You all know by now that I love a good mystery. Remembering well-documented stories or photographs is a fun and necessary part of a local history column, but I derive a special delight from finding an interesting slice of life where absolutely nothing was documented before.
This week we have the perfect example of this kind of history.
A big part of my approach to this column is keeping my eyes open. A couple of months ago, I was poking around various corners of the Internet in search of potential leads. I noticed an envelope for sale on a bid site. The owner — a stamp collector in Oklahoma — was selling it because of the rarity of the stamp on the envelope, hand canceled at the Brandon, Ohio, post office some time between about 1855 and 1875, when that stamp was in service.
Looking at the small print, I noticed the seller said that the envelope included the original letter! Not being a stamp collector, I wasn't that interested in the stamp, but a bit of personal correspondence from a small town in Knox County was definitely of potential interest. When I saw that the asking price was only $7, I decided that it was worth taking a risk.
And this one paid off handsomely, because while I have not been able to identify everyone in the letter, I am confident that I have found the correspondent (though there was more than one candidate), and I can assure you, she's a regular font of neighborhood news. Of course, she'd have been mortified to think all this would be discussed publicly many years later, but that's also why the letter contains such rich slices of life: it was confidential.
The letter is addressed to one Elizabeth Jennings of Boonesborough, Iowa, from an Ellen P. Lockwood of Brandon, Ohio. As those who have done family tree research know, this isn't a lot of information to go on, considering the commonness of these names, the ways people move around, and how they sometimes use middle names instead of first names. Throw in there the fact that women traditionally took on their husbands' surnames upon marriage, and pile on top of that the lax recordkeeping of the 1800s, and you know you're searching for a needle in a hayfield.
But we'll come back to their identities. Let's get into the letter. It starts with a characteristic example of Ellen's rambling style, replete with spelling errors, lack of punctuation, and run-on sentences.
Nonetheless, she knows how to put across information with a fine sense of humor: “Youres of last Feb. 1st was received and perused with the greatest of pleasure. glad to here you were all well, we are having very fine spring weather folks are making sugar molasses by the wholesale, and we have been making Weddings all winter and we are sugar now no need of making any more.” I would guess that in conversation she would have given special emphasis to the “are” in “we ARE sugar now,” to express that she was fed up with maple sugaring.
She goes on to mention someone named Sherwood: “Sherwood has gone to Utica to see his new relation going to stay until Sunday. Emma has been sick to, or three weeks but is better now.” Then she talks about someone named Sarah, who has been studying to become a teacher, though she might have trouble finding a job: “[She] is going to teach if she can get a school, but it is the same more Teachers than scolars.”
She ends the first paragraph of the letter by lamenting the housework she has been doing all winter with her mother: “Ma and I are hard at work have seen nor heard of nothing else since last fall it has been Sewing Working Baking Scrubing I hurry all winter long glad if it is over.”
Since those things were mentioned first, I would take it that they are references to close family members, and they offers clues that we'll return to. But, now the gossip! Ellen tells her friend that her neighbor, Mr. Hodges, has been having a rough go of it lately: “Mr. Hodges has been very bad again. They sent over for Ma on Tuesday, thought he was dying, but he was better when she got there. He was Blind and could not speak plain. He went to Mt Vernon one day last week, was Bleed and faintid. it was a long time before they could bring him to. then he commenced Vomiting, Took him up to Grears and had to stay all night until the next afternoon....”
It's a startling reminder that bleeding patients was approved medical practice in the not-too-distant past. So, we know now that the Lockwood family had a nearby neighbor in poor health named Hodges. The reference to “Grears” sounds like the village of Greer, in eastern Knox County. For a man in such poor health, Mr. Hodges didn't hesitate to get out and about.
Ellen goes on to mention that “Prestons folks are fine,” and mentions families by the names of Hart, Colony, Williams, Tunison, Welch, Chambers, Prosser, and Davis. Seven of the eight appear on census reports for Miller Township in the mid-1800s, and Ellen even says that Mr. Prosser had just moved in to the neighborhood, so he may well have been a temporary boarder or farm laborer.
Then Ellen gets to a real bit of classic gossip: “aunt Louisa is yet alive, trudging around and stinking as bad as ever, came down and made us a visit the other day. was happy indeed to receive, gladder still to see her take her departure.”
Wow! Tell us how you really feel, Ellen. Fortunately for Aunt Louisa's dignity, I have not been able to identify her. She may well have been a local elderly woman known to everyone as “Aunt” Louisa, for there were no Louisas in the Lockwoods I researched in Brandon. But without a doubt, it's amusing, if embarassing, to find her body odor under discussion over 150 years later.
But Ellen's not done dishing: “we have a new Physition in Brandon. gets drunk one half of the time and trys to sober of the other. he went to Mt Vernon the other day got drunk and come very near getting in jail, lost his pill bags and scarf coming home. Morgan Welch found the pillbags, took them home. he went there after them, told Welch not to tell it in Brandon for he was going to do better and join the Baptist Church. only about two meetings ago was baptised and joined the Newlights. The name of this noted genteelman is Henry Stinson, about 22 years old, excellent doctor you may know from the recimendation.”
God bless Ellen for giving us this story, the doctor's name, and even his age. It's rare to get clear information handed to the researcher in this sort of document, but there it is. We can track down Dr. Henry Stinson fairly easily. While I can find no other reference to his time in Brandon (and with that story floating around, you can bet his days there were numbered), I was able to find a doctor in the region by that name born in 1838 or 1839. That matches Ellen's description, if the letter dates from the early 1860s.
Additionally, there was a Morgan Welch in the neighborhood at that time, Amos Morgan Welch, born in 1827. Let's hope that Dr. Henry Stinson was just going through a youthful phase of hard partying in Brandon and indeed got his life under control, for he went into practice in Kirkersville in Licking County, southwest of Newark, and was apparently a quiet country doctor there for many years. Ellen then talks about local church membership drives as if they were horse races:
“We have had all sorts of meetings here this winter. Methides Baptist Christians. Methidest got some 35 or 40. Bap some dozen, Christians the same as the Bap.” Evidently this news didn't interest her enough to actually write out the names of the Baptists. She doesn't identify herself as a member of any of them, though she probably was.
It's hard to tell out of context of the letters back and forth between these two correspondents, but the only way I can make sense of Ellen's last bit of news is if she's clarifying about two people named Sarah: “It was sarah Janes Babbes that died with the sore throat that dispised one by Mrs Babb, we got a letter from Sarah last night she says there is a great deal of it there.”
John W. Babb and his wife lived south of Brandon, and they had a 7-year-old daughter named Sarah who died in 1860. Did Ellen perhaps report this in a previous letter without clarifying that it was a different Sarah Babbs from one the correspondents both knew? That is very possible. If the letter dates from the early 1860s, there was a Sarah Babb who got married in 1862, presumably placing her as a young adult, which, as we'll see, was the apparent age of our letter writers. What remains startling, though, is the description of little Sarah Jane as “that dispised one by Mrs Babb.” Some of the handwriting is hard to make out in this letter, but the misspelled “dispised” is quite clear. It wouldn't be the first time a parent and child didn't like each other.
Ellen wraps up her letter by saying that people have gone to bed and that, “it is now nine eleven and I will close these Scribles,” adding as a PS, “I will send you a piece of Emma Wedding dress.”
So, who is this Ellen Lockwood? That's not an easy thing to answer. There were quite a number of related Lockwood families who came to central Ohio from Vermont in the early 1800s, and Ellen was by no means a rare name among them. My first strong lead was a Mary Ellen Lockwood, who lived just south of Brandon. She was born in 1852 or thereabouts, the daughter of Nelson Lockwood, so if she was writing this letter as a young woman, that would place it in the early 1870s, which is still within the potential range of the stamp on the envelope.
But there are several points that argue against it being Mary Ellen Lockwood: One is that the writer clearly identifies herself as Ellen P. Lockwood. And I couldn't find other people, such as Dr. Stinson, to line up with the early 1870s date. So, I dug deeper.
At first, I couldn't find a different Ellen Lockwood from a few years earlier. But I did bump into a Phebe Lockwood on the 1850 census, born in 1841, living right next to the family that was to have this other Ellen. Phebe herself had another older cousin named Ellen, but that one disappears from records somewhere in the 1850s. But when I checked Phebe's family in the 1860 census — the family of Cynthia Lockwood — I found that instead of Phebe, there was now an Ellen in the same age slot of the family.
That suggests to me that her full name was Ellen Phebe Lockwood, and that she defaulted to her middle name in the presence of her older cousin, later claiming the first name as her preferred name after yet another cousin was given Ellen as a middle name.
Does that seem like I'm stretching? Well, consider this: Ellen Phebe's father dies in 1858. In this letter, Ellen mentions her Ma, but never says a thing about her father. The younger Ellen couldn't have written that at all in her letter, because her mother had died before the early 1870s, and the only way she could have written the letter in the early 1860s, when we have the confirming information about Doc Stinson, was if she was nine years old. The tight handwriting and droll wit of this writer are not likely to be a 9-year-old's.
Additionally, the writer mentions “Nelson's folks.” For Mary Ellen to write that, she'd be referring to her father in the third person, which would be odd. For Ellen Phebe to write that, she's referring to her cousin Lockwoods as “Nelson's folks.”
My initial research into the Iowa end of this letter seemed to point to the later date: Boonesboro (which Ellen spelled “Boonesborough,” and which today is simply known as Boone) was not platted until 1866. However, that just means it wasn't officially registered until then. Sure enough, the unincorporated town is listed on the 1860 census. I found no Elizabeth Jennings in Knox County until I stumbled across a “Lizzie Jennings.” Lizzie lived in Mount Vernon in the summer of 1860. Was that just before she moved to Iowa? It's hard to say. But Elizabeth Jennings, born in Ohio, shows up in Boone, Iowa, in the 1870 census and for many years thereafter. She was nine years older than Ellen Phebe, so the fit isn't perfect. And Mount Vernon and Brandon were some distance apart in in age of slow transportation. How would these women have known each other?
Most likely would be if Lizzie was a school teacher. That would explain why Ellen was eager to tell her about her sister's efforts to become a teacher, and also the reference to the difficulty of the job market.
That difficulty might be why Lizzie moved west and became a farmer's wife instead of pursuing a career teaching in Ohio. But that's just conjecture.
More proof? Ellen quickly mentions Sherwood in the letter. Ellen Phebe had an older brother named Sherwood Stephen Lockwood, and he indeed married a woman who was from Utica, so that matches up perfectly. They were married on Jan. 24, 1861.
But Ellen mentions multiple weddings, and talks about sending a piece of Emma's wedding dress. Was this her cousin Emmerancy Lockwood, who is documented as going by “Emma”? We don't know when Emma married, but she did marry, and it was probably around this time. We do know that the other name mentioned in the first paragraph of the letter, was Ellen and Sherwood's other sibling, Sarah.
These facts, plus the possibility of Emma being the other wedding, as she was born in 1844, makes it seem very possible that Ellen Phoebe Lockwood was writing this letter in early 1861. This also explains why she says nothing about the Civil War: it hadn't yet begun.
What about the sickly neighbor named Hodges? He turns out to be our best clue. That was Lucien Hodges, who according to the 1860 agricultural census for Knox County, lived on the farm next door to Cynthia Lockwood, so of course they would call on her for help. According to the 1905 obituary of Lucien's wife, who outlived him by decades, the family left Knox County in 1861 and relocated to Union County, where Lucien survived over a decade longer, despite his health problems. This proves our letter had to be written before 1862.
I propose, therefore, that what we have here is a letter written by a 19-year-old woman to her former schoolteacher, catching her up on the local juicy gossip. Enough details are in place for us to date this glorious slice of life to the moment Ellen put down her pen, a little past 9 p.m. on Feb. 28, 1861.
So, what became of Ellen? Alas, I was not able to find a picture of her, nor a lot of further biographical detail. It appears that she married a Thomas B Liggett in May of 1867. In 1880, they are living in Sparta, in Morrow County, with two children, Ella and Jennie, plus Ellen's mother, Cynthia. The couple had one child, Anice, die at just a few months of age, in 1875. Ellen herself is buried in the Brandon Cemetery with her husband and Anice. Ellen herself died in 1899, if the headstone is right, though the compilation Miller Township Then & Now, edited by Dixie Wallace in 1993, claims that Stephen P.
Lockwood and his eight children all died before his wife Cynthia Lockwood did in 1891. I've not been able to find any other documentation of Ellen's death.
As for that hand-canceled stamp on the envelope, it is unlikely that a post office for a town the size of Brandon employed multiple people, so that cancellation mark and the simple return address of “Brandon, O.” were almost certainly scrawled on the stamp with an ink pen by postmaster Hiram Coleman. The stamp itself is a George Washington facing left three-cent stamp, printed in rose red. It
was a common stamp variety from 1857 to 1861 in particular (matching our date perfectly). There is a tear on one corner, it is applied to the envelope, is somewhat worn, and has a cancellation mark, reducing the value. Even so, it would appear that I got it for a good price, especially considering I was more interested in the letter!
Ellen Phebe (Lockwood) Liggett would surely be startled to know that 159 years after she wrote a gossipy letter to an old friend, all of Knox County would be invited to read it and discuss. But she did us a service in documenting real stories of real people in a way that we can all appreciate. It takes history off a formal pedestal and gets down and dirty—and stinky—the way things really are, and always have been.
I hope she'll forgive us for prying into her private correspondence. (And, boy, I sure hope the statute of limitations on the federal law about reading other people's mail has run out!