A family secret
Taking a risk
A Family Secret Revealed by Bryher Scudamore
I have just put my bank account, my home, life-savings and my future on the line? Why? Is it because there is insanity in my family, and I’ve inherited it? Not as far as I know. But there is adventure, and risk, and a gambler’s foolhardiness. I have inherited all that from Walter Mitchell, my great-grandfather, a man I didn’t even know existed, whose story I have only just discovered.
At the age of 23 he risked everything to travel thousands of miles into the unknown. This year, at the age of 6I, I have just embarked on a brand new career, light years away from anything I have ever done before, as an entrepreneur. And so doing, I have put all my future security at risk. I am a tv producer by trade, I have never been in business before. But now I have invented a computer program which means that anyone can write the story of their life, I call it autodotbiography, (www.autodotbiography.com) and which offers everyone the opportunity of turning a simple questionnaire into a beautifully printed book. To get to this point I have mortgaged my house, used up all my life savings, and stretched my husband Paul’s tolerance to breaking point.
Why? Because when my beloved mother Peggy died unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 75, I realized I knew practically nothing about her life. Why hadn’t I asked her more questions? Why hadn’t I made her sit down with her photographs and tell me who they were, and when and where they were taken, instead of just letting them pile up in the dust at the back of her desk drawers? When I lost her, the frustration of knowing so little, and the overwhelming grief of being without her, hit me like a huge wave. And then, as it slowly withdrew, one big idea was left behind, that if I felt that way, perhaps thousands of others might also go through the same experience. So I decided, mad as it seemed, but born along by a passionate need of my own, to make it possible for anyone and everyone to write down the story of their lives now, before it’s too late.
I was determined to make their story beautiful. I designed the book to look and feel like a treasured volume, printed on the highest possible quality paper, with full colour reproductions of their precious family photographs, each one captioned and identified. But to test how well my system worked, I had to try it out myself. So I rummaged through my mother’s possessions. And that’s when I found it. A snake-skin wallet, grey and white, filled with pieces of paper. I unfolded one. It was a letter, signed Walter, dated September 2nd 1867. The handwriting was elegant, with loops and flourishes, and as I read my way through it I realized for the first time that Walter was my great grandfather, my father’s grandfather, and that this was the story of his adventures in the Wild West, two years after the American Civil War ended.
What on earth was Walter doing there? My father, Douglas, had never spoken about his family at all. And since I didn’t know what I didn’t know, I had never asked Daddy about them. I read on through the fourteen letters with growing fascination. Walter had sailed in June 1967 from London on a ship called the Hudson and arrived in New York and then travelled by train from New York to Indiana and then on to Missouri, working as a carpenter, and then spending three months hunting on the prairies. He writes about “a monstrous snow storm”, he describes how they reached St Joseph, Missouri, at the very end of the railway, Saint Joseph was where twenty years later the notorious outlaw Jesse James was killed. “Some days after our arrival,” he writes still in that elegant handwriting, "A quantity of red Indians (peaceable tribe) the Mowhawk we were informed had pitched their wigwams on the shores of Kansas territory, and being very anxious to see (them) we paddled our own canoe to the shore of Kansas across the Missouri river with much bother and sundry little mishaps made our canoe fast to a tree and introduced ourselves to the real live injun, being surrounded by a heap of warriors, squaws and their papousees, (children).” Walter even smoked a pipe of peace with the “Mowhawk” chief, as he said “a friendly pipe upon the pristine prairie”.
Did Walter make his fortune in America, become a Carnegie or a Rockefeller ? Sadly, no. After three years of hard work and sacrifice he came back without even a plot of land or a log cabin to his name. I came across a letter to the sweetheart he had left behind, Emilie, my great grandmother which explained why. Firstly, he could only get a grant of land if he agreed to swear allegiance to the brand new nation, and he refused to “take an oath to fight if necessary against Dear old England and its Queen” Victoria. Secondly, a close friend, Tom, had gone down with typhoid fever, and for three months my great grandfather looked after him, “without a trade and penniless”. And thirdly, he constantly longed for Emilie, “sometimes when waiting for a letter I read and reread your old ones until I almost know them by heart”. So he came home to her.
But not without learning a new respect for America, “the country is certainly a verdant and splendid one east and especially west and a steady man can get on but their manners appear very uncouth and ruff as well as strange to a new comer.” Uncouth perhaps, but strangely democratic, to the Englishman from Chelsea and his wife to be, “it seems strange no doubt to you but here a mechanic dresses and is respected as well and equal to a millionaire.”
There are other revealing differences, too, which Walter describes in his letter to his sweetheart. “In their households they are very plain with regard to furnishing but in their eating and drinking (which is various and surprising) their washing and the clothes they wear they are scrupulously clean and if a clean spoon or knife drops upon the carpeted floor will insist on changing it before being used.” He tells her about the ladies’ fashions, “Shaker bonnets” and “kalliker dresses” and draws pictures of the most fashionable hats for her. But just in case she is tempted to join him, he points out “It has been intensely hot here dear…the temperatures of 110 degrees in the shade and the perspiration literally rolling off a fellow – I have lost 28 lbs this summer.” He signs off the letter “Your ever affectionate and loving Walter” with a final plea for her to send him a “little piece of your platted hair for a locket”.
My great grandfather spent three years working his way across America, and his last letter before he came home to England was to his brother, written in Massachusetts, in 1870. In it he describes his “one big lesson out of all this experience…. That it is no disgrace to a man to work – simple and commonplace as this reasoning should be to every man. An Englishman who has perhaps been brought up and educated as a gentleman and perhaps always held some petty office different… to his fellow man the mechanic find this at home an awfully large dose to swallow, I have swallowed it here very easily indeed and while in health not only enjoyed working but felt I was more robust while doing so.”
So in 1870 he sailed back to Liverpool. And did well. He married Emilie, became a clerk of works for some big and important projects in London, and died on February 20, 1898 aged just 53. As I finished his last letter, and sat with the pile of perfectly preserved papers in my lap, it was a deeply emotional moment. How I wished I had met this brave, loyal, hard-working young man, only 23 years old when he took this extraordinary leap in the dark, across the Atlantic. Then, another glorious moment, among a huge pile of other photographs I found his picture, uncaptioned, unidentified, apart from the name of the photographer, George Adams, in Worcester Massachusetts. So I knew this young man with a sweet face and an elegant cravat was the great grandfather I never knew I had.
So of course, Walter Mitchell’s story will have pride of place in the book of my own life, my autodotbiography. And I believe many, many people will also have characters and moments in their own lives, and in their family’s life, which must be recorded before it’s too late. My new company, autodotbiography, is a gamble, born out of love and passion. And I know now who I have inherited this sense of adventure from. My own great grandfather, I didn’t even know existed, until I started to tell the story of my life.