By 1903, New Haven Congregational minister Henry Learned Hutchins had spent years traveling about Connecticut on behalf of the Connecticut Bible Society, taking stock of the depravity and moral failings of the country folk. He had compiled a long list of abominations, including the Connecticut polygamy crisis.
His ‘discovery’ of the polygamy crisis shocked New England and parts beyond.
Hutchins’ handwringing over the morality of rural New England was hardly unique. All across New England the farms had emptied out. Young people pursued opportunities in the industrial cities and in the newly opened West.
Hutchins and others concluded they were not only losing population, but also their morality.
The Polygamy Crisis
Hutchins chose his alma mater, Yale University, to unveil his findings one February day before the federation of churches in New Haven. Warming to his material as he presented his paper, he spilled forth the shocking details of the decadent New England hill towns.
“Sparse neighborhoods and limited associations have led to the marrying and intermarrying of neighbors and even near relatives, or not marrying at all,” proclaimed Hutchins. “We talk about the polygamy of the Mormons. I wonder if we realize how much there is of it actually in this state? Cases of this I have found abundantly in my travels throughout Connecticut.”
Hutchins then gave one actual example of the polygamy crisis.
“There is a family on the line between Connecticut and Rhode Island in which I found a man with two women, one having a family of children, the oldest of whom, a girl of 16, was already a ‘grass widow.’
“The town could not prevent the scandal, as the family could move across the line the moment it came under the eyes of the law.”
Hutchins went on to explain that he witnessed an explosion of unmarried men and women living together. In one town, even a selectman was doing it.
These practices, he noted, were not found in the homes of new immigrants, where he found a few rays of hope, but rather were common only among the old, New England stock.
“Decaying and dead New England blood is to be found in all such towns. The stamp of degeneracy is unmistakable,” he said.
“There is a class of people who might be called the ‘mountain whites of the Connecticut.’ These ‘poor whites of the North’ are being made out of old New England blood, degenerated to its present condition.
“These are the hewers of wood and drawers of water for the better classes. They have no ambitions, are improvident, ignorant, often not able to read or write, loose in their family relations, which is, by the way, one of the curses of Connecticut, socially corrupt, given to hard cider drinking and often to the opium habit.”
Violence, cheap whiskey, incest. Along with the polygamy crisis, every imaginable vice was taking hold in the rural countryside, he warned. The only positive influence came from the immigrants and the occasional city dweller buying a summer home and reviving a decrepit property.
But even the fine homes themselves suffered, noted Hutchins. Either a ‘degenerate native’ or an ‘alien’ lived in the back rooms, while the front of the house remained as silent as the tomb.
“All through the state you can find hundreds of families bearing famous old Connecticut names, but often what those names once stood for is gone, and what they have lost in famous old family traits is too often now made up in eccentricities.”
A Public Nuisance
In response to Hutchins, the rural inhabitants of Connecticut apparently didn’t think too much of him, either. The New York Herald gave its readers a chuckle with an account of one of his stops:
“The Rev. H.L. Hutchins, one of the religious census enumerators sent out by the Connecticut Bible Society to learn what proportion of the State’s population attends church, took his statistics under difficulties yesterday afternoon,” reported the newspaper.
When he reached Walnut Tree Hill in Huntington, he started to enter the dooryard of Mrs. Georgiana Hurd, reported the Herald.
“‘I know you! You can’t question me! You’re a public nuisance,’ came a voice from the window. There was a rattling of chains behind the house, and a large bulldog dashed out at him. The Rev. Mr. Hutchins, though sixty-seven years old, was on the fence in a bound. Perched on the top, with his feet jammed between the pickets, he beseeched the woman to call off her dog. The latter was leaping up against the fence to reach the clergyman’s trousers.
“Mrs. Hurd’s daughter, Miss Lydia, appeared. She seized the dog’s chain and tried to lead the animal away but it refused to budge. Then the Rev. Mr. Hutchins calmly drew forth his portfolio and plied Miss Lydia with his list of questions, which she willingly answered, the dog all the while tugging at his chains.
“The questioning completed, the clergyman suggested that the chain be fastened to the fence. The dog was thus held, and the Rev. Mr. Hutchins lost no time in entering his carriage and driving off.”
A Gleeful Reception
Newspapers from Boston and New York to Texas and beyond trumpeted the Rev. Hutchins’ research.
Those who shared the preacher’s views gleefully received the news of his findings. Those who rejected them argued against them.
The New York Tribune declared Hutchins’ message was long overdue and desperately needed.
The citizens of South Manchester, Conn., however, did not receive his message warmly. The Rev. Jacob Biddle of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church lashed out at the notion that immigrants, and especially Catholics, would restore the rural towns.
“The real danger is in the cities. One infuriated Waterbury is a far greater menace to our social peace than fifty of the most degenerate country towns,” Biddle said.
Rev. Hutchins was apoplectic at the outrage his message caused, especially the focus on the polygamy crisis. People took him out of context, he believed, and he was drafting a second paper to clarify the first.
Before he could mount a significant rebuttal, however, he died — less than a week after his initial proclamations.
The stress over the reaction to his statements, some speculated, may have led to the stroke that killed him.
Can’t Keep ‘Em on Down on the Farm
With young people leaving rural New England, the remaining farming and manufacturing that existed in the country couldn’t support the reasonable prosperity of the small towns. Commentators frequently discussed the steady decay in the towns and their failure to uphold religious traditions.
New Hampshire Gov. Frank Rollins in 1899 worried about the decline of rural areas in his own state.
“There are towns where no church-bell sends forth its solemn call from January to January; there are villages where children grow to manhood unchristened,” Rollins said in a proclamation. He complained of ‘communities where the dead are laid away without benison of the name of Christ, and where marriages are solemnized only by justices of the peace.”
To counter that trend, Rollins initiated Old Home Days. Then he left office to launch a career in investment banking.
By 1910, the problem loomed larger still. In 1890, one quarter of New England’s population resided in rural communities. By 1910, just one sixth. And the raw population totals of rural residents had declined, as well, from 1.14 million to about a million.
At this point, the problems of rural communities had a formal name: decadent hill-towns of New England.
Rollin Lynde Hartt, a Congregational minister and author, picked up where Hutchins left off, regularly stirring the pot.
In his 1915 anonymously published Confessions of a Clergyman, he lampooned small-town New England. The region was full of unscrupled people looking to cheat newcomers and travelers alike.
In one small New England town, he reported on the effects of inbreeding. ‘Too much cousining,’ as the country folks put it, had made the town ‘queer’ not only in mind but in body.
The town was populated with excessive small people, tall people, deaf people, people with hare lips and people “who ain’t over and above bright.”
It was familiar Hartt content. He had agitated readers as early as 1900 with an article titled: The Regeneration of Rural New England. In it, he ridiculed local accents and customs. And even then the topic was well-worn.
“When the editor of the Atlantic Monthly asked me to write a readable account of life in a decadent New England hill town, I conceived the task unusually difficult,” wrote Hartt. “The story was old. The press had been exploiting rural degeneracy for years.”
No matter. People loved the topic, which generated controversy and letters for the magazine. The more moderate commentators simply pointed out that the supposed defects in rural New England were no more common in small towns than in its cities.
The angrier commenters offered that the critics of the small town were mistaking poverty for lack of morality. While the paint may have grown shabby in small towns, the morals had not.
And those who took it with a grain of salt responded with humor.
“In our village we have been reading The Regeneration of Rural New England, and we are very low in our minds. There is no doubt we are a decadent town, — a coast, not a hill town, to be sure, but that makes no difference,” wrote one sarcastic writer.
“The trouble is, even after reading Mr. Hartt’s excellent articles, we have not the slightest idea what to do about it.”
Time and a return to a growing population gradually reduced the supposed polygamy crisis and the hysteria abated.
This story about the Connecticut polygamy crisis was updated in 2020.