Sunday, February 26, 2012

Billy Lawrence was a short but unforgettable character around Yarmouth’s old shipyards.

by Alan Hall

In a traditional New England town, there was often a fine line between being “eccentric” and being “different.” Today’s focus is on a 19th century Yarmouth peddler whose disability put him squarely on that border between social acceptance and discrimination. While local history tends to favor the captains of industry and ships, there were other minority groups and colorful characters who eked out a living on the margins of society. Often these “eccentrics” were perceived as having a mental disorder, so they received nicknames like Yarmouth’s “Crazy Joe Davis” and “Half-witted Alonzo.” In Pownal there was Dodge the Beggar who kept a wad of “tobacky” under his hat and Simon Magus who occasionally dined on robins. Of course Freeport had an entrepreneurial hermit who peddled souvenirs to the tourists headed for the “Desert of Maine.”

Colorful characters like these rarely show up in history books. I first heard of Billy Lawrence nearly forty years ago when I attended a “magic lantern show” at the Yarmouth town library. In the 1930’s Elmer Ring had stumbled across a cache of glass plate photographs in an abandoned Yarmouth building. In 1974 he organized the slide show so that elderly residents could help identify the images on those old glass slides. When this photograph of Billy Lawrence flashed on the screen, there was chorus of recognition: “I remember him––that’s Billy Lawrence!” Since he was born in 1842 and he remained in Yarmouth until his death in 1908, Billy and his wagon would have been an intriguing and familiar sight for Yarmouth children in the 1890’s.

Billy Lawrence with his snack tray and wagon, ca.1890.
(photo from the collection of Alan Hall)

It is usually difficult to trace the life of a person like Billy Lawrence who was orphaned at an early age, never married, and did not acquire property. Although the historian William Rowe certainly would have known Billy Lawrence, he never refers to him in his history of the town. In Edward Plummer’s Reminiscences of a Yarmouth Schoolboy Billy is at least mentioned as one of the most colorful and likeable characters along the town’s waterfront. Starting with Plummer’s clues about Billy’s later life, I was able to work backwards through census records to trace the households where “William Lawrence” lived from 1860 to 1900.

Edward Plummer wrote that Billy’s father was a very successful Yarmouth merchant, but the census and some genealogical evidence suggest that his parents were Lydia Pratt and Samuel A. Lawrence, a farmer from Pownal. Tragically, Samuel died in 1848, when Billy was only six years old. Plummer also recorded the story that Billy’s stunted growth came from an accident that he suffered when he was very young. Possibly his father’s death and Billy’s traumatic accident are linked, but we can only speculate about that. In 1860 Billy and his older sister Julia were in their late teens and still living with their mother. Julia is recorded as a schoolteacher while no occupation is listed for Billy. Their widowed mother Lydia is described as having some personal and real estate assets, suggesting that she inherited money and other assets along the way.

During the next decade Billy moved into the household of Daniel Mitchell who lived on East Main Street. Billy Lawrence, who may have been the nephew of Mrs. Mitchell, would remain in that house for the rest of his life. Even after Judge Mitchell’s death in 1886, Billy lived with Daniel’s widow Eliza and their daughter Ida Belle. Mitchell was not a wealthy man, but he was deeply respected in town. When his own father died, he abandoned his studies at Bowdoin College and returned home. He studied law and was appointed to be the town’s deputy sheriff and tax collector. He was elected to the board of selectmen and served as an examiner to decide which students were qualified to enter the town’s high school. Eventually he was appointed trial justice for Yarmouth and held many of the legal proceedings in the big kitchen of his East Main Street house where Billy Lawrence also lived.

Billy made his living as a peddler, although he hardly fit the stereotype of a sharp-eyed Yankee trader hustling goods from town to town. Pulling his little wagon behind him, he sold snacks to the shipyard workers, newspapers to passengers at the Grand Trunk railroad depot, and he worked the big crowds at ship launchings and muster days. If you look closely at his wagon, you can see on top of it, a wooden box with leather straps. Like any young vendor selling peanuts or hot dogs in a modern stadium, Billy suspended this box of snacks from his neck to keep his hands free. This was especially important for Billy because he had problems with his unusually short legs. For this reason he was usually seen clutching a long, staff for extra support.

Unfortunately, Billy occasionally needed to use his walking stick to defend himself. I recently received a remarkable old letter from Debbie Landry that described an incident when Billy was taunted by some of the neighborhood boys. It happened when he was in the backyard of the Mitchell house roasting peanuts. To do this he used a small metal drum that he carefully rotated over a charcoal fire. (This contraption was almost certainly made for him across the street at Dennison’s blacksmith shop where Billy was a familiar visitor.) According to the letter, Billy would sit perfectly still and not turn the handle on the roaster if anyone was watching him. Knowing this, the boys took pleasure in teasing him until the peanuts started to smoke and burn. “Then with a grunt of rage, he would seize his bradpointed cane and rush at us…[about] as fast as a five year old could run.”

While some Yarmouth residents viewed Billy Lawrence as a dwarf with a mean temper, other people like Edward Plummer fondly remembered him as “a little man” who was gentle with children. It is possible that both views were correct––at different periods of Billy’s life. Plummer’s memories tend to date from the 1870’s when Billy Lawrence was still a young man and the peak of ship building provided many lucrative opportunities for selling candy and peanuts. In the 1890’s shipbuilding had ceased in Yarmouth, making it more difficult for Billy to earn a living. At the same time, the loss of Judge Mitchell, who was Billy’s landlord and de facto guardian, probably left him more vulnerable. It is therefore not surprising that this enterprising little person experienced not only some warm moments of social acceptance, but also the harsh sting of discrimination. If any of you have additional stories or knowledge about Billy Lawrence, I would love to hear them to correct or complete this portrait of him.

This is a youthful Billy Lawrence, possibly from the early 1870's.
(photo from the collection of Alan Hall)

Alan Hall is teacher and historical researcher who has given many public lectures on a variety of maritime and local history topics. To read previous columns, post comments or view additional images related to Billy Lawrence, visit my blog on the internet. The address is Today’s photograph is from the collection of Alan Hall.

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