Happy Birthday, Susie!

I was in the middle of telling my son an interesting story involving Susan Turnbull and Jesse Underwood and their testimony in a Topeka homicide case, when I thought I needed to back up and explain who these people were, starting with the arrival of the Turnbull family in Carbondale, Kansas.

This turned out to be a mistake, because I soon saw my son frown and stare off into space with a puzzled expression as he tried to sort through the tangled web of connections.  He may be a sharp young man, but there’s no way any of this makes sense without a diagram and a scorecard.  The house in Carbondale, you might recall, was a house with eleven people in it, including a husband and wife who were no longer a couple, an unmarried couple who nonetheless considered themselves husband and wife, part of a household containing three young girls all named “Alice” - Alice Turnbull, Alice McCaul, and Alice Robinson.

Their story firmly belongs on a site dedicated to Lovewell history because the matriarch of the group was Mariah Turnbull, otherwise known as Nancy Lovewell, the first wife of Thomas Lovewell.  Come to think of it, she technically remained Thomas Lovewell’s wife until the end of her days, filing for divorce but calling off the legal split long before marrying widower Michael Turnbull in 1872.

I have to admit to having a soft spot for Michael Turnbull’s daughter Susan, who was only about nine old when her mother Lydia died and her father frantically remarried (or thought he had).  Susan was not only reared by my great-great-grandmother, but was also my great-grandfather’s first wife, entitling her to at least a footnote on my family tree.  She also shares a birthday with me, one that is fast approaching, so I’ll be reminded of her at least once a year.

Looking back over my previous post “The Other Half” made me realize that I had made poor Susan sound like a golddigger lying in wait for codgers with pensions.  In 1890, the year her father went to jail for bootlegging, leaving Susan with two young girls to feed and no breadwinner in the house, Jesse Morton Underwood’s wife died.  These two people who suddenly needed each other did not have far to look.  The Underwoods lived in the same Topeka neighborhood as the Turnbulls, about a 15-minute walk  through a run-down district in the northeast corner of town near the Kansas River.  

When they became man and wife, Jesse was a disabled Civil War veteran in his early forties, whose failing eyesight had forced him to give up farming and move his family to Topeka, where he sometimes supplemented his pension and dwindling nest egg with odd jobs as a common laborer.  Given a few strapping sons he might have made a go of the family farm in Jefferson County, a few miles east of Topeka, but the 1880 census shows that the Underwoods had been blessed instead with five young daughters.  Most of these girls still would have been living at home in 1890, along with a sixth daughter, Maud, born in 1885.  

Jesse’s second wife, the former Susan Turnbull, is remembered as “Josie” by Underwood descendants, evidently to differentiate herself from the first Mrs. Underwood, who was also named Susan.  For a while the second Mrs. Underwood kept up the all-girl tradition established by the first one, having given birth to two more daughters, Edith and Maggie, by 1895.  Finally, along came Grant and Harry to round out the Underwood family at the start of the new century.  

Within a year after their wedding in March of 1891, both Jesse and Susan were caught up in a sensational case of infanticide that very nearly led to the lynching of the accused killer by an enraged mob that was described as numbering in the hundreds, perhaps approaching a thousand.  

A neighbor of the Underwoods was arrested in November 1891 after his new wife’s nine-month-old baby suddenly died, and an examination of the little body discovered a broken leg and numerous scratches and bruises.  After Frank McLain was taken into custody, a group of young men began to gather outside the jail, growing into an unruly throng that demanded to have the prisoner brought out to them.  By the time a committee of six were allowed inside to see him, McLain's jailers, who must have been old hands at managing an outraged and dangerous citizenry, played a game of cat and mouse, finally spiriting away McLain, “disguised as a negro,” to a cozy cell in a nearby prison. 

As the Topeka Daily Capital admitted, “The details of the McLain trial have become so revolting that, paradoxical as it may appear, interest seems to be waning.”  Today his crime seems so commonplace that we might find it equally uninteresting, except for the peephole it provides us into late 19th century social standards, jurisprudence and journalism.  The inflammatory reporting is especially eye-opening.


Testimony Against McLain of the Most Terrible Nature.

McLain’s general appearance, as he sits in the dock, is that of a man of a very low order of intelligence.  He is brutish in appearance and has a repulsive look that would cause an ordinary citizen to turn aside to avoid meeting him.  Like all of his class he is a coward of the most contemptible kind. 


When his wife was giving her testimony he would look at her and grin with a fierce, though somewhat idiotic expression.  Mrs. McLain is not a bad looking woman and has a rather attractive face.  As can readily be seen from the evidence her intelligence is not of a very high order, but she impresses one as being an honest woman though a very foolish one.  

When the Topeka papers were finished passing judgment on the appearance of the accused and his unfortunate young bride, the Topeka State Journal decided to go after their house.

The McLain family live in a squalid hovel of one story about 12x16 feet.  It stands back from the street with a tumble down stable and a couple of old sheds near.  There is filth and rubbish everywhere.  The house is divided  into two rooms.  The front room contains a bed and sewing machine.  The rest of its furniture might have been picked up in the alleys of the poorest part of town.  A great quantity of absolutely useless and valueless articles are scattered about the room in confusion.

Justice was swift in the 1890’s.  The McLain baby was killed in November, Frank McLain’s trial was held in January, and by early February the convicted prisoner was on his way to Lansing.  His trial is also a reminder that even back then, a mindless, baby-killing brute could have groupies.  Convinced that Frank had repented in his cell and was now a new man, half a dozen women showed up in the courtroom every day to lend their support.

Only a year and a half earlier seventeen-year-old Mary Gordon had found herself pregnant by a married neighbor with no intention of abandoning his already established family to start a new one.  She and her newborn, whom she tentatively named “Harvey,” were living with her father in north Topeka when Frank McLain dropped by to offer her a job keeping house for him.  McLain, described by newspapers as a “scavanger” who prowled Topeka’s alleyways looking for scrap metal to sell, was a widower with three young daughters, and was also the estranged husband of a convicted bigamist.  Mary’s father may have given her no choice but to accept McLain’s job offer, which seems to have been a trial run for matrimony, since the couple decided to wed in Kansas City barely three weeks after she first stepped across McLain's threshold.

Jesse and Susie (Turnbull) Underwood were two of the witnesses who testified to what went on in the McLain house leading up to the death of little Harvey, or, as his mother ultimately decided to name him, “Jesse.”    

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com