What are the Odds?

2.17.2021 [archived ~ previously published 3.10.2019]

Amelia Hadley (aka Elizabeth Boxell) is the primary character my
historical fiction novel, What Amelia Knows

What are the odds that a girl whose favorite book as a child was Little House in the Big Woods, who made her younger siblings act out scenes from the book years before the television show debuted, would start writing about history fifty years later?

What are the odds that she would learn of the 1897 murder of her great great great grandfather in the Big Woods less than 100 miles from the Ingalls family home, and this would spurn her historical writing?

Well, I really have no idea what the odds are. Math was never my forte, but my love of history has never waned. Eight years ago I attended my great aunt’s 90th birthday celebration and learned from a cousin that his mother had written a bit of history on the brutal ax murder of John Hadley (pseudonym), a grandfather to both of us.

After two years of research about the unsolved murder and the circumstances surrounding it, I decided the story needed to be written, and I was going to be the one to tell it. I had amassed thousands of documents, but I was stuck. I didn’t know if it should be written as a true crime story or a fiction novel. I didn’t know how to write creatively. And I didn’t know if I could learn.

Reminisce Column

No one starts a writing career with a book, so I began taking classes and writing short pieces. One day I got up the courage to walk into the Western Itasca Review, Deer River’s newspaper office, and talk with the editor and publisher, Rebecca Passeri, about writing a column which would focus on local history. She suggested I bring in a couple sample articles, and the first Reminisce column was published in September 2014. That fall and winter I spent hours at the Itasca County Historical Society reading the old Deer River newspapers (1897-1930) and collecting stories I thought were interesting and worthy of further research.

Since that first article, I have written weekly columns with enough total words to equal three books. I have developed a writing style that fits – historical fiction and nonfiction. This means that everything I write is based on real historical events, or at least as they were documented in the newspapers. For the Reminisce column, I spend many hours researching before I begin to write. Over the years I have developed several collections of stories focusing on a topic such as Law and Order, which recounts criminal activities. A few other topics are Forgotten Postmarks, Rural Schools, and Sportsmen’s Tales.

I have hundreds of stories in the works and am pleased to have the opportunity to continue the Reminisce column. You can expect to see the column in the second and fourth Sunday edition of this newspaper. This summer I will continue with a series, Resorts with a History, which will look at the beginnings of some of the region’s earliest resorts which are still in operation. I am also working on a series about Historic Landmarks in Itasca County. According to my research, there are sixteen. I’ll cover five or six before the end of the year. Of course, there will also be a few Law and Order stories, and the balance are likely to be similar to the remainder of this one, snippets of local history with a common theme.

What are the odds? These are a few stories from bygone days that illustrate some remarkable odds for individuals living in our community over one hundred years ago.

Hunting Odds

In October 1903, Andy Morrisey, a local Deer River businessman had lost his gun in Squaw Lake while duck hunting. Ten days later he found the weapon, still under water. Remarkably, he shot and killed a duck with the ammunition that was in it when it fell in the lake.

In November of the following year, there was an article about a man from Hibbing who had been deer hunting near Crooked Lake and had killed two yearlings walking side by side with a single shot. Two weeks later the following article appeared in the paper.

Three at One Shot ~ Itasca News 12-10-1904

“Ben Tibbets, of Ball Club way, probably made a record the last day of the hunting season that never before was equaled in this section. Considerable attention has been given by the daily paper to a man on the Range who shot two deer at one shot. Ben went the fellow one better by getting three.

Mr. Tibbets saw the deer, which he had previously wounded, in some thick brush. He fired, scoring three at one shot, a doe, and two fawns, two of which he had not seen at all. The three deer were just a few feet apart. Ben is exceedingly economical with ammunition.”

Survival Odds

In the March 31, 1906 issue of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review there appeared the headline, “Girl in Trance for Six Days.”  The accompanying story explained that Ethel, the six-year-old daughter of Ben and Mary Johnson had laid down because she wasn’t feeling well, and when her father checked on her he could get no response. The child was pronounced dead, and preparation was made for her burial. The parents noticed that the body was still warm and refused. She was left in bed not making a sound or movement. On the sixth day, she opened her eyes and spoke in a feeble voice. At the time the paper went to press several days later, Ethel seemed to have recovered, though the physicians were puzzled and unable to tell what had happened.

On the 1910 United States census, the Johnson family is documented as having moved to Cambridge and had lost one child. All members of the family were listed, but there is no Ethel, or a child aged ten. It seems that Ethel had died, although I could not find a record of her death.

The subject of the next story lived another five years, and his death had nothing to do with his head injury.

Lives with His Brain Exposed ~ Itasca News 8-24-1907

“After a day’s drunk here Thursday afternoon, Andrew West, barn boss at Dumas’ mill, aged about forty, boarded the west bound local freight and went to Ball Club where he continued his spree. At an early hour next morning Matt Barnes saw the man sitting in the office of the Ball Club hotel and noticed his clothing was covered with blood and blood covered the floor about him. Mr. Barnes made an investigation and found a deep cut in West’s head.

Answering inquiries, the man said he was hit by the train while getting off from it. An investigation was made along the track and blood on the track showed where he was lying, and his hat was found with the brim cut off ragged as if a car had done it. As West was seen at nine o’clock, long after the train on which he rode had gone it is supposed he was hit by one of the midnight passenger trains. He was brought to Deer River on the local, and Doctor Hanley dressed the wound. The cut was an inch deep, through the scull [sic] and two inches long. The brain could be seen through the indentation. West claims he never lost consciousness and all through the performance of the doctor he was strong and steady nerved. He was taken through to the hospital at Grand Rapids on the local.”

What are the odds that this Little House in the Big Woods fan would ever get a book written about her ancestor’s murder in those woods? Again, I can’t say, but I can say that I did get it completed!  After a few years stuck in a drawer, I pulled out my notes in July, and on December 31, 2018, I finished the first draft of my manuscript!  I am in the of revision, am working with a professional editor, and am the historical consultant on a movie which will also explore this unsolved murder.

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