Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry continues her story about an interesting fellow from Newbury, Massachusetts: Stephen Pettingell Hale, the “Old Sage of Newbury.” Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.
As explained in yesterday’s article (see Stephen Hale: ‘The Old Sage of Newbury,’ Part I), Stephen Pettingell Hale gained a following in the newspapers as a noted authority on Newbury, Massachusetts, history and genealogy – and as a weather prognosticator and predictor of crops. He published under the name S. P. Hale, but more often he was coined “The Old Sage of Newbury” due to his accurate predictions on weather, crops and all things in nature.
Unfortunately, Stephen’s gift of insight contributed to his tragic suicide on 3 November 1929.
He forecasted for New England one of the harshest winters in 75 years and decided that he could not endure an isolated, snowbound existence. He was 77 years old (not 87 – the newspaper headline above is wrong), unmarried, and in ill health. The vigor and jovial energy had drained from him – and with one fatal shot, he departed in peace.
Stephen’s body was discovered in the early afternoon of November 3 by Enoch Plumer, who often visited him.
On 26 January 1930, a few months after Stephen’s death, the Boston Herald paid homage to the old sage, in an article that featured this headline:
As the article explained, Stephen “took his own life, rather than face the sub-zero weather that he saw on the way.”
The Herald had met with Stephen three days prior to his death to hear his winter forecast. He told reporter Maxwell Fox that his ability to see the future “was a gift from God that allowed him to see the snow, rain, and floods months ahead of time.” Fox noted that much of what the sage prophesied came to be:
“Some may smile skeptically at these predictions, but take a glance at some of the things Mr. Hale forecasted accurately two months before his death.
“‘We will have a heavy fall of snow before Thanksgiving,’ he wrote. The first fall of snow was three inches deep on November 21.
“‘There will be severe earth tremors off the coastal regions of New England and severe tidal waves will do great damage.’ On Nov. 18 a severe earthquake rocked the coast of Nova Scotia and whole villages were swept by the tidal waves that followed. [A 7.3 magnitude earthquake rocked the coast Novia Scotia and a tsunami triggered by the quake hit the coast of Newfoundland. The quake was felt all the way to New York.]
“He said that we would shiver in the grip of a siege of zero weather early in December. And we did.
“He said the weather would be uncomfortably warm and mild shortly after the new year was ushered in. So it was.”
The article ended with this poignant note:
“Convinced by his previous record that he was right, Stephen P. Hale, a cripple and alone in the world, saw a dire and lonely period of hardship ahead. In his own mind, he visioned the coming winter as one that would tax the strength of a sturdy man and prove too savage for a man who was ill. This condition prevailed in his mind to such an extent that a few days before the first fall of snow he penned a good-by note to his neighbors and took his own life.”
According to a Newburyport News article, “The Career of Stephen P. Hale,” Stephen spent his Saturday nights with family and friends at the music store of Castlehun & Hale, the Pleasant Street store of John Gorwaiz, later Joseph Knapp’s and Pearson’s floral shop.
He loved his horses and, from what I found, I would add “horse whisperer” to his many talents. He invested a fortune on them. When a favorite horse died, he erected a monument with stones in his pasture and wildflowers from his gardens, which he maintained through the years.
Ed Gerrish Mair noted in 1683 Jackman Willett House: The Sons and Daughters of the First Settlers of Newbury that the stock market crash undoubtedly played a role in Stephen’s decision to commit suicide. The combination of a bitter cold winter and a frozen economy may have weighed heavy on the old sage, but his words and deeds generously warmed many before he left. He did what he could to preserve Old Newbury’s history and the stories of his ancestors.
He sold his extended properties, which included Old Town Hill – which he sold to Florence Bushee Dibble with the stipulation that it would remain open to the public to enjoy. During the years Stephen owned the property he made a trail, filled a basket with walking sticks, and erected benches for the old timers to sit and relax. It is now owned by The Trustees of Reservations.
He also donated money and relics to the Historical Society of Old Newbury, Newbury Grange Hall, Grand Army Republic, Sons and Daughters of Old Newbury Settlers, and other local organizations. He was a generous spirit and I will be back again to share more of his stories.
Thanks to the Newburyport Library Archival Center and Susan York Gagnon for digital clips, photos, and genealogy.
- Muir, Edward Gerrish, Gagnon, Susan York. “1683 Jackman Willett House: The Sons and Daughters of the First Settlers of Newbury.” SDFSN Newbury, MA 2018
- Groff, Bethany. “A Brief History of Old Newbury: From Settlement to Separation.” History Press Charleston, NC 2008
- Sons and Daughters of Newbury Settlers MA Membership Join Today
- Newburyport Daily News, Newburyport, Massachusetts on Thursday, April 21, 1910. P.5 Newburyport Library Archival Center
- Old Newbury Hill http://www.thetrustees.org/assets/documents/places-to-visit/trailmaps/Old-Town-Hill-Trail-Map.pdf
- Stephen Pettingell Hale (1851-1929), son of Daniel Knight Hale (1808-1870) and Elizabeth Colley Pettingell (1812-1896), daughter of Stephen Pettingell (1771-1847) and Lovely Adams (1778-1896), granddaughter of Henry Pettingell (1744-1774) and Sarah Cheever (1746-1774). S. P. Hale was named after his uncle Stephen Adams Pettingell, a sailor who died in 1827 in Georgia.
Elizabeth Colley Pettingell and Daniel Knight Hale had the following children:
- Lucy Kimball Hale (1839-1918), married Joseph Knight Danforth (1839-1864), son of Joshua Jewett Danforth (1808-1865) and Mary Jane Knight (1813-1853).
- Sarah Curtis Hale (1840-1929), married Joseph Little (1834-1912), son of Joseph Little (1799-1893) and Elizabeth Moody (1799-1895).
- Georgian Balch Hale (1842-1925), married Paul Moody Ilsley (1835-1926), son of Paul Ilsley (1792-1848) and Mary Moody (1795-1846).
- Abbie Frances Hale (1849-1920), married Moses Henry Rolfe (1848-1907), son of Joseph Noyes Rolfe (1822-1900) and Mary Little Adams (1823-1893).
- STEPHEN PETTINGELL HALE (1851-1929), unmarried.
- Adeline Knight Hale (1852-1912), unmarried.
- Annie Rebecca Hale (1855-1936), married Edward Everett Bartlett (1852-1937), son of Jonathan Bartlett (1850-1859) and Sarah Shute (1817-1887).
- Daniel Knight Hale, son of Ezra Hale (1771-1846) and Anna Adams (1780-1862), daughter of Silas Adams (1741-1800) and Lucy Underwood (1749-1844).
- Ezra Hale (1771-1846), son of Ezra Hale (1737/38-1791) and Anna Knight (1742-1815), daughter of Dr. Daniel Knight (1699-1768) and Anne Hale (1709-1754).
- Ezra Hale (1737/38-1791), son of Benjamin Hale (1699/1700-1716-17) and Judith Swett, daughter of Stephen Swett (1673-1746) and Mary Kent (1674-1714).
- Benjamin Hale, son of John Hale Jr. (1661-1725) and Sarah Jacques (1664-after 1725), daughter of Henry Jacques (1618-1687) and Anne Knight (1631-1705).
- John Hale Jr. (1661-1725), son of John Hale (1635-1707) and Rebecca Lowell (1641/42-1662), daughter of Richard Lowell (1601-1682) and Margaret Fawcett (1604-1642).
- John Hale (1635-1707), son of Thomas Hale (1606-1682) and Thomasine Dowsett.
- Thomas Hale (1606-1682), from Watton-on-Stone, Hertfordshire, England. He married Thomasine Dowsett on 11 Dec 1632 in St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate, London, England. She was born about 1608. She died on 30 Jan 1682/83 in Newbury, Essex, MA. (Threlfall, John B. “The English Ancestry of Thomasine (Dowsett) Hale, Wife of Thomas Hale of Newbury, Massachusetts.” NEHGR Volume 141 1897 and Corrections made by John Brooks Threlfall: The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1847-. (Online database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2018.)