Old photo reveals painful truths about life in generations past.
Warning: the following Philadelphia Story covers sexual and physical abuse, and may be upsetting for some readers. January however is a national month for Mental Wellness and Poverty Awareness, and Bob’s great, great grandmother’s life – while quite horrific – is also a survivor’s tale of endurance and resilience.
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Hall Goodyear spent her 70 years on this planet in abject poverty: isolated, illiterate, and surrounded by violence and tragedy. Her photo in Bob’s family scrapbook was taken an hour after she’d witnessed her son’s murder, and a month before her own death.
Lizzie’s story illuminates the historic plight of America’s white rural poor, eeking out a subsistence where unskilled labor was basically free under slavery. Schools? Roads? Public amenities? Nope. Unlike in the north, where Big Business had to create an infrastructure to support their workers, in the Plantation system, landowners kept everything they needed under one roof. This left families like the Halls and the Goodyears pitiful few resources and opportunities.
It wasn’t always like that. In 1690 when the Hall family was first recorded in the village of Elkton, Maryland, they’d had a small farm that supported local trades. But as slavery grew, wealthy planters bought up all the best acreage and by the 1860’s, the Halls had lost their land and were working as seasonal farm hands. This was the world Lizzie was born into on the last day of December, 1867.
She was barely a year old when her father soon died, leaving her mother Tamar to marry William H. Hall and promptly fill their hovel with eight more hungry mouths to feed. The family was brutally poor, often going through stretches without basic necessities like food and heat. When things got really bad, Lizzie would be removed from her home until her parents could again afford to keep her. She’d spend her 15th year in a house of correction, pretty much because there were no other social safety nets to help her.
At 16, she began work as a domestic servant for a local Sheriff and his wife. Two weeks in, she got word from a neighbor that her mother had tried to kill herself and all her brothers and sisters with arsenic while their father was away on a trip. Lizzie rushed home to nurse them all back to health, but when William Hall got back, her mother turned on her, claiming that Lizzie had tried to poison them all. Tamar was so freaked out, William believed her and ordered Lizzie from the house forever.
Tamar, however, was evidently in the midst of a mental breakdown: a week after this incident, she dosed her family again and once more she blamed Lizzie. William stormed to the jailhouse where Lizzie was working, roughing her up and throwing her into a cell, threatening he’d kill her if she ever came near them again.
But the Sheriff and his wife knew Lizzie could not possibly have poisoned her family – she hadn’t left their sight the whole time she’d been back. Yet he left her “safe” in her jail cell overnight, while they waited for William and his wife to cool off. Sure enough, the next day William came back to apologize and ask the Sheriff to let Lizzie out.
Lizzie’s life would continue its downward spiral. Two years after the arsenic incidents, she became pregnant at age 18 and gave birth to a son she named William, whose genes would carry the Hall family DNA — most likely by conceiving with her stepfather 🤢(which might explain her mother’s destructive behavior).
When Lizzie was 23, she married George Goodyear, a poor laborer from a sketchy family of moonshiners and rumrunners. The couple lived in an old shack along the railroad tracks outside Elkton, where they had 17 children in addition to Lizzie’s son (who they called “Willie”). Twelve of these kids died before the age of 2, and then one of their older kids took out a 9 year old sibling accidently with a loaded handgun they’d found.
(This was too much for Willie, who took off for Philadelphia and sired at least two thriving branches of writers before dying in his early 30’s.)
Meanwhile, Lizzie and her husband labored in the fields with their four remaining sons, two of whom eventually moved out to start their own families. Her two remaining boys went on to serve in WWI, then they both came home with alcohol addictions. Widowed at 67, Lizzie’s health soon failed and she became housebound.
On the morning of October 1, 1938, her sons went out squirrel hunting with a jug of corn liquor, and came home totally hammered and belligerent. They harassed Lizzie to get up and cook something for them, but she was too ill. One of the brothers gave up and wandered off to finish their booze. The other flew into a rage, cursing at their mother and threatening her with violence.
In retaliation, his brother unloaded both barrels of his shotgun into his sibling’s back as he loomed over Lizzie’s bed. The man died instantly, falling on top of his helpless mother, pinning her under his bloody corpse. When the cops arrived, all the killer could say is that he just “couldn’t stand to hear him cuss the old lady out anymore.”
Her son was carted off to jail, and Lizzie was taken to the hospital to recover from the attack. She remained there a month – which turned out to be the remainder of her days.
Lizzie was 70 years old when she died in October 1938. That December, her son was found guilty of second-degree murder for his brother’s death, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. ⚖️⛓️🔐
ℹ️ AFTERWORD: If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness or poverty, there are resources available.
It’s OK to Ask for Help!
For Pennsylvania residents 18 and older, The Clearinghouse will find you assistance programs for:
Medications and copays
Other social services
Staff is on-hand to research local, state, and national programs and resources that can help you, based on your individual needs. They also provide application assistance, free of charge. Call 1-800-955-0989 (weekdays 8am – 5pm). Find more information at pacecares.magellanhealth.com (there is never a fee for their services).
What do you think?
If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love Bob McNulty’s original history, full of granular details that drive home the gritty reality of daily life in Lizzie’s class and time. This article is a Local summary of Bob McNulty’s post from September 14, 2014, featured in January 2024’s Local paper.
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