Friday, September 25, 2015

The Baby Abandoned at Goodnow Hall

Although no exact figures are available, experts estimate that since 1999 some 4400 infants have been abandoned in the United States.  The great majority of these children have been spared cruel death by so-called Safe Haven laws, first instituted in 1999, that permit parents to leave unwanted newborns—no questions asked—at hospitals, fire and police stations, churches, and similar public facilities.  Others are not so lucky, and end up discarded with the trash or left in other circumstances that promise little hope of survival. Even before the advent of Safe Haven laws, some children, beneficiaries of more affection and consideration, were left on house doorsteps with the hope that the residents would find and care for the abandoned children. Rarely was an unwanted child left at the door of a college building, but the 1911 Grinnell newspapers reported just such a case.
Headline from the Grinnell Register, August 28, 1911, p. 1
"A Strange Find on the Campus" read the Grinnell Register headline on page one of its August 28, 1911 edition. The four-paragraph story reported that Mrs. D. S. Morrison, who lived at 1121 Park Street (today's Nollen House), "was awakened [in the night] by the sound of a carriage in front of the house." Soon thereafter Mrs. Morrison "was sure that she heard a baby crying," persuading the woman to waken her husband, who, in turn, called Dr. Pearl Somers, who lived next door to the Morrisons at 1127 Park Street (today home to the College's Center for Careers, Life and Service).

In the dark of night, the paper continued, Somers headed over to campus and there "found on the steps of Goodnow Hall a boy baby, apparently about three weeks old, lying in an open suit case." Except to say that the rescued baby had been entrusted to the care of "Mrs. Mears" (meaning, presumably, Mrs. Alice Mears, who with her daughter, Eleanor, lived with the Morrisons at 1121 Park), the Register had little more to say about the child, concluding only with a hope "that some childless couple can be found who would be glad to adopt it."
Goodnow Hall (undated photograph from Digital Grinnell)
The following day's Grinnell Herald also devoted four paragraphs on page one to the story, printing a more detailed—even more artfully-worded—account. "A wailing cry out of the night aroused Mrs. D. S. Morrison," the Herald story began, self-consciously enlarging what little was known about the event. According to the Herald, Somers, once summoned to the Morrisons' home, "cautiously felt his way about the campus and finally, upon the steps of Goodnow Hall, he discovered a little bundle...." The baby "proclaimed without hesitation to an unfriendly world that he was hungry and lonesome, and did not find cold stone steps the best place to lie."
Headline from Grinnell Herald, August 29, 1911, p. 1.
In the Herald's version, it was Somers who "took the stranger in and gave it food and shelter," and, added the newspaper, "various kindly disposed people have kept it from wanting since that time." Like the rival paper, if more colorfully, the Herald voiced the hope that "some kindly Grinnell hearts will open to the motherless waif, so ruthlessly abandoned, and give it a home."

The Herald  added some particulars missing from the Register's story: "the child was warmly and comfortably dressed and several extra dresses and articles of clothing were in a bundle at his side," the paper reported. But no note accompanied the baby, nor were there any marks on the clothes to help identify the child.
Subsequent issues of the Grinnell newspapers gave no more primary coverage to the abandoned baby; only a brief note, buried among the personalia of the September 1 issue of the Herald, announced without fanfare that "Mr. and Mrs. Frank Harding yesterday took out formal adoption papers for the baby found Saturday night on the steps of Goodnow Hall. The child's name will be Paul Somers Harding."
Ida and Frank Harding with newly-adopted son, Paul (ca. 1911-12)
(Family photographs courtesy of Judith O'Donnell Pansarosa who composed the Findagrave pages for the Hardings)
In 1911 Frank and Ida Harding were only recently married—they had  married in Racine, WI May 30, 1910—and were still newcomers to Grinnell. Their names do not appear in the 1910 Grinnell directory, so in 1911 they were still getting acquainted with Grinnell, living at 403 First Avenue. Frank was proprietor of Grinnell Marble and Granite at 923 Main Street where he later erected, in concert with the 1916 construction of the Strand Theater next door, a two-story building for his business.
Ida Szommer (1905)
Mrs. Harding, the former Ida Szommer, had been born in Hungary in 1881, and immigrated to the United States (apparently under an assumed name), settling in Wisconsin where she was already married once before marrying Harding. Her picture depicts a handsome woman who had obviously already conquered many obstacles.

How the Hardings learned of the baby's availability we do not know, but the boy's middle name—Somers—implies that they felt indebted to Dr. Somers who had played a central role in rescuing the child and may well have arranged for them to adopt the baby. How they managed to feed an infant still accustomed to a mother's breast we also do not know, but somehow the child prospered, his growth and maturity only deepening his parents' affection. A 1915 article in American Stone Trade, evidently authored as a business promotion by Frank Harding himself, included a letter there attributed to four-year-old Paul: "Hello dare [sic]; my name is Paul. My papa sells monuments, and they are good monuments, too. I know they are 'cause he told me so...." In addition to supplying the journal with photographs of his stone work, Harding also posted a picture of a very fetching, healthy, and well-cared for young Paul.
Paul Harding in American Stone Trade (May 1, 1915, p. 14)
With the successful adoption, the story seemed to assume a fairy-tale plot: what had begun as a tragedy—an unwanted infant left for others to find, his life being put at risk—turned magnificently upside down, the child happening into the arms of parents whose love and care nourished him into a healthy, handsome lad. A happy ending seemed all but inevitable.

And then tragedy abruptly reasserted itself, rewriting the final act of this unlikely drama. On a September Sunday in 1921,  ten-year old Paul accompanied his parents to a baseball game in Newton. That evening he complained of not feeling well, but went to school on Monday anyway. In response to his continuing complaints, the nurse sent him home, where the boy's health steadily declined, despite the attentions of four doctors summoned to help. His parents could only watch as the boy tailspinned away from them: Thursday evening, September 22, 1921, the baby rescued from Goodnow Hall ten years earlier died, doctors attributing death to bronchitis and a weak heart.
Frank and Paul Harding (1915?)
Paul's death devastated the Hardings, who soon left Grinnell, choosing to try to make a new life in Roswell, New Mexico. It did not work, however, and the marriage rapidly disintegrated. By 1925 Ida was living in California, already married to her third husband. Frank headed east, ending up in Knoxville, TN where he became owner of Harding Monuments, along with several other enterprises. Apparently his businesses made him wealthy before his 1943 death, but whether he ever recovered from having lost Paul we cannot know. Ida lived quite a bit longer, having almost reached her 102nd birthday before succumbing in 1983 in Oxnard, CA. Long years and a new life had not totally erased the old, however: found among her personal effects was a yellowed clipping from the 1921 Grinnell Herald reporting the sad news of the death of Paul Somers Harding some sixty-two years earlier.
Gravestone of Paul Harding (1911-1921) in Hazelwood Cemetery


  1. Dan - once again a touching story that deserved to be told and remembered. Thank you!

  2. I am Judith (O'Donnell) Pansarosa, great-granddaughter of Ida Szommer and great-niece of Paul Somers Harding. Even though little Paul had passed away long before I was born, Ida spoke of him tenderly in those quiet times we spent together, reminiscing about her long, interesting life.

    One day in 1967, when I was 10 years old (the same age as Paul when he died), Ida held out a couple of yellowing newspaper clippings she kept in an old cabinet along with a black photo album with snapshots of a smiling little boy- the story of Paul. She wasn't one to cry much, at least publicly, but her eyes were teary as she held the clippings in her hand. All she could manage to say to me in her heavily Hungarian-accented words was, "Dis vas my liddle Pauly."

    Dr. Somers personally knew Frank Harding, who soon had a very successful and prosperous monument business in Grinnell. Frank made a fortune due to the many monuments needed for victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic which killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.

    Frank and Ida were specifically chosen by Dr. Somers as potential adoptive parents. I would speculate that it was their mutual membership in the Knights of Pythias organization that provided the opportunity for a close relationship.

    It was a happy coincidence that Dr. Somers’ name was similar to Ida's maiden name of Szommer. In fact, Somer is one of several Americanized versions of her surname that appears on U.S. Census records for our family members. I would guess Ida took that as a sign that she and Frank were destined to be adoptive parents. I believe those two factors- their respect for Dr. Somers and the tie to Ida's family name- were important in choosing a name for Paul Somers Harding.

    Frank Harding took Paul's death particularly hard. A friend of Frank's had visited their home at 403 4th Avenue in Grinnell while still ill with some kind of bronchial ailment. According to Ida, Frank blamed himself for exposing Paul to what would eventually lead to Paul’s tragic death. It was a painful irony, indeed, that Frank created his own son's gravestone.

    After moving to Roswell, New Mexico, which was relatively close to Frank’s home state of Texas, Frank attempted to drown his grief by frequently gambling just across the border in Mexico. Although they tried to begin anew, photographs of Frank and Ida’s ranch, horses, ducks, and chickens were missing their little Paul, who surely would have enjoyed such an adventure with his doting parents. The endless, flat, desolate vista of Roswell in the background of one photograph shows Ida standing in the middle of a dirt road, marking what would become a turning point in her grief. She never hated anyone or anything in her life, but Ida made an exception for Roswell.

    The end of their marriage was marked by one rather dramatic crescendo of out-of-control gambling. After Frank threw the keys to their car in the pot at a dangerously rowdy Mexican poker game, Frank's step-son, Dan (one of Ida's three natural born children), grabbed them, started the car, and raced back to Roswell in the dark of night. Dan breathlessly reported what had happened to Ida. She got in the car with the clothes on her back, told Dan to drive her to the train station, and took the next train to California. She sent for her treasured possessions and abruptly began one of many new chapters in her life.

    It has been an honor for me to share family history through genealogy work on, Family Search, and Find A Grave. Paul's short life has deep meaning to me, and he will always have a place of honor on my family tree. He was loved and adored, and he will continue to be remembered. Thank you for sharing part of his story.