OSWEGO — Two centuries ago this July an extraordinary woman named Malvina Dean entered the world on a farm in Fabius. Despite her humble beginnings, Dean went on to amass a fortune as a pioneer businesswoman, at a time when women rarely left the confines of their homes.
Her final resting place at Oswego’s historic Riverside Cemetery is all that is left today to honor the memory of a woman who left an indelible mark on the city of Oswego, the place she eventually called home.
“There is a story behind every cemetery monument,” said her biographer Ann Allen, who was inspired by the late civic leader Ruth Sayer to research Dean’s story with all of its astounding twists and turns. Allen published a book about Dean in 2018. “Malvina’s monument is a testament to her epic story. She was a larger than life figure and her monument and gravesite is a larger than life work of art that needs to be restored and preserved. Who was the legendary Madame Guimaraes? It is the most common question when seeing her monument in the cemetery for the first time.”
Malvina Dean Besse Guimaraes Seabra, or Madame Guimaraes, as she is more often known, left the confines of the conventional world of upstate New York, to live and conduct business in New York City, Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon, Portugal. She seized the opportunity to market the newly invented sewing machine, which was then proving to be a transformative device for women. In the mid-1850s, as a fierce battle for dominance in the sewing machine market was raging, she convinced Wheeler and Wilson, one of the principle players in that battle, to allow her to open the market for sewing machines in the newly emerging economy of South America. She survived a shipwreck, a hostile environment, and a doubting first husband to amass a fortune selling the machines from her base in Rio.
While in Rio, she met and married Jose Guimaraes, a successful entrepreneur in his own right. Together they founded what was to become the first public transport system in Jose’s home city Lisbon, Portugal. However, she never forgot her upstate New York roots. She invested in farmland in the town of Richland where she and Jose enjoyed summers there together. Sadly, the marriage was short-lived. Before he passed, however, Jose advised Dean to return to New York and to her family where her fortune would be better protected than in Portugal.
In 1875, she purchased a house on East Seventh Street in Oswego and adopted the city as her true home. She made many investments in the city but one of her first projects was the erection of an elaborate monument and plot for herself and her family in the historic Riverside Cemetery. At the time it was erected in 1877 it was the talk of the city, even prompting media coverage of it by the local newspapers of that time.
She married a third time but was cheated of her fortune by a scheming husband who had the law and conventional wisdom about a woman’s place on his side. Much of the epic battle over control of that fortune took place in the Oswego County Surrogate’s Court and lasted nearly 13 years. She did not live to see the end of that battle. She died in October of 1882 in her grand mansion at the corner of West Fifth and Bridge streets, now home to the Oswego Elks Club.
Oswego County Historian Justin White was inspired at a young age about the legendary stories he was told about Madame Guimaraes. “Ruth Sayer, in her quiet but very effective way, consistently pushed for the restoration of the Guimaraes monument. It was, she said, a unique and historic work of art that should be celebrated and cherished,” said White. “I am so grateful to Ruth for her advocacy to have that monument restored because it has taken us on a great adventure into Oswego’s past and a person from that past that has been largely forgotten. Ann and I promised Ruth we would work to get that monument restored. We are determined to keep that promise.”
Ruth Sayer passed away in November 2019 at the age of 102, but White, Allen, and the administrators of the Riverside Cemetery, are marking the 200th anniversary of the Madame’s birth with the first phase of the monument restoration advocated by Ruth Sayer.
Adam Gagas, president of the Board of Trustees of the Riverside Cemetery, notes that the first steps in that restoration project will be to stabilize the site’s perimeter. Restoring the site to its former grandeur will take some time but the work has already begun. The Riverside Cemetery Board of Directors has established a special fund for those interested in supporting the restoration project. Proceeds from the sale of Allen’s book go to the restorations fund as well. “The Madame’s Business: The Remarkable Life and Tragic Death of Malvina Guimaraes,” is available through arrangements with river’s end bookstore in Oswego and also through the Richardson-Bates House Museum in Oswego.