Though decorated Naval officer, Rear Admiral Joseph Eaton, served his country for four decades during the late 1800s and early 1900s, he was laid to rest in Dracut without military honors following his mysterious death in April 1913.
After recently learning this troublesome fact, members of the Dracut Historical Society — including Kent Varnum, the group’s president and Eaton’s distant relative — decided to finally give Eaton the recognition he deserves.
“It’s a wrong we can right,” said Varnum, who shares a sixth great-grandfather with Eaton.
On Sunday, 110 years after Eaton’s death, his gravesite at the Oakland Cemetery off Mammoth Road was surrounded by people who gathered to give Eaton the military honor he never received.
“It really is tragic that a man of that stature did not have a military honor,” State Rep. Colleen Garry said while addressing ceremony attendees. “I think with this final military honor he truly will be able to rest in peace.”
Eaton, born in Alabama in 1847, joined the U.S. Naval Academy in September 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Eaton’s 40-year military career sent him around the world on a variety of naval assignments.
Among his duties was serving as the commanding officer of the USS Resolute during the Spanish-American War, where he fought in the battles of Santiago Harbor and Manzanilla Bay.
Varnum said Eaton also served as a scientist and was involved in the Darien Expedition, a survey in Panama, commissioned to plot a route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Eaton retired in 1905, having earned a variety of medals, including the Civil War Campaign Medal, the Spanish Campaign Medal, and the Sampson Medal with Bronze Bar for his actions as a commander of the USS Resolute.
Varnum said the highest active duty rank Eaton attained was captain, but he was promoted to rear admiral upon his retirement based on his meritorious command of a ship at war.
So how could such an accomplished Naval officer be skipped over for a proper military burial? The answer rests in Eaton’s personal life, which was shrouded in tragic and bizarre happenings that would tantalize any true-crime enthusiast.
To help paint a picture of the story, Varnum references the Strange Company blog, titled “The Admiral Faces a Mutiny.” Varnum said the information in the blog can be found in a book about Eaton’s ill-fated post-military life by John Gallagher, titled “Arsenic in Assinippi.”
The blog states Eaton married Mary Ann Varnum in 1871. Their only child died at the age of 13. The tragedy continued in 1906, about a year after Eaton’s retirement, when Mary Ann Varnum grew ill and passed away.
Following her death, Mary Ann Varnum’s nurse, Jennie May Ainsworth and her two children, moved in with Eaton. Eaton was led to believe that Ainsowrth was a widow, but in reality she was still married. It was only when she obtained a divorce that Eaton learned the truth. Despite a rocky start to the relationship, Ainsworth and Eaton tied the knot only weeks after the divorce was finalized. The newlyweds then settled in Assinippi.
Theirs was no happy home though. As Dracut School Committee Member Rebecca Duda said on Sunday, “it was a tumultuous marriage.”
In August 1909, the couple announced the birth of their son. It was later learned the child was not biologically theirs, but was an illegitimate newborn the Eatons had secretly adopted. The baby died shortly after birth, and Ainsworth proceeded to accuse Eaton of poisoning the infant. The claims against Eaton were eventually dismissed after an autopsy displayed no signs of poison or foul play.
The harsh accusations made against her husband resulted in Ainsworth moving out for a period of time. Despite their troubles, the couple eventually reconciled and Ainsworth returned home.
The relationship continued to sour though, as Ainsworth spread rumors publicly about Eaton, describing him as a murderous drug addict and womanizer. On March 7, 1913, Eaton began suffering intense stomach pains and vomiting. The next day, his wife called their doctor to say he was dead.
A tremendous amount of arsenic was uncovered in Eaton’s body. Playing on her claims that Eaton was a drug addict, Ainsworth insisted her late husband had killed himself with the poison. Despite the claims, she was arrested for her husband’s murder. Following a trial, a jury returned a verdict of “not guilty,” and Ainsworth walked free.
“As a result, a hitherto highly-respected Naval officer not only suffered an agonizing death, but was posthumously branded a libertine, a drunkard, a drug addict, a murderer, and finally a suicide,” the blog states.
Kent Varnum and his wife, Barbara Varnum, explain that Eaton did not have any biological family around to request a military burial, and Ainsworth seemingly had no desire to pursue one.
“The person who was burying him is going to be arrested for his murder,” Barbara Varnum said. “It makes sense that she didn’t really want to advertise it.”
Kent Varnum added it was “a very hasty funeral.”
“Moving him from Assinippi to Dracut, by way of Boston, was a logistical nightmare,” he said. “And nobody notified the military authorities he died.”
As a result, Eaton was laid to rest in the Oakland Cemetery, and “there were no military honors, no flag for the casket, and not even a prayer by a minister,” as Roy Corbeil, of the Dracut Historical Society pointed out.
Though a lifetime has passed, the Dracut Historical Society and members of the Dracut community proved it’s never too late to right the ship when it involves honoring a member of the military.
During the ceremony, St. Joseph the Worker Shrine Sacristan David Lazu provided a prayer, and blessed Eaton’s gravesite. The event concluded with a 21-gun salute by the American Legion.
During the ceremony, Kent Varnum, who also served in the U.S. Navy, provided a thorough history of Eaton’s service.
“This is so overdue,” Kent Varnum said afterward. “(Eaton) kind of got lost in the shuffle with the trial and all the allegations. He didn’t really get to have a say for himself. … I think it’s good that everybody got to hear what kind of guy he really was and what kind of things he did.”
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