by Hugh Gilmore
Being an old-book seller has its privileges: One gets to read other people’s mail, but it also carries its burdens. Sometimes the bookman comes across things he’d rather not have seen.
A month ago I lifted a small, unlabeled box from a shelf near my desk and opened it. Inside was a plastic sandwich bag filled with letters. I remembered them at once. Yes, what was her name? Mary Margaret something.
I’d never read the whole bunch of them, just enough to remember that a few were heart-wrenching. I thought I’d sent them off to auction or sold them to another book dealer. I don’t know where I first acquired them, but it was about 20 years ago. Something about a young girl and reform school, writing to her mother from down south.
Oh well, I had an hour. I decided to read the 20-or-so letters and make sense of the “story,” if there was enough material to reveal one. I looked among them for her distinctive handwriting, which I’d remembered as childish and quite awkward compared to the simple grace of female handwriting typical of her generation.
I found and read the earliest-dated one at once. Ripeness is all, as they say – this time I was struck, and thus came the mandate that set the direction of my summer’s work. Here’s that letter from Mary Margaret (age 15, last name withheld). I’ve recorded the spelling exactly and added a few points of punctuation – a few periods and capital letters to set off the run-on sentences. Most of the letters originate from Lexington, Ky. This one does not, but that took some figuring.
February 10, 1921
Dear Mother, I will drop you a few lines to tell you that I want to come home. I am not well and have not bin well since I have bin here. I have had two of those same old spells.
Mother this makes three times I have tried to stay away from home but I can’t do it. If I don’t get to come home pretty soon I believe I will loose my mind. I am goin to give you a chance to send for me and if you don’t something is going to happen. It will be worse than it was the other time. I can neve for get home – and it worries me to think about it. I go to bed every night with a broken hart. I just can’t stay away from you that is all.
If you don’t let me come I will do what will all ways cause you to regret not leting me come. I have just got out of bed and I am so week that I cant hardly hold the pen. Mother won’t you please let me come you don’t know how I feel. I can neve learn while I am this way so please see Mrs Massie about this and explane to her – and that you will cause you love me.
At least I hope you do so please see to this right away as I am going to do some thing if you dont. I mean just what I say. I cant stand it any longer. as ever your unhappy girl.
Please do this for me wont you please.”
Mary Margaret’s mother wrote back, lovingly, tenderly, but saying no. In fact, Mary Margaret could never return home again, she said. Her grandmother, in another letter, wrote to echo that idea, saying, “… it will be quite impossible for you to ever come back here.” Furthermore, Grandma wrote, about Grandpa, “He is an old man, Mary, and he had to do a terrible deed to defend his little grand-daughter who he believed as innocent as a baby and all he expects in return is for you to be a good, sweet and obedient little girl.”
I read on and discovered that Mary M, as people were calling her, was writing from St. Monica’s Home, in Des Moines, Iowa. And that an M.D. from Lexington, Dr. Josephine Hunt, had written to the deaconness of St. Monica’s to say, ” I have thoroughly examined Mary Margaret with respect to physical evidence of immoral habits. From these examinations, I am convinced she has lived morally, and that she has never been infected with venereal disease.”
What was all this about? Who had saved this packet of letters, and why? I read on. Mary Margaret and another girl from St. Monica’s soon ran away. They stole a horse and carriage from a Ft. Des Moines livery, but got caught. The other girl was said to be a streetwalker. Mary M. was in reform school. The letters end.
I was driven, of course, to research this story. I’ve been discovering more each day. Any day now, a batch of old newspaper clippings from Lexington is supposed to land in my email box. I do know this so far: The 1920 murder of a very prominent citizen of Lexington, “The Athens of the South, ” lies at the heart of this sad and pathetic tale.
Sitting on my shelf for 20 years! When I learn more, I’ll tell you.
Hugh’s book, “Scenes from a Bookshop,” tells stories of old-bookshop life from the days when he ran a Chestnut Hill book store. Available through bookstores and from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle formats.