Mabel Estelle Mustapha’s fingernails were bitten down almost to the skin. She indulged in the habit a lot and, that summer of 1900, her mother’s stress added to her …
Mabel Estelle Mustapha’s fingernails were bitten down almost to the skin. She indulged in the habit a lot and, that summer of 1900, her mother’s stress added to her nervousness.
Seventeen-year-old Mabel lived with her 34-year-old mother, Melissa Estelle (Burchard), in a little cottage on Clemence Street in Manton. Her father, Omer Mustapha, was a native of Turkey and worked for a jewelry company. Her parents had been divorced for several years and Omer was remarried with a new family. Melissa had remarried twice since the divorce. On Jan. 8, 1888, she married Willis Carroll. On Jan. 1, 1890, she married Walter Perkins. After Walter’s death a few years later, she took what little money she had left and moved out of their Walker Street home and purchased the cottage.
Melissa had suffered through numerous losses. A daughter Evelina Nellie Mustapha died on April 12, 1885 of tubercular meningitis, at one year and four months old. Two months later, her four-day old son Halil Burchard Mustapha died of malnutrition. Now Mabel was all she had.
On Aug. 23, 1900, temperatures soared. The unbearable heat affected Mabel so badly that she went to bed and stayed there for two days. Over the next couple of days, she only left her room for short periods. At 5:00 on the morning of Aug. 27, she got up and prepared breakfast. Melissa kept asking her if she felt better and Mabel answered in the affirmative but her mother thought she felt feverish and had a dazed look in her eyes.
Mabel and Melissa ate breakfast and Mabel cleaned up the house before announcing that she was headed to a broker’s office on Weybosset Street. Melissa had been borrowing money from friends for years to pay the mortgage on the cottage. Her debt had become so deep that her health was declining from the stress. Another payment was due on Sept 1 and Mabel told her mother that perhaps a broker would assume the mortgage and schedule smaller payments. Melissa begged her to hold off until the heat subsided but Mabel was adamant that it couldn’t wait.
At 11:00 that afternoon, Mabel promised her mother she would be home by noon. When she hadn’t returned by 4:00, Melissa contacted some of her daughter’s friends. They hadn’t seen her so she contacted police. This was not the first time Mabel had disappeared.
During the winter of 1894, Mabel had gone to NY with a female friend and remained there for four months. When she returned home, she began roaming the streets at night and spending her evenings at dance halls. In March of 1895, due to street roaming, the Rescue Mission took custody of her and contacted the RI Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. After learning of her history regarding leaving the state and staying out all night, the Society determined they could not expect any respectable family to take her in, so sentenced her to Oaklawn School for Girls.
Mabel had attended the Friends School in Providence and Bayview Seminary in East Providence. She possessed an impressive soprano voice, was an accomplished pianist and wanted to be professional singer. Standing at 5'4 and weighing 130 pounds, with light brown eyes, light wavy hair and a perfectly clear complexion, Mabel had been wearing a gray shirt waist, light drab skirt woven with gold thread and a white sailor hat when she left the cottage. Her description was passed along to numerous police departments.
In Sept., Melissa received a letter from a Providence friend who was in Boston. The woman said she was certain she saw Mabel, looking dazed, get into a cab on Eliot Street with three men. Melissa immediately went to Boston and walked the streets for days, searching for her daughter. Finally, she returned home to her empty cottage with its little garden and chicken coop.
Later that month, a letter came to Melissa from a friend who was a music teacher in NY. She claimed that she had seen Mabel the previous week in the Broadway area, elegantly dressed in a white gown. The friend said she was with an upper-class elderly man who kept a tight grip on her arm and that Mabel looked terrified. Melissa realized that her daughter must be stage-struck and had likely gone to the city to join a theatrical company. In a panic, Melissa travelled to NY on the 29th of that month and got a room at the Metropolitan Hotel. She questioned police as well as the locals and learned from the owner of The Casino that Mabel had applied to him for a position in the chorus of “The Belle of Bohemia.” He said she hung around the theater for a few days then disappeared.
Melissa continued walking aimlessly each night, searching the city streets as her physical and emotional strength wore out. She eventually went home. On Nov. 7, Mabel knocked at the door of the little cottage in Johnston and Melissa shut the door in her face. She had indeed found her daughter in NY. She was a wife. On Oct. 1, Mabel had married Lawrence John Comerford, a meat wagon driver from Edgewood. After the emotional crisis Mabel had caused through her disappearance, Melissa refused to entertain her daughter and her new son-in-law.
The marriage didn’t last. On May 28, 1903, Mabel married electrician Joseph Dixon in NY. That union didn’t last either. She and Joseph divorced on July 18, 1913 and she then married William Harry Reed in Cranston, five months later. Her final marriage was to Daniel Clark Wilcox, who worked for the government public health service, on April 26, 1916. They resided in Providence where Mabel ran a home for babies from their residence and cared for several infant boarders.
Mabel died of a heart attack at her home in Oakland Beach, at 10:30 on the evening on Aug. 2, 1941. She was buried in Brayton Cemetery in Warwick.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.
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