Thursday, October 29, 2015

Passing Through Ridgeway

Passing through Ridgeway

From goulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night – Good Lord, deliver us!     -----    The Cornish and West Country Litany, 1926

     With Halloween upon us it seems a good time to talk about unexplained things that do not always go bump in the night.  I would suspect that each of us has had a chilling experience which we could not explain.  I would also bet that most of us keep these events to ourselves, lest we be taken for a fledgling lunatic.  That being said, I am going to tell you of my personal experiences at Ridgeway, the town famous for its ghost, a ghost which I call a chasing ghost, because of its tendency to pursue those it encounters.
     It was December 1, 1981.  My wife and I, proud parents of a baby girl born in October of that year, were driving home late at night from a visit to Madison.  We had gone there that evening to pick up a relative who had flown in from Nevada for a visit.  It was a black and windy night. We were near Ridgeway.  As I drove along highway 151, my headlights illuminating the flakes of light snow that blew at me and flew by into the blackness, I could hear my wife beside me gently talking to the baby that she rocked in her arms to stop her crying.  Our visitor slept in the back seat.
     From nowhere a thin man dressed in ragged pants and an open shirt that waved in the wind appeared on my right, from the edge of the highway.  His arms raised and flailing he ran right in front of me and disappeared into the darkness on my left. 
“Did you see that!” I shouted.
“What?” my wife replied, raising her head from the child and looking at me. 
“A guy just ran in front of me” I replied, “He must be crazy being out here in the freezing cold with only a shirt and undershirt on!”

     She asked me what he looked like.  Strangely enough, I could not remember his face, only the tattered shirt blown wildly by the wind and the arms above his head flapping as he dashed by.  I drove home and remarked upon it to friends who were totally agreed that whoever he was, he must have been very drunk.  Later I learned about the Ridgeway Ghost.  I wondered, as I still do who or what I encountered that night.
     It was October 25th 1992, my son Brian's fourteenth birthday.  As a gift I took him and Tony, his younger brother to Madison to see a basketball game.  The Milwaukee Bucks were playing the Phoenix Suns at the Dane County Coliseum.  After an exciting game and as much autograph begging as Brian could do we had dinner and started home quite late.  At that time, outside of Ridgeway along the highway there was an old farmhouse surrounded by trees.  In later years someone spray painted “Haunted House” on the wall facing the highway, but it was not labeled so at that time.  It was, as before, a very dark, moonless night that followed a cloudy day.  As we drove by Ridgeway the house came into view on our left, which was unusual because ordinarily it was a mere streak in the headlights as one passed by.   This night it was alive with light.  From each window a diffuse, pinkish orange light reached into the darkness.  From each of its windows came the same uniform light. The bare walls were visible within, but no source of light was visible.  Everything was illuminated by the same odd soft light. 
“Look at that” my son shouted, “What is it!”
  “I don't know” I replied, transfixed by the unworldly apparition. 
“Stop!” he shouted. 
“No way” I replied and away we sped eastward toward Lancaster and home.
    I have told friends about that night over the years.  They look at me incredulously and then to mollify my apparent madness say something like “probably a prank of some sort.”   I thought about it less frequently over the years, save when I visited my son, occasionally asking him if he remembers that night.  He does.  It came to mind suddenly while I was browsing the internet one day and came across the following post on a site:

       “I want to relate an experience I had around Halloween, 1993. I'm from Ripon, Wisconsin. At the time of this story, I was also a student at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. To get to my school, I would travel from Ripon to Madison, get on highway 151, and go there to Platteville, which is in Grant County. On the way there, I would pass an old, abandoned farmhouse on 151. It was a very old building, completely isolated, and with no driveway. When going by, I would look through the windows. The interior of the dwelling was completely gutted, as if there had been a fire inside at one point. It looked as if a strong wind could knock the whole building over. Anyway, it was Halloween weekend. I was going back to Ripon with my roommate. By the time we left it was around 9:00 p.m. When we drove by the old house, I noticed that the building's interior was brightly lit, as if someone had been inside and turned on all the lights. That was what confused me. I saw what it looked like inside. There was no wiring of any sort in the building. I couldn't understand where the light was coming from. It wasn't lantern light; it looked like electricity, but it didn't seem possible. When we came back a couple days later, we noticed that the house looked like it had before - gutted. Strange! Several years later, I bought a book called Haunted Wisconsin. I read a chapter about the legendary "Ridgeway Ghost." In the chapter, there was a photo of the house where the ghost supposedly "lived." It was the same house! I got out a map and double-checked it with the book to make sure they were the same - and they matched. Apparently, when we drove by, the Ridgeway Ghost was "home.” by Mark G.”  From:
     The house is gone now.  I have heard no reports since of men running in front of cars on dark highways.  I have no doubt that, as my friend said, these events must have been some kind of prank.  Some kind of prank by whom – or what?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


The Homebody
By Dennis Wilson
     Every community across rural America has a “character,” the man or woman whose eccentricities are a matter of note to visitors, but not to accepting neighbors.  In time the eccentric often becomes a matter of community pride.  People often imagine that the city is the place to live a life on your own terms, but I have found that small town America has a lot of friendly room for people who are a little "different"  Little Sammy Draper of Lancaster, reputed at one time to be the world’s smallest man, was universally loved and admired, and not just because he was only 3 feet 10 inches tall.  He had a unique personality.  He was a “character.  Though he died nearly 75 years ago, he is recalled fondly, and many prize their photos of him, and stories of his life.  Every small town has tales of its inventor, fabulist, recluse or collector of oddities. 

     Arthur, a very small town in Grant County once was home to the “most untraveled man in Wisconsin”, Charles “Potter” Dobson.  He had an absolute aversion to leaving his small rural town. 
     People nowadays are prone to believe that the residents of “Old Grant” a hundred years ago were relatively stuck in the country and didn't get around much, but nothing could be further from the truth.  In an article titled “Restless Grant County: Americans on the Move” in the autumn 1962 Wisconsin Magazine of History, author Peter J. Coleman pointed out that this county was part of a nation on the move.  People settled, stayed a decade or so, and moved on – usually to the west.  My own ancestors lived in Grant County and then, after years of farming here moved to Nebraska in the late 1870’s.  In fact, with Railroad service in almost every town of any size, our forebears of a hundred years ago could hop on the local train and go almost anywhere.  Some time ago I was surprised to learn that my great grandfather, a Wisconsin farmer his entire adult life, nevertheless took a vacation and went to California. While there, he attended the 1939 Rose Bowl.  Why should I have been surprised?  After all he crossed the Atlantic from his birthplace in Northern Ireland and came to Wisconsin when a small child.  Travel was nothing new to him.
     “Potter” Dobson was a truly dedicated stick-in-the-mud, and it took effort.  It is said that he never traveled over 20 miles from home in his whole life, and no record of so lengthy a voyage as that survives.  So far as I have been able to ascertain, his legend began in 1939, when a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, perhaps lost, stumbled upon Arthur, a town of maybe 50 souls.  He soon heard of Dobson and went to see him. Here are some excerpts from the story he wrote:
“Looking for the most contented man? Well, folks. Meet Charles (Potter) Dobson, father of seven, owner of a house and six acres of good farm land— all clear— and a first rate team of horses.
“In all the 41 years of his married life he never has been away from home so much as a single night— In fact, he has never been away at all from this place where he was born except on perhaps a dozen occasions. Now, at 68, he submits that he is "doing all right and wouldn't change places with any man on earth."
“He has a nice sense of humor, too, Is accustomed to be considered as something more than a local celebrity and takes It modestly. Questioned about his penchant for sticking close to the home base he found some trouble In explaining It. He scratched his head and finally ventured that there didn't seem to be anything for him to go away for so he "Just didn't go"
"But." he defended himself good naturedly, "It's not true, like they say, that I've never been on a train." There was the merest suggestion of a smile about his mouth, as he shoved his battered old felt hat back at a more rakish angle. "I've been on the train a heap of times. Between Rewey and Livingston. Twice, anyhow. Maybe more" (The distance between Rewey and Livingston via the North Western road Is 4.8 miles.)
"But it is true," he continued In the manner of one determined to keep the record straight at all cost. "I've never been to Montfort." Montfort, 10 miles away, is a thriving metropolis with a population of 554, as compared to Arthur's half hundred
"I was all ready one time, though, to go away on a train trip," he confided, a far away look in his eyes. "Had it all planned to go with the Missus to a big celebration at Dodgeville over In the next county. Down at the depot, just before we were ready to pull out, I found out the train schedule didn't allow for us to make it back home that same night, so I Just gave it up." "Potter" pulled himself a straw and chewed it reflectively. "That was in 1908," he said. "I've never tried It since."
Dobson didn't like cars either. Some of the locals had tricked him into a car once and took off for Platteville.  He escaped a short distance out of town and walked back home relieved at avoiding the close call with disaster.  His most prized possession was his team of horses.  “My team,” he said, “can take me anywhere I've a mind to go.”  He was a Cubs fan, though, and listened to them regularly on his radio.  Though his given name was Charles he was known by his nickname “Potter” which he came by when a more traveled friend told him his copper toed boots curled up at the toes just like the boots worn by a printer in Platteville named Potter.  The nickname was necessary because he had a cousin in town who was also named Charles Dobson.  They called him “Chubb.”

     Mrs. Mamie Dobson, popularly known as “Mame” liked to travel.  The couple had children living in Jefferson, Wisconsin, Richmond California and Detroit Michigan.  Mr. Dobson referred to her as a “gadabout.”  When he was interviewed in 1944 by Edgar Riley of the Wisconsin State Journal Mrs. Dobson was away on an extended stay with her daughter Gretta in Detroit who ran a home for children.
     Living with an intransigent creature of habit must have been hard for Mrs. Dobson.  Mr. Dobson's tastes were simple. He loved baked potatoes and ate at least one every day.  He would not try exotic cuisine like mashed or scalloped potatoes, so, resigned to the fact, Mrs Dobson made him his potatoes of choice every day of their married life with the exception of her gadabout absences.  As of August 1944 it was calculated that he had consumed baked potatoes for 13,790 straight days. 

     He always slept in the same bed and insisted it be kept in the same corner of the same room in their cabin.  Mrs. Dobson, possessed of the normal feminine decorating spirit, re-arranged the room at times over the years only to find that “Potter” had dragged the bed back to his corner, for he could not sleep anywhere else – even in the same bedroom.  Mame was not a milquetoast though.  Mr. Dobson was a deliberate man and often procrastinated about getting to his chores, one of which was to chop and bring in the wood for the cooking stove. One morning, while preparing to make breakfast, she found there was no wood chopped.  With angry resolve she dragged his bed frame out of the house and chopped it up thereby insuring both his breakfast and his baked potato.  He never again was remiss in meeting those marital obligations, but he did bemoan that, but for her hasty act, he would have slept in the same bed each night for 46 years!
    On Wednesday, November 7, 1950, Mr. Dobson had the novel experience of reading his own obituary.  The newspapers, hearing of the death of Charles Dobson of Arthur had gone to print believing it to be Charles “Potter” Dobson.  They were wrong. It was his cousin “Chubb.”

Did he have a special mental disorder? The reporters didn't think so.  He was talkative, congenial, full of humor, and to all appearances healthy.  Perhaps what he had was a special ability, an ability we all long for;  The ability to find happiness and shed anxiety by living in the simplest way with the fewest material impediments.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015



     It happened in the country, about half a mile north and west of Hurricane Wisconsin.  Henry Keene was a farmer who rented out a small two story house on a hillside near his home.  He was also a justice of the peace. On the afternoon of September 21, 1885 Keene was working in his field when he saw his tenant walking toward him, holding his 3 year old daughter in his arms.  ““Henry, help me.  My wife has been shot” he said, “what shall I do?”  Keene told him to return to his wife, while he summoned a doctor.  He called to a neighbor, Lewis Gelbach who was in his field a short distance away.  After spreading the word and dispatching Dick Andrew to ride to Lancaster for the Sheriff, he walked to the house and viewed the gory scene.  On her back on the floor was the body of Olive Esther Libby Townsend (they called her Esther), her head resting in “a great pool of blood.” She was 21 years old.  Her husband, Mark Wheeler Townsend, age 32, said it was an accident.
     Mark Townsend was born in Cleveland Ohio and moved to Wisconsin as a child with his parents Lysander and Lydia Townsend.  They settled near Mount Hope, Wisconsin.  Though he had only three years of schooling, he was intelligent and educated himself to the point that he had taught at a number of country schools and was principle at Cassville for a year.  Before his wife's death he was planning to leave his family near relatives and go to Northern Indiana Normal School in Valparaiso, Indiana (now Valparaiso University), so that he could be officially certified to teach.  The birth of the couple’s second child, Charlie, on January 7, 1885, nine months before Olive's death complicated things.  Less than three months after his birth, baby Charlie was dead.  Rumors flew that Townsend had thrown the baby against a wall, leading to its death days later.  The child’s death was not investigated.
     About five years before his wife's death Mark Townsend had a legal dispute with his brother.  Shortly after Mark lost in court his brothers family sat down to dinner.  They all became Ill.  Suspecting poisoning, the table condiments were examined and strychnine was found in the sugar jar.  Mark had purchased that toxic poison a day earlier.  The matter was said to have been dropped for family reasons.
     As the afternoon of September 21st passed, Henry Keene and four other neighbors and their wives waited for the Sheriff and the doctor to arrive.  Edward Pollock, editor of The Teller, a Lancaster newspaper and Postmaster Burr rode out to the Townsend house.  Pollock wrote the story, complete with diagrams of the house and the location of the body.  A white sheet was thrown over Esther's body.  As evening approached the ladies of the neighborhood decided that the corpse should be moved, cleaned and prepared for burial.  Doctor Baxter from Lancaster finally arrived.  Using a probe to explore the wound he determined that there had been only one shot which entered the back of the skull halfway between the crown and the base, and a little to the right side.  The bullet had exited behind and slightly below the left eye.  Mr. Keene had found that bullet on the floor near Olive’s feet.
     Mark Townsend left to carry Bessie, his 3 year old daughter, the half mile to the home of Esther’s mother and stepfather, Elizabeth and Joshua Fawcett.  He found them overcome with grief and unable to bring themselves to go and see the horror.  From that time on, Bessie was raised by her grandparents.  Since Keene was coroner and a justice, the men present decided to convene a coroner's inquest.  A jury with J. A. Coombs as foreman was assembled from those present:  W. W. Ward, Thomas Harper, John Pink, Joseph Snider and A. G. Bonham.  The events of the day were testified to by Keene, Gelbach, and Mark Townsend.  Townsend testified that he was standing behind his wife beside a cabinet cleaning his revolver with a cloth in anticipation of selling it.  He said he finished and still holding the barrel with the rag, he turned the cylinder while holding the hammer back so that he could bring it down between the cartridges.  The hammer slipped and the gun discharged, killing his young wife instantly.  He heard Bessie crying upstairs, ran to get her, and left the house for help.  The only evidence examined was the bullet and the rag which had powder residue on it.  With no further evidence or investigation the jury determined that she was killed by a bullet fired from her husband's pistol.  They further decided that the pistol had been accidentally discharged. 
     There was no further action taken, even though Keene, who had married the couple believed he had killed her intentionally.  Coombs believed as passionately that it was simply a tragic accident.  Editor Pollack wrote:  “There may be innocence, but it is disgusting innocence…a man who can be guilty of such an accident ought to be severely punished.  Such an accident is half as bad as intent… He is surely a great sufferer and we think shows it and possibly deserves more sympathy than we feel for him.” In a short time, Townsend was on his way to Valparaiso.  After attending the college, Townsend moved to Ritzville, Adams County in the State of Washington, a place he believed where no one would know him. 
      Ritzville was a new town, established in 1880 by the Northern Pacific Railroad.  A new school had been established and Townsend quickly began teaching, taking at the same time two pieces of Government land to give farming a try.  He met Mary Watson, daughter of a prosperous area family. They were soon married. They had two children.  From early in the marriage Townsend began to abuse her.  He moved her to a rural home and refused to let her leave or to receive visits from family or friends.  She went to her parents home and filed for divorce.  Townsend made threats, but a divorce was granted giving Mary custody and allowing Townsend the right to visit the children at reasonable times if he would act like a gentleman.  Townsend’s threats escalated against her family.  He threatened to use dynamite to kill them. 
     The Watson family engaged the services of a lawyer after Mary read a letter sent to Mark pleading with him to send money for support of the child he had left with Esther’s parents.  The family attorney, J. H. Hartman, having heard that Townsend may have poisoned his family, advised Mary not to allow the children to eat any items of food he might bring them.  Not long afterward Townsend came to the Watson home demanding to see his children.  He offered them candy which Mary refused.  He flew into a rage and a fight ensued with the Watson brothers.  Mary ran for the revolver and Townsend was forced to leave. As a result, he filed assault charges against them.  Because of the rumors about his past in Wisconsin, the family engaged attorney Hartman to travel to Wisconsin and investigate.  That is where he learned of the suspicious death of his first wife, and the second child.   He interviewed numbers of people and returned to Washington State with additional evidence that he thought could result in a homicide conviction.  Hartman felt that Townsend must be tricked into admitting that the shooting was no accident but that he intended to murder Esther. A plan was hatched and an unusual ally was enlisted.  
     Townsend's prestige had risen in Adams County to the point that he was serving as assistant superintendent of schools.  He was given the assignment of testing prospective teachers and certifying those found competent.  Current teachers were also required to take and pass the exam.  One of these was an attractive young woman named Musette Woods, and Townsend was infatuated with her.  He had been pursuing her, as she said “making love” to her, which in those days meant wooing and courting.  The Watson family and attorney Hartman were able to enroll her as an agent to get Townsend to talk. 
     Musette was able to arrange a meeting with Townsend one evening at a school office.   Her landlord, also a Watson ally listened at the window while she told Townsend that she must know of his past life if their relationship was to continue.  He told her of his first wife, the shooting, and called it unfortunate but “justified.”  With this witnessed statement the authorities in Grant County Wisconsin obtained a warrant for his arrest.  Grant County Undersheriff McGonigal was dispatched to Washington. He went first to Olympia to get an extradition order signed and then to Ritzville.  When he got off the train in Ritzville he inquired after Townsend and was directed to a man who had disembarked from the same train.  McGonigal arrested him right there and hustled him back onto the eastbound train.  McGonigal advised Townsend of the charges against him.
     Attorney Hartman, Henry Keene (who had moved from Wisconsin to Seattle), and Musette Woods got on the train for Wisconsin.  Townsend was put on trial. The trial lasted for weeks.  At the termination of testimony, Judge Clementson gave the jury the option of three verdicts:  Murder, fourth degree manslaughter, or innocence.  The jury convicted him of fourth degree manslaughter and recommended the maximum term of imprisonment for that verdict.  Accordingly Townsend was sent to the state prison at Waupun for two years plus one day in solitary.  Many thought he deserved the harsher sentence, but did he really “get away” with murder? 
     After he served his time, Townsend went back to Adams County Washington and returned to farming.  He did not teach.  He was married again to Emaline Spencer, and farmed for the rest of his life, which was not many years.  He developed an unspecified degenerative disease and died on December 29, 1906 at the age of 53.  He is buried in the Michigan Prairie Cemetery in Adams County, Washington.  It is an overgrown, forsaken place by appearances.  So ended the life of a man who, had he moral fiber to match his intelligence might have amounted to something in this world.  As it was, he left pain and sorrow.  He and his generation are all gone to the great judge who has all the evidence

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


     There it was "Prof. Hewlett of Wisconsin Finds Proof of His Sister's Fate."   I will admit that I have a fascination with stories of the Yukon Gold Rush; the wild adventures: the life and death struggles in the frozen north.  But this was totally different from any of the tales I had read.  I found another article in the Minneapolis Journal of October 29, 1906: “Graduate of “U’ Met Tragic Fate…Tale of Wolves Devouring Her Body.” Here was a woman who, I was to find, cast away all conventions and trekked into the wilderness to satisfy her desire for adventure and knowledge.  Here was a tough, independent woman who in her life had determined to live her way no matter what the customs of the times demanded.  I started my search.

     The first story related that the professor had found "part of the skull, a rib, a femur and bits of clothing" in a two year search through the wilderness in search of an answer to her disappearance.  Who was she?  Who was the brother who searched the northern wilderness? Let's start at the beginning.

     Frank and Edith Hewett grew up in the tiny village of Kingston, Green Lake County, Wisconsin.  Their father, Alonzo P. Hewett was the son of the earliest settler, Charles Hewett who brought his family west to that place in 1844, Alonzo being 14 at the time.  Alonzo married Kate Knowlton and in about 1851 Frank Hewett was born. In 1855 or 1856 (dates rarely agree on old records) his little sister Edith was born.  No doubt, like most big brothers, he felt a special bond and obligation to his sister’s safety.  Alonzo made several trips to Iowa to establish himself on a new frontier in 1853 and 1855.  He stayed for under a year each time because the winters were “too severe”, and the “comforts of the west too scarce to enable him to stand the pressure.”  It was during this second sojourn in Iowa that Edith was born.  After her birth Alonzo returned to Kingston, and remained with his family until 1875 when, apparently finding the state sufficiently civilized, he returned to Lime Springs, Iowa.
    Alonzo's family was musically talented.  In 1861, at age 31, he enlisted at Fond Du Lac Wisconsin in the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry as a musician in the regimental band.  He was discharged for disability in August of 1862 and returned to his trade as a wagon maker until returning to Iowa in 1875 where he worked as a carpenter and builder.  He established a hotel called The Hewett House.  Frank established himself in Forest City, Iowa as a music teacher.  Later, as we shall see, he entered show business. 

     In the 1885 Edith Hewett White was a housewife with two children living in Minneapolis with her husband, John A. White, who worked for the Minneapolis Harvester Works.  They had married in January of 1878, when Edith was 22 and John 26.   In 1879 a daughter, Vera was born.  In August of 1881 a son, John A. White II, was born.  Apparently he died early for he does not appear in later census records.  In 1883 another daughter, Alace was born.  In 1885 a son John P. White was born.  He died at age 2 on September 18, 1887.  Shortly after his death Edith and her Husband separated.   Perhaps it was the loss of another child that led to the estrangement.  Perhaps it was her desire to participate in the theatre, or her desire to pursue a career other than that of housewife.  According to one source, she had taken up acting in community theatrical productions.

      Edith enrolled in the University Of Minnesota School Of Dentistry in 1888. While attending the university she took up the sport of fencing.  The only photo I found of her was taken with her fencing foil and shows a dashing woman, seemingly much younger than her actual age, for she was then in her mid-thirties.  On June 5, 1890 she was the first woman to be conferred the degree of D. D. S. at the university.  Her fencing photo adorns the college brochures and literature to this day.

     Edith set up her dental practice in the Syndicate Block in Minneapolis and for some months practiced profitably.  Then in February of 1891 the press reported shocking news:

     Edith White had apparently been in theatrical productions with Harold Chambers, and they became enamored of each other.  “Loves Young Dream” proclaimed the St. Paul Globe “comes to two people old enough to know better.” The article continued:  “Yon Yonson was a play. The two have stepped from parts in a comparatively low grade dramatic production to leading roles played on Shakespeare’s stage- the world.  He skill as a dentist combined with her beauty as a woman attracted patients by the score. Among the male patients…was Harold Chambers. They admired the same works of art, loved the same books and doted on the same drama.  They longed for an opportunity to “act out on the stage.” The opportunity came in the shape of a chance to participate in the presentation of that highly classical drama, Yon Yonson.  Dr. Edith’s beauty and intelligence made her the leading lady, while Harold’s avoirdupois caused him to be cast for the “heavy man.” This happened November 10 last…After that they spent all their leisure hour together…The doctor, his inamorata, has not been seen since last Saturday.”  

    White and Chambers fled from their families and friends, first to Winona, Minnesota and then to East St. Louis where Chambers found work in a railroad office.  Chambers left a wife and two children ages 3 and 15 months penniless.  They next appear in the available historical records in May of 1893 when they were married in Marion County, Indiana.  This may not have been a legal marriage because the 1900 census shows John White and his daughter Vera living in Mankato, Minnesota where he stated he was married and had been so for 22 years.

     In the years when Edith was married and raising her children, her older brother Frank was becoming an entertainer.  He was something of a prodigy, skilled in playing the violin, cornet, flute, piccolo, and the clarinet.  Beginning in about 1877 Frank worked as a musician with various troops traveling the world.  Whether by ambition or necessity, Frank joined with Eva Pear in 1879 at Melbourne Australia and wrote an operetta named “Rain.”  They toured Australia, New Zealand and the East Indies.  He called his small company Hewett’s Musettes. The company made a return tour of these countries in 1882, after touring the African colonies.

      Eventually his operetta and its performance began to come under criticism.  In June of 1882 the critic of the Victoria, Australia Argus wrote: “In no sense could the succession of solos be regarded as an operetta…The lady and gentleman are proficient as performers on a variety of instruments and it is for the purpose of illustrating that ability that they have embodied in a thinly constructed story a number of opportunities for playing them.” Obviously Hewett could not continue to count on the appreciation of musical talent to fill the seats.  Applying the same ability to learn which had helped him to master a half dozen musical instruments, he studied legerdemain and became a stage magician, adding to his musical duties that of Illusionist.  In 1907 he began supplementing his act by showing motion pictures, which were considered magical by many. 

     His wife May and a woman named Zetta Reigan were recruited to form the core of his revised act.  He displayed his mastery of musical instruments and interspersed sleight of hand demonstrations.  “Lady Zetta” as Reigan called herself, did exhibitions of “mind reading.”  His wife acted with the other two in comic skits.  As soon as she was old enough they incorporated their daughter Edwina, born in 1898, into the act. They played throughout the Midwest and the far west to great reviews, such as the following:

“The little girl in flowing robes, is apparently hypnotized and laid on a table in the broad light of the stage.  Without mirrors, without black cloth and without attempt at mysterious conditions, the child rises in midair before the manipulations of a fan.  It is then the puzzle becomes embarrassing, for a solid iron hoop – your own if you wish – is passed over the suspended child from end to end, showing no possible means of support, above or below or on either side.  It is called an “illusion,” but it is not, for what appears to be done is actually done, and the sight is in no way deceived.  The box trick is another deception in which Edwina enters with zest.  Entering a box at one side of the stage, she presently is taken from the inner box of a nest of boxes on the other side.” 

     At some time Edith and Harold Chambers parted company and she eventually moved to Dawson in the Yukon Territory in about 1898.  This was wild and rugged country still in the throes of the Klondike Gold rush.  She got a job in the offices of the Ladue mining firm, either as a dentist or clerical worker, but soon found that uninteresting and quit.  She then formed the idea of writing a book about the far north.  She would explore the largely unexplored regions of Alaska’s Tanana River. 

     She outfitted herself well for the trip. A good horse and a full pack with appropriate clothing for the trip; a coat and heavy skirts to which she sewed army pants.  She had a rifle, knife, matches, ointment for mosquitoes, fishing gear and her dental tools.  The later may have been to treat the natives as she planned to find a village with the option of wintering there. She left Dawson on July 24, 1901 and was not seen or heard from again until July of 1903 when William Shafer, a U.S. Signal Corps officer wrote to her family informing them that her diary and two letters addressed to her daughters and spouse had been found in a remote camp in the wilderness.  These detailed her travels and the misfortunes that led to her death.  No remains were found. 

     Receiving this news, Frank determined that she was dead without question.  She wrote of the mosquitoes that attacked to the extent that her face was swollen and red.  In a real sense it was the mosquitoes that caused her death.  While in camp her horse was driven to panic by the mosquitoes and wandered away.  When she went to find her horse, not putting her pack out of reach, bears invaded the camp.  They ripped her tent and pulled the pack apart, eating her food supply and destroying most of the rest.  She turned back, but became lost in the mountains for days.  She was nearly killed by mountain Lions, saving herself only by wading up to her neck in the frigid river water and standing there until the cats lost interest and moved on.  She wrote in her diary that she was starving and her strength was gone.  Her last entry was in October 9, 1901.  By that date the average high temperature was 36. The average low is 22 degrees.  The sun did not rise till 8:45 am. There was snow on the ground.  Starved, she must have risked hypothermia at each stop.

     Frank determined to go to the North Country and find his sister's remains.  He needed to know exactly where and how she met her end, and bring back her remains for burial.  With his touring schedule and the need to secure funds for the trip, he was not able to search for her until 1905.  By June of that year he, his wife, six year old Edwina, and perhaps a cousin, Charles Hewett were in Dawson, Yukon Territory.  They supported themselves by doing shows in the villages and mining camps.  As they traveled he interviewed those who had found her diary and letters, and he heard of a man who claimed to have found her campsite and the scattered equipment and remains, which he said he buried in a barrel.  Frank took a pack and wandered in the places where he felt she might be found.  1905 passed and Edith's remains were not found.  The Hewett’s returned home and planned for their return in 1906.

     By June of 1906 they were back with a new act and even greater magical tricks.  They drew large crowds again, and as he could, Frank wandered in search of her remains.  On September 17, 1906 he found her last camp. “I found all that remained of my sister,” he wrote.  “She abandoned her horse, built a raft and undertook to float down the Tanana. River. Being alone and unable to handle the raft successfully, she left it, caching most of her outfit eighty miles above Goodpaster,.. She took a few belongings and scarcely any food and started north.  It was her intention to make some Indian village. The diary states she was twenty-four days traveling from the Tanana River to the place she perished.  Her sufferings must have been frightful.  Her farewell letters proved that she retained her reason to the last and that she realized the awful fate that awaited her.”

    The bits of clothing were ripped into hundreds of pieces, bearing “abundant evidence” of wolves’ teeth.  A merchant identified a shoe and buttons he had sold to her. That and the few bones were all that was left to account for her passage on earth.  Frank wrote:  The wolves had torn her to pieces, leaving but little, but enough so that I could take them to Seattle for burial.” Did she starve to death, or did the wolves attack and kill her when her strength was gone?  That may never be known.  Frank preferred to believe that her death was from starvation, but why should the wolves have waited?  Wolves do attack humans.  As recently as March 2010, a teacher and former gymnast named Candice Berner was attacked and killed by wolves while jogging on a road in Chignik Lake, Alaska. She was in excellent physical condition. Edith was not.

     Frank went home to Seattle, and took up a permanent residence there.  He continued doing performances infrequently and managed a theater.  His father, Alonzo came to live with him in his final years. He died in 1919.  Frank showed movies of the Great War in 1917, and the newspaper billing added; “The Great Hewett will appear in magic and illusions at each performance.”  He faced the great mystery when he passed through the last hoop, dying on April 25, 1931. He was a good big brother.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


A PHOTOGRAPHIC TALE, by Dennis A. Wilson
We have been scanning and accessioning photographs for years now, and as the items pass by they often present a mystery.  What is this?  Why is it here?  About three years ago I came across photos of Anniston, Alabama taken in the 1890's.  I wondered what these photos had to do with Grant County history.  Later I scanned a collection of photos of Company E of the Wisconsin National Guard taken in 1889 at Camp Douglas.  A little research revealed that this was a unit formed in Milwaukee.  I found a collection of photos of the same company in the collection of the Milwaukee Public Library.  How was it that we had these?  The last item, found by Joe Sherwin in our Collection, was a souvenir album of Company E printed in about 1894. 
     This is still an incomplete investigation, but what I have discovered makes an interesting story.  Maybe someone will read this who can help piece together the entire story. 
The Wisconsin National Guard unit made up of local businessmen were under orders by Governor Rusk to "shoot to kill" if strikers tried to enter the mills.  As strikers stood about 200 yards from the gate the guard opened fire, killing seven.  Of those, one was a 13 year old boy who had come to watch and another a retiree who was drawing water.        On May 5, 1886 a massive demonstration occurred in Bay View, a suburb of Milwaukee, outside the Milwaukee Iron Company rolling mill.  About 14,000 strikers, many with their wives and children were demanding an eight hour day.  Most workers were then working 10 hours a day,
 six days a week for as little as 90 cents a day.
     Afterward Gov. Rusk was lionized for his “forceful action” by the businessmen and industrialists who provided him a private train for his personal use.