Deciphering The Man Behind Ontario’s Bean Puzzle Tombstone

There’s something suspicious about Bean.

By: Hollay Ghadery

Whether it is a labyrinth on the back of a cereal box or a good crossword inside your newspaper, puzzles can be a fun—albeit, sometimes frustrating—hobby. One puzzle that has caused both amusement and frustration, and, in my case, anger, is Ontario’s own Bean Puzzle Tombstone.

Located three kilometres north of the small town of Wellesley, Ontario in the Rushes Cemetery is the confounding Bean Puzzle Tombstone. This tombstone, which was erected by Samuel Bean in memory of two of his wives—both of whom died after being married to Bean for less than a year—features an epitaph in 15×15 alphanumeric code that baffled puzzle masters, historians, tourists, and locals for decades. But it managed to peeve me off within seconds. 

Don’t get me wrong: despite the fact that public displays of affection make me squirm and my husband often accuses me of being emotionally constipated, I love a good love story. I regularly, if not a little shamefully, read romance novels. I eat up those stories where estranged couples are reunited, decades later. I watch Hallmark Christmas movies for God’s sake.

And, to be clear, I’m for all memorializing loved ones.

They were, after all, completely different people.

But to me, it seems that by creating this famous tombstone, Bean has simply memorialized himself. Based on the information you’d find on the internet, you’d think I was the only person to feel this way. (Turns out I’m not though. More on this later.) Still, that doesn’t make the story of Bean and his two brides any less interesting. In fact, it makes it more so. 

The only thing I love more than a good romance is a good mystery. Who was the man behind the obscure puzzle and why did he take the puzzle’s answer to his grave 40 years after the stone was erected? Who were these women who, in addition to sharing the misfortune of being remembered primarily for a strange and self-gratifying whim of their husband’s, also have to eternally share the same grave?

They were, after all, completely different people. 

Some of the answers to these questions are readily available. 

Samuel Bean was the fifth son of Abraham and Susannah Bean. Born in 1838 in Wilmot Township in the Waterloo region of southwestern Ontario, Bean was briefly a teacher before he,  even more briefly, worked as a doctor. He then went on to become an Evangelist Minister in the United States and eventually, near the end of his life, tried his hand at fruit farming in Florida. 

He met and married his first wife, Henrietta Furry, while completing his medical training in Philadelphia around February 1865. He was 27 and she was 23. They moved back to Wellesley Township where Bean began his practice and advertised his medical and midwifery services. Henrietta died on September 27, 1865, after just seven months of marriage. While the cause of death is not known, it is known she’d been sick for almost three of those months.

Bean makes my skin crawl.”

– Joanna Rickert-Hall, historian and author

In an enthusiastic email exchange, Joanna Rickert-Hall, social historian and author of Waterloo You Never Knew: Life on the Margins, provided me with some key pieces of information. First, she also believes there’s something decidedly unsettling about Bean. 

For me, this repulsion first cropped up when I noticed the inclusion of his title, M.D. in the epitaph. Why, I wondered, did he feel the need to include his profession on his wives’ shared tombstone? Was this a custom of the time or did he feel he had something to prove? 

It was an inclusion that prompted my distrust of Bean’s motives and his narrative. And, the more I looked into Bean’s life, the more I saw I had reasons to lean into this apprehension. There’s something suspicious about Bean.

“Bean makes my skin crawl,” Rickert-Hall wrote in our email exchange, giving words to my feelings as well. 

During our back-and-forth, she also suggested that Henrietta could have died in childbirth. 

“It is strongly possible that his first wife, Henrietta, died following a failed childbirth/miscarriage at the seven month period,” Rickert-Hall wrote.

In other words, she explained, it was more likely childbed fever, an infection that sets into the uterus after childbirth following unsanitary conditions during the birth process and/or the incomplete dispelling of the placenta following birth. Rickert-Hall also posited that Furry may even have lost a great deal of blood from which she did not recover.

“Any are plausible guesses,” Rickert-Hall said.

“That she was ill for only a few weeks following the birth would certainly support this theory. Although, yes, it could have been literally any disease like the flu, for example, that took her.”

Bean remarried shortly after on July 16, 1866. His next wife, Susanna Clegg, was a Wellesley native and lived for 10 months after her marriage to Bean—long enough to have left him with an infant daughter. Susanna was 26 years old when she died on April 27, 1867—eight days after the birth of their daughter also named Susanna. Again, the cause of death is not recorded, but it is assumed to be the result of childbirth.

It was after this second death that Bean created his famous puzzle and commissioned the tombstone. However, this was not the first puzzle Bean had created for a dead wife. Henrietta’s funeral card was encoded in a similarly cryptic fashion, featuring 19 letters across and 19 down. To read the card, you had to start with the middle letter and read in an outward spiral.

The funeral card read:

In memoriam Henriettah Furry Bean born in Penn. married in Philadelphia to Samuel Bean, M.D. and went with him to Canada leaving all her friends behind – Died in Linwood the 27th of Sep. 1865 after an illness of 11 weeks, aged 23 years, 2 months and 17 days, she was a model wife, 1 of 1000 – much regretted by her sorrowing husband and all who knew her – Lived a godly life for 5 years and died happy in the Lord – Peace be to her ashes – So mote it be.

Whether or not Bean helped mourners decode this card or if the card was simply easier to solve is unknown. The strange spellings are thought to be either typos, part of the puzzle maker’s ruse, or just alternate spellings of the time. What is known, however, is that the second code would take over a century to crack. In 1982, the Wellesley Township and the Wellesley Historical Society made a new tombstone of grey granite since the original white marble stone was beginning to erode.

This was thanks in part to frequent rubbings which made the epitaph almost indecipherable.

What Henrietta’s funeral card also provides is a glimpse into how the tombstone puzzle would later be solved: by following a quasi-pattern of zig-zagging and gradually increasing orbits from the near centre of the puzzle grid, outwards.

And who did eventually solve the puzzle? 

The cemetery groundskeeper, John Hammond, claimed to have solved it in 1942, but he refused to reveal the message. The first confirmed solve was in the 1970’s, by a 94-year-old woman who lived in a seniors residence near the cemetery. Unlike Bean (and the groundskeeper, if he did in fact decode the stone), the woman shared the answer with the world.

Starting on the seventh row down, seventh column in from the left, and working in that slightly erratic zig-zag spiral, the message unfurls:

In memoriam
Henrietta 1st wife of S Bean M.D.
Who died 27th Sep 1865 aged 23 years 2 months & 17 days
& Susanna his 2nd wife
Who died 27th April 1867 aged 26 years 10 months & 15 days
2 better wives 1 man never had
They were gifts from god but are now in heaven
May god help me S.B. to meet them there

What struck me—what, as I said earlier, really cheesed me off—was that this epitaph is about Samuel Bean himself more than either of his wives. Many epitaphs make reference to the deceased’s connection to the living (noting that they were beloved mothers, dear husbands, and so on) but Bean designed this message to be, overwhelmingly, about him. It’s not just the message that leads me to believe this, either. It’s the medium.  

Bean possessively hid and guarded the message for 40 years before he died at sea in 1904 in Cuba, without having shared the puzzle’s answer. His secrets could have completely drowned with him. It’s an act that denies these women easy access to posterity. He further denied them complete autonomy by burying them together and giving them a single tombstone.

Henrietta and Susanna were valued to him, it seems, as little more than ornaments to his prehensile ego. 

I understand, on one hand, that I am viewing the tombstone and Bean’s relationship with his wives through the zeitgeist of the present. In the 19th century, women were often seen as property more than people, so it’s plausible that Bean saw his wives as mere extensions of himself.

Still, other women from that era, including wives, were buried in their own graves, with their own tombstones. 

And why are the causes of death in both of his wives’ cases unrecorded? Were Henrietta and Susanna under the medical care of Bean in their final days?

If this is the case, their deaths may be more sinister than originally believed.

Was Bean a real doctor and midwife?

During my research, I learned that Bean only practiced medicine for two or three years, tops. This is interesting because the Eclectic Medical College of Pennsylvania, where Bean earned his medical diploma, was actually a diploma mill that printed bogus medical diplomas for a fee of roughly $75.

While Bean’s name appears on a list of the college’s alleged graduates that was printed in the Philadelphia Bulletin, his name doesn’t appear on the Ontario Medical Register. 

In our emails, Rickert-Hall pointed out that, not only are there no medical records available for Henrietta and Susanna even though they were likely to have been his patients, but there are also no extant medical records to have ever been attributed to Bean, period.

So, did Bean have something to hide as well as something to prove? I am not necessarily arguing that Bean intentionally caused his wives’ deaths, but I am wondering if his medical negligence could have been a factor.

Maitland echoed my curiosity about the deaths of the two women.

I contacted the Wellesley Township Heritage and Historical Society (WTHHS), as well as the Waterloo Historical Society (WHS), to ask for more information about the deaths of Henrietta and Susanna.

Nancy Maitland, chair and curator of the WTHHS, mentioned that a newspaper clipping cites Susanna’s cause of death as being childbirth. While she had no idea about Henrietta’s cause of death, she did inform me that in Ontario, civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths were not mandated until 1869, so these events would have only been recorded, if at all, by the churches.

There were two possible churches that would have recorded the marriages and deaths of Henrietta and Susanna, but both no longer exist and neither do their records. 

However, Maitland echoed my curiosity about the deaths of the two women. 

Additionally, Marion Roes, historian, author, and WHS member, sent me a PDF from a book, The Linwood Physicians, which lent more weight to suspicions about Bean’s medical credentials.

By now you might be wondering if I’m reading too much into this. But, consider this.

In an article from the August 7, 1968 edition of Ontario’s Waterloo Chronicle, you can read that John Hammond—that caretaker who may or may not have been the first to really crack the code—also expressed concerns about the validity of Bean’s medical license.

Apparently, he also asked around but his search for truth came up as empty as my own. 

By 1868, Bean had left medicine and Canada, and became licensed as a minister of the Evangelical Church in the US. It was while living in the States that Bean married a third time, this time to Annie M. Wankmiller. Together, they had five children. And with her, Bean moved around the states as a minister, to Iowa, New York, and then finally Florida.

It isn’t clear whether Annie was with Bean on his final trip to Cuba when his boat capsized and he drowned, or if she survived it.

What happened to his daughter Susanna? I’m not sure. What records do show is that she was born on April 19, 1867, in Wellesley Township and she was christened on February 10, 1868, in Wellesley Township. Whether or not she stayed with a family member in Ontario or accompanied Bean south to the states is unknown to me.

Over time, since creating his popular puzzle tombstone, Bean has garnered a reputation as “a brilliant man.” When you look him up, this is a common description and interpretation of his work.

He made that puzzle, after all, whatever his motivations. He spoke German as well as English. He was a doctor, supposedly, and even if he wasn’t, he was clever enough to convince people for at least a couple of years that he was. 

Yes, he may very well have been a brilliant man. However, an equal possibility—and certainly one that history has taught us is well within the personality scope of the most brilliant of men—is that Bean was also a bit of a dick.  

People are complex and the past is an ever-changing landscape of impressions, depending on who’s looking at it. But this changing and charged flux is what keeps the past alive; it keeps us asking questions. In this way, I admit that Bean’s tombstone offers a fitting if also ironic tribute to the memories of Henrietta and Susanna.

Hollay Ghadery is a writer and mother of four young children, living in small-town Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. Look for her upcoming book of non-fiction, Fuse, coming out with Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in Spring 2021. Follow Hollay on Instagram: @hollayghadery or Facebook @hollayghaderywriter.

Feature photo cred: Mac Armstrong, Flickr.

Photo #1 cred: Patricia Jackson, Find A Grave.

Photo #2 cred: Scan from The Linwood Physicians Book.