Getting the Short End

Statistics for this website list “The Other Half,” a piece I wrote a year ago concerning the life that Susan Turnbull carved out for herself in Topeka, as last month’s most-read entry by a long shot - more than double any three of the others.  Out of curiosity, I gave it a fresh look a few days ago, and as usually happens when I revisit old stuff, found some typographical errors which hadn’t jumped out at me before, and corrected them.  I also tweaked a few sentences in an effort to clarify a tangled web of relationships, although I doubt it helps much.

Not only did Susan Turnbull lead a fairly eventful life, it’s one enwined with so many family trees that dozens of genealogical researchers could be on her trail by now, and evidently are.  Born in Pennsylvania shortly after the start of the Civil War, Susan had moved to Missouri with her parents and four siblings by 1870.  After the death of her mother Lydia, she enters the Lovewell family saga when Thomas Lovewell’s former wife Nancy, estranged from her husband after the pioneer’s long sojourn in the West, marries widower Michael Turnbull to become Susan Turnbull’s stepmother, a position which Nancy would hold until her own death in Topeka in 1888.

In 1879, seventeen-year-old Susan wed the first of her three husbands, a miner named John W. Robinson in Carbondale, a community a few miles south of Topeka.  Robinson soon found work as a railroad engineer  alongside his brother James, a conductor aboard Union Pacific trains chugging through the Sandhills of Nebraska.  Susan must have joined her husband in Nebraska, which is listed as the birthplace of the couple’s two daughters, born in the early 1880’s.  The only other fact we know about the marriage is that it was (at least unofficially) over by 1885, when the Kansas census finds the pair back in Carbondale, living apart but under the same roof with Susan’s family.

Here’s where Susan’s life intersects a second time with the Lovewell saga, when her estranged husband moves in with her stepsister, Julia McCaul.  Julia, known in Lovewell lore as “Julaney” (although her headstone omits the “e”) had remained at her mother’s side during her father’s extended absence and in the years following his return from California in 1865.  In 1871 Julia married an Irish lad named Edward McCaul in Missouri, two months after she turned fourteen.

Edward and Julia McCaul joined the Turnbulls in Carbondale shortly before the arrival of their first child, Edward Jr., in 1877.  Edward became a well-known and convivial figure on Main Street, occupying a corner building across from the Post Office, where he ran a restaurant and billiards parlor.  The local paper printed an update when Edward McCaul’s billiards establishment took on various partners, when he applied a fresh coat of paint to the front of his businesses, and when an auction company moved into some unused space.

In 1883, after printing news of the fourth child born to the McCaul family, a daughter named Alice (the only McCaul I knew personally), along with an item advertising the fact that Edward had put his house up for sale, the Carbondale Independent ceased publication.  However, news of the sale of the McCaul house, plus what I knew of the living arrangements detailed in the later 1885 Carbondale census - with John Robinson taking Edward’s place as the man of the family unit - led me to assume that Edward had moved on to St. Louis, where a business notice indicates that one Edward McCall opened a billiards parlor in 1883.  What really happened turns out to be much more complicated, and throws a big wrench into my longstanding timeline.  I had also sent Edward packing in the wrong direction.

When I started writing this entry, I intended to voice a lament for the fact that so much newsprint had been devoted to Susan Turnbull and her various husbands, with hardly any mention in the papers about poor Julia McCaul.  Then it struck me that I hadn’t looked for her lately, not since a flood of additions to Kansas newspaper archives went online earlier this year.

A quick search turned up news that the entire McCaul clan cashed in and left Carbondale for greener pastures, though instead of catching a train for St. Louis they headed west.  Ed McCaul not only put his house up for sale, but his restaurant on Main, “lots 34 and 36 blk 3, Brown’s (addition) to Carbondale.”  What was more surprising to learn was that the restaurant was not his, nor had it ever been.

A spate of little news items printed early in 1894 in the Osage City Free Press provide the details, and introduce a few new mysteries with them.

February 28 - Ed McCaul of the corner restaurant left home about three weeks ago and has been heard from at San Francisco.  His property, or rather his wife’s property, is for sale.

March 20 - Ed McCaul is in Washington territory, and his wife’s property on the corner of Main and Second streets in this city was bought lately by Meredith and H. W. Jenness for $1,500 cash.  It is very desirable property, and is bound to become more valuable.

April 3 - Mrs. McCaul and children, accompanied by Evan Richards and his family, left Friday, the former for Washington Territory, and the latter for California.

 Whatever event wrecked the McCaul marriage probably occurred in the Pacific Northwest, where Julia McCaul would return by January 1887, in time to give birth to John Robinson’s daughter Lillie.  Perhaps a bigger secret than how people split apart and match up, was how Julia McCaul could afford to buy a restaurant when she was scarcely twenty - property that was still worth $1,500 a few years later, when Carbondale was on the skids.

The Free Press does tell us how proceeds from the sale of the restaurant were divided in 1894:  Edward McCaul received $1,500 - while his wife, whose property it had been, received the token sum of a dollar.  

© Dale Switzer 2022