ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


Ellen McDermott


The Saga of Crazy Nelly


Watertown Democrat, 08 19 1875


The subject of this narrative is no less than the character of an individual who has lived in this city a period of twenty-five years and, strange to say, she has known too few of our people, and to those quite imperfectly . . . Although proverbially called to the title of this article, an account of her queer idiosyncrasies, her legitimate name is Ellen McDermott.  She was born in Leitram County, Ireland, as near as can be ascertained, in 1795, which would place her age now at eighty years, still hale and vigorous.


She remembers distinctly the year of the "Big Snow", and its awful consequences, having lost, as she claims, seven sheep in the drifting storm—the only legacy left her by her parents.  She also remembers the terrible continental wars of Europe in the earlier part of this century.  She was left at a tender age parentless and destitute of home, but subsequently managed to accumulate means enough to emigrate to this country.  At that time emigration was greatly impeded by the prevalence of cholera on board emigrant ships.


The vessel on which she had taken passage was held in quarantine for many weeks off the coast of Canada.  Her description of her many adversities in reaching this country, and her adventures following her arrival, are related in a rapid and disconnected jargon, scarcely intelligible.


Her peculiar mode of livelihood, her vague, friendless and inhospitable relations with her fellow beings, have nearly if not radically estranged her from the higher and nobler sociabilities of life.  Solitude is her only companion, her best and most cherished consort, and when her little isolated domain ceases to be cheerful, she recoils into her uninviting habituation to ruminate, solitary and alone, in darksome and dejected melancholy.


The house in which she lives is built upon public grounds, in the 4th ward, which was originally designed for a street, but has never been used for that purpose, and the city authorities have always allowed her to remain there unmolested. 


The tenement is an ill-shaped, awkward looking concern, and very poorly lighted; the largest aperture where light or ventilation is admitted is situated on the sunny side of the house, about 10 inches square, and without glass; another aperture cut in the center of the door is the only opening to be seen in the front.  Directly in the rear of the house is a small garden, enclosed with partially decayed stumps, old hazel brush and pieces of wood, which is built quiet high, and so compactly constructed as to conceal the interior of the garden from view. 


During the summer months the garden occupies her closest attention.  The principal article of production is the potato, which she experiences some difficulty in cultivating on account of the potato bug.  With these pests she wages a continual warfare, and the lively manner in which she upbraids them is sometimes startling.  The moment the conversation turns upon the bugs the neighbors all know it.


The most perceptible trait about her character is her habitual cleanliness.  She evidently knows the import of the old aphorism that "cleanliness is akin to godliness."  This is visible under all circumstances.  The house which is constructed mainly of old slabs and boards securely fastened, is neatly white-washed, and the uncharitable inclemecies of the weather is never permitted to tarnish or diminish its whiteness.  The interior part bears the same degree of neatness, as does her person.


Her dress is singularly grotesque and singular, but invariably tidy and perfectly clean.  She does not, to all appearances, possess a very extensive wardrobe, from the nature of her attire, which is confined generally to a light-colored calico dress, made short, with a loose fitting frock having a sameness of pattern, which is snugly tied around the waist by the strings of a white muslin apron.  This is the uniform quality of her apparel, which she wears regardless of the fashions of the season


The greatest misfortune attached to this eccentric and interesting individual is her peculiar phase of lunacy.  Although a listless inoffensive person, subject to no violent demonstrations of insanity when left alone, she becomes completely metamorphosed, however, upon the least provocation, giving vent to unmeasured invectives and indulging in profanity that would do credit to a fish-woman's billingsgate [(Placename) the largest fish market in London, on the N bank of the River Thames; moved to new site on the Isle of Dogs in 1982].


When her tranquility is disturbed by rude and malicious boys who sometimes visit the place for the purpose of provoking her, she becomes, as if by magic, a devil incarnate, and rushing headlong seizes anything within convenient reach and pitches it after them, at the same time yelling and cursing vociferously.  Even after a storm of this kind she makes no servile complaint, and allows the young intruders to go unpunished.


What has always appeared a mystery to those who are most intimately acquainted with her habit is the manner in which she obtains a living.  She has never been considered a pauper, nor is she a mendicant, and all charitable bequests that have been tendered her at various time by the neighbors, have been peremptorily declined.  One or two families, at times, procure her services, and in these instances she receives money, but under no other circumstances will she accept a cent.


A person in the "sear and yellow leaf of old age," companionless and improvident, is truly a pitiable object.  Such is the hapless condition in of "Crazy Nellie," destitute and on the verge of the grave.  Our civil authorities should overlook her obstinacy in refusing assistance and provide her with the necessaries and comforts of life, in order to avert the want and penury of another bleak and dreary winter.


Cross Reference:

1872 Watertown City Directory lists

           “McDermott Ellen, Monroe st foot of Cady”



Watertown Democrat, 09 09 1875


We are glad to notice that the article on "Crazy Nelly" which appeared in our columns about three weeks ago [Watertown Democrat, 08 19 1875], has had the effect to arouse the benevolent feelings of some of our people to the necessity of supplying that poor unfortunate creature with a better tenement than she now occupies.  Funds enough have already been subscribed to furnish material for a new house, and all that remains now is to build it and have her removed to it as soon as possible.  We understand that several mechanics here are willing to voluntarily contribute their services to build the much needed house.  If that is the case, the poor woman will soon have a more agreeable and suitable place of residence.


1883      Less than 5 years later, this item appeared in the Watertown Gazette

Watertown Gazette, 07 27 1883



In the 4th ward of this city, near the west end of Dodge Street, lives a poor demented creature, called "Crazy Nelly" perfectly harmless in every way, subsisting partially by private charity and partly by assistance by the county whose life is made miserable by gamin[?] in her immediate vicinity, who by consent and admitted advice of their parents torment and abuse her continually.  Only a few days ago the door and window of her little cabin was broken by them and when their parents were remonstrated with they said openly they would do nothing to hinder the children from committing these depredations.


Only three days afterwards the same urchins piled cord wood against her door, broke her window and put the poor creature in dread of her life. You will ask, no doubt, that such inhumanity be found in our quiet and orderly city? We answer, yes, and what is worse the parents of these children declare that this order of things shall continue until this poor creature shall be driven from the neighborhood.


The neighborhood would be better by the riddance of the tormentors than by the removal of "Crazy Nellie". The city marshal has been notified and I hope steps will be taken to protect this unfortunate from the abuses heaped upon her. A heavy fine or long imprisonment should be meted out to the brutal and inhuman aiders and abettors in these outrages on a poor creature who should have the sympathy of every right-minded citizen.





“Crazy Nellie”

Following contributed by Ben Feld


Isn’t that a terrible name to give to a person?  How would you like it if, whenever anyone talked about you, they would say “Crazy” before saying your name?  But that is exactly what the people of Watertown did for a long time—for more than twenty-five years.  They knew a person lived in the 4th Ward who didn’t act like other people, so without bothering to find out why she lived and acted as she did, they nicknamed her “Crazy Nellie” and ignored her.  This is, most people ignored her.


There were, in the 1850’s, 1860’s and 1870’s, boys who found much fun in tormenting others, in making others angry (we still have many such boys, I’m afraid).  Just to make her angry and to get her to throw things at them, the boys would often try to climb over her garden fence.  There was nothing in the garden they wanted; they just wanted to make her angry.  After all, they reasoned, she is just “Crazy Nellie,” a crazy woman who acts very strangely at times.


If they had taken the trouble to investigate, as the editor of the Watertown Democrat did in 1875, they would have discovered she was an unusual person, a very kind person, and an extremely lonely person.  They would have discovered her real name was Ellen McDermott.  She was born in Ireland about 1795.  When she was very young both her parents died leaving her only seven sheep—nothing else.  To make matters worse, those seven sheep died in a terrible snow storm they had one winter.  But in spite of that, she was able, somehow, to earn and save enough money to board a ship bound for America where she was sure she would have a much better life.


No doubt she was very happy to see the shores of America, a journey which must have lasted at least three weeks.  But she must have been terribly unhappy, disappointed and even frightened when she and the rest of the passengers were told they would have to remain on board the ship until the health officials were sure none of the emigrants had cholera, a very bad sickness which was quite common on such ships.  They remained on board the ship many days till they finally got permission to land.


Somehow Ellen McDermott made her way to Watertown and either built or bought a shack which was located on a spot where the city intended, some day, to build a street.  As long as she lived, however, they did not build the street so her house was never in any sort of danger of being taken down.


Even in those days her house was considered a “shack.”  It was made mostly of slabs, the pieces of logs which cannot be used for lumber.  She kept it neatly whitewashed—painted with a mixture of water and lime (very few people painted or whitewashed the outside of their houses in those days).  There were only two windows; both without glass.  One window, about ten inches square, was cut in the south side of her house, and the other, even smaller, was in the door.  Although that allowed very little sunlight into the house, it was not drab and dreary inside.  Everything was a neat and clean as a house could possibly be.


Outside, everything was just as neat.  Her garden was surrounded by a tall fence, made not of wire or boards, but of old stumps, brush and pieces of wood.  The fence was so high and so compact, it was difficult for anyone to see over, or through, for a look at her garden.  No doubt she did this as much to insure her privacy as to keep the stray cows and pigs out.  When working in her garden, where she grew mostly potatoes, she did one thing which probably earned her the nickname “Crazy.”  She would scold the potato bugs using some very strong, unlady-like language.  For some people this was the only time they heard her speak.


Knowing that her house and yard were always neat and clean, it isn’t surprising to learn that, although she wore the same kind of dress day after day, it was always clean and always protected with a white muslin apron.


You are probably wondering, just as her neighbors did, how she made a living.  No one ever found out.  They knew she always refused gifts of any kind.  They knew that once in a great while she would be hired by certain people for jobs which she apparently did very well.  But although her pay for that was very small, she never asked for or accepted any money from anyone.  How she managed to buy material for her clothing, or the food she was unable [able] to raise in her garden, remains a mystery.


We do know, however, that when she was about eighty years old, the editor of the Watertown Democrat told about her in his newspaper, and suggested that a new and better house be built for her:


We are glad to notice that the article on "Crazy Nelly" which appeared in our columns about three weeks ago [Watertown Democrat, 08 19 1875], has had the effect to arouse the benevolent feelings of some of our people to the necessity of supplying that poor unfortunate creature with a better tenement than she now occupies.  Funds enough have already been subscribed to furnish material for a new house, and all that remains now is to build it and have her removed to it as soon as possible.  We understand that several mechanics here are willing to voluntarily contribute their services to build the much needed house.  If that is the case, the poor woman will soon have a more agreeable and suitable place of residence.


We don’t know whether it was ever actually built and we don’t know how much longer “Crazy Nellie” lived.  Maybe some day you will find out from someone you know or you will read about it in one of our very old Watertown newspapers.


Isn’t it too bad people insisted on calling her “Crazy Nellie” when actually she was a very kind person who minded her own business and took care of herself?  She never bothered others.  She was never a burden to others.  She was just independent and made the best of what she had.


There is a lesson to be learned from the “Crazy Nellie” story.  Is it possible you have helped in giving someone a nickname which makes fun of them?  Is it someone who is fatter than most, or thinner, or taller, or shorter?  Is it someone who doesn’t get good grades or makes foolish mistakes, or speaks in a different way?  Is it possible you have helped get others to make fun of that person?  Maybe that person, when you get to know him or her, is really a very nice person; a person who does some things differently than you do but who has the same likes and dislikes as you, has the same fears as you and who has the same problems as you.  Get to know the person and you will find another human being just like you, just as nice as you.



Following contributed by Ben Feld

In the days before welfare, charity-funded drives, and a plethora of the government programs, the poor and/or destitute were essentially left to shift for themselves or to depend on the charity of friends or relatives.  Such was a situation for Ellen McDermott or, as she was commonly called, "Crazy Nellie," a classic example of a misnomer.  That Ellen McDermott was different, there is no doubt, but the moniker was by no means fitting or deserved.  She spoke in a "rapid and disconnected jargon, scarcely intelligible."   But she bothered no one and her one wish seemed to be that no one bother her.


How she obtained money for the necessities she could not raise or produce was a mystery to all.  Somehow it was learned that she had come to Watertown about 1830 when, as one report states, "she was very young".  That same report, however, claims she was born in Ireland in 1795, which would have made her about 80 years old when the editor of the Watertown Democrat was made aware of her condition in 1875.  Being the reclusive person she was, it seems remarkable the editor was able to learn that Ellen McDermott (Crazy Nellie), while very young, lost both her parents and was left with seven sheep -- nothing else.  To make matters worse, those sheep died in a terrible snowstorm soon after the death of Nellie's parents and she was left with no way of supporting herself.  With what must have been much determination, Nellie managed to scrape together enough money for passage aboard a ship bound for North America.


Following the three-week voyage and a detention aboard ship which was imposed by the port authorities (which detention was, according to Nellie, the scariest part of all), Nellie made her way to Watertown and either built or bought a shack which occupied land scheduled to become a street someday.  As far as can be determined, that option was never pursued.  The exact location of the house is not disclosed; we know only that it was "on public ground in the Fourth ward."


Her house was crudely built.  The south wall held one 10"X 10" glass-less window.  Another window, even smaller, was located in her door on another side of the house.  Those two apertures were her only source of light or ventilation.  To the rear of the house was a garden concealed from public view by a fence compactly constructed of decayed stumps, hazel brush and pieces of wood.  Her principal crop was potatoes which were often ravaged by the ubiquitous potato bug which Nellie would denounced in loud, startling diatribes affording the neighbors a rare opportunity to hear the sound of her voice.


If she had one characteristic discernible to all, it was her fastidiousness.  The house, constructed mainly of old slabs and boards securely fastened, was neatly whitewashed every year never allowing the weather in to diminish the whiteness.  The interior of the house was equally as neat, as was her person.  She was not a follower of the fashions, her dress being generally of light-colored calico usually covered with a loose-fitting frock from of similar material with a sameness of pattern, "made short by being tied snugly around the waist by the strings of a white muslin apron."  This she wore regardless of the season.


When left to herself, she seemed to be a listless, inoffensive person bearing no ill-will toward anyone.  But when provoked, as she sometimes was by small boys who threw objects into her yard and called her names, she was a completely different person able to berate them in a startling vocabulary.  Often she would pursue the boys, throwing at them any she anything she could put her hands on, all the while cursing and yelling.  But she never made a complaint about the boys nor did she seek punishment for them.


In 1875, the editor of the Watertown Democrat was made aware of the hapless condition of "Crazy Nellie" and pleaded with the civil authorities to provide the necessities and comforts of life for "this pitiful, harmless creature, destitute and on the verge of the grave."  In a short time he was able to report that sufficient funds had been gathered to furnish material for a new house for Ellen McDermott and a number of carpenters were willing to contribute their services to build the house.  The editor does not record that the house actually was built, but eight years later we read, in a letter to the editor of the Watertown Gazette, that Nellie was now living in the Fifth ward, near the west end of Dodge Street, subsisting partially by private charity and partly by assistance from the court.  Young boys were still tormenting her, having recently broken a window and her cabin, followed by piling cordwood against her door.  But what was even worse, the writer said, was the parents of the boys very openly said they would do nothing to stop the children.


What finally became of this unfortunate creature is a mystery.  No death notice announces her demise.  A search of the local cemeteries reveal no headstone bearing her name.  She seems to have died as unobtrusively she lived.