Saturday, February 16, 2013

Small Town vs. Big City:
The Snark Factor

On Monday, January 13, 1913, an unassuming entry appeared in the San Jose Evening News:
A suit for divorce has been filed by Ella Bean against Leon S. Bean. The charges are cruelty. S. W. Williard is the attorney for Mrs. Bean.
One hundred years ago, that type of news report was certainly less common than it is today. In the case of Leon and Ella Bean, it would mean a family upheaval for their twin boys, who were still sixteen years of age—and possibly for their older sister, Leona, as well, though she had by then attained the age of majority and would shortly be a married woman, herself.

By this time, the Bean family had made the move from Redwood City—home for Leon’s family for two generations, and for Ella’s parents during her own teenage years. With the contracting business that had engaged Leon so much in the Palo Alto area, the family had evidently moved over the county line from San Mateo County to Santa Clara County by the time of the 1910 census, and were now settled in the small but respectable town of Palo Alto.

San Jose, the county seat for Santa Clara County, would of course be the newspaper of record for local court proceedings, and their city paper’s demure announcement was to be expected in such matters.

What was a surprise was the report subsequently found in another city’s newspaper just one week later. While I have no idea what the size of nearby San Francisco might have been one hundred years ago, it surely represented one of the sizeable cities of our country even at that point. Yet, the tone of the reporting could be taken for the style of a small town gossip column in the detail it provided.

Picture the setting of a breakfast nook in a Victorian-style home in a fashionable Bay Area neighborhood as you read what the San Francisco Call saw fit to print on January 31, 1913:

Romance of Old Days
Ends in Divorce Suit

Mrs. Ella Bean Charges Husband With Hitting Her; He Says She Scalded Him.

(Special Dispatch to The Call)

PALO ALTO, Jan. 30.—Mrs. Ella Bean, who, as Ella Shields of Redwood City, furnished San Mateo county with a topic for gossip a quarter of a century ago by her romantic elopement to Fresno with Leon S. Bean, a young contractor, has brought suit for divorce in the San Jose courts this week, charging extreme cruelty.
            For some time rumors have been prevalent that an estrangement existed, but as both husband and wife have continued to live at the family home no hint was given of the probability of a divorce.
            Despite the secrecy maintained by both the complainant and her husband, it is known that Mrs. Bean charges her better half with sudden outbursts of temper. Recently, she says, he hurled a cup at her head and the flying missile struck her above the eyes, inflicting a deep cut. She exhibits a bandaged forehead as evidence. Bean declares that he threw the cup only after his wife had poured hot water over him.
            Bean has been engaged in the contracting business in Palo Alto for eight years, and is said to have amassed a considerable fortune.
While I’m not entirely sure of the accuracy of all the details divulged in the newspaper’s breathless report, the story does open my mind up to some additional possibilities. For one thing, remember that Leon and Ella had twin boys. With a few glimpses here of the twins in their younger days, the couple fleeting reports of twin Samuel’s blind-and-deaf condition need to be revisited.

Sam wasn’t always that way. He wasn’t born blind and deaf. In fact, for most of his childhood, he and his brother carried on with the usual antics one would expect of lively twins. Family oral reports had one of two traditionally-recited causes for Sam’s handicap. One story was that he sustained injuries from a softball game, when a ball caught him in the eye, and a resulting infection spread to his ears.

The other story? That Sam was in a rock fight.

I don’t know which one was the correct rendering of the incident. But I do know that it was reported to have happened either when he was twelve, or when he was sixteen.

Either way, any injury that inflicts such a drastic impact on the life of a child is ripe to also become the cause of the unraveling of a marriage.

Now, seeing how snarky the report from a city newspaper like the San Francisco Call could have been, and wondering what the ripple effect might have been on the couple’s children, I see the perfect alignment of the age (sixteen) and the instigation (anger or embarrassment over one’s parents being the focus of a nasty journalistic smear, even in a small town like Palo Alto).

Maybe especially in a small town like Palo Alto.


  1. Poor Ella, and with a handicapped child.Looking at that press release about the divorce made me realize how different it is today. Domestic violence does not get reported as often as it should.

    1. With two strong willed people, I can only imagine what that scene was like, Magda. On the other hand, it could have been a simple argument that got out of hand--and then aired for the entire community to see, thanks to some overzealous rumor mongers. I just had a hard time believing it was a city newspaper that ran that story, and sometimes wonder if some green-eyed motivations were behind its publication.

      However, as for domestic violence, you are certainly right: that is something that needs to be faced squarely and not swept away and ignored. I've heard far too many stories from both my line of work and my husband's. Thankfully, there are so many professionals addressing the issue in our times, providing help and raising community awareness.

  2. Sorry, I didn't get it right the first (or the second) time. Liked the title of your blog. I need to proofread first. ;-)

    Regards, Grant

    1. That's okay, Grant. I got you covered ;)

      Glad you liked that title. It's interesting, though: sometimes what we presume would have been small town behaviors turns out to be something found even in those "sophisticated" big cities.

  3. Very snarky for the times..I am sure tongues were a wagging:)

    1. I am sure they were ;)

      How strange a feeling it is, though, to know one's ancestors were the object of such gossip...

  4. I hate that this happened to Ella. It's too bad their dirty laundry was aired in such a way. Today they could have had their own tv reality show.

    1. It certainly ruffled my sense of propriety, Wendy. But you're right: today, it would be Reality Show the very least, afternoon talk show fodder.

  5. Oh, poor Sam! What a tragedy. And it's very sad about Ella and Leon's marriage fell apart too. Wow, it must have been extremely embarrassing to have their private troubles out there in the papers for all to read.

    1. Definitely, Jana! And this wasn't just the local paper--it was the San Francisco paper!

      I'll be revisiting Sam's story in a couple weeks. He has a story of his own, as you can imagine from such serious injuries.

    2. Jacqi,

      I just wanted to let you know that this post and your "Postcript on a Divorce" post are listed in today's Fab Finds post at

      Have a great weekend!

  6. Perhaps it was a slow news day in San Fran? I have to ask, what happened to the couple after the divorce?


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