Street in the Valley Cemetery in Manchester is a rough granite rock marking a family plot. The word "Sage" stands boldly in bas relief on its front. The rock is surrounded by the graves of the extended Sage family, who first came to Manchester from Lowell, Massachusetts, in the early 1840s. To the left of the rock is a plain rectangular piece of granite that is nearly buried beneath grass and dirt that bears the simple inscription "Abby." This is the final resting place of a remarkable woman whose life — without embellishment — would have made a fine subject of a melodramatic opera. Abby Sage McFarland Richard was a teacher, an actress, a poet, a writer of children's literature, an editor, a lecturer and a playwright. She was most famous, however, for an ill-fated love affair that ended with the murder of her sweetheart. The notorious trial that followed consumed public attention throughout the country.
Abby Sage was born in 1837, the eldest child of Abigail and William Sage. She was about five years old when her family moved to Manchester. In the 1850 census her father's occupation is listed as mechanic. At that time the Sage family, which included four children, was living in the Amoskeag corporation worker's housing. William likely worked for the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in the machine shop. It appears from city directories that by 1858 he was a partner in Yeaton & Sage, a maker of loom harnesses located in Mechanics Row at the north end of the millyard.
Abby was educated in local schools where she received a solid foundation in writing and literature that served her well in life. When she was an older teenager she taught school in the city. She was a talented writer, and so began looking for opportunities to publish her work. Abby was also beautiful girl. When she was 15 years old, she caught the eye of Daniel McFarland, a graduate of Dartmouth College. He must have been in the area on business, as his home was in Madison, Wisconsin. Daniel had bragged that he was a prosperous lawyer, and that he had brilliant political prospects in Wisconsin. He said the he owned properties valued at $30,000.
When Abby was old enough to marry, Daniel proposed to her. They were married in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 14, 1857. Daniel was 38 at the time and Abby was 19. There may have been trouble with Abby's family, as the couple did not chose to marry in Manchester, and strangely the marriage record shows that Daniel gave his age as 29 and Abby as 23. Abby likely regretted her decision to marry rather quickly as Daniel ran out of money while they were on their honeymoon in New York City. He had to borrow cash to pay for their transportation to Wisconsin.
Within a few days of arriving in Madison, Daniel confessed that, in fact, he had no law practice, but instead had sunk all his assets into a land speculation scheme. This venture wasn't working out very well. He convinced Abby that he could sell the Wisconsin properties to buyers in New York City, so they moved there in February 1858. McFarland soon ran out of money again, so Abby pawned some of her jewelry. As her husband couldn't afford to support her, she returned to Manchester to stay with her family for a few months. By the end of 1858, Daniel had developed enough income from property sales to afford to rent a cottage in Brooklyn, so Abby returned to live with her husband. Their two sons were born in Brooklyn, Percy in 1860 and Daniel in 1864.
After a promising start, Daniel McFarland's real estate business began to falter, and so he took to drinking. Abby later wrote, "At first, Mr. McFarland professed for me the most extravagant and passionate devotion, but soon he began to drink heavily, and before we were married a year, his breath and body were steaming with vile liquor. I implored him to reform, but he cried out: 'My brain is on fire and liquor makes me sleep.'"
Next week: A Valley Cemetery Story – Abby Sage McFarland becomes an actress. .
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org