The Rebel Who Scandalized Roaring Twenties Boston

But people are complex and not all rebels are heroes.

On a cold day in January 1920, a petite dark-haired woman sat on a court bench huddled in her furs, a black veil over her face. Her best friend Ethel and her sister Florence accompanied her. Margaret Freeman was suing her husband Ernest for divorce.

In the #MeToo era, we tend to think that women are just now beginning to stand up for themselves. To some extent that’s true. While turn-of-the-century divorce wasn’t as unusual as one might think — one contemporaneous newspaper headline proclaims “Dozen Divorce Suits at Plymouth: Desertion, Cruelty, Abuse Dissolve the Ties” — it didn’t usually result in month-long trials splashed across the front pages of the daily papers.

It wasn’t a slow news time, either. The front page was crowded. Prohibition had just begun, suffragettes were marching for the right to vote, the League of Nations was finding its feet, and the Russian Revolution still raged. “US Troops to Leave Siberia” shared the front page with the initial divorce announcement. Flappers were shocking society with their freedom and licentiousness. She was a housewife and he was a manager for a local fan manufacturer. Why was this case newsworthy?

Margaret had all the money and she refused to give it, or the house her father built for her, to her social-climbing, ambitious husband.

“She testified that her father had left her property, bonds, and securities and that her husband immediately upon the death of her father demanded the transfer of the bonds and securities from a Worcester vault to a Boston vault and demanded that he have the custody of them. This the witness stated she absolutely refused to do, stating that it was the wish of her dying father that she should take care of her own property.”
Boston Globe, January 19, 1920, p. 2

Margaret Reed met Ernest Freeman in Worcester, MA on April 7, 1899, at a high school dance. She was the sixteen-year-old daughter of millionaire inventor Frederick E. Reed, the owner and founder of the F.E. Reed Company, a tool factory. Margaret had two sisters and a brother; she was close to her sister Florence and the two visited often. The only descriptions of Margaret are from the newspaper articles covering her divorce: “petite and dark, with a low, pleasing voice.”

Ernest Freeman was twenty-one and studying mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute when he met Margaret. His family traced their roots back to an early Puritan settler. His grandfather Silas had been a stagecoach driver who retired to manage the town farm. His father was a farmer who had died when Ernest was five (of “apoplexy”). Ernest was the first in his family to attend college. His only surviving brother Clarence worked a mill (another brother, Irving, died as a child). Upon graduation, Ernest went to work for B. F. Sturtevant Fan Company in Hyde Park, a suburb of Boston. By the time he and Margaret divorced, he had worked his way up to manager. He would eventually be president of the company.

They married in January 1903 at her mother’s house in Worcester. She was 20 and he was 25. “He at the time was getting $25 a week; she the daughter of a man with large means, although she had no property of her own,” the Boston Globe related. For the first three years of their married lives, they moved where Ernest’s job took them: Hudson, NY, Philadelphia, PA, Savannah, GA. Their first child, Sally, was born almost precisely nine months after their marriage. In 1905, they settled outside of Boston in Dedham, where the family would live for several years. A second daughter was born that year, Ruth. Ernest’s job required a lot of travel, reflected in the letters written between the couple, offered in court as testimony of their happy union.
Margaret became life-long friends with the couple across the street, Charles and Ethel Cobb. Ethel was near Margaret’s age. Charles, a traveling paper salesman, was considerably older, born in 1864. While the Cobbs had a succession of family members living with them through the years — fathers, sisters — they appear to have been childless. Like Ernest, Charles’s work often took him away from home.

Margaret wrote daily to Ernest while he was traveling. At first, the letters were sentimental and loving, but by 1906 Margaret was lonely and tired enough of Ernest’s traveling to threaten a separation in a letter sent to him while he was in Chicago on New Year’s Eve. In 1907 the couple had another daughter, Margaret Jr., who died at six months of age of acute gastroenteritis. In 1908 they had a son, Ernest Bigelow Freeman, Jr., called Bigelow.

In April of 1911, Bigelow became ill and was diagnosed with diabetes. Three doctors were consulted, one brought in by Margaret and two by Ernest. Margaret’s sister Florence Morton recommended a “mental science” healer who Margaret consulted. In 1911 there was no cure for diabetes; there would not be one until 1922. Bigelow died five months later. Mrs. Morton testified in court that she only recommended the healer “after the physicians had given him up,” but Ernest blamed Mrs. Morton and Margaret for Bigelow’s death. “You tried mental science on my little Bigelow and if it hadn’t been for you he would be alive now,” Ernest told Florence.

Margaret delivered another daughter in March of 1913, Barbara. After Barbara’s birth, Ethel Cobb referred Margaret to her family friend and physician, Dr. Herbert Benner. She went to see him for “weakness and irregularities.” He said he could not tell whether she had a chronic condition or was pregnant; she soon discovered that she was pregnant. She gave birth to son Reed in 1914.

A year later, the family moved to a new house built and furnished by Margaret’s father for her and her family in Hyde Park. Margaret lived there for the rest of her life.

“‘You have sunk lower than any women I ever knew, considering the level you started.’ ”
Ernest Freeman to Margaret Freeman, as testified by him repeatedly in court and reported in the Boston Globe January 28, 1920

In 1917, two events occurred that changed the course of the Freeman marriage.

In January, Margaret went again to see Dr. Benner, who recommended she have surgery. She remained in the hospital for a week following the surgery, then was released home. After a week at home, she told Ernest she felt ill and he returned her to Dr. Benner’s care for another week.

Margaret’s father died shortly after she returned home the second time. She inherited about $700,000, approximately worth the same as $16 million today. Suddenly she was a fabulously wealthy woman who could support herself and her children. Both she and Ernest testified that he expressed interest in controlling her money. One of his co-workers said that Ernest asked him for investment advice even before Mr. Reed had died, saying “he thought that it ought to be put in his control.” Ernest claimed that he only asked because he thought he could manage it better. Margaret and her sister Florence both testified that he became furious when he was denied access. “His wrath knew no bounds,” Florence said. Margaret claimed she was advised by the executor of her father’s estate to take out a private mailbox in her name only, as Ernest opened and read all mail delivered to the house. Ernest began to suggest to Margaret that she was crazy, so in April she had her sanity tested by two physicians to prove him wrong.

Historically in the United States, married women had not been legally permitted to own any property. All of their possessions and money were automatically granted to their husbands. Beginning in 1839 individual states had begun to pass legislation, the “Married Women’s Property Act,” giving married women the right of ownership. Massachusetts passed the law in 1855. The Act was not accepted by all states until 1895. However, it was still customary for the husband to manage the couple’s funds.

Following her surgery, Margaret continued to see Dr. Benner until his death in 1919, sometimes several times a week. Convinced she was having an affair, Ernest hired a detective agency to follow her. Detectives staked out Dr. Benner’s offices. Ernest accused her of being a German spy, of furnishing money to the German government and of being one of a dozen mistresses of a German doctor. He testified in court that he spent about $8000 on detectives, approximately equal to $170,000 today and representing about a fifth of his annual income at the time. He had detectives trailing Margaret for three years.

Herbert Benner was an unlikely candidate to cuckold any husband. Like Ernest, Benner was also the son of a Millbury farmer and probably the first in his family to go to college. He graduated from Dartmouth Medical School in 1895 at the age of thirty. He was immediately hired by Tewksbury Hospital as an internist and opened his own practice a year later with a specialty in surgery. In 1899 he married Edith Hall, who was eleven years younger than he. They had no children. Benner’s health began to fail in 1917 and at some point in the year, he had a leg amputated. He spent Christmas 1917 in the hospital, not expected to live. He died of arteriosclerosis and thrombosis in December 1919, just before the divorce trial began.

Margaret told Ernest that she saw Dr. Benner for medical reasons or to receive medicine. Dr. Benner told Ernest he didn’t know why Margaret came to see him, she required no further medical treatment. He told Ernest it would be physically impossible for him to commit any “serious offense” with Margaret. Ethel Cobb was also a patient of Benner’s. “I had heard from her own sister-in-law that she herself (Mrs. Cobb) went to Dr. Benner on every excuse she had; that if she had a toothache she went to Benner before going to a dentist,” Ernest testified in court.

Ernest’s detectives noted that Margaret would visit the doctor for about a half-hour, late in the afternoon. Sometimes she wouldn’t go in; Benner would meet her car outside and talk to her through the driver’s side window. One of the detectives noted that after a visit, Margaret “was excited and wiping her face with her handkerchief and that she stumbled and almost fell from a step in front of the building.”

Ernest’s detectives even found Benner visiting the Cobbs while Margaret was with them at their Cape Cod cottage. Ethel Cobb testified that he visited about 6 times during the summer of 1918.

Both Ernest and his detectives conceded in court that they had never found Margaret in any sort of compromising situation with Dr. Benner.

Margaret filed for divorce on August 26. She kicked Ernest out of the house effective August 30, but he refused to leave so she and the children stayed in on Cape Cod through the fall. In October, she filed a complaint with the police when she found Ernest’s detectives peering in the windows of her Cape Cod home.

“‘Since [Margaret’s refusal to turn over her inheritance],” said Attorney Hall, “Freeman abused his wife by persecuting her by brutal means, blows upon her person, and by designed and studied persecution intended to break down her will, and that he engaged detectives with the studied design of breaking her will.’ ”
Boston Evening Globe, January 19, 1920, front page

The trial began on January 19, 1920, and ended three weeks later. Margaret, accompanied by her sister Florence and Ethel Cobb, arrived in court wearing a black suit, black turban, and fur neckpiece. Ernest brought his employer, former state governor Eugene Foss, who sat wrapped in furs.

Opening statements by the prosecution argued that Ernest had kept his wife a virtual captive, had beaten her and had harassed her when she refused him her inheritance. Margaret submitted letters demonstrating that Ernest asked her not to visit the Cobbs while he was away, and testified that he hit her. Daughter Sally, then 16, claimed that she had not only seen Ernest curse at, slap and strike Margaret but that she had seen him choke her while she was driving.

After Sally left the stand, three household employees testified that they had seen Ernest curse at and abuse Margaret and heard Ernest call her a German spy. Then Florence Morton, Margaret’s sister, took the stand. She recounted stories of Ernest accusing her of killing Bigelow, accusing Margaret of flirting with every man she saw, and of describing the Reed family as “low-lived.”

The defense began the second week of the trial. Rather than claim that Ernest never raised a hand to Margaret, his attorneys claimed that his behavior was justified. “No matter what Mr. Freeman may have done, the gross misconduct of his wife — to use no harsher term at present — bars her from getting a divorce,” Ernest’s attorney said. Ernest’s attorneys claimed Margaret struck him and kicked him out of the house. He testified that Margaret hit him several times one night after he insisted that she not see Dr. Benner, and on another occasion, threw a suitcase at him. He blamed Ethel Cobb for introducing Margaret to Dr. Benner and for encouraging Margaret to continue to see him.

It seems unlikely that Margaret was having an affair with Dr. Benner. It sounds more plausible that she was receiving morphine or another opioid pain reliever from Benner, and had become addicted. Both heroin and oxycodone had been developed recently and brought to market. But why did Ernest want to deny Margaret her divorce? Money seems a likely motive there as well as the childrens’ well-being, given that he was asking for custody. Benner had just died so Ernest may have had an expectation that Margaret’s behavior would improve.

Margaret won her case; the judge found that she had committed no marital transgressions and agreed that Ernest had harassed and abused his wife. Not only did she get to keep her millions and her house, but she was also awarded custody of the children and $300 a month from Ernest for their support.

Three days after the conclusion of the case, Ernest filed an appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, again asking for custody. The appeal was heard almost exactly a year later. While the court agreed with Ernest’s argument that a wife who goads her husband with her misbehaviors should not be granted a divorce, it also agreed that Ernest abused Margaret and that she committed no marital offenses. Furthermore, the court’s decision argued that “not only was the charge of adultery or even of an adulterous disposition groundless, but [Ernest] knew they were groundless.”

“Miss Knapp, it was stated, was at one time a Mrs. Bellingham, and was a moving picture actress and had been divorced.”
The Boston Globe, September 8, 1922, page 11

Society wasn’t kind to divorced women in the first half of the twentieth century, not even wealthy divorcées. Divorced men, on the other hand, did not suffer the same damaged reputation.

If Ernest tried to deny Margaret the divorce in order to keep her money, he needn’t have. His career was unimpeded by the front page scandal and he steadily rose through the ranks. In 1922, he remarried to Martha Knapp, a divorced clerical worker he met at work. They moved to the tony Boston suburb of Newton after their marriage and built an architect-designed Georgian Revival home on two acres of land in 1930. He retired after ascending to company president. He also served on Northeastern University’s Board of Trustees and was a member of the high-society Country Club of Boston. Cruise ship passenger records show that he and Martha regularly traveled almost annually to places like Bermuda and Hawaii. He died in 1958 in West Palm Beach. Margaret is not mentioned in his obituary.

Both Ruth and Sally appeared in the society pages throughout the next three decades. Ruth and her husband moved to New Jersey; Sally and her husband retired to New Hampshire after many years spent in Wellesley, MA. Reed married and lived in Hyde Park separately from his mother for the rest of his life. Barbara lived with her mother until Margaret’s death, when she moved to Phoenix.

Census records are the only information available for Margaret; she did not have an obituary. Her last census record is from 1940. She was still living in the house her father built her in Hyde Park with Barbara, her butler Kusti Ojalla and his wife Stilla, her cook. She died in 1945 and is buried outside Boston with her babies Margaret Jr. and Bigelow.

Researched thinkpieces on trends and current events. If there’s a bandwagon, I’m probably on it.

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