Thursday, June 11, 2015
My mother used to speak of "poor Edith" because, I'm sure, her Aunt Bess spoke of "poor Edith." Mom wasn't sure what disaster had befallen her. Perhaps she had run away with a mysterious stranger? When I was finally able to uncover her story, I hesitated to share her misfortune publicly. After meeting one of her direct descendants and sharing the story, I decided it was time to honor her with this history.
Edith Colman was born in April of 1877 in Middlefield, Otsego County, New York, just south of the village of Cooperstown, oldest child of John Colman and Ida Pierce. The brothers John and Horace Colman were neighbors, worked together in their father's saw mill, and formed a battery for a local baseball team. John was four years older (b. 1852) and married 10 years sooner (1871). When Edith was eight years old, her cousin Bessie was born to Horace and his wife Maggie Gilgun, my great-grandparents. Aunt Bess was elderly when I knew her, but the memories I have are that she encouraged me to play her piano and built Lincoln Log cabins with me.
Edith appears in the 1880 Federal Census of Middlefield with her family as a four-year-old. Her great-grandfather was living with her family. He survived four more years to die at 84. The 1892 New York State Census presents another snapshot of the family. In addition to her two younger brothers, Edith would have grown up with an older cousin, Lucy Becker nearby, as well as Bessie, I imagine a happy little girl in an inter-generational extended family. Baseball would have been an important leisure activity, played on the field near their homes.
Jumping to the 1900 Federal Census, she is not listed with her family. For a while I was stumped, until I dug deep into the newspaper archive at FultonHistory.com. I found several notices of her early activities. In June of 1889 Edith performed a duet with Lulu Potter at the 'annual exhibition and graduating exercises of the Cooperstown Union School and Academy.' She was awarded the Edward Clark Punctuality Prize three times. She led the Young People's Meeting of the Universalist Church in 1891. On October 13 of 1893 it was reported:
A very pleasant party was given by Miss Edith Coleman at her home near this village, Thursday evening of last week. About forty of her friends were present and a highly enjoyable time was passed in dancing and in other amusements.
Finally, newspaper searches for Bessie Colman yielded a notice of Edith's wedding 21 October 1896 to Keller Clark. Bessie had played the wedding march on the piano, quite an honor for a twelve-year-old! Backing up, I found a notice in the newspaper that "invitations have been issued" on October 9th. The description of the wedding at her home is quite picturesque. Reverend Mr. Perry performed the ceremony in "a most impressive manner." Refreshments were provided for the estimated 80 in attendance.
The parlor in which the ceremony took place was prettily decorated by willing hands of girl friends, evergreens, running pine, bittersweet berries, asparagus and ferns being used. In one corner of the room was an elaborate arch of evergreens and white daisies, beneath which the nuptial knot was tied. The bride wore a gown of white lans down tastefully trimmed with satin ribbon. She carried a bouquet of white roses. The maid of honor wore dotted mul over yellow and carried yellow roses.[Otsego Farmer, 23 October 1896]
Their attendants were Katherine Malloy and Fred G. Hopkins. The newspaper account continues to relate that they went by carriage to Richfield Springs that evening, and from there to Niagra Falls, Toronto, and 'the West.' On November 6 there is a notice that the couple had returned to her parents' home, where they would reside until 'taking up housekeeping' in the Spring.
The groom, Keller Clark, was a local boy, also from Middlefield, described in the matrimonial notice as "a young man of sterling worth and excellent habits." He was a graduate of the Cooperstown Union High School and Toronto Veterinary Collage. Edith had been working for Dr. Knapp, a dentist, prior to their marriage.
The 1900 Federal Census lists the couple in Middlefield on a farm, owned outright. They had a 14 year-old farm hand in the household. In 1905 Keller listed his occupation as veterinary surgeon on the New York State census. They had a son, Harris, born 5 April 1903.
Searching the newspapers further with Edith's married name, I discovered the crisis in the family. On July 14 of 1907, approaching their tenth anniversary, Edith left home, leaving a note that she would never be seen again. Did Bessie have any hint of her trouble? By that time, she was 23 and a teacher. Newspapers as far away as Albany picked up the story and reported that as many as 100 men joined the search. Bloodhounds were set on her scent. It was feared that she had gone into the lake, leaving four-year-old Harris home alone.
This description was released, in hopes that she would be seen somewhere in the region:
Height 5 ft. 2 1/2 inches, weight 136 pounds, light complexion, light hair worn parted in the middle and the back hair done in the shape of a figure eight, had on a blue sailor hat with black quill and a wide brim., white shirt waist pinned at the back of the neck with two small gold pins inked together, gray skirt and laced shoes. She was somewhat round-shouldered and when a little excited her cheeks reddened, good musician.
Weeks went by and no solid leads were found. It took three years before a man searching for ginseng root in the woods within two miles of their home found her remains. The newspapers reported the details, focused on a small bottle of laudanum near her side. The death was ruled a suicide. She was identified by her jewelry and dental records. The mystery was solved. She was laid to rest in Lakeview Cemetery in her parents' plot.
The brief social notes in the local papers mentioned Edith's son, Harris Clark, at various points in his life. At times he was said to be 'visiting' his father, indicating that he spent most of his time with his Clark grandparents. Keller Clark remarried three weeks after Edith was found. Harris continued to spend time with his grandparents. He boarded in Cooperstown while attending Cooperstown Union High School. He was listed with three others in Middlefield as "recent victims of the measles" and improving on 5 May 1916. In the 1920 census he was listed with his uncle Howard Clark at age 17.
Harris married in 1922. His uncle, not his father, gave him 1/2 acre of land to give them a start in life together. He and his wife Lillian Bliss had six children. I was happy to meet their son Robert "Bucko" Clark in 2014 and provide some information on the Colman side of his family.