Helga Estby’s Sad, Forgotten Walk across America

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to uncover the remarkable story of Helga Estby’s walk across America with her daughter in 1896—a story that was almost forgotten.

Do you ever read a book that quickly becomes a favorite because of the incredible story it tells? When this happens for me, it goes beyond just being an enjoyable read to something I want to do more research about to learn the events behind the story. I’ve had a few books affect me that way, and one of them is the story of Helga Estby as told in the book Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt.

photo of Helga Estby (seated) and her daughter Clara

Photo: Helga Estby (seated) and her daughter Clara. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant residing in the state of Washington, lived during a time when women were doing all kinds of things that pushed the prevailing gender stereotypes. Women were climbing Pikes Peak (Victorian Women Hike to the Summit of Pikes Peak!), biking across the world, and taking on the challenge of traveling around the world in fewer than 80 days.

In many cases, women were doing these things to simply prove they could. In other cases there was a financial reward for meeting the challenge. In 1896, when Helga read in the newspaper about a challenge that would award $10,000 to any woman who walked across the United States, she decided this was the answer to her family’s financial problems.

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Walking the Walk

In an effort to save her family’s home and gain the money they needed to pay their mortgage and taxes, Helga and her teenage daughter Clara set off from Spokane County, Washington, to walk across the United States. They hoped to arrive in New York City safe—and leave much richer. They commenced their adventure on 5 May 1896 with little to help them except a revolver (for protection) and a plan. As part of the deal they were required to walk the entire way across the U.S. (3,500 miles) and they were to earn money for their expenses along the route. As the women traveled they took on various jobs, including selling photos of themselves, in order to earn money. Their story and progress was printed in newspapers across the country.

This update from the Denver Post reports that the mother-daughter team expected to reach New York City in a little over two months’ time. At that point in September 1896 they had been walking almost four months.

Walking to New York (Helga and Clara Estby), Denver Post newspaper article 4 September 1896

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 4 September 1896, page 2

They Did It!

The two women faced all kinds of problems as they walked across America, including injury. Today, most of us would consider a drive across the United States to be quite an undertaking—but just imagine walking the whole way, with no instant communications! Despite the hardships, the women completed the entire walk, arriving in New York City in December 1896.

Newspapers heralded the women’s completion of their 3,500 mile (in some newspaper reports it’s erroneously listed as 4,600 mile) pedestrian journey. This front page article from the Cleveland Leader proclaims that the women arrived in New York at 1:30 p.m. on 23 December 1896.

A Successful Feat on Foot (Helga and Clara Estby), Cleveland Leader newspaper article 24 December 1896

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 24 December 1896, page 1

No Prize at the End of the Road

Their remarkable feat should have been celebrated and rewarded—but just the opposite happened. The challenge had been to walk across America in less than seven months. By leaving on May 5 and arriving on December 23, Helga and her daughter missed the deadline by 19 days. The sponsor of the challenge refused to pay the promised award for the remarkable journey.

Despite their determination and persistence, and all the privations the two women had suffered, the long journey was all done for nothing. Not only had the women walked all that way for no reward, they also did not have the money to travel back home. To make matters worse, Helga learned that diphtheria had struck her family during her absence; her son Olaf was sick with it, and her daughter Bertha had died.

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This article from the Omaha World Herald reports the women’s efforts to get help from the office of charities commissioners in New York. It also includes a recounting by Helga about the unfortunate family’s years of misfortune:

For eight years we have had misfortunes. It was eight years ago that I fell one night over an obstacle in the streets of Spokane and was so badly injured that it made me sick for two years. Then I had an operation which laid me up a while and then cured me. About seven years ago my husband fell and fractured his knee cap. Afterward a horse fell on him and completely laid him up. Five years ago my daughter Ida went blind. She was treated in a hospital and is about well. Then my eldest boy got inflammatory rheumatism. Two years ago our house burned down, and as we had no insurance on it we only built up the kitchen part of it. Six weeks ago my eldest son, Olaf, had diphtheria. He was in a hospital near Spokane. He got out and went to our house. Now my daughter Bertha is dead.

They Were Brave Women (Helga and Clara Estby), Omaha World Herald newspaper article 7 May 1897

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 7 May 1897, page 7

By the time the pair finally made it back home they had been gone 13 months. Once home, there was no jubilant homecoming celebration to welcome the downtrodden travelers back. Two of Helga’s children were dead from diphtheria and the family was still in financial ruin. Prevailing attitudes about women leaving their children to pursue such a dream were not favorable from the community—or from her husband and children.

While Helga’s intention was to write her story and publish it, thus making some money for her family, family pressure stood in her way. The family was so angry about her leaving them and the tragedies that happened in her absence that after Helga died her daughters saw to it that her writings were destroyed. If it were not for a defiant daughter-in-law who saved a few scrapbooks, the story of Helga’s trek across America would be lost to the family today.

Helga died in 1942 having never collected the $10,000 promised for her feat. Her notoriety continued after her long, fruitless walk. This 1905 Tacoma Daily News article summarized her journey.

Walks to Gotham -- (Helga Estby) Gets No Money, Tacoma Daily News newspaper article 25 November 1905

Tacoma Daily News (Tacoma, Washington), 25 November 1905, page 21

Helga’s Story Is Finally Told

Fast forward to 1984 when a young descendent of Helga’s enters his story “Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast” in a history writing contest, in which he tells the incredible tale of his great-great-grandmother who walked across the United States in 1896. This essay gets the attention of author Linda Lawrence Hunt, who then sets about trying to find the historical facts, largely through newspaper research, of this remarkable journey.*

Helga’s incredible story is one that is the perfect example of family history research. Without documentation, fantastic family stories can be lost within a few generations. And it’s through research—and, very importantly, newspaper research—that we can recreate our ancestors’ lives. I highly recommend reading Hunt’s book about Helga, and taking to heart something about your own family history that was said by that daughter-in-law who saved the story of Helga for her family: “take care of this story.”**

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* Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2003. p. xi.
** Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2003. p. 240.

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Mayflower Pilgrim Thomas Rogers: Are You a Descendant?

Joseph Atwood Ordway (1852-1904) is a descendant of Mayflower passenger Thomas Rogers—and he thought so much of that genealogical fact, it was included in his obituary.

Death of Joseph A. Ordway, Springfield Republican newspaper article 6 May 1904

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 6 May 1904, page 12

This is a detailed obituary that gives us a lot of family history information about Joseph:

  • His date and place of birth: 12 May 1852 in Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
  • His date and place of death: 5 May 1904 in Springfield, Hampden, Massachusetts, United States
  • One of his brothers was “the late” General Albert Ordway (1843-1897) who served in the Civil War.
  • He was survived by his wife: Carrie L. Ordway
  • He had two sisters: Mary Emma Ordway (1849- ) and Annie Freeman Ordway (1857- ) who became Mrs. Charles E. Folsom (Charles Edward Folsom, Jr., 1855-1926)
  • He had one surviving brother: Frank Foster Ordway (1862- )

Obituaries give good core research information for genealogists.

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I particularly like that Joseph’s obituary mentioned he was a Mayflower descendant. I am also a descendant of the Pilgrim Thomas Rogers.

Knowing that enables me to start with Joseph Atwood Ordway and trace his lineage back to his Mayflower ancestor.

This is a quick way to speed up your genealogy research and ensure that all of your cousins are found and documented in the family history.

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Household Cleaning Tips from Our Ancestors in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about how our ancestors cleaned their homes.

How did your great-grandmother know how to cook dinner, clean her house, or launder the family clothes? You may instantly reply that she learned from her mother. While that might be partially true, over time the technology of housework and what tools where available changed. Doing things the way your mother or grandmother did didn’t always work.

So aside from learning from family or perhaps while working as a domestic, women took to cookbooks and the newspaper to learn how best to clean, launder, cook, and tend to their families. Newspapers weren’t just the recorder of the day’s news—they were also the compiler of information that women used on a day-to-day basis.

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Polishing the Stove and Getting Rid of Bugs

Old newspapers provide a great look at what our female ancestors had to think about and what might be expected of them in their household chores. For example, in this 1905 Household Affairs column, one of the tips has to do with cleaning in tight corners using a paint brush. It goes on to point out that the paint brush can also be used to polish the ornamental work on a stove.

household cleaning tips, Savannah Tribune newspaper article 19 August 1905

Savannah Tribune (Savannah, Georgia), 19 August 1905, page 6

This housekeeping column also addresses what to do with bugs and their eggs. The tip recommends soaking your furniture in kerosene which would eliminate the pests. Obviously, in some cases, these household tips could be dangerous to put into practice. While kerosene or gasoline would rid your home of unwanted pests they could also kill the human inhabitants, as documented in this 1885 incident in Buffalo, New York, that killed a man and injured his wife when gasoline was spread throughout the home to kill moths.

Blown Up by Gasoline, Plain Dealer newspaper article 20 May 1885

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 20 May 1885, page 7

Ammonia and Stale Bread

One interesting aspect of reading household cleaning tips from vintage newspapers is the type of cleaning products they recommend. In this column, Household Talks, a mixture of ammonia and water is mentioned as a cleaning agent—but more interestingly, the advice for cleaning wall paper is to take “stale German Rye bread” and rub it in downward strokes along the wall paper. It is further advised to change or turn the bread often. According to the column, this stale bread is also used by artists to clean charcoal drawings.

household cleaning tips, New York Tribune newspaper article 21 April 1897

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 21 April 1897, page 5

Most modern people think of bread crumbs when thinking of what to do with stale bread. Who knew it was good for cleaning your house?

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Use the Power of the Rain and the Sun

Today, we have the convenience of washing machines to clean linens, sheets, bedspreads, rugs, and pillows. But what did your ancestress do to freshen up beds stuffed with feathers? Well, according to Mrs. S. O. Johnson, one answer would be to let the rain clean the pillows and mattress. She writes in 1869:

…old feather beds and pillows are greatly improved by putting them on a clean grass plat during a heavy shower; let the beds become thoroughly wetted, turning them on both sides. Let them lie out till thoroughly dry, then beat them with rods; this will lighten up the feathers and make them much more healthful to sleep upon. It removes dust and rejuvenates the feathers.

Hints on House Cleaning, Washington Reporter newspaper article 28 April 1869

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 28 April 1869, page 7

It makes sense that our ancestors were accustomed to hanging clothes out to dry at a time before the advent of gas or electric dryers. But aside from the drying effect that hanging clothes and bedding would have, it was believed that the sunshine had some sort of “chemical effect.” Shirley Dare writes in 1893 that:

…the direct rays of the sun have a strong chemical effect on the particles of decaying matter. Its powerful chemical action is seen in bleaching stains from linen in a few hours which sharp acids would fail to remove. It is a similar potency which as we say, ‘sweetens’ clothes and bedding hung out in the sun.

She recommends that twice yearly all clothing, bedding and carpets should be placed out in the sun.

Just Skip the Housework

While not all household tips found in old newspapers are applicable today, this one found in a 1915 Texas newspaper is advice that is important for all modern families to remember. The aptly titled “Don’t Worry over Household Duties” suggests having other activities to do aside from household chores, and proclaims:

…don’t allow yourself to become nervous and upset over your household affairs. Nothing disastrous will occur even if you don’t get all the work finished that you expected to do.

Don't Worry over Household Duties, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 30 June 1915

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 30 June 1915, page 4

This advice is one of the best household tips I’ve ever heard!

What old fashioned cleaning methods did your ancestors pass down in your family? Share your household tips with us in the comments.

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Major Historical Fires in the U.S.—Save Your Genealogy!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to learn more about some of the major fires in our country’s history—including one he and his family lived through—and reminds genealogists how important it is to make copies of your family history research so that a natural disaster doesn’t destroy years of work.

Fire, fire, fire raging all about. Who’ll call the fireman to put the fire out?
—first line of a children’s song

If you grew up in the 1950s you may well recall this song. Details of the author, full lyrics, etc., seem to be lost to time, but after reading about a fire recently in the newspaper I began to research fires and their possible effect on our genealogy and family history work.

Iillustration of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, by John R. Chapin, originally printed in Harper’s Weekly, showing people running for their lives over the Randolph Street Bridge

Illustration: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, by John R. Chapin, originally printed in Harper’s Weekly, showing people running for their lives over the Randolph Street Bridge. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Personally, I remember all too well the fire that ravaged my in-laws’ home. Although the house was saved the damage was extensive, and many heirlooms, pictures, etc., were lost forever as a result. It was a good lesson that taught me: genealogists should back up all their family history work and keep a copy of that backup somewhere other than in their home, unless they have a fireproof vault!

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Great Chicago Fire of 1871

It is hard to look at famous fires throughout U.S. history and not begin with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. One of the more detailed articles I discovered in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives was from this 1871 Massachusetts newspaper. This detailed news story covers almost a full page and reports: “…over 10,000 buildings are in ruins. The fire is still raging…” The article also reports that no one was spared, from “the dwellings of the mass of the German population of the city” to “some of the oldest and best residences of the city.” More than 100,000 people were left homeless by the two-day inferno. Finally on the second night a heavy rain did what the fire fighters—whose water supply had been cut off by the blaze—could not. The rain put the Great Chicago Fire out, but not before more than 17,000 buildings were destroyed at an estimated loss of over $200 million in property—in 1871 dollars!

article about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, National Aegis newspaper article 14 October 1871

National Aegis (Worcester, Massachusetts), 14 October 1871, page 1

San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906

It was in the early morning hours of 18 April 1906 when the earth rumbled, heaved, and shook terribly beneath the city of San Francisco. I found details in this 1906 Arkansas newspaper. As I read this article, I was struck by the fact that while I certainly recalled learning about the San Francisco earthquake in history class, I was not aware that fire raged across the city for three days afterward and actually caused most of the damage. Broken water mains prevented firemen from dousing the flames, and allowed the fire to move unhindered—eventually consuming over four square miles of the city. The earthquake and fire resulted in more than 3,000 deaths, left some 225,000 people homeless, and destroyed 28,000 buildings.

article about the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Jonesboro Evening Sun newspaper article 18 April 1906

Jonesboro Evening Sun (Jonesboro, Arkansas), 18 April 1906, page 1

As I researched the news about this famous fire more, I found a very interesting article published in a 1907 Michigan newspaper. While the headline writers make it seem as though the San Francisco earthquake and fire was the year’s worst disaster, this extensive article admits this may be only “in the interest of the people of the United States” since “Hongkong” (sic) was ravaged by a three-day typhoon that devastated the city and cost an estimated 5,000 lives; a major earthquake destroyed Valparaiso, Chile, and damaged nearby Santiago causing the loss of between 1,500 and 2,000 lives; and in Italy, Mount Vesuvius erupted killing more than 2,000 and obliterating four towns and several villages. Natural disasters know no boundaries and can reach us in huge cities or tiny towns—and all this was just in the one year of 1906.

article about natural disasters, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 February 1907

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 February 1907, page 8

Cerro Grande Fire of 2000

Not many years ago, my family and I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. During our time there we witnessed the “Cerro Grande” fire. I found a good article about this fire in a 2000 Illinois newspaper. Not only did this major fire force the closure of the famed Los Alamos National Laboratory, but it resulted in the evacuation of every one of the town’s 11,000 residents. While the nuclear materials at the Laboratory were all safe within fireproof facilities, many homeowners were not so lucky.

Fire Forces Evacuation of Los Alamos, N.M., Register Star newspaper article 11 May 2000

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 11 May 2000, page 3

A year later, there was a follow-up article in this 2001 Connecticut newspaper. This old news article begins poignantly with this:

The tears come for Lucy Thomas when she thinks about the family Bible and other precious possessions that burned in the Los Alamos fires a year ago.

Ms. Thomas was not alone either. The article reports that more than 220 structures were destroyed by the fire leaving more than 400 families homeless; the fire destroyed or damaged a further 115 buildings at the Laboratory; and burned over 43,000 acres of timberlands.

A Year after Fire, Los Alamos Residents Rebuild Their Lives, Daily Advocate newspaper article 6 May 2001

Daily Advocate (Stamford, Connecticut), 6 May 2001, page 20

Each morning during that fire, I well remember waking up to smoke throughout our yard, ash over an inch deep covering everything in sight, and the air quality monitor the EPA put at the end of our driveway. Shortly after the fire I had a meeting in Los Alamos and, while driving through the town, I was stunned at the complete and total destruction of so many houses. This brought the threat closer to home than we would have liked, but it also acted as a warning that fire can happen anywhere—and we had better be prepared for the possibility of the worst happening.

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Capitan Fire of 1950

My newspaper research then brought me to an article regarding fires that could finally make me smile. It was in a 1954 newspaper from Washington, D.C. This story was about the famous Smokey Bear, who was rescued by firefighters during the Capitan fire in New Mexico in May of 1950.

article about Smokey the Bear, Evening Star newspaper article 13 June 1954

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 13 June 1954, page 153

An early news report of this fire in a 1950 Nebraska newspaper was headlined: “Central New Mexico Forest Fire Unchecked.” That news reporter couldn’t have known that a national treasure would be found, with singed paws and legs, clinging to a burned pine tree!

Central New Mexico Forest Fire Unchecked, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 9 May 1950

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 9 May 1950, page 8

As the examples in this article have shown, old newspapers are a great way to learn about the major events that impacted our ancestors’ lives, and the news that affected them. And these reports of the devastating power of fire and the overwhelming destruction it can cause serve as a powerful reminder that no home—and no collection of family records, documents and photos—is ever completely safe. Be sure to digitize your material and store it safely online, preferably on at least two different websites!

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Halloween Treat: Stories about Ghosts & Haunted Houses

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article—posted last year for Halloween and, due to its popularity, reposted now—Gena writes about some of the ghost stories she found in old newspapers, stories spooky enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck!

It’s that time of the year when ghost stories abound. Do you have any favorites? Better yet, do you have any familial ghost stories? What ghosts linger on your family tree? Did your family live in a haunted house? Did a dead family member return from the grave to issue a warning? Did your ancestor come in contact with a ghost?

illustration of a ghost

Illustration: engraving from “Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, volume II,” published in 1804. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Wonder What Happened to That Old Cemetery?

There’s no doubt that in previous generations, death was an everyday part of life. Children frequently died from diseases and accidents, loved ones’ bodies may have been prepared for burial in their own home, and in some cases the local cemetery was adjacent to a family property. Maybe this close proximity with death made some people lackadaisical or even indifferent, as perhaps happened to this Indiana man.

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The following 1902 newspaper article features a story about George Flowers, who purchased land that included a cemetery. After he bought the land he removed the 300 tombstones, throwing some into the river and using the rest to build a foundation for his house. Flowers built his home and farm on top of the cemetery—over the objections of his neighbors. Although still disturbing, you might be less shocked by this behavior from someone who was not familiar with those buried there— but this particular cemetery included the graves of his brother, sister, and two of his own children! Apparently, his thoughtless deeds resulted in his farm being haunted.

Spirits, Elements and Neighbors Turn on Man Who Farms a Cemetery, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 24 August 1902

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 24 August 1902, page 5

Some of the details of this haunted farm story are downright spooky. After desecrating the graveyard, Flowers plowed the cemetery and planted it with melons and potatoes, as he did with the rest of his land. Well, the other melons and potatoes “grew in abundance,” but the ones planted in the cemetery were “eaten up by a strange bug.” Then the house started shaking violently, terrifying Flowers’s wife and two children into deserting the home. Finally, lightning struck the barn and burned the stock and building.

One sentence in this old newspaper article is especially striking:

The father seems to be impelled by some irresistible force to visit the haunted farm daily, only to flee again with increased fear.

The Ghost in the Family

Whether just an old creepy abandoned house, one where an unfortunate death occurred, or a previous owner now deceased who won’t leave, most towns have a tale of a haunted house or a haunting. While many stories involve ghosts who are unknown to the current residents, in this 1913 newspaper article the family is haunted by one of their own.

This historical news article refers to the story of Jane Adams, a teenager who was murdered in her hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1910. Three years after her death (the newspaper erroneously says five years), her family lived in fear because she seemingly came back from the dead to haunt their home.

Say Home Is Haunted by Ghost of Murdered Girl (Jane Adams), Columbus Daily Enquirer newspaper article 11 May 1913

Columbus Daily Enquirer (Columbus, Georgia), 11 May 1913, page 1

According to the article:

Mary, a sister of Jane, declares she has frequently seen a hand protrude from closet doors, has heard queer noises at night, and has even observed the ghost’s flight from a closet through the house. The whole neighborhood is having an attack of fidgets.

Further research into this ghost story reveals that on the night of her death, the murdered girl had gone out with her sister and a young man. After a walk to the pier she and the young man’s brother, who had joined them, were left alone. The prosecution at the time introduced evidence that Jane Adams was fighting for her honor when she was allegedly killed by William Seyler. William, after police questioning, admitted he was there when she died but denied any culpability. He claimed that they were arguing when she fell off the pier.

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Ghosts Trying to Make Contact

While the previous newspaper article makes it sound as though the family was less than thrilled to be reunited with their dead loved one, in many cases Victorians wanted to have a chance to speak to and receive messages from beyond the grave. Spiritualism, a belief popular from about 1840 to 1920, provided hope to those who wanted to believe that the dead were not truly gone and could be summoned. Those desperate to hear from their deceased loved ones attended séances in hopes of making that contact. In this 1913 newspaper article about a mother who lost a child, not only does her deceased daughter provide information from the great beyond but she also makes a promise.

Reincarnation in (Samona) Family, Times-Picayune newspaper article 25 August 1913

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 25 August 1913, page 3

This is truly an eerie family ghost story. Their dead five-year-old daughter promised during a séance that in 14 months, on Christmas Day, she would be reborn along with a twin sister. According to the old newspaper article, 14 months later—exactly on Christmas Day—the mother did indeed give birth to twin girls:

…one of whom bore on the face three marks identical with marks on the face of the dead child, and after a year began to manifest exactly the same moral and physical tendencies.

There’s One in Every Family

And while there will always be true believers in ghosts as evidenced from numerous present-day television shows and ghost tours, there’s always that one person in the family who wants to take advantage of that belief and pull a joke—sometimes with unintended consequences. Consider this tale of two brothers from a 1908 newspaper article.

Boy Wounds the "Ghost," Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 8 January 1908

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 8 January 1908, page 6

I bet that’s one prank Henry Tomlinson regrets pulling on his brother!

Is there a story involving the great beyond in your family history? Record those ghost stories now to add interest to your family history—and please tell them to us in the comments section.

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Houdini: Remembering the Magical Life of Erik Weisz

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn about the remarkable life of the great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.

As this 1915 newspaper article declared: “Everyone who reads the newspapers and magazines is familiar with the name and reputation of Houdini.” The statement was fitting then and is still fitting a hundred years later. Houdini’s power to captivate an audience lives on. Even my 13-year-old daughter, peering over my shoulder as I found images for this blog article, knew who Houdini was.

photo of the magician Harry Houdini, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 16 December 1915

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 16 December 1915, page 4

Houdini’s Beginnings

Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. His family immigrated to America and became a success story. Young Weisz was attracted to magic and performing. As early as age 9 he was performing tricks as a trapeze artist as “Erik, Prince of the Air.” He ran away from home to pursue his dreams, but was shortly after reconciled with his family. He continued to perform in seedy beer gardens with his brother Theodore (later known as Dash Houdeen).

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 10 March 1912

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 10 March 1912, page 25

Houdini’s Wife & Mother

He met Bess Rahner while performing. After their marriage, she replaced his brother Dash as Houdini’s stage assistant. Bess was never able to have children and spent her married life “starving and starring” with Houdini. She was no shrinking violet herself and the two had a lively relationship. Throughout all this, he adored his wife and remained faithful to her.

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His two great loves were his wife and his mother. Houdini had been raised as a poor immigrant so it is not surprising that he wanted to shower his mother with the nice things in life once he had the means. He ostentatiously did this when he reportedly purchased a dress made for Queen Victoria for his mother to wear.

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 24 June 1928

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 June 1928, page 3

Robert-Houdin

Erik Weisz took the name of Harry Houdini after his hero Robert-Houdin. Harry was obsessed with this master magician and he read everything he could get his hands on. Harry was an ardent student of magic and his collection of books on the subject are now a part of the Library of Congress. Robert-Houdin was considered the “Shakespeare of magicians” and was an obvious choice for a childhood hero. However, as Harry studied and learned more about Houdin and magic, he discovered that many of the claims made by Houdin were fraudulent. Many of the tricks that Houdin claimed were his own were actually created by others many years earlier. Harry felt that it was immoral for Houdin to make false claims. Eventually, Harry exposed Houdin as a fraud in a book titled The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.

Houdin 'Unmasked' by Harry Houdini, Boston Herald newspaper article 5 May 1908

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 May 1908, page 5

Because of his disillusionment over his hero Houdin, Harry spent significant time, energy, and money in uniting magicians. He felt that doing so would help regulate the industry, so to speak, and help prevent fraudulent activity and intellectual theft.

Spiritualists Are Frauds

Of particular concern to Harry were spiritualists. The spiritualists claimed they could talk to the dead. Harry felt this was a fraudulent claim, and he spent considerable energy trying to stamp it out. His efforts drew the wrath of many of his contemporaries including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Harry made a plan with his wife to prove that spiritualists were frauds. He announced that he would give a passcode (known only to his wife) to the medium after his death if there was any way for him to communicate it. For 10 years after he died, his wife held an exposition séance to show that the medium could not provide the passcode. Others continued this tradition for many years.

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 19 December 1915

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 19 December 1915, page 42

Harry Handcuff Houdini

Houdini got his start with a handcuff trick. His stage name at the time reflected this: “Harry Handcuff Houdini.” He would travel around challenging the local police to lock him up and let him try to escape. Involving the local officials was a success and he soon learned to include even more groups. To get the local people involved, he would stage challenges like the two advertised below.

ad challenging the magician Harry Houdini, Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 13 January 1915

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 13 January 1915, page 1

ad challenging the magician Harry Houdini, Boston Journal newspaper advertisement 20 November 1914

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 November 1914, page 12

Master Escape Artist

As the master of escape, he continued to stun audiences. He performed the milk can escape, where he was sealed into a large milk can filled with water. This trick was further enhanced by locking the can into a wooden crate, or having it padlocked shut. He also performed the Chinese water torture trick where he was lowered upside down into a tank of water. His feet were bound and sometimes a cage was inserted into the tank that restricted his movement. This led to the straitjacket escape where he was suspended above the crowd hanging from a crane by his feet.

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He even tried being buried alive. This, he discovered, was more challenging than first thought. He was buried six feet under, but the weight of the earth was too heavy. Houdini had to be rescued after clawing out just far enough to expose his hand before passing out.

Houdini even learned to fly and was one of the first people to fly in Australia. He starred in several movies including one called The Grim Game. Two biplanes collided during filming, although no one was killed, and the script was rewritten to incorporate this dramatic crash scene.

photo of the magician Harry Houdini, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 14 December 1919

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 14 December 1919, page 21

article about the magician Harry Houdini in the movie "The Grim Game," Oregonian newspaper article 31 October 1919

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 31 October 1919, page 6

Houdini’s Death by Blows?

The seemingly invincible Houdini was taken down by the smallest of acts. Controversy surrounds the circumstances, but it appears that J. Gordon Whitehead asked to test Houdini’s strength by punching him in the stomach. Houdini was reclining on a couch and may not have been prepared for the punches to the gut. The force may have caused his appendix to burst. Houdini rejected medical attention and continued with his performance. He persisted in feverish pain for two days before he finally relented to receive medical attention for his appendicitis. By then it was too late and he died in Detroit on Halloween, 31 October 1926, at the young age of 52.

article about the death of the magician Harry Houdini, Jewish Chronicle newspaper article 12 November 1926

Jewish Chronicle (Newark, New Jersey), 12 November 1926, page 12

Houdini’s funeral was held in New York City on 4 November 1926, and he was buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens. The crest of the Society of American Magicians is part of his gravesite memorial.

photo of Harry Houdini’s gravesite

Photo: Houdini’s gravesite. Source: Anthony 22; Wikimedia Commons.

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Old Halloween Recipes from Our Ancestors’ Kitchens

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to find recipes used by our ancestors to celebrate Halloween.

Getting ready to entertain some ghosts and goblins? How about trying an old Halloween recipe for your party? I know it can be difficult to come up with Halloween-themed foods (after all, you can only eat so much candy). In my many years of celebrating Halloween I can only think of two recipes that I’ve enjoyed that were specific to the occasion. One involves a punch that includes lemon-lime soda, sherbet, and dry ice (great for that spooky fog affect). The other is a brownie that is cooked in the shape of a pumpkin, with the aid of a pizza pan, and then decorated to look like a jack-o’-lantern with orange frosting and candies.

But what types of Halloween recipes did previous generations enjoy? Looking through old newspapers gives us a sense of what yesteryear’s Halloween hostess may have served at Halloween parties.

Witch Cake, Goblin Pie & Gnome Salad

For example, in 1912 Halloween meant Witch Cake, Goblin Pie and Gnome Salad all washed down with some Caldron Punch. If sugar truly makes children hyper than this punch with its one pound of sugar and ginger ale might just do the trick!

Halloween Recipes, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 20 October 1912

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 20 October 1912, section 2, page 11

Hot Drinks, Doughnuts & Pumpkin Pie

Helen Robertson’s 1930 article “Games to Play and Things to Eat on Eery Halloween” in the “Women’s Magazine and Amusements” section of the Plain Dealer asserts that for Halloween:

Not that we would ever want to serve real party dishes—they have no place in the Halloween’s feasting, for custom has long banished them in favor of pumpkin pie, cider, doughnuts and coffee.

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In multiple Halloween food columns I read, there was confirmation that it’s a night for hot drinks, doughnuts and pumpkin pie. Surprisingly, while Robertson does suggest adding some decorations to pumpkin pie, there are no recipes for the traditional feast. Instead she has everything from Witch’s Salad to Halloween Sandwiches (made with gingerbread, butter, and American cheese and then decorated to look like faces) to Sardine Rarebit that is made from sardines on toast.

Halloween recipes, Plain Dealer newspaper article 26 October 1930

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 October 1930, page 52

But in case you would like some pumpkin pie and doughnuts (and quite frankly I don’t know why you wouldn’t), the following recipes from 1919 include a pumpkin pie without eggs. I was surprised that this recipe called for canned pumpkin. I had assumed that that was a more modern shortcut used by today’s busy pie makers.

Halloween recipes, Patriot newspaper article 17 October 1919

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 17 October 1919, page 17

Pimento Cheese Halloween Sandwiches

I love how newspaper recipes give us a glimpse of how life has changed. In this food column from 1931, Halloween sandwich recipes include one for Harlequin Sandwiches—which is basically buttered bread using alternating white and wheat slices—and a Pumpkin Salad which isn’t really made from pumpkin but instead is largely made out of pimento cheese shaped and decorated like a pumpkin.

Halloween recipes, Boston Herald newspaper article 28 October 1931

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 28 October 1931, page 13

Sliced Bread!

Interestingly enough, the Harlequin Sandwiches call for slicing the bread in ½-inch slices. But at the bottom of the page a large advertisement for bread announces “Good News for the Bread Lovers of New England. SLICED!” Considering the time it would take to slice an entire loaf of bread to the correct thickness, sliced bread seems like the way to go. The old news advertisement also announces that you can still purchase unsliced bread if you prefer.

ad for sliced bread, Boston Herald newspaper advertisement 28 October 1931

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 28 October 1931, page 13

Must-Haves for Halloween Parties

It would appear that two things the newspaper Halloween recipe articles agreed on was that the color scheme should be orange and black, and that super sugary sweets to drink and eat are the rule of the day. But when they start suggesting other foods for the party, it becomes more interesting. Adding a Halloween word to a recipe like “pumpkin” “ghost” or “deviled,” as in the case of this Deviled Tuna Salad, is all one needs to transform humdrum into a Halloween feast.

Halloween Recipes May Be Helpful, Oregonian newspaper article 26 October 1935

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 26 October 1935, page 4

On the same page as the Deviled Tuna Salad recipe is a photograph of a child and a cake with a caption that reads:

Halloween is a children’s holiday and the refreshments served should not only be appropriate color but they should be flavors and foods which the young people will like.

I couldn’t agree more.

photo of a girl and a Halloween cake, Oregonian newspaper article 26 October 1935

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 26 October 1935, page 4

What’s on your table this Halloween? Is it all treats or are there some types of healthful foods as well?

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Mayflower Heritage: Jack Howland Loved His!

Take pride in your Mayflowerheritage—just like Jack Howland did.

painting: “Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor” by William Halsall, 1882

Painting: “Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor” by William Halsall, 1882. Source: Pilgrim Hall Museum; Wikimedia Commons.

According to Howland’s obituary:

His Mayflower heritage was something that he was immensely proud of. He served as historian and archivist for the Pilgrim John Howland Society for many years. This role allowed him to communicate with fellow descendants from across the country and around the world. Jack was also captain of the Maine Mayflower Society. Annual trips to Plymouth were something that he always enjoyed.

His Mayflower heritage was such a part of him that after high school, when he joined the Navy, he served on the USS Plymouth Rock (LSD-29).

photo of the USS Plymouth Rock underway, 8 April 1963

Photo: USS Plymouth Rock underway, 8 April 1963. Source: Wikipedia.

His obituary went on to say that:

He took particular pleasure in recreating the journey of his ancestor, John Howland, back to Plymouth in 2003 aboard the shallop Elizabeth Tilley. In 2010 he was awarded the Lura Sellew Medal, the highest honor that the Pilgrim John Howland Society bestows for service to the organization and the memory of the pilgrim John Howland.

The Pilgrim John Howland Society is an organization of descendants of John and Elizabeth (Tilley) Howland who were passengers on the Mayflower.

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Remarkably, the home that John and Elizabeth (Tilley) Howland lived in during their old age is still standing. It was the home of their son, Jabez Howland.

photo of the Jabez Howland House in Plymouth, Massachusetts

Photo: Jabez Howland House in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Source: Swampyank;Wikimedia Commons.

According to Wikipedia they both lived in this home:

…after their own house burned. John Howland died in 1674 and Elizabeth lived there until the house was sold in 1680 and Jabez Howland moved to Rhode Island. Elizabeth moved to the home of her daughter, Lydia (Howland) Browne, in Swansea, where she died in 1687.

Take the time to research and document all of the descendants of your Mayflower ancestors.

Search out and read their stories and share them.

You can read Jack’s obituary in the Eagle Tribune (Lawrence, Massachusetts) 2 November 2011.

obituary for Jack Howland, Eagle Tribune newspaper article 2 November 2011

Eagle Tribune (Lawrence, Massachusetts), 2 November 2011

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Are You Celebrating Mother-in-Law Day?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to learn more about a special day coming up this Sunday: Mother-in-Law Day.

They say that there is a holiday for everything—so it should come as no surprise that Mother-in-Law Day is a time-honored tradition, at least in parts of Texas.

Modeled on the more-familiar counterparts of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Mother-in-Law Day was the inspiration of newspaper editor Gene Howe of Amarillo, Texas. He apparently adored his wife’s mother and, using the power of the press, created this special day in her honor.

However, many unkind rumors exist about its origins.

One is that it was started after Mr. Howe discovered his mother-in-law in tears about an unkind remark printed in his newspaper. Mrs. W. F. Donald, his wife’s mother, denied this, so the original story is true—Mr. Howe just had a natural affection for this kind woman in his life.

His mother-in-law said:

Gene never did anything to offend me in his life. I’ve lived with the Howes for fourteen years, and he’s the finest son-in-law anywhere.

article about Mother-in-Law Day, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 26 December 1937

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 26 December 1937, page 4

The first observance was on 5 March 1934 in Amarillo. Two years later Texas Governor James V. Allred signed a proclamation making the special day a statewide observance.

article about Mother-in-Law Day, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 5 March 1936

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 5 March 1936, page 11

Mother-in-Law Day was moved to the fourth Sunday in October—which is this upcoming Sunday.

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So what is the perfect gift for a mother-in-law? Certainly none of those unkind jokes floating around the universe. If I had to pick one special present, it would be an outing with family, and especially our little granddaughter. Of course, your mother-in-law may prefer timeless favorites such as a nice card, flowers or chocolates which are always in vogue!

So don’t forget to honor your mother-in-law in a special way—and if you can, please let us know how her day went.

article about mothers-in-law, Evening Star newspaper article 5 April 1938

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 5 April 1938, page 33

Some of you may be wondering if there is a Father-in-Law Day. Yes there is. It’s always on July 30.

Perhaps you missed it—so this year be sure to mark your calendar for Mother-in-Law Day this Sunday, October 26, and also add next year’s counterpart for the kind father-in-law in your life.

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Annie Edson Taylor: 1st Person to Barrel down Niagara Falls

For years, male daredevils had gained fame and fortune by daring to brave the rapids near Niagara Falls while floating in barrels—being very careful not to go over. However, it was a destitute, widowed, female school teacher who took the ultimate plunge: on 24 October 1901 Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Although suffering a scalp wound and some bruises, she survived her daring feat without any broken bones—but, as noted in the newspaper article below, she was “somewhat hysterical” after taking her plunge. And little wonder!

photo of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel

Photo: Annie Edson Taylor. Source: Francis J. Petrie Photograph Collection; Wikimedia Commons.

Taylor claimed to be in her 40s, but her historic adventure actually occurred on her 63rd birthday. In front of a mocking crowd she went over the falls in a large pickle barrel, using cushions for padding. The press reported her astonishing feat, and she went on a speaking tour to capitalize on her sudden fame. Sadly, that fame proved fleeting and no fortune rewarded her efforts; she died poor at the age of 82 on 29 April 1921 at the Niagara County Infirmary.

article about Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Boston Journal newspaper article 25 October 1901

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 October 1901, page 1

The old newspaper article reported:

“Niagara Falls, N.Y., Oct. 24.—Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor, 50 years old, went over Niagara Falls on the Canadian side this afternoon and survived, a feat never before accomplished and, indeed, never attempted except in the deliberate commission of suicide. She made the trip in a barrel. Not only did she survive, but she escaped without a broken bone, her only apparent injuries being a scalp wound one and one-half inches long, a slight concussion of the brain, slight shock to her nervous system and bruises about the body. She was conscious when taken out of the barrel. The doctors in attendance upon her tonight said that, though she was somewhat hysterical, her condition is not at all serious and that she probably will be out of bed within a few days.

To the Abyss and Over

“Mrs. Taylor’s trip covered a mile ride through the Canadian rapids before she reached the brink of the precipice. Her barrel, stanch as a barrel could be made, was twirled and tossed and buffeted through those delirious waters but escaped serious contact with rocks. As it passed through the smoother, swifter waters that rushed over into the abyss it rode in an almost perpendicular position with its upper half out of the water. As it passed over the brink it rode at an angle of about 45 degrees on the outer surface of the deluge and descended as gracefully as a barrel can descend to the white foaming waters 158 feet below. True to her calculations, the anvil fastened to the bottom of the barrel kept it foot downward, and so it landed. Had it turned over and landed on its head, Mrs. Taylor’s head must have been crushed in and her neck broken.

After the Drop

“The ride through the rapids occupied 18 minutes. It was 4:23 o’clock when the barrel took its leap. It could not be seen as it struck the water below, because of the spray, but in less than half a minute after it passed over the brink it was seen on the surface of the scum-covered water below the falls. It was carried swiftly down to the green water beyond the scum, then half-way to the Maid of the Mist Landing. It was caught in what is known as the Maid of the Mist Eddy and held there until it floated so close to the shore that it was reached by means of a pole and hook and drawn in upon the rocks, at 4:40 o’clock or 17 minutes after it shot the cataract.

“Ten minutes later the woman was lifted from the barrel, and half an hour later she lay on a cot on First Street, in Niagara Falls, on the American side.

“She thanked God she was alive, thanked all who had helped her in any way, said she would never do it again, but that she was not sorry she had done it, ‘if it would help her financially.’

Few Moments Unconscious

“She said she had prayed all during the trip except during ‘a few moments’ of unconsciousness just after her descent. The barrel in which Mrs. Taylor made the journey is 4½ feet high and about 3 feet in diameter. A leather harness and cushions inside protected her body. Air was secured through a rubber tube connected with a small opening near the top of the barrel.

“Mrs. Taylor is a school teacher and recently came here from Bay City, Mich.”

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To date she is the first and only woman to ever go down Niagara Falls in a barrel.

article about Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Centre Daily Times newspaper article 12 January 1976

Centre Daily Times (State College, Pennsylvania), 12 January 1976, page 7

Did any of your female ancestors pull off a remarkable daredevil stunt that made the news? Tell us about them in the comments section.

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