Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Cord of Life

In the grand opening of the season, a summer cottage near the ocean’s edge seems hardly the right setting for a tragedy-in-progress, and yet, on June 26, 1927, that is exactly what happened.

Lafayette D. Woodworth—in case you’ve lost track by this point, that would be Maud Woodworth Bean’s uncle—had recently been able to take a break from the demands of the life of a farmer in the midst of the growing season. He, his wife Olive, and their family had been invited to enjoy the refreshing ocean breezes at Seal Beach—and, no doubt, the associated seaside activities—as the weekend guests of fellow Covina residents, Mr. and Mrs. John Wolf.

The Wolf cottage was located about thirty five miles from the Woodworth farm, and offered proximity to such favored attractions of the time as the Seal Beach Amusement Park, as well as more traditional shoreline pastimes.

In the midst of the lulling repetition of crashing waves, accentuated by the laughter of children playing nearby, came a different sound. Perhaps it was a scream, or a shout. Maybe it was followed by the dull thud of feet pounding on the sand in a vain attempt at running to provide aid. Maybe later, a siren added its call.

Or maybe it was just the faint swishing sound of a body passing abruptly from an upright, standing position, to a crumpled mass on the ground.

The Covina Argus mentioned, in retrospect, that young Harvey Woodworth had been “frail from childhood.” Replaying the scene in its July 1, 1927, front page report, the Argus noted that
the young man was suddenly stricken with his heart while enjoying the beach. Mrs. Woodworth caught her son as he fell, but the cord of life had snapped, death coming immediately.
The Argus continued the article with the usual information one would expect in obituaries: who remained in the family, where the funeral and burial were to take place. Of course, thanks once again to journalism’s difficulty with exacting detail, the paper left out any mention of that mystery sister whose name is causing me particular struggles. But that is not what I’m concerned with at this point.

What I do question is the cause for twenty three year old Harvey’s untimely passing. Don’t let yourself write it off as an unfortunate case of early-season heat exhaustion or dehydration. It was that phrase, “suddenly stricken with his heart” that grabs my attention and causes me to wonder….

Photograph above: a 1920 view of the Seal Beach Amusement Park, on the Orange County, California, coastline; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. My uncle (by marriage) was frail since childhood, and he died when his two children, my cousins, were 5 and 7 years old. It was his heart. He spent the last few months of his life in Duke Hospital in Durham, NC, in 1943. It was what they called a "weak heart" then, and I believe many heart ailments are congenital. But I don't know the names of these ailments It may have been congestive heart failure.

    I wish you well in your search and look forward to seeing you unravel this new mystery.

    1. Thank you, Mariann, for your well wishes! I certainly hope to uncover further information on the family's health issues.

      However, as you observed in your own uncle's case, perhaps the diagnosis entered in a death certificate from these earlier dates might not have been the type of diagnosis medical professionals would currently be able to ascertain. To even obtain Harvey's records, for instance, might not reveal what I'm seeking. A "weak heart"--even a congenital deficiency--includes such a broad swath of diagnosis possibilities that it becomes only an indication, not a definitive answer.

  2. Replies
    1. I know, Ellie. That description became an instant visual for me--certainly an uncomfortable one, at that!

  3. Well it seems like another relative was stricken at a young age:(

    1. That's what I'm noticing, Far Side. While it seems that each one died from different causes, I'm wondering if there was a reason underlying this family tendency to die young.

  4. Hmmm... puts on thinking cap... something in the back of my head went "ring ring".

  5. This is amazing. This brings back the stories my Grandmother told me. Her Brother Harvey was always sick. He was either deaf or blind. His death did affect both her and her father L.D. Woodworth and his decline in health was directly related to the death of Harvey. My grandmother never talked about how Harvey died. I don't understand your comment about a mystery sister, but there was an adopted brother, Carl, that I don't see mentioned anywhere.

    1. Jeff, thank you so much for stopping by and for your comment. At that point in my research, I was unsure about the sister, because the names seemed to be switched, depending on which document I was viewing. Sometimes, only the first name was given. Sometimes, it was only the middle name. I figured out later what was happening.

      I can imagine that L.D. took Harvey's death hard. It was a tragic loss. I found it interesting, in light of other illnesses displayed in the extended family, causing me to wonder if there was an underlying cause that tied these unfortunate occurrences together. Of course, it would be difficult to say for sure, but the heart symptoms and being "always sick" may indicate more--maybe Marfan Syndrome. I am wondering who, if anyone, else in the family had this same malady.


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