A rare aptitude for success: The Wilmarths care for the Hopedale Community

Linda Hixon
Issue Date: 
May, 2019
Article Body: 

Human error caused the accident. A drawbridge over the river in Norwalk, Connecticut was open to let the SS Pacific pass and had yet to swing back into position when the train came through.
Several faults lay behind the disaster. Engineer Edward Tucker was unfamiliar with the line, and he failed to see the warning signal. He was also traveling at 30 miles per hour, five times the speed limit for passing over the bridge. The train hit an abutment before the first car fell into the river. The second car fell on top of it, crushing those already in the water.
For Hopedale, this disaster was personal. Dr. Butler Wilmarth, an important member of the community, was on the train when it plunged into the river on May 6, 1853. He was one of 50 who died.
Butler Wilmarth rose from adversity to become a respected physician. Adopted as a child with few social advantages, Butler fought to be a good doctor and was a staunch supporter of Adin Ballou’s Practical Christian religion. “He made the most of his scanty opportunities, and resolved himself, by persistent efforts, into a noble specimen of manhood,” Ballou said of his friend.
Butler and his wife, Phila, moved to Hopedale to start the latest trend in medical science: pulling away from the overuse of drugs and turning to simple water to cure all ills. Adin Ballou was a fan of this process, which involved bathing or showering in water – cold water – to restore health.
Not initially a proponent of what was known as “hydropathic” therapy, Butler became convinced after witnessing the son of William H. Fish cured of scarlet fever. Town residents were convinced, too, and in an early form of “crowd sourcing” raised $600 – almost $20,000 today – to start Hopedale’s “Water Cure infirmary” in 1850. The cost for the treatment was $4 per week, about $150 in today’s money, but this didn’t include everything. “Extra privileges or attention will subject the patient to extra charges,” an advertisement in the Practical Christian noted.
Phila was an integral part of Butler’s work, featured as his partner in the establishment. Even though his water cure facility only lasted a few months, he supported Phila in becoming a physician herself. At the time of Butler’s death, she was studying at the Boston Female Medical College. Adin Ballou held Phila in high regard, noting in his History of Milford that she decided, despite her mourning, to continue on this path. “That overwhelming blow did not crush her spirits, as many of us feared it might; but, rallying all her womanhood, with the feeling that she was following out her departed husband’s unchanged wishes, she bravely completed her medical course, and duly received her diploma from ‘The Female Medical College of Pennsylvania,’” Ballou wrote.
In fact, Phila served Hopedale as one of two female physicians. Emily Gay was honing her homeopathic skills in Blackstone at the same time that Butler and Phila opened the Water Cure establishment. The Sewing Circle took note. “Some conversation with regard to having a female Physician located here. It was universally thought advisable,” the women of the Community wrote in 1851.
Unfortunately, Phila Wilmarth did not have long to enjoy her role as a doctor in Hopedale. She became ill and died in August, 1859. “She was a most respected and beloved member of the Hopedale Community, and one of the excellent of the earth,” her obituary noted. “As a woman, wife, mother, relative, friend, and practical Christian, her memory is crowned with rich commendation and eulogy by all who knew her. Her life was replete with unassuming worth and usefulness.” The Wilmarths were buried in Hopedale Village Cemetery, and their children continued to live in town.