Sunday, March 10, 2013

Clues in the Clippings

I love a good mystery.

I enjoy peering into clues from the past, like my childhood hero, girl detective Nancy Drew, and putting together pieces of a story.

My love of research has been useful in my current project. I am writing about the lives of eight women for my book - that now has an offical title:

When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Didn't Give Up.

These women all lived more than a century ago - so I can't talk to them. I can only read about their lives on dusty old pages and microfilm. They grew up in small towns across the country. Some of them were members of wealthy families - one was the child of slaves. Many of them had tragic events, briefly inserted into reports of their life stories, that certainly impacted who they became.

Right now, I am researching wealthy philanthropist Nettie McCormick - wife of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper. While Nettie had all the money she would ever need, she faced troubles with her family. Two of her children developed severe mental illness that prevented them from leading normal lives. As I read the biographers' words, I am certain that these incidents, often reported so casually, broke Nellie's motherly heart.

In my own family's history files, I found this newspaper clipping. It is actually a fragile part of a yellowed newspaper article-describing an accident involving my great grandmother.

The article reads: "The impact of the wheel on the railing badly shooke up the occupants of the car, but it was at first believed no one was injured. Mrs. Benson [my great-grandmother] and Gerald [my grandma's brother] remained quiet in their conrer, and it was only after the party investigated their silence that they were found to be hurt."

The story goes on to say, "Physicians were called and worked over Mrs. Benson for several hours, but were unable to save her. It was found she had a fractured skull and three broken ribs. It was believed her injuries resulted from striking the side of the car body. Gerald, whose condition this morning was doubtful, si thought to have been hurt in the same way."

Reading this brief story left me sad and puzzled. I had never heard about this accident from my Grandma Storms. To me, she was just my grandma -  not Elsie, the daughter of Anna Edens Benson, who had died very tragically and unexpectedly in this accident.

I wish I could ask questions: Where were they going? Was my grandma in the car or at home? How did she learn that her mother was killed? What happened to her after her mother died? Was she raised by her father? or by relatives?

I am certain there was a tremendous impact on my grandma's life from this one single event. It probably shaped her personality - which could be very serious and controlling. She probably felt that her life, which had spun out of control in one single moment, could not be trusted.

As I write my book and sort through remnants of people's lives, I am mindful that each article, each clue, gives me only a tiny window into what happened.Some of my women, like Emma Dryer, destroyed the evidence of their lives. Before she died, Emma burned her diaries.What did they contain? What did she hope no one would ever read?

How about you? Do you have any unsolved mysteries in your family history? Are there any chapters left unfinished? Did you ever discover a clue that made you want to learn more?

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