The Crime of Writing Tall Tales, My Notes on Bayliss Park

I wanted to jot down some of my research for my story Bayliss Park before I forget what’s true and what’s not. The genealogist in me feels guilty posting something without proper documentation. I’m already wanted by the Genealogy Police for crimes involving my flagrant use of embellishment while inventing my ancestors’ lives.

It started with this funeral notice I found on Ancestry.com for my 2nd great-grandfather:

The funeral of Josiah James will take place this afternoon at 2 o’clock from his late residence near Wickham’s Brickyard in the northwestern part of the city. Friends invited to attend. Mr. James has been here only about three weeks, and he was stout and hearty until Thursday last when he took sick. He came from Harrison County, MO. He leaves a wife, and ten children.

(source: Daily Nonpareil, Council Bluffs, Iowa, Sunday, 02 April 1882, Page 5, Column 1)

Iowa as a state didn’t have a law for keeping death records until 1880, and the law wasn’t enforced consistently until 1924. So I don’t hold out any hope of seeing Josiah’s death certificate and determining what he passed of. Instead, I began looking into what could have brought down a “stout and hearty” man so quickly. He was obviously feeling strong enough to move his wife and six youngest children 150 miles from Missouri to Iowa just a month or so prior.

I found the article below in my process of scanning the newspapers of towns from the time in which my relatives lived there. It’s a great way to gauge a community’s world view and it’s cool for me to think that my forefathers probably read and reacted to the very same pages. Chronicling America, the Library of Congress’s free online collection of historic newspapers, is usually my first stop.

typhoid case
(source: The Weekly Graphic, Kirksville, Missouri, 4 Nov 1881)

“Let others come forward in the same manner at once.” Love it. It’s this kind of demand that makes me nostalgic for a time I never lived in. Can you imagine just leaving money at the WalMart and trusting that it would be applied to the sick man’s cause? Parts of me want to write the story of Arment and Mrs. Rudolph, even though they aren’t family. A clear example of how researching genealogy can inspire fiction.

So, Arment’s story is what sparked the idea that Josiah passed of typhoid fever. The article verifies that the disease was in the area at the time. I learned that it was common for people to contract it while traveling. If it was typhus that killed him, perhaps Josiah’s health was already compromised by the stress of starting new at the age of 54. I’ll never know; so I wrote the story to fill in some gaps. Add to my family’s lore. Genealogy Police be damned.

Olivia JamesIt occurred to me that his wife Olivia was a newly single mother in 1882, after just arriving in a new city. Thankfully, all 4 of their older children were living in Council Bluffs and could support her. Josiah and Olivia moved, it seems, to be closer to them. Still, she must have been a strong woman; it’s this fact that made me characterize her as I did. And that picture of her. I love it, but it initiates so many questions: Why is she sitting in a fancy chair outside? Who took the picture? Why does it look so staged? The interview format was a way for me to explain these questions. For more on Olivia, read my post Delano, Herbert Walker, and Hussein; or The Stories Middle Names Tell.

Samuel Hurd was the son of a Council Bluffs family. He would have been just 16 when the James brothers probably came down to Harrison County, Missouri, to help their parents move. Later, Sam would marry Lena James (the pictures are really them), as his cousin Martha would marry Lena’s older brother, Noah, my direct descendents. That family tie makes me think the Hurds and the Jameses knew each other well. So it’s not impossible that 16-year-old Samuel helped them move. What is impossible is that Lena and Sam would be courting soon after Josiah passed. Lena was only 9 at the time of the move. I aged them up for the sake of the story.

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10 Replies to “The Crime of Writing Tall Tales, My Notes on Bayliss Park”

  1. You asked: Why is she sitting in a fancy chair outside? Who took the picture? Why does it look so staged?

    As one who dabbles in photography, I would say the photo was taken outside because the light is much better. Flash photography was complicated back in the day. Grandma may not have been able to stand comfortably for the duration of the photo so someone went into the house and grabbed a dining room chair. I would guess the photo looks staged because it was staged. It’s actually a well composed photograph. Brownie cameras were available after 1900. Was this scan cropped? A brownie photo would be small and square. In that case, it was probably a family member that took it. The question is why would a postcard be sent when they all lived in Council Bluffs? Did Granny go to visit friends or relatives? The second option is a traveling photographer stopped by the house and they had Grandma’s portrait taken. It was a thing back then to have your portrait printed on a postcard to be mailed to friends and family. I think the latter is the best explanation, although that doesn’t answer all the questions.

  2. Hi Nathan,
    I’m SO glad you happened to comment on my post yesterday…it led me HERE!
    What a fabulous site and entertaining article. I grew up in a small town in the middle of Kansas. The weekly reading was a newspaper from a neighboring town (The Cawker City Ledger) Some of the most entertaining were the notes on “daily visits” and play-by-play accounts of bringing cookies to the neighbors and who had relatives in from out of town. I look forward to reading more!
    Michelle

    1. 🙂 I really enjoyed your site as well! Thanks for the enthusiasm about my blog. I love reading the social columns in newspapers. They reported the most personal stuff that I would never want to be common knowledge.

  3. Is typhoid fever and tuberculosis one in the same? Anyway, I love that you use your family’s history as inspiration for fiction. I’m not a fiction writer but I do have an old family story with a lot of gaps. I’m trying to figure out a way to write the story in an interesting way without embellishment to fill those gaps. Anyway, I’ll have to take my cues from your stories!

  4. I love the idea of genealogy but also the idea of storytelling. That is how we remember our ancestors. Facts give us a frame of reference -time and place, staus. But stories make our ancestors real. Most of us don’t come from families that are well documented so we have to be creative. I would never claim to be descended from British royalty (although some ancestors do, easily overlooking the fact that the royal coupling never produced children.) But i can imagine how things might have been and who knows, I might be right

  5. So interesting! Recently, in my granny’s ailing years, my father told me that he was aware of a family secret in my paternal great grandmother’s generation (around 1900). What he recalled as a boy was mention, in hushed tones, of, “that damned Spaniard” my grandmother couldn’t/wouldn’t help us as she was in advanced stage dementia but we eventually found a Victorian photo of said “Spaniard” in her attic and he looked just like my white Scottish father, except, Spanish,
    funnily enough! We did some digging and discovered that my father’s grandmother’s family owned a high end butcher shop on the south coast of England, at that the Spaniard was actually an Argentinian sailor who navigated the high seas with his high end beef (so to speak) to this shop a few times a year. He became a firm family “friend” (when my great grandfather’s back was turned anyway) and some of us, including me, now have explanation for our jet black hair and piercing blue eyes. Love a bit of digging! Keep us posted on your findings 😉

    1. What a fantastic story! And as scandalous as it was back then, it is fantastic fodder for a story! And I love that the truth of your heritage is evident in your physical attributes. The genes don’t lie!

  6. A lot of family stories are made up, pure fiction. My Great Grandfather (mother’s side) had a gold mine in New Mexico. When he died my Great Grandmother moved away and raised her four daughters. The stories told to me by his daughters, about what happened to him, varied from “killed by Geronimo and a band of Apache” to “Froze to death in a blizzard” to “Killed in a poker game.” I like the last one best so that’s the story I tell.

    1. You’re right, Thom. Some genealogists believe it’s their job to sort out which of those fantastic stories are true and which are not. That’s where I differ. I am interested in facts, but listing names and dates and places doesn’t let you in on what kind of people you descend from. And it’s not very interesting to read either, IMHO. Those tall tales that travel down family lines, like your great-grandfather killed in a poker game, say just as much about family members as the documented facts.

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