Chapter 15 of Dragon Lady, and Bridget Leigh/Lee

“Abigail in Flight,” chapter 15 of The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge: A Tale of Magic in the Gilded Age, has been posted. Injured and on the run, can Abigail acquire allies faster than she acquires enemies?

For the many of you who have just started following this blog, my thanks for your interest. I hope I can continue to engage it. I explain what happens on this blog here and here. If you want to follow Dragon Lady, I post a chapter every week on Friday, and you can start reading here.

I use a lot of names in Dragon Lady. A few belong to historical individual, whom I use in ways similar to their actual roles in history. Rev. Henry Martyn Field and Secret Service Chief James Brooks (first mentioned in chapter 9 of Dragon Lady) are examples. Others I constructed from appropriate names suitable to that period and culture. Jeremiah Farnsworth’s Biblical given name and English surname are examples of this type. However, there’s one name that falls in between these two categories. Readers, meet Bridget Leigh:

Bridget Lee Bixby

Yes, there was a real Bridget Leigh. She was born on December 22, 1827 in Annascaul, Ireland, the daughter of a blacksmith. She came to this country around the time of the potato famine. Her sisters joined her a few years later, walking barefoot all the way from Montreal to Boston in the wintertime because they didn’t want to wear out their only pairs of shoes. Along the way, a family in a small Massachusetts village took them in, and Nellie decided to stay and work for them. Bridget Lee, for that is how they spelled her name in America, joined Nellie in the village not long after. There, Bridget met a young man who was working for the same family as Nellie, married him, moved to their own farm, and had eight children. One died in infancy, but the other seven grew up and married. Bridget lived long enough to see three of those marriages before she died on January 29, 1882, only fifty-four years old. Her youngest daughter was still only fifteen. Her husband, who was sixty-one, never remarried, dying almost twenty-one years later.

Bridget is buried on sloping ground in a family lot. I’ve seen her grave many times. She’s my great-grandmother.

Although she left no ghost, Bridget’s influence continued on in several ways after her death. There were her children, of course, and their numerous descendants. One of her sons ran the village’s general store. Another, my grandfather, ran the old family farm. The store was more profitable than the farm, by the way, so my Granduncle Charles got the better of that deal. The village they lived in was growing because of the paper mills along the river, so it’s no wonder the store did well.

And this leads to the other way Bridget’s influence extended past her life. The old farming families were mostly Congregationalists, while the new mill hands and their families were heavily Catholic. Didn’t matter what they were, they had to leave the village to worship, as there were no churches of any kind in the village in Bridget’s day. Being a good daughter of Ireland that she was, Bridget traveled to the next town to have her children baptized as Catholics, but they grew up surrounded by Congregationalists, and by and large became Protestants of one kind or another.

Doesn’t sound like Bridget was all that influential, eh? But wait! In the 1920s, long after Bridget was dead, the Ku Klux Klan came to the North. They weren’t just against blacks, they were also against Catholics. The town where Bridget’s descendants lived became a hotbed of Klan activity. My grandfather, who still lived on the family farm, was horrified. He attended a Congregational Church, but he hadn’t forgotten his baptism, nor the faith of his mother Bridget. He opposed the Klan, and made it clear he expected his family to have no part of it. He even went another step further. There was an ambitious Catholic priest in town, trying to build a church for the Catholics in the village. My grandfather, who naturally had subscribed support to build the Congregational church in the village a few decades earlier, went and did likewise for this Catholic church that was abuilding, making him one of the few people to support construction of both churches in the village!

The two churches, Congregational (now UCC) and Catholic, still stand and both are in use. Personally, for me, they are a monument to the spirit of religious toleration. And they wouldn’t mean that to me, if it hadn’t been for the real Bridget Lee.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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8 Responses to Chapter 15 of Dragon Lady, and Bridget Leigh/Lee

  1. suzy beal says:

    I love the historical background, especially since it connects directly to you.

  2. Brian Bixby says:

    It’s a case of “write what you know,” albeit with modifications — my family never ventured as far west as the Berkshires! They took the saying “Go west, young man!” to mean travel one town farther to the west. The women were more venturesome, since my mother, grandmother, and Great-grandmother Bridget were all immigrants to this country.

    By the way, folks, Suzy’s business is helping capture family memories, which is one reason she’s interested in mine. If you click on her name, it’ll take you to her blog describing what she does. I’m going to try to use her workbook to get my 87-year-old mother to write down her memories, before my mother and her life vanish from living memory.

  3. nikki daley virgin says:

    Oh wow I have this very same picture Brian!!!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I’ll have to post a picture of her husband, Benjamin Varnum Bixby, either here or on Facebook, Nikki. I’ve got it on my laptop, but never posted it before in either place.

  4. Denise comment to Bixby Blog

    Hi: my name is Denise Wambsganss. My maiden name was Denise Layne Bixby. My Father’s name was Richard Harlon Bixby. I was born in Great Bend Kansas, moved to Hutchinson, KS when I was 4 years old. I lived in Hutchinson until after I graduated College in 1981 at KU (Kansas University) with a degree in Journalism. Then I moved to Denver, CO. I LOVE family history. I have not had time to read your blog. The only thing I read was about Bridget Leigh Bixby because my Dad use to tell me her story over and over again. I am excited to look at your entire blog once the Holidays are over. My Dad passed away about 9 years ago. I “think” his grandfather was Benjamin Varnum Bixby. If that is not true then Benjamin was his great grandfather. MANY years ago My Dad and I took a trip back East to relive some of his childhood and we saw Benjamin’s grave along with a few other family members. Can’t wait to stay in touch and get to know you better. With what I have told you can you figure out how we are related? I was born July 24, 1959 in Great Bend Kansas. My father was born outside of Boston on a farm. Off the top of my head right now I can’t think of the name of the towns he lived in or by.
    I would love to hear about any other Bixby history you have

  5. Dave Bixby says:

    Hello, Brian. I too am a descendant of Benjamin and Bridget Bixby. I am one of the great-great grandsons by way of their:
    son William Varnum Bixby
    grandson Charles Donald Bixby of West Groton MA
    adopted great grandson Philip Donald Bixby born in Nashua NH
    I, too, enjoyed you writing of Bridget Lee (nee Leigh) and especially the picture whom I have just shown to her great-great-great grandson.
    I too would love to hear about any other Bixby history you have.

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