John C. Freeman
Feb 14, 1842 – Apr 10, 1911
1843 – Dec 14, 1923
Suicide – Drowning
Henry Belden Freeman 1879 – Sep 25, 1898
Suicide – Laid face down on his bed on a sponge saturated with chloroform
Charlotte Brockway Freeman 1875 – May 4, 1911
Wife of poet/writer William Ellery Leonard
Suicide – Poison, she had tried to drown herself several times previously
Despite her history of attempted suicide the Freeman family blamed Leonard for her death
Edmund Freeman 1886 – 1886
Tragedy haunted the family of UW professor John C. Freeman. His wife and two children died at their own hand.
John’s wife, Emma Belden (1843 - ), was institutionalized for many years. She committed suicide by drowning.
John and Emma’s son, Henry Belden (1879 – September 26, 1898), took his own life days before he was to enter the UW. He bid his father and sisters good night, then went upstairs and laid face down on his bed on a sponge saturated with chloroform in a shallow basin. He was “highly sensitive and subject to depression, but very popular, with many friends.”
John and Emma’s daughter, Charlotte Brockway Freeman ( - May 4, 1911), died after taking poison. Returning to her father’s home in Madison on Langdon Street from a stay in a sanitarium in the summer of 1907, she found a volume of poetry in the attic. The poetry was written by William Ellery Leonard, a former schoolmate of her brother-in-law who had roomed with Freeman after obtaining a teaching job at the UW in fall 1906. The next semester, when Leonard returned to Madison, he and Charlotte fell in love. Leonard “had heard rumors of melancholias of old under that roof in more than one gentle soul.” (In fact, Freeman once told a neighbor that his daughter roamed the house at night brandishing a carving knife). Charlotte’s brother told Leonard only that she’d had a nervous breakdown some years before in Paris. But no one in the family ever revealed the extent of her illness, until she finally told him.
Leonard learned Charlotte had tried to drown herself in Lake Mendota off the pier behind her house three times, and three times her father had saved her. Leonard talked to her doctor at the sanitarium, who advised him that marriage would solve her problems. So they married and lived in Freeman’s house. Their marriage was delicate, as Charlotte continued to be troubled and a phobia which would later dominate Leonard’s life started to reveal itself. In 1909 Freeman took in six coed boarders. They put a strain on everyone in the house. Freeman died in April 1911. Three weeks later Charlotte went upstairs to her room and took poison. Leonard found her, gave her an antidote, and thought he had saved her. She lived two days, dying in a sanitarium in Oconomowoc the morning she had been declared out of danger by the family physician. Leonard never got to tell her goodbye.
At the funeral he was greeted with outright hostility by Charlotte’s family and friends. His sister-in-law never spoke to him again. The town was about evenly split between those who sympathized with Leonard and those who blamed him for his wife’s death. Those who blamed him never knew about the hereditary taint of insanity in the household, which had been kept secret. Some were jealous that an outsider had inherited the family fortune. The six coeds spread tales about Leonard because he soon closed the house, leaving them without lodging. Leonard had once called them “a ghastly revelation of the selfish thoughtlessness of flapperdom.”
Charlotte is buried in the family plot in Section 9, not with her husband. In the ultimate slap at Leonard, her surviving family etched only her birth name on her tombstone.