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The Button House, part 2: Witchcraft and Fire

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Button House Part 2

In the foreground is the grave marker for Nelson Lord Button Jr. and his wife Alice Maude Goodger. The toppled monument in the background marks the graves for Nelson Sr. and his wife Jennifer Lois Raymond. The family plot is in Mount Hope Cemetery. Photo: Jim DeVinney.

In September 1628, Matthias Button arrived from England at Salem, Massachusetts. Within five years, he moved to Boston and is listed among that city’s earliest settlers. It was a difficult life as sickness claimed several children and Button’s first three wives. The third wife reportedly died of “fright and exposure” after John Godfrey, a Mathias enemy, set fire to the family’s home. Button took the man to court, accusing him of witchcraft and suing him “for the burning of my house, and my goods that was in it and the cause of my wife’s death….” The jury found in Button’s favor and ordered Godfrey to pay £238 in damages and costs.

Skipping ahead a number of generations, Nelson Lord Button was born in Ludlow, Massachusetts on November 5, 1826. At the age of 16, he became a teacher in a public school at Varysburg, NY. Four years later he married Jeanette Raymond who had been one of his students. The couple lived at Mount Morris, then at Malden, Massachusetts before settling in Rochester where they first show up on Tremont Street in the 1866 city directory. By this time he was working as an agent for The American Book Company, a position he would hold for forty years.

Mr. Button made many changes to the house: building an addition that enlarged the home to twelve rooms, installing lead plumbing and, perhaps haunted by the memory of that earlier ancestor, introducing improvements designed to protect the family from fire, including a water tank in the attic. There was also a windowless room—the “thunder room”—where family members could retreat during storms and be protected from lighting. Button also added the most distinctive feature to the exterior of the house. The five Egyptian-style columns on the front porch were reportedly hand-carved in Italy at a cost of $2,000.

The Buttons were active in the Methodist Church and Nelson participated in Republican politics, on one occasion serving as a delegate to a state convention. They had three children according to the 1900 Federal Census but by then only one survived. A sixteen-year-old son named Frederick is listed in the 1880 census but, in August of that year, he died of kidney disease and was interred at Mount Hope Cemetery. The Button family plot also includes a Jenny C. Button who died in 1860. No birth date or age is given but she is buried next to Frederick and could be his sister.

The third child was Nelson Jr. who was born in the Tremont Street home on February 1, 1873. On March 30, 1893, he married Alice Maude Goodger and, on February 11, 1895, a daughter, Editha Lois Button was born in the family home. She would be their only child. Three generations were now residing in the sprawling house. The Buttons would own the home for 108 years but there were several occasions when they went missing. In 1897, the Nelsons, father and son, moved to Palatine Bridge, New York. The reason is not documented, nor is it clear whether the women and servants traveled with them. The men returned in 1898.

The 1899 city directory says they “removed from [the] city” but this time they didn’t go far. The 1900 Federal Census finds them living in Brighton. A widow named Mrs. Katherine J. Dowling, head librarian at the Central Library, now occupied the Tremont home with her three adult children. They lived there for the next three years. The Button relocation may have been brought on by financial concerns. Years later, Editha admitted the family often lived beyond their means. “Oh, they had plenty,” she said, “but they gave it away faster than it came in.”

Although Nelson Sr. had a successful career, it’s harder to assess Nelson Jr. He shows up in records as an advertising agent but a place of business is never listed. Perhaps he was self-employed and worked from home. In 1901, while the family was living in Brighton, he operated a billiard parlor at 6½ Mill Street. Curiously, there is no #6 in the street directory so the business may have been above #10 Mill Street, which was a combined museum and saloon owned by Peter Gruber. Better-known as “Rattlesnake Pete,” Gruber served food and drinks in an establishment that also exhibited live “rattlers” and other reptiles.
Next month, the Button years end when a colorful granddaughter dies.

The Button House, part 1: Origins
The Button House, part 2: Witchcraft and Fire
The Button House, part 3: Editha, Last of the Line