Is finished! I think we are on track for a winter 2015 release. Working title is “Cover Thy Sun, O God.”
I still have a few records to hunt down, but it’s quite likely I’ll never know what really happened to Ellen “Nellie” Farrell, my great-great grandmother. I know she was “adjudged insane” in 1886, just weeks after her baby boy died. The cause of that insanity is probably lost to history.
History has an unpleasant story to tell about “insanity” in women in the 19th century, too. One of the more infamous stories comes from “Elizabeth Packard, who differed with the theology of her clergyman husband, was forcibly placed in an Illinois state hospital. She remained there for 3 years. At that time, Illinois law stated that ‘married’ women could be hospitalized at a husband’s request without the evidence required in other cases” (NLM, Diseases of the Mind). After her release she wrote three books, bringing public attention to the state of asylums in the United States.
Despite a truly benevolent beginning, asylums began to devolve by the time Elizabeth, and Nellie, experienced them. Misunderstanding and unfair, even masochistic, treatment of women in mental health was rampant throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. I still think other explanations are quite plausible, but circumstances suggest Nellie’s life in Topeka was grim and that she was likely committed for grief, not an uncommon occurrence: “The grief experienced after the death of a loved one and domestic troubles were also diagnoses given to women (Pouba & Tianen, 2006).”
This may not surprise many of us, and I suppose that is a good thing. Understanding the injustices of the past may help us avoid them now, and in the future. But for it to be so personal, in my family, is an odd experience. Adding to this discomfort is the possibility my great-great grandfather had something to do with it: “Women diagnosed with insanity by domestic troubles were frequently admitted by their husbands (Pouba & Tianen, 2006).” Perhaps just as Ms. Packard’s husband did.
I will look into Kansas law at the time, but if Nellie’s husband’s testimony is what lead to her being committed, this is the image of that man. Edward Hugh Farrell, my great-great grandfather.
Despite his beard, I don’t think it’s fair to automatically assign nefarious purposes to him.
Compassion for him within me suggests he may have been scared by his wife’s grief, grieving for his son himself, lonely, lost, ignorant, and subject to the influence of his community and culture.
But Nellie, oh Nellie. To grieve, to be torn away from your family, and die young in an institution among strangers. Life in the 1880s had plenty of suffering to offer humans, as it always has and always will, but this is a particularly terrifying, and all to common, offering. And certainly one of the darker stories in my family history that will lead to something in the Songs.
Because 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 talking 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.
I have spent a lot of my life camping and backpacking, so I’m on some level familiar with the process of choosing a spot, as it were–deciding where the tent goes, the fire, etc. And I’ve noticed how quasi-irrevocable this choice is; it seems despite the rock in your back, the fact the wind blows the smoke at the tent, or that the spot is a muddy pool every time it rains, you don’t move it. You made your bed and now you lie in it.
I can only imagine how the early settlers of Kansas chose their spots. Speculators may have chosen based on where they thought railways would be laid, or future towns. The poorer, simpler settlers in 1854, 1855, I’m sure, looked for hardwood and native stone so they could build a cabin. And most probably cared quite a lot about the quality of the soil and access to water. Proximity to like-minded people also mattered–one wouldn’t want to be the sole Free Stater in a Pro Slavery township. German and Irish immigrants tended to congregate, like my great-great grandparents, who settled next to families named “Kelley,” “McMahon,” and “Farrell” in a community that years later would come to be known as “Irish Point.”
But their spot, which I believe to be the SE 1/4 of Section 16, Range 20, Township 5, Atchison County, seems to have been one of the last spots chosen in Irish Point. I’ve written about this before and how it’s great fodder for writing. These gaps among facts I often want to leave as they are so I can fill them with fiction. But sometimes the historian and librarian in me comes forth, and I want to know the facts.
Many of the land sales in territorial Kansas were recorded in Kansas Tract Books, which detailed transfer of ownership from the government to private parties. But again, I find Section 16 empty. Section 15 and 17 have detailed records, and many of the sections in Irish Point were sold as early as 1855 (October being a popular month, perhaps because Kuhn had come through the neighborhood by then?). Why? Was there really a dispute over this section that delayed its sale, as I portray to some extent in the first novel and expand in the second? Or was something wrong with Section 16? Could court records help? Are there other tract books available through the county?
I will keep looking to satisfy my inner historian, but in the meantime will keep writing my own reality for Section 16, and it may just have to involve something other-worldly.
As I’ve been writing the Second Song of the Jayhawk, I’ve done a lot more research on land development in Kansas during the late 1850s. Always following historical trends to find points of tension (and thereby, plot) in the era and area, I find that as 1856 turns to 1857, something very interesting begins to happen. People fight less over slavery, and the politics of slavery, and more over land.
I think there are several reasons for this, but one of them is that the land survey ordered by the Congress is drawing to a close in most of eastern Kansas, and it’s time for settlers to purchase the 160 acres they claimed before it goes to public auction. Property boundaries are now drawn, in a legal sense; stone walls and wooden fences, creeks and streams and whatever else served among neighbors as tentative agreements now matter a lot less, if at all. And people needed money.
$1.25 an acre was generally what Kansan settlers paid for their land in the late 50s. This would have been a low price for such a title, but still not an insignificant amount of money for immigrant farmers like the Dugans, or Missourian farmhands like the Hawkinses. And it wasn’t as if land disputes were uncommon in ’55 and ’56. In fact, a wonderful analysis by Dale E. Watts suggests I think rather conclusively that most murders in “Bleeding Kansas” were as much about land as slavery. Which is kind of sad, I think, and perhaps illustrative of the underlying causes of the Civil War as well. Maybe even of human nature.
Nevertheless, my characters’ plot of land is based on where my great-great grandparents, Patrick and Maria Mullins, settled in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. I base this not as much on land records as my grandpa’s memory. A few years ago I took him driving in the country outside Atchison, and he remembered very clearly where it was. Now it is part wheat crop, part fallow.
I went back as far as I could to see when this plot of land was surveyed, and when it went onsale, and found it was surveyed by Henry Kuhn beginning in 1856, and likely went up for public auction in November of 1858. The Dugan and Hawkins families, then, would have had that time to purchase their land, and official survey maps published just afterward were not terribly difficult to find. But this gem, a hand-written map with squatters’ names on it, excited me beyond expression. Kuhn had scrawled it out in his family recipe book. See the blank square near the middle? Section 16? That is where my grandpa took me. That is where my characters spend their lives. Why is that section empty? There are probably easy explanations for it, but I don’t really want to know them. I will invent my own. This is fiction, after all.
And I’m glad Kuhn’s family didn’t have one more recipe, or else the plot twists in the Second Song may never have been possible.