The Higbee Sisters: Saving Lives, Speaking to the Dead

Jonas Higbee, a ship master, and Maria Smith from Little Cow Harbor (now Centerport) were married in 1817 by the renowned “Marrying Minister” Reverend Joshua Hartt. They had 7 children- 2 sons; twins Jonas and Shepard, and 5 daughters; Phebe, Irene, Elizabeth, Frances, and Susan. Here are the stories from the remarkable lives of sisters Irene and Susan.

Standing, left to right: Phebe Higbee Denton, Irene Higbee Jarvis, Elizabeth Higbee Johnson Bishop.  Seated, left to right: Frances Higbee Lewis, Susan Higbee Udell Bunce.

Irene Higbee Jarvis (1825-1878)

Irene Higbee was born in Centerport and married Northport shipbuilder Jesse Jarvis in 1846. They lived at 136 Woodbine Avenue, across from Jesse’s shipyard, and raised 8 children.

In the late 1840s, the “Spiritualism” movement spread across the country, starting in upstate New York when two young girls claimed they could communicate with the spirit of a deceased man haunting their house. By 1859, Spiritualism had taken hold in Northport with several seamen claiming they had healing powers and could speak with the dead. One of the leaders of the movement to emerge was Jesse Jarvis, but his wife Irene also claimed to have “the gift.”

She is a Medium!

The story goes that one day, Captain Manne, a known Spiritualist, docked in town and was met by Jesse Jarvis and Selah Bunce. They asked the captain if he would teach them the rites and mysteries of the faith. They also expressed their desire to hold a séance, something that had never been attempted before by any of the Northport mediums.

A few evenings later, a small group gathered at the Jarvis home. Jesse Jarvis, Selah Bunce, Lewis Craft and Captain Manne sat around a table preparing for the séance. The circle was not complete, so they asked Mrs. Jarvis (Irene) to join, and they all clasped hands. The group sat for ten minutes in silence, when suddenly Mrs. Jarvis closed her eyes and began moving her hand about as if tracing letters of the alphabet.   
 "She wants paper or a slate; she is a medium!" exclaimed Captain Manne.  

 Irene was furnished with paper and pencil and she transcribed a message from beyond, including two lines from a favorite hymn of one of her old teachers. It was discovered a week later that it was on the very night of the séance that Irene's beloved teacher had died. After that incident, a séance was held once a week- Irene Jarvis would enter a trance and speak in different languages, bringing forth messages, including those from many famous deceased Native American chiefs. 

Healing Powers

 Irene developed into a healer. She was said to have cured Anna Lewis, the daughter of Joseph Lewis. Anna was diagnosed with a disease that had no cure and the family was told to prepare for her death. Irene spent one night with the child, and when the doctor called in the morning, he found Anna much improved. But, Irene's most miraculous healing was performed on her own daughter after she suffered severe burns "over two square feet of her body" from an explosion of fire crackers on the Fourth of July. 

The Spiritualist colony grew under Irene and Jesse’s leadership and at one time gathered and worshipped at a hall with fifty names on the membership roll. Irene died in 1878 at the age of 52, and the Spiritualism movement died out about 10 years later.


Susan Higbee Udell Bunce (1823-1899)

Susan Mariah Higbee was born in Centerport on October 30, 1823,  the second oldest of the Higbee sisters. She married John Fletcher Udell at the age of 19 in 1842. Susan and John had one child named Alice Eusebia, born in Northport in 1845.


Rescue at Sea

On November 1st the year after their daughter was born, John Udell, a sea captain by this time, and his good friend Captain Selah Bunce were walking home from church during a storm when a man on horseback rode up to them and exclaimed that the steamer Rhode Island was about to wreck on the reef at Eaton’s Neck.

Captain Udell immediately organized a crew, secured a whaleboat, and together with Selah Bunce rescued all of the 150 passengers.

Love and Loss

Sadly, just 3 years later in 1849, John Udell died of cholera at the age of 26. Susan and Alice went to live in her sister Irene’s house at 136 Woodbine (Irene was married to ship builder Jesse Jarvis).
As fate would have it, Selah Bunce’s wife, Phebe Buffet had died the year before Susan's husband John, and as the two had much in common, Susan and Selah found comfort with each other and married in 1852.

Susan and Alice then moved into the Bunce homestead on Bayview Avenue and James Street (the house became Karl’s Mariner’s Inn for a time) with Selah, his father Israel, and Selah’s older children. Susan and Selah had a daughter, Jessie, in 1856 who only lived into her 16th year.

A Full Life

Susan was one of the first members of the Ladies’ Aid Society, which was formed during the Civil War to provide sanitary supplies, such as bandages and blankets to the soldiers. After the War, the Ladies’ Aid Society raised funds to erect the Civil War Monument on the corner of Church Street. She was also a devout member of Saint Paul’s M.E. Church.

When Selah died in 1872, Susan went to live with her daughter Alice, now married to coal and lumber man, Charles T. Sammis in their house at 7 Fifth Avenue. Susan Mariah Higbee Udell Bunce died December 9, 1899 and is buried in Northport Rural Cemetery. Her daughter Alice had three children with Charles, one being her namesake, Susan Sammis. Susan Sammis married Northport dentist Frank Quackenbush and their daughter, Cynthia became extremely involved with the Northport Historical Society and served as Northport’s Village Historian.

The Photo Collection

Community Foundation of Orange and Sullivan