In 1795, Abigail Wheelock looked out the window of her house in Hanover, N.H., to see Suky Eastman stepping out the back door of her neighbor’s house and into a carriage driven by Dr. Elisha Phelps.
The seemingly innocent scene would come back to shock New Englanders some 40 years later when it became a key element in a sensational libel trial.
Suky, from a poor family in Rochester, Vt., worked for a tailor named Walton in Hanover. Walton’s wife asked Abigail Wheelock to talk with Suky about her relationship with Dr. Phelps. Abigail spoke with Suky and said it was improper for the doctor to be courting her because he was a married man.
Suky assured Abigail that she would do nothing improper. She knew Dr. Phelps was married and that she certainly would not try to marry him until or unless he had divorced his wife. Shortly thereafter, Suky left Hanover. Dr. Phelps paid for her to attend school in nearby Haverhill, and soon thereafter he set up shop in Windsor, Vt.
Dr. Phelps’ road to Vermont was a bit of a crooked trail. In 1787, Phelps had married Molly Bartlett in Chatham, Conn. The union of two well-known Connecticut families soon produced children. But shortly after the marriage, Molly took ill, suffering a variety of ailments, including partial blindness.
Elisha Phelps hired Hopy Talbot of Pocatapaug Flats to care for Molly and manage the household. In lieu of payment, Hopy received room and board, clothing and an allowance for her needs. But Hopy was more than a caretaker. She was also Elisha’s mistress.
The arrangement didn’t last long. Molly learned the details of Hopy and Elisha’s relationship and forced Hopy to leave her job. Molly’s illnesses grew worse, however. With her blindness nearly complete, Elisha Phelps found a new housekeeper to take Hopy’s place. The new caretaker was a seamstress from Hanover, N.H. – Suky Eastman.
But Suky had told her friends that she had entertained Dr. Phelps only on condition that he planned to divorce his wife. Winslow Warren of West Fairlee, Vt., would recall that the courtship between the married doctor and Suky hardly went unnoticed.
“I heard some talk . . of riding the said Doctor Phelps on a rail, in consequence of his said intimacy with the said girl,” Warren said.
Marriage — Or Not?
But before anything happened, Suky left for school. Soon, Suky and Elisha relocated to Vermont. The arrival of the Phelps family stirred interest in the upper Connecticut River valley. Rumors persisted that Dr. Phelps had another family in Connecticut.
For the next 20 years, however, Dr. Phelps would practice as a doctor and operate a store, where he sold opium, among other things. And Suky lived with him as his wife. They raised a family, and he died in April of 1819.
Suky inherited Dr. Elisha Phelps’ estate and would go on to remarry. There the story remained until 1835 when the husband of one of Dr. Phelps children stepped forward to tell an outlandish story. He described how Elisha Phelps had arrived in Vermont and in the process scandalized people in New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut.
Roswell Field was a Vermont-born lawyer who had married Mary Almira Phelps, one of Elisha Phelps’ children by his marriage to Molly. Field filed suit to challenge Suky’s right to the property she had inherited nearly 20 years after Elisha’s death.
He published notice of the claim in the Bellows Falls Intelligencer. Publication of the challenge prompted a lawsuit for libel by Suky. The trial that followed put on display all the lurid details of the Phelps history.
Elisha and Molly’s children charged that Suky had not legally married Elisha Phelps and that he had never been legally divorced. They painted a picture of her as a woman of loose morals and suggested she had deliberately defrauded them of their inheritance. They even brought out rumors that Molly’s blindness had been brought on by a drug given to her by Elisha Phelps.
Suky, meanwhile, insisted that her marriage was legitimate. Field’s lawyers made a savage attack on her character, arguing that she had disgraced herself in pursuing a married man, bragging that she had convinced him to give her an education and make a lady of her by abandoning his wife.
“The immoral character of the intercourse between (Suky) and Dr. Phelps was directly proved … all who lived at Hanover well recollected her. Suky Eastman seemed to have been as well known on Hanover plain as the town pump,” he charged.
In the end, the jury found that Field had, indeed, libeled Suky. He had not proved his case. But in the process of the trial, the jury also concluded that Suky didn’t have much of a reputation to damage. Instead of the $10,000 she sought, the jury awarded her just one dollar.
Roswell Field had the record of the trial, held at Woodstock, Vt., published. In 1839, he left New England for Saint Louis. There the pugnacious lawyer would make a name for himself championing the cause of Dred Scott, in the landmark Dred Scott case that attempted to outlaw slavery.
Suky would slide back into relative anonymity after the trial. Meanwhile, Edward Elisha Phelps, Suky and Elisha’s son, would go on to become a prominent, respected physician in Hanover, N.H.
This story about Elisha Phelps was updated in 2021.