Alice R. Cooke – Early Sandwich Feminist

By Joan Russell Osgood

Well, who knew?  Certainly I didn’t.  While reading a chapter in Russell Lovell’s book, Sandwich, A Cape Cod Town, I came across information related to “Aunt Sally”. 

You know -  the “Aunt Sally”  of Aunt Sally’s, Friends in Fur, by noted author Thornton Burgess who wrote of the kindly, elderly woman who invited wildlife into her home; of raccoons and skunks becoming like pets sitting on her lap as she fed them.  Those are the engaging remembrances that are familiar to me.

“Aunt Sally” was, of course, the alias Burgess used for our real-life Sandwich native, Alice R. Cooke of East Sandwich.

What I was not aware of was Lovell’s reference to Alice’s nursing career beginning in the late 1880’s and providing care for insane women (which was the term used in those days). This certainly was a different picture I have in my mind of a petite almost reclusive woman living her life in the family’s home on Main Street (later to become Route 6A) in East Sandwich with her mother and sister.  So, I thought I’d look into this.

Well, if being a feminist means that you fight for the equality of all people and also focus on the advancement of women's rights and interests, then we have a true feminist in our Sandwich history named Alice Rebecca Cooke.  She, in fact, could be considered a trailblazer in advocating for the rights of the mentally ill in Massachusetts.  She not only cared for women in her home but fought the Massachusetts State Board of the Insane almost single handedly to ensure that they remain under her supervision.

Alice Cooke AKA Aunt Sally with one of her wild pets.

But before we get into this, a little background.  Alice Cooke was born in Sandwich in July of 1861 to Ephraim Cooke and Abigail Conant Cooke (both natives of Provincetown) Alice had two siblings - Benjamin and Mary.

Alice began her career at age 22 as a nurse at the Woman’s Free Hospital in Boston in 1883 and then in February of 1886 started working at Tewksbury State Hospital.  At this time insane persons were placed in various institutions across the Commonwealth.   But the Massachusetts State Lunacy Board decided that they would try an experiment of boarding-out these persons in community settings by placing them with families. 

Enter Alice Cooke!!  Having worked and witnessed the care provided in the Tewksbury Hospital, she believed that changing the environment of these women patients would eventually enhance the chances of improvement in their mental health.  And she decided that her home would be a perfect placement for them. She petitioned the Board in 1886 and was approved by the Board and its then Superintendent, Mr. Franklin Sanborn, to care for up to 5 mentally ill women who had been “inmates” at Tewksbury. The State would pay her $3.25 a week to care for these women in her home which became known as Locust Grove Asylum.

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Alice Rebecca Cooke

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Alice Cooke's home that served as Locust Grove Asylum. Photo courtesy John Nye Cullity.

As it turned out this would benefit Alice also as she could watch over her aging mother and sister in her home along with the first three women to become her patients, Katy, Mary and Jane. 

So she set off making a home for them. She assigned them various chores – cooking, gardening, cleaning, mending clothes, etc.  She took them on rides around town in her horse and buggy.  From accounts I found they were regaining some aspects of their former lives and they flourished under her care! The Sandwich Observer in November 1887 reported that “the inspectors who occasionally visit the place are much pleased with Miss Cook's management”. She eventually cared for a total of five women – all transferred from Tewksbury Hospital.

But in a complete reversal in 1889 the State Board of Lunacy moved to take Alice’s patients away from her.  Why? What happened that would trigger such an action?  They were, after all, well cared for.  All accounts of the day that I could find attested to this fact. The absolute answer remains unclear to me. But the closest I can come to the reason – it was political.  She was caught in the middle of a political battle between Governor Benjamin Butler and Franklin Sanborn.  Gov. Butler, who was quoted in the April 1883 Lowell Weekly Sun, stated that “Sanborn was a life-long bitter political enemy of his”.

 Sanborn not only held the Superintendent position with the Board of Lunacy. He was also a highly regarded abolitionist with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott as close personal friends.

Governor Benjamin Butler

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Franklin Sanborn

Mr. Sanborn had not only approved at-home boarding at Alice’s house on Spring Hill, he had come to see first- hand the benefit of this undertaking.  News articles report he visited her home often and became a staunch ally and friend of hers.

So, whether Butler was truly against in-home boarding of the insane or merely was against it because Mr. Sanborn ardently supported it – remains unknowable. But Butler, along with a political ally of his on the State Lunacy Board, Stephen Wrightington, continued to demand that Alice return her women patients.

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Alice wouldn’t stand for it. She fought fiercely for these women, who along with her mother and sister had become family.  She outright refused the Board’s order to return them to Tewksbury Hospital. The State took away her $3.25 per week – she continued to fight.  She sent letters to legislators.  She traveled to Boston to testify before the Board of Lunacy where she sternly admonished them that she had a duly executed contract with them to provide this service.  The Board countered and accused that “each and all [of the women] are restrained of their liberty by Miss Cooke” and levied a fine of $500.00 against her.  She continued to fight. She retaliated by accusing them of persecution and solicited the support of the town’s Board of Selectmen - which they readily gave.

Back and forth…This fight went on. Alice Cooke knew the success of in-home placement at her Locust Grove Home and she was not about to give up passionately fighting for the rights of these women.

Early photograph the Alice Cooke House in the height of activity.

Until finally on March 28, 1895 the Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts granted her a license “to keep a private house for the reception and treatment of insane female patients…”

Alice’s determination had prevailed!  And in doing so she had lived a chapter in her life of great significance which, some might say, would ironically in later years, be overshadowed and mostly forgotten in the role assigned to her as “Aunt Sally”. 

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Early photograph of the Alice Cooke House

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A  street view today (2021) of the Alice Cooke House in its sad condition.