I stumbled upon my great-great-GREAT grandfather’s delicious sense of vindictiveness quite by accident.
As a journalist, I am deeply enamored of falling down the research rabbit holes that are newspaper archives. Don’t let anyone tell you that “oversharing” and “airing your dirty laundry” are solely the invention of social media. You have not seen a scandal until you’ve seen a small town 1800’s scandal IN PRINT. Newspapers had news and notes columns where the comings and goings of the locals were noted — whether they liked it or not. The fact that one newspaper had a column they aptly titled “Scintillations” should tell you all you need to know about the journalistic possibilities of days past.
As a “researcher” I am completely smitten with all this gossip. I delight to news pages peppered with “Miss Smith and Mr. Wilde spotted courting on the square. No word on parental approval” and “the wife of Lincoln Hall is recovering from a recent case of the gout which had felled her due to overindulgence in cake.” If someone traveled to another town for a visit, had visitors themselves, hosted a club luncheon or enjoyed a “musical interlude,” it was dutifully recorded to be read by the masses. I love this stuff.
Obituaries and wedding announcements were equally flowery. They did not merely marry, they were “betrothed,” “united,” and “forever joined.” People did not just pass on. They “departed on the wings of angels.”
Thanks to these old newspaper archives I now have proof positive that at least one, possibly two, people departed on the wings of angels right from our home. The house being well over 100 years old leaves me not the least bit surprised. They passed peacefully of old age. A friend opined that it was fine as long as they don’t peacefully pass through walls and manifest themselves in our living room. If that comes to pass, I dug up some photos of them so I can, at the very least, recognize them should their apparitions appear. It would be rude to confuse the two.
Take Great-Great-Great-Grandpa George, for example. I plugged his name into a newspaper archive and out came a sordid tale of adultery and betrayal — his first wife, not his. He seems sweet. Sweet, that is, unless you crossed him. Apparently, upon discovering his wife’s betrayal, he did what any fine upstanding man would do in 1876: he filed for divorce on Christmas Eve, sued the other man for a charge of “criminal intercourse” for $5,000 and he won. The case was reported to be “dragging its filthy length along in the Common Pleas Court for several days this week, and has attracted many listeners.” I just bet it did. 147 years later I, for one, am fascinated.
We are assured that “the jury returned a verdict in a very short time” and awarded him $3,000. For the record, that is the equivalent of approximately $89,000 today. I tell you, I flipped through those old newspaper archives like I was devouring a juicy novel. I was hooked.
Grandpa George then forced not one but TWO sheriff’s sales over the next two years to compel the culprit to pay up. This included, but was not limited to, the forced sale of ”over 160 acres, a sawmill, two houses, seven horses, thirteen cattle, twenty-six head of sheep, ten head of stock hogs, two log wagons, one spring wagon, three sleighs, two pair of bobsleds, twelve acres of wheat in the ground, two single buggies and two old buggies.” I feel like George didn’t even WANT those last two old buggies. At some point, it was probably just the principle of the thing.
Having traded his unfaithful spouse for every stick or stitch of belongings of her new man, he married again. He and my great-grandmother started a family that would someday lead to little old me, perched on the edge of my laptop, devouring his court-appointed vengeance with glee.
Our ancestors are more than dry dates “born 1849—died 1927.” It’s all about that dash in the middle. Digging up history can be so fulfilling and fun. People were complex. Flawed. It is a gift to learn how they spent their time on earth. How they lived. Who they loved.
I should probably be shocked, perhaps dismayed, at what was surely the talk of the town — and miles around all those years ago. Instead, I cannot help but adore my long-ago ancestor who decided to get mad AND get even — and then some.
Now when one of the family shows an extra hint of perseverance — and righteous indignation. I’ll think to myself “By George, if you make us mad enough, we absolutely would take a man’s last buggy.”
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