Today’s lesson, ladies: Don’t fool around with Dr. Lester

This August 16 sunset shot on Butternut Lake illustrates one reason why we head north to Wisconsin as often as we can.

This August 16 sunset shot on Butternut Lake illustrates one reason why we head north to Wisconsin as often as we can.

Posting’s been lighter than usual due to a vacation up in the North Woods that went very well.

We picked up my fishing buddy, Paul Baumann, at the Central Wisconsin Airport and then traveled up to our cottage on Butternut Lake. The next day, Paul and my wife Sue (also a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1964) and I all headed up to the Whitecap Mountain ski area and picked up another high school buddy of ours, Jerry Rissman. And then we went up to Bayfield on Lake Superior, took the ferry over to Madeline Island, and spent the afternoon with yet another high school friend, Bill Fennell. All in all, it was a mini-high school reunion that was lots of fun.

The weather for the remaining days of vacation Up North wasn’t the best, but we did catch fish, and had a lot of fun and (as usual) great food.

Heading north in the summer to get away from it all is far from a new thing under the sun. Many of us Illinois kids went north with our parents and so came to enjoy the quiet and beauty of Wisconsin’s lakes and forests. But heading north was pretty common well before the 1950s. My dad helped a friend build a log fishing cabin on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota in the 1930s. And 19th Century newspaper accounts suggest getting out of Illinois during the season when corn was tasseling out and ragweed pollen was at its height was the only way to find a little relief.

Back in the 1800s, one of Oswego’s three physicians was Dr. Gilbert Lester. A native of New Brunswick, Canada, Lester suffered greatly from hay fever and in those pre-Benadryl days getting out of his adopted hometown and back to his native New Brunswick was the only way to cope. As Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank put it in the Aug. 29, 1880 Kendall County Record:

“Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

Later in the century, he favored heading north up to Lake Superior for a few summer weeks. According to the Aug. 17, 1892 Kendall County Record:

“Dr. Lester started this morning on his annual trip north to get out of the reach of the hay fever…Marquette on Lake Superior is to be the Doc’s destination.”

Lester’s first wife, Caroline Elizabeth Hunt Lester, died in January 1884, whereupon he apparently enjoyed bachelorhood—to excess, some might have said.

Dr. Gilbert Benjamin Lester in an 1888 engraving. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dr. Gilbert Benjamin Lester in an 1888 engraving. (Little White School Museum collection)

Starting in the late 1880s, a frequent visitor to Lester’s home, where he lived with his two unmarried daughters, was Anna Brown. The daughter of a literate family from down Newark way, Anna had begun her teaching career in 1870 at the Old Stone School in Oswego and was reportedly well liked by her students and their parents.

On May 1, 1877, she took her students out for a walk to gather flowers for their May baskets. The hike led them south along the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy tracks from downtown Oswego to the woods and pastures that bordered the rail line. The children were having a good time gathering flowers when they heard the whistle of the upbound passenger train. Brown looked up and was horrified to see one of her students, little David Carpenter, frozen in fear, on the short rail bridge over Morgan Creek. The May 3, 1877 Kendall County Record reported what happened next:

“As the five o’clock train came along a little boy, named Carpenter, about nine years old, was on a railroad bridge over a ravine and became frightened. Miss Brown ran on the bridge to help him off. She saved the boy, but the engine struck her, ran over her left foot and threw her from the bridge to the creek, ten feet below.

The train was stopped, backed up, and the unfortunate lady got aboard and taken to Oswego, thence to her boarding place. Doctors were summoned, and her injuries found to be severe. The toes of the left foot were crushed, and portions of the foot had to be amputated. She was badly hurt about the back by the fall, and internal injuries are feared. Tuesday night the doctors thought she would not recover, but Wednesday morning she had rallied somewhat from the shock.”

Lorenzo Rank, in the next week’s Record, reported on the acclaim Brown was receiving in the community:

“She has been held in high esteem in this community because of her many good qualities, always active on the side of religion and good morals, is an excellent teacher, with the faculty to make herself beloved by all her scholars. It was said by the passengers that on the return to the place of the accident, the scene was very affecting, that there was a general crying and sorrow of the children, and all that first could be got out of them was ‘Miss Brown is killed;’ some adding, ‘Davie Carpenter is to blame.’ Now beside all this she is a heroine and will be more admired than ever before.”

As determined as ever, Brown recovered from the ordeal and went on with her career. Although having a limp the rest of her life and needing a stout cane to walk, she continued to teach school in Oswego and later in Chicago and finally Sandwich, where she was working when she and Dr. Lester became romantically involved. On July 12, 1893 Lorenzo Rank reported in the Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” column:

“According to report, a quiet wedding took place last week; one of our prominent widowers with a former teacher in our school, to wit: Dr. Lester and Miss Anna Brown.”

But while Dr. Lester was once again married, apparently he was loath to give up some of his bachelor habits, one of whom was Charlotte Haight, wife of prominent Oswego businessman David M. Haight.

David M. Haight's store at the northeast corner of Main and Washington streets in downtown Oswego. Haight went bankrupt just a few weeks after Anna Brown Lester attacked the grocer's philandering wife. (Little White School Museum photo)

David M. Haight’s store at the northeast corner of Main and Washington streets in downtown Oswego. Haight went bankrupt just a few weeks after Anna Brown Lester attacked the grocer’s philandering wife. (Little White School Museum photo)

Anna knew that Mrs. Haight had paid altogether too much attention to Dr. Lester for many years, and she warned the storekeeper’s wife to stay away from their home or face the consequences. “If you continue to come, you come at your peril,” she wrote in a letter to Charlotte Haight. Mrs. Haight, however, refused to stay away from the Lester home. As we’ve seen above, Anna Brown Lester was no shrinking violet and so decided on direct action, using her sturdy cane to punctuate the points of her argument. As the Oct. 12, Aurora News Semi-Weekly, reported:

“A bride of scarcely two months, jealous of her husband’s attentions to another woman, waylaid her rival Tuesday night and administered a severe thrashing with a stout cane for which offense she this morning cheerfully paid a fine of three dollars and costs….

Dr. Lester of Oswego, a widower past 60 years of age, was wed less than two months ago to Miss Anna Brown, a maiden lady of 40 summers or over. Miss Brown had lived much of the time in Oswego but of late years had been a school teacher at Sandwich.

For a few weeks after the honeymoon, all was apparently lovely in the relations of Dr. Lester and his bride. Lately observing people have noticed a slight change.

Mrs. Lester became convinced that Mrs. D.M. Haight, wife of one of the leading merchants of the town and her husband, were getting altogether too familiar. The sheep’s eyes that Mrs. H. cast at the doctor were simply unbearable and there was talk, too, that made the matter all the worse. Tuesday night, matters came to a climax.

Mrs. Lester waited in the shadow of her husband’s office and when her rival came along for the usual evening chat with the doctor, the enraged wife fell upon her with a heavy cane, which she plied with such vigorous effect that Mrs. Haight still bears the bruises.”

Two days later, in a letter to her good friend and stepdaughter, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lester Smith, Anna noted that Mrs. Haight and Dr. Lester had been seeing each other for a decade. While she said she was mortified to be brought up before Justice Lockwood, she suggested she did not regret waling the tar out of Mrs. Haight, writing:

“Mr. L read the charge of assaulting her, striking her with a cane &c and then it was my turn to speak and I said “I did follow her from my husband’s office and struck her with a cane two or three times & she knows how many times better than I and she deserved it all.” This is about my speech. He put the fine at $3 & cost so it amounted to $4.20 — So with the talk and reports in papers it has cost me dear.”

So, anyway, a couple weeks later, D.M. Haight’s well-known Oswego store went broke, thanks to the on-going financial Panic of 1893. The Haights moved to Chicago where D.M. engaged as a traveling salesman for the Fox River Butter Company, and presumably clearing the field for more of Mrs. Haight’s amorous adventures. Dr. Lester, his health debilitated by chronic hay fever and serious eye problems—and possibly one too many women in his life—died in March 1895 at the age of 65. Anna Brown Lester had the last laugh, enjoying several more years living in Oswego to general acclaim and participating in the community’s civic affairs until her death from pneumonia in 1909.

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Filed under Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History

One response to “Today’s lesson, ladies: Don’t fool around with Dr. Lester

  1. Pingback: The tale of the high private in the rear rank… | historyonthefox

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