A Family Tragedy Revealed

After staying three days in Karrer Park—a free campsite with electricity and showers [although the showers were FILTHY]—we leave McCook, Nebraska for Benkelman. I have been wanting to get to Benkelman ever since I dug up confirmed information that my grandmother died here. She took her own life and no one in the family would talk about it. Now that all those who knew anything have passed it’s become kind of an obsession with me, this quest to find out why.

Burger, The Chiweenie Brothers, and I arrive on a Sunday. I stop to photograph the welcome sign and immediately someone stops behind me to ask if I need help. Everyone waves! Such a friendly little town of 900+.
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I steer Freedom into the heart of this little burg and locate the newspaper office. Of course, being a Sunday they are not open, but I now know just where to go tomorrow morning. I am not holding out much hope, but you never know. I want—need—to knock on this door and if it doesn’t open, so be it, but I have to try.
We find a place to park for the night at a little city park, the Ward Bond Memorial Park honoring the late actor Ward Bond who was born here in Benkelman. Anyone remember the television show Wagon Train? It’s lovely and the dogs enjoy the lush green grass.
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Evening brings wind, fluffy clouds that soon turn menacing, and then a light show off in the distance. Which I did not get a photo of, cowering on the bed like I was, but it soon passes and I fall into a fitful sleep. DSC_0006
Up early filled with anticipation and a knowledge that today I will either find some answers or the doors to my grandmother’s death will be closed to me, at least during this lifetime.
I take a slightly different way to the center of town and find the courthouse, famous for being the building that led the powers that be to decide on claiming Benkelman as the county seat. It was also where they took my grandmother’s body for the autopsy and preparation for burial in her hometown of Hastings. This I did not know when I took the photo. I just thought it was a wonderful old brick building and enjoyed reading the history of it from Benkelman’s website,  HERE. This little town has an interesting past.

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The Benkelman Post is in the heart of town, and I push the door open with so many mixed emotions. I ask the young man who comes to the counter if this newspaper was in publication in the 1930s and if they have kept the papers archived in some way. He says yes to both questions.
I tell him what I am seeking but that I only know the year of my grandmother’s death, not the exact date. He doesn’t seem to mind that I am asking him to go through an entire year of weekly papers, papers that are bound into large books. He retreats to the back of the office and comes out carrying one of these large books and proceeds to meticulously look through it.
It is hard waiting; it seems like it is taking forever, time dragging, almost at a standstill. As he gets closer to the back of the book and the end of the year I feel the dread of learning nothing start to envelope me. As soon as that feeling tries to take root the young man begins to take the book’s cover apart and he pulls out a sheet of newsprint. “There’s something there?” I ask, barely able to speak. “Yes,” he says and tells me he will make me a copy. I can barely hold back the tears threatening to spill out onto the counter. There’s something in the paper! I can hardly believe it.
He hands me the copy, I pay for it, and just glance at the headline. Not wanting to read it in front of anyone, I thank the young man for his help and his kindness and I almost run back to the van. I read the headline Woman Stranger Takes Own life Here Monday (so she didn’t know anyone here!) and just part of the first paragraph of the first column and I cannot read any more.
My mind on the fact I finally have some answers I start the van, back Freedom out of the space, and point her nose toward St Francis, KS. Or so I thought. Thirty miles later I realize from the road sign that I have gone in the wrong direction!!
After backtracking the thirty miles I am back at Benkelman and take the correct road,

DSC_0012arriving in St Francis and their town park behind the fire department. I take the boys on a quick walk, stake them out, and read the article.

If this had been published now and not in 1932 it would have warranted no more than an inch or two of space, a mere announcement or just a death notice not the two columns, almost a half-page of the account of my grandmother arriving in Benkelman, Nebraska intent on ending her life. Small town newspapers!

She arrived in Benkelman, procured a hotel room for 50 cents (they found she had 12 cents left to her name after renting her room), washed out her hosiery and changed her clothes, neatly arranging her meager belongings, drank two bottles of strychnine that had been bought in Utah, and lied down on the bed to die an agonizing death.

They surmised that she had hitchhiked to Nebraska from California as she had done it once before, and because the bus and train schedules didn’t coincide with her arrival. She had been seen in town earlier in the day. She had been identified by a post card she had with her, thus they were able, through law enforcement to track down family in Hastings, who in turn were able to contact my grandfather in California. He informed the authorities that he had no means or funds to come get the body nor to bury her.

It was disclosed by family who arrived from Hastings to transport her body back there for burial that she had mental issues and had been a patient at a mental facility at one time in Nebraska and also once in California.

There’s more, but I will leave it at that. It was—coming to Benkelman—the reason I am in this part of Nebraska and a big part of the beginning of my gypsy life, not to burden readers with this family tragedy.
Hugs, Shawna

Author: 2DogsTravel

Hello, and welcome to my blog. I am a mother to two handsome, wonderful sons, Scott and Jeremy, three fur babies: Burger my elderly wire hair fox terrier, and Fries and Charlie the Chiweenie Brothers. I am also proud grandma to four beautiful, sweet, lovely grandchildren: Emma, Fletcher, Zachary, and Patton. I am a sister, aunt, and friend. I am a traveler. I am so glad you have decided to join me on this adventure.

9 thoughts on “A Family Tragedy Revealed”

  1. I’m so glad you were able to find information on your grandmother and get a bit of closure on what happened with her. Such a sad story and so sad she couldn’t get any help. I was looking at that beautiful old brick building and thinking how, in good old California, it would get the wrecking ball.

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    1. Isn’t it a beauty! Been seeing a lot of old buildings here in the Midwest, and happy to know these old places are treasured and kept up. Such a different way of life here. Hope the family values, faith, and just plain goodness never goes away here.

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  2. Dear Shawna, Altho it is painful it is also a relief to get the answers. A big hug and I am praying comforting thoughts that have come to this knowing what happened. Binkelman looks like a very peaceful place. Take care and safe journey to your next stop. The cat is trying to take over the desk again….

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  3. Shawna, I’m so grateful for you sharing this chapter from your family history. I’m glad you were able to find answers to your questions, with whatever sense of resolution for you that comes with the new knowledge. Back in the 1920s, my grandmother divorced her husband, and while I recognize that that’s no parallel to your grandmother’s tragic end, it was certainly a scandal at the time. The sort of thing that people used to have the attitude “the less said, the better”. Hugs to you and the guys, I miss you, but LOVE vicariously enjoying your travels!

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    1. So many things were never talked about in that day and age. Sweep them under the rug, keep your chin up, and never speak of it. Now they post it all on FB without batting an eye!
      I am so glad you are enjoying the blog, Kris! I miss you, too!

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  4. I am so glad you were able to get some closure to this family tragedy. I can relate to your obsession with this. My family had a tragedy that my grandmother kept the answers to a secret. It seems that I was the only one out of a large family that was obsessed with getting some answers. I kept at it until I dug up some of the story. Some we will never know. It felt so good to finally be free. Now I have enough answers and I have some peace about the situation. I still think about it some, but it is fading. I enjoy your blog. You have a wonderful nak for finding pretty little city parks and nice people. It goes to show that there are still lots of wonderful people out there in this country. Safe travels and give those pups a scratch behind the ears for all us.

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    1. Jean, it definitely does help to have some answers and get that closure. I holed up in the van for two days and worked through the heartache I felt for her and what she must have felt and gone through to have decided to end her life.
      Thanks for your input. It also helps to know others have some of the same dilemmas when it comes to family history.
      The boys enjoyed their scratch behind the ears!

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  5. Hi Shawna, So glad you found some answers to your questions. It is such a shame that people couldn’t get the right kind of help back then it had such a stigma. But now we proudly show our crazy! Peace be with you and the kids, stay safe!

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