Monthly Archives: October 2014

On Nellie, Part 2

The more I look into the life of my great-great grandmother, the sadder I feel it must have been. As I wrote last time, I don’t yet know what became of her after 1886. Much less what precipitated her “insanity,” as the courts deemed it.

NelliesgraveMy great-aunt, before I decided I shouldn’t ask more about it, told me “Nellie” was a nickname and that she was buried at Mt. Calvary Cemetery with her mother. She told me her mother (Nellie’s daughter) would not speak of her mother, but her father told her this, and also that she died around the age of 36, the speculation being suicide.

I believe this may be her grave. It is adjacent to Nellie’s mother’s, I know that, and it’s the final resting place of a 34 year-old woman named “Ellen.” Her birthdate does not match that of the woman in the article, however, who in 1886 was reported to be 27. The woman interred here would have been 20. One or the other could be wrong. Or perhaps this isn’t her grave.

The Topeka State Hospital where she was likely sent did keep records of those who perished there during the late 19th century. There is no Ellen or Nellie Farrell recorded in cemetery records. The closest match is a woman listed as “Nellie Fennell,” who died on this day, in  fact, in 1937. Perhaps this is her. But I think the grave in Atchison is more likely.JohnFarrell

If so, what is saddest is that just to the right of Ellen’s grave is this one–that of a 6 month old boy, John E. Farrell. It lists him as passing away on June 28, 1886. Just two weeks before Nellie was “adjudged insane.” Could it be she was simply grieving for her son? The article reports her symptoms developing “about a month ago,” which would be a couple weeks before John’s death. Maybe he was sick? It also reports that she would not let her mother or husband touch her children. Could it be he was sick and she felt they were worsening his condition? Maybe they were? Or, perhaps something entirely different happened. Maybe she suffered from post-partum depression and actually had something to do with John’s demise.

Ultimately, I am writing a fictional character in the Second Song, so whatever I uncover in history will only point me in directions, and I will choose what seems best for the novel. But I’m also now utterly intrigued, and will continue trying to figure out what happened to Nellie Farrell.

On Nellie, Part 1

Picture1Because the Songs of the Jayhawk are a trilogy, I sometimes have to think ahead to the next book as I am plotting. Characters I’m currently writing about, and their children, will bring their experiences from these passages with them into future passages. And those passages are not only not written yet; I really have no idea what they will be about. Most of the time anyway. It strikes me that writing these books, in this respect, is sort of like living them, as well. The past is carried into an always unknown and oftentimes unpredictable future.

In the Second Song, coming 2015, the Dugans and Hawkinses are joined in their Township by many other families. Maria’s mother and sister, her uncle and his family are among them. The quarter-section directly to the north of the Hawkins farm is claimed by a man with a markedly younger wife and their daughter. This daughter is two or three years old, and I know she is going to play a crucial role in the Third Song. Just what that role will be, I’m not quite sure yet.

I do know that the life of this girl is going to be inspired by my understanding of one of my great-great grandparents, my grandfather’s mother’s mother. There are nubs of memories of family stories somewhere within me, but it wasn’t until a few years ago, when an uncle sent this newspaper article from 1886, that I learned she was committed to the Topeka State Mental Hospital that year. The article reports she “started setting small fires to the house,” and later “failed to recognize her husband and mother.” And even more painful is that she would not let them touch her children. So sad. So incredibly sad, and mysterious. What became of her after 1886, I am just not sure.

By the time I learned this, my grandpa was too ill with Alzheimer’s to ask, and in talkiPicture2ng to his sister, I realized that while she did have, and share, some information, it was painful to talk about. In fact, I believe I was insensitive in even raising the issue. These are the best sorts of stories for a writer, but not so much for a family member. A line I am always aware of in my writing, especially when I cross it.

For now, I am following a few leads to try and find what became of her, and in the meantime letting this information, the characters around her, and my own imagination shape and form this young girl in the Second Song.