Friday, February 26, 2021

Mrs. William H Fitch III, Detroit, Michigan, 1880's Part 2

This is the second post on the life of Eleanora Fitch. Check out the previous post for Part 1.

When we left off Eleanora's story, she had just become a widow after losing her first husband, William H. Fitch, in 1884. In November of the next year, Eleanora Fitch married her second husband, William J. Murphy, in Detroit, Michigan. The new couple moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where they were joined by Eleanora's daughter, Alice. 

Alice Underwood Fitch lived quite an interesting life, the timeline of which isn't always clear. In 1882, when she was 19, Alice married James H. Lynch in a small wedding. The marriage lasted only a few years until, as a Detroit Free Press article noted, "after much tribulation on the part of the honorable and devoted wife," the couple divorced.  At some point following the divorce, Alice decided to pursue her love of the stage and became an actress with Daniel Frohman's Lyceum Company at the Lyceum Theatre in New York, where she performed in such plays as "The Charity Ball." This information also comes from a 1908 article in the Detroit Free Press, though I haven't been able to find any more on Alice's time as an actress. Other newspapers note that Alice did live with her mother and step-father in Fort Worth, though for what period I'm not sure. 

My biggest mystery in researching Eleanora's life is actually her death. I cannot find any death records, obituary, or even a grave that might tell me when exactly Eleanora passed away. My best guess is sometime in the late 1890s. In the 1900 Census, William J. Murphy is living in a boarding house in Fort Worth and is listed as "widowed." Around 1899, Alice moved to Paris to study art. It makes sense that she might choose to leave Fort Worth soon after her mother's death. 

Alice had great success as an artist in France and became notable for her miniature portraits and reproductions of classic paintings. J.P. Morgan even commissioned her to recreate a portrait of Napoleon in miniature, which Alice herself claimed was "valued at fifty thousand francs" and was "in a frame studded with about three hundred diamonds." For this miniature, she was honored with the French "Ordre des Palmes académiques," an order bestowed on distinguished academics. At the start of the First World War, Alice trained to be a nurse and volunteered at the American Red Cross Military Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just outside of Paris. She worked as a night nurse there for three months before suffering from a nervous breakdown and returning to Fort Worth to stay with a friend. She spent the remainder of the war visiting schools to speak of her experiences as a nurse and encouraging girls to learn first aid skills. Alice then continued her work as an artist in the United States. She passed away in California in 1936 at age 73.

If you know who these folks may be and can help us fill in the gaps of Eleanora's life, let us know in the comments!

Friday, February 5, 2021

Mrs. William H Fitch III, Detroit, Michigan, 1880's Part 1

Eleanora Underwood was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1841. She was the second daughter of Albert G. Underwood, a plasterer, and his wife Joannah. She had one older sister, Eliza, and three younger sisters, Martha, Alice, and Ida. Albert died in 1855 when Eleanora was 14. Probate records tell us that upon his death, Albert owned 7 people: Henry, a 35-year-old plasterer and his wife Agnes, 16-year-old Jo, 11-year-old Henry, 35-year-old Scippio, 40-year-old Charlotte (described as "sickly") and Robert, "aged about 52 years." Though their mother was still alive, Eleanora and her sisters were placed in the care of another couple, Paul and Eleanora Kay. 

According to law, Eliza and Eleanora should have had a say in the matter as they were both 14 years of age and older at the time of their father's death. The Kays appointed themselves as the children's guardians without consulting either of the two eldest daughters. Paul Kay, like their father, was a plasterer and it is likely the two men worked together. In order to pay off debts after Albert's death, all of the enslaved people he owned were sold. The remaining money was to go to the girls. As the Underwood girls were minors, their inheritance was given to their guardians- in this case, the Kays. Eliza and Eleanora stated in their petition that Paul Kay "does not profess to take any duties in the said guardianship to which he had been appointed" and that his wife Eleanora's treatment of the girls "had not been of that kind, bland, and maternal character which they had been prepared to expect or taught to believe formed the duty of a guardian." Instead, they suggested that Sylvester Bailey, Esq., would make a more suitable guardian. Bailey was a lawyer from New York who, in 1846, had been elected mayor of South Memphis and later became a judge. How the girls knew Bailey, I'm not sure. Was he a family friend? Simply a trusted figure in the community? Maybe they were friends with his daughters, Laura, Rosella, and Eveline. Their request was granted and Sylvester Bailey became their guardian.

Not long after they petitioned to be removed from the care of the Kays, both girls found husbands. In July 1856, Eliza married druggist Richardson Brewster. Her mother Joannah, as well as her three youngest sisters, all moved in with them. Eleanora, at 16, was married the following year to William H. Fitch. The decision to marry made sense, as it would have provided both of the eldest Underwood daughters with the stability their lives lacked. Eleanora's life, however, was about to change drastically.

She grew up in a largely slave-holding state. Her father owned enslaved people. Sylvester Bailey, the man who was briefly her guardian, also owned enslaved people. Yet William H. Fitch, the man she married, was an abolitionist, a Radical Republican, and staunchly pro-Union. There's no way of knowing what Eleanora's personal views were. If she had political opinions of her own, she had little opportunity to voice them. William Fitch, on the other hand, was extremely vocal on these matters.

Fitch became the president of the Memphis Gas company and was a respected member of the community. Though he had no political experience, he was outspoken on the issues that mattered to him. In November 1867, at the encouragement of his friends, William announced that he would be running for mayor. Though he was generally considered a "man of integrity," his radical views made him an unpopular candidate from the start. Memphis newspapers were littered with brutal attacks on his character, primarily his support of equal rights for African Americans. The Memphis Daily Post described him as "one of that contemptible crew who not only asserts their belief openly in the doctrine of social equality with the negro, but practices it." While her husband pursued a political career, Eleanora was left at home to care for their three young children, William Hayes Jr. (born 1859), Mollie (born 1860), and Alice (born 1863). Ultimately, William did not win the election.

The family moved to Detroit, Michigan around 1871, where William became president of the Mutual Gas Company. The Fitches lived on Jefferson Avenue, where they were eventually joined by Eleanora's mother and her youngest sister, Ida, who was now 24. The family also employed 3 servants: Thomas Bruce, Mariah Robertson, and Georgia Morton. On January 11th, 1880, the oldest Fitch daughter, Mollie, passed away from tuberculosis. She was only 20 years old. Fours years later, Eleanora would face yet another loss. On October 7th, 1884, William H Fitch died at the age of 55. Michigan death records list his cause of death as "unknown," though his obituary in the Detroit Free Press speculated it was caused by "progressive paralysis" due to overwork. The obituary described William as "a good fighter, a hard hitter, and...had many and bitter enemies."
 Eleanora is photographed here in mourning. She did not remain a widow for long, however.

I will cover the rest of Eleanora's story in my next post. If you know who this may be, let us know!