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 entwined 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 Sr. 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.”  I was even more surprised to learn was that the restaurant was not exactly his.

A spate of little news items printed early in 1894 in the Osage City Free Press provided the details, and introduced 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 poisoned the McCaul marriage probably happened in the Pacific Northwest in 1884.  After retreating  to Carbondale in 1885, Julia McCaul would return to the Portland area by January 1887 in time to give birth to John Robinson’s daughter Lillie.

The mystery of why Julia McCaul owned her husband’s popular eatery in Carbondale might be cleared up by the revelation that Edward McCaul’s “restaurant” as well as the “bakery” belonging to his wife’s stepfather, Michael Turnbull, were in fact speakeasies.  Ed McCaul and "Uncle Mike" Turnbull turned out to be notorious bootleggers at a moment when Kansas was beginning to crack down on free-flowing booze. 

The Free Press does tell us how proceeds from the sale of the restaurant were divided in 1884:  Edward McCaul received $1,500 - while his wife, who technically was sole owner, received the token sum of one dollar.  

© Dale Switzer 2023