Real Housewives of Carbondale

Family histories often resemble those Christmas letters we used to exchange back when we still wrote letters, addressed envelopes, and licked stamps.  You know the letters I’m talking about, the ones that insist on bringing you up to date on the wonderful lives everyone in the family is living.  “Junior is taking some time off from his dream job as an antiques dealer to work in the field of metal fabrication.”  Once you’re wise to the code words, you realize that Junior used to work in a junkyard, but right now he’s stamping out license plates in the state penitentiary.

According to stories my family told, my great-grandfather John Robinson was a building contractor, a man on his way up in the world when he was killed at a construction site at the Kansas City Stockyards.  Gloria Lovewell’s book “The Lovewell Family” names him as the man who married Thomas Lovewell’s eldest daughter after her first husband, Edward McCaul, died in a construction accident while working on the roof of the new St. Louis Depot.  You might call that the Christmas-letter version of what went on in their lives before 1894.

I almost had the wind knocked out of me some years ago when I found a census record from Carbondale, Kansas, in 1885, one which lets us look in on John Robinson and his two little Robinson girls, 4-year-old Manie and 2-year-old Alice.  Nine years before the death of Edward McCaul, John Robinson has already moved in with Thomas Lovewell’s daughter, known to her neighbors and the Kansas census-taker as Julia McCaul, a mother with no husband in sight, no doubt keeping herself busy looking after the two Robinson girls while also caring for three children of her own, 6-year-old Willie, 3-year-old Freddie, and 1-year-old Alice.  Edward McCaul may be alive and well, but he has struck out on his own, moving away to St. Louis to open a new billiards parlor in the bustling city.  

Times are hard just now for those left behind in little Carbondale, Kansas, and this informal family unit of Robinsons and McCauls are forced to reside under the same roof with Julia’s mother and her step-father, Mariah and Michael Turnbull.  Michael is an English immigrant, formerly a baker with his own confectionery shop, but a day-laborer by 1885.  His wife Mariah was previously known as Nancy Lovewell until she married Michael Turnbull in 1872.  Now in their fifties, the Turnbulls have two more children living at home, Susan, who is in her early 20’s, and 15-year-old Alice.  Susan is the youngest daughter from Michael Turnbull’s first marriage, while Alice, sometimes called “Cora Alice” to differentiate her from the two other Alices in the household, is the daughter born to Nancy Lovewell in 1870, when she was between husbands.

If it seems like a complicated family arrangement, fairly bewildering even with a scorecard, it is actually more dizzying than you may think.  I’ve wondered for years if those Robinson girls were really John Robinson’s daughters, and if so, who the mother might be and what had become of her.  Only recently I learned that he is undoubtedly their father, and that their mother might be right there, sharing the same dwelling with the others in the 1885 census.

John Robinson took out a license to marry Susan Turnbull in September of 1879, when he was over 30 and her age fell somewhere between 16 and 18.  In the 1880 census she’s called Susan “Roberinson,” though she is even then living with her parents.  Something evidently happened or was disclosed between 1880 and 1885 to render their marriage invalid, or caused someone to press the reset button.  We still can’t tell if little Manie and Alice are Susan’s children, or if they’re the reason Susan Turnbull and John Robinson are no longer domestic partners by 1885.  Michael Turnbull surely doesn’t know it, but his own marriage to the former Nancy Lovewell isn’t completely legitimate either.  She began divorce proceedings against Thomas Lovewell in 1865, then withdrew the suit.  In the eyes of the law she is still lawfully wedded to a man she hasn’t seen in twenty years.

We like to look back fondly on this era as a simple time, but everything about living then is dreadfully complicated, often simply dreadful.  Poor Michael Turnbull must have been in a great hurry to remarry in 1872.  The census taken two years earlier records that his wife Lydia was still clinging to life, though completely blind.  He was a widower with five children to look after when he met a 40-ish Nancy Lovewell, an unmarried woman on the frontier with a toddler in tow, working as a domestic servant.  Their newly-blended family soon settled in Carbondale, a young town a few miles south of Topeka, rich with coal deposits and full of Irish miners and railroad workers.  Weary of trying to coax a profit from small farms in Pennsylvania and Missouri, Michael Turnbull opened a bakery.  But it’s not fair to call it simply a bakery.

Around the time Edward and Julia McCaul arrived in Carbondale to open a restaurant and a billiards parlor, a news item about Michael Turnbull reported that “Uncle Mike,” a “jolly old fellow and worthy of patronage,” had moved his confectionery and bakery into a new building, one “where he has a private room where the weary may rest and refresh themselves.”  That’s right, he had a bakery with a private room in back for rest and refreshment.  For the few years Carbondale was a boomtown, the McCauls and Turnbulls did whatever they could to squeeze every dollar out of it.  The Turnbulls took in boarders while Edward McCaul rented out empty space to an auction company, and bought and sold building lots.  The money would surely come in handy.  Michael Turnbull's son, Michael, Jr., needed extensive and dangerous surgery to remove a large growth from the side of his head, above and behind his ear, where it had taken root fifteen years earlier.

As information continues to surface, perhaps we’ll get a clearer picture of everything that went on behind closed doors in Carbondale.  Until then, whatever happened in the back room at Uncle Mike’s, stays in the back room at Uncle Mike’s. 

© Dale Switzer 2023