Category Archives: second song

On Nellie, Part 3

1900 Census, Topeka State "Insane Asylum"

1900 Census, Topeka State Hospital

I now think that Nellie was still in the hospital as of the 1900 U.S. Census. This record lists her birthday as September of 1858, which would have made her 27 years old when she was “adjudged insane” in 1886, which matches the newspaper report. It also lists her as “Ellen,” which matches the tombstone. This record also indicates she is the mother of 3, with 2 surviving children (which would account for John’s death at 6 months). So, I think the date of birth in the cemetery is wrong, but that it is her grave, and this is she, in 1900.


There are definitely many remaining questions. A closer look reveals she reports she is married in 1900, but the Family Search HTML record shows she is married for one year. My understanding is that her husband, Edward, left Kansas and remarried. Perhaps they divorced and Nellie remarried, too. But on closer inspection, I’m not so sure the “1” interpreted by FamilySearch (either an indexer or an automatic OCR system) is correct.


It sure looks like a “1,” (circled in red on the black line) but it has tails on either side, and the vast majority of the “1s” in the document do not, such as that just to its upper-right, also circled in red. It’s also interesting that at least 7 of these people have this two-tailed “1” listed as their “number of years married.” So, there was either something in the hospital water in 1899, or this character is not a “1,” but something else. Perhaps shorthand for “person doesn’t know how long they’ve been married,” or something like that…??

I feel I now know where she is buried, that she was in the hospital until her death. But what really led to her being “adjudged insane?” I’m contacting the Kansas State Historical Society to see what parts of her records I can view, and I’ll track down her husband and kids (one of them being my great-grandmother Mabel), but I’ve a feeling Nellie will remain largely a mystery to me.

Great fodder for writing. But sad.


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.

Starvation Trail

Map adapted from Historic trail map of the Limon 1° x 2° quadrangle, Colorado and Kansas Limited anniversary edition of the historic trail maps of Eastern Colorado and Northeastern New Mexico / by Glenn R. Scott

Map adapted from Historic trail map of the Limon 1° x 2° quadrangle, Colorado and Kansas Limited anniversary edition of the historic trail maps of Eastern Colorado and Northeastern New Mexico / by Glenn R. Scott

Some of what its founders planned came to fruition in Atchison in 1858. They’d long believed its geographic position, being a few miles west than any other town along the river in Kansas (Le Grande Detour de Missouri, as the French explorers called it) positioned it to attract emigrants heading overland to the farther West. Mormons used the area for outfitting heavily in 1854, and many other wagon trains followed suit from 1855-1857, but in 1858 the business exploded. Due to one word: gold. In July men who had camped where what would one day become Confluence Park in Denver (through which I ride my bike twice a day) found gold a few miles south (very near my father’s house in SE Denver). And it was on, so to speak. The Pikes Peak Gold Rush had begun.

Atchison was a big part of it. That summer over a thousand men and nearly eight-thousand oxen pulled over seven-hundred wagons out of the rutted streets of Atchison, bound for Denver and Colorado City (Ingalls, 1916). And these were but a fraction of the numbers preparing to leave in the summer of ’59, man and animal and machine sinking into the ruts and mud, tipping the earth into the mighty river astern while the men toppled over the grassy bow pointing West, ever west. But how best to get there? There were several routes out of Atchison, the most popular being to follow the Oregon Trail and the South Platte River. The Santa Fe Trail could also be used, striking north from Bent’s Fort in what is now southern Colorado. Both were somewhat indirect, and in the spring of 1859 word spread that a more direct middle route had been found. Now known as the Smoky Hill Trail, it runs largely parallel to and few miles south of what is now Interstate-70, a route I have driven countless times. It was a dangerous, poorly-marked and under-provisioned trail in 1859, and one need only make that drive once to see how scary it probably was. Between Fort Riley near Manhattan, KS, and Limon, CO, there is little. Little anything. Water, wood, notable features in the landscape. For the inexperienced traveler, which most of the 59ers were, it was just a bad, bad idea.

Many were undeterred, however, due in part to all kinds of press that the route was actually easier and saved some 100 miles off the northern and southern options. As many things in Kansas in the 1850s, newspaper reports were somewhat unreliable, to say the least. And if Ft. Riley to Limon was hard, west of Limon was worse. This section became known as “Starvation Trail.” Though it actually took place somewhat east of this section, part of its nickname came from the horrible story of a party of 16 Pikes Peakers that included three brothers, Daniel, Alexander and Charles Blue. Only 5 of the 16 reached Denver, and the Blue brothers were forced to eat the remains of a man named Solely. Daniel was saved by a band of Arapaho Indians (Blue, 1860). It isn’t the only story of cannibalism in Colorado history (see Alfred Packer’s story), but it’s a particularly horrible one. The Smoky Hill originated where my great-grandfather’s blacksmith shop (which would become my grandfather’s hardware store) in Atchison, and terminates where I caught a bus everyday during college, and with my wife as we left downtown for our City Park apartment when we were first married. It literally links my past and my present, and has a lot of great stories to tell. You can bet it will be included in the Second Song.