Thursday, 30 November 2023 15:54

Rebecca “Obstinate Becky” Jones

By David Fiske | Sponsored by The Saratoga County History Roundtable | History
Image provided by The Saratoga County History Roundtable. Image provided by The Saratoga County History Roundtable.

Rebecca Jones was born in Schoharie County in the 1820s. Her family moved to Ballston Spa, where Becky attended a girl’s school. By 1850, she was in New York City, working as a domestic for the family of Andrew Gordon Hammersley, a lawyer and banker. She was with them for several decades. A newspaper later noted that she was treated well by the family and was one of those servants who “stand more on the footing of companions and friends than ordinary domestics.”

One day, after Hamersley had become ill, he explained to her that following his death there would likely be contention over his estate and requested that she never share her knowledge of family matters with anyone. “You will suffer if you do not [speak], Becky,” he warned her. Her answer was: “What of that, sir? I will keep my promise.”

After his death in 1883 – followed shortly by that of his son, Louis – a court case was commenced, challenging the will. This dragged on for quite some time. Becky had moved back to Ballston Spa, but her testimony was sought in the court proceedings. She resisted testifying, per Hammersley’s wishes. One time she even jumped from a train to avoid going to New York City to appear at the trial.

Finally, she was forced to go, but in court, she steadfastly refused to answer questions about the Hammersleys. Rather than testify, she said she’d go to jail and stay till “the resurrection day.” The judge found her in contempt of court and sent her to the Ludlow Street jail to induce her testimony.

At the jail, her walls were adorned with photos of members of the family she’d faithfully served. Visitors and newspaper reporters frequently came to see her. When she first arrived, she was unimpressed with her “lodgings,” but the warden had some furniture moved in which made it homier. She told a reporter she was happier in jail than if she were out, because all her people were dead (which was not really true, as she had a sister and brother-in-law back in Ballston Spa).

Her daily routine included an early morning walk in the prison yard, going to meals, and working on a narrative of her experiences. Also, “I read and sew and go to meeting and now and then have a good talk with the people upstairs... and everybody treats me well and I am perfectly happy.” She invited one reporter to call again, on soup day, because she found the soup to be “delicious.”

With national interest in her situation, stories appeared in newspapers all over the country. Intrigued reporters nicknamed her “Silent Becky” and “Obstinate Becky.” They were so impressed with her fidelity to her former employer that they even had portraits of her painted.

On hearing she’d be released from jail, she seemed hesitant to leave: “If I’ve got my discharge and it’s legal...I may go out.” Becky was afraid she’d have to run through the streets because people would point her out as having been in jail. She was worried about returning to Ballston Spa, as “people for miles around would come into town to look at me.” She anticipated getting a job with another family, and “if my employers die, you may be sure I’ll never breathe their family affairs.”

When released in the spring of 1885, after about a year of incarceration, she did come back to Ballston Spa. The 1900 Census shows her living there with her brother-in-law, Return J. Burnham (who sometimes went by R. Jay). A newspaper observed that she lived a quiet life, but “she is one of the objects of interest in the village and takes great pride in her course when she spent some weeks in jail...for refusing to answer questions.” She had a collection of news clippings and photographs from the time of the trial.

As noted, Mr. Hammersley’s son Louis died not long after his father. His widow, the former Lilly Warren Price, was originally from Troy, and she became the Duchess of Marlborough when she remarried to the Duke, George Churchill (whose nephew, Winston, would become famous). The Duchess inherited the Hammersley fortune once everything was settled by the courts. In the 1890s, the Duke and Duchess visited Becky in Ballston Spa, and offered her a job, which she declined. She was in comfortable circumstances because Mr. Hamersley had granted her an annual stipend of $1,500.

In the village, she had repairs made to the West High Street house that had been her father’s, arranged for cemetery monuments for family members, and made provisions for her own burial. Her name was still well remembered by the public, though, as her portrait appeared in ads promoting Dr. Miles’ Restorative Nervine. Her testimonial for that product stated that when released from jail, she was a nervous wreck. “For ten years, life was a burden.” But after using the tonic, she was “entirely well.”

Jones died in 1905 at her home. She had given instructions that her funeral would be open only to family, and that her remains were to be placed in a “plain oak casket…with white lining... with a plate engraved ‘Obstinate Becky Jones.’” She is buried in the Ballston Spa Village Cemetery.

Ironically, following her death, there was a court case involving her estate. But Becky said nothing about it!

Note: This week’s article was submitted to us during the summer by David Fiske who passed away on October 28 after a battle with cancer. We publish this story posthumously in his memory.

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