Marriage, Life, and Suicide in the Gilded Age: Hattie Revealed

Written on the back of the palm-sized carte vista photograph, her words called out like pleas. Her fingers, arguably shaking, somehow managed to produce a scrolled message to her husband, George Nelson Bennett. She clung to the last remnants of her educated status with a penmanship, practiced and perfected throughout her forty-four years, writing:

“Oh, Nelson, Nelson. I cannot leave thee oh! oh! my soul – how I suffer He is punishing me for loving you so. Farewell my Darling. Walk lightly through the church yard for the sake of your dead Hattie, Oh Heaven, Oh! my soul! Oh! my Darling my darling. I would not wish thee sad. Heaven Hattie Noteknows, but do not forget me. May we meet in Heaven is my Prayer. Hattie Bennett.”

Hattie punctuated her last words with a bullet fired from a pistol in a Saint Louis hotel.

It was in 1894. Hattie left her home in Pierce City, Missouri under the pretense of attending a parade and dance in St. Louis. It was there in the rented room that Hattie lived the last few days of her life and ended with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Only weeks before she and her husband hosted an extravagant party replete with dancing and dining to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary. Hattie Felix met George Bennett in Kansas after the Civil War. They moved to the small southeastern Missouri town where Hattie and her husband joined the Congregational Church and garnered memberships into in several women’s societies. She owned business properties in her own name. She accessorized her wardrobe with diamonds and set her table with silver and Haviland china while hosting guests in the home that she and George shared together. She embodied what some might call an envied economic and social status that many from the small railroad town might only dream of reaching.

It is difficult to understand why Hattie chose to mark the end her forty-four years of life in a hotel far from home or what sufferings preyed upon her. What events caused such a dramatic choice? Hattie was an active participant in a place and time in America’s history.   The topography and the lives lived by native-born as well as the migrators coming from the east were changing the midwestern landscape at lightning speed. Cartographers worked at a frantic pace, adding zipper-like hash marks to show the emergence of the railroad to their maps, publishing them in atlases in America and abroad. These iron-zippered markings alluded to the very real changes taking place on the land that ultimately displaced many long-standing communities for the sake of the new arrivers. Hattie’s life, too, was changing.  It began and ended in this transitional space where the “new spirits” of change shaped American life.[1]   Hattie, and women like her noticed the shifting of their own sexuality, marriage, money and civic power that were very different from their mothers and grandmothers.

IMG_9925Over the course of the next few months you can visit my blog where I will highlight a few of the many events of Hattie’s life. The casual nature of blogging allows me to take a divergent journey to explore the events influencing this Victorian woman and is separate from my dissertation study of Scottish women who migrated to places throughout the Atlantic. Hattie’s death, though tragic, is out-distanced by the interesting life details she leaves behind and is certainly worth the detour.

A disclaimer:  I became familiar with Hattie over the course of many years researching my husband’s family history. She revealed herself through various documents and I followed her trail. She is not my kin and is only remotely connected through marriage to my husband’s paternal line. Hattie and George had one son who never married and he left no children of his own. Hattie’s complex life and the people who, directly or indirectly, intersected with hers is a compelling tale and is one worth telling.  Sadly, she left behind no voice to tell her story. She was a woman struggling to understand the newly forged paths that were emerging during her lifetime.

I hope to reconstitute portions of her life over the course of my next few entries, sharing some of the details of her marriage to her husband George and the child they shared together, her suicide, curious will, and the repercussions of her death on those who loved her.

[1] Rebecca Edwards offers insight to the shifting roles of women in  New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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Chasing mermaids down “maremaid” holes…

I know I said the next time that I checked back in that I would have information and updates on digital history tools.  But those of you who know me will not be surprised to know that I have a penchant for chasing rabbit holes when they present themselves, and sometimes these research detours result in some enchanting  finds.

This time it is the Penny London Post from 1747 that states:

We hear from the North that some days ago, a Sea Creature, known by the name of Maremaid, which has the Shape of a human Body from the Trunk, but below is wholly Fish, was carried some Miles up the Water of Devron.

Mind you, I wasn’t looking for mermaids, but sometimes they surface when least expected.

No, she just appeared like a reflection of a ripple on the water, existing just after an account that explained how several men escaped from Cannongate Tollbooth, and leaving very little behind to prove she was ever really there at all.  (In my mind ‘it’ is a ‘she,’ though the evidence does not expound on the gender of this mythical beauty.  If only we could call out to the past and ask for a bit more clarification. Ah, well, I suppose that is what makes research exciting.)

Hmm, maybe she led the men to freedom along a stream near Cannongate…

Now…how to pull myself out of the mermaid hole I find myself in…

 

 

A week of data and history…

I find that every day I am handling more and more data connected to my dissertation.  And while all of these historical “golden tickets” are very exciting, managing the Excel spread sheets and social networks that connect the various historical breadcrumbs is becoming an increasing challenge.  The geographic expanse of Scotland, Africa, Central and North America necessitates that I throw a wide net across the Atlantic.  (Oh, and let’s include a touch or two of Spain in the mix, just for good measure.)

So this week I will challenge myself to download and learn Gephi so I can better track my migration networks. (Yep, and it is especially wise to do this while planning, prepping, and cooking for Thanksgiving week, right?! What was I thinking?)  I am looking forward to learning a new program to add to my tool box.  In a few months maybe it will become as much second nature as Zotero is for me now.

Here’s what they have to say about their product:  (Please note that I am NOT endorsing the company in any way, just passing along the information on it.)

“The goal is to help data analysts to make hypothesis, intuitively discover patterns, isolate structure singularities or faults during data sourcing. It is a complementary tool to traditional statistics, as visual thinking with interactive interfaces…”  Gephi.org

Yes, something to help visual learners deal with statistics…so far, I’m all in!

I have included a link to their video below for any peers who are interested.  I would love to hear from anyone who uses this or other systems in their own research.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/9726202“>Gephi video link

So we will see…maybe the next time I check in I will have some of my own data to share with the wider blogosphere!

Here’s hoping!

Watch this spot for future updates on my progress…

 

The Path To Here…

Genealogy flier

This morning while working on my research for a current project dealing with Dahomey (Benin), Sierra Leone, and Scotland, I am reminded that my first introduction to history came from the oral histories of my family.  But it also brings to mind that I was sometimes a reluctant participant to history.  Adults in the family swapped stories and their ramblings often interfered with my childhood desires to pop firecrackers or water ski at lake. I dozed off only to wake up and find the stories continued, much like the background noise of cicadas on a summer night.

In spite of my childhood boredom, these narratives shaped a space in me that has germinated into a constant curiosity of history.  I could not imagine then that these struggles to keep my childhood eyes open would result in my pursuit of a Ph.D. in transatlantic history.  Yet, here I am, two years into the program, applying some of the same methods to the study of early modern societies. In addition to teaching several sections of U.S. History, these early connections also led me instruct a community class on genealogy research while completing my Master’s thesis (see flyer image above).  Once a week for a few months I helped others develop tools that expanded their own family histories. I personally benefited from this exchange when it allowed me to recharged by history batteries and experience the vicarious thrill when others broke down genealogy “brick walls.”

It is funny the paths that lead to academia…