FEATURES

THE 'BOO' LAWSUIT
Charles Ives Parmelee 1854-1921
Samuel Blakeslee, Leander, Solomon, Roswell, Nehemiah, Nathaniel, Nathaniel, John, John

 

Eighteen-year-old Ethel Bartholomew set out from her home in Wallingford, Conn., with a friend for her dressmaker's the night of Feb. 5, 1900. The two were passing along a dark street when they saw a man following them on the opposite side. He shuffled his feet as if to attract their attention, and the frightened girls ran to the nearest home. Just as they reached the front steps, their pursuer caught up with them and from a clump of bushes came a familiar voice: "Boo!"

Ethel said she was frightened into hysterics. She and her father, James Bartholomew, named 46-year-old farmer and retired merchant Charles I. Parmelee in a pair of lawsuits seeking a total of $10,000 in damages. Testimony was presented the following year in nearby New Haven Superior Court over several days.

Judge G.W. Wheeler was told Ethel was unable to speak or move a muscle at times, and needed a doctor's care ever since that wintry night. She had moved to Middleborough, Mass., for the current school year, and her ambition to become a schoolteacher had been shattered by one "Boo!" Her father said she'd experienced hallucinations and at times failed to recognize him.

Charles, for his part, admitted to following the girls that night, but denied any booing.

The climax of the trial came March 7 when the plaintiff faced the man she was suing. Soon after entering the courtroom, she "straightened out in her chair as rigid as a board," newspapers said. Court attendants rushed to her to the anteroom where she was laid on a table. Later she was taken to a private room where Dr. J. D. McGaughey, a medical expert in the case, said she "remained all the forenoon in a stupor." (Reports that she "had such an intense grip upon the lounge with her right hand that it was found necessary to saw off the end of the lounge and let her carry it along with her is denied by her relatives," said the Boston Herald.)

Said her mother, Anna, of the courtroom scene: "It is the worst attack my daughter has ever had. She always was affected so after seeing Parmelee. He was on the witness stand when she was taken this afternoon. We believe that the sight of Parmelee has a hypnotic effect on her."

That evening Ethel was taken to a friend's home in New Haven where there were "no signs of consciousness. Her condition was considered serious." Doctors were reported to have stuck needles into her arms and "thrown magnified light" into her eyes in an effort to revive her, but without success.

When Ethel was finally able to testify, she gave "a complete account of the alleged facts in the case from beginning to end," said the New Haven Morning Journal and Courier. She "coolly" described the man's feet shuffling on the sidewalk and the pursuit, telling the court she was afraid of being stabbed or shot. Unable to attend school for a week, she stayed with a cousin on the advice of her physician.

On May 7, Judge Wheeler handed down his decision in favor of the plaintiffs: $700 to Ethel and $300 to her father. "The defendant intended to frighten the girl, and did all he did for this purpose," Wheeler wrote. "He intended nothing more than a practical joke. He did not intend to hurt the plaintiff or her companion. A cause of action based upon fright along would usually be apt to be more sentimental than substantial, more fanciful than real. In the present case the defendant intended to cause mental distress to the plaintiff, and for the consequences of his act the law holds him liable whether he acted in folly, negligence or in wantonness."

But the Bartholomews filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court in Hartford. Before the case could be heard, the two parties struck a deal on Nov. 20: Ethel still got her $700 and some court costs, but her father's claim was withdrawn.

Ethel seems to have pulled herself together. The Smith College Monthly lists her as a member of the Northampton, Mass., women's school's Class of 1907. And the 1909 Middleborough register of marriages shows she tied the knot Sept. 1 with 25-year-old James D. Kirkpatrick back home at Wallingford. Yet his occupation is listed as "teacher" while hers is "none."

Clipping from the Washington (D.C.) Bee