family history, Sutliff

Viola (Neal) Hardwick Sutliff

Oh, how I’ve missed these posts! It’s been far too long since I’ve written one. And today’s is exceptionally interesting. Or, at least to me. I’ve been revisiting old newspaper articles as I research my WIP. One such character I knew little about was my 2x great-grandfather’s (William Sutliff) second wife, Viola.


Viola has been a mystery to me since the beginning. Years ago, my mom and I had visited Omaha’s main library located downtown where the historical documents are stored. There they have city directories going back years. While there are a few years missing (who steals a city directory?!) they do have nearly a full set. My mom and I spent hours searching for family members who have lived in Omaha, recording their addresses and occupations.

As I searched the directories for information on my 2x great-grandfather (And current muse! He has had his own FTF post which you can read more about here) I was surprised to find him listed living with a woman named Viola Sutliff. And I can remember thinking how odd it was that they shared a last name. At the time, I naively believed her to be a cousin. Boy, how wrong I was.

 A few years ago, the Omaha Public Library acquired access to a database of the Omaha World Herald newspaper. It quickly became one of my most valuable resources for gaining information about my family. And it was where I turned with the hopes of learning more about my 2x great-grandfather after he moved to Omaha, and this mysterious woman who shared his surname.

One of the first articles about my 2x great-grandfather gave me the answer as to who Viola was. His wife.

from: Omaha World Herald July 21, 1922

I was more than a little shocked to discover this. I had assumed that he would’ve been too affected by the tragic death of his first wife (and childhood sweetheart) and dissolving of his family to remarry. But, as I evaluated the articles that followed, I came to believe that it was a marriage made by two lost souls. I found multiple articles where either my 2x great-grandfather, or Viola were involved in accidents, and the accidents always involved liquor, which was illegal during this time. Needless to say, the marriage was not a happy one. They separated soon after, and for a time lived on opposite walls of a duplex.

I’m not quite certain if they simply separated or if they were formally divorced. But ten years after their marriage, Viola passed away at the relatively young age of 52.

from: Omaha World Herald April 7, 1932

When I discovered this obituary, it brought up even more questions. I had assumed that Hardwick was her maiden name. Yet this listed a son by the name of Neal, as well as two brothers, also named Neal. Did this also mean she gave birth to a child out of wedlock?

I began the next leg of my search into Viola’s past by visiting to see if I could find her parents.

 There, I searched only the surname the name “Neal”on the page for Evergreen cemetery in Red Oak, Iowa. Eight results appeared. From those eight, I was fairly confident that “Neal, Walter L.” was Viola’s brother W.L. Neal from the obituary, as well as “Neal, Harry” being the second brother. A quick glance into the records for “Neal, Elias” and “Neal, Emily” confirmed that they were parents to Harry, which, would make them parents to Walter and Viola as well. But one thing didn’t add up. According to her obit, Viola was buried at Evergreen. Yet her name didn’t appear with the other Neals. So I decided to search “Sutliff” on a whim. And there she was. Was it too much hassle to change her name to Neal? Or was there actual love there? Questions I will never find answers to.

I visited the Evergreen cemetery site  which felt a little clunky but once I figured out how to use the search field, I discovered that Viola was buried in the same lot as both Elias and Emily, as well as Harry. There was one space in the lot that I could not find a name for. I assume it’s empty as it would have been intended for Walter, who is buried in a separate lot with his wife, Hazel.

I had two pressing questions remaining. Was her son Francis born out of wedlock? And, who was her husband, Hardwick?  I turned to to search for my answer.

First, I ran a search for Francis Hardwick and received my answer to who his father was. On 22 March 1898, Francis Dewey Hardwick was born to John H. and Viola Mabel (Neal) Hardwick. But what happened that caused their divorce? Research for another day.

Next, I began searching through census records to see what happened to Viola and Francis after her first marriage ended.

The 1900 Federal Census lists Viola Hardwick, age 20, living with her 2 year old son, Francis Dewey Harwick in the residence of her parents, Elias and Emily Neal in Red Oak, Iowa. Her marital status is listed as divorced.

Ten years later, she is now going as Viola Neal, and Francis is also listed as Neal. Was it an error on the census taker to assume everyone within the household was “Neal”? Or did she purposely change her name back?

At any rate, by the time the 1920 census was taken, both of Viola’s parents had passed and Viola and Francis are living in Omaha in a boarding house. Both are listed as Neal.

And finally, the 1930 census, which lists both Viola Sutliff and Franis Neal, along with Viola’s brother Harry, and two lodgers renting rooms in Lord Lister Hospital. I didn’t realize Lord Lister rented rooms and I’m curious to discover if they were designed as a form of early hospice care, or for low-income personages. Viola would pass away two years later.

But in my WIP, Viola’s story doesn’t end with her death. Which makes her all the more mysterious. . .

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