Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dead Stories: Isaac Harness

Today in the New York Times Magazine, I was struck by a dilemma described by Randy Cohen, The Ethicist, where a man’s friend had died and the dead man’s wife avoided relaying the cause. The man had asked if it was ethical to look up the death certificate. Said Cohen in response:

The dead have no claims to privacy, something reflected not only in ethics but
also in law: you cannot, for example, libel the dead. As Voltaire said: “One
owes respect to the living. To the dead one owes only the truth. And not that
$50 for the lawn mower I supposedly broke.” (Except for this last.)

I was struck by the idea of losing privacy in death and could only be reminded of my own example in researching my mother’s great-great grandfather, Isaac Harness.

Ike Harness was a wealthy and land-rich farmer in McLean County. He had come to his homestead in 1832 with his new wife Betsy and son. He was 22, as was his wife. His son was born three months before the parents married.

Settling in Lexington in a double log cabin near Mackinaw, he and his wife raised 12 children, six of whom survived to adulthood. During the 1830s and 1840s Isaac became a large livestock breeder. By 1850 he went into partnership with Joseph Greenebaum, a Jew, and established clothing stores in Lexington and Pontiac.

In 1851, not long after the death of three children to cholera, Isaac built a two-story residence with an ell for a kitchen and other rooms. One night, as they all slept, a large rat bit the baby and Ike awakened the family declaring, “If the rats are going to eat up the children, it is time for the family to move.” And right then and there they moved to the new house.

In 1854, the railroad went through town making shipping and transportation easier. Ike and his son-in-law William “Hop” Kennedy” ran a general merchandise store. Advertisements for the store claimed: “Our goods are going off like hot cakes before a starving multitude, and at Living Prices!”

About this time the marriage began to unravel. Said Hop Kennedy about Ike, “he commenced leaving by degrees.” Sometime in the early 1860s, as he moved into his 50s, Ike began an affair with a twice-married hotel 30-year-old laundress, Sallie Loving Wiley Tucker, who had a very dubious reputation. She and her husband and family moved into a cabin just 15 steps down the road. Isaac spent a lot of time with the woman, especially when the husband went off to serve in the Civil War. By 1864 the children had sided with their respective parents: three of the children sided with the father, three with the mother.

Harness’s discretion continued to lapse. A former tenant described finding him at his Sallie’s house one Sunday afternoon around 1:00 p.m. He was lying on her bed, which was pulled out into the center of the room; and while they talked, his mistress sat in a chair and fanned him. Betsy had had enough and told her nephew that she’s supply the eggs if he’d get a group to egg the house, where Ike was staying. They also broke down the door with brickbats and rocks. Ike’s response the next day was, “I can put up doors as fast as you fellows can tear them down; I have the money to do it.”

When Sallie’s husband returned after the war, they divorced and, according to gossip, Ike had him run off. Sallie moved away to Chicago in 1868.

During the war, Ike loaned the government money for bonds. In 1867 he used the money, going in with David H. VanDolah, to create Harness, VanDolah & Company. VanDolah dropped out in 1873. Hop Kennedy joined as head cashier.

The final row with Betsy came as she was in the midst of stirring soap. Ike declared, “I am going to leave! I am going to make my words good.” Betsy countered, “You don’t have to—I am going as soon as I get my soap done.” With that Ike left and moved in just down the street with his son-in-law Hop Kennedy. Kennedy tried to enlist VanDolah to help reconcile the couple (since VanDolah was a regular card player at Sallie’s), but VanDolah said, “the old lady didn’t want him; he knew right from wrong as well as I did; he didn’t think he would go back and I talked to the old lady, and she didn’t seem to be reconciled to having him come back and I let it go.”

Harness’s solution was to follow Sallie to Chicago and then move to Missouri. They had to relocate when he was accused of bigamy and asked to move. Settling in Barton County, Missouri, first on a farm and then in Lamar, their life together was just as volatile as his life with Betsy. Harness returned fairly often to look after his business in Lexington.

In 1884, he received a telegram that 74-year-old Betsy was dying. He rushed back to be at her side, but she died before his train arrived. His son reported him holding her and saying, “My wife. Oh, my wife. If you could have lived until I got here—I had something to tell you.”

In 1894, sick with stomach and kidney trouble, aged 84, he left Sallie in Missouri and moved back to live with one of his daughters. He conveyed a deed to “Sarah Harness” for land in Missouri for $66,000, her “dower interest.” When Isaac died in Missouri, Sallie sued his estate as his surviving wife. Although she could produce no proof of a marriage—she claimed proof was destroyed in the Chicago fire—depositions had to be taken from all the children and interested parties. In the end, she failed in her suit. Isaac Harness left an estate valued at $200,000 and the majority of the estate remained undivided for almost fifty years.

I found all this when I was researching the family history. In a courthouse when you look up probate records, you might find less than ¼ of a legal file drawer. The Harness record filled one entire drawer. I was very excited when I went home to tell my mother of my discovery. As I began relating what I had found, she kept nodding. After awhile I realized that she knew all I was telling her. When I confronted her with the fact, she said that she knew all about Isaac Harness. When I asked her why she had never told me the story, she said she thought I was too young. At the time I was 35.

So I'm still pondering whether one’s right to privacy disappears with death. Certainly any modesty we nurture in life disappears the moment our soul leaves our body. And maybe there is no libel after death.

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