Mary Miller’s fifteen minutes of fame

When I started my little family history research project, I learned I had a German great-great-grandmother named Mary Miller (I’m guessing it was originally Maria Müller). Mary was born in the early 1850s. She emigrated with her young daughter Tillie sometime in the 1880s, probably after her husband died.

Census records provided the first clues about Mary’s life. I learned that she married a man named William Vannote in 1903 and that the couple resided in Kingston, just south of New Brunswick, N.J. I could also discern that Mary stayed close to her daughter, who married my great-grandfather Jacob Sylvester Agin sometime around 1893. When the 1910 census was taken, Mary’s granddaughter Ada (my grandfather Harry’s older sister) was living in the Vannote household. And in 1920, not long after William’s death, my grandfather resided there.

But the choicest find was a gossipy newspaper account of William and Mary’s marriage. William, it turned out, was widely known as a “woman hater” who had refused to speak to a woman for 37 years! Here’s the article from the Trenton Evening Times, October 21, 1903:

I wrote about this discovery in an earlier post. I wondered what it meant to be called a “woman hater” in those days. Was William gay? Was he a misogynist? And who was the mysterious George Hendricks and why did Mary divorce him? The article raised more questions than it answered but I didn’t think I could learn anything else unless I got my hands on Mary’s divorce records (which I haven’t figured out how to do).

But then recently, doing random searches on Google, I saw that the New York Times also ran a short blurb about the wedding. So I searched some historic newspaper databases, including the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America, Newspaper Archive and Genealogy Bank, and found that the story of the widow and the woman hater went viral. There were articles in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Boston Globe and Illinois Republic. And while most were little squibs, some were amazingly detailed.

The most interesting article comes from the New York Evening World, which actually sent two reporters to cover the story of the “Famous Woman Hater of New Brunswick.” In an article dated October 21, 1903, a unnamed male reporter goes to look for Mary at her “little wooden house near the railroad station.”

On the way, a cab driver speculated that Mary “must be a peach” to bring about “the wonderful change…in the morose old hermit whose hatred of the softer sex had been gossiped about for many years.”

The reporter was not so sure. With allusions to Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, he summoned up a vision of “a buxom country maiden with charms of the very obvious variety that distinguish the country belle.” What he found instead was “a short, stocky and by no means beautiful German woman, who frightened the hens from her new husband’s old home with a small sickle.”

Article from the New York Evening World, October 21, 1903, reporting on the marriage of my great-great-grandmother Mary Miller to her third husband, William Vannote.

From the extensive interview, we learn about Mary’s former husband in Mary’s own words:

Ten years ago, I lived in the Greenwich Mountains. I was married to a man named Hendrock. He treat me bad and I run away from him and come here with my daughter Tilly. After two years, Hendrock gets a divorce from me.

According to the article, Mary and her daughter settled in Kingston, moving into the little house near the railway station. Jacob moved in after the wedding.

Apparently, Jacob knew William Vannote. Again, Mary tells the story in her own words:

After a while Mr. Vannote told Jake that he is looking for a place to board, as he was tired doing his own cooking, yes, and that he wants a place where the women do not much talk. He comes here. And for nine years he never says a word to Tilly or me.

The decisive moment came in October 1903, when Jacob took a job as an engineer an electrical plant in the nearby town of Rocky Hill. I found another article from the Trenton Times, dated October 14, 1903, that provides separate confirmation of Jacob’s new job opportunity.

When Jacob and his family moved to Rocky Hill, Mary found herself living with a male boarder who was not her husband. As Mary explains:

But last week Tilly’s husband got work in an electric light plant over at Rocky Hill. My daughter moved over there with him, and Mr. Vannote and I were all alone in the house. He is fifty-three and I am fifty-four. I thought it would be a good thing to get married. Yes, for he could give me a good home. But of course, I didn’t say anything to him, except one morning when I gave him his coffee I told him that I was afraid the neighbors would talk and that perhaps he had better find another boarding place.  For though I don’t meddle with any of my neighbors and don’t care what nonsense they talk, it came to my head to say that.

William did not immediately reply. But then, at breakfast the next morning, he opened his mouth for the first time to say, “Mrs. Hendrock, ma’am, will you marry me? Oh! and will you have corned beef and cabbage for dinner?”

The buxom German widow started, as well she might at this, the first friendly utterance of the man famous throughout the country for miles around as the woman hater of Kingston, and then, when she had recovered herself, she stammered:

“Yes, sir.”

She meant the yes to include both a shy answer to his proposal of marriage and his suggestion as to the noon menu.

“Then put on your hat,” said Vannote, the ex-hermit and misogynist.

In a quarter of an hour they stood before Justice of the Peace George A. Wolfe, a life-long friend and schoolmate of the prospective bridegroom, and in little time he had made them husband and wife.

In the days following the wedding, William reverted to his taciturn ways. As Mary explains:

Since we were married on Saturday he has not spoken over ten times to me. I don’t mind though, I am used to it. For nine years he did not speak to me at all.

The article also informs us that a female reporter went over to Rocky Hill to interview William, who was employed as a night watchman at the Rocky Hill Stone Storage Company. When she found William – who is described as “a small, clean-shaven, shrivelled and shrewd-looking man” – William refused to talk and retreated into the storage house for safety. But a male colleague shared what William had to say about the matter:

I did not speak to a woman for thirty-five years because I had nothing to say. When I had known Mrs. Hendrock for a long time, I made my up mind that she would make a good wife. Then I spoke because I had something to say. She accepted me, and we were married last Saturday.

Two days earlier, New Brunswick Daily Times ran a front page story reporting that Kingston churchgoers were abuzz on Sunday morning with talk of the “sensational wedding” that had taken place the night before. The article gives a decidedly different account of Mary’s divorce:

Mrs. Vannote had passed through matrimonial experiences twice before she was married on Saturday night. Her first husband died, and then she was married to Gus Hendrick. The two were unable to agree and the woman soon appealed to the divorce courts. Hendrick, after the separation, went to live on the Griggstown Mountain.

Article from the cover of the New Brunswick Daily Times, October 19, 1903.

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated October 20, 1903, also played up the scandal angle:

Gossips of the quiet town of Kingston, eight miles from [New Brunswick], utterly forgot to criticise the sermons of the local preachers, and the coming of [controversial evangelical faith healer John Alexander] Dowie and his host to New York was even dismissed. They were almost nonplussed, for William Vannote, who was said to be known as a “woman-hater,” had been married quietly on Saturday night. His bride has had two previous matrimonial experiences.

Noting that “Kingston has its share of preachers for a town of its size,” the article sanctimoniously reports: “Instead of availing of the services of one of the ministers Vannote and his bride went to George A. Wolff, justice of the peace and general pooh-bah of the village and he tied the nuptial knot without any unnecessary ceremony.”

Article from the Philadelphia Inquirer dated October 20, 1903.

And finally, another feature story called “Cupid Always Busy,” that ran two months later in the Washington Bee and other newspapers, recycles the earlier reporting by the Evening World with one additional treat – an artist’s rendering of the moment William proposed.

I’m not sure what to make of the small discrepancies in the stories. Was Mary married to George Hendricks, Gus Hendrick or a Mr. Hendrock? Did he retire to Griggstown Mountain or the Greenwich Mountains?

Armed with these additional clues, I still can’t find any other evidence of Mary’s earlier marriage. But this has been an amazing window into the life of one of my 32 great-great-grandparents. What else might be out there? While a small but growing number of historical newspapers have been digitized, making searches like this possible, many more are available only on microfilm. So there may be more interesting articles out there. Could one even have a photo of my great-great-grandmother?

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5 Responses to Mary Miller’s fifteen minutes of fame

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