When Research Becomes Obsession

missing ad 2If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that one of my obsessions is with a disappearance that occurred in 1898 – that of George Kimmel.

And it is an obsession. I freely admit that! For about ten years, I’ve tried to discover what really happened to this guy. Here’s the bare-bones of the case:

  • On July 29, 1898, Kimmel took school bonds to Topeka, deposited them, and then went to Kansas City.
  • On July 30, Kimmel checked into the Midland Hotel. He withdrew precisely $530.20 from his accounts, got into a cab . . . and disappeared.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve got. After  that, there are at least five different options. Sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Sadly, at least three of those options end with Kimmel being murdered on or just after July 30, 1898.

Okay, there’s more. I didn’t tell you about the fact that Kimmel had worked with his uncle, Charles Johnson, in Niles, Michigan, at the First National Bank of Niles, or that Johnson asked Kimmel to come to Arkansas City, KS (my home town) to become cashier at a bank Johnson managed here. I didn’t tell you that Johnson was later found guilty of purposely failing and defrauding banks, possibly to cover gambling debts. I didn’t tell you that somewhere along the line, someone – Kimmel? Johnson? – insured Kimmel’s life for nearly $30,000. (In today’s terms, this is hard to convert, but is somewhere between $850,000 – $970,000. In short, the guy was insured for nearly a million dollars.)

And I didn’t tell you about the court cases – three of them – to decide if Kimmel was alive or dead, because I didn’t tell you that in 1905, a man in Matteawan Asylum in New York suddenly announced that he was the missing George Kimmel.

And then . . . It never ends! That’s why I have to take so many breaks from this research, because it literally never freaking ends!!!!! I’m a historian. I’ve done loads of research. Written loads of papers. None of it ever prepared me for the sheer lunacy of this project.

What makes it more difficult is that I’m sort of feeling my way in the dark, on several levels. First – I don’t have colleagues who care about this. I teach at a community college. What that means is that my colleagues don’t do research. It’s not even encouraged by the administration. So when people come into my office and see the big pages tacked to my wall that have calendars and bubble charts and a Who’s Who of confederates and allies and possible suspects . . . they just sort look past it, like it doesn’t exist. I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I’m not sure if they resent that I am doing it, or if they are afraid of guilt by association, or if they’ve finally cottoned on to the fact that I’m a bit of a freak. But it’s hard not having anyone to bounce ideas off, to brainstorm with, or just to commiserate with. I hate that. A lot.

It’s not just that the research itself is difficult, although it can be. Documents disappear – sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposely. For example, I discovered that if a case did not go to appeals, all supporting documents, testimonies, evidence – everything! – was discarded when the case was over. So although I had the summary and sentence for Charles Johnson (for failing the Niles bank), I had nothing else. Whatever evidence was entered into the record, whatever he might have said on the stand that may have shed some light on my own mystery – it’s all gone. Nope. That’s tough enough to deal with. It’s also the fact that every single time I turn on my computer, look at the court documents, read the newspaper stories, it all changes. 

Questions never get answered. Literally. Questions. Never. Get. Answered. They just beget more questions! I’ve been researching this, off and on, for years, and every single time I pick it up again, I find new things that put a new spin on what I’ve learned before, or take my research into a totally different direction. It’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and I keep wanting to put a ‘villain/victim’ spin on it, like we would in fiction. But I can’t. Every stone I turn over reveals a new clue, something else that changes how I see this case. For instance:  did Charles Johnson pay off Kimmel’s debts and hide the fact that he was missing because he was covering up crimes of his own . . . or because he was trying to protect a wayward nephew? Two days ago, I would have absolutely told you the former. No question. But after reading some testimony last night, I’m no longer so sure.

Yet another reason for the long breaks!

The obsession is tough. I’m following in the footsteps of a very good lawyer, a man named Ed O’Brien. Every single suspicion I’ve had about Kimmel’s disappearance, he had. Every single question I have asked, he’s asked. I find myself staring at the charts on my wall, trying to piece it all together, wondering if O’Brien ever did the same. Wishing I had access to his private notes, his papers, anything he might have collected about the case. Sure that the answer might be in there. Somewhere.

But there’s other things about it that make me – hesitant.

For starters, I am never immune to the fact that these were real people, and they have real descendants somewhere. Well, George doesn’t, not direct descendants, anyway. But his sister does, and Charles Johnson does. One of the potential main players, Robert Snyder, was a major figure in Kansas City. How can I even begin to talk to them about the things I need to ask? “Hey, I’m researching your great-great uncle’s disappearance. I suspect it might have something to do with your very corrupt great-great-great uncle. Can we chat?”

Yeah. Probably not.

And again . . . part of the problem is simply that . . . the documents, I highly suspect, simply don’t exist. Even things that should exist, I haven’t been able to locate. For example, Johnson hired the Kansas City branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate. But those records have evaporated. They are not housed with the official Pinkerton Archives at the Library of Congress. No one can tell me where they are. Did they get submitted as evidence, and misplaced? Were they destroyed? I’ve no idea. I also have yet to locate Johnson’s deposition, which should have been taken in 1905, while he was incarcerated. There’s no way O’Brien wouldn’t have done that. But where IS IT????

I can’t explain why this case obsesses me so much. But I need to figure it out, because I’ve been asked to present on my findings in May.

If they want answers . . . I’m afraid they’re going to be as frustrated as me.

 

For more on my research into George Kimmel, see these posts:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true-part-2/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/

 

 

 

The Dangers of Minimalism (to a historian)

I adore The Diane Rehm Show. Not only does she always have interesting and timely topics to discuss, but she has the most fascinating guests and panels.

Today’s topic was Minimalism. I didn’t get to hear the entire story, but I heard one short bit that REALLY freaked me out. See if you can guess why:

The guest practices minimalism – the art of decluttering. Living with as few possessions as possible. I’m all for it. I’m a bit of a ‘collector’ myself, but if you can do it, more power to you! Of course, most of mine is vintage and antiques, stuff for my online shop, and things that have personal meaning. They admitted that it’s hard to get rid of those kinds of items but you should – take photos of important things like report cards, awards, and personal letters and then throw them away.

Yeah. Now you see why I got a bit upset.

Look, I get that everyone’s different. I understand that to some people, inheriting a house full of cool stuff is the worst thing that could ever happen to them. That they may feel zero connection to the boxes of newspaper clippings, letters, photos, journals and memorabilia in the garage or attic.

photo 1But PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. Don’t throw it away.

I’m a historian. Right now, I can tell you that the story I’m working on – the Kimmel case – may never get solved to my satisfaction because key players in the case threw stuff away. Admitted it on the stand. Of course, that’s a bit different – that was more about self-preservation than decluttering – but the fact remains that there will always be those holes in my research because those primary sources burned more than a hundred years ago. Think how much more heartbreaking it would be to find a treasure trove of sources – only to find that they had been thrown out just days before I discovered their existence!

I love antique shops. Haunt them, really. I’m always amazed by the family histories I find there. The photos, especially. Most of them have no identification, no names or locations; I can well imagine that after a generation or two, no one has any idea who those people were. But once, someone did.

Trust me. Those family Bibles and old letters and photographs and advertisements and whatnot may not seem very important to you, but they are important. To someone. Maybe your kids, or your grandkids. Or maybe to someone like me. There’s loads of people out there who collect vintage and antique photographs. Who collect vintage letters and other things you may want to throw away. AND VINTAGE CLOTHES. NEVER, EVER THROW AWAY THE FREAKING VINTAGE CLOTHES. PLEASE.

So what can you do with them besides take them to the dumpster? Here’s some ideas:

  • Call your local historical society and see if they’re interested (I bet they are!).
  • Call your local antique shop and see they’ll take things on consignment (they often do, or they might just make you an offer then and there for it).
  • Contact a local historian. Every town has at least one. They might not pay you anything, because they’ve got to store it, but if all you’re going to do is throw it away anyway, so what?
  • Call the history department at your local college or university. It’s a long shot, but there could be a historian there who can give those items a good home, or knows someone who can. Often, historians at universities are interested in research into that town or area.

Please. Stop throwing away your family’s history. Maybe you don’t want it – but someone else might.

And if it’s got anything to do with George Kimmel, Edna Kimmel Bonslett, John Boone Swinney, Andrew J. Hunt and his wife Margie, or Charles A. Johnson of Niles Michigan, PLEASE, I WANT IT! 🙂

A link to the story:  https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2016-07-28/the-lure-of-minimalism