Going Crazy in Portsmouth
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Sarah Jane Farmer


She founded the oldest Bah’I school in America. It thrives today in Eliot, Maine on the Piscataqua River. Was Sarah Farmer mentally ill or a religious visionary in exultation?



It sounds, at first, like the plot from a Woody Allen film. In 1916 members of the Green Acre religious community in Eliot, Maine released their Baha’i founder from a psychiatric ward in downtown Portsmouth. The patient, an elderly Sarah Jane Farmer, had been subjected to drug and early electroshock therapy under Dr. Edward Cowles, a specialist in nervous and mental disorders. Cowles had been "curing" Farmer for six years. She had lived, possibly imprisoned, at times, in a small cell in the basement of a brick office on Middle Street. According to legend, Dr. Cowles gave chase, pursuing the Baha’i liberators automobile as they took Farmer back to her home in Eliot, Maine.

Sarah Jane FarmerNothing about the life of Sarah Farmer makes easy sense. Her father Moses Farmer was a Transcendentalist and an inventor. He was reportedly the first man to wire a house to use electric lights. Earlier, in 1847, Farmer had exhibited the first electric passenger railway car in Dover, NH. He is credited with a series of key electrical devices, including early work on the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell and the first telephone-operated security alarm. Farmer did not patent many of his early inventions because, due to his religious belief, he felt they were ideas whispered to him by God for the use of all mankind.

Sarah's mother Hannah Shapleigh was a very early feminist, an abolitionist and philanthropist who created a shelter for unwed mothers. When Sarah narrowly recovered from a serious childhood illness, Hannah vowed that her daughter would dedicate her life to God, which she dutifully did. The question, for this intelligent child of free-thinking parents, was -- exactly which god to serve.

In 1890, Sarah Jane Farmer signed on with four others to open a restful summer resort on a knoll high above the Piscataqua River in Eliot, Maine. The enormously popular poet John Greenleaf Whittier was first to sign the guest book of the Eliot Inn. It was Whittier who suggested the name Green Acre to Sarah, the name the Baha’i school still bears today.

In 1892, the same year that her father died, Sarah had a vision. What if members of all world religions could get together in one place and talk openly? Two summers later, the Green Acre Conference was born. According to Eliot historian Rosanne Adams, the hotel hosted representatives from at least 17 different faiths -- Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindi, Shinto, Zoroastrians, philosophers, religious academics, artists and others arrived. Guests wearing long beards, turbans, robes and fezzes roamed the Piscataqua estate and the little Yankee town of Eliot. In 1894 visitors to the summer multi-cultural conference raised the first known "peace flag" dedicated to world harmony. Known as "The Monsalvat School for the Study of Comparative Religions" Green Acre even published its own weekly newspaper.

At the turn of the century Sarah became interested in the relatively young Baha’i faith that espoused world peace, the equality of women and the oneness of all major religions. Despite chronic ill-health, advancing age and a lack of funds, she traveled to Palestine in 1900 to meet 'Abdu'l-Baha, son of the great Baha’i prophet Baha'u'llah. Sarah accepted the faith and the following summer Green Acre began its evolution toward a Baha’i center -- a decision not popular with all involved. By 1905 Japanese negotiators at the Treaty of Portsmouth visited the renowned religious school and were photographed with founder Sarah Jane Farmer.

"It was always an open forum," says Rosanne Adams, a co-author of a history of Green Acre. "But the Baha’i took more interest in her (Farmer). She had a Baha’i lawyer, for example. The Baha’i belief in the oneness of God and the unity of all people were very much her ideals too."

Here the story, already strange to Western ears, takes another turn. According to Diane Iverson, a co-author of "Green Acre on the Piscataqua", Sarah had a serious accident in 1907. She fell in a crowd of people entering a trolley in Boston. She was pushed to the ground and her spine was crushed, leaving her temporarily an invalid.



Local lore implies that at this point Sarah Farmer "went crazy" and that a legal battle over her Green Acre property ensued. A number of parties including psychiatrist Dr. Cowles, Baha’i, Transcendentalists and her friends grappled for custody as her guardian. At one point court wrangling almost led to the appointment of one guardian in Maine and another next door in New Hampshire. On the surface it looks like the motivation was money. Sarah wanted to endow Green Acre with enough funds to keep it forever independent. Iverson says Sarah herself had little money and the story is more subtle and complex. It was a battle both for her care, but also for her influence. As long as Sarah was considered incapable of making decisions, her guardians held her proxy in matters relating to the Eliot school. Transcendentalism by this time was fading in New England, and at least one academic has suggested that gaining control of Green Acre was the last gasp of that movement.

Green ACre Bahai School"I'm not convinced she was ever mentally ill in the first place," says Iverson, who has studied the story for nearly two decades.

After the accident, Iverson says, Farmer, in her weakened condition, checked herself into McLeans Hospital in Massachusetts. Checking into a sanitarium for rest and recovery was then a common practice.

"It's my personal opinion," Iverson says. "I think she went away over a broken heart over the (Green Acre) controversy. The last thing she wanted was controversy. She wanted only peace and harmony."

Farmer was then taken into the care of a private duty nurse in Portsmouth. It is likely, Iverson says, that the cost was borne by her primary patron, Sara Bull, the widow of the famous violinist Ole Bull, known to have summered at the Appledore House at the Isles of Shoals. Pioneering psychologist Dr. Edward Cowles had an office on the same street as Sarah’s nurse. When Farmer became "too much to handle" according to iverson, Cowles became her doctor. His cure reportedly included isolation, an unknown calming medication and electroshock therapy. Farmer's patrons apparently, paid Dr. Cowles to treat his high-profile patient while members of the Green Acre community searched for legal means to spring Farmer from her room in the mental ward on Haymarket Square in Portsmouth.

"I don't believe people were being vicious to her. People who were paying for her were not trying to hurt," Iverson says. "But it is sad that she had to be, in effect, imprisoned."

'Abdu'l Baha

In the summer of 1912 the supreme spiritual leader of the Baha’i faith spent a week at Green Acre. 'Abdu'l-Baha, whom Sarah had visited in Palestine, now came to see her in her Portsmouth hospital ward. After the visit, he announced that she was not insane, but rather in a state of religious exultation. In an era when females who expressed strong emotions where often labeled as "hysterics" and subjected to psychological study and experimentation, Cowles struggled to keep his famous patient confined.

Then as now, courtroom battles were grist for the media mill. Over the next three years, Baha’is at Green Acre worked to become their founder's legal guardian. An attempt to smuggle her out failed. The Baha’is then obtained a warrant for Sarah’s release. According to an eyewitness account in the local newspaper, officers wrapped Miss Farmer in blankets and carried her down the stairs. When Dr. Cowles again locked the door and pocketed the key, officers pinned him against the wall. Cowles then tried to prevent the officers from putting his patient in a car, but was again restrained by the police.

Cowles prized patient was returned to her family home in Eliot. Four months later, at age 69, she collapsed while walking through her family cemetery and died.

Sarah Farmer's sudden death so soon after her release from Dr. Cowles care led to rumors of foul play, even murder. The Portsmouth Herald, however, reported that she had been in "very good health physically" right up to the moment of her collapse. The newspaper report had as much to say about inventor Moses Farmer as about his daughter, who had reportedly invested over $60,000 of her inheritance into Green Acre. The paternal tone of the obituary implies that her father's work was substantive, while Sarah's was more frivolous. Green Acre, according to the article was a place where visitors "might freely come and shout their religions to the breezes".

Farmer believed, according to the 1916 Herald interpretation, that "it is sinful to make money" and so when Farmer's hotel made a profit, she "quickly saw to it that the money was thrown away". For the decade prior to her death, the report concludes, Miss Farmer's mind had been "unsettled" and she was "obsessed by a Persian cult". She had then been "forcibly removed to her home in Eliot". There is no mention of Dr. Cowles, who ended his work at the Psychiatric Sanitarium in Portsmouth soon after Sarah's release and moved on. Cowles later claimed to cure chronic alcoholics by using a series of lumbar punctures to draw off their spinal fluids, a practice he promoted in his 1941 book, "Don’t Be Afraid."

Today, in retrospect, Sarah Farmer's "obsession" appears amazingly modern. She anticipated the peace movement, women's liberation and the New Age culture. Green Acre is flourishing as a Baha’i school in Eliot where the town population has jumped from 1,400 residents when Sarah first opened her hotel on a hill, to about 7,000 today. The Baha’i faith, which advocates religious tolerance and synergy, is generally regarded as the second most widespread religion in the world and now claims five million members. The once popular practice of electroshock therapy, on the other hand, has all but disappeared.

VISIT the Green Acre web site

Article idea suggested by Nicole Cloutier. Full length photo of Sarah Farmer courtesy of Joe Frost. Others courtesy of Green Acre Baha'i School Archive. All rights reserved.