Long before Internet memes, the obsession with yowling, murderous, disdainful, aloof, and weirdly adorable felines produced trade cards that are still collected today.
“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
The above daguerreotype, which includes a 20th-Century handwritten note indicating it was once held in the collection of the Ossining, New York Historical Society, shows Avis Burr Wooster in about the fifty-fifth year of her life.
Avis was born on 26 May, 1796, in Southbury, New Haven County, Connecticut, in the ember glow of a hot century that had seen Connecticut change from a British colony to a sovereign state inside a new nation. By the time the Revolution exploded, Southbury was already a venerable place, having been established on land bought from the Paugusset tribe in 1659. The area remains much as it was in Avis’s day: rural, agricultural, quiet.
The Burr family’s transplantation to the New World was courtesy of Jehue Burr, born in about 1605, who sailed with Governor Winthrop to Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1630. Jehue eventually removed to Fairfield, Connecticut, and planted the seeds of a lineage that would include the noted vice president and unfortunate dualist Aaron Burr. Avis’s line was through Jehue’s son Nathaniel (1635-1712) to Avis’s great-great-grandfather Colonel John Burr (1673-1750) to her great-grandfather Captain John Burr (1698-1752) to her grandfather of the same name and rank (1728-1771), who married Eunice Booth (abt. 1728-bef. 1786) circa 1750.
Avis’s father, William Burr (23 June, 1762-28 Jan., 1841), lost his own father tragically when he was less than ten years old. According to the parish record of Stratfield, on 28 July, 1771, “Capt. John Burr, a farmer, son of…John Burr, was killed by lightning at the old Pequonnock meeting-house…. The congregation was standing in prayer. Parson Rose stopped praying, and after a pause he uttered the following words, ‘Are we all here?’ When the congregation moved out it was found that David Sherman and John Burr were dead. They were both in the prime of life, with families (the very pick of the flock). There was no rod on the steeple at that time.”
A mere five years thereafter, when the Revolution began, teenaged William Burr joined the Connecticut Militia, enlisting on 1 April, 1776. His pension files, included in the tome Revolutionary War Records of Fairfield, Connecticut, indicate that his postings were many and varied, and that he served for a time as a substitute for another man, Andrew Curtiss. One of Burr’s postings was to the “Battery at Black Rock,” or Black Rock Fort in New Haven, later Fort Nathan Hale. The Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution note, “Fort Hale is situated upon an insulated rock, two miles from the end of Long Wharf, New Haven…. The Americans [had] a battery of three guns upon this point, which greatly annoyed the enemy when landing.” Many years later, Aaron Turney of Fairfield attested that in 1779, Burr was 1st sergeant at the battery and second-in-command under Captain Jarvis. Burr appears to have left military service sometime in 1780.
Having reached manhood during the fight for independence, Burr beat his sword into a plowshare, marrying Sarah Hubbell (1770-1857), the daughter of Jeremiah (1725-1801) and Sarah (1724-1775) Hubbell, on 23 November, 1786. The above-cited pension records include testimony by friend Aner Wheeler, who was “born and lived in Sarah’s neighborhood, and knew her from childhood,” that she “saw William Burr and Sarah Hubbell married in Huntington in the fall of 1786” by Congregational Minister Rev. Elisha Rexford.
The couple was blessed with a multitude of children whose names and dates of birth were presented by Sarah Hubbell Burr during her attempts to gain a pension increase and land bounty based on her husband’s service. Although it may at first seem tedious to list them, doing so illustrates the spacing between infants that was either natural to, or practiced by this American family, and is illustrative of the sibling maelstrom in which Avis Burr was raised: Alvan (1788); Abigail (1790); Sally (1792); Betsey (1794); Avis (1797); Olive (1800); George (1803); Erastus (1805); Eliza (1808); Harry (1811); and William, Jr. (1814).
As is sadly the case with bygone women, there is little to fill the story of Avis’s days until 15 November, 1820, when she married farmer Russell Wooster (b. 25 April, 1791) in Southbury. Wooster was the son of Joseph Wooster (abt. 1743-1819) and Hannah Woodruff (abt. 1755-1835). He was descended from the early immigrant Edward Wooster, born in 1622 in Cheddington, Buckinghamshire, who became the first permanent settler of Derby, Connecticut, and died there 8 July, 1689.
Whilst running a prosperous farm (the value of the real estate was $6,000 in 1870), Russell and Avis had four children: William Burr (1821-1900); Cynthia Cordelia (21 Dec., 1824-17 Aug., 1868); Samuel R. (22 April, 1830-5 Feb., 1906); and Avis Amanda (1839-1889).
Avis’s eldest daughter Cynthia—whose strong resemblance to her mother is evident in the photo below—married Thomas Merwin Downs (15 July, 1823-19 Feb., 1874) on New Year’s Day 1845. Downs, also pictured below, was the son of Henry Downs and Sarah Ann Botsford. He was listed on the 1850 Census as a farmer, and on both the 1860 and 1870 censuses as a “laborer.” By the latter enumeration, two years after his wife’s death, he had amassed $5,500 in real estate and $3,000 in personal wealth. The couple had three children: Imogene Amanda (5 Sept., 1847-12 May, 1881), Wilber Russell, and Avis Elena (b. abt. 1866-aft. 1931). The circumstances of Cynthia Wooster Downs’s death are unknown, but she was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery, Ansonia, Connecticut. Her husband would remarry, but have no further offspring.
Avis and Russell’s second daughter Amanda lived with Cynthia’s widow Merwin, presumably undertaking the duty of replacement mother for her sister’s children until Merwin married again. She left the Downs’ residence by 1872, when she wed the widowed Joseph White Naramore (1827-1898), the son of William White Naramore and Mary Lyman. Naramore’s first wife, Amelia Wallace, died in 1870. Naramore listed his profession in 1860 as a machinist and in 1870 and 1880 a pin maker with $5,000 in real estate and $2,000 in personal property.
Amanda and Joseph had two daughters: Amelia Wooster (b. 1874) and Harriet Avis (b. 1875). Harriet never married and remained her mother’s companion all her life. Amelia married Harrison Abram Cornell, Jr., a fire insurance agent in Ossining, New York. They had three children: Marguerite E. Cornell (1901-1940); Joseph Naramore Cornell (b. 1904); and Greta A. Cornell (1911-1997). As was noted at the start of this article, my daguerreotype of Avis Burr Wooster was formerly in the collection of the Ossining Historical Society, and by this connection that mystery is solved: one of the Cornells certainly made the original donation.
Joseph Naramore died in 1898 in Derby, and was laid to rest at Oak Cliff Cemetery beside his first wife. In 1900, Amanda and Harriet were living with her brother Dr. Samuel Wooster, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By 1910, Samuel had passed away and Amanda and Harriet returned to Connecticut. Twenty years later, the 1930 Census found the pair living in Park Street. Amanda died in 1933, aged 96, the last survivor of Avis and Russell Wooster’s brood. Harriet died in Hamden, Connecticut, 6 December, 1957, and is also buried in Oak Cliff.
“Surgeons operated with dirty hands, going from one patient to the next without proper washing or cleaning instruments and dressings.”
Avis and Russell’s youngest son Samuel, was a graduate of Yale Medical College, New Haven. In 1857, he removed to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where “he built up a good practice, due in a great measure to his genial disposition as well as to his exceptional professional ability,” wrote Ernest B. Fisher in Grand Rapids and Kent County, Michigan: A Historical Account of their Progress from First Settlement to Present Time.
On 1 June, 1858, Wooster married Josephine Ella Godfroy, who was born 28 February, 1837, in Michigan, to Detroit native Richard Godfroy and his Canadian wife Anne Lewis. Samuel and Josephine had one daughter, Louise D. Wooster, born in January 1860.
During the Civil War, Samuel Wooster was first attached as an assistant surgeon to the 8th Michigan 8th Volunteer Infantry, which, according to the unit’s Record of Service, was mustered 23 September, 1861, in Detroit.
With the regiment, Wooster saw service as part of Sherman’s Expeditionary Corps, including “a severe engagement with the enemy on Wilmington Island [and] at Secessionville on James Island, the regiment distinguished itself by a bayonet charge upon the enemy’s works, and though their ranks were swept by the enemy’s artillery, not a gun was fired until the parapet was reached.” The cost of this gallant rush on the Union side, noted the 8th’s record of service, was 13 dead, 98 wounded, 35 taken prisoner, and 36 missing.
Wooster saw the injured as they were offloaded at a wayside surgery that was hastily established. The soldiers were triaged in order to save those who had a real chance. This would become the process during the major conflagrationary battles of the war in which Wooster was a surgeon, including Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam, to name the most famous scenes of carnage—as well as many smaller, bloody affairs across a wide swath of nation busily consuming its own.
The noted Stanley B. Burns, MD, wrote in Surgery in the Civil War, “Military surgeons learned to amputate and perform a wide variety of procedures as they were actively engaged in conflicts…. Few were mentally or physically prepared, on either side, for what was to come.” Unfortunately, sterilization was unknown and unpracticed, and those who might otherwise have survived perished of post-operative infections. “Surgeons operated with dirty hands, going from one patient to the next without proper washing or cleaning instruments and dressings. Knives were often held in the mouth and sutures were wet with saliva,” Burns noted.
Another Union surgeon, Zabdiel Boylston Adams of the 32nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, is the only medical officer to be honored on Gettysburg battlefield. “On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the doctor set up a rude field hospital close to the line of battle. (One flat rock that was used as a surgical table is still there.) Adams had noticed how many soldiers were dying during transport from combat to distant medical care. Because he began treating patients so quickly and near the fighting, the 1895 plaque reads ‘many of our wounded escaped capture or death,’” noted his great-grandson Mitchell L. Adams during a lecture covered by the Harvard Review. “Adams…labored so long in surgeries at Gettysburg—up for two days and three nights—that he was blind with exhaustion. In 1864, he was severely wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness and captured by Confederate forces. His left leg shattered, he lingered untreated for weeks. Gangrene set in, but Adams treated himself by pouring pure nitric acid into the wound.”
After serving with the 8th Massachusetts, Samuel Wooster was commissioned as a full surgeon with the Michigan 1st Calvary, into which he mustered 11 April, 1863. He rose to the position of brigade surgeon in July of that year while on duty at General George Custer’s headquarters. He was made surgeon-in-chief of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Brigade from 15 September, 1863, then was appointed an acting staff surgeon by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. During this final posting, Wooster served in field and hospital practice, the Grand Rapids and Kent County, Michigan: A Historical Account states.
After the war, Wooster practiced for a time in Muskegon, but returned to Grand Rapids in 1871. In 1874, he was one of Kent County’s two coroners, a city physician and health officer of Grand Rapids in 1880, and president of the Kent County Medical Society in 1889.
By 1900, Samuel, Josephine, and Louise lived with his sister Amanda Wooster Naramore and niece Harriett at 165 Jefferson Street, Grand Rapids. A few years later, on 1 June, 1905, at age of 45, Louise Wooster married William Cary, who was employed by a local glass factory.
In one of Fate’s weird twists, Dr. Samuel Wooster died 5 February, 1906, during an operation for chronic cystitis that sent him into shock. He was aged 75 years, nine months, and 16 days. The old doctor was buried in the mausoleum at Graceland Memorial Park and Mausoleum, Grand Rapids. Josephine died 20 November, 1922, after a fracture of her right hip, and was buried in the vault with her husband. Their daughter Louise died 12 March, 1950, aged 90.
“He believed in abolition, and led his troops with the idea uppermost in mind that the war would result in the abolition of slavery.”
The Wooster’s eldest son, William, began his life “until early manhood…following the plow and tilling the soil upon his father’s farm, teaching school in the surrounding districts during the winter months,” wrote John W. Storrs in the Twentieth Connecticut: A Regimental History.
Wooster had been educated at the South Britain Academy and later Yale Law School, after which he was admitted to the bar in 1846. As the 1850s progressed and his law career grew successful, his thoughts turned to politics: In 1858, he was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives from the town of Derby, and in 1859 he was voted to the Connecticut Senate; in 1861, he returned to the Connecticut House. “In politics he has been a Republican from the outset, and the honesty and uprightness of his political views have been exemplified in every step of his career,” noted the Illustrated Popular Biography of Connecticut.
William Wooster was a strong abolitionist and he viewed the war as a righteous blow to end slavery, but he was also unsure that he was fit to command men. Almost year after his younger brother had joined up, William had not gone into uniform. At last, in early September 1862, he received a commission as lieutenant colonel of the 20th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Together, this group “left behind them the green hills of their fathers, left with them also their mothers, their wives, their children, and sweethearts with heroic bosoms swelling with patriotic devotion…. But alas! with a very inadequate idea as to what was to be the cost thereof,” Storrs lamented.
During in early May 1863, Wooster was in command of the 20th Connecticut during the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville in Spotsylvania County, Virginia—an engagement during which “two horses were shot out from under him and his sword taken,” reported the Ansonia Valley Post. He was captured and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, the Confederate capital.
“Libby takes in the captured Federals by scores, but lets none out; they are huddled up and jammed into every nook and corner; at the bathing troughs, around the cooking stoves, everywhere there is a wrangling, jostling crowd; at night the floor of every room they occupy in the building is covered, every square inch of it, by uneasy slumberers, lying side by side, and heel to head, as tightly packed as if the prison were a huge, improbable box of nocturnal sardines,” described the Richmond Enquirer in February 1864.
Wooster was paroled in a prisoner exchange in time to command the 20th Connecticut at Gettysburg as part of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 12th Corps, Army of the Potomac. The monument to the 20th Connecticut’s heroics during the three-day battle tells the tale: “The [brigade] formed on this line on the morning of July 2nd. At eve it moved to the support left of army. Returning, it found the position and woods on rear occupied by Johnson’s Division, Ewell’s Corps. During the night it lay in line of battle. At dawn, July 3rd, the 20th Conn. advanced under cover of artillery and fought 5 [hours], driving the enemy and reoccupying the works. Was relieved by the 123rd N.Y. In the afternoon moved to support the 2nd Corps against Longstreet’s assault.” The 20th Connecticut suffered the loss of 28 men and upwards of 70 wounded.
On 8 March, 1864, Wooster accepted a colonelcy with the 29th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers, Colored, the state’s first black regiment. “He believed in abolition, and led his troops with the idea uppermost in mind that the war would result in the abolition of slavery,” noted the Illustrated Popular Biography of Connecticut. “But it required great moral courage not less than loyalty to one’s convictions, to assume the leadership of a regiment of colored men even in 1864. All honor is due to Colonel Wooster for the frankness and manliness of his course.”
When the new unit paraded in New Haven, one of the soldiers, J. J. Hill, recalled, “White and colored ladies and gentlemen grasped me by the hand, with tears streaming down their cheeks…expressing the hope that we might have a safe return.” Even so, the unit had much to fight against—not only the Confederacy, which held an estimated 4 million slaves, but also the bias and bigotry of a Northern white society skeptical that blacks could be effective soldiers.
The unit went south to Virginia, where it fought admirably to capture Fort Harrison, not far from Richmond. Then, “On October 13, the regiment participated in a scouting mission which led to the Battle of the Darbytown Road, and two weeks later the men pushed the Confederate army back at the Battle of Kell House, which resulted in over 150 casualties and many captured soldiers,” states a well-researched article on the history of the regiment at Connecticut History.
Frederick Chesson of the 29th wrote of Richmond’s fall, “We began to realize as we had not till then . . . that this was one of the great days of the Lord. Right out there in the open in sight of the flaming city we went wild with excitement. We yelled, we cheered, we sang, we prayed, we wept, we hugged each other and threw up our hats.” As it would happen, Wooster and his colored 29th were the first to enter the Confederate capital—the irony must have been great.
After the Union victory, the 29th was sent to Brazos de Santiago, Texas, arriving in July, 1865. Wooster stayed until the unit was settled, then mustered out in August. A law practice back in green Connecticut beckoned. He became a partner with Wooster, Williams & Gager then paymaster general of the State of Connecticut in 1867. In later years, Wooster was president of the Derby Gas Company and the Birmingham Water Company.
At census time, 1870, William Wooster, aged 48, lived alone in an upscale rooming house in Birmingham, Connecticut, but later that year he married 37-year-old Jemima A. Wallace, known as “Jay,” who was born in New York 11 October, 1833, daughter of the prominent industrialist and English immigrant Thomas Wallace. Her father’s company, Thomas Wallace & Sons, was founded in Ansonia in 1848 and incorporated in 1853. It produced rolled metals, drawing wire, and finished items such as library lamps until 1895.
The Woosters traveled extensively after their marriage, spending several years in Europe. William’s passport application gives us a glimpse of him at age 60: 5’6-1/2″, with a high forehead, blue eyes, a Roman nose, small mouth, medium chin, and brown hair shot with grey.
On 21 September, 1900, the Ansonia Valley Post reported, “Colonel William B. Wooster died suddenly at his home…from apoplexy. He attended a Grand Army celebration in New Britain yesterday, and came home last night in his usual good health. Shortly after arising this morning he was taken ill and died within an hour.” His wife survived until 23 March, 1927.
Avis Burr Wooster, the mother who bore hero sons, herself the daughter of a revolutionary patriot, had predeceased William and Samuel by nearly twenty years, dying 17 September, 1881, aged 86. She and her husband, Russell, who died 23 April, 1877, are buried in Pine Grove Cemetery, Ansonia. I am saddened that I cannot tell her story more fully at this time and have some concerns about the latter years of her life. The 1880 census placed her at age 83 in Derby, keeping house for Ira Bliss and Emma J. (Lines) Newcomb. The connection of this couple to Avis remains unclear, as does why her two successful, wealthy sons did not house her, but this absence of facts should not impugn their characters until further research is undertaken. Ω
“I was standing by my window,
On one cold and cloudy day
When I saw that hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, lord, by and by?
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, lord, in the sky?”
I do not own the original of this photograph, but I purchased this copy from the purported owner, so I reproduce it here with the caveat that the original is not in my collection copyright, but the research is solely my own.
According to the seller, the photo, taken in Monticello, Indiana, bears the inscription “Nellie Fay, Milo, and Silas.” It shows a trio of children stood before a late 1880s or early 1890s cabinet card that almost certainly portrayed their parents. The photograph was propped against a desiccated funeral floral arrangement of a broken wheel, which signified that the family circle was compromised. There was a note attached to the arrangement, but the writing is too small to read.
A search through public records led me to Nellie Fay Helton (b. April, 1891), Milo Charles Helton (b. 24 June, 1895), and Silas Warren Helton (b. June 1893), the children of farmer Charles Milo Helton, born 19 November, 1859, in Whittier, Indiana, and his wife Emma Florence Hart, born November 1867 in Cass County, Indiana. The pair married 20 March, 1887.
Charles’s parents were John Helton (b. 18 Nov., 1825)—also recorded as Hilton—and Susan Vernon (b. 1828). Both originally from Ohio, they married in Indiana 2 March, 1848. Charles, who was the third son and fifth of seven children, grew up on the family farm in the township of Washington.
Charles’s father died at age 40 on 10 June, 1865, but he does not appear to be a Civil War casualty. He was laid to rest in Miller Cemetery, Deacon, Indiana. By the enumeration of the 1870 census, Charles’s brother William had assumed the family patriarchy. The situation remained unchanged in 1880.
Silas W. Hart was 5’10”, blue-eyed, and white-haired. He was of the Protestant faith, could supposedly neither read nor write, and received an annual Civil War pension of $72.
Emma Hart Helton was the daughter of Silas W. Hart and South Carolina-born America Rodabaugh (1838-1880). Silas Hart came into life in Fayette County, Indiana, 6 November, 1836, the son of John Hart and Indiana R. Baldwin (13 June, 1815-18 Dec., 1880).
At age 26, on 16 August, 1862, Hart enlisted as a private in Company G, 73rd Indiana Infantry. “The [regiment] was mustered in at South Bend on 16 August 1862, with Gilbert Hathaway as colonel. Its men came from all over the northern part of the state, with sizable contingents from LaPorte, Valparaiso, Crown Point, Michigan City, Plymouth, Calumet, and Logansport,” wrote W. H. H. Terrell, in the Report of Adjutant General, Indiana, Vols. II and VI. “The regiment went immediately to Kentucky, where its first assignment was to chase Bragg’s forces south into Tennessee. By 20 November the regiment was at Nashville. For several days at the end of December 1862 and the beginning of January 1863 [there] was in heavy fighting at Stone River.
“In April 1863 the 73rd was assigned to Colonel A. D. Streight’s Independent Provisional Brigade, which had the mission of penetrating the enemy’s territory and cutting its communications. Embarking at Nashville, the regiment sailed down the Cumberland and up the Tennessee, landing at Eastport, Mississippi. From 30 April to 2 May they were in heavy engagements at Day’s Gap, Crooked Creek, and Blount’s Farm, all in Alabama. Colonel Hathaway was killed at this last engagement, and five days later Colonel Streight himself surrendered. The enlisted men in the regiment were soon paroled and returned to Nashville while the officers were sent to Confederate prison camps.”
In 1864, the regiment served picket duty along the Tennessee River. “In September they were ordered to Decatur, Alabama, where they held off an attack on 1 October. On 26 October, Hood with 35,000 men besieged Decatur, but was held off. In the winter of 1864-1865 the 73rd moved to Stevenson, Alabama, then to Huntsville, then to guard the Mobile and Charleston Railroad with headquarters at Larkinsville.”
On 1 July, 1865, the regiment was mustered out at Nashville. Silas Hart left the infantry as a full corporal and returned his wife America and his children in Indiana. After America’s death on 4 December, 1880, Silas married twice more. A 2 August, 1911, Richmond Item story about his third and very “winter marriage” to Ellen Donhower is left.
Silas served as post master in Galveston, Indiana, and later was a jeweler in Richmond, Indiana. He ended his days in the National Military Home in Dayton, Ohio. From the admission records of 20 April, 1922, we know that at age 86, Silas was 5’10”, blue-eyed, and white-haired. He was of the Protestant faith, supposedly could neither read nor write, received an annual Civil War pension of $72, and was suffering from severe dementia. His stay at the home was brief: Silas Hart died 24 May, 1922, of chronic cardiac dilation. This is not the last time readers of this article will encounter fatal medical conditions of the heart.
“Mrs. Helton suddenly sank on the shoulders of her husband and expired before she could be gotten out of the vehicle.”
The loss of the 1890 Census to a 1921 conflagration prevents a glimpse of the young Helton family in the first years after Charles and Emma wed. (A comprehensive article on the 1890 census and its near total destruction can be read at Prologue.) The enumeration would have shown Charles and Emma’s firstborn children, twins Earl Dick and Pearl, who arrived safely on 21 June, 1888. Next came Flossie Fern, born in January 1890.
(An interesting aside: according to Isaac Blickenstein and Louis G. Keith’s book Multiple Pregnancy: Epidemiology, Gestation, and Perinatal Outcome, “One recently reviewed historical account from a rural German community during the 18th and 19th centuries showed that maternal mortality during the first 42 days postpartum was not significantly different among mothers of twins compared with mothers of singletons. On the other hand, mothers of twins who delivered twins a second time were almost four times more likely to die, compared with mothers of twins who later delivered singletons.” Other more recent studies show multiple gestations associated with a two-fold increase of risk of death.)
Charles and Emma would have seven children in total including Silas, Nellie Fay, Milo, and a final boy, Harold, who arrived in March 1898. The farm on which all were born was six miles southwest of Logansport, rented from E. G. Wilson. Years later, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune would note that Charles Helton was “one of the most successful farmers and well-known residents of the county.” (Backing up this claim, the 12 November, 1891, Logansport Reporter stated that an expensive horse was stolen from Charles.)
Unexpectedly, stunningly, the children lost their mother on 2 November, 1901. The Elwood Daily Record of 11 November describes what happened: “Mrs. Charles Helton, a sister of C. N. Hart of [Kokomo, Indiana], died in a buggy while coming here on a visit from her home near Monticello. She was accompanied by her husband, and when about half way here, and while they were eating a cold lunch, Mrs. Helton suddenly sank on the shoulders of her husband and expired before she could be gotten out of the vehicle. Heart trouble was the cause…. Mr. Helton turned around and returned home with the corpse of his wife.”
The Marshall County Independent reported a slightly different tale: “Her husband, thinking she had fallen asleep, drove several miles not knowing she was dead.”
The eldest children’s shock and horror at the sight of their dead mother in the buggy may have left lasting scars. Conversely, the youngest children, Milo and Harold, probably could not recall the incident, or even their mother, in later years. But no matter how much they remembered, did not care to remember, or could not remember about their mother and her death, the Helton children had inherited from her a genetic propensity toward heart disease, attacks, and failure. As the decades went by, many clan members would die from these medical causes.
On 4 November, Emma Hart Helton was buried, according to her death certificate, in the “IOOF cem,”—presumably the International Order of Odd Fellows Lodge 107 Riverview Cemetery in Monticello, although her grave is unmarked. I think it highly likely that three of the youngest Heltons—Nelly, Milo, and Silas—posed for the photo with their mother’s dried funeral flowers on the first anniversary of her passing in November 1902.
Unlike many widowers with young children, Charles Helton did not remarry and the eldest daughters, Pearl and Flossie, probably took on the mother’s role vacated by Emma’s death. However, Pearl and Flossie did not abandon their education to care for younger siblings. The two girls and brother Earl graduated from Monticello High School in 1908 and Pearl would eventually leave the family farm to study in Chicago.
The Helton family can be found on the 1910 Census of White County, with all surviving members accounted for. On Christmas Eve of that year, Earl married Hazel Vera Eads (1888-1960). Their first child, a boy named after his paternal grandfather, was born in 1911.
Death blighted the family circle once again in 1914. Pearl Helton died in Chicago on 13 January. I cannot locate her death certificate, but it is highly likely she died of a fatal heart condition such as myocardial insufficiency. Her body was returned to her family and she was buried in Monticello, perhaps beside her mother at Riverview. Her grave is also unmarked.
In the Pharos-Tribune of 21 November, 1918, reported that “Charles Helton, with his daughter, Miss Flossie Helton, left Tuesday for Wausaukee, Wisconsin, where they will reside permanently. A son, Milo Helton, is already there and they will be joined at Hammond by another son, Earl Helton, who with his family will also go there to make it his home…. They will live on a large farm which they have purchased near Wausaukee.”
Earl and Hazel did not pull up roots and follow. They would settle in Hammond, Lake County, Indiana, where Earl worked as a crane operator in a car shop and later as a machinist. Earl and Hazel and had six children after Charles Milo: Harry Thomas (b. 1914); Robert James (b. 1917); Joy Mae (b. 1918), George Dick (b. 1922), Gladys Dee (b. 1926) and Richard Earl (b. 1929).
While searching for newspaper articles that mentioned Earl and Hazel, I came across the one at right, from the 28 December, 1935, issue of the Hammond Times, and other issues throughout the 1930s. Hazel Helton was a Spiritualist, as is my own father and are my own paternal grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents. I was both christened and married at the Spiritualist Church of Two Worlds in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
There is much misunderstanding of Spiritualism, but the clearest explanation is that its adherents believe in life after death and that the dead can contact the living in numerous ways. One way is through mediums such as Fred Sundling and Ruth Coyle, mentioned in the article. At the end of every Spiritualist service several mediums take turns giving messages from departed loved ones and spirit guides. If Earl attended the church with Hazel, he may have received regular communications from his long-lost mother and sister Pearl. To hear more from their dear departed, the Heltons may also have visited Camp Chesterfield, Indiana, a Spiritualist summer retreat that opened in 1891 and is still in service today. There, the messages, readings, table-tipping, and séances were a comfort and an assurance that, to quote the famous hymn, the circle would be unbroken, by and by.
At age 71, from acute coronary occlusion, Hazel’s earthly chair was vacated 11 May, 1960. Earl Helton lived on for another four years, dying 30 August, 1964, of coronary myocardial infarction in Crown Point, Indiana. He is buried with his wife at Oak Hill Cemetery, Lake County.
Flossie Helton married Malvin Christ Monsen. He was born 2 June, 1890, in Marinette, Wisconsin, to Norwegan immigrants Olaf Monsen and Hansine Anderson. Malvin came to his long-time home in Dunbar, Michigan, as a child and attended the Dunbar School. His 1917 draft registration describes him as short, of a medium complexion, with blue eyes and light-brown hair, and partly bald. (We know from his 1942 draft registration that he was 5’5″ tall, 150 pounds, and was by then completely bald.) He served with the United States Army during World War I from 1917 to 1919. In France, he was shot in the thigh of his left leg and received the Purple Heart.
After the war, Malvin farmed, and in 1922, he became the first rural mail carrier for the area, a position he kept until in 1957. On September 25, 1925, he married Flossie Helton, and by the enumeration of the 1930 Census, the couple had an infant son Wayne (1929-2011), who was known throughout his life as “Swede.” Flossie’s father Charles Helton also lived with them. The old man passed away 30 July, 1934. The Pharos-Tribune of 2 August reported his last journey: “The body of Charles H. Helton, who died at his house In Goodland, Wis., was brought here this morning to the Prevo and Son funeral home, where services were held…. Burial was in Riverview Cemetery.”
Malvin died in Iron Mountain, Dickinson County, Michigan, on 15 November, 1975. Flossie lived for a little more than a year, dying on Christmas Day, 1976, in Kingsford, Michigan. Both are buried in Dunbar Memorial Gardens.
Swede Monsen “graduated from Pembine High School in 1948. After graduation, he proudly served his country in the United States Air Force as a flight engineer including missions in the Berlin Air Lift, Korean War, and Vietnam. After 23 years of service, he and [his wife] Betty moved to Peshtigo [Wisconsin] where he owned and operated Swede’s Standard Station,” recounted his obituary after his death on 20 February, 2011.
“Years later, Betty and Wayne moved to Pembine, Wisconsin, and owned Swede’s Place Bar and Restaurant and Swede’s Garage. They relocated to Milwaukee and worked for Doug Rohde Grading Co. for 17 years, finally coming home to his boyhood family farm in Dunbar.”
Swede was buried in Dunbar Memorial Gardens. But this branch of the Heltons live on, with two daughters, seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren surviving him.
The informant—Nellie’s daughter Aleatha—did not know the full name of her grandmother, filling in the blank line with “unk. Hart.”
Nellie Fay Helton married Harley Ward Phebus (b. 1891) on 2 May, 1914. The 1920 Census placed the couple and their daughters, two-year-old Agatha and six-month-old Aleatha living in a lodging house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In 1930, the Phebuses had a home in North Arsenal Avenue, Indianapolis. Harley worked as a salesman and Nellie as a waitress in a restaurant. By 1936, he had changed his job career to watchman. Sometime shortly afterward, Phebus returned to an earlier career—auctioneering, eventually joining the company Ace Liquidators, as his obituary (left) detailed. Harley was sometimes referred to in newspaper advertising as “Col. Harley Phebus.” He indeed served in World War I, but I can obtain no more information on his service than his draft registration, which described him as short, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a pale complexion.
Harley Phebus was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis on 15 January, 1962. Nellie died in a retirement home in Zionsville, Indiana, in May 1972, aged 81, of cerebral arteriosclerosis. She was buried 30 May in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis.
As I read her death certificate, it saddened me to note that while the informant—Nellie’s daughter Aleatha—knew the name of her grandfather Charles Helton, she did not know the full name of her grandmother, filling in the line with “unk. Hart.” It is speculation whether this spoke of Nellie’s trauma on that long-ago November day when a buggy containing her dead mother arrived at the door.
The registrar reported Milo was missing his right eye and his left index finger at the first joint.
Milo Helton, as previously mentioned, removed to Wausaukee, Wisconsin, by 1918 when his father and Flossie joined him. The year previous, he filled out a Word War I draft registration that stated he was of medium height, a medium build, and had brown eyes and brown hair. It does not appear that he served during the war.
The date of Milo’s marriage remains elusive, but his wife was Maud E. Woosencraft (b. 1900), the daughter of Welsh immigrants. They had four children: Thomas C. (b. 1933), Gwendolyn M. (b. 1934), Dorothy L. (b. 1935), and Donald M. (b. 1938).
In 1942, Milo Helton filled out a World War II draft registration card. At some point between the two wars, he suffered a serious accident. The registrar recorded that Milo was missing his right eye and his left index finger at the first joint. I suspect that this trauma was caused during his employment as an electrician at a lumbar mill in the 1920s. Milo died only a few years after the World War II draft, on 14 March, 1946, and is buried in Dunbar Memorial Gardens, Dunbar, Wisconsin. Maud did not follow until 25 January, 1961, but today she lies beside him.
Silas Helton, the other brother who would not move to Wisconsin in 1918, married Velda Scott Eldridge on 2 June, 1915. (His wife was born in August 1897 to Oregon and Bertha Scott Eldridge.) Their daughter, Pequetti Marge, arrived 11 June, 1917, and Velda was pregnant again when the United States entered into the first World War. Silas was either conscripted or voluntarily joined the fight. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, he served from 8 July, 1918, to 8 February, 1919.
Silas returned safely to Monticello, where he met his son Paige Hart Helton, born 9 September, 1918. Silas took up work as slate cutter and later as an insurance salesman.
Wrenchingly, nine-year-old Paige died of Myocardial insufficiency at Methodist Hospital, Indianapolis, 22 August, 1927. He joined his grandmother, aunt, and others of his clan at Riverview Cemetery. Pequetti did not inherit the Heltons’ heart disease. She thrived and grew into an exceptionally beautiful and talented woman. Silas and Velda must have been both relieved and proud.
By 1930, the Heltons were decamped to Crawfordsville, Indiana, where Pequetti attended the town high school, playing the bassoon and marching in a new band uniform of “dark blue, trimmed in gold [with a] Sam Browne belt and Pershing hat,” according to the 1932 yearbook. Shortly thereafter, Pequetti won an MGM screen test and enrolled in the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music at Indianapolis’s Butler University. On 19 May, 1940, as she was about to graduate, the “blonde, blue-eyed senior from Lafayette will rule as queen on the annual Butler University Day May celebration…in the formal gardens of the fairview campus,” gushed the Indianapolis Star. The day included folk dancing, a Woman’s League ball, a concert, the play Robin Hood, and a feast.
For the next several years, Pequetti’s life was a round of dramatic performances, social gatherings, and weddings in which she was maid of honor or a bride’s maid. Then on 18 July, 1943, the Star reported her engagement to U.S. Navy Ensign Anthony J. Marra with a large photo of the bride-to-be (right).
After their marriage on 7 August, 1944, the couple lived for a time in San Pedro, California, and later made their home in Indianapolis, where Anthony Marra operated a construction company. They had three sons: Ronan Scott (b. 1947), Anthony J. (b. 1949), and Steven C. Marra (b. 1954).
In 1942, her father Silas registered for the World War II draft from Lafayette, Tippecanoe County, Indiana. He was 5’6″, 145 pounds, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion. From this time until the late 1960s, I can find nothing to elucidate his life. Silas passed away on Christmas Eve, 1968, of cardiac arrest, in Home Hospital, Lafayette. He was buried on 27 December with his family at Riverview Cemetery in Monticello. Velda, who worked as a clothing seamstress and fitter, died in June 1989 of an acute cerebral hemorrhage and also rests at Riverview.
In the 1950s, Pequetti took up charitable work. She was for some time the president or other officer of the Benefe Guild, which undertook good deeds such as raising money for needy families, buying books for hospitals, and making donations causes such as restoring Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. “To raise finds for their work the guild sponsors an annual card party and a style show, and a rummage sale at the Coffee Street Branch of the Center. The membership sews an extensive doll wardrobe during the year for the Dress-a-Doll-at-Christmastime-to-Help-a-Child Project,” reported the Star on 25 October, 1959.
One must wonder, however, whether Pequetti found the life of a mid-century housewife satisfying, no matter how socially prominent she was and how much charitable work she did outside the home. She may have intended to become a Hollywood starlet, a stage actress, or something else entirely. It is tempting from my own 21st Century position to ascribe boredom and frustration to a life lived dressing dolls and holding teas or card parties. I hope she felt fulfilled and never dwelt on chances lost to her.
The Marras were often mentioned in the society pages of Indianapolis newspapers, such as the article (left) on a spectacular open house during the Christmas season of 1968. Another item in the Star discussed the party the Marras threw at their golf and country club after Ronan graduated from Wabash College on 7 June, 1970.
During the 1970s, Pequetti was still frequently in the Society pages. She was a member of the Sunnyside Guild, which sponsored lectures by noted female speakers, and Pequetti was often pictured with them.
Pequetti died of basal cell carcinoma at 3:45 a.m., 10 June, 2001, at St. Vincent Hospital. She was survived by her sons, her husband, and 10 grandchildren. She is buried in Washington Park North Cemetery, Indianapolis.
The youngest Helton, Harold, never married. In 1920, he lived in Zero, Adams County, Nebraska, working as hired hand on a farm. The 1930 census placed Harold in Alameda, California, rooming and working as a vacuum salesman. In 1940, he lived in Pittsburg, Contra Costa County, California, in a boarding house, working as a carpenter. Harold Helton died 5 September, 1967, in Napa, California. Ω
- Will the Circle be Unbroken?
Lyrics written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon with music by Charles H. Gabriel. The song was later rewritten by A. P. Carter and includes the lyrics quoted at the top of this article.
There are loved ones in the glory,
Whose dear forms you often miss
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?
In the joyous days of childhood,
Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Savior
Now they dwell with Him above.
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?
You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?
You can picture happy gatherings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?
One by one their seats were emptied,
One by one they went away;
Here the circle has been broken
Will it be complete one day?