Today marks the birthday of a character often forgotten in the Borden saga but one whom Lizzie and possibly Emma must have resented very much. When Abby Borden’s mother, Sarah Sawyer Gray died, her father Oliver, a tin peddler, married the widow Jane Baker Eldredge in pretty short order. She had two children from her first marriage: Lucy J. and Henry H. There were 25 years between Jane and Oliver. They had one child together, Sarah Bertha Gray, perhaps after Oliver’s first wife (which was a common custom). Bertha was the name of Jane’s mother. By this point Abby Gray Borden and Jane, her stepmother were barely 2 years apart in age. Abby Borden doted on little Sarah Bertha, called “Bertie” by everyone.
Bertie worked in a harness factory at age 16 and married George Washington Whitehead ( son of Richard Whitehead of England and Mary J. Marquand) when she was just 18 and George was 22. They married in Fall River on Christmas Day 1882. George was the eldest of 6 boys and one little sister Mabel who died at age 2. He is listed as a laborer. They had 2 children together, Abbie Whitehead (Potter) born in 1884 and George Oliver (after her father) born in 1887. Life would be hard for the Whiteheads and money was always an issue. When Andrew Borden deeded Jane’s half of the Gray homestead over to his wife Abby in 1887, it caused no end of a fallout between Emma and Lizzie and their father. Andrew Borden had to deed over the old family home on Ferry St. to the Borden sisters to restore peace. The girls would sell it back to their father for $5,000 just before the August 4th murders. Lizzie stopped calling Abby “Mother” and the hard feelings and fear Abby would inherit the most at their father’s death became a constant concern.
Bertie and later on Bertie’s daughter Little Abbie Potter never had much good to say about the Borden girls.
Sarah Bertha reveals a great deal in testimony with prosecutor Hosea Knowlton :
Hosea Knowlton: “Were you on congenial terms with them?”(Lizzie and Emma)
Sarah B. Whitehead: “Well I don’t know as I was. I never thought they liked me.”
Knowlton: “Not on particularly friendly terms then?”
Sarah B. Whitehead: “ No, I always felt they thought they were above me.”
One can only imagine what Bertie thought about Lizzie’s acquittal. Bertie received $1,000 and some of Abby Borden’s personal things after the funeral. Sadness would visit her family on July 7, 1898 when George died of peritonitis leaving Bertie with two children to raise. By 1910 Bertie was living in a rented apartment at 165 Farneth St. In 1912 she had tried a life in New York City for a bit but would come back to her roots and eventually ended up in Swampscott living with her son George and his wife Ellen and her two grandchildren George and Barbara J. They lived at 149 New Ocean St. 9A. Ellen was a nurse from Haverhill and George turned his hand to the printer’s trade. He and Ellen would later move to Providence where George worked for Auto Mutual Insurance company. “Little Abbie” would make a good marriage with a prosperous business man. Bertie made several trips to Canada and passed away in Winnipeg, Manitoba on April 22, 1932. She is buried with her husband in Oak Grove Cemetery near her parents in the Gray family plot.
There is a cartoon of Bertie in a newspaper during the trial, and photographs of her husband George’s brothers who had very successful careers- but none of George. Abbie Potter gave an interview to Yankee Magazine before she died and there is a photograph of “Little Abbie” as an old lady. There are many descendants of the Whitehead family living today.