Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Frankie Gunnell’s wife and children

At Washington DC the local government began in about 1874 to experiment with a system of birth certificates, using what was called the “Return of a Birth,” a short form to be filled in following every live birth by the attending doctor or midwife. Two of these early Returns report children—both of them boys—born in the District to Fanny Miller Gunnell and her husband Frankie Gunnell. Another child was probably born before the Returns system was in place, since the babies in the two documents are numbered Fanny’s second and third: a boy born in 1876, then another in 1881. The Returns do not record babies’ names.

The Returns do ask for the address of the mother. In one case Fanny was living in Southwest Washington, and in the other case in Northwest. Since the children were born in DC to a mother living at a local address, it seems almost certain that Frank and Fanny did live there more of less continuously in the years from 1872 or so through to 1881. This makes it that much more noteworthy that they are not in the 1880 Census enumeration, and downright strange that they are never even included in the DC directories published during those ten years. Exactly what their domestic situation was during this period there’s not much telling. On each Birth Return there’s a line for the father’s occupation, and it shows that Fanny in 1876 called Frankie a carpenter and in 1881 a mechanic. So much for the inexplicable Frankie Gunnell.

Recently and out of the blue I heard from a descendant of Frankie and Fanny. Thanks to some friendly correspondence with this distant cousin, I’ve been able to learn what later happened to Fanny and to the Gunnell children Violet, the first born, and Rosser, the boy born in 1876. (The boy born in 1881 was not heard of again.)

The Civil War seems to have scattered the Miller family, and two of Fanny’s older brothers had left Virginia and gone to live in Arkansas. Fanny made her way there. She met a peripatetic lawyer from Ohio named George Bushnell Denison. In 1885 at Conway near Little Rock Fanny and Denison were married. Subsequently Violet and Rosser Gunnell were called by the surname Denison, and Fanny referred to G.B. Denison as their father. The peripatetic lawyer moved on to Alabama, while Fanny and the children went to live, for unknown reasons, in Galveston, Texas. There Violet came of age and married a jeweler called Field, a Massachusetts man. The Fields had two daughters.

When the Spanish-American War came, Rosser Denison enlisted in the army and went off to the Philippines. He stayed on after the war, living at Zamboanga, where he married and raised a family. A large number of Rosser’s descendants (and thus Milburn descendants, as well) presently live in the Philippines.

Violet divorced the jeweler Field and promptly married a civil engineer called Morris who was about to leave Texas to take up a position with the city of Portland, Oregon. It’s around Portland and in the U.S. Northwest that Violet’s descendants, including my excellent correspondent, are living today.

Fanny, meanwhile, reached San Antonio where she married for the third time. Her new husband William Knight was yet another peripatetic lawyer, only this time from New Hampshire by way of West Virginia and Missouri. The Knights didn’t live together for long. After a few years Fanny took off, and continued to travel about the country visiting her kith and kin. So many changes of name and place! Finally, with her resources depleted, she wound up back at San Antonio in a rooming house. She died there in 1931 and was buried in the City Cemetery.

A story that circulated among Fanny’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren was that she had insisted that no one ever again say the name Frankie Gunnell. Well, that rule was obviously broken, but still nobody is able to say what became of Frankie. We’ll probably never know the rest of that story. He'll just remain a minor character, a footnote in the history of Spiritualism and stage illusions.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Inexplicable Frankie Gunnell

Mary Ann Milburn Hinton and Henry D. Gunnell were married in 1854. Both of them had been widowed. They quickly had a child together called Franklin, the last child for both parents. Frankie was born in late 1854 or early 1855, making him right about the same age as his cousin T.W. Milburn. They lived only a few blocks from each other, T.W. on D Street and Frankie on G Street. But from an early age Frankie was markedly different from Tom Milburn.

Frankie Gunnell went on the stage. No, he didn’t perform as an actor—at least not any conventional one. He did magic in the mode of the Spiritualists. In the theater of Spiritualism the audience was invited to believe that the performer was a medium who was somehow in touch with invisible powers—spirits who nevertheless made themselves manifest in sight, sound, and deed. The medium was thereby demonstrating the existence of a Spirit world, and confirming for the spectators that there are “more things in heaven and earth” beyond what common understanding can reckon with.

Spiritualism was big news in the middle years of the nineteenth century, and Frankie got in toward the end of it’s great initial vogue. His public performances began at the latest in 1868, when Frankie could not have been older than thirteen. A report of his show, and how it was going over with the Washington DC audience, was published in New York by a correspondent to a French language newspaper. The writer recognized that Frankie was repeating a great deal of the spectacle developed fifteen years earlier by the much better known Davenport Brothers. These Brothers (who, like Frankie, began their public career when they were in their teens), had developed as their signature effect a trick with a large cabinet resembling a double armoire on a raised platform. The Brothers took seats in the cabinet across from each other. They were bound to their chairs, and the cabinet doors were shut. The audience would see mysterious hands emerge from small apertures in the doors. Musical instruments would sound, and bells would ring. When the doors were opened there were brothers, still tied up in their seats as they were before. Frankie’s version of the famous Cabinet manifestation was slightly different The French report notes that the cabinet doors burst open and Frankie proudly showed that he was no longer bound.

A number of appearances by Frankie Gunnell in DC are recorded in the newspapers during the next few years. His act also included a “Dark Séance” like the one that the Davenport Brothers did, and other bits of Spirit business. There was also a show done at the Gunnells’ house for selected local notables. (Such a private demonstration for special guests seems to have been de rigeur for Spiritualist acts of the period. I suppose it established the medium’s bona fides and promoted the act by gaining an association with prominent men and women.) It’s clear that Frankie traveled some outside of the District, performing at Baltimore at least (“a tip top medium”), and possibly in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. His youth was emphasized when he was mentioned in the news or in books, since people seemed to think the youth of the medium meant that he was incapable of humbug or duplicity.

from the Evening Star, March 19, 1869

In 1872 a newspaper mentioned with a wink that a certain “Professor Gunnelle” was amazing folks at a market fair in western Virginia. This suggests that Frankie was trying something new—a stage persona that sharply differed from his first “boy prodigy” appeal. Maybe the old version of the act was worn out in his hometown. Or perhaps the professional debunkers who lectured in the larger cities, caused business there to decline. In any case it was just about this time that he apparently got married to Miss Frances Miller of Salem, Virginia.

From this point on Frankie more or less disappears from view. His name comes up—his longer name: Franklin D. Gunnell—in the course of the 1875 Milburn property trial. His name appears once again in 1889 in the Washington Post notice of a transfer of property to his oldest half-sister. However, he’s not listed in DC directories during all this time, nor is he enumerated in the 1880 census or in later ones. The rest of his story belongs instead to Fanny Miller Gunnell.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

They received the Amidon Medal

From the Evening Star of January 7, 1871:
Last evening the pupils of the Fourth District Schools gave a grand concert, at Lincoln Hall, to aid in erecting a monument in memory of Mrs. Margaret Amidon, (formerly teacher of the female grammar school, fourth district.) They were assisted by the pupils of the second district and former pupils of Mrs. Amidon. The hall was crowded, and the duetts, choruses, and piano solos were well rendered. The choruses were under the conductorship of Professor Daniel. Miss Rachel Garrett presided at the piano. About seventy-five young ladies were on the stage. During the evening the Amidon medal was presented by Mr. J. O. Wilson, superintendent of the public schools, to Miss Susie Howison, with an appropriate address, which was neatly responded to.
Miss Howison was approaching her twenty-first birthday and so was older by several years than the rest of the winners whom I've been able to identify. Most of the young women were around sixteen. I think Susie Howison (later married to James Ratcliffe of Loudoun County, Virginia) was honored for her achievements in “amiability and scholarship” for the previous year or years.

The “grand concert” was not a recurrent event, but a singular one that inaugurated the Amidon Prize. After Susie Howison, all subsequent winners were announced by the District of Columbia Trustees in a regular fashion, together with a number of other prizes and scholarships, at the end of the school year in June, after the examination of the schools. Here are the names of the winners I've been able to spot so far, drawn from newspaper items or from annual Trustees' reports.

1871   Kate Maxwell
(became a teacher for a time)
1872   Martha Travis
1873   Isabelle Haliday
1875   Sarah C. Dulin
1878   Ella S. Cooke
1879   Eugenia Hilleary
1881   Marie Madeleine De Vote
(died June 8, 1888)
1882   Rose Mary McCauley
1883   Carrie McLaughlin
(1866-1949) wife of Harry Howser
1884   Mary Violet Petty
(daughter of J.T. Petty)

Nothing about the Amidon Medal shows up in the Washington DC news or reports in the years after 1884. How did the medal come to be discontinued? Was there no longer a need to encourage girls to be schoolteachers by this means? Did the funds for the prize dry up?

It would be terrific to see one of these medals. I count at least twelve of them: the ones given to these eleven young women, and one more, in bronze, which was presented to the Trustees.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Mrs. Gunnell

Margaret Milburn Amidon was not the only family member to teach in the District’s public schools. Her older sister Mary Ann taught there, too, though she never became a celebrated figure like Mrs. Amidon. And unlike Margaret Amidon, Mary Ann only taught for a short span during the years when she was a widow.

Mary Ann was married in 1843 to Mr. Robert Hinton. The marriage was performed by Rev. Mr. Richard de Charms from Philadelphia, one of the leading lights among the Swedenborgians. About Mary Ann’s husband Hinton I know almost nothing save that he died in Nashville at the beginning of 1848. It would be nice to know what he was doing there. During their marriage Mary Ann gave birth to at least three children. Two of those died in infancy. The third, a girl called Violet, lived to the age of fifteen. (Violet Hinton’s obituary declared, strangely, that “though young, she was willing to die.” I presume this was a pious formula of the New Church.)

During the first part of the 1850s Mary Ann Hinton and her daughter Violet were living with the two Margarets in the Milburn house. This was the period when Mary Ann was a schoolteacher. Then in 1854 Mary Ann got married again, this time to an older man, a widower named Henry Gunnell. Mr. Gunnell came from Virginia and operated a wood and coal business across the street from the Milburns. He already had seven children from his previous marriage, and in fact was a grandfather. Nevertheless Henry and Mary Ann did have one child, their remarkable son Frankie Gunnell. Frankie will need to be the subject of a future post.

Mary Ann Gunnell died in 1870. She had survived an accident earlier in which she was run over by an omnibus car. The obituary does not say exactly what took her off, only that her death followed a painful illness of two weeks’ duration. She lies now in Congressional Cemetery. Violet Hinton is also buried there, but for some puzzling reason mother and daughter are not near one another.

After Mary Ann died Henry Gunnell married for the third time. All three of his wives were named Mary.