Friday, September 23, 2022

Finding the Unexpected


Those who choose to delve into family history are sometimes warned ahead of time about finding "skeletons in the closet." We seldom take those warnings to heart, perhaps even find a perverse curiosity egging us onward. But when we do stumble upon the tragic, we can't say we hadn't been forewarned.

Perhaps I should have known that a man dying young—even back in the late nineteenth century, when medical advances hadn't yet brought the remedies we now take for granted—might not have encountered such an untimely demise simply on account of a weak constitution. I certainly hadn't expected the blunt reporting served up to the public in the local newspaper upon the passing of Sarah Murdock Nolan's oldest son, James.

Included on the headstone for John J. and Sarah Nolan, James' date of death was given as July 13, 1892. Beneath that date was given his precise age at his passing: thirty nine years, two months, and four days.

Like any genealogist would do, I headed to online resources to look up James Nolan's obituary. Remember, I'm still not certain this Nolan family in Wichita, Kansas, was the family by the same name I had been researching in Lafayette, Indiana. I needed an obituary to help confirm James' family constellation, especially regarding his connection to his mother's Murdock siblings.

It turned out that reports of James' death spanned three days in The Wichita Daily Eagle—published, ironically, by M. M. Murdock & Bro. On the first day afterward, July 14, an article spanning nearly a full column length gave the details on the passing of James "Noland." 

Right away, the article provided the address for the home of "Widow Noland" as 745 South Main Street. This was an address which the 1886 Wichita city directory confirmed was also the residence of Peter and Tony Nolan, two others listed as sons in Sarah Nolan's 1880 census entry.

Under the unfortunate headline, "The Razor Route," the subtitle confirmed the likely cause of James Nolan's death: suicide. The article included a detailed report of the aftermath, but for all its length, the report mentioned no family names other than that of the youngest sister, who was the only one at home at the time of her brother's unexpected act.

Problem: that young sister's name was given as Sadie. The 1880 census record I found mentioned no child by the name of Sadie—until we recall that Sadie was once one of many nicknames used for the given name Sarah. And Sarah, in this family, was her mother's namesake and the youngest in the household.

Despite lack of names provided in the report, it was possible to glean a few other details about James and his family. He was "a railroad man," an occupation I had suspected was the reason the family had left Indiana for Kansas. He was also "addicted to drink," which longstanding problem had brought corresponding health issues for which he had been reluctantly seeking treatment. He was not a cooperative patient, however, continuing to drink while taking whatever the "Keeley cure" might have entailed, and suffering from the side effects of the treatment.

An added complication to James Nolan's sad story was that his mother—presumably the widow Sarah Murdock Nolan—had recently left home for "a visit east." The follow-up article in the next day's newspaper provided more detail on that trip. She was "in Indiana visiting."

Not wishing to delay the funeral and burial until their mother's return home, James' brothers in Kansas decided to go ahead with the burial immediately, which occurred on July 15, 1892, from the Nolan residence. Considering funeral protocols of that era, presumably this decision spared their mother from the shock of seeing the condition of her son—and gave her sons additional time to clean the home of any remaining signs of the tragedy claiming James' life.

In researching the many lines related to my family's history, every so often such a story will make its unexpected appearance. Thankfully, those times are rare. Every family—no matter how unremarkable or unobtrusive—has a story to tell. It's just difficult to encounter those of such extreme pain.       


  1. This is all so true - and somehow when I run into a suicide or murder or other violent ending, it feels very immediate - as if it were in my own generation of cousins.

    Recently I ran across such a story. In my great-grandfather's letters, I see a reference to Mrs. Nichols, who was a victim of Sherman's troops. To paraphrase his letter - the soldiers broke up everything she had and frightened her so badly that she was back in the asylum again. That reference sent me on a research trail that was sad.

    My great-grandfather, like all in that era, would not have written explicitly about rape or anything at all to do with sex, and left it at that. But he realized that his parents already knew the details. Reading the census reports, old newspapers, and books both old and modern, I pieced together the tale. Kate Latimer Nichols was my great-grandfather's cousin and age-mate. They grew up next door to each other in Hamburg, SC. She married a planter from Georgia, and lived near Milledgeville. I can infer that she had post-partum depression after the birth of her first child, and likely lived in an asylum at the 1860 census. She recovered enough to come home, and there were 2 or 3 more children.

    A contemporary diary (kept by a resident of Milledgeville) and old newspapers show that during Sherman's march through Georgia, two of his soldiers ransacked her house and raped her. She relapsed and never recovered her sanity, dying many years later in the Milledgeville state insane asylum.

    These things reverberate down through the ages!

    1. Lisa, what a tragic story! And yes, it does hit one with the immediacy of close family, despite separation from the event for years, or even, as in your case, more than a century! I think as researchers, we find ourselves getting closer to these people than one would assume would happen with relationships that distant.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...