Jule Selbo, January 2022
The window next to my writing desk looks out over Back Cove and the B&M Bean Factory (at 1 Beanpot Circle in Portland). The rambling, multi-storied, old construction plant just looks like a fine place for a murder. I’ve wondered if there has ever been one there.
One day I spent a few hours researching. Not deep digging, but time-consuming enough to keep me from the work I should have been doing because one Google path took me to other paths and those took me to other paths …
But – did I find a report on some dastardly true crime event at the Bean Factory?
Maine Yacht Center Marina is near the old factory. When very wealthy friends visited us three years ago, they moored their Hinckley Picnic Boat at the Marina’s dock and used it to get to their 100-foot Swan (and waiting crew) which was moored in deeper water nearby (so the surroundings do have some ritzy elements). Didn’t find any reports of murder at the Yacht Center.
It’s easy to kayak in the Back Cove (at high tide). You can pass by the Bean Factory, head under I-295 and maybe hop out at Hannafords, grab a cold beer. Fishermen are in the summer waters, if they’re lucky they’ll pull out a few striped bass or yellow perch. Recently, there haven’t been any dead bodies found in the Back Cove. Has there even been one?
The Roux Institute (connected to Boston’s Northeastern University) has bought 100+ year old building, it’s supposed to be a new campus and its educational offerings will concentrate on studies of Artificial Intelligence and other state-of-the-art technologies (that’s what the newspapers report). An elected member of Maine’s House of Representatives hopes that the university and Portland can work together to restore the defunct railroad bridge (train cars used to haul cans of baked beans across it) and make it viable again – for something. So many possibilities for mayhem, but I failed to unearth any gruesome crime/murder/intentional maiming or even spectacular tale of betrayal in (or near) B&M Bean Factory’s history. I did learn a few things: George Burnham and Charles Morrill started the company around 1867, its first Portland home was at 13 Franklin Street. They designed and had built the massive, state-of-the-art place onthe Back Cove in 1913. B&M, at the outset, also canned fish and meat products, but when the new factory was built, they decided to concentrate solely on producing and canning brick-oven baked beans.
I found out that the pea beans, flavored with molasses and spices, were cooked in 200 pound iron pots, each held up to 900 pounds of beans. Surely that was big enough to cook a body. In the early decades of 1900s, the windows were small, there were no fans and temperatures could get up to 100 degrees inside the factory. Heatstroke could’ve done someone in. Or someone could’ve gone to the roof for a bit of fresh air and been tossed into Back Cove. There’s a possibility that a body could have been squished under a cart or severed by the wheels of moving train car carrying beans to faraway locations? A tooth or finger (other companies have been dinged for this) found in the can? Someone, at midnight, held hostage by a maniac, could’ve perished after being force-fed beans and died a bloated-farty death?
But my research came up with nothing. And now, the chances of the place being the site of future mayhem has diminished. The factory officially closed at the end of the 2021 summer. At that time, there were only 86 employees left on payroll.
However, my time on the internet was not for naught. I did find a “Mary Bean” murder in Saco, Maine, in 1840. It was in the world of textile mills, not a bean factory. Mid 19th century was the Industrial Age; young women were leaving their familial homes to take solid steps towards self-sufficient life. (A textile carder would work a 12-hour shift and earn a whopping $3; a weaver could make slightly more.) Many of the factories had boardinghouses where young women could live (for a cut of their wages), as long as they agreed to strict curfews and non-fraternization with the opposite sex.
A young woman in 1849, using the alias Mary Bean, had become pregnant with a machine operator named William (who didn’t seem to be able to hold onto one job for very long and was not keen on marriage). She was facing a future of shame and hardship. Abortions were not exactly legal at this time, but there were circumstances where the legality was fuzzy (at least, it seems to be so, until 1857). There were at least two kinds of trained doctors practicing at this time; one focused on botanical cures, the other concentrated on allopathic medicine (allopathic favors aggressive purgatives and bleeding, use of leeches and blistering to bring about healing). Mary Bean and William consulted a botanist MD – an herbal remedy was prescribed, one that was often used in successful terminations. However, the herbs did not bring an end to Mary’s pregnancy. The botanist MD attempted a surgical solution – it proved to be butcherous, bloody and fatal. (Anesthesia was getting some attention in 1846, but it was not widely available and Mary did not get any.) To cover up his actions, the doctor tied Mary’s dead body to a board, placed her in the Saco River and hoped all evidence would float away.
Mary’s death remained a mystery for only a short while. The board carrying her body became wedged on rocks and discovered. Her sister because the town’s amateur sleuth, put clues together, eventually found out about William’s culpability, as well as Mary’s belongings in the botanist MD’s lodgings. The doctor was convicted of second-degree murder and was sent to Maine State Prison. (He was released a short time later – something about conflicts between statutory law and common law – when abortion laws were being re-examined). The American Medical Association, in the 1850s, used this case and others to revise the country’s standing abortion laws.
A book was written about the case: Mary Bean or the Mysterious Murder (1851). The book is supposed to be more a cautionary tale than a mystery, focusing on reminding young women to shun the attentions of the opposite sex prior to marriage and “leave your family home at your own peril”. (A copy of the book may be in the holdings of the New Hampshire Historical Society but so far, I can’t track it down.) Elizabeth DeWolfe has also written an account of Mary Bean’s tragic fate and the trial of the doctor and how sensational it was for its time: The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories.
All this looking into the past has left me, basically, with two simple questions:
- Has Maine’s B&M Bean Factory ever been used as a location in a crime novel?
- What are other creative ways for a victim to expire around beans, heat, vats, molasses and more….