A Newbie’s Guide to the Archives

Researching at the National Archives, or one of its many branches across the country, is something few of us have the chance to do – or even a reason to do. Unless you’re researching something pretty darn specific, chances are you’ll never need to set foot into one of their research rooms.

The Archives are a whole different experience from doing research at your local library or museum, though! There are many rules to follow, and for good reason:  the files located there are often the only copies in existence. They have to be there, for as long as they last, for anyone who wants to see them. Most of the files are fragile; historic preservation is a relatively new thing in American history, and you may be looking at papers and pages that want to disintegrate before your eyes.

I know I did.

I spent several days (spaced over several weeks) traveling to the National Archives in Kansas City, working with four boxes containing more than 3,000 documents that are all related to the book I’m slowly putting together. Here’s some tips and tricks I picked up:

You can photograph things yourself. Copies are astronomically expensive if you have the Archives do it (though that is an option, particularly if you live far away; you’ll also have to pay for shipping); they’re still expensive if you do it. But if you have a good-quality DSLR or even a good-quality point and shoot camera, you can take all the photos you want for free. I used my Nikon Coolpix L820, and they turned out great. The research rooms have special light tables set up where you can screw your camera into a special ‘upside down’ tripod. They even provide you with the proper settings to get the best-quality shots possible.

No bags are allowed in the research room. Lockers are provided for your coat, camera bag, laptop bag, etc., and you’re given a key to your locker. No purses, either. You can carry your laptop, camera, and cell phone into the research room. You’ll have to open your laptop at the end of the day so they can check to make sure you haven’t tried to smuggle anything out (Yes, apparently this is a thing!).

You’ll have to sign in every time, and you’ll be issued a National Archives Researcher Card. These expire in a year, and they give you permission to do research ONLY at that branch of the Archives. So mine gave me permission to use the records at the National Archives at Kansas City. You’ll have to present it every time you go. If you do research at another branch, you’ll have to get one there, too. Here’s a more thorough explanation:  https://www.archives.gov/research/start/researcher-card.html#orientation

I hope it goes without saying, but no documents can ever leave the research room.

One box and one folder on the table at any given time. If you’ve got a file that has multiple boxes/folders, the rules are simple:  one box at a time, one folder at a time. Put that folder up before you get out another. They will give you an 11 x 14 laminated ‘marker’ you can use to mark your place in the box, in fact. This is so folders don’t become misplaced, and papers don’t end up in the wrong folder.

cover pager kimmel deposition 1Bare hands only! You will never, ever wear white gloves to handle documents. There’s a specific reason for this:  the cotton gloves, no matter how well-made, are far more likely to snag fragile, brittle page edges than your bare fingers are. Don’t believe me? Put on a pair of gloves. Now go pet your dog. How much hair do you get on the gloves? Exactly. For extremely fragile items, you can ask the staff to train you in how to use the ‘spatulas’ to turn pages, but this is tricky too. Honestly, I found the easiest method was to use two hands – one to pick up the edge, the other to help lift and turn. This photo is one of mine; this is an example of just how fragile the documents can be.

The staff are there to help. If you have any questions at all, ASK. Their first responsibility is to the items in the Archives; their second responsibility is to you.

Yes, there really is a Big Black Binder of Bad and Banned People. I’m sure it has an official name, but this is the list of people that are never, ever to be allowed into the Archives. They include people who have destroyed documents and most especially, people – including former employees – who have stolen documents, either for themselves, or to sell online.

And as I found out, not everything is in the online databases. It took me MONTHS to figure out exactly where my case files were, because even though I had the docket number, the case number, and I KNEW where they ought to be, they just . . . weren’t. It took some digging by the Archives staff (more than a month, in fact), to locate them in storage. I picture this storage as resembling the crate-lined cavern at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So if you’re looking online and you know which Archives location your files should be stored in – just shoot them an email and ask.

Documents are fragile! Just to reiterate. Most have not had the benefit of proper storage for their entire existence. Mine had water damage; some were stuck together. Mold and other allergens are a definite possibility. If you don’t feel comfortable handling a particularly fragile document, ASK THE STAFF. They’ll be happy to help you get it sorted. But please, don’t try it yourself and ruin things.

Working at the Archives is a dream come true for a historian – it means we’ve finally stumbled on something that could be career-making, or at the very least, something we’re passionately obsessed with. H0pefully these tips might make it slightly less nerve-wracking if you’re embarking on this for the first time.

Here’s a link to the National Archives’ ‘Research Our Records’ page:  https://www.archives.gov/research/

And here’s a list of the branch locations across the country:  http://www.archives.gov/locations/

Everything you needed to know about microfilm . . .

But were afraid to ask!

If you’re writing anything historical – fiction or nonfiction – research is in your future. It can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re doing, or what you’re truly in for.

I’m a regular at my local library, where all the Arkansas City Traveler issues are on microfilm. Ever use microfilm? It’s a bugger. When I was in grad school, I had to do several research papers using microfilmed sources, and it was exhausting. It hasn’t gotten easier!

Microfilm can be fantastic in several ways. For instance:

  • If you have allergies, there’s no worries about dry, dusty, moldy papers.
  • And, one of the greatest things:  if you need a newspaper from another town or state, you can usually get them via interlibrary loan. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s fantastic. As with anything, there’s a time limit on how long you can keep them; don’t order too many at a time. You’ll need to get the card catologue number from the library, but then you should be able to take that to your library and in a week or so, have what you need.
  • Conversely, if you know exactly what articles you need and when they were printed, you can probably pay the library to print them for you, and send them.

Actually using the microfilm is fairly simple, and most librarians will be happy to give you the five-minute tutorial. All the machines I’ve worked with were made in the 1960s. You could run over them with a semi and not hurt them, so don’t worry about that. There’s a button to turn it on; you feed the film through the rollers, and voila! Done. There are small wheels you turn to enlarge, sharpen, and rotate the film.

When you find an article you want, you can print it (they have printers attached). But here’s something REALLY, REALLY important:  make sure it’s set to print black ON white, not white on black. The default is almost always white on black, which is impossible to read. Other than that . . . It’s simple. Almost too simple. 😉

But there’s things to keep in mind:

  • Every library has their own rules about who can use the microfilm. You might have to get a card, or sign you life away in blood. (Kidding. Mostly.)
  • You can’t remove the microfilm from the library (though unless you have a machine at home, who’d want to?).
  • It’s bloody hard work. I’d honestly rather work with real newspapers, despite the fact I’d die of an allergy attack if I did. If you get motion sickness AT ALL, take Dramamine or whatever before you start.
  • Why?  Glad you asked. Because looking at those bloody screens for more than an hour will make you want to poke your eyes out with a stick, that’s why. If you have eye problems, or get eyestrain easily, this might be really difficult for you. Plan on short excursions, and know what you want to accomplish beforehand.

For me, microfilm is deadly. It tends to trigger migraines if I work on it too long. I can be on it for an hour at most. In order to see the articles you’re looking for, you’ll have to enlarge the film – which means you’ll be moving the film up and down and sideways in order to see the entire page. It’s possible to fit an entire page on a screen (sort of), but then the print is so tiny, you can’t read it. If this is a problem for you, plan accordingly.

Alternatively, you can hire people to do the research for you, if you’re not a control freak like I am. Or if you know precisely what you’re looking for. Professional researchers, who often charge $25/hour or more. Retired folk who want something to do. Hungry college kids who’d like to eat protein this week. Libraries may be able to put you in touch; so can local historical societies.

But, I’ll warn you:  this does take some of the fun out of it. You  never know what you’re going to find. When I was researching my historical nonfiction, for example, I kept a file folder on hand just to keep the interesting tidbits that had nothing to do with the research I needed. Serial killers, axe murderers, disappeared children, lynchings . . . small things I want to go back and look at, when I can. And for my YA novel, I keep finding cool things that don’t necessarily have to do with the stories I need (mostly Klan activity in the area), but are just additional bits of color to toss in, like cherry tomatoes in a salad. 🙂

So yes. If you’re doing historical research of any kind, there’s just no getting around it:  you’ll be using microfilm sometime. And microfilm can be your friend in so many ways.

But it can also be your doom.

Don’t say you weren’t warned. 🙂


Here’s a few other blog posts related to this one:




Now fifty, now sixty, now . . . My Adventures at an Auction

Yesterday, I went to an auction.

Ever been to an auction? Most people in my neck of the woods have – heck, most people make a hobby of it – but I know there’s a lot of people out there who haven’t. So here’s what happens:  auctioneers, who spend a long time in school learning this craft, sell items to the highest bidder. It goes fast, you may get lost, you may think you’ve won something that you didn’t, and you may end up spending WAY more than you thought on something you only kind of wanted. Or they may sell items “times the money,” which means they’ve got 2 or more of an item, and you’re bidding on the price of JUST ONE . If you want more than one, you pay double the price. They may also do “choice,” which means they’ll line up several sort-of-similar items and you bid on first choice.

In truth, I hadn’t intended to go – but then I looked at the auction site on Friday night, and realized that I had no choice. Because some very rare newspapers – several months’ worth of the Winfield Free Press – were being sold, and I needed them for my research into my YA novel, and they’re not available anywhere else. It felt sort of – ordained. I’d been looking for these papers for a long time, and suddenly, here they were, at this random auction!

I HAD to go. And those papers HAD to come home with me.

Some people go to auctions like that – there’s one or two items they want, and they’re bound and determined to leave with them. Others go because it’s a social activity. Meet old friends, meet new friends. See what’s there. It’s like going to the park, or the coffee shop. They may buy a few things; they may buy a ton of things. My dad went to an auction once where he was practically the only person bidding on anything. He came home with an entire stock trailer full of boxes. I still don’t know what was in all of them.

Some tips for attending an auction:

  • Be prepared to freeze to death. Dress appropriately.
  • Bring cash for the lunch counter.
  • Bring a book or something. I arrived at 9:30am. Know what time the newspapers sold? 5pm. In between there was furniture, pottery (SO . . . MUCH . . . POTTERY . . .), and tons of STUFF.
  • Look through the boxes. You never know what you’re going to find. For example, I brought home a box of World War II letters. But in that box, I found some really great things, including a ration book from WW II and passes to the White House from the Nixon administration! 🙂
  • Set a max price in advance – and don’t go over it. That’s the biggest thing. What are you willing to pay for something? Will you die if you don’t take it home?
  • Prepare to fight to the death! In some cases, you’ll have to fight to be seen and heard, fight to have your bid taken, fight for a spot at the front of the crowd, and fight for what you want. One lady stood on a chair in the back while she was bidding. Like me, she’d come for one thing and one thing only. She bought it. She went home at 10:30am. Lucky.
  • YES, auctioneers really do talk that fast. It’s a learned skill. Pay attention. Sometimes, if they realize you didn’t mean to bid on that particular item, they’ll start over, but you won’t make any friends doing that. And sometimes, they’ll make you buy it anyway.
  • And never, ever bid against someone who just holds their number up in the air and doesn’t ever take it down. They came for that item. Get out of their way. 🙂

So. Yes. I came home with my newspapers. Seven books in total, each spanning two months in the early 1920s. The Winfield Free Press was the KKK-friendly newspaper in my area in the 1920s, and if you want to know what they were up to, you have to have that paper. And since my YA protagonist, Nicky, is up against them, I need to know what they were doing!

The thing was, a lot of other people wanted those papers, too.

They tried to start the bidding at $100 – and then they dropped it to $50 and I started. For a while there were about five of us bidding; then, when we got to about $150, we lost a couple, and when the bidding hit $200, it was just me and another guy. He ran me up to $270, and stopped (after I gave him The Glare – you know, ladies, the one that says yeah, why don’t you just keep on with what you’re doing and see what happens, buddy!) and then . . .

They kept asking for bids!

It was five minutes – FIVE FREAKING MINUTES – before they finally let me have them. Five looooong minutes of them asking the crowd, going back to each of the original bidders – and me giving them all The Glare – before they finally dropped the gavel.


All I can say is, they’d better be worth it.

As for what I’m going to do with them – well, once I finish with my research, I’m donating them to the local historical society, where they can be digitized and accessed by other historians. I think it’s important that all of these primary sources be available, in some way, to everyone. And because these are so rare, and so fragile, it’s important that they be conserved and stored properly, too.

And now – I’m off to start reading. 🙂

An Open Letter to Estate Sales

I’m sorry, but I have to take a slight detour this week, away from writing and editing, and into my other passion – vintage items. Specifically, estate sales and rummage sales and what not to freaking do to your vintage items!!!! So this is an open letter to anyone who organizes and runs estate sales especially.

Estate Sales:

I’m at your sale for two reasons:  because I love a good bargain and the thrill of the hunt, and to find items for my personal collections and for my vintage shop.

I don’t care how poorly organized everything is. In fact, the less organized, the more fun it is for me. I love to dig and rummage through boxes of crap to find the one good thing in the bottom. And for once, I’m not being sarcastic.

But poorly organized is one thing:  poorly run is another. If you want me to patronize your sales, please take note:

  • Never, ever put masking tape on velvet or any other fabric. Never, ever put any sort of adhesive on any sort of fabric, ESPECIALLY velvet and silk. In the past three weeks, I’ve purchased five hats that were ruined – RUINED – by morons using masking tape as a price tag. The adhesive DOES NOT COME OFF. If you really want to sell something, stick a sign on the wall saying “Hats, $2 each.” I bought those hats thinking I could salvage them. I can’t. I won’t do that again, no matter how good the hat is otherwise.
  • And on that thought:  never, ever put safety pins through vintage gloves! You may think you’re keeping pairs together and you’re able to stick a price tag with a string on it to the safety pin and aren’t you being clever? NO!!!! You’re not being clever. You’re ruining the value of the gloves. Because now, I have to disclose to MY customers that there’s a pinhole in each wrist. Put them in individual baggies. It’s very easy.
  • Don’t think that because a piece of costume jewelry is signed, it’s automatically expensive. It’s not. If you aren’t going to do the research to find out exactly what this Sarah Coventry brooch is worth, don’t expect your customers to pay exorbitant amounts of money for it. I guarantee you, it’s probably not worth what you think it is. And if it’s signed Christian Dior? Do me a favor and assume it’s fake. 🙂
  • Vintage handkerchiefs are not all the same. The fact that they’re old doesn’t make them rare or valuable. I have literally 175+ handkerchiefs sitting in my room right now that I’ve picked up in just the past six months. As with anything else, stains, holes, loose threads, etc. makes them worth less. Or in some cases, worthless.

I never know what I’m going into your sale to find. That’s what makes it fun for me. I know that what I want is mostly likely going to found in either the bedrooms or the basements. (Or the attic, in some cases.) I may walk out with nothing. That’s not a reflection of you; it simply means that I have to be choosy about what I bring home, and you didn’t have anything that met my criteria – or, let’s be honest, my budget.

Oh, and this habit some of you have of “saving back” items that you can trot out on Day 2 and 3 of a sale? STOP THAT. I may only be able to come for one day. I might make it back for Day 3, when everything is half price, but possibly not. If you have 15 hats, but I only get to see 5 of them on Day 1, and my schedule doesn’t permit me to come back, that’s not fair. And please don’t pull that line about “well, we’re still sorting stuff.” It’s your job to get the stuff sorted BEFORE THE SALE STARTS.

While we’re on that, this whole elitist thing about handing out numbers and only allowing a few people in at a time? It’s just that. Elitist. STOP THAT. Most people who come to estate sales aren’t there to steal items, they’re there to find bargains or pick up the things they collect. Most people who come to estate sales are adults who are certainly able to avoid each other and the merchandise. And I am capable of defending my pile of stuff. 🙂

While we’re on that . . . could you please have a designated “piles of stuff” area for customers, complete with boxes of varying sizes and slips of paper that we can write our names on and put on our box(es)? Right next to the cashier would be fine. Oh, wait, you haven’t got a cashier? Well, you need to fix that, too. I went to an estate sale a few weeks ago where my pile of stuff got raided. Luckily, I caught them in the act and they were apologetic (and as it turned out, I’d unknowingly raided their pile of stuff, too!), but the entire thing could have been avoided by this one simple thing:  Boxes and a designated area. Both of us ended up buying TONS of stuff, more than we could carry through the house and garage. We needed a safe place to put it.

And for the love of God, don’t ask me to tell you what something is worth. If you didn’t research it, don’t expect me to pay you some outlandish price for it. Like many of the people coming through your sale, I own a vintage shop. I take pride in being able to find the best items at the best price, and finding them good homes at good prices. Buying low means I can sell them for slightly below my competition.

I want to buy things at your estate sale. Lots of things. Too many things, probably. 🙂 Help me help you.

Sincerely, One Frustrated Customer

The Destruction of Our History – ISIS and Nimrud

This week marks the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day when civil rights activists tried to march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for their right to vote – and were met with violence on the other side of the Edmond Pettus Bridge by armed police.

But I’m not writing about that. Because something much more important happened this week. ISIS decided, for the world, that we should no longer have the historic site of Nimrud. A Biblical Assyrian city, capital of the Assyrian Empire for a time, Nimrud is – was – a candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Fat lot of good THAT did.

The city of Nimrud was discovered bIraq;_Nimrud_-_Assyria,_Lamassu's_Guarding_Palace_Entrancey Austin Henry Layard in the 1840s. The story of its discovery was one of the things that propelled me towards history and archaeology. I loved the idea of finding a city covered by desert, of learning to read the ancient Assyrian texts, the statues and reliefs that told story after story of conquest and expansion. But more importantly, I loved the Assyrian libraries – the fact that even though they loved to conquer others, they loved saving history more. It’s in Assyrian libraries that we find ancient Sumerian texts. It’s in Assyrian libraries that we find documents we can find nowhere else.

Will ISIS someday do the same? Not libraries, obviously, but put their ‘victories’ up on stone walls for all the world to see? For enemies to see, and be terrified by, as they pass through the gates of whatever city ISIS allows to survive to become their capital?

What is the purpose of any of it? What is the purpose of UNESCO, of nations ‘condemning’ the bulldozing and wanton destruction, if they bloody aren’t going to do a damn thing to stop it???

Enough already. How much more do we have to lose? People come and go. We get 50, 70, 100 years if we’re lucky, and then we’re gone. But these sites? These artifacts? They belong to no one. They belong to all of us. They belong to the world. They don’t belong to Iraq or Iran, or Afghanistan. They don’t belong to the Taliban, or to ISIS, or to any other terrorist organizations. Are we going to sit idly by and let these worthless pieces of crap dictate to us what we can and cannot have?

I spend my life trying to make history relevant to students. It’s bloody hard work. I have to fight against prejudice (“History is boring!” “I’ll never need this!”), and previous bad teachers, and the stigma that history is nothing more than names and dates. And nothing could be further from the truth. I take pride in the fact that most of my students are engaged, they care, and I’ve even turned a few into history majors, with a passion for doing for other students what I was able to do for them – make history interesting and most of all, to make it relevant.

So the things ISIS is destroying, they’re just statues, you say? The cities of dead kings? Stone buildings that no one cares about? Bullshit. This is our history. Mesopotamia is where human civilization began. The ancient Sumerians gave way to the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Hittites, the Hebrews, the Babylonians, and the Persians, and a half-dozen other cultures in between. They traded with Egypt, with the Greeks, and even later with the Romans (before, of course, falling to the Romans). They gave us laws and legal codes. They gave us the first written language. They gave us metallurgy. Stone arches (take that, Romans!). The wheel. Irrigation. The first banks. Long-distance trade. Professional armies that didn’t also have to be farmers or something else. Art. The first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which details the Sumerian’s idea of the afterlife. The first poetry known to us. And on.

Without the ancient cultures of the Middle East, we would not have what we do today.

I’m so heartbroken and disgusted by the world’s response. Condemn the destruction? Why aren’t we protecting these sites? Why aren’t we working with the Iraqi government to get the artifacts out of the country, into safe hands? Why did the Baghdad Museum just reopen this week? Are we this stupid? Are we this naive?

I can hear some of you now:  how is this worse than what Hitler did in the 1930s? Trust me, it’s worse. Hitler looted museums, yes, but most of the stolen works were either put into private hands, or sold at auction. Some were destroyed, yes, but not this wholesale destruction we see from ISIS. Hitler wanted many pieces for his own personal museum, which he planned to build after he’d dominated Europe. We are still finding artwork that we thought was lost. It happens all the time.

But if ISIS has their way, there will be no lost artwork to find. It will all simply be in tiny bits and shards. A giant historical jigsaw puzzle that we may – or may not – be able to put together.





Digging Deep: The Perils of Historical Research

Finally. After many hours. Of driving. And photographing.


I finally finished photographing the entire case file that I’ve been working with for the past two months. I went to Kansas City on Friday with one goal in mind:  finish that last box. I was a robot. Click, click, click. Flip, flip, flip. Page after page. Not reading. Not taking any of it in. I had one box left, and by George (hah!), I was going to finish it.


There were still those moments when I’d flip a last page and see something unexpected. Handwritten letters, mostly, submitted and attached as evidence. Exhibit A. Exhibit B. And those just made me stop in my tracks, and rest my fingers against the pages, realizing that there’s only what, maybe two or three degrees – and 108 years – of separation between me and George Kimmel (or whoever he was). And there was the completely unexpected rabbit hole I got dropped down, too . . . I can’t wait to see where that one takes me.

Writing and researching historical nonfiction isn’t that different from writing and researching fiction, of any genre. When you work with a single subject for so long, you become attached to them. If you couldn’t tell, you get a bit obsessed. The biggest difference is, when I talk about George Kimmel, et.al, like they’re real people, they are real people!

I was listening to ‘Snap Judgement’ today on NPR; one of the interviews was with a reporter who wrote a story about a doctor who was obsessed with the healing powers of mushrooms — so much that he did truly awful things in order to fund his research. Yet at the end of the interview, the reporter stated that he didn’t think the doctor was a bad man. He may have done questionable things, but they were all with an admirable end goal in mind. Even as I was shaking my head, saying to myself you’re an idiot, dude!, I was actually . . . understanding. Every bit of it.

The more I dig into this case, the deeper and darker it becomes. I remember when I started six – seven? – years ago, with those snippets in the newspaper, I didn’t know what to expect. I certainly never expected that all the people involved in the case — including George Kimmel himself — would turn out to be very questionable, ethically and morally. Six or seven years ago, I expected that this case would be more black and white than that. There’d be a good guy, and a bad guy, and the truth would come out, and the guilty parties would be punished.

Silly me.

Nearly every file I photographed proved to have at least one surprise in it for me, in a case that I didn’t think could surprise me anymore. Take George’s sister, Edna, for example. She held $25,000 in life insurance, paid out once George had been missing for seven years — and yet, when her uncle told her to sign over the policies to a local bank (that he managed), she did it without question. Was she in on it? Or was she so under his thrall that she literally didn’t question it? Where was her husband in all this? No idea. None. Not yet.

letter 1Yesterday, the surprises came in the form of handwritten letters, from “Kimmel” (I use quotes here because no one is sure that the man who showed up in 1906 was really George Kimmel or not). Some were lucid, neat. One was a sprawling, scrawled mess of bad spelling and shaky hands. I didn’t have to read it. I picked it up out of the box, my hands shaking a little, and just stared at it for a while, stunned. This was not a well man. Was he ill? Was he scared? Was he drugged? I don’t know.

As exhausted as I was yesterday, I still found myself wishing that I could just take time with the letters. Sit with them for a while. Look at them. Study them for stray fingerprints, for smudges, for some hint of the person who wrote them. These primary documents are the only way in which we can make a real connection to the person we’re researching. And in a very real way, they may be one of the few clues I have as to this ‘mystery man’s’ real identity. Comparing hand writing and word usage and sentence structure — those are nearly as good as fingerprints. But more than that, it’s that these letters are a way to worm my way into this man’s head. Figure out what he was really thinking. Was he a con artist pretending to be George Kimmel? In that case, why? Was he really George Kimmel, hiding from a murderous family? In that case, why come forward? Those are the questions I ponder as I look at those letters, study these depositions, dig deeper into this case. They’re the questions that will keep me moving forward.

So yes. This case file is done. But there are more to find. And that’s one of the greatest perils of historical research:  becoming obsessed. Never knowing when enough is enough. Getting lost. But if not for obsession, would any of us write? It’s hard work. Something has to drive us, chivvy us, herd us towards that end goal. Obsession is as good a reason as any.

When a (historian’s) dream comes true

For six years, I’ve been obsessed with a story that I first stumbled across in my local paper. We have a “100 Years Ago Today” segment, as many papers do, and I started to read about this particular case that had occurred. In 1898, a man named George Kimmel had disappeared without a trace. Eight years later, a prisoner in New York suddenly told the wardens that he was Kimmel . . .

Reading the little 2- and 3-sentence tidbits in the paper made me curious, and I started going to the library and giving myself migraines with the microfilm. (Seriously, people. Microfilm sucks. Give me 100-year-old newspapers any day.) Curiosity moved swiftly into obsession. Was the guy in New York really Kimmel? And if not . . . what had happened to him?

As I said, the case went to trial numerous times. Here’s a tip:  doing research on cases that are not part of the online Archives database is HARD. Particularly if some things are held in one place, and some things are in another . . . I nearly gave up several times because even though I had the case file numbers and names, I couldn’t locate the files. Honestly, I started to think that they’d been lost or destroyed long ago.

But then . . . I found them.

And I spent yesterday at the National Archives in Kansas City, laying eyes and fingers – for the first time ever – on a set of papers I’ve searched for for two years. Seeing them sitting there in their archival boxes, so neat and tidy — it was a surreal moment for me. They gave me the rules — only one box and one folder on the table at a time, no gloves (not for paper documents), no pens, no feeding the documents after midnight — and left me to it.

All the names I’ve become familiar with for the past six years were there. Bacon, the lawyer. Edna, the sister. Denton, the local bank teller. Swinney, who threw a monkey wrench into the entire thing. Subpoenas. Depositions. My God, the depositions! Entire books of depositions. I was trying very, very hard not to cry sometimes because really, crying in an archive and getting their papers wet is not a good thing. But then I pulled out one last deposition — and actually had to turn around, because I was afraid I would cry.

As a historian, there’s a moment where, when you’re researching someone, it becomes real. They become real. When I researched David Rice Atchison a few years ago, that moment was when I was looking at his diaries on microfilm and there, at the top of one page, in his elegant scrawl, was My daughter Molly has gone away to college today . . . This big man, who had been a Senator, who had led the Border Ruffians against Kansas, who had fought in the Civil War, who had owned slaves, suddenly became real to me in that one sentence. His heartbreak and his pride were clear, even across the distance of more than a hundred years.

So even though I’ve been working with this particular case for 6+ years, there was always a veil between me and these people. I’d been reading about them mostly in the old newspapers, and truthfully, I’d begun to think that it was all made up. A story fabricated – and then syndicated – by someone who needed to make a buck or two.

But then I picked up that last deposition and saw the handwritten notation on the front. “Deposition of Geo. Kimmel, taken at Auburn State Prison, 1908.” That’s the moment, for me, that it became real. That I could finally lay to rest the fears that this was fiction, that I would never find the truth because none of it was true. Kimmel’s the central figure in this incredible story, and whether he really gave that deposition in 1908, or whether it was someone just claiming to be him, is part of what I have to discover.

So in the next two weeks, I get to go back at least twice — I’m guessing three times, so please, little Saturn, make the trip! — and photograph and catalogue the entire thing. Yeah. All three boxes, and 2,500 +/- pages. I don’t know yet what will be important and what won’t.

This story has haunted me for so long. But finally, I’m going to know the truth.

Forgotten . . . But Not Gone

There’s so much here in Kansas and Oklahoma that’s almost gone — and usually forgotten by almost everyone. Wandering around the pastures near my house, driving down random dirt roads, seeking out the remnants of history . . . these are a handful of the images I’ve captured this year.

plymouth dash 2Old Plymouth sedan, in a pasture near my house.

frieze 3Part of a frieze that has broken away from the Ponca City Depot, Ponca City, OK.

bridge 4Abandoned bridge north of Newkirk, OK.


History’s Orphans — those items I can’t let go

I’m a historian. I teach history for three local colleges, and while I started out as a medievalist, and still love that, I’ve gotten much more into American history since I started teaching eight years ago. There’s something about it – we learn one thing in elementary school, mostly propaganda (at least, that’s how it was when I was in elementary school!), and then you don’t learn anything else unless you really start to get into it and study it more.

All the little stories. All the hidden history. All the things you never knew, or took for granted. (For example: did you know that the KKK of the 1920s was far more likely to attack Catholics or bootleggers, than African-Americans? It’s true!)

I also collect historical items – vintage items, to be more precise. Some, I sell through my store on Etsy. But sometimes, I find those things that I can’t quite let go. That 1930s passport. Research for a book. A wood cheese box that I store Post-It notes in. More than a hundred snapshots and World War II letters, left behind. To some, they’d be things to throw away. To me, they’re orphans. Not perfect; sometimes I can’t even put them in my shop because they don’t meet my own standards. But I keep them nonetheless, because I think everything has a story behind it. My shop’s motto is “Finding homes for history.” Sometimes, that home is with me.

For example: I collect vintage dresses. This week, I found a 1920s silk flapper dress at an estate sale. It’s fragile, but beautiful; a golden yellow with purple edging. Flowers dancing down the skirt. This is my third flapper dress. I showed it to a friend, and then I told her about one of my other dresses. One that I know has a story behind it.

I found it in a trash bin at an antiques shop – it was wadded up in a box of stuff to be thrown away. It’s gorgeous: white silk, sleeveless, with a blue and red striped skirt with heavy glass beads, in red and blue, all down it. So heavy, in fact, that the dress can’t be on a hanger; it has to lay flat. But all that would just be interesting if not for the fact that the dress is also covered in blood stains. I definitely understand why the shop decided to toss it – but I couldn’t let that happen. What tragedy did this dress see? What happened on a summer night in the 1920s? Why were the stains never washed out?

So many stories. So much imagination. I’ve no idea. Yes, I know I’m strange; a normal person would not bring that dress home. But I’m not normal. I’m a historian. And more – I’m a writer. This orphaned dress needed a home. I am slowly working on cleaning it, but the fact is, I’m not sure I want to. Every time I touch it, my mind wonders what the girl who wore it was like. What happened to her – or more likely, to the person she held, as there are no holes in the dress itself. Clearly, it was never taken as evidence. Was it an illicit relationship gone wrong? Where did the tragedy take place? And why?

These are the questions that haunt me sometimes, when I pick up objects, as I decide whether or not to bring them home. Photographs do this to me the most – so many times, the photos I collect have no names attached to them. They are strangers to me, but their stories are still there, somehow, in the paper and ink. But then there are those “orphan” items, like the christening gown I picked up at an auction a month or so ago, clearly tossed in a box and forgotten for generations. I intended to put it in the shop, but . . . I spent so much time cleaning it, I fell in love. 🙂

And that’s why I haunt estate sales and rummage sales. It’s true that sometimes, one man’s trash is just another man’s trash. But it’s also true that sometimes, there’s an item that doesn’t belong in the trash. That deserves better. Those are the items – those orphans – that come home with me.

A Passport’s Journey, Part 2

photoSome of you may remember my post from two months ago, https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/a-passports-journey-2/, in which I talked about the awe and joy of finding a passport at a local rummage sale, and the many questions it raised for me.

Since then, life has gotten slightly in the way, but I haven’t forgotten that mystery. Every now and then I open my jewelry box, take out that passport, and look at the man’s photo. Wondering what he was thinking when it was taken. Wondering if he knew where he would be going over the next four years. Looking at the stamps, particularly those swastikas, and marveling again at how close history can come to touching us, in the here and now.

I have been able to discover a little about my mystery man. His name was Ernest Reid. I discovered this photo of him online:  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/oem2002000450/PP/ so it seems he was working for the US government during the early 1940s.  He was at the Mellon Institute. He was a chemist. From what I have discovered, he was born in Chase, KS on December 17, 1890, and died in 1966 in St. Petersburg, FL. He was married to Leila E. English, was drafted into the army during World War I, and then . . . ? I know he was a chemist; he worked for the Mellon Institute, and then for the Chemical and Allied Production during World War II (but in what capacity, exactly, is unclear).

And that’s as far as I’ve been able to go. passport 1

I often thought, over the last two months, that I should go back and talk to the woman, the one who sold me the passport — but it was one thing, in a long laundry list of things, that just never got done. I’d hoped maybe she was related to him, or knew someone who was. I fantasized that maybe they had suitcases and boxes full of his papers and journals, detailing every last trip, observing Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, commenting on the tensions between Germany and Czechoslovakia, talking about why he was bloody there to begin with, because that’s the mystery that has me wrapped around its little finger!

But, I’m a person who often prefers daydreams to reality, and I never went. Afraid of what I’d find out.

Then, this weekend, I was out rummaging — yet again! — and thought one of the addresses looked familiar. And it was. The same house. The same wonderful lady, who remembered me. And the passport.

Alas, she knew nothing about it. She, too, had bought it at a garage sale! See, daydreams vs. reality. But she was incredibly interested to hear what I had found out so far, and we speculated on what he might have been doing — she even said, “It amazed me that he always seemed to be one step ahead of everything.” So true . . .

So now, I am still on a quest.

If you are related to Ernest W. Reid, or the English family of Macksville, KS (A.G. English was listed as his “emergency contact”), I would love to hear from you, and maybe return this passport to its rightful place — if I can have some answers! 🙂