Elizabeth Sisson Brightman

Elizabeth Sisson Brightman

1794 – 1872

Most girls like Elizabeth Sisson Brightman—born out of wedlock at the turn of the 19th century—were vulnerable to poverty and exploitation throughout their lives. But from her unorthodox genesis Elizabeth forged a life unrestrained by convention.

Elizabeth Sisson was the second (of three) daughters of unmarried parents: Tiverton, RI widower, John Almy (age seventy) and his single housekeeper, also named Elizabeth Sisson (age thirty-seven).[1] At the time of her birth in 1794, Elizabeth and her older sister had six older half-siblings: their mother’s first daughter (father unknown, aged fourteen[2]), and their father’s five children with his late wife, Hannah (aged twenty-eight to thirty-four).[3] Almy’s will, in which he claims and names his three “beloved daughters” and their mother, his “now-housekeeper,”[4] suggests that his unorthodox second family may have lived together with some openness.

When John Almy died in 1808 at age eighty-eight he had made generous provisions in his will for Elizabeth, her sisters, and their mother. Thirteen-year-old Elizabeth inherited $600 cash, one-third share of a farm in the Acoaxet section of Westport, [5]  along with household goods and livestock (each of her two sisters received the same).[6] Their father appointed Holder Almy (relationship unclear) guardian and overseer of the three sisters to “take care of them and their property.”[7]

A year and a half later (1809), at just fifteen years old, Elizabeth married Westport resident Lemuel Brightman (he was twenty three).[8] The two lived in Westport at the time of the 1810 US Census.[9] In November of 1810 (twelve months after they married) Elizabeth and Lemuel welcomed their first child in Little Compton.[10] Elizabeth was sixteen years old.

Elizabeth and Lemuel lived at and worked a fifty-acre farm on the northeast side of Quicksand Pond owned by Lemuel’s father, Israel Brightman. Elizabeth gave birth to at least seven children over twenty years, six of whom survived childhood (one died in infancy[11]). Lemuel inherited the fifty acre Quicksand Pond farm from his father, Israel Brightman of Westport, when both of his sons predeceased him.[12]

Elizabeth fled her home in Little Compton in October of 1840 at the age of forty-six and took refuge at her son-in-law’s (Peleg Gifford) home in New Bedford.[13] After thirty-one years of marriage, in which “she had no special ground of compaint against him,” she filed for divorce from Lemuel, claiming his use of alcohol lead to “frequent acts of violence upon her person, gross misbehavior and wickedness repugnant to and in violation of the marriage contract.” She also accused him of keeping their two youngest daughters (ages ten and seventeen) at the farm in Little Compton against their (and her) will.[14]

Ten witnesses testified on Elizabeth’s behalf at the trial of her case, including her son-in-law, Peleg Gifford, and two of Elizabeth and Lemuel’s daughters, Hannah and Fally Brightman. Lemuel’s defense provided six witnesses.[15] The court granted the divorce and ordered Lemuel to pay forty dollars in alimony yearly. The divorce decree also stated that Elizabeth was to “be restored to all her lands, tenements and hereditaments not during coverture conveyed.”[16]

Two years after the divorce Elizabeth bought property near her eldest daughter and her husband for $188.40[17] Elizbeth lived in her house on Spruce Street in New Bedford for the remainder of her life.

Having sold the farm in Little Compton, Lemuel moved to Tiverton where he fell upon hard times. Seven years after the divorce he was over a year behind on alimony payments. In response Elizabeth filed a lawsuit against Lemuel[18] claiming that Lemuel had commited fraud against her by selling[19] the Brightman farm in the midst of their divorce procedings. She asked that the deed of the farm’s buyer be set aside so enough of the property could be sold to cover the unpaid alimony, create a fund to cover future alimony payments, and for general relief. She didn’t prevail in the lawsuit, but she had the will and the resources to take legal action.

Elizabeth took Lemuel into her home in New Bedford toward the end of his life: the address on the registry of his death in 1862 is her Spruce Street address.[20] She lived ten years beyond his death, and died of dropsy in 1872 at age seventy-seven.[21] She and Lemuel, and several members of their extended family are buried at the Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford.[22] Two of Elizabeth’s children, Holder Brightman and an unnamed infant, and her mother, Elizabeth Sisson, are buried in the Brightman family burying ground on Quicksand Pond Road.[23]

Elizabeth Sisson Brightman combined a luck of birth with a spirit of boldness, becoming an empowered woman of the 19th century with the resources and courage to take unconventional steps for the sakes of her daughters and herself.

Melinda W. Green

April 2020

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[1] Rhode Island, Vital Extracts, 1636-1899 Volume 4 page 107

[2] Rhode Island, Vital Extracts, 1636-1899 Volume 4 page 97

[3] Rhode Island Vital Extracts 1636-1899 Volume 4 page 60

[4] Tiverton Probate Records No 8 1804-1814 Will of John Almy pgs. 186-191

[5] April 1798 Deed transfering property from Sisson to Almy https://westhist.pastperfectonline.com/archive/78EF16D6-E3FC-466A-A881-385741471170

[6] Tiverton Probate Records No 8 1804-1814 Will of John Almy pgs. 186-191

[7] Ibid

[8] Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records 1620-1988, Westport MA, page 87

[9] 1810 US Federal Census Year: 1810; Census Place: Westport, Bristol, Massachusetts; Roll: 17; Page: 401; Image: 00372; Family History Library Film: 0205625

[10] Rhode Island, Vital Extracts, 1636-1899 Volume 4 page 85

[11] Rhode Island Historical Commission Website http://rihistoriccemeteries.org/newgravedetails.aspx?ID=456404 accessed 3/16/2020

[12] Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991 [database on-line].Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.Original data: Massachusetts County, District and Probate, Images #815-843

[13] Supreme Judicial Court, Newport Rhode Island 1841 Term, Citation of Elizabeth Brightman vs. Lemuel Brightman for divorce, Book 19 Page 503 issued July 9, 1841

[14] Supreme Judicial Court, Newport Rhode Island 1841 Term, Citation of Elizabeth Brightman vs. Lemuel Brightman for divorce, Book 19 Page 503 issued July 9, 1841

[15] Supreme Judical Court, Newport Rhode Island 1841, Witness Summons issued August 12, 1841 and August 25, 1841

[16] Undated copy of divorce decree; date of divorce decree given as September 3, 1841 in Rhode Island Supreme Court. Reports of Cases Heard and Determined in the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, Volume 1 Elizabeth Brightman v. Lemuel Brightman and Nathaniel Pearce, 1 R.I. 112, March 1, 1848. Oxford Press, Providence RI. p. 113

[17] Bristol County Land Evidence Book 8 page 264, June 23, 1843

[18] Rhode Island Supreme Court. Reports of Cases Heard and Determined in the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, Volume 1 Elizabeth Brightman v. Lemuel Brightman and Nathaniel Pearce, 1 R.I. 112, March 1, 1848. Oxford Press, Providence RI. p. 117-121 https://books.google.com/books?id=EWYvAQAAMAAJ accessed 3/16/2020

[19] Little Compton Land Evidence Book 9 page 433, August 25, 1841

[20] Massachusetts Death Records 1841-1915, Deaths Registered in the city of New Bedford 1862

[21] Massachusetts Death Records 1841-1915, Deaths Registered in the city of New Bedford 1872

[22] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/156824499

[23] http://rihistoriccemeteries.org/newsearchcemeterydetail.aspx?ceme_no=LC042

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