Friday, December 16, 2016

Centenarians in Early Grinnell

According to published data, more and more Americans are living longer. If life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 47 for white men and 49 for white women, a hundred years later the corresponding numbers were 75 for men and 80 for women. African Americans have enjoyed a similar increase—black men's life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 33 but 68 by 2000; black women's life expectancy rose from 34 in 1900 to 75 in 2000. A consequence of this growing longevity is that increasing numbers of Americans are living to age 100 and beyond. If this cadre of the super-annuated was once small, the growing numbers have led various public agencies to count and honor centenarians. The State of Iowa, for example, has created a Department on Aging that solicits information on and organizes public recognition of Iowa's centenarians. As of October 2012, the agency counted 587 Iowans aged 100 or more, and the 2010 census (which did not insist upon consistent reporting of birth dates) reported 846 Iowa centenarians. More than 80% of this group is female.

But what about early Grinnell? If most men and women could expect modestly long lives, were there centenarians in town in the early twentieth century? And, if there were, did the locals remark upon the long-lived, and perhaps celebrate their longevity? The answer to both questions appears to be "yes." Although I found no systematic effort to identify and publicize the long-lived, early Grinnell definitely had centenarians whose great age attracted public attention, perhaps especially because in their time they stood out even more than today's long-lived Iowans. Today's post will examine a few of these early centenarians and how Grinnell marked their long lives.
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Undated photo of Mumpford Holland (1825?-1916)
When Mumpford Holland, former slave and long-time Grinnell resident, passed away in July, 1916, the Grinnell Herald reported that Holland was "believed to have been about 108 years old." The front-page obituary was long and affectionate, if also colored by the language of racial difference. Perhaps most telling, however, was the public perception: "It almost seemed that Mumpford couldn't die. The years passed by and seemed to leave little impression upon him," the newspaper remarked.
Headline from page 1 obituary of Mumpford Holland, Grinnell Herald August 1, 1916
However, for many of his vintage (especially former slaves like Holland), reliable records of birth were out of reach, so that over the years Holland provided census-takers with conflicting data on his age, date of birth, and even place of birth. The 1870 census, for example, reported that Holland had been born in Kentucky and was 30 years of age, which implied that he was born in 1839 or 1840. The 1880 census confirmed place of birth, but identified Holland as being 35, just five years older than reported ten years previously. The 1895 Iowa census, however, indicated that Holland had aged rapidly, describing him as 64 years of age (and therefore born in 1830 or 1831); instead of Kentucky, the 1895 record gave Mississippi as place of birth. The 1900 census reported that Holland was 75 years of age—eleven years older than claimed just five years earlier—and helpfully provided a month and year of birth (January, 1825), the specificity of which seemed to invite credibility. The 1905 Iowa census maintained the Mississippi place of birth, but counted Holland as 80, maintaining consistency with the previous census. Five years later, however, the 1910 census judged Holland to be 100, but omitted place of birth, acknowledging that he was "formerly a slave with no records." The next Iowa census (1915) and the last one to count Holland before his death, repeated his 1910 age—100—but asserted that he'd been born in Kentucky as some of the earliest censuses had claimed.
Record for Mumpford Holland from 1915 Iowa Census
This welter of conflicting information is not unusual where written birth or christening records are rare or non-existent. Nevertheless, the contradictory evidence makes it difficult to determine whether Mumpford Holland in fact reached the remarkable status of centenarian, despite the 1910 and 1915 censuses.  Clearly he seemed old to the people around him. F. W. Thackeray, who completed the 1915 census form for Holland in which he claimed an age of 100, noted parenthetically that Holland was "probably older." If one assumes that the date of birth reported in the 1900 census—January, 1825—is correct, then at his death in 1916 Mumpford Holland would have been 91; if he were 100 in 1910, as the census claimed, then Holland would have been 106 in 1916.
Mumpford Holland (ca. 1890) (Digital Grinnell)
In other words, we can't know his age for sure. Whatever Holland's actual age, it's clear that Grinnellians of the time thought he was very long-lived. His life, begun in slavery, was long and hard. His wife had been sold away when the couple were both slaves, and Holland never saw her again. Once out from under slavery, Holland picked up odd jobs—waiting on tables, working as a gardener, and later doing just about anything to earn a living. Even the complimentary obituary printed in the Grinnell Herald had to admit that Holland had had to put up with a lot from men in town who mocked him. Never rich, he managed to buy his own, modest home, and somehow he kept going, demonstrating a resilience that few could match and which might well have helped him live many years.

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More reliable confirmation of having reached centenarian status comes from Susannah Law Kingdon, who was born in Peckham, England in July 2, 1829, and christened at Camberwell parish October 1, 1829—both dates having been entered in the parish register.
Cumberwell parish register of baptisms, 1829
(Susannah Law's christening is no. 15, 2nd from bottom)
In 1851, when she was just 22, she crossed the Atlantic in a sailing ship that encountered disaster just off Long Island. Susannah made it safely to New York where her brother resided, and where soon she made the acquaintance of William H. Kingdon. According to her obituary, when she and Kingdon decided to marry, Susannah returned to England in 1855 to acquire her trousseau, then crossed the ocean another time, culminating in her 1856 New York marriage. The union resulted in the birth of six children, two of whom died in infancy. In 1870 or 1871 (sources differ on the date) the family came to Iowa, first settling in Malcom, then later moving into Grinnell where William Kingdon operated a small shoemaker's business. Although William was five years Susannah's junior, he died first: William Kingdon was only sixty years of age at the time of his 1894 death. Thereafter, Susannah Law Kingdon lived with one or another of her children. For some years she lived with her daughter Harriet Goodrich, first at 633 Main, then a few blocks to the north at 1033 Main, and then finally at 1221 Broad. When Harriet died in 1928 (she, too, was only sixty years of age), her "aged mother" (as the obituary put it) moved to 1008 High Street to live with her son, Frederick S. Kingdon (1863-1953) (who, his own obituary later noted, had hoped to live as long as his mother).
William H. Kingdon (1834-1894), husband of Susannah Law Kingdon
Consequently, when Grinnell took notice of Susannah Kingdon's one-hundredth birthday, the Grinnell Herald allocated two columns of page one to what the newspaper called a "quiet" observance at her son's home. According to the newspaper, "Many cards and telegrams have been received from various points all over the land to commemorate the occasion"—and on her birthday "more than one hundred messages...were received before noon." Eighty-two people signed the guest book, and Kingdon's photograph was taken "with her birthday cake bearing 100 candles" (if it survives, I could not find this photo). Another photograph captured the centenarian with her five great-great grandchildren." Among the most enjoyable parts of the day, the newspaper observed, was the broadcast of birthday greetings from Des Moines radio station WHO and the next day from a radio station in Shenandoah—this in an age when radio was still in its infancy.
Photo of Susannah Law Kingdon (ca. 1923)
Grinnell Herald July 2, 1929
How much Susannah Kingdon enjoyed all the attention is impossible to know. Certainly her long life had included many sorrows, not least the early death of two infant children, her husband's death in 1894, and then the demise of adult children: Caroline Kingdon Bahrenfuse in 1906 (1865-1906); Charles Henry Kingdon in 1915 (1856-1915); and Harriett Kingdon Goodrich in 1928 (1867-1928). But the town's centenarian was clearly made of sterner stuff, these household crises seemingly unable to slow her march to exceptional life span. With passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, Mrs. Kingdon—then already past 90—vigorously and regularly exercised her newly-won right, conceding nothing to age or to the trials thrown up before her. An Episcopalian all her life, Susannah was, her obituary affirmed, "a religious individual," perhaps the source of strength that helped her ford the rivers of adversity she had faced.  Like all other mortals, however, Susannah Law Kingdon did finally have to confront death, which came in relatively short order after her one-hundredth birthday.

When she died in February, 1930, at the age of 100 years, seven months and 19 days (as the obituary pointed out), she died in hospital, having suffered serious illness for most of the last two months of life. She was famous for her embroidery which she continued to produce until her final days, bestowing pieces of her handiwork upon all her numerous surviving descendants—only one son outlived her, but eight grandchildren, twenty-two great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren remained to carry the memory of their remarkable ancestor.
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Born in Wayne County, Kentucky, Rachel (sometimes "Rachael") Williams was one of seven daughters to whom her mother gave birth. In 1853 Rachel married another Kentuckian, Benjamin Adkins, and to this couple were born nine children (four of whom died before she did). The Adkins family came to Iowa "a few years after their marriage," and as pioneers settled in the eastern portion of Jasper County, near Kellogg, where her husband farmed until his 1887 death. Rachel later lived in Grinnell with her daughter, Mrs. George Cooper, then with her son, Morris Adkins (1854-1922). She died in Grinnell March 31, 1924, her obituary announcing, "Mrs. Rachel Adkins Closes Long Life."

Gravestone for Rachel Williams Adkins, Antle Cemetery, Kellogg, Iowa
(http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=23116238&PIpi=26799546)
Certainly her life was long, but whether it totaled 100 years is unclear. Her gravestone in the Antle Cemetery in Kellogg reports her as having been born in 1823, adding that she had lived "100 YS 4 MS 20 DS" when she died March 31, 1924. Her obituary, composed, one must assume, at about the same time as the gravestone, presents a different birth date and therefore a different life span. Reporting that the woman had been born in 1824 (not 1823), the newspaper account therefore totaled her life as having lasted "99 years, four months and twenty days."
Undated photo of Rachel Williams Adkins (1824?-1924)
(http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=23116238&PIpi=22616086)
Apparently Adkins herself was uncertain about her year of birth. Like Mumpford Holland, in succeeding censuses Adkins reported her age inconsistently: the September, 1850 census described her as 26 years old (meaning that she would have been born in 1823 if her birth in fact occurred in November, as reported elsewhere); but the June, 1860 census lists her age as 32 (meaning she was born in 1827 or 1828); the July, 1870 count—almost exactly ten years later—counts her as twelve years older (44, and therefore born in 1826 or 1827), which corresponds well to the following census (July, 1880) in which Adkins is described as 54. Thirty years later (April, 1910), however, she told the census official that she was 87 years of age (and therefore born in 1823 or 1824). In 1915 she reported herself as being 90, an age that was at least consistent with the 1920 census, according to which Adkins was 95 years old. These last two reports would place her birth in 1825 or 1824.

A reliable birth or christening record could clear up this confusion, but I was unable to locate any documentation that reliably recorded her exact birth date, so the question of whether Rachel Adkins was in fact a centenarian remains open. All the same, it's clear that she was very old at the time of her March, 1924 death. Like Holland and Kingdon, Adkins had weathered some difficult moments. Her mother had died when Rachel was very young, and all her six siblings had preceded her in death. Of her own nine children, four died before their mother, including one who died in infancy. And when her husband succumbed in 1887, she began a widowhood that lasted 37 years. All these events played out against the inevitably difficult circumstances that attached to pioneering in central Iowa.

Like Susannah Kingdon, Rachel Adkins was religious, having been an active member of the Baptist church for almost 70 years, so perhaps her faith helped her deal with adversity. Nevertheless, her final years were apparently difficult; according to her obituary, when "her usual vigor" failed and "when the infirmities of old age caused her life to be a burden to herself," she "longed for her last rest," which came with pneumonia.
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So far as I could learn, Rachel Adkins did not receive the sort of adulatory celebration that had attached to Susannah Kingdon's 100th birthday. But there can be little doubt that she, like Mumpford Holland, had enjoyed the attention implicit in very old age. Some other Grinnellians seem to have lived lives almost as long, but apparently none lived any longer than these folk. When Daniel Hays, age 95, attended the centenary celebrations of Susannah Kingdon, the newspaper described him as "the oldest person to call upon her" and "probably the oldest man in Grinnell." Hays's November, 1930 obituary categorically labeled the dead man, by then 96 years old, "Grinnell's oldest citizen." And when George Washington Cooper (d. 1941) passed away, the newspaper headline reported that "One of Grinnell's Oldest Men" had died; he was 92.
Grinnell Herald April 17, 1941
Consequently, whatever the exact age of Mumpford Holland and Rachel Adkins, they, like Susannah Kingdon, were among early Grinnell's most senior citizens. Elsewhere some others lived even longer lives. Delina Ecker Filkins, for example, was born, lived and died in Stark County, New York, reaching the "super-centenary" age of 113. By comparison, James Sinclair Hunnicutt, who died in nearby Tama in September, 1923, was practically a youngster, his life span having measured 101 years, five months, and one day. But in early Grinnell Susannah Kingdon, Rachel Adkins, and Mumpford Holland seem to have lived the longest.

Their advanced age understandably attracted the attention of townsfolk, most of whom could not expect to enjoy lives anywhere near as long. Having survived slavery, like Holland, or having ventured to sail across the Atlantic several times, like Kingdon, or having put down pioneer roots in Iowa's prairie, like Adkins, this trio had seen plenty of hardship. Yet they had lived long. If no office of state government sought to identify and celebrate them as today's Iowa centenarians can expect, fellow townsfolk nevertheless adorned their lives with respect and marked their passing with regret.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Iceman Romeo!

It might come as a surprise that until fairly recently in the state of Iowa, an adulterer could be convicted in state court and sent to prison for three years. That's what happened to Alpha Bassett, a married man who in 1923 was working for Maplehurst Dairy and Ice in Grinnell. Although married and the father of three children at the time, Bassett found himself besotted with a Grinnell teenager, and she evidently reciprocated his affections. So, in August, 1923 they ran away together... But I'm getting ahead of myself; let's go back to the beginning, and start our story there.
Undated photo of Alpha Bassett and his first wife (Des Moines Register, August 23, 1923, p. 9)
***
Alpha Bassett was born in Mirabile, Missouri, June, 1889. Despite his name, he was not the first child born to Fort and Eliza Bassett; an older brother and an older sister preceded him, and three more Bassett children followed. Fort Bassett (1853-1940) described himself to census takers as a carpenter who, like his wife, was born in Ohio. In the years before Alpha's birth, however, the Bassetts had apparently moved around: their first child had been born in Wisconsin, and the second in Colorado. By the time Alpha appeared, however, the family had put down roots in Caldwell County, Missouri, where Alpha and his three younger siblings were born and raised.

When officials of the 1910 US Census visited Mirabile, Alpha would have been twenty years old, but the census form reports him as being eighteen. Like his younger brother, in 1910 Alpha worked as a "laborer" doing "odd jobs." In April, 1915 he married a local girl, Mattie Stinson, who was just eighteen, about seven years younger than her new husband. When Alpha registered for the draft in June, 1917 in Mirabile, he told officials that he was married, and had one child. 

For reasons the records do not make clear, Alpha and family moved to Iowa no later than November, 1919, when their daughter Vera was born in Grinnell. The 1920 city directory reports that Alpha, Mattie and children were living at 725 West Street (now demolished), not far from the Maplehurst Dairy where Alpha Bassett worked alongside some fifteen other employees. The directory described him as an "engineer," but, as subsequent stories make clear, Alpha evidently hauled ice, one of several products the dairy company sold.
Grinnell Creamery (ca. 1915), 633 West Street; Maplehurst Dairy bought the business out in 1919 & occupied its premises
(Digital Grinnell)
Ice pick with name of Maplehurst Dairy Company embossed on handle
(http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/ice-pick-grinnell-iowa-maplehurst-504968915)
In 1923, Alpha Bassett was thirty-three years of age, stood a little taller than five-feet, eight inches, and weighed about 160 pounds. He had dark blue eyes, his hair evidently had some grey mixed in, and his complexion was described as "fair." According to later newspaper reports, Bassett thought himself rather handsome, and, according to informants, reported a considerable likeness to William S. Hart, a 1920s cinema heartthrob.
William S. Hart (1864-1927)
(Library of Congress: http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c03842/)
***
Wilma Wentzel was the third of five children born to William and Chatta Wentzel. William had been born in Princeton, Illinois, but had married Iowan Chatta Boyle in 1899; children soon followed, all born in Iowa. Censuses and directories consistently report that the Wentzel family was living at 1016 Center Street, just south of Sixth Avenue. Like Bassett, William appears in the 1910 US Census as a "laborer" at "odd jobs," but evidently without much interruption—he told census-takers that he had not been out of work at all during 1914. The 1915 Iowa census describes him as a teamster, the same occupation given him by the 1920 Grinnell directory, which identified him as being employed by Robert Coutts, an important contractor in Grinnell. According to what he reported to the 1915 census, Wentzel earned $1200 in 1914, a respectable sum, especially since Chatta remained at home with the children.

Wilma was born in 1906, and in 1915 was attending school in Grinnell. Nothing so far discovered provides a picture of Wilma; had she passed through school with her coevals, she would have graduated from Grinnell High School in 1923 or 1924, but no high school yearbook from the mid-1920s includes her photograph, indicating perhaps that she dropped out of school. From what we learn about Wilma later, it is possible that she found school too constraining, or that school officials found her behavior wanting. But no evidence confirms either possibility. Most of what we know about Wilma emerges from the story of  her 1923 encounter with "Iceman Romeo," Alpha Bassett.
***
Nothing appeared in public about the encounter until August, 1923, when Mr. and Mrs. Wentzel reported to the authorities that their daughter was missing. According to the first newspaper stories, Wilma had seen and replied to a help-wanted ad in the Des Moines Register, and had gone to Des Moines in early August to see about the job. After a few days, the Wentzels received a letter from Wilma, reporting that she had accepted the job, and would be staying in Des Moines. She gave her parents a Des Moines general delivery address and wrote no more; when her parents' letters to Des Moines were returned, the Wentzels went looking, only to discover that the address of the job for which Wilma had applied was also false. Where had the eighteen-year-old girl gone?
Headline of the Des Moines Register, August 21, 1923, p. 1
The Council Bluffs newspaper, Daily Nonpareil, in its August 20 issue wondered whether "white slavers" had captured Wilma, intending to use her for their own nefarious purposes. But a front-page headline in the next day's Des Moines Register offered a radically different take: "Charge 'Kidnaped' Girl Eloped with Ice Wagon Lothario at Grinnell." "Ice Wagon Lothario?" According to the story, Grinnell's "romantic iceman"—namely, Alpha Bassett—had eloped with Wilma Wentzel, but no particulars about how the couple had become acquainted appeared in the story. Perhaps Bassett had delivered ice to the Wentzel family home and there happened to meet young Wilma, the mutual attraction having been sparked immediately? We will never know. The newspaper only cited the Grinnell police chief, A. B. Manson, who offered a warrant for Bassett's arrest. The newspaper reported that pictures of Bassett had been distributed throughout the area, with the hope that they might help authorities locate the fugitive, who faced both "statutory charges" as well as prosecution for wife desertion. 

Wilma, too, was at risk of prosecution. The sheriff said that Wilma and an unnamed sister (Lucille was three years younger, and Lois five years older) had been arrested for "an alleged beating given Mrs. Bassett, the deserted wife, several months ago." In other words, as Wilma's parents and Mrs. Bassett knew very well, Wilma and Alpha Bassett already had "some history," so Wilma's disappearance could not have been a total surprise to the Wentzels. Furthermore, the Register continued, friends of the fugitive told journalists that Bassett "claimed resemblance to Bill Hart, the movie star, and boasted he had been a leading figure in several romantic adventures." In other words, the "cold storage Romeo," as the newspaper called him, was a veteran seducer, and had been engaged in a relationship with Wilma Wentzel long before their "elopement" hit the newspapers.

According to the parents' report, Wilma left Grinnell August 3rd, but only on the 22nd did news of their discovery and capture hit news stands. The Des Moines Register, clearly relishing the narrative, reported that the couple had been found in Boone, and that the "Cold Storage Sheik" had been jailed in Des Moines. Wilma, the newspaper continued, had gone home to Grinnell with her parents. 
Headline from the Des Moines Register, August 22, 1923, p. 1
As if the plot line wasn't already strange enough, it emerged that the girl's parents had invited the Des Moines local of the Ku Klux Klan to search for the missing couple. When Klan members found Bassett and Wentzel, they returned them to Des Moines, handing the fugitives over to police. Inasmuch as officials in several counties had been searching for Bassett and Wentzel for at least a week, and in some cases for several weeks, the "special investigators" of the KKK enjoyed the bright light of favorable public attention. A. E. Brown, said to be the leader of the Des Moines KKK, announced to a Des Moines Register reporter that "the klan did not act in the case until it was appealed to by the girl's parents. We caught the man and turned him over to the authorities." This same thread also enjoyed attention in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil as well as in the Omaha World-Herald, the sort of glowing publicity that the Klan could not easily have purchased. But what connected Grinnell's Wentzells with the Ku Klux Klan remained unspoken.
***
Back in Grinnell, where Bassett soon landed since the Des Moines judge declined to authorize proceedings there, the wheels of justice moved rather quickly, if not altogether transparently. Surprisingly, the Grinnell newspapers made no mention of the flight of Bassett and Wentzel, and only once the couple had returned to Grinnell did it report on developments. The Grinnell Register took the high road, withholding Bassett's and Wentzel's names and announcing that, because "most of the wild stories have been greatly exaggerated,...the Register prefers to pass lightly over the whole matter until definite action is taken in the courts." The August 24th issue of the Grinnell Herald was less circumspect; in reporting Bassett's arrest, the Herald added that "His wife has preferred charges of wife desertion." Bassett also faced charges of seduction. 
J. C. Davis, Iowa Criminal Code and Digest and Criminal Pleading and Practice (Des Moines, 1879), p. 344
The Iowa Criminal Code provided for imprisonment in the state penitentiary for up to five years for those convicted of seduction. A key feature of the law was the requirement that prosecutors demonstrate the "previously chaste character" of the unmarried woman whom the offender had seduced. In addition to the testimony of the woman concerned, therefore, corroborating evidence was required, so as to avoid a "he said/she said" situation.

Was Wilma Wentzel a "previously chaste" victim? Perhaps not, because, as newspaper reporting contended, Wilma had gotten into some kind of fight with Bassett's wife long before she hit the road with Alpha; trial on that charge was still pending when the couple disappeared together. Moreover, as one newspaper explained, Wilma had evidently run away from home on at least one previous occasion (although whether with a man the report did not explain). Finally, it appeared that Wilma had cooperated with "Iceman Romeo," misleading her parents about her whereabouts and her intentions and spending nearly three weeks in Bassett's company, during which time she and Bassett had presumably had intercourse.

These circumstances may explain the terse report from Montezuma (where the district court convened) in the October 2, 1923 issue of the Grinnell Herald:  "In court this morning Alpha Bassett plead[ed] guilty to the charge of adultery and was sentenced by Judge D. W. Hamilton (1861-1936) to three years hard work at Ft. Madison." The Grinnell Register published a similar report in its October 4 issue, but added that in "the case against Wilma Wentzell, a similar charge [i.e., adultery], was continued."
J. C. Davis, Iowa Criminal Code and Digest and Criminal Pleading and Practice, p. 10
Why did Bassett plead guilty to adultery when prosecutors seemed intent on convicting him of the more serious charge of seduction? No documents confirm the speculation, but prosecutors might well have determined that proving seduction would be difficult, given how long Wilma Wentzel had stayed with Bassett. Furthermore, if, as the newspapers contended, Wilma had run off at least one other time, could she be counted "chaste?" Besides, as prosecutors knew only too well, Wilma herself was awaiting trial for the beating she and her sister had allegedly given Bassett's wife weeks before the disappearance. And then there is the continuance in the trial of Wilma Wentzell; so far as I could establish, her case never came back to the court, even though the law specifically determined that, "when the crime is committed between parties only one of whom is married, both are guilty of adultery, and shall be punished accordingly." Was Wilma's fate part of Bassett's plea bargain? Did she agree to testify against him in exchange for escape from trial? Or did Bassett's wife withdraw her complaint against the teenager, being satisfied that punishing the philandering husband was enough?
Entry for Alpha Bassett in Iowa, Consecutive Register of Convicts, 1867-1970
We are unlikely ever to learn the answers to these questions, because at this point the story disappeared from the pages of the area's newspapers.
***
Ft. Madison Prison (ca. 1914)
Almost immediately after his trial, Alpha Bassett was transferred to Ft. Madison penitentiary, where he remained until he was freed November 22, 1925, which the prison register explained as "exp[iration of] sent[ence]" (although this date was eleven months short of three full years). I found no record of divorce, but one must assume that Mattie Stinson Bassett divorced Alpha after the 1923 escapade—perhaps while Alpha was in Ft. Madison. In any case, after emerging from prison, Alpha Bassett returned to Mirabile, Missouri, and in June, 1927 took Marjorie O'Dell (1908-1981) as his second wife. The Missouri marriage license declared O'Dell to be twenty-one years old, by then apparently a legal requirement in Missouri (the first Mrs. Bassett had been only 18 when she married). But when the 1930 census takers came to Missouri and found Bassett and his new family, Madge Bassett, as Marjorie called herself, reported her age as 21, which would have made her 18 in 1927, the same age as Wilma Wentzel had been at the time of the 1923 "elopement." No subsequent matrimonial collisions brought the couple to the attention of authorities, so they seem to have lived peaceably, raising five children. The 1930 census describes Alpha as a hired man, working on someone's farm, but as the Depression tightened, Bassett evidently lost that work, and by 1940 was enrolled as a laborer for the Works Progress Administration. After that the trail goes cold, Alpha's name emerging again only in 1959 when the one-time "Iceman Romeo" died in Missouri, presumably without ever having reestablished contact with his former Grinnell flame. 
Gravestone for Wilma (Wentzel) and Robert Foster, Rising Sun Cemetery, Des Moines, Iowa
(http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=foster&GSiman=1&GScid=742923&GRid=58564144&)
Wilma Wentzel also got on with life. So far as I could determine, she never faced prosecution for her part in the events of 1923. Her name next surfaced in September, 1926 when she married Robert Foster in Des Moines. The 1930 census found Robert and Wilma living in their own home at 1600 E. 29th Street, Des Moines, and described Robert as a coal-miner and Wilma as a machine operator in an overall factory. Ten years later they were living at the same address, although Robert had abandoned mining, having become floor manager for a city automobile garage; Wilma was no longer working outside the home, presumably tending the couple's two young daughters (ages seven and two) instead. The record whispers little else until 1976 when Robert died. Wilma, who was slightly older, carried on; she died in 1982, and was buried beside her husband in Rising Sun Cemetery near the Des Moines International Airport. Their gravestone features a wedding ring that joins their two names and reports the date of their 1926 wedding, an indication, perhaps, that the winds that had once blown Wilma into the arms of Alpha Bassett had long since calmed, replaced by another, less blustery but more durable affection.

What part the events of 1923 played in the new relationships that Alpha and Wilma struck up with their news spouses later we are unlikely ever to learn. But, so far as public records reveal, they both managed to build new families, living amiably with their spouses and children, and leaving far behind the few weeks in August, 1923 when they became the principal actors in a front-page story of romance, license, and disappointment.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Grinnell's Famous (but in Grinnell poorly-known) Plein-air Artist...

Grinnell is fortunate to have been the home of several artists of accomplishment, but perhaps none was as successful or well-known as Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943).  At the beginning of the twentieth century and at the invitation of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railways, Hill undertook several expeditions to the startling natural worlds of the American West, dragging along the tools of the artist (as well as her four young children). Although the railroads provided her with free passage, she and her entourage had to hike into the wild, where, surrounded by the landscapes she aimed to paint, she set up her easel. At the height of her reputation, Hill was a featured artist at the 1904 World's Fair at which twenty of her paintings were displayed, and over the next several years she exhibited her work often and gathered much praise.
Abby Williams Hill, "Looking Across Lake Chelan," given to Grinnell College in 1906
(Digital Grinnell, but identified there as "Pacific Northwest Landscape")
When Hill reached this fame, however, she was no longer resident in Grinnell, as she and her husband had settled in Tacoma, Washington soon after their 1888 wedding. Nevertheless, Hill long retained a special affection for and sense of belonging to Grinnell. She returned here often, especially while her father was still alive, and then later to visit her sister's family at Strawberry Point. In 1906 and again in 1907 Hill donated to Grinnell College paintings from her wilderness expeditions, gifts that long hung on the walls of the college's Carnegie Library and which the college recognized by awarding Hill an honorary degree in 1907. Writing President John H. T. Main in the 1920s, Hill expressed the hope that the college might erect a gallery suitable to display works of art, perhaps a hint that she contemplated donating her entire collection to Grinnell. Sadly, this plan did not come to fruition, so that in 1957, fourteen years after Hill's death, her daughter-in-law donated Hill's entire collection to the University of Puget Sound, close to Tacoma where Hill had lived at the height of her artistic output. But if Hill enjoyed a considerable reputation a century ago, today she and her artistry remain poorly-known in the town where she began. With the exception of "Trailblazers: Notable Women of Grinnell," a 2012 display at Drake Community Library that identified several women of note from early Grinnell (and which was later presented as a community bucket course lecture), Hill has fallen from memory in Grinnell.  In this post, we will follow the major way stations of Abby Hill's remarkable life, and point to the ways in which her career as a plein-air artist intersected with Grinnell, Iowa.
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Henry Williams, the artist's father, was born in 1829 in Vermont, but was among a group of the earliest settlers in the new community that Josiah Bushnell Grinnell helped establish in central Iowa. Identified in the 1860 census as an "engineer," Henry later claimed as his occupation "cabinet maker," "mill owner," and for a time he sold furniture in Grinnell. His first wife, the former Harriet Porter, had been born in Ohio and married Williams in 1852, a few years prior to their arrival in Iowa. A son was born to them in Ohio, but the boy's life expired before his parents went west. In Grinnell, daughter Nettie (sometimes called Jeanette) was born in 1859, followed by another daughter, Abby (sometimes called Abbie), in 1861. The family settled in a fine home on High Street, both girls growing up and receiving their educations in Grinnell.
1008 High Street, Home of H. W. Williams Family (Digital Grinnell)
Nettie completed public school in Grinnell and attended Iowa (Grinnell) College, entering with the class of 1882. Ill health forced her to interrupt her studies, which she later resumed at Chicago Musical College, from which she graduated.  In late December, 1885, Nettie married Park Buckley, whom she had met when they were both students at Iowa College. Buckley operated the family farm near Strawberry Point, and the couple settled there after the wedding, and there they welcomed their only child, daughter Harriett. Injured in a runaway-horse accident soon afterward, Nettie endured several years of poor health before she died unexpectedly in 1889.
Abby Williams, undated photograph
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Abby Williams, two years Nettie's junior, also finished public school in Grinnell, and may have attended Iowa College, at least briefly. But she certainly never completed her degree there, opting instead to pursue a career in painting. In 1880 she moved to Chicago to study with H. F. Spread, a founder of what was then called the Chicago Academy of Art where, reports had it, "amateurs can obtain the best possible advantages upon the most reasonable terms." With this preparation she began to teach, first in Grinnell, then at Bertier-en-Haut, Quebec. Some of the paintings she did while living in Canada were exhibited back in Grinnell in 1886 at the studio of the local photographer, A. L. Child. The Grinnell Herald printed an enthusiastic review of Hill's work, detailing the subjects of numerous canvases, some of which apparently depicted scenes around Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald, October 22, 1886
Hill later went to New York where she studied with William Merritt Chase, from whom she seems to have absorbed the latest techniques of the French Impressionists. In the 1890s, during a sojourn in Europe, she studied in Hamburg, Germany with the illustrator Hermann Haase. In 1888, while residing in New York, Abby married Dr. Frank Hill, another Grinnellian. Soon thereafter the couple went west, settling in Tacoma, Washington, where in November, 1889 Abby gave birth to a son, Romayne Bradford Hill, who was born partially paralyzed. Abby and Frank later adopted three more children, and for most of her career as an artist, Hill took all four children along, exposing them to both the wonders and hazards of the natural world she so beautifully depicted on canvas.
Dr. Frank Hill and Abby Williams Hill (1888)
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
For the first half-dozen years after the birth of Romayne (1889-1970), and the adoptions of Ione (1886-1984), Ina (1889-1987), and Eulalie (1891-1978), Hill did relatively little painting. Works from this period give few hints of the artistry that later paintings reveal. Nevertheless, Hill clearly had admirers, and her work attracted attention, as she was commissioned to do a copy of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington for the State of Washington's exposition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

But in the summer of 1895, prior to departing for a two-year stay in Europe for her husband's further study of medicine, Hill had her first experience of painting in the wilds of America's West. She joined an expedition into the nearby Cascade Mountains, learning first-hand some of the skills she would later practice on trips elsewhere. Taking along her paints, brushes and easel, Hill accompanied a group, most of whose members were intent on climbing Mt. Rainier. Instead of scaling a mountain, however, she found places to set up her easel and paint. Often these perches were perilous, as her journal reports: "I sketched all the afternoon, sitting on a precipice just about a foot wide, and perhaps three hundred down" (Hill's diary, as quoted by Ronald Fields, Abby Williams Hill and the Lure of the West, p. 17), a circumstance that she duplicated numerous times on later expeditions.

Almost immediately after her return from Rainier, Hill embarked on a similar excursion to the Hood Canal at the foot of the Olympic Mountains. Yet another difficult hike presented itself, as the group made its way through virgin forests and across numerous waterways. "After the pools, came the wildest scenery and the most severe climbing, up rocky sides, over boulders and under them, across streams on logs many feet above the whistling torrent, and at last seated to sketch in a place where the roar was so great, I could not make my companion on the next rock hear my voice...It was thought no woman had ventured as far as I did today" (Fields, p. 18).

These two endeavors, shoe-horned into the brief period before the family left for Europe, gave Hill the confidence to deal with the wild, and prepared her for the major commissions that she executed after their return from Europe.
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Hill's reputation as an artist depended for the most part upon the four commissions she obtained from the railroads in the first years of the twentieth century. The first, secured from the Great Northern Railway in spring, 1903, was perhaps the most important. Officers of the Great Northern wanted Hill to travel to the area around Lake Chelan in the North Cascades—very difficult to access, and since 1968 part of the North Cascades National Park Complex—and there produce some twenty canvases before autumn weather made the area impassable. The fifty-mile long Lake Chelan, one of the deepest lakes in North America, offers a startling contrast to the mountains around it, and gave Hill some wonderful material to paint. However, as Fields points out, it also constituted "some of the most rugged and inaccessible scenery of the Cascades," which Hill had to negotiate "without the benefit of established, managed camps" (p. 34). 

We know few details of the expedition since Hill documented her work only in a sparsely-worded daybook. But the railroad published some thirty thousand copies of a pamphlet of Hill's twenty paintings, all of which were displayed at the 1904 fair in St. Louis. Two paintings had Tumwater Canyon as subject, and five others represented scenes around Mount Index. The bulk of the commission, however, centered upon Lake Chelan and the mountains beyond. 
Title Page of pamphlet reproducing Hill's paintings from the Great Northern Commission
Although Hill's contract entitled her to reclaim the paintings after the World's Fair, and although she seems to have made copies of some of the works, not all the canvases of this commission survive. Hill gave two to what was then Washington State College, today's Washington State University; today only one of those works—"Spruce Trees"—is known. Hill gave two other works to a friend, and two more disappeared—one presumably kept by the railroad, and the other lost after the University of Puget Sound acquired the collection.
"Spruce Trees" (1903) from Hill's Great Northern Commission
(photo courtesy Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections,  Washington State University)
For Grinnell, however, "Looking Across Lake Chelan" represents the greatest interest, since it was this painting that in 1906 she gave to Grinnell College (see the illustration at the top of this post), and which the college displayed in what was then the newly-built (1905) Carnegie Library.
Grinnell Review vol. 1, no. 9 (June, 1906)
Interior of Carnegie Library Lobby (undated photo courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections)
Hill's expedition to the Northern Cascades demonstrated how plein-air artists had to struggle with the conditions in which they painted. Discussing her work at Chelan Gorge, Hill reported that "It has been the most difficult sketch I ever made owing to the heat and its being so out of the way...." When beginning her painting of Horseshoe Basin, Hill wrote: "Pitch[ed] my awning on a rock, very windy, have to sit astride" (Fields, p. 37). Then an autumn snow storm caught the artist and her children; living in a tent with no heat, they were obliged to endure the cold and live off raw foods for two days.

Happily, Hill and her children survived these trials, and her paintings from the North Cascades succeeded wonderfully, earning Hill enviable praise when they were first shown in Tacoma. Her renown even made its way to distant Grinnell, where in late December, 1903 the Grinnell Herald reprinted from the Tacoma Daily News a most favorable review of Hill's canvases, soon to shine at the St. Louis exhibition.
Headline of article in Grinnell Herald, December 29, 1903, p. 1
More important for Hill's career, her fame also made its way to the headquarters of the Northern Pacific Railway, which in 1904 issued her the first of three new painting contracts. The first called on Hill to travel to and paint Mt. Rainier and the Monte Cristo Mountains, along with sites in Idaho and Montana. The eleven canvases that resulted from this commission were exhibited at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, and included "Cliffs at Eunice Lake" and "Basaltic Rocks," both of which still hang on the walls of the First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Washington.
"Basaltic Rocks" (1904) (photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA)

"Cliffs at Eunice Lake" (1904) (photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA)
During this expedition Hill painted two canvases that ended up in Iowa (although the original of one remains with the Hill Collection at Puget Sound): "Yellow Pines" (done near Eddy, Montana) and "Morning in an Aisle of a Tamarack Cathedral" (also done near Eddy). In 1907 Hill donated both these paintings to the Botany Department of what was then called the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts—today's Iowa State University. Although both paintings were known to a 1941 university inventory (even if both were then in storage), today both are lost.
Personal communication from Allison Sheridan, University Museums, Iowa State University
Hill's work in 1904 evidently pleased officials of the Northern Pacific, who in the spring of 1905 extended her yet another commission, this one taking her to Yellowstone Park where, in the course of about a month, she produced three paintings—two of Yellowstone Falls and one of Yellowstone Canyon. As with her earlier expeditions, Hill found the going tough:
"The view I selected [to paint] was from a cliff extending over the canyon. It is not over three feet wide and [has] a very sharp descent to reach it. I thought to pitch my little tent on it, but after sitting there till noon, there came up such a wind we crawled off between gusts and concluded a tent with a floor in it would fill and carry us with it" (Fields, p. 66)
Identified as "Hill Children on Edge of Yellowstone Canyon" but might include Hill herself (1905)
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
When painting Yellowstone Falls, calamity very nearly did strike:
"Got out on my perch and painted a few hours...when suddenly there came a roar and without more warning, a big twister struck us, wrenching the picture from its fastening, jerking it under the poles and away down the canyon, which is at least 400 feet deep and the sides almost perpendicular..." (Fields, p. 67)
The next day volunteers descended by rope more than 100 feet along the canyon walls, retrieved the canvas, and thereby wrapped the painting in a wonderful story.
"Yellowstone Falls (From Below)" (1905)
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Over and above the excitement that pertained to Hill's 1905 visit to Yellowstone, Grinnell has special reason to be interested in this venture, because in 1907 she gave the College one of her paintings of the Falls; this work, too, went on display in Carnegie Library.
Grinnell Review, vol. 2, no. 8 (May, 1907)
Unfortunately, no one seems to know what happened to this painting, which was probably lost when the College opened a new library in 1959. But it was clear that the College appreciated her gifts as well as her fame, because at the 1907 commencement Hill received an honorary degree.
Hill's honorary degree conferred at commencement, June 12, 1907
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Hill's third and final commission from the Northern Pacific took her back to Yellowstone in 1906. The details of the contract remain unknown, but we know that before reaching the park, Hill visited both Minneapolis (where she took part in a meeting of the Congress of Mothers, antecedent to the National Parent Teacher Association), and then on to Grinnell, where in April her father had died. Besides settling details of her father's estate, Hill met with the Grinnell College class of 1882, to which she evidently had briefly belonged before setting out on her career as an artist. While in Grinnell, Hill worked out the details of the trip to Yellowstone, writing her husband to make arrangements for the entire family to meet in Montana.

The subject matter of the last railroad commission evidently centered on Yellowstone's geysers, but Hill preceded her visit to the park with a stop at the Flathead Reservation, a reminder of her interest in and defense of native Americans, causes that she pursued more vigorously later in her career. Once settled within sight of Yellowstone's remarkable geysers, Hill found herself unhappily close to the main tourist circuits of the park. Moreover, because the tent within which she normally worked proved a fright to teams of horses, she often had to do without it. Finally, there were the bears and other animals so abundant in Yellowstone. Thinking the bears in the main harmless, Hill often fed—and photographed—those that appeared at camp during daylight. Tourists she regarded as more harmful, and she did what she could to avoid them. Another damper on the experience was the unusually wet summer weather that interfered with her painting and often diminished the available natural light.

Fields deduced that Hill completed fifteen paintings that summer in Yellowstone, but only a few are known to the Puget Sound collection and none has a connection with Grinnell. In the opinion of critics, work from this last railroad commission was not as successful as the earlier paintings, perhaps a reflection of Hill's overall unhappiness with the expedition. After leaving the park, Hill remained for a time in Montana, again visiting with and painting at the Flathead Reservation where she observed regretfully the incursion of destructive outside influences. The paintings of native Americans represented a new direction in Hill's work, increasingly devoted to individual portraits and to documenting native American cultures. As a result, Hill developed strong bonds among the Salish (known to some as Flatheads), the Nez Perse, the Yakama, and others, and her paintings provided a unique and sympathetic introduction of these peoples to Hill's audience.
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In the years after completing the last of her railroad commissions, Hill's painting faced some challenges. She did exhibit at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exhibition in 1907, and she won at least one gold medal (possibly two) at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition in Seattle. At about this time the Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific railroads both expressed interest in acquiring her services (Hill declined their offers). Nevertheless, over the next two decades Hill faced significant challenges that restricted the freedom to travel and paint that she had earlier so much enjoyed.

The primary challenge came from her husband's failing health. Frank suffered from melancholy, which today might be diagnosed as depression, a condition that grew so worrisome by 1909 that Frank closed his medical practice. When things got even worse, he was hospitalized in California. Hill and the children had managed a trip to Europe in 1908-9, and she had also visited Yosemite about this time, leaving behind some memorable landscapes. But once Frank was hospital-bound, Hill moved to southern California, too, and invested much of her time in these years in her husband.

When Frank rallied and was released from hospital in 1924, Hill bought a nine-passenger Hudson automobile, and with the family embarked on long automobile journeys across the American South and West, regularly wintering in Tucson, Arizona. With the idea of securing a contract from the Park Service to paint all the national parks (in effect, reproducing the idea behind her railroad commissions), she and the family visited the Grand Canyon, Bryce, the Grand Tetons, and Zion National Park, among others. Fields thinks that Hill's work from this period, which he calls her "gypsy years," was among her best: "Her palette became lighter, brighter, and richer" (Fields, p. 105). Nevertheless, Hill's painting did not attract much attention. The Park Service declined her proposal, and no new exhibitions presented her work. 

Meanwhile, Frank's health deteriorated, and in 1931 he was readmitted to Patton State Hospital (near San Bernardino), and Abby moved to be near him. Frank never left that hospital, lingering until his 1938 death. Her husband's long and difficult illness had evidently drained Hill of all her energy, and she remained bedridden the rest of her life, dying in San Diego in 1943.
1929 Letter from Grinnell College President, John H. T. Main
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Even in these last, rather disappointing years, however, Hill retained a lively commitment to Grinnell. Indeed, it appears that, just prior to Frank's re-hospitalization, she approached the college with a proposal. In a December, 1929 letter the college's president, John H. T. Main, responded to Hill, whose own letter has not survived, but which had evidently proposed that the college erect a fireproof art building with "provision...for pictures and art objects." Main promised to do his "utmost to see that a building such as you propose is provided," pledging to strive to "meet the condition you propose." Main did not articulate the "condition" to which he referred, so we cannot be certain about her intentions, but it seems likely that Hill had pledged to donate her paintings in return for the college constructing a building sufficient to display and house them. Main's effort to fund such a building was not enough, however, especially once the weight of the Great Depression landed upon the college's best supporters.  When Main died in 1931, all thought of an art gallery died with him, and no gallery appeared on campus until the very last year of the twentieth century.

Consequently, by the time of her death in 1943 Hill's painting collection remained, for the most part, in family hands, until in 1957 Ina Hill donated it to the University of Puget Sound where numerous examples of Hill's painting have regularly been on display in the years since. Recently Hill's work has also attracted attention elsewhere, with examples of her painting included in exhibitions at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Fullerton, CA (1976), the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, MT (1982), the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC (1987), the Boise Art Museum (1990), the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles (1995; 2004-5), and the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, WA (2010), among others. Ronald Fields's book, to which I have referred several times in this post, was published to accompany a well-received 1989 solo exhibition of Hill's work at the Washington State Historical Society. Portions of Hill's oeuvre have also been exhibited at the White River Valley Museum, Auburn, WA (2007) and recently at the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, WA (2015).

Back in Grinnell, where Hill was born and began her career, the artist's legacy has been less happy. After the 1929 exchange between Hill and President Main, memory of Grinnell's famous plein-air artist waned. A Grinnell Herald article from October 15, 1929 (titled "Grinnell Had Music and Art From the Beginning") mentions Hill briefly and somewhat condescendingly, commending her "dainty pencil work." But gradually Hill and her reputation slipped from public consciousness. Hill's two landscapes that had long hung from the walls of Grinnell's Carnegie Library lost their context, so that when the college erected a new library in 1959, even these last two traces of Abby Williams Hill fell from view, carrying with them the memory of one of Grinnell's most talented daughters. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Triplets!

May 13, 1950 was a big day in Grinnell—and not only because on that day Stevie Wonder was born in Saginaw, Michigan.  No, May 13, 1950 brought Grinnell happy news much closer to home: on that day triplets were born to William and Alice Evans in Grinnell's St. Francis Hospital. Because triplets were so rare, it was a very big deal when Jerilyn, Carolyn, and Marilyn Evans made their first appearance in Grinnell, Iowa.
Photograph of the Evans triplets (from left, Jerilyn, Carolyn, and Marilyn) and nurses Lucy Snodgrass, Sister Pauline, and Helen Simeral Mathis at St. Francis Hospital, May, 1950
In 2014 (the most recent US data available), the number of triplet and higher-order multiple births in the United States fell to its lowest rate in twenty years: 113.5/100,000 live births. The overwhelming majority of these multiple births were triplets—4233—whereas the number of quadruplets (246), quintuplets and higher-order multiples (47) was minuscule. Twins, on the other hand, were much more common than triplets: in 2014, for example, twins accounted for 135,336 multiple births.

But if in recent years the number of multiple births in the US has slowly declined, for the preceding several decades numbers rose dramatically, largely as a consequence of assisted reproductive technologies. As recently as 2003, for example, 7110 triplets were born in the US, a large increase over the 1990 data which counted only 2830 triplets.

Before the availability of assisted reproductive technologies, multiple births were much less common, even if the numbers are not easy to tease out. According to one massive study of more than 72 million live births in the US between 1915 and 1948, one set of triplets was born for every 9126 deliveries, whereas twins could be expected once in every 90 deliveries, making twins about one hundred times more common than triplets. Data from 1949 Iowa, as reported in the June 6, 1950 Des Moines Register, seem to confirm these numbers; the newspaper reported that in 1949 six sets of triplets had been born across the state compared to 652 sets of twins—more than 100 sets of twins for every set of triplets. Data like these undergirded the syndicated health affairs columnist—Dr. Bundesen—who wrote in the November 20, 1950 issue of the Marshalltown Times-Republican that triplets could only be expected once in more than 9400 US confinements.
St. Francis Hospital, Grinnell, Iowa (1962 Grinnell City Directory)
It is not surprising, therefore, that when the Evans triplets were born in 1950 Grinnell, much was made of their arrival. Two days after their births, the Grinnell Herald-Register reported excitedly above the fold on its front page: "Triplets Born Here!" To emphasize the singularity of the event, the newspaper added that the "Odds [of triplets are] 8000 to 1," which seems to have been at least approximately accurate. The article went on to provide name, weight and exact time of delivery of each girl: Marilyn, 3 lbs., 8.5 oz., born at 10:59 PM; Carolyn, 4 lbs., 6 oz. at 11:03 PM, and finally Jerilyn, 4 lbs., 2 oz. at 11:20 PM. No photo accompanied the report, however; a subsequent article announced the newspaper's desire to publish a photograph of the babies, but observed that "thus far [the triplets] are being handled as little as possible, and a picture has been impossible."

Meantime, local merchants lined up to donate gifts to the family, a development that the newspaper happily reported. Three drug stores, several grocery stores, a shoe store, two photographers, a flower shop, two department stores and several other merchants provided the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce with gifts to be delivered to the family. No doubt the parents were grateful, since they already had a seven-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter to whom the new threesome would be added.

Finally, on the front page of the May 25 edition of the Grinnell Herald-Register there appeared a photograph of the triplets, their mother, and Sister Pauline, a well-known nurse at St. Francis hospital.
Grinnell Herald-Register May 25, 1950, p. 1
The babies, whose birth weights were low compared to the norm, remained hospitalized for about a month, gradually gaining weight. A brief report on the June 15 issue of the Grinnell Herald-Register announced their release, remarking at the same time that each of the girls had gained about two pounds during their hospital stay. Their mother used the newspaper to thank the Grinnell merchants who had provided the family with gifts and also to thank the doctor who had delivered and cared for them, Dr. J. C. DeMeulenaere.

Leaving the hospital did not mean heading to a home in Grinnell, however. Mr. and Mrs. Evans actually made their home in Kellogg, living in the same house where (improbably) some thirty years earlier triplets had been born to Mr. and Mrs.  O. L. Mulford. But the Grinnell newspaper reported somewhat optimistically that the Evans family hoped to find a new home in Grinnell, inasmuch as Grinnell had been so generous to them when the triplets were born. Whether Mr. and Mrs. Evans sought a Grinnell address or not, a new home for the Evans family in Grinnell apparently never did eventuate. Instead, Mr. Evans, who at the time of the triplets' birth had been a salesman for the Curtis Candy Company, about a year later took a job in Des Moines with what became Martin Marietta, and the family moved to Des Moines.
Carolyn, Jerilyn and Marilyn Evans at their second birthday (Des Moines Tribune, May 13, 1952)
Perhaps precisely because the Evans family did not remain in the area, the Grinnell newspaper made no further mention of the triplets; their fame had risen and fallen in harmony with their closeness to Grinnell. Now resident elsewhere, the little girls merited no further coverage. But the Des Moines Tribune, the afternoon newspaper in the Evans family's new hometown, did take note of the triplets, publishing a photograph of the girls on their second birthday. The caption identified each of the girls and also provided characterizations offered by their mother:  "Carolyn is 'the natural leader' of the triplets," the paper reported, saying that she was somewhat independent, whereas Jerilyn and Marilyn "nearly always play together."

The Des Moines Register, however, the city's morning newspaper, never did report on the Evans triplets, even if occasionally it found space to report on triplets born elsewhere. For example, the June 24, 1951 Register reported on the Winterheimer triplets born in Evansville, Indiana, and the October 3, 1952 Register carried news from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Mrs. Irma Griser had given birth to her fifth set of twins, who were added to the triplets to whom she had given birth earlier. Later that year the Register published a photograph of the eight-month-old triplets of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Hill of Fullerton, California, who had just gotten their social security numbers. To be sure, in late 1949 the Register did take note of the arrival of triplets in Des Moines—the Hickman triplets who were born just before Christmas that year. But the paper was just as likely to report on the birth of triplet calves, as it did in the January 9, 1952 issue.

In any event, the Evans triplets attracted little further attention from the media. The family, which had added yet another child, born about eighteen months after the triplets, moved several times within Des Moines, but the triplets seem to have prospered, regardless of where the family resided. All three girls attended Roosevelt High School, graduating in 1968. By this time each had developed her own career preferences, some of which were evident already at Roosevelt. Carolyn, for example, who went on to become a nurse after attending Broadlawns School of Nursing, at Roosevelt assisted the school nurse, and belonged to the Red Cross Committee as well as to the Future Nurses club, of which she was president her senior year. Marilyn, who later attended Drake University to acquire her teaching credentials, belonged to Roosevelt's Future Teachers club, and was as well a member of the Leaders Club. Jerilyn, who later became a successful businesswoman, belonged to the Pep Club, the Riders Club, and the Blue Cadets.



Carolyn, Jerilyn (top) and Marilyn (bottom) Evans as Roosevelt High School Seniors
(The Roundup, Roosevelt High School Yearbook, vol. 45[1968])
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So far as I know, no other triplets were born in Grinnell after the Evans girls (although triplets like the Capers children, who had been born elsewhere, moved to Grinnell in the 1970s). Prior to the Evans triplets, however, Grinnell had been the birthplace of another set of triplets: in December, 1895 Dora Lucas, an African American woman, had given birth to triplets in the Lucas family home at 1517 West Street, Grinnell.  Like the Evans triplets, the Lucas babies were all girls; according to the short report in the December 3, 1895 Montezuma Democrat, the Lucas girls arrived in good health, weighing "5, 6, and 7 pounds"—rather surprising weights for triplets, especially then.

On the face of it, the 1895 report shares some of the enthusiasm of the 1950 Grinnell story. The Montezuma paper, alluding to Grinnell's pleasure at the new arrivals, asserted confidently that the little girls would be "god-children to half the city." Moreover, the newspaper predicted that, when spring arrives, "one of the finest special order baby cabs...shall be placed at their disposal." Whether the Lucas triplets ever received the promised baby carriage is not known, but the Montezuma newspaper undercut its own enthusiasm by un-selfconsciously twice describing the African American children as "pickaninnies."

In Grinnell itself, however, the arrival of the Lucas triplets seems not to have generated much attention. The 1895 Grinnell Herald printed no feature article of the sort that later greeted the Evans triplets. Only a brief note two weeks later humorously denied that the Lucas children would be named Faith, Hope and Charity (inasmuch as their father was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal church), but there was no list of merchant donations, no additional report on the babies' welfare, and of course no photograph or feature story.

As rare as triplets were in those years, it is difficult at this remove to explain the difference in reactions from the local press between 1950 and 1895. Was the relative silence of the 1895 Grinnell newspaper a function of race, as the Montezuma newspaper's report rather awkwardly indicates? Or was it a function of different perceptions of news and the technology of reporting that news? Did the editor of the Grinnell Herald, which regularly placed obituaries on page 1, think that births--even the birth of triplets—was not in fact news of the sort that usually earned readers' attention?

No obvious answer presents itself. Instead, we are left to savor the 1950 stories that excitedly welcomed to the world three baby girls, who had shared their mother's womb for the preceding nine months, and who made their appearance in Grinnell's St. Francis Hospital.