Monday, June 19, 2017

Postcards from the Great War

by Erin Doane, Curator

Private William Warren Fenton served with the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I. While overseas, he sent postcards home to his wife Hazel. The historical society has 15 of those postcards in the archives. They provide a tiny glimpse into the heart of a soldier far away from the woman he loves.

Oct. 16, 1918
One way of doing things.
                               Soldier Boy
Warren had just turned 25 years old when he was drafted into service. He was living at 618 Dickinson Street in Elmira with his wife at the time. On July 25, 1918, he and 31 other draftees left Elmira. The train picked them up at the Lackawanna Railroad Station at 12:10pm and took them to Camp Dix, New Jersey for training. Warren was just one of 14,924 men who were called up from New York State on that day. He was part of the largest number of men called to service since the United States had declared war.

Warren arrived in France in the fall of 1918 and began sending postcards home.
Oct. 21, 1918
In France
Dear Hazel,
This day and date take me back to June 21, 1913.
  I always think of the 21st and of the one thing that
took place on that day.
  Many tho’ts of you
                                                               Hubby Warren

Nov. 1, 1918
In France

  I am sitting with my back to a tree while I write this card.
  There may be some scene like the one on the other side 
but I have failed to find it over here.
  With Out Y o u.

Nov. 11, 1918
Over Here
Dear Hazel:
  This is not me, Yet it may be.
  We are on the same job and here for the same purpose.
  We’re not here for fun and the Hun is on the run.
                                                           Adieu Warren
Bassens Camp #4
Bordeaux France
Jan. 19, 1919
Dearest Hazel:
    And thems’ my sentiments too.
Bassens Camp #4
Bordeaux France
Jan. 26, 1919
Dearest Hazel:
   Please accept these pansies from France.
Not in bloom at present.
Bring a canoe built for two,
And we’ll take a trip together.
Bassens Camp #4
Bordeaux France
Feb. 7, 1919
Dearest Hazel:
  My present home. Barracks with X is guard house.
4th one down on right is mine. Bath house at end of
Street. Bassens church on hill, left side.
Warren made it through the war and lived to be 81 years old. He died on June 19, 1975 and is buried in Woodlawn cemetery next to his wife Ruth. Wait a minute…Ruth? I thought his wife was named Hazel. Census records from 1920 show Warren living with Hazel in Elmira’s 9th Ward but in 1930 he’s listed as divorced. Apparently the couple was not destined to live happily ever after.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Lonely Hearts of Yesteryear: Matrimonial Ads in the 19th and Early 20th Century

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

What was a lonely maiden, ageing widower, or other longing singleton to do to find a spouse in the days before or OkCupid? Well, actually, they did something very similar to online dating! In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, local folks and people around the world placed advertisements in newspapers and used matrimonial agencies to find “the one.” Some advertisements were romantic, but most were exceptionally pragmatic. There are many local examples; you can find them in the classifieds section of papers nestled between ads for livestock, real estate, and men’s “vitality” pills (a subject for another post…). Some of these love stories had happy endings, but others didn’t work out so well.
From 1910.
 There were a couple of ways that people went about seeking a spouse. Some contacted matrimonial agencies, which worked to compile profiles of singles all around the country to make matches. Sometimes these companies would place newspaper ads for clients and would accept the resulting correspondence. Other times, the companies would compile catalogs of marriageable people. For example, in 1912, a matrimonial agency in Skaneateles advertised that for 25 cents they would send a catalogue with hundreds of photographs and descriptions of eligible people, “rich, poor, young, old.”

In 1908, the Intelligence and Matrimonial Agency operated at 117 W. Water St. in Elmira. As you can see from their ads below, however, they had clearly diversified their offerings (you could buy sugar while looking for your “sugar”).

 Another ad specifically targeted Catholic singles. It’s hard to know how many locals were using matrimonial agencies, but by the 1890s, there were notices in the papers about young local women finding husbands that way. In 1892, it was reported that some young Elmira women were heading out to the wild west to be married.

Other singles placed their own ads in the paper, briefly offering some facts about themselves and detailing what they were looking for in a partner. Below are some examples:
From 1907. The top one is from an Elmira man, but I can't help loving the earnest ad from the Tonawanda gentleman below it even more.
In this set of ads from the Elmira Star-Gazette in 1920, you can see that ads showed up from all over the country. The one at the bottom is from Elmira.
 Matrimonial agencies, while costing more, added an extra layer of protection for their users. They could filter responses, something not available to someone going it alone. This could be useful to make sure that all of the inquirers were serious. The necessity of this can be seen in a prank played by two Elmirans, John B. Fitzpatrick and Charles H. Armitage. In 1897, they were managing the tour of actress Floy Crowell. While promoting an Albany show, Armitage put an ad in the papers reading: “Young lady of engaging appearance and enjoying her own private fortune would like to correspond with handsome and well connected young man. Object: matrimony. Address C.R.F., Box 317, Albany.” Armitage took the letters and had a woman at the Albany Argus respond to all of them as follows: “your kind note received. Before making my identity known I would like an opportunity of seeing you, under circumstances which will render it impossible for you to identify me. Please attend the Floy Crowell entertainment at the Leland Monday evening, wearing a white carnation as a boutonniere.” On the night of the show, at least 14 white-carnation-wearing men came, and upon seeing the others, knew they had been duped.

From 1917. As you can tell from this ad, folks were wary of pranks and scams.
While Armitage’s prank was relatively harmless, male and female con artists sometimes used the matrimonial ads for criminal ends. In 1923, Elmiran Jennie Steele, a 56-year-old widow, married Charles W. Davis, a 75-year-old man (he told her he was 65) she met through a matrimonial agency. She said a few days after they married, he left with her diamond ring, money, and other property worth $600. Police discovered that he had done the same matrimonial agency marriage scheme to women across the region.

In 1930, Elmiran Jacob F. Brookman’s new matrimonial agency wife disappeared with $1,200 after 5 weeks of marriage. She was Patsy Sullivan, a 33-year-old widow from Kansas. He connected with her through an agency and sent $56 for her to come to Elmira. He considered his loss to be $1,285.50 once you also factored in his legal fees. That same year, John B. Blake of Van Etten’s matrimonial agency marriage to Lucy Robertson of Elizabeth, NJ failed. They married in 1926 and he said that she threatened divorce less than a week after their wedding if he didn’t put the title to his farm in her name. He did so and shortly after, she returned to New Jersey. He sought legal means to reclaim ownership of his property.

Of course, not every pairing that failed did so for criminal reasons. Sometimes, one or both parties engaged in some false advertising. For example, in 1902, J.D. Gordon of Elmira worked with a matrimonial agency to connect with Fanny Gleason of Sage College. They met in Ithaca after corresponding. Gordon, however, failed to disclose that he was deaf and mute and could only communicate through writing; likewise, Gleason was the 60-year-old stewardess of the college, not the young college girl he envisioned. Needless to say, their match was not a success.

Stories like all of the above were rather popular in the press, which is likely why John O. Roberts from Graphiteville, N.C asked the Elmira Police Department to provide a “Certificate of Reputation” for Hazel Summers Tobey of Elmira Heights before they were wed. The pair had been matched by an agency, but Tobey still needed to get an official divorce from her first husband. Roberts said that as long as it could be proved she was an honorable woman, he would help her secure the divorce and relocate to Graphiteville. There’s no word on how that shook out.

Despite the risks, there still was a romanticism to the ads and many people wanted these relationships to work out. For example, in 1901, the news printed a story of an Elmira woman who was distraught on a train after failing to meet up with a man she had been corresponding with in Ithaca (the failure was rather convoluted and involved her wearing flowers on the wrong side of her body and him then not knowing which woman was the one he was to be meeting). She told her story to members of a band sitting near her. When she mentioned his name, it turned out that they knew him and that he was also on the train. The band members united the two engaged would-be lovers.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Strayed, Stolen or Run Away: Missing Elmira's Indentured Servants

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

I was reading through the Elmira Republican & General Advertiser from 1836 the other day when I found an unusual notice.  

6 cents reward. Strayed, stolen, or run away, from the subscriber, on the 5th instant, Gilbert Wilcox, an indented apprentice to the farming business, aged about 13 years. Whoever will return said boy to the subscriber shall receive the reward, but no charges will be paid. All persons are hereby forbidden from harbouring or trusting said boy on my account. JEREMIAH HALL.  Elmira, June 6, 1836.
Aside from the bit about not trusting the boy on the subscriber’s account, it is disturbingly similar to notices for missing livestock. 

Who was this Gilbert Wilcox kid and why was Jeremiah Hall advertising his disappearance like he was a missing cow? The notice itself gives us some clues. Gilbert Wilcox, age about 13, was an indentured laborer belonging to Jeremiah Hall and, when I say belonging, I mean that literally. Mr. Hall had some sort of legal contract granting him temporary ownership of Gilbert and his unpaid labor for a set period of years. People in this position were sometimes called indentured servants, bond boys, or bound or indentured apprentices.

There is a long history of indentured servitude in this country. Before the American Revolution, over 60% of all immigrants from the British Isle came as indentured servants. Too poor to afford the cost of the journey, they would sell themselves to ships’ captains who would then auction them off at the docks. The average cost of the voyage was £10 to be paid off over a period of servitude ranging from 3 to 7 years. The law offered no protections against cruel or abusive masters and it was not unusual for unhappy indentured servants to try to run. Although some states promised former indentured servants free land along the frontier, most began their free lives in America utterly destitute. The expansion of the slave trade in early 1800s spelled the end of large-scale indentured immigration, although it persists to this day, especially among the undocumented. 

Native-born Americans might have indentured themselves or their children for any number of reasons. In New York State, the children of enslaved Blacks born after July 4, 1799 were technically free, but indentured to their mother’s owners until their 25th (for females) or 28th (for males) birthday. In 1817, the state abolished slavery altogether effective on July 4, 1827. Since Gilbert Wilcox was 13 in 1836, it is possible he could be the indentured child of a Black woman who was still enslaved at the time of his birth. On the other hand, he could also be the son of an impoverished white family who indentured him in exchange for a debt forgiveness or a lump sum payment. Some families also indentured their sons to tradesmen so that they might learn said trade.

There are no good statistics on the numbers of indentured servants who lived and worked in Chemung County, but they were there since the beginning of white settlement. John Hendy, the first white man to plant corn in what is now the Town of Elmira, did so with the help of his bond boy, Dan Hill, in the spring of 1788.  There were at least two other indentured servants living in Elmira in 1836. We know because there are runaway notices for them too. I haven’t been able to find what happened to any of them, but I like to imagine they lived the rest of their lives happy and free.