Signer #56: Mary Eleanor Mount Vail Laney
Born: October 6, 1827, Geneva
Died: January 19, 1910, Waterloo, age 82
Occupation(s): “Keeping House,” “Housework”
Local Residences: 100 William Street, Waterloo; 33 William Street, Waterloo; 63 Clark Street, Auburn; 78 William Street, Waterloo
A migrant's odds in frontier country were dismal, at best, and those who went West regularly paid with their lives. In her 1898 autobiography, 80 Years and More, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Signer #4) offers a cautionary tale about the perils of settler migration in the 19th century. She writes of an unnamed family, flourishing on a farm in Illinois, that was struck suddenly by "Western fever" (251). The clan's pater familias, acting on nothing more than a whim, decided to sell the property and uproot his family. He loaded his wife and 10 children into 3 wagons and headed West. The trek resulted in tragedy in short order: after one month, an infant died. A second child then passed away. The mother died, and, finally, the impulsive father himself perished.
Stanton reveals that a determined elder daughter, by virtue of her "heroic energy and good management," was able to cultivate the new homestead and raise her surviving siblings (252). "The little patrimony, in time, was doubled, and the children well brought up and educated in the rudiments of learning, so that all became respectable members of society." The anecdote ends with a word of advice directly from the stouthearted young woman herself, whose recommendation "to all young people is, if you are comfortably established in the East, stay there.” At face value, Stanton's account is about the obvious risks of the frontier. It also sneaks in some ulterior messaging about the dangers of reckless and unchecked male authority in the administration of a family.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was herself not untouched by Iowa fever. She spent her 73rd birthday at the Iowa farm of son Gerrit Smith Stanton—although he would eventually abandon the enterprise and return East (416). The hazards of Manifest Destiny and Iowa fever did carry one unforeseen upshot. The exceedingly high mortality rate faced by settlers meant that, in Western territories, women could occupy professional roles typically reserved for men. On an 1869 campaign stop in Iowa, Stanton marvels at the existence of a female attorney, female notaries public, and a female superintendent of schools (282).
The deceptive allure of the American frontier drew in several other signers of the Declaration of Sentiments and their immediate family members. Those who eventually journeyed to Iowa alone include Robert Smalldridge (#83), the children of Malvina Seymour (#17) and William H. Seymour (#74), a child of Margaret Schooley (#7) and Azaliah Schooley (#100), and the best candidate for Phebe King (#35). Many other signers resurface in Illinois and Michigan in the decades after the Seneca Falls Convention.
The same, dangerous siren song of Iowa is, once again, borne out in the life of Signer #56, Mary E. Vail, who lost her first husband in Iowa in 1855. His untimely death forced Mary and two of her children to reside temporarily in the Waterloo home of her mother, Lydia Mount (#13). A third child was sent to board at a school for orphaned and impoverished children.
It must be noted that there are at least two individuals named Mary E. Vail living in Seneca County in 1850. One Mary E. Vail (or Vaile) lives in Romulus, some 12 miles away from the Wesleyan Chapel. That being said, I concur with Judith Wellman's assessment that Signer #56 was the Mary E. Vail who hailed from "the extended Hunt-Mount-Plant family of Waterloo," present in force at the Convention ("Mary E. Vail").
According to genealogist William Penn Vail, Mary Eleanor Mount was born on October 6, 1827, in Geneva, the daughter of Randolph Mount and Lydia Hunt Mount (II:375). Shortly after Mary's birth, her parents relocated the family to Waterloo.
Mary wed Gilbert Vail on October 30, 1844. Gilbert was born in New Jersey on October 23, 1819, and was of Quaker extraction. Mary and Gilbert would have 3 children in 11 years of married life: Caroline, born in September 1845; Randolph, born in April 1849; and Walter, born in April 1853 (Vail II:376). William Penn Vail reports that Gilbert supported the family as a “stave maker, and was formerly in a woolen mill” (I:56). The Waterloo Observer would run advertisements throughout 1849 for Gilbert’s upstart metallurgical business, The Waterloo Iron Works.
Located on the south bank of the Seneca River, the company claimed to be able to produce any implement made of metal, especially farming and textile-manufactuing equipment. While dangerous, this must have been a lucrative trade in a region where the pump-making industry then boomed.
An 1850 census record taken by Isaac Fuller shows Mary living in Waterloo with Gilbert, a "furnaceman," as well as children Caroline, 4, and Randolph, 1. Machinist J.M. Vail, likely a relation of Gilbert's, occupies the same residence along with an Irish-born teenager and a New York-born carpenter.
Gilbert Vail died nearly 900 miles away in Keokuk, Iowa, on June 8, 1855, aged 35 (Vail I:56). His toppled, weathered headstone at the Oakland Cemetery in Keokuk confirms this information ("Gilbert Vail"). Mary was 27 years old at the time of her husband's death. His motivation for departing Waterloo, which must have taken place at some point around the birth of his third child in the first half of 1853, is unknown. The cause of his death is also a mystery.
This event could only have meant chaos for Mary Vail and her three children. And the legal process of settling her husband's estate in Iowa must have been agonizingly slow. A petition on Mary’s behalf, laying claim to Gilbert’s remaining property as his next of kin, was filed in Waterloo in April 1860—fully a half decade after his passing. The financial hardships that came with the loss of a male breadwinner in this era, especially given the barriers to women’s occupational and economic self-determination, must have compounded the devastation of his loss. Mary’s fate in this regard is eerily similar to that of her mother, who was widowed at age 40.
By 1860, Mary Vail, 32, and children Caroline, 14, and Walter, 7, live in the home of Lydia Mount at 100 William Street, Waterloo. The domicile is also occupied by Mary's aunt Hannah Plant (#26). Unlike her mother and aunt, the census taker assigns no value to Mary’s personal assets in the entry.
One Randolph M. Vail, a student born in 1849, appears residing at Niagara's Deveaux College for Orphan and Destitute Children in the 1860s. In the census for 1860, he is 11 years old.
Mary E. Vail married again on January 17, 1861. Her second spouse was Enos Laney, a resident of William Street in Waterloo. Born in Somerset, England, Laney had settled in Waterloo at some point before 1848 (Towner 701). His first wife, a Canadian named Pauline Marie, had evidently died in the 1850s. Enos would bring five teenage children to his union with Mary.
Enos Laney seems to have been something of a jack of all trades. He is listed as a weaver in the 1850 census. By 1860, he identifies as a manufacturer with assets totaling $4,500. Brigham’s 1862 Seneca County directory locates Enos' and Mary's residence at 33 William Street, with Enos listed as a weaver (34). Drawing from his experience in the textile industry, he also held aspirations as an inventor. In 1868, the U.S. Patent Office awarded his patent application for a contraption involving a "Finger for shuttle-stop rod in looms" (164).
The Laneys would relocate briefly to another county by the end of the 1860s. In the 1870 census, Mary and Enos appear in Auburn's Third Ward. Enos’ profession is listed as "Oil Manufacturer." An 1870 directory for Auburn notes that Enos and a business partner had begun refining oil on Monroe Avenue—although what this entailed is somewhat unclear. The Laney household is situated at 63 Clark Street (168).
The couple live with Enos’ biological children Elizabeth, Mary, and Calvin—a clerk, a dress maker, and an oil refiner, respectively. Mary’s son Walter Vail, now 17, also appears, attending school. Mary and Enos have had, by this time, two children of their own together: Richard Pell Hunt, 6, and Liddie/Lydia, 8, both named in honor of signers of the Declaration of Sentiments.
By 1879, the Laney family had returned to Waterloo, taking up residence at 78 William Street. Enos now ran a grocery located at 166 Main Street (Lamey 327). In the 1880 census, Mary, 52, and Enos, 64, live with his adult daughters, Mary and Marie Elizabeth, both in their 30s. Marie is employed as a clerk at Enos' grocery. Lydia is now 18, and Richard is 16. The household also contains one Irish born servant, Elizabeth, 20.
In plying his trade as a grocer, Enos often touted the dishware, crockery, and eating utensils sold at his establishment. Take, for example, this advertisement run in The Waterloo Observer.
As for Mary, she receives frequent mention in The Waterloo Observer, both as a fixture of local social life and for her travels to visit children. In 1889, Mary went on a sojourn West to see to her sons. She visited Walter Vail in Denver, Colorado, for a stretch of several weeks (“Personal”). She was accompanied on the trip by son Richard, then living in San Jacinto, California, who returned with her home to Waterloo for the holidays.
She is also reported visiting her ailing daughter Lydia in 1897, then residing in Caldwell, New Jersey ("Personal")
Child's 1894 directory for Seneca County contains an entry for Enos and Mary, living at 78 William Street. It reports that Enos “owns farm 80 in Iowa” (507). Is this land in Iowa a piece of property that Enos obtained independently of his spouse? Or, is it a tract that Gilbert Vail had homesteaded or purchased nearly a half-century earlier, in advance of his premature death? The directory records Marie and Mary J. Laney living in the same house. Marie clerks at her father's store.
Enos Laney died on October 1, 1895, in Waterloo and was laid to rest in Maple Grove Cemetery (“Enos Laney”). Enos’ will, leaving everything to Mary and his two daughters, was entered into record in both Waterloo and in Montgomery County, Iowa. The Seneca County News would run a final notice in 1896, presenting a deadline for creditors to collect the debts attached to Enos' estate (“Notice”). The advertisement below, ran in The Waterloo Observer in 1898, claims to be selling the remainder of the Laney grocery's inventory to the public wholesale:
In additional to her spouse, Signer #56 also lost two daughters in the 1890s. Caroline Vail passed away in Riverside, California, in 1896, at age 50. She had married Joseph Cook in Waterloo in 1867 ("Caroline Cook"). Lydia Hunt Laney attended Cornell University and worked as a teacher in Auburn and Washington, D.C. She married James Hallsted in Waterloo in July 1891 ("Marriage"). Hallsted happened to be an engineer who was connected with the construction of the very first Ferris Wheel in Chicago in 1893. The couple had relocated to Caldwell, New Jersey, where Lydia died after a long battle with tuberculosis in February 1898, aged 36, leaving one surviving child ( "Death").
In the 1900 census for Waterloo, Mary, 72, lives with her two step-daughters, Marie Elizabeth and Mary J. Laney. In her response to that unforgiving question included in the 1900 census, Mary informed the census-taker that three of her five biological children were then still living.
In the 1905 New York State Census, the same trio resides in Waterloo with a live-in nurse.
Mary's son Richard P.H. Laney succumbed to a case of appendicitis during the summer of 1905. After living in California, he had moved to Yuma, Arizona, where he worked as a lumber merchant. Aged 41 at the time of his death, he left behind a widow and three children.
During the first decade of the 20th century, The Waterloo Observer and The Seneca County Courier both printed updates on Mary E. Vail's declining health, including this news of a paralytic stroke (“Local Lines,” “Waterloo”).
Signer #56 passed away in Waterloo on January 19, 1910, age 82. Local newspapers ran obituaries for her at the time of her passing. This one hails from The Waterloo Observer:
This obituary was printed in The Seneca County Courier-Journal:
Bronchial pneumonia is cited as the cause of death. Despite Mary E. Vail’s Quaker extraction, evidence suggests that she identified as a Presbyterian later in life. Her funeral services were to be held at the local Presbyterian church. Unsurprisingly, I could find no remark about her involvement in the Seneca Falls Convention more than six decades earlier ("Mrs. Mary Laney," “Waterloo”). Mary E. Vail is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in a plot with her spouse Enos Laney.
Mary's son Walter Vail would continue to live in Denver, passing away there in October 1914 at age 61. He worked as an assayer and smelter, and he married a Celia Travis in the 1870s. After living for a time in Washington State, Mary’s son Randolph Vail made his living as a surveyor in Riverside County, California. He would pass away in 1925 and is buried in Hollywood (“Randolph Vail”).
The loss of Signer #56's first spouse in Iowa foregrounds the staggering Western migrations of her children a generation later. They settled in places like Illinois, Colorado, Washington, California, and Arizona. The events of Mary E. Vail's life indicate that "Western fever" was a perilous ailment, and, even though she never moved West herself, she still suffered from it indirectly. At the same time, her life underscores the reality that Manifest Destiny and settler colonialism were, for better or worse, important and interconnected aspects of the Seneca Falls Convention and the Women's Suffrage Movement.
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