My mom’s letters

My mom's letters about me

My mom was something like a mommy-blogger, in 1973. From the time I was two to two-and-a-half, she wrote these astoundingly detailed letters about our lives and me and Miami, typed them up in quintuplicate, and mailed them to the whole family. I have multiple copies of some of them.

They’re an amazing resource for my book, and they prove, as she’s always claimed and I’ve doubted, that I was talking in complete sentences when I turned two. Apparently I was also always concerned with remembering everything that happened.

On the one hand the letters make me happy, because I can verrrry hazily remember some of what she describes, and because they’re so full of pride and love, but they also make me sad, because I can see how lonely she was.



Family Tree: Slate, Tin House, Begats

Grave map

At Slate, Ariel Bogle recaps a discussion I had last week with AJ Jacobs, Wilhelmina Rhodes-Kelly, and Chris Whitten on how technology is affecting the family tree. I talked a little bit about what drew me to research my ancestry in the first place.

Although technology is changing the way we discover our personal histories, the reasons why people may begin to investigate in the first place have stayed the same. Curiosity, of course, but also a sense of history. Maud Newton told the audience how her interest in her family tree was sparked by the improbable stories her mother told about their predecessors. But the importance of ancestry cut very close for Newton. “I myself was basically a eugenics project,” she said. “My parents married because they thought they would have smart children together, not because they loved each other.” Her father was particularly obsessed with the idea of purity of blood, she added. “Someone suggested to me that there might be something [my father] was hiding, and then I got really interested.”

We had lots of fun; I don’t think any of us were ready for the panel to end when it did, and how often can you say that? The audio is below Bogle’s summary, if you’d like to listen.

In related reading: at Tin House, my series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry is ongoing. Guests so far are Laila Lalami, Celeste Ng, Saeed Jones, and Christopher Beha. And at The Begats, I’ve written in the last few months about Alexander Chee’s jokbo (gorgeous books recording his family history back to the Joseon Dynasty, which began in 1392), ancestor worship in the Old Testament, and some disappointing (but not too surprising) discoveries about my self-given namesake, Maude Newton Simmons, among other things.

The stark and stunning image above is a grave map — taken from Alex’s jokbo — for one of his ancestors.



The Family Tree: Talks with Writers on Ancestry, for Tin House

 

The Family Tree at Tin House

 

I’ve always been interested in the ways writers think about family history—and especially about echoes, or the lack thereof, through the generations—if they do, as they work. I’m grateful to Tin House for allowing me to indulge this curiosity in a new series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry. First up, Christopher Beha:

Maud Newton: When we first met to talk about the essay I eventually ended up writing for Harper’s, you mentioned an ancestral house upstate where your family spends time every summer. Do you think visiting that old homestead has influenced your thinking about ancestry?

 

Christopher Beha: Without a doubt. The house was built by the first Behas of my line to come to America from Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. They farmed for a couple of generations on land my family still owns, and members of the family continued to spend a lot of time there after my great-great grandmother moved the family down to New York City. So there’s a lot of family history there. There are still some Behas living in the area (though they pronounce the name differently than my family does), and there is a Beha Road not far from the house. I can walk a mile down the road to the churchyard and see the graves of Matthias and Theresa Beha, my great-great-great grandparents, who brought their family over 150 years ago. All of this has influenced my sense of ancestry as something that is still present in my world, even if it is often invisible.

The rest is here. Future interview subjects will include Laila Lalami, Emily Mandel, Celeste Ng, Saeed Jones, and Katherine Faw Morris.



Like We Say Back Home, Vol. 3

Martha Rebecca Johnston Alexander

In the past couple years my mom has taught me and reminded me of a few more of my Texan granny’s favorite expressions. Some highlights:

  • Quiet as a little mouse peeing on cotton. (Usually used when someone reacts with stunned silence to some sort of diatribe or revelation.)
  • You can’t get all your coons up one tree. (You can’t get everything you want.)
  • Told them how the cows ate the cabbage. (Describes a serious dressing-down.)
  • Pitiful as a sick kitten on a hot rock. (Depressed and listless, very sympathetically so.)
  • She got her tail up over her back. (In preparation to sting, like a scorpion. Granny called scorpions “stinging lizards.”)
  • Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine. (In blissful unawareness of some terrible or embarrassing thing.)
  • Put that in your pipe and smoke it. (A phrase she often used when schooling my father on the ways of my mom, i.e., the intractability of Texan women in general.)
A lot of my favorites are in the prior installments, here and here. The second one is also a goldmine of contributions from readers. 


My essay’s on newsstands until June 17 or so

America's Ancestry Craze: Making Sense of Our Family-Tree Obsession

Ancestry is a fundamental perplexity of life. We come from our parents, who came from their parents, who descended, as the Bible would put it, from their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, but we are separate beings. We begin with the sperm of one man and the egg of one woman, and then we enter the world and we become ourselves.

 

Beyond all that’s encoded in our twenty-three pairs of chromosomes—our hair, eyes, and skin of a certain shade, our frame and stature, our sensitivity to bitter tastes—we are bundles of opinions and ambitions, of shortcomings and talents. The alchemy between our genes and our individuality is a mystery we keep trying to solve.

The June issue of Harper’s — with my essay on America’s (and my own) ancestry obsession — will be available on newsstands for about the next two to three weeks, if you were planning to pick up a copy. The paragraphs quoted above are a teeny excerpt.

You can read more about the essay and my writing of it in the Dallas Morning News and at PEN, and hear more in interviews with KERA and Wisconsin Public Radio.

I’ll be at Cafe Society this Friday, June 6, to discuss the essay and the book.



Random House Will Publish My Ancestry Book

I’m ecstatic to announce that Andrea Walker of Random House has acquired my forthcoming book on the science and superstition of ancestry, a subject that has obsessed me for years because of my own family and also because of the way it obsesses the culture at large. While writing my new story for Harper’s, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” I realized that it was mounting — and over the years had been mounting — into a much bigger project.

Here’s the announcement: “Random House will publish writer and critic Maud Newton’s first book, an examination of her obsession with genealogy and her own colorful family history, along with the science and superstition of ancestry in the culture at large.  Newton’s essay, ‘America’s Ancestry Craze,’ is the cover story for the current issue of Harper’s magazine.  This interdisciplinary study will draw on memoir, reporting, cultural criticism, scientific and anthropological research to understand the fear and fascination behind genealogy, and why it has become the second most popular hobby in the United States.  Newton began blogging about books and culture in 2002; within a few years her site was one of the most widely praised and quoted in the industry, and she began writing for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among others.  Random House senior editor Andrea Walker pre-empted North American rights from Julie Barer at Barer Literary.”

Andrea and I first met while she was at the New Yorker, after she wrote nice things about a novel excerpt of mine that Narrative published, and since then I’ve followed her career with admiration and excitement. I’m thrilled to be working with her and the rest of the Random House team! And now you know what I’ll be doing for the next couple years.



America’s Ancestry Craze: My Harper’s cover story

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My essay, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” illustrated with Chuck Close’s “Emma,” is the cover story of the June issue of Harper’sIt’s an outgrowth of a longtime obsession, as people who visited this site in the long-ago days when it was frequently updated might recall. Friends and readers connected with me on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram have been posting photos of the cover, and every time I see one it gives me a thrill.

I’ll be talking about the piece and my interest in ancestry more generally at my dearest Lauren Cerand’s Cafe Society on June 6. Details are in her Tiny Letter. You can also follow my continuing obsession with the subject — a sort of miscellany clipboard for the book I’m writing — at The Begats. (Updated to add: my book will be published by Random House!)

The images above are, in order: one from my editor at Harper’s, Christopher Beha; two from my friend Alexander Chee’s Facebook page; two from the fabulous Amanda Stern (with special appearance by Busy); one from my old pal A.V. Cook‘s (holla, Florida!) Facebook page; one from Virginia Hatfield; one from Patrick Nathan; one from Cathy Day; one from Joe Mozingo; one from Liz Arnold; one from “deep Ontario,” thanks to Javier Moreno; one from the redoubtable Jason Diamond, with Bloody Mary; one from Mark Snyder; one from Giulia, at LaGuardia just after midnight; one from my college roommate, Jen, who picked up her copy at JFK; one from the Winter Park Public Library; two from the excellent Maxwell Neely-Cohen; one from Adam Fleming Petty, whose daughter got to it first; one from my my brilliant brother-in-law, Joseph Clarke, at Atticus Bookstore in New Haven; one from my tweep Mary-Alice Farina; one from the amazing Carrie Frye, writer and friend extraordinaire, taken at Downtown Books & News in Asheville; one from the writer Karen Abbott, whose forthcoming book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, about women in the Civil War looks so so good, at the UWS Barnes and Noble; one from my great old friend Nelson at a Barnes & Noble in Charlotte; one from another great old friend, Kellie, in Rochester; one from the Paley Center’s Creative Director, Ellen O’Neill (“Glad to have the Woolworth’s booth represented,” she says); one from my old-school-bloggy pal Tito Perez; one from the outstanding Amitava Kumar, one from Darby in Cleveland (another old-school blogger holla), one from the man behind Law on the Fly, one from my mother-in-law, Jane, in Seattle, one from the wonderful Rahawa Haile, writer and fellow Miami expat, from the Ft. Lauderdale airport, one from my old friend Gigi M Simon, who worked with me for years and picked it up at Barnes & Noble, and one from Facebook friend Elizabeth Wade McCullough, who says “the Boston Athenaeum’s copy is looking well-thumbed,” one from Lorraine Portman in Pomona Park, Florida, one from my wonderful (23andme-discovered) cousin Kristin Gossett, in Austin, one from a dear old friend, the writer Stephany Aulenback, whose new kids’ book, If I Wrote A Book About You, is just out, one from the writer and keeper of inventory, Chelsea Hodson, who’s “like the lost love child of David Lynch and Joan Didion” and who will be at Cafe Society with me on June 6, another from Amitava Kumar, in the library at Hampshire College, Amherst, one from the writer Rachael Maddux, with special appearance by Charlie, one from my old friend Erin Kenyon Zack, in Miami, one from my best poker pal, Kate Monahan, at India House, one from the wonderful writer Maaza Mengiste, and one from my filmmaker friend Luci Westphal, from a stopover at the Newark airport on a transatlantic flight between Denver and Berlin The last one is of my cat, Percy, just because. 



More Ancestry Ponderings at The Begats

Genealogy of Adam from 1611 King James Bible

I’m working on a book about the science and superstition of ancestry, and my new site, The Begats, ponders ancestry miscellany of all kinds: genealogical, historical, cultural, scientific, religious, superstitious, personal. If you’re into this kind of nerdery: submit stuff! If you’re not on Tumblr, you can also follow along on Twitter or Facebook.

And if you’re curious about my own family history, I wrote a lot of posts about my research back in the day, starting here.



Doubter in the Holy Land

Holy Land

My Lives piece about visiting Jerusalem is in the New York Times Magazine this weekend.

A friend and I were beginning that strange dance of making plans to make plans, when I mentioned that I’d be traveling to Jerusalem soon. “We should get together right away,” he joked, “before you come down with Messiah syndrome.” It was the kind of precision-targeted crack only an old friend can manage. I can’t remember whether I laughed or winced first.

 

When I was young, my mother had a feverish conversion and started a church in our living room. I’d always been a tiny bit anxious that I might one day follow suit, hear the calling myself, start roaming the streets, preaching salvation. A committed but fearful agnostic, I’d never intended to tempt fate by visiting the Holy Land. But I was going to the Jerusalem Book Fair, and my husband, Max, who grew up in the comparatively staid Eastern Orthodox tradition, was joining me.

 



May 21, 2011: The Rapture meets my 40th birthday

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 11.14.54 AM

It would probably be funny if I hadn’t grown up in absolute terror of being Left Behind. Okay, it’s funny anyway, as long as I don’t have to be sober.

My latest piece for The Awl is about the convergence of my fortieth birthday and Harold Camping’s predicted May 21 Rapture, but it’s also about a lot more, including fervent agnosticism, existential dread, interesting passions, and how happy I am to be back in touch with my (former preacher) mother.

Photo credit: mementosis.



On the Newtons, blood, and bank-robbing cousins

My dad’s forebears were glad to tell you about my grandma’s Pre-Revolutionary Virginian ancestor and other lofty relations, but they seemed to suffer from a peculiarly targeted kind of amnesia when you started asking about the Newton line.

I always assumed this caginess was limited to my little branch of the family tree, but recently I tracked down my granddad’s cousin, now 83, to see if he could verify that Jesse Newton, Arkansas spiritous liquors retailer, is in fact our ancestor. He could not. “We had the same problem that you had,” he told me. “We just could not get anyone to give us information — it was as if the Newton family started with Minnie.”

He theorized that we’re related to the Newton Boys, “America’s most successful bank robbing family,” which would sort of delight me, actually. A recent (fascinating) article in Hill Country Magazine describes them this way:

By the time they were captured (after a $3 million train robbery near Chicago in 1924), the “Newton Boys” had netted more loot than the James Gang, the Dalton Boys and Butch Cassidy combined. During that time, they had never killed anyone, and (in their rare daytime crimes) were famous for the courtesy with which they treated their victims.

But while their family was descended from a Jesse Newton of Arkansas, and mine probably was too, they’re not the same man. So far I haven’t found any tie between our lines, just similar names and close proximity.

Pretty Boy Floyd (above), on the other hand, could be my 8th cousin on my dad’s mother’s side, according to Ancestry.com.



The Depression, diphtheria, and my mom’s half-sister

According to her death certificate, my mother’s half-sister Bonnie died of diphtheria — “the deadly scourge of childhood” — at five years old, in a town not too far from Dallas.

An aggressive vaccination campaign began in the region around the same time, but perhaps it took a while for word to reach the provinces, or maybe traveling for the shot seemed too cumbersome or securing it was too costly, or the people she was boarding with just didn’t have the energy to care about someone else’s little girl.

The year was 1932. The Great Depression was in full swing and abandonment was on the rise. Bonnie’s parents had already divorced a few years before, leaving her to live as a boarder by the time of the 1930 census.

It’s unclear who was caring for her toward the end of her short life.

Judging from studies of children’s living conditions at the time, Bonnie’s predicament was not terribly unusual.

By 1930 most states had passed compulsory school attendance laws for those under sixteen, established public high schools (although many were segregated), and placed restrictions on the industrial employment of young people under fourteen years of age. In addition, medical science had made great strides in treating and preventing childhood diseases such as diarrhea, rickets, and diphtheria.

Child welfare experts attending President Herbert Hoover’s 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection pointed to the progress that had been made for American children. In his opening address, Hoover waxed sympathetic about the value of children, but there were few positive results from the 1930 conference. The Hoover administration seemed to turn a blind eye to the worsening economic conditions for youngsters and their families. Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur, a medical doctor, argued in 1932 that the economic Depression could actually be good for children. Families with less money to spend, Wilbur concluded, would be forced to depend upon each other and live a more wholesome home life.

It was obvious to many others that a growing number of American children and their families were living in miserable conditions during the worsening economic crisis. By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933 it was clear that children were experiencing some of the Depression’s worst consequences. While the national divorce rate did not rise, desertion became more common. Although infant mortality rates had continued to fall during 1931 and 1932, they were climbing again by 1933 for the first time since such data had been collected in the United States. With unemployment rates at 25 percent, many families that had been middle-class during the 1920s slipped into poverty, contributing to rising incidence of hunger and malnutrition among children and adolescents. Psychological stress on adults resulted in domestic violence and child abuse. School districts ran out of money, classrooms became more crowded, school years were shortened, and many young people dropped out of school to seek work. Cash strapped business owners and parents ignored or intentionally violated existing child labor laws. Franklin Roosevelt noted that one-third of America’s citizens were ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed. Of those, the majority were children.

For more, see Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters From Children of the Great Depression. I was also interested to read this 1930 Atlantic article on high medical bills and poverty. Amazing how little progress we’ve made.

The image at the top of this post, obviously, is part of a public awareness campaign for polio. I haven’t been able to locate any older diphtheria posters online.



Like we say back home

A few months ago, I re-posted some of my Texan grandmother’s expressions. Since then, my sister and I have thought of a few more that circulated in our family. Two or three are Granny’s, but more are our mom’s:

You sound like a dying cow in a hailstorm. Said to a whining child — i.e.,, when I was a kid, me — or, in the third person, about someone who can’t sing well. One of my mother’s favorites.

Looks like they had a real rip-snorter. Means a large, fun event or occurrence, but sometimes used sarcastically. My mother might say it, for instance, about the funereal group photo of the Johnstons, my grandmother’s paternal line, above.

He blinked at me like a frog on a lily pad. Said when someone is acting smug or cagey. Also Mom’s.

She couldn’t find her butt with both hands. Another Mom classic. Pretty self-explanatory.

Don’t that just take the rag off the bush? I.e., isn’t it appalling? (I never understood the derivation of this one, but found an explanation online: laundry was sometimes dried on hedges, and occasionally people stole the rags.) My grandmother’s saying, not Mom’s.

We had a real toad strangler. A bad rainstorm.

He’s all hat and no cattle. A show-off or big talker, with nothing to back up the bragging.

Don’t just sit there looking like a tree full of owls. I.e., don’t look so surprised or stricken. Said to a group.
More from readers’ email and comments left beneath my Facebook thread on the subject:

Greg Wicker reminded me of “Shit fire and save matches!” In my family, used as an expression of surprise and often abbreviated as “Shit fire!” (“Fire,” incidentally, is pronounced “fahr.”)

Michael Schaub, who recently moved from Austin to Portland, sent in a couple that are new to me but quintessentially Texan in formulation and tone: “My grandfather, from San Antonio, used to say about someone he didn’t like: ‘If I ordered a whole trainload of sons of bitches, and they only sent him, I’d accept the shipment.'” Continue reading…



The mysterious life of my mother’s half-sister

Although my mother was his only surviving child, her father always said he had another during his first marriage. He implied that the baby died as an infant, Mom says; in fact, I discovered this weekend, the little girl lived nearly six years.

My grandfather, Robert Bruce, was seventeen when he wed Nettie Mason, then sixteen, in May, 1925. A year later Nettie gave birth to Bonnie Katharine Bruce, and three years after that, just months before the start of the Great Depression, Nettie and Robert divorced. The announcement appeared in the July 26, 1929, issue of the Dallas Morning News.

By the time of the 1930 census, three-year-old Bonnie was living as a “boarder,” apparently without either parent or any other relatives, in a house in Arcadia Park, a section of Oak Cliff.

Two years later she died in Denton. Of what, I don’t know. Neglect? Starvation? Tuberculosis? I’ve requested a full death certificate in hopes of finding out.

Updated to say: She died of diphtheria. Previously in Robert Bruce lore: his thirteen marriages, including the wife who shot him in the stomach and the one he cheated on my grandmother with; the adultery letters; his careers as union president and garment cutter, mechanic, and Phoenix real estate agent; his obituary, and his early and final last will and testament.



The mystery of the Newtons, including my father

I’m not sure what it means when I fixate on genealogical research, as I have been recently, but I have learned to recognize flare-ups of ancestry.com obsession as a warning sign.

Normal people are not awake after midnight, scouring the 1800 U.S. Census for clues about one Jesse Newton, born in North Carolina, who later bought land in Drew County, Arkansas, and was “granted a license to retail spirituous and vinous liquors.” Especially if they’re not even sure that Jesse Newton is their ancestor.
Worse, although I thought I was done feeling anything in particular about my dad, I’ve been Googling him. As my sister points out, combing the Internet for information about your estranged father from your day job desk at 7:30 p.m. is a sure sign that you are not over it.

Apparently he bought a house for $2.6 million the day after my birthday. Probably the timing was a coincidence. Like the having a wife with my name, and the now-dead-girlfriend with my sister’s.

I was surprised at how much seeing his McMansion, complete with poolside statuary (pictured above), hurt. Although I’ve never been a beneficiary of his fortune, I knew he’d been amassing one. Accumulating wealth was his greatest priority throughout my childhood, back when he used to spray the toaster with Raid before making my breakfast, when he relied on my grandmother to cover my doctor bills, when he promised to pay for all of my law school education if I attended the cheaper, less well-regarded state school, instead of the private one, and then reneged after I did it. Etc.

Do you think he’ll give his new kids different names, or just stick with the ones he knows?
I’ll try to refocus soon. Meanwhile, here’s a post I wrote years ago about my dad and the house where we used to live: Unpleasant (and disjointed) recollections of my father.



Happy weekend from the archives: talking Texan

Recently A.N. Devers and I were discussing Texan idiom — she likes “good night alive!” — and I remembered a compilation of my granny’s (pictured) sayings appeared online in 2003 on a site that’s since gone to internet heaven.

I managed to dig up the list at the Internet Archive, so here are the “Favorite Expressions of My Deceased (and Beloved) Texan Grandmother, with Explanations”:

 

1. He looked at me like a calf at a new gate.

Translation: “Even though I said something patently obvious, and explained it three or four times, he just blinked and looked at me blankly.” Evidently a calf is unable to recognize a new gate in its pen until it is led in and out a few times.

2. She’s really shittin’ and flyin’ now.

Translation: “She’s nouveau riche and ridiculous and has just bought or done something that proves it.” To the best of my understanding, shitting while flying, as a pigeon would, is glamorous to anyone who would wear a mink coat and drive a Corvette to go grocery shopping.

3. Shit in one hand, want in the other.

Translation: Sometimes desires are the equivalent of excrement — i.e., you can’t always get what you want

Continue reading…



Happy weekend from the hay hook killer

Charles William Bruce, otherwise known in la casa de Maud as the great-grandfather who killed a man with a hay hook, has always been one of the most compelling characters in my personal deck of Notorious Ancestor Playing Cards. And now he’s the second forbear — his wife Rindia being the first — to whom I owe an apology.

June 1916 articles from the Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times-Herald, and Dallas Dispatch confirm that Bruce really did kill his former friend George Grimes — and with a hay hook. But the “difficulty” arose in a feed store, not in a bar. And Bruce was acting in self-defense.

“It is said,” according to the Dallas Dispatch (below), “Bruce’s testimony in [a trial in which Grimes was sentenced to five years for ‘mistreatment of a female relative’] caused the bitter feeling between the two. Grimes was pardoned after less than two years, and since then has threatened Bruce’s life.”

Evidently Grimes lunged at Bruce, who fended him off with a hay hook jab to the intestines. Grimes brushed off the puncture wounds, “which had not appeared serious at first,” and carried on as usual until peritonitis set in.

Bruce was arrested and charged with murder, but in the end a grand jury ordered his release. I think he died sometime between the 1920 census and Rindia’s remarriage in 1929.

(Bruce sired my mother’s charming lothario father, Robert, who reportedly married thirteen times, and was shot in the stomach by one of his wives.)



Portrait of my father, at Granta

Granta’s Fathers issue includes nine writers’ recollections of their fathers. For Granta.com, the magazine has invited newer writers, including Jim Shepard, Gary Shteyngart, Rabih Alameddine, lê thi diem thúy, and me, to reflect on a photo of their dad.

My contribution is up today; here’s the first paragraph:

Exactly how long the prostitute, unbeknownst to my father, stayed at our house and slept in my bed is hard to gauge. Nowadays time lacks the expansive quality it had when I was eleven years old. But more than three weeks and less than five months elapsed between the day she moved in and the terrible afternoon he noticed her crouching behind the frosted glass shower door in the front bathroom, and kicked her out.

The rest is over at the Granta site, where you can also read print contributions from Jonathan Lethem, Francesca Segal, Ali Smith, and others, and listen to Joseph O’Neill and Jonathan Lethem reading about and discussing their fathers.



Happy weekend from the domestic shooting target

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My mother didn’t know most of the many women her dad married, but in email last year casually referred to a shooting. Of her father. By one of the wives.

Next (I think) he married a woman named Evelyn, and, believe it or not, they lived on Daniels Avenue on SMU campus right down the street from my sorority house where I lived for 3 years while in college. She may be the one he was married to when he was shot in the gut and nearly died. I think she shot him but don’t know for sure. Daddy led quite a life: women — perferably ones with money, which he took and made tons more with. However, he was an alcoholic “rounder-hellraiser.” All the money the ladies had he used to fund various business ventures. At one time he was the best auto mechanic with a full-repair location in Dallas. Then he was a true master grocer of privately owned grocery stores. Granny met him when she worked for Justin McCarty (one of the top clothing designers/mfrs in the country — even up till the 70’s). He was their most outstanding designer and pattern drafter. He had other talents but those are the ones I remember. Mr. McCarty would say of my dad that he was a real genius of the business and would go far if he would leave the bottle alone.

It occurred to me the other day that newspapers love a domestic meltdown, so I went fishing in the Dallas Morning News archives. Sure enough, I found a brief item (above) dated July 24, 1950.

According to the story: Robert Bruce, 46, was indeed shot by his wife. The shooting “apparently followed an argument” (you don’t say), and the couple “had been married only a few weeks.” Bail was set at $2500. ($21,959.85 today, according to the inflation calculator.)

It’s hard to track down Dallas Times-Herald archives — the paper ceased publication in 1992 and consequently hasn’t been digitized — but with the help of the Dallas Public Library I intend to check those, too.



Happy weekend from the witch trials survivor

My mother claimed to see demons lurking in corners, hiding behind TV anchors’ smiles, sitting on cashiers’ shoulders. The devil’s minions were always hovering, she said, waiting to leap the second you gave them an opening, which was easy to do. Letting a stranger touch your head, listening to rock music, or falling asleep with the TV on were just a few of the things that would leave you exposed. You might already be possessed by spirits, in fact, and not even know it.

Maybe this is why the Salem witch trials — the stories of women drowned for their alleged allegiance to Satan — have always been a particular source of fascination for me, and why I was so sucked into Kathleen Kent’s wonderful first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter. I’ll be posting a conversation with Kent in the next week or two, so keep an eye out for that.

Reading the book prompted me to delve further into the life of Mary Bliss Parsons, my own 9th great-grandmother, who, long before the Salem trials, beat witchcraft charges — twice. (Longtime readers may recall that the Parsons family isn’t exactly overjoyed to have me as a cousin.)

Joseph Cornet Parsons, Mary’s husband, moved his family to Northampton, Massachusetts, because his wife couldn’t get along with the people of Springfield. She was beautiful and opinionated, with a “harsh,” “often accusatory” manner, and she was given to “fits” that incited Joseph to lock her in the basement. According to the authors of Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England,

She and her husband were frequently and notoriously at odds with one another. During part of their time at Springfield he had sought to confine her to their house. (Otherwise, he said, “she would go out in the night … and when she went out a woman went with her and came in with her.”) When this tactic failed, he locked her in the basement. It was then, she claimed later on, that she had first encountered her “spirits.” There was at least one quite public episode — again at Springfield — that amounted to a family free-for-all. Joseph was “beating one of his little children, for losing its shoe,” when Mary came running “to save it, because she had beaten it before as she said.” Whereupon Joseph thrust her away, and the two of them continued to struggle until he “had in a sort beaten [her].”

Witchcraft accusations surfaced against Goody Parsons shortly after the family moved to Northampton. Mary gave birth to a healthy baby boy — Ebenezer, her fifth child — and the following year a neighbor’s newborn died. Sarah Bridgman, the grieving mother, claimed Mary had cursed the baby.

Joseph tried to spare the family’s good(?) name by going on the offensive. No stranger to the courtroom, he initiated a defamation suit against Sarah Bridgman, the neighbor who started the rumors after her own baby died. This was a tricky approach. While the “immediate outcome of these actions was usually favorable to the plaintiff,” the “long-range effects were mixed.”

Sure enough, Joseph prevailed at trial, but suspicion and ill-feeling roiled until new witchcraft claims landed Mary in court again 18 years later. This time she was the defendant. Most of the evidence from the trial has been lost, but the indictment remains:

Mary Parsons, the wife of Joseph Parsons, … being instigated by the Devil, hath … entered into familiarity with the Devil, and committed several acts of witchcraft on the person or persons of one or more.

Ultimately the jury acquitted Mary, but her case is seen as a precursor to the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692.

On a personal level, what interests me most is the way Mary’s behavior and the suspicion against her have echoed down through my mother’s line, from mere nonconformism to madness, the seeing of “spirits,” and the accusations of Devil Worship. When I was a child, the Presbyterians and Baptists all but called Mom a Satanist as they showed us the door.

The legacy of loudmouthed, intractable women might run back generations in the other direction, too. By all accounts Mary’s mother Margaret was prickly and litigious. The image at the top of this post is a reportedly a transcription of Margaret’s testimony in Mary’s slander trial.