A deteriorating monument in an Oswego cemetery led Ann Allen to spend half a year piecing together one of the most fascinating lives in central New York history: Malvina Guimaraes.

Allen, a retired professor who taught at SUNY Oswego and Le Moyne College, will give a presentation on Guimaraes Monday at Cayuga Community College as part of its Cultural Speaker Series.

In an interview with The Citizen Friday, Allen said she began researching Guimaraes upon learning about the monument to her in the historic Riverside Cemetery in Oswego.

"It's mesmerizing," Allen said. "Kind of haunting-looking. So I said I need to find out more about her."

Sculpted from a solid block of marble, the monument features a life-size relief portrait of Guimaraes atop a base of steps. The cemetery plot is the size of 32 modern-day plots, Allen said.

But when she saw the monument in 2017, Allen discovered grapevines covering the visage of Guimaraes. She also learned the monument is the focus of restoration efforts from the Oswego historian community. So after her research led to a book the next year, "The Madame's Business: The Remarkable Life and Tragic Death of Malvina Guimaraes," Allen directed its proceeds to the restoration. 

Born Malvina Dean in Fabius in 1819 or 1820, Guimaraes was sent to Weedsport to live with the family of Josiah Dean, a relative, after her mother died when she was 8. Allen said the Old Brutus Historical Society & Museum in the village was particularly helpful as she researched this stage of Guimaraes' life, providing census material from the 1820s, '30s and '40s. 

Still, Allen could find little about Guimaraes' early life. She moved from Weedsport to New York City around the time she turned 18, Allen said. She soon after married her first husband, a merchant from Montreal named Alexander Besse, and lived with him in Greenwich Village. Around that time, Allen continued, Guimaraes learned about the sewing machine. Also located near Greenwich Village was the headquarters of Wheeler & Wilson, a manufacturer who competed for the emerging sewing machine market with rival Singer in a manner akin to Apple and Microsoft, Allen said.

"Sewing machines were transformative, particularly for women and also in workplaces, in the middle of the 19th century," Allen said.

Though Allen's research hasn't produced a precise explanation how, by the late 1840s Guimaraes had become a successful marketer of Wheeler & Wilson's machines. In 1853, she convinced the company to let her take some to Brazil to establish a new market there. But the ship bringing her and Besse to South America, the San Francisco, was wrecked in a storm that made national news.

The two survived, and a year later, Guimaraes got to Brazil and began making "a fortune" selling sewing machines, Allen said. Besse hated the country and wanted to leave, but because Guimaraes wanted to continue doing business there, the two divorced. She met her second husband, Jose Guimaraes, in 1866. He was a Portuguese merchant who worked in Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon. The two were married in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which at that point was the location of the headquarters of Wheeler & Wilson — a sign of Malvina's prominence in the company, Allen said.

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"From everything I've read, it was a real marriage of equals," she said. "He was fairly wealthy in his own right, but she was, too."

Malvina and Jose spent much of their time in Lisbon, where they increased their fortunes by investing in a horse railway company that would become the city's public transportation system. But Jose passed away in 1875. One news account called it a suicide, Allen said. Before he died, however, he told Malvina she needed to return to New York, where she would be "protected," Allen continued.

Her third marriage would illustrate what she needed to be protected from.

Guimaraes did as her late second husband asked, moving to Oswego County, where her brothers lived. One of the first things she did was commission the monument in Riverside Cemetery, Allen said. It duplicated the monument she built to Jose in Prazeres Cemetery in Lisbon, but with her likeness instead of his. Guimaraes also bought a home on Oswego's west side and filled it with expensive furniture and art. And as she settled into her new home, she decided to also settle her affairs and sell her holdings in Rio and Lisbon, Allen said.

Not long after making that decision, Guimaraes was visited in Oswego by the man who had been managing her sewing machine business in Brazil: Antonio Seabra.

Described in documents Allen found as "a smooth operator" who was clearly interested in Guimaraes' fortune, Seabra tried to woo her. He was unsuccessful at first, and sent back to Rio to close her business there. But feeling she wasn't seeing the returns she should have, Guimaraes soon followed him there, Allen said. And, somehow, she married Seabra in November, Allen continued.

"Why? I don't know," she said. "It was a sad pairing."

In 1881, Guimaraes and Seabra went to Lisbon to settle her affairs there. And there, Allen said, is where her story took a tragic turn. He beat his new wife, and even tormented her with a wild monkey that scratched and clawed at her skin. She escaped back to New York later that year and began divorce proceedings, but Seabra fought her in courts in New York and Lisbon, Allen said.

The difference between the two legal systems was crucial, Allen said. At the time, Portugal still followed coverture law, which essentially recognizes a husband and wife under one identity: his. That's why Jose told Guimaraes to go back to New York, Allen continued, where the Married Women's Property Law was passed in 1848. The law granted married women the right to own property.

But Seabra waited out his wife, Allen said, perhaps knowing something she didn't. Guimaraes passed away in October 1882, and because she was perfectly healthy before going to Lisbon, some close to her believed Seabra poisoned her. That accusation came from testimony during litigation over the fate of her estate, which didn't end until 1895. Seabra got most of her holdings in Lisbon.

Though she died tragically, Guimaraes led a life that will not be forgotten, Allen said. It was not only extraordinary in its scope, but inspiring in its message.

"Her story, I think, is a larger tale of the inability of women at that time, and for awhile, to be masters of their own fate. The law and conventional thinking really kept them quite confined," she said. "Here's a woman who said, 'I'm not going to be confined. I'm going to make a lot of money and manage it all.'" 

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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.


I'm the features editor for The Citizen and auburnpub.com, and have been here since 2006. I also cover local arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.