Sunday, May 17, 2009

BlackSheep Sunday: The Mystery of Nelson Reed McKee

In an essay she wrote in 1943, shortly before her death, my great-grandmother Florence Elizabeth (McKee) Reed stated that when she was seventeen, "stark tragedy overtook the family and my whole prospect of life was changed." She did not elaborate. Since my father died when I had just turned seven, I assumed the same had happened to hers, my great-great-grandfather Nelson Reed McKee. But I knew nothing, really, and the mystery remained. Seeking information about my McKee family, I put a notice on the McKee Family Genealogy Forum. It wasn’t until a year or two after that I got a solid nibble, but with a weird and astonishing twist: the woman who contacted me, who lives in Wisconsin, said she was a descendant of Nelson Reed McKee – and his second wife! The names certainly matched, and she had Nelson Reed McKee’s proper birth date and other information. She did some research, traveling to Indiana, and came up with an astonishing story. In the Monticello Herald (Monticello, White County, Indiana) for Thursday, 5 June 1879, the front page headline read:

N. R. McKEE MISSING

His sudden and unaccountable disappearance last Saturday night

The article described how Great-great-grandpa McKee had come home on that Saturday evening from his watchmaker's shop, accompanied by his fourteen-year-old son Frank, who worked in the shop with him. Great-great-grandpa took off his coat and boots, preparing for bed, but apparently changed his mind, dressed, and went out. Before leaving the house, he gave his wife some money and told her to keep it safe. Later that night, Great-great-grandma woke up and found her husband gone. She searched the house and grounds, going out to a nearby bluff, calling his name. She awoke a neighbor, who woke the town.

The search continued that night, to no avail. The next day, there was information about a possibly forged deed and mortgage in Nelson McKee's name. There was an endorsement to the instrument bearing the name of a local Justice of the Peace, who denied ever having seen the document. The date on the endorsement was 26 May 1879 -- the day before the alleged deed and mortgage were shown to have been executed. Nelson McKee was confronted with the papers, and according to the newspaper account, "gave no satisfactory explanation, but seemed confused and annoyed. He is reported to have been low-spirited all day Saturday, and was very uncommunicative even to his family upon the subject of his trouble."

The newspaper account further states that up until that time, he "had maintained an unblemished character, and even now public sentiment is loth to charge him with any evil intentions." He suffered what the newspaper, with the delicacy of the day, referred to as "financial embarrassment." In these days of "let it all hang out," there is no real stigma attached to being up against it, but in those days a man not being able to support his family -- for whatever reason -- was subject to shame and ridicule. When he left, he took only what belonged to him. An audit of his shop conducted by his brother Charles, who was also a jeweler and who came from his home in Sidney, Ohio, to settle accounts, showed no discrepancy.

The newspaper advanced three theories as to the reason for Nelson McKee's disappearance: "1st. That he was deranged and wandered off without any definite aim. 2nd. That he absconded under fear of prosecution for forgery. 3rd. Suicide." I think the first unlikely. Nelson McKee left his store "in perfect order," with customers' goods securely locked in the safe. He had also given his wife Sarah a fair amount of money for those days, and had paid the rent on his store a few months in advance. The second is quite likely, judging from his reaction to having been questioned about the apparently forged deed. The third is not true.

In the Weekly Herald, Clinton, Wisconsin, October through December 1880, about a year and a half after Nelson Reed McKee’s disappearance from Monticello, Indiana, ran this ad: "All kinds of clocks, watches, jewelery and spectacles repaired and warranted, by N. McCuren, at Woodward's Drug Store." The woman from Wisconsin who contacted me states that when Nelson R. McKee first got to Wisconsin, he had changed his name (though probably not legally) to Nels McCuren. There he took up once again his trade as a jeweler and watch repairman. Later ads, around 1883 and after, indicate that he had gone back to his real name, N. R. McKee. The ads are practically word-for-word as the ads he ran in the paper back in Indiana.

Nelson married Ida Josephine Colby in Beloit, Wisconsin, 1 August 1880. The problem was that he was still married to his first wife, Sarah Ann Sunderland. My Wisconsin cousin sent me a copy of a handwritten legal notice, probably prepared for publication in the newspaper. It is a standard form, with blanks to be filled in, to institute divorce proceedings, causing publication of the notice in a newspaper of general circulation, a common legal requirement. The first publication was made 22 April 1882 and the last on 13 May 1882. This last one is the final notice, giving legal recognition of the fact that Nelson Reed McKee failed to respond to the previous notices. The date of Nelson Reed McKee’s second marriage and the dates mentioned in the legal notice form indicate that it wasn’t until nearly two years after Nelson married Ida Colby that Sarah Ann (Sunderland) McKee, his first wife, finally filed for a divorce.

The Monticello Herald, Monticello, Indiana, November 16, 1882, published on page 1 col. 2: "Mrs. Sarah A. McKee has been granted a divorce from her husband, N. R. McKee, on the ground of desertion, and she has been awarded the custody of the children." It appears that the publication of the notice of Sarah filing for divorce was in Indiana only, and only in White County. One would think that this announcement would not have gotten to Nelson’s notice in Wisconsin. However, factor in the fact that Sarah’s sister Mary was married to Nelson’s brother William. Did William know where Nelson had gone, what had happened to him? Did Mary know her sister had sought a divorce, and had she told her husband William? Had William been in contact with Nelson and told him of the divorce proceeding? Was Sarah’s filing for divorce not only an act to free her to marry again if she so chose, but also to release Nelson from a threat of prosecution for bigamy? Sarah did remarry, becoming the wife of Luke Rogers 29 October 1884, in Monticello, White County, Indiana.

Nelson Reed McKee may have been guilty of forgery and bigamy. I do not think this was through intent, but rather the act of a man caught up in circumstances he was ill equipped to handle, who felt shame and could not face his family with what he had done. I picture him arriving in Wisconsin nearly broke, friendless, alone, and feeling miserable. I picture Ida Colby as a good woman who loved him and brought him back to self-respect. It's a human drama, and part of my family history. And frankly, I'm grateful to him for having spiced up the genealogy a bit!

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