According to my grandfather's notes, after Mary Ellen Reed died in Florida in 1896, her husband James Lawrence Reed married again three more times. Living here in Washington State, I was especially intrigued by the family notes of his last marriage - to his first wife's youngest sister, Dora Curtis Phillips. According to Grandpa Reed (who would have been a young adult himself, and who probably heard his parents discussing it) James came out here to Seattle to marry Dora, and when the marriage didn't work out he returned to Michigan.
When I was working at the Seattle Public Library, a couple of times I went upstairs to look through the old Seattle city directories, but I was hampered by not knowing what time period James was out here in this area, and by the fact that James Reed is a very common name. Then a couple of years ago, when I was exploring my new subscription to GenealogyBank, it occurred to me to try to find James and Dora Reed.
First I found newspaper articles about the death of Dora's husband, James Phillips, in Olympia (not Seattle) in 1911. Then I tried the Olympia newspapers from 1911 to 1920, and found that James Reed and Dora Curtis Phillips married in 1913, and the story of their messy divorce was splashed all over the newspapers in 1915 and 1916.
Some of the reporting (see the article below) was really flowery and hard to believe that some reporter wasn't making it up.
Well, this really got up my curiosity! So I found directions to the Washington State Archives, and drove there one day, hoping to find the divorce records. Since I hadn't called ahead, I had to wait while the staff went down into the basement to retrieve the file. When she set it on the table in front of me, I was surprised to see that it was several inches thick, and dumbfounded when I opened it. There lying on the top were two hand-written letters by my great-great grandfather - one of them to Dora, and the other one to his brother-in-law Levander Curtis in Tacoma.
Other interesting papers in the file were the court records of the divorce, which actually took place after James L. Reed had gone back to Beulah, Michigan, claiming that Dora had thrown him out of the house. There were affidavits taken by a notary public in Beulah, testimony of James' son Percy Reed, and Carl Tinkham, a family friend. Both of them testified that James Reed was a peaceful, home-loving man, and that all he had brought back with him from Olympia was his quilt, clothes, his shoemaking tools, and $50. Percy testified that he had known Dora for about 50 years, and she was "high tempered and quarrelsome." James said, "She constantly nagged me and wanted me to get out of the house and leave, saying amongst other things that I was an old gray headed devil, that I had better get out and go back to Michigan..." For her part, in the Thurston County Superior Court, Dora testified that "Defendant has been guilty of extreme cruelty against the Plaintiff in that he has at all times been extremely jealous....so jealous that he has not wanted friends of the Plaintiff to visit at the home, becoming angry when the Plaintiff spoke to and recognized friends on the street
, has accused her of infidelity and unfaithfulness..." I think that James' letters were used against him in court, because the divorce was granted and Dora was given the house and land that they had purchased together, leaving James with nothing but his tools, dependent on his son for help. In his letter to his brother-in-law in Tacoma, James wrote, "but I am 75 and don't expect to have to stay anywhere much longer."
He lived to be 98. All of this serves to emphasize how many records there are, in state and county and local archives, that are not online and perhaps never will be. The Washington Digital Archives is one of the best state archives websites in the country, but the marriage of James L. Reed and Dora Phillips is not recorded. If I hadn't gone to the Archives in person to search for the divorce records, I would never have found the letters and court papers telling the sad story of James and Dora.