Bethel resident to appear on PBS' "History Detectives" Monday
On Monday the PBS show “The History Detectives” will include a segment on Jean Waite of Bethel and a 200-year-old historic document she found in her great-grandmother’s records.
Waite, whose day job is director of Adult Education for SAD 44, considers herself a history and genealogy buff.
That’s why she was intrigued a decade ago when she found a hand-written document in a letter portfolio, folded up between the lining and the leather backing.
She couldn’t read it very well, but, she said, “I decided to try to find out what it was and why I had it.”
She was able to make out that it referred to the “Public Universal Friend’s Society” and to someone named Jemima Wilkinson.
Googling Wilkinson, Waite learned she was the first American-born woman to found a religious movement.
She had been born in Rhode Island about 1765 into a Quaker family. In 1776 she became ill with a fever and fell into a coma. On awakening, she said that Jemima had died and that a spirit from Heaven now lived in her body. From then on she referred to herself as the “Public Universal Friend.” Wilkinson began preaching publicly, and as her following grew, eventually decided to move to western New York and start a settlement. They established the first permanent white settlement near Keuka Lake around 1790. Wilkinson died there in 1819, and her sect did not survive for long after her passing.
Waite’s family records, including the document, had come to her through an aunt.
“They lived in Wisconsin,” said Waite. “So I tried to figure out the relationship between my family and Jemima and the society. No one in my family had ever said anything.”
But she couldn’t find any connections, through the Internet or otherwise. She had reached a dead end.
Then, several months ago, she received an e-mail sent by a local resident whose family had a friendship connection to Elizabeth Harris, an associate producer for “The History Detectives.”
The program tracks down history mysteries and features them on the show. The e-mail suggested that anyone who might have an interesting mystery contact Harris.
“So I e-mailed her,” said Waite.
A month later, Waite heard back from Harris, who asked for more information.
“I sent a photo of the document to substantiate it,” said Waite.
After more questioning of Waite, the show decided her document was a good candidate.
“They told me to stop doing research,” she said, so the show could take it over.
Through that research, Waite learned the document was a petition by the sect to incorporate and own land in common and at the same time give the rights of individuals to the corporation. It was the first such petition in New York.
The legal move, however, was apparently never carried through.
Waite’s family connection to the document was that her great-great grandfather had been the executor of the will for two women to whom Wilkinson left her property.
After he died, “his papers went with his wife and daughter to Wisconsin,” said Waite.
For the filming of the show, Waite traveled to New York and was interviewed.
It was exciting, she said, to finally learn what the document was and the family connection, said Waite.
“We are a part of history,” she said. “We all have little fragments of history tucked away.”
The show airs at 9 p.m. on PBS.