“Everybody Loved Her”: The Mysterious Death of Iola Haley Newell

“Her husband was the only one in the room, and he was asleep.”—Louisville Courier-Journal

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The reverse inscription of this albumen print reads, “My Dear Sister Iola Haley Newell in her coffin, who passed away Oct. 31st 1901 in Somerset, KY. The two ladies you can see in the looking-glass are Dr. Joe Owens’ wife & Alma Owens Tibbals, two of Iola’s dear friends…. Iola Morgan, born Feb 5, 1924, named after Iola Haley. She died 3 years before I was born. Also Perry & Dorothea Haley’s daughter named after Iola Haley, too. (Everybody loved her.)” Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection

The earthly remains of Iola M. Haley Newell are buried in Somerset City Cemetery, Somerset, Kentucky, within the casket seen above. It was almost certainly white, with a crackled paint finish and colored velvet covering the pallbearers′ handles. The rest of the gently sunlit parlor held rich photographic detail. The fireplace was surrounded by colorful Victorian art nouveau tiles. On the wall, above the harp-shaped floral tribute, a paper or cardboard image of a blooming plant proclaimed, “The Year of Flowers.” Reflected in the mirror, along with two female mourners, were more images also possibly culled from “The Year of Flowers.” Behind the black-clad ladies was the staircase to the home’s upper floor.

It is a wistfully beautiful image: A bright-colored room, burgeoning with flowers in recognition of a beloved daughter, sister, friend, and bride of little more than a year, dead before age 30. The most likely causes of Iola’s demise should have been pregnancy complications or childbirth. However, there is no record of a child born alive or dead—and if the latter, we would expect to see the stillborn infant in the casket, beside its mother.

It is also clear from the photo that Iola was not the a victim of a wasting disease, rather of something that cut her down in otherwise acceptable health. Her husband, Dr. John B. Newell, survived Iola narrowly, dying a year-and-a-half later. Newell worked in a field of medicine—dentistry—whose practitioners could be easily exposed to Tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. Another possible cause for one, or both, of the couple’s deaths was typhoid. An epidemic occurred in Pulaski County in 1920, and since the disease can be waterborne, contaminated waterways may have existed in the area in the decade before, when the couple were yet alive.

I have, however, recently learned that none of my logical speculations were the cause of Iola’s passing. The reality was not logical, not acceptable. It was, frankly, shocking.

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In the first days of November, 1901, Mrs. Owens and Alma Tibbals gazed upon at the body of their deceased friend whilst the photographer preserved the moment.

Kentucky native Iola Haley, born 14 September, 1872, was the eldest daughter of John Perry Haley (1847-1931) and his wife Elizabeth Jane (1850-1941), who married 25 March, 1868, in Somerset County. Her paternal grandfather was H. W. Haley, a lawyer in Pulaski County (b. 1820).

Iola had an older brother, Thomas Walker (March 1870-23 Sept., 1926) and a younger sister named Elizabeth Pearl (b. 14 Jan., 1878), called “Pearly,” who may have been the writer of the inscription on the reverse of the photo, although this is problematic for internal reasons. Another brother, Jack R., was born in 1886.

The 1880 census shows the Haley family living in the town of Somerset, with John Haley working as a store clerk. He would eventually rise to become a prominent merchant. On the census, Iola was enumerated as “Ollie,” aged 8.

In 1898, the entire Haley family, including Iola, left Somerset for a new life on a farm in Bozeman, Montana. At the time of the departure, however, there almost certainly existed deep affection between Iola and her future husband, for whom she would return to Kentucky in mid-1900. John was born 4 September, 1873, in Somerset. The two probably had known each other for many years, as their families moved in the same social circles.

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The Louisville Courier Journal announced the grant of a marriage license to John Newell and Iola Haley on 5 September, 1900.

John’s father was Henry Clay Newell (6 June, 1832-6 Nov., 1912) and his mother was Florence V. Beattie (9 Nov., 1835-21 Nov., 1912), daughter of John Beattie (3 Dec., 1786–1 March, 1861) and Sarah Edminston (30 July 1790–23 Dec., 1868). John’s family had been in Somerset for the entirety of the 19th Century and at least the latter half of the 18th. The 1850 Census recorded Henry Clay and his numerous siblings—including a brother named John B., after whom his son would be named—living on a farm in Somerset with his parents, John Montgomery (1790-1871) and Margaret Beatty (1799-1851) Newell. Whether Henry Clay fought in the Civil War is unclear, but on 6 April, 1866, he became post master for Stiggalls Ferry, Pulaski County. Three years later, 7 December, 1869, he married Florence Beattie. The 1870 census showed the couple working a farm near the rest of Henry’s family. A decade later, they were still there, with young son John and a daughter, Sallie (1870-1926).

The 1890 census was destroyed by fire, so our next glimpse of the Newell family was during 1900, when Henry Clay was enumerated on the Somerset census, living on the east side of Crab Orchard Street, as a 67-year-old “capitalist,” whilst John Newell was enumerated as a 26-year-old dentist. The census was taken too early in that year to include Iola, although arrangements may have been in the making then for John and Iola’s September wedding.

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East Main Street, Somerset, Kentucky, as Iola knew it.

In my searches, I found neither evidence of the Newell’s marital happiness nor unhappiness. Should Newell or Haley relatives who possess deeper insight discover this article, I welcome communication via the contact page. This stated, and extrapolating from the reported facts of 31 October, 1901, it is clear the marriage was in crisis.

On Halloween, at the Newell family home in Crab Orchard Street, Iola rose early, perhaps at dawn, to fix her husband’s morning meal. When the food was ready, she climbed the stairs to the bedroom “where her husband slept and called him to breakfast,” reported the Nashville Tennessean. Iola “then turned, and picking up a pistol from the dresser, fired a bullet into her brain.” Iola died bout one hour later, without regaining consciousness.

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Danville Kentucky Advocate, 1 November, 1901, page 1.

It would be repeated by newspapers in multiple states that Iola was in unspecified poor health and that something dark drove her mind. “She feared she was going to become insane,” noted the Paducah Sun Democrat. “Fearing she would lose her reason, Mrs. Iola Newell…committed suicide,” reported the Adair County News. “Mrs. Newell had been despondent from ill health for some time,” stated the Danville Advocate.

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Paducah Sun-Democrat, Thursday, 31 October, 1901, page 2.

Details of the event vary between publications and this raises troubling questions about what really happened in that bedroom on Crab Orchard Street. For example, the Louisville Courier-Journal states, “It is not known how the shooting was done, as her husband was the only one in the room and he was asleep. The ball entered the back of the head and ranged downward into the vertebra.”

Is it possible that Iola actually shot herself from behind?My limited research on suicide by gun indicates that if a person can reach that far, shooting oneself in this way is possible—but is it likely? Why cook breakfast, wake your husband—as the Tennessean reported—and then grab a handy, loaded gun to end your life in front of your spouse? (Unless this was, in itself, a statement on their relationship.) Sadly, I must propose the possibility that Iola did not kill herself, but instead was murdered. If correctly reported by the Courier-Journal, the gunshot from behind with a downward trajectory hints at foul play. The Advocate’s coverage seemed to moot the possibility, too, noting that Iola “was shot in the head and almost instantaneously killed in her own room…. The only other person present at the time was her husband [emphasis mine]….”

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Louisville Courier-Journal, 1 November, 1901, page 2.

Did John Newell shoot his wife? Lacking further information on family dynamics or a death certificate—which do not appear to exist for either Iola or John—I can only continue to speculate.

As mentioned at the start of this article, John Newell did not long survive Iola. Unlike hers, however, his death at age 29, 6 April, 1903, apparently went unreported. He was buried beside her in Somerset City Cemetery, in the Newell family plot that would also contain his parents.

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The gravestone of Iola Haley Newell. Photo by Judy Lynn.

Stepping forward nine years past the 1901 death of their daughter-in-law and seven years past the death of their only son, the 1910 census placed Henry and Florence Newell in Catlin, Vermilion County, Illinois, living in retirement beside their daughter Sallie Newell Colyer, her husband John (a bank cashier), and their grand children Florence and Varnon. Henry Clay Newell died 6 November, 1912; Florence Newell died only a few weeks later on 21 November, 1912.

Iola’s father farmed in Bozeman for some 33 years, dropping dead at his dining table of a cerebral apoplexy in June 1931. Her sister Pearly went on to marry William Douglas Bell. They had a daughter, Jane (1917-2000). Pearly died in Helena, Lewis and Clark County, Montana, 15 June, 1961.

Iola’s brother Thomas married Nellie Wood and had a number of children, including John Perry Haley (1895-1972), the “Perry Haley” mentioned in the photograph inscription. Family history published at Findagrave.com reports, “John Perry Haley received his education and spent his boyhood on the home farm near Bozeman, and Billings, Montana, and at the age of 20, taking charge of the ranch while his parents were in Boise, Idaho.

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Dorothea Haggerty and John Perry Haley (Iola’s nephew), who, in 1919, named their daughter after John’s late aunt.

“In the spring of 1920 he went with his father to British Columbia where they were looking for a stock ranch and that fall Mr. Haley lost his entire capital when a bank near Billings failed. For 3 years Mr. Haley was part owner in the Midnight Frolic Roundup near Billings. Mr. Haley erected a grandstand with racetrack and chutes and operated a summer resort, which was used as a dance hall and skating rink. In 1925 he moved to Klamath County and he and his brothers, Oliver and McClellan, leased their father’s ranch.

“Within 2 years J. Perry Haley rented a farm near Malin and during the ensuing 3 years he added acreage and by 1930 bought his own place. In Columbus, Montana, July 6, 1917, he married Dorothea Haggerty. The were the parents of 4 children born in Montana: Iola Louise born Jan. 4, 1919; Nellie Juanita born June 13, 1920; Maxine Leila born Aug. 11, 1923; and Thomas Walker Haley born Oct 12, 1924.” Ω

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Somerset City Cemetery, where the Newells repose today.

Harriet, Jeff, Aunty, and Anna

“I was not surprised when we received the notice of Aunty’s death. From what you had written to me I was expecting it.”

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A mourning stationery envelope addressed to Anna M. Ramsey. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

To: Miss Anna M. Ramsey
Richborough P.D.
Bucks County
Pennsylvania
C/O Mr. Ed Ramsey
Please forward

High Point
April 27th ‘84

Dear Cousin Anna,

Yours of April 4 received. Was so glad to hear from you. I had looked for a letter for some time from Aunty. But have treasured up my last one from her. Anna, I sympathize deeply with your in your affliction. Your loss is her gain. But it is so hard to part with those we love so dearly but Aunty has only passed from this wicked world to a brighter and better one beyond. But oh the loneliness and sadness in the home without a mother or father. My heart aches for you, well I do remember the bitter pangs of suffering I passed through when I had to give up my dear mother. It seemed as though all the sunshine had gone out of the world. To this day I grieve for her. But time changes all things and we must be reconciled.

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Page one of the black-edged letter written on mourning stationery to Anna Ramsey.

I was not surprised when we received the notice of Aunty’s death. From what you had written to me I was expecting it. But felt very sad indeed. I wanted to come east last fall to see you all once more but Jeff was sick so long and so bad that we could not leave him. I think from what you tell me about Aunty she must have been (in her sickness) very much like cos Kate Hume (McNair). She did not suffer pain but had that distress feeling and sick at her stomach. She had a cancerous tumor.

Dear Anna, we are so lonely. We miss Jeff so much. He was so good and kind to all. I had often read of happy deaths but never witnessed such a one in my life. He was sick only five days. In the afternoon of the day he died, Rosie was sitting on his bed crying. He said to her “I would so much rather you would go to the piano and play and sing for me ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ then to sit here and cry.” She went to the piano and played and tried to sing with the help of some friends. Poor child. It seemed as if it would kill her almost.

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Letter to Anna Ramsey, pages 2 and 3.

He bid all goodbye and talked to each one separately and was perfectly willing to go. Said he did not dread death and was ready to die, only his worldly affairs were not just as he would have them. He thought he lingered longer toward the last then he ought to, so asked a friend to read and sing with the friends that time might pass faster. There was about 50 persons in to bid him farewell. He shook hands and had some good word for all. It hurt him very much to talk but when he found he could not live he talked the most of the time until about half an hour before his death.

He had a great many friends. There was between 1,000 and 1,500 persons at his funeral. He requested to have one of our old preachers to preach at his funeral. The sermon was very good. He was buried with Masonic honors. We sent a notice to Aunty. Did you get it? Anna, I would like you to write to me soon and tell me about Aunty’s death. All join one with much love to all friends. Accept a very large share for yourself.

From your cousin,

Harriet S. Hart

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Letter to Anna Ramsey, page 4.

The poignant letter above was written by Harriet Shepard Vanartsdalen Hart (22 February, 1830, Philadelphia, PA–11 December, 1900, High Point, MO), wife of Thomas Jefferson Hart (9 February, 1826, Bucks Co., PA–29 February, 1884, High Point, MO). According to his obituary, Hart struggled for years with “an enfeebling lung disease,” his “exhausted nature at last yielded to an attack of acute pneumonia after five days’ illness,” leaving a Harriet a widow with eight surviving children of the 16 she had born.

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Jeff and Harriet’s son Louis Folwell Hart (4 Jan., 1862-4 Dec., 1929). He is buried in Tacoma, Pierce County, Washington. Hart served as governor of that state from 13 February, 1919, to 12 January, 1925. Neither of his parents lived to see his election.

Many years later, Jeff Hart’s then-middle-aged son Louis, a lawyer and later governor of the State of Washington, filed an application to join the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). The document contains substantial genealogical evidence about the Hart family, naming Jeff Hart’s father as Lewis Folwell Hart (17 March, 1792, Bucks County, PA–1841, Belleview, Illinois). Jeff’s mother was Sidney Gill (1796–1854). He was the grandson of Joseph Folwell Hart (b. 7 December, 1758) and Ann Folwell (1758, Warminster, PA–11 March, 1843, Southampton, PA), who was the daughter of Colonel William Thomas Folwell (1737 – 1813). That Joseph was the son of Warminster, Pennsylvania, native Joseph Hart (1 September, 1715–25 February 1788) and his wife Elizabeth Collet (14 May, 1744, Philadelphia, PA-19 February, 1788, Warminster, PA).

Joseph, Sr., took part in the American Revolution as a “colonel, Second Battalion,” the SAR application notes. He commanded a regiment of Bucks County militia, serving in Amboy, New Jersey, during the latter part of the summer of 1776. Joseph, Sr., was a great-grandson of Christopher and Mary Hart of Oxfordshire, England, who came to America with William Penn and settled in Warminster Township, Bucks County, where the family lived until 1855, when Jeff Hart moved his branch of the family to Missouri.

Harriet was the daughter of John Vanartsdalen (b. abt. 1800–aft. 1870) and his wife Maria S. Davis (1807, PA–7 November, 1854, Philadelphia, PA). Harriet’s family was descended from early Dutch settlers Simon Jansz Van Arsdalen and his wife Jannetje Romeyn.

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The grave of Harriet Vanartsdalen Hart in High Point Cemetery, High Point, Missouri.

Jeff Hart married Harriet Vanartsdalen on 16 March, 1848. On the 1850 Census of Philadelphia, the young couple and their second-born son John Byron (b. 1849, PA–1886) (the first, also named John Byron, died either at birth or in early infancy), were living with—or possibly visiting—Harriet’s mother Maria, the woman of whom her daughter would later write, “Well I do remember the pangs of suffering I passed through when I had to give up my own dear mother. It seemed as though all the sunshine had gone out of the world.” Also in the household was Harriet’s younger brother, John (b. 1835). Jeff Hart’s occupation at that time was carpenter.

Harriet lost her beloved mother in November 1854. Maria was laid to rest in Philadelphia’s Odd Fellows Burial Ground, an historic cemetery at 24th and Diamond Streets established in 1849. The cemetery property was acquired by the Philadelphia Housing Authority in 1950 for construction of a housing project. The bodies that had been interred there, including Maria’s, were relocated to Philadelphia’s Mount Peace Cemetery and Lawnview Memorial Park in Rockledge, Pennsylvania.

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When the U.S. Civil War erupted, the Jeff Hart family had been in Missouri for about six years. They dwelt in “Township 43, Range 15” of Moniteau County. Today, that place is called High Point. It is less a town than a crossroads placed amidst a deeply agrarian landscape. At High Point, the 1860 Census reveals Jeff Hart had made a leap from carpenter to merchant, and Harriet managed four children who ranged in age from 11 to six months: Byron; Frank H. (1858 – 1905), Laura Louisa (b. 1859); and Lillie Josephine (1856 – 1863).

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Confederate General Sterling Price. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Jeff Hart served in the U.S. Civil War in Company B of the 48th Missouri Infantry as a captain. His registration record of the summer of 1863 enumerates him as a 37-year-old merchant with three months of previous experience serving in a militia. According to its regimental history, his unit saw service at Rolla, Missouri, “until December 9, 1864. Defense of Rolla against Price.” This is likely the only military action that Hart participated in.

“In 1864, the Missouri legislature was gearing up for a new election. Confederate leaders believed that if they could take the capital, Jefferson City, return the exiled Confederate politicians there, and hold elections, that the state would elect a Southerner, putting the state legally in the hands of the South for the next four years. General Sterling Price was chosen to lead this raid because of his popularity in the state,” explains The Civil War in Missouri.

After this, Hart moved with the unit to Nashville, Tennessee, from December 9 to 19. Then, his unit was “assigned to post duty at Columbia, Tenn., and garrison blockhouses on Tennessee & Alabama Railroad from Franklin to Talioka until February, 1865. Moved to Chicago, Ill., February 18-22. Guard duty at Camp Douglas and escort Confederate prisoners to City Point, Va., for exchange until June 16. Ordered to Benton Barracks, Mo., June 16. Mustered out June 22, 1865. Regiment lost during service by disease 120.”

victorian+ornaments+image+graphicsfairy2After the war, on 29 March, 1867, Jeff Hart was appointed postmaster for High Point—it was a position that made practical sense, as he operated out of an adjoining storefront. Hart held the government-paid postmaster position until his death. The 1871 Register of Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval in the Service of the United States states that his pay that year was $110, but in 1873, it had fallen to $81. A slight lessening likely did not discomfit the family. In 1881, the Osage Valley Banner reported in its social column that Hart, who was “largely engaged in [railroad] tie contracts and general merchadise,” had been in town—the paper naming him “the Rothchild [sic] of High Point.”

The 1870 Census of Moniteau County lists the couple’s children living at home as Byron;  Frank; Laura; Louis; Emma Rosealie (b. 1866)—the “Rosie” mentioned in the letter weeping for her dying father; and Alberta S. (b. 1869). All the children, with the exception of the first, were born in Missouri. Also living with the family was a nonrelated servant, dry goods clerk, and laborer, as well as a man, aged 70, who is simply called “Van Archdalen,”—a farmer born in Pennsylvania. This was almost certainly Harriet’s father, John. (Other Hart children who died young were the first John Byron (1849-1849); Annie Louisa (1850-1852); two babies named Howell Dorman—the first lived from 1852 to 1853, the second from 1853-1854; Maria Louisa (1854–1854); U. S. Grant (1863–1864); and Lillie Bell (1865-1865.)

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High Point Post Office with Jeff Hart’s mercantile establishment beside it and the Odd Fellows Hall above. Photo by courthouselover.

A short memoir by a family member gives us a more personal glimpse into the Hart family at that time. “[Jeff] was for a number of years a prominent merchant…. His area of trade extended south to near the Osage River…. To this union was born 16 children. [Harriet] did not nurse them, so all were cared for by ‘hired girls.’ [Eight] of these children died in infancy and 8 lived (5 boys and 3 girls). She did almost all of the buying for the store in St. Louis, Mo., sometimes leaving her babies when they were less than 2 weeks old. In that way, she was a great help to her husband as he was badly needed to stay and take care of the business at their store. Their eldest son was named Byron. He married their hired girl….” (She was Mary Elizabeth Foraker, born in 1848. The couple had three children before her early death in 1885. The following year, on 12 May, 1886, Byron Hart was killed by a train in Arthur, Missouri.)

Jeff’s son Louis would become a lawyer, and there is some evidence that Jeff himself also practiced law. He was described by the Jefferson City State Journal on 17 September, 1875, as “T. J. Hart, Esq.” in an article about his pursuit, with the local sheriff, of a Hart employee, Charles Thomas, who had stolen $165. The pair traced the employee “across the country and river to Columbia, where they found he had 40 minutes before left for Centralia. The sheriff…telegraphed the description of Thomas to his deputy, and the latter arrested Thomas as he was purchasing a ticket to St. Louis. He had purchased two sets of clothes, a revolver, &c., and had left $58. The pursuers arrived in a hack, and Sheriff Yarnell and Hart returning with their prisoner, he was indicted by a special grand jury, tried, convicted, and sentenced…ten days from the time of commission of the crime.”

Just a few months later, on 26 November, the same newspaper reported: “T. J. Hart’s store came very near to being destroyed by fire on Friday last night. The Odd Fellows Hall is situated over the store. It is supposed that when they retired, some of the party lit their pipes and probably threw a match into the spittoon. When Mr. Hart’s son went to the store and discovered fire on the show case, he lost no time in getting in the hall, which was almost suffocating him with smoke. The wooden spittoon was nearly consumed, a stand was minus one leg, and a hole in the floor nearly two feet square and a 2 x 8 joist nearly burned off. [There was a ] burning hole in the ceiling of the store, ready to warm things in general.”

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An obituary of Thomas Hart, included with the letter, that supplies many of the details of his life, character, and religion.

The 1880 Census of High Point shows Jeff Hart then had no occupation, as he was presumably struggling with his chronic lung disease, which could have been Tuberculosis, lung cancer, severe asthma, or any number of other issues affecting the airways that could lead to fatal pneumonia. The children living at home at that time were Laura; Louis; Rosie; Alberta; Elmer E. (1870 – 1930); and Carlos Brumhawk (b. 1875). The eldest son, Louis, was the only member of the family with work—he was listed a clerk in a store, almost assuredly his father’s.

In mid-November of that year, there was yet another brush with fire. The Hart’s uninsured farm at High Point burned to the ground. According to the Kirkville Weekly Graphic of 27 November, “Thirty-eight hogs, two calves, two buggies and one carriage, besides a great deal of provender, were consumed.” But the tragedy could have been much worse. “Mrs. Hart, [Jeff’s daughter-in-law], led one mule and two horses from the burning building, and was in the act of rescuing a calf when her clothing caught fire. With a presence of mind remarkable under the circumstances, she tore her clothing off thereby preventing what would have been a frightful death.”

On 13 March, 1884, within a fortnight of her husband’s death and about five weeks before writing her letter to Anna Ramsey, Harriet became the post mistress for High Point and appears to have retained the role until October 1891, when a replacement was named. That man, Robert Reynolds, may have taken over the Harts’ mercantile business at the same time.

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Sedalia Democrat, 23 December, 1900.

At some point after selling off the store, Harriet went to live in the home of her daughter Laura, who married Simon Patrick Cronin of California, Missouri. Harriet did not die until 11 December, 1900, and ought to appear for a final time on the census of that year, but I cannot find her. She was buried in High Point, presumably beside Jeff, whose grave appears to be unmarked.

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The recipient of the letter Harriet wrote in April 1884 was Anna Mary Ramsey (b. 21 October, 1847, Richboro, Bucks Co., PA), the daughter of farmer Robert Ramsey (b. 1814, PA) and his wife Elizabeth Vanartsdalen (b. 1817, PA)—the “Aunty” of whom this letter speaks. Elizabeth was, it appears, the great-aunt of Harriet Vanartsdalen Hart—her paternal grandfather’s sister.

The Ramsey family was large, with eight children who all reached adulthood. The 1850 Census saw the family living in Northampton, Bucks County, where Robert Ramsey was a farmer. The children listed on the 1850 census were Jeanette V. (b. 1842); Amelia G. (b. 1844); Henry K. (1845-1910); Anna; and John V. (12 January, 1850–5 May, 1890). The 1860 census includes all of these children, as well as William Augustus (b. 1852) and Edward (b. 1855), the latter of whom this letter was sent in the care of.

Anna’s brother Henry may have fought during the final year of the Civil War. A Henry Ramsey enlisted as private on 17 February, 1865, in Company I, 61st Pennsylvania Infantry and was mustered out on 28 June, 1865, in Washington, D.C. However, there are multiple Pennsylvania Henry Ramseys who enlisted during the war. Some can be ruled out as Anna’s brother, but none who remain supply the recorded evidence to make certain identification.

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An old farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, somewhere near where the Ramsey’s lived.

Ten years later, in 1870, Robert and Elizabeth appear alone on the 1870 census of Northampton—all of their offspring had flown. Sons Henry and Edward were enumerated in Abingdon, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, working as laborers on the farm of maternal kin Amos and Lottie Vanartsdalen. The rest of the children were nearby, still in Northampton. Son John worked as a laborer on the farm of Jesse and Hannah Twining. Eldest daughter Jeanette lived with another Vanartsdalen relation, 64-year-old Jane. Jeanette may have been with Jane Vanartsdalen as early as May 1864, when both their names were entered as members of the Dutch Reformed Church of North and Southampton.

Amelia lived on the farm of Marshall and Sarah Cummings, working as a seamstress. Anna was with farmer Charles Torbert and his 21-year-old daughter Emma, keeping house.

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The Old Dutch Reformed Church, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where William Ramsey married in 1882.

Anna’s father, Robert, died 5 May, 1878, and was buried in Union Cemetery, Richboro, Bucks County, “aged 64 years, 6 months, and 8 days,” according to his tombstone. Anna and William then returned to live with 62-year-old widow Elizabeth and were thusly enumerated on the 1880 Census. Anna’s brother John was nearby, enumerated in the 1880 Census as a laborer. He had married a woman named Emma and had two children: Mary (b. 1875) and Robert (b. 1877).

On 18 January, 1882, at the Dutch Reformed Church, William Ramsey married Adelaide B. Addis (1859–1896) and became the father of Anna Maud (1886–1906), Harry A. (1887–1954), and Charles H. (1888–1964.) Anna Ramsey never married, and died in Morristown, Pennsylvania, 7 December, 1933, aged 86, of chronic valvular heart disease and bronchial pneumonia. She was buried on 12 December in Union Cemetery between her mother, “Aunty” Elizabeth and her bachelor brother Henry, 50 years after receiving the grief-stricken missive I now own. Ω

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The graves of the Ramsey family, Union Cemetery, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Freddie, My Love

“Oh, Mrs. Crane, he looked so pretty. He looked as if he was asleep and dreaming a very pleasant dream.”

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A partial letter from “Julie” to “Mrs. Crane,” single page with black borders, page one. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I have in my collection this incomplete letter from the mid- to late 1800s written by an American woman named Julie who had endured the loss of her fiancé, Freddie. Julie’s letter was for another woman—her elder and probably close family friend, Mrs. Crane.

Julie and Freddie were young, possibly in their teens. Julie was quite literate, but her writing contains numerous errors, phonetic spellings, and a general disuse of commas, full stops, and quotations that is endemic to the era. I have corrected her mistakes and added modern punctuation in the quotes below.

“I sat and looked at him all night,” Julie wrote at the top of the single page, recalling the aftermath of the passing. “So many spoke of his smiling and happy beautiful countenance even in death. He looked too beautiful to bury.” She then hopped backward in time, writing, “He was sensible until two minutes before he died, but whether he realized he was really dying, I know not.”

Next she confides in Mrs. Crane, “About two hours before he died, I sat crying and he looked at me. I said, ‘Freddie darling, how can I give you up?’ He raised his hand and said ‘Oh, Julie, don’t.’”

Don’t? Don’t weep? Don’t imply that he was dying? Don’t tarnish his “good death” with female hysteria? Perhaps Freddie’s command was more prosaic: The dying man needed to move his bowels. “[H]e wanted to get on the chamber [pot] and I asked him if I should tell his mother. He said, ‘Mother is weak.’ I said, ‘Freddie, shall I help you?’ He said, ‘Yes, please,’ so I [assisted] him,” she next wrote. Of all the letter’s painful details, this strikes deepest—a heartbreaking intimacy, demanded by circumstance, between a couple who may never have seen each other unclothed.

This passage also raises the question of what killed Freddie at an early age. It could have been tuberculosis (“consumption”) and it is easy to ascribe it as the likeliest cause, but Freddie mentions that his mother is weak—potentially recovering from whatever disease her son then had. Possibilities include cholera, dysentery, typhoid, influenza, yellow fever, and malaria. However, many of these, including consumption, fail to leave a corpse too lovely to put in the ground.

Julie continued, “All that week he could not bear to have [me] out of his sight. I stayed by him all that week, night and day, until he was buried. The last night I [sat] up and kept cloths on his face.” Here, Julie may have meant she placed cold cloths on her fiancee’s visage to keep it from discoloring before the funeral.

In 1891’s Polite Society at Home and Abroad, author Annie Randall White noted, “When the funeral is held at the house, the family do not view the remains after the people have begun to assemble. Just before the clergyman begins the services the mourners are seated near the casket, the nearest one at the head, and the others following in order of kinship. If it is possible, they are placed in a room adjoining, where the words of the service can be heard. They are thus spared the pain of giving way to their grief before strangers. Those who are present should look at the dead before they take their seats for the service, although it is customary for the master of ceremonies (usually the undertaker) ere the coffin lid is closed, to invite all who so desire, to take a last look, ere parting forever.”

“Oh, Mrs. Crane,” Julie wrote, “he looked so pretty. He looked as if he was asleep and dreaming a very pleasant dream. I think some day I shall see him again where there [are] no more partings.”

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Although this real photo postcard may date from as much as 60 years after his death, it illustrates a home viewing in about 1905 that may have differed little from Freddie’s. White lilies drape the coffin and the table beside the young man, who is likely a son of the house, but possibly a young father. He rests in his casket, nestled in bright white crinkled satin beneath a canopy a black netting edged in white. Above him are twin hand-colored portraits painted over underlying photos. At left, the planter is of art nouveau/craftsmanesque style, perhaps a red base with trails of blue. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

After Freddie’s burial, Julie remained with his family. “I am here at his home yet. They seem to think the world of me. His father said I should stay with him as long as he lives but I don’t know. Sister Mary was married the 24th of last month to a Frenchman. My sister Emiline died in August. My cousin died in August—she had been married 8 months. My brother-in-law that lived near us died 1 year ago this month with….”

And there, maddeningly, it ends, leaving little more to note than the hope that Julie found love again, established a family, and lived a full life. Time’s window closes and we must move on, so very much against our wills. Ω

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Julie’s partial letter, second page.

A Mother’s Mortality, A Woman’s Glory

The posing of mother and child may also deliberately highlight the loss of her long and well-cared for hair.

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Photo courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

This stunning tintype, circa 1875, of an American mother and infant, is owned by collector and Your Dying Charlotte contributor Beverly Wilgus, who notes, “This little tintype is not as much a ‘hidden mother’ as a mother who chose to put the emphasis on the baby. I do wonder about her very short hair. One explanation could be that she has been very ill, maybe after a difficult birth, and her hair was cut short for comfort.”

It is possible that the woman pictured suffered from puerperal sepsis (called childbed fever) in the aftermath of delivery, which had been combatted, in part, by hair cropping. If true, this mother surely thought the tintype image celebratory—even triumphant: She had survived; her magnificent reward was the healthy infant draped over her shoulder, offered visually to posterity.

The sitter was lucky—a scarce survivor of a bitter scourge. “Childbed fever killed at the cruelest moments. It was described as a ‘desecration,’ an aspect of the natural world that felt almost deliberately evil. What caused it? Some thought ‘a failure of uterine discharge;’ others, a little later, called it ‘milk metastasis,’ noting that the internal organs of the women who died seemed covered in milk. Eventually it was accepted that the fluid was not milk at all. It was pus,” wrote Druin Burch in a Live Science article, “When Childbirth Was Natural, and Deadly.” When obstetricians and midwives talked of “delivering women,” he explained, they meant delivering them from the deadly perils of childbirth.

Puerperal sepsis from Streptococcus pyogenes is transmitted via unsanitary conditions during delivery. In an age before antibiotics, the takeover of its host was medicinally unstoppable. Between 1847 to 1876, an estimated five deaths resulted after each 1,000 live births, with puerperal sepsis causing up to half of those losses. “There was no cure available: doctors merely prescribed opium, champagne, and brandy-and-soda, trying to ease the passing, rather than making a vain attempt to cure a mortal illness,” wrote Judith Flanders in her 2003 book Inside the Victorian Home.

Yet against the odds, this mother survived.

In the Little House series, Mary Ingall’s lovely blonde hair was cropped during the throes of scarlet fever in a bid to save her life.

That hair should be cut during a high fever steamed from a long-held notion that it could drain the energy of the seriously ill; cutting it also allowed heat to escape the body thus lowering the patient’s temperature. In the popular Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, Mary Ingall’s lovely blonde hair was cropped during the throes of scarlet fever in a bid to save her life. (As an aside, JSTOR Daily points out, “Pediatric historian Beth A. Tarini believes the term was inaccurately used to describe viral meningoencephalitis in Mary Ingalls, whose disease rendered her completely blind.” The article is a fascinating read.)

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This late-19th Century teen may have had her hair shorn during a serious illness. Courtesy State Library and Archives of Florida.

Whenever a woman’s hair was cut for medical reasons, it was mourned by her family and friends as a brutal loss. Long and well-cared for tresses were considered a Victorian woman’s chiefest treasure. Writers of the age reflected the obsession in their literary works. “No other writers have lavished such attention on the physical properties of women’s hair: its length, texture, color, style, curliness. There is scarcely a female character in Victorian fiction whose hair is not described at least perfunctorily, and often the woman’s hair is described in incredible detail. The brown, neatly combed heads of virtuous governesses and industrious wives; the tangled, disorderly hair of the sexually and emotionally volatile women like Hetty Sorrel and Catherine Earnshaw; the artfully arranged curls of the girl-women like Dora Spenlow Copperfield and Isabella Linton are all familiar, even conventional elements in Victorian character description.” wrote Elizabeth G. Gitters in “The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination.” (PMLA Journal, October 1984).

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Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The watercolor’s model, Rossetti’s mistress Fanny Cornforth, had thick golden-red hair that hung well below her waist.

In a culture that all-but worshiped long female hair, caring for it was a rigorous process. It was an an era before shampoo and available cleansing options often contained caustic or drying elements. Women instead brushed their hair to redistribute the natural oil whilst often adding in tonics or perfumes. The brushing regimen was done daily by some women, such as the singer Aline Vallandri, for upwards of a half hour. Mrs. Walker, who published a 400-page tome in 1840 titled Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress, recommended the use of a soft brush for at least ten minutes, twice a day, after the hair had been combed and brushed with a hard brush to remove dandruff and dust, such as soot from coal burning fires.

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A Victorian advert for hair tonic shows a maid brushing her mistress’s tresses.
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Fanny in reality: Taken in the 1860s, this carte de visite is believed to show Fanny Cornforth from behind with her hair undone.

Other cleansing tricks written about in the 19th Century include the use of baking soda and vinegar, rum, and black tea, as well as egg yolks and rosemary as conditioning agents. Ladies could powder their hair and then brush it after the excess oil was absorbed—as descendants of these women do today with dry shampoo. Ω