Friday, January 03, 2014

Morden Manufacturing

One of the great things about Waterbury is the depth and breadth of its history. There are countless stories to be discovered and shared. Here’s one that starts as the story of an early woman entrepreneur, and ends as a tragic tale of suicide and a phantom lover.

In 1901, a woman named Lucena Mandana Morden left Portland, Oregon and came to Waterbury, seeking a manufacturer for her patent. Nicknamed Lulu, she was born in 1866 in Nebraska to Canadian immigrants. The youngest of eleven children, Morden at first chose a traditional career for herself, attending the Teachers’ College at Emporia, Kansas. She lived with her family in Nebraska during the 1880s, working as a teacher.

Sometime around 1890, Morden relocated to Portland, Oregon and trained as a stenographer. She lived with her brother, Charles Augustus Morden. Still not satisfied with her life, Morden enrolled as a History major at Stanford University, graduating in 1896. She returned to Portland, taking a job as a stenographer for the Chamber of Commerce.

Morden’s life took a new direction in 1898, when she filed her first patent, for a “Separate-Leaf Book” (book bound with two metal rings). The patent was approved on June 19, 1900. The next step was to find a manufacturer for her patent. Morden’s brother, Charles, helped finance the venture with a loan.

Illustration of Morden's patent, No. 651,950 (June 19, 1900)

Morden came to Waterbury hoping to find an existing company willing to manufacture her product. According to a very brief history of her company given in the December 1921 issue of Office Appliances: The Magazine of Office Equipment, the smallest order she could place was for 100,000 lots each of three sizes. Instead, she decided to establish her own manufacturing company for her new product.

Advertisement in The Inland Printer, November 1906.

Morden established her new business at 53 Canal Street in 1901, then relocated it to 59 Grand Street. The Morden Manufacturing Corporation of Waterbury was incorporated on August 9, 1904, and a factory space was established at 143 Waterville Street. The company relocated to 40 Johnson Street, in the former Turner mansion at the corner of Chestnut Avenue (the conversion of the house into a small factory was controversial; it has since been replaced by a massive brick apartment complex).

As president of her company, Morden may have been the first female manufacturing executive in Waterbury. For much of her company’s history, she was the only female manufacturing executive here.

Advertisement in The American Stationer, February 23, 1907.

In the 1920s, Morden moved into a part of the house/workshop on the corner of Johnson Street and Chestnut Avenue. She never married and apparently had few friends. She was dedicated to her business, garnering 47 patents. The company’s capital was listed at $40,000 in 1920—larger than many of Waterbury’s other small manufacturers.

Advertisement in Office Appliances: The Magazine of Office Equipment, July 1922.

Morden Key Ring, illustrated in Hardware, November 10, 1906.
The ring opened using a recessed lever ("A") to activate a swivel gate ("C").

Somewhere along the road of this success story, things went terribly wrong. The first possible hint of trouble appears in the 1910 census, which listed Morden as widowed. It’s possible that the census taker was mistaken—in fact, there are numerous errors in Morden’s listing. She claimed to be a full ten years younger than she actually was, that she was born in Connecticut, and that her parents were born in England. Was there a miscommunication between Morden and the census taker, or was Morden showing the first hints of mental health problems?

On December 21, 1926, Lulu Morden committed suicide. Her body was found by the police, alerted to the possibility of a problem by her gardener and handyman, Frederick M. Feest. Morden had sealed up the windows of the kitchen with quilts, and turned on the gas. Next to her body were letters and other documents addressed to the Waterbury National Bank – the content of the documents is unknown.

Morden was buried in California, alongside her mother, Hannah Lewis Morden. She was survived by her sister, Mima Morden, and her brother, Charles Morden.

At first, the newspaper accounts (in the Waterbury American) detailed Morden’s health problems and loneliness as the likely cause of her suicide. The American ended its first article (21 December 1926) about her death by stating “Miss Morden’s career is a story of struggle against odds and a subsequent rise in the industrial world. When signing business letters she always used the business signature of L. M. Morden and, it is said, that hundreds of business men dealing with her for years were under the impression that they were exchanging letters with a man.”

The sensationalism of her death led to widespread coverage. Some newspapers fancifully wrote about her story as an illustration of the perils of ambition. Pennsylvania’s The Kane Republican (24 December 1926) wrote that Morden came east “with a determination to succeed in the business world… [and] killed herself here in her palatial home because in her eagerness for financial independence she had neglected to make friends.”

Other newspapers leapt onto a supernatural interpretation, beginning with the Waterbury Republican’s article, “Mystery Veils Strange Death of Woman Here,” on December 22, 1926. The paper reported that “Miss Morden imagined that she had lost a phantom lover” was being rumored about town. Although the significance and veracity of this were unknown to the paper, the article went on to explain that the phantom lover “is supposed to have appeared at various times in the reminiscent mind of the woman and influenced her strangely.”  The Medical Examiner denied any mention of the phantom lover in Morden’s will or other documents found with her body.

The phantom lover rumor, not surprisingly, became a national news item, spinning quickly from a “rumor about town” to a full fact. On December 25, 1926, the Los Angeles Times ran an article blaming Morden’s death on the mysterious phantom lover, declaring that she took her own life “as a result of ‘jilt’ by imaginary admirer.” Morden was described as “eccentric,” with a personal fortune worth half a million dollars, and wearing clothing twenty years’ out of style. The article claimed that Morden “told persons that this phantom appeared to her at times in her dreams and made love to her; and that it also advised her regarding business affairs.”

The Miami News ran a nearly identical article the following day, adding a few embellishments (such as her clothing being 25 years out of style). Both articles mistakenly gave her age as 50, rather than her actual age of 60. Since her age on the 1910 census was also off by ten years, maybe this was deliberate on her part.

Is there any truth to the rumor of Lulu Morden’s phantom lover? It is too remarkable to have been the invention of the Waterbury Republican, and it is too bizarre to have been an unfounded rumor. Perhaps Morden really did believe that she was visited by the ghost of a lost love—that could explain why she was listed as widowed in the 1910 census. While she never was married, if she suffered from a mental illness involving a ghostly lover, perhaps she considered herself to be the widow of the phantom.

This is the sort of story that most likely has no firm answers. It’s the sort of story that makes for great fiction. Maybe someday there will be a gripping ghost story written about Lulu Morden and her phantom lover.

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