Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Singular Suicide: Tragedy finds the Fawkners

Unexpected family history stories are buried in historical newspapers, and the explosion of searchable digitized images of them makes it easier than ever to find news about your family.

While searching for news about the George Fawkner family of St. Paul, Minnesota, I stumbled upon a story printed in the 11 May edition of The Albert Lea Standard, published in Albert Lea, Minnesota, about 100 miles south of St. Paul. This story popped up because the optical character recognition had caught the name "Fawkner" in a story titled, "A Shooting Sensation in St. Paul." I at first thought the search engine had given me a false positive hit -- that is, I though the OCR had mistaken another name for Fawkner. Then, four lines into the story, my eyes caught "the daughter of Mr. George Fawkner."

The opening passage of the article read: "A singular suicide occurred in St. Paul recently. A school boy affection on the part of Albert Drake, a sixteen year old, for Miss Jennie, the fifteen year old daughter of Mr. George Fawkner, developed into a wild and frantic passion." When Jennie's mother "delicately broke the news" of her objections due the the youth of the parties, Drake "was inspired by jealousy to take her life." After Jennie "by presence of mind" frustrated his efforts, he turned the pistol on himself. That's it -- just the facts.

I have used the article in lectures about historical newspapers to make a rather pedestrian point. Notable stories were often picked up by distant newspapers. The search engine I was using did not pick up this story in the St. Paul newspaper, but found it in the Albert Lea paper. Had I limited my search to St. Paul, I would not have found it. I thought it odd that the story had not appeared in St. Paul.

St. Paul Daily Globe, 2 May 1882
Well, it had. A week earlier. The newspaper search engine I was using just didn't find it because the St. Paul paper spelled the name "Fawker." The morning after the tragedy, the St. Paul Daily Globe (4 May 1882) carried the news in column 1 of page 1. And, the St. Paul paper went into much greater detail, albeit somewhat vaguely.

From the parties interested and those who saw the shooting the following particulars have been obtained. Some months ago Albert Drake, the boy shot shot himself, and who, had he lived, would not have been 16 years old till August next, commenced going with a little girl named Jennie Fawkner. The little Fawkner girl is about the age of the boy, probably not quite as old -- a little over 15 years.

The Daily Globe related that the Fawkners lived in "the brick dwelling on the southeast corner of Eighth and Minnesota Streets" (pull out the city directories and Sanborn fire insurance maps!). Jennie was of "slight build, dark hair and eyes, and interesting and bright in conversation." Albert, the son of William A. Drake, had been attending Curtiss' Business college. Albert had never formally called at the Fawkner home; he and Jennie had met as schoolmates.

Several days before the tragedy, Jennie had told Albert about her mother's concerns, but he did not seem overly agitated. They had conversed normally at church, but on Wednesday morning he was "pale, nervous, and ugly." When Jennie and her sister encountered Albert on the way home from school, he pulled a pistol from his pocket and "placed the muzzle of it close to her face." She ran. He fired and missed. As the two raced up Eighth Street, a young man took note of the situation and rescued Jennie by pulling her into a store. Witnesses thought Albert believed he had killed Jennie. Near the corner of Eighth and Pine, he shot himself (witnesses heard two shots in rapid succession).

The newspaper story gives more details that neither Fawkner nor Drake descendants would enjoy (George Fawkner has no living descendants). The young man who rescued Jennie was identified as Edward Erickson.  One wonders if his descendants have heard the story.

Finally, the newspaper noted that the revolver used was known as the "Bull Dog" pattern, with a barrel about three inches long. Today, gun rights are a hot political issue. What did St. Paul denizens think in 1882? Next week's blog tell what one reader of the Daily Globe thought.

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