Monday, March 23, 2015

Emma Brown 1879-1895: A Short Life, a Mysterious Death

EMMA BROWN was my grandmother's sister, born May 19, 1879, either in Bodie Mono Co California, or Aurora, Esmerelda Co Nevada. She was the eldest daughter of my great grandparents, FRANK RICARD BROWN born Feb 5, 1858 Sacramento, California, & MARY ETTA KENNEDY born March 2, 1858 Portland, Maine.

Details of EMMA's early life are sketchy, but her first home was most definitely the rowdy, remote Sierra Nevada mining town of Bodie. Her father was an assayer, with an office in both Bodie & nearby Lundy. Her paternal grandfather, HENRY "NEW HAMPSHIRE" (H N H)  BROWN, was a Wells Fargo agent in Lundy in 1880.

EMMA undoubtedly first attended school, along with her 1st cousins MABEL & ADDIE HAWTHORNE, in this schoolhouse, which still stands at Bodie, now a California State Historical Park.

EMMA & her parents lived in Bodie from 1879 until spring of 1887, when her father FRANK sailed to Unga Island, Alaska to establish the Apollo gold & silver mine for the Alaska Commercial Company.  The family was separated for a year.  EMMA & her mother MARY ETTA stayed "down below", either in Sacramento with FRANK's father, H N H BROWN, or in San Francisco with  MARY ETTA's father, THOMAS KENNEDY.

In spring of 1888, nine year old EMMA & her mother MARY ETTA, joined FRANK R BROWN on Unga Island. They lived in the large, new, mine superintendant's house, built by FRANK & the other mine workers, supplied by the Alaska Commercial Company for FRANK, superintendent of the Apollo mine,  and his family.  This was to be the family's home until 1904, when the Apollo mine closed, and they moved back to San Francisco (note: FRANK R BROWN returned to Unga in 1914, in an attempt to establish the Delaroff Development Co, and re-work the tailings of the original Apollo Mine. While this business venture did not succeed, FRANK did continue to come to Unga Island every summer until the 1930s. I'm not sure if he purchased the old superintendant's house, or rented it from the ACC, but it seems that the old house was his residence while at Unga during those years).

It's unknown exactly how many times the family sailed back & forth from Unga to San Francisco, but according to my grandmother RUBY, it was quite commonplace in the years between 1888 & 1904. They were also passengers on the mail steamer DORA. My great aunt GLADYS BROWN  was born 1889 at Onalaska, and my grandmother RUBY BROWN was born 1893 in Alameda, California. A third daughter, GENEVIEVE BROWN was born 1894 at Unga.

Frank R & Mary Etta (Kennedy) Brown & their four daughters, 1895, Unga Island, Alaska

In 1891, EMMA BROWN, age 12, apparently attended a boarding school in Reno, Nevada, according to this newspaper item in the Daily Nevada State Journal, Aug 27, 1891:

After 1891, EMMA attended Miss JEANNE BOLTE's French & English school in San Francisco. According to newspaper accounts, she returned to Unga Island, Alaska from San Francisco in the summer of 1895.

On Nov 7, 1895, in the family's home on Unga Island, EMMA BROWN took her own life.

EMMA's suicide had always been one of our family's big mysteries.  It was rarely talked about, but both my mother & grandmother intimated that EMMA had hung herself.  But as the following newspaper article in the San Francisco Call newspaper, Dec 4, 1895 shows, this was not the case:

A second, more detailed article was published in the San Francisco Chronicle, same date:

This second article clearly raises several questions, which as a genealogist, I've tried to answer:

--Where is she buried? EMMA is apparently not buried in the "new" Cypress Lawn cemetery, which was moved to  Colma, California after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  Her parents & other relatives are buried there, however.  It is possible EMMA's grave was destroyed in the earthquake.

--1895 death certificates & court records on the inquest into EMMA's death are not available, as they too were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.  Newspaper accounts may be the only source available.

--J R RINES (JOSHUA R RINES) mentioned in the SF Chronicle article was not EMMA's uncle, but a distant cousin on her mother's side. He was actually the son of EMMA's great grandmother's brother.  He was one of the first letter carriers in San Francisco from 1869 until his death in 1899.

--Miss JEANNE BOLTE was convicted of child abuse in 1891, related to an incident at her school with a very young pupil.  However, she still was teaching in San Francisco from 1900--1920, as per census records, so either she served her sentence and later returned to teaching, or her conviction was overturned.

It is impossible to know what caused EMMA BROWN to choose suicide.  Clearly she was despondent. Was it cruelty & abuse at the boarding school? a failed first romance? or did the isolation & loneliness of Unga Island take it's toll on an emotional teenager??

So  while the circumstances of EMMA's death have been made clear, 120 years later, the motivation has not.  It must have been a terrible blow to her parents, who had already lost several children at Bodie, and to her sister GLADYS, who unfortunately was the first to find her.

Thanks to Carol Smith of Alaska for kindly sending me the newspaper clippings.  All photos in this article are from my personal collection.


© Betty Tartas  2015

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