family history, Sutliff

The Mystery of Margaret Sutliff

My genealogy research influences and inspires so much of my writing. So much, that two of my three novels have been solely based on my family research. And the first novel has certain aspects of my childhood home, which has seen many generations come through it’s doors, beginning with my great-great grandparents, Bernard and Elizabeth (Meier) Schimmer. Elizabeth passed away in the home on 19 March 1919. Their daughter, Anne, my great-grandmother lived there with her husband, Thomas Kennaley. Thomas also passed away in the home on 30 May 1960. The home in The Children’s Field has a similar layout to my own childhood home, albeit, it’s a bit more ornate in the story. The attic also plays a significant part in the story while I have never been inside the attic of my own home. Although, when my mom once told my grandmother that I was writing a story based on the “Big House” as it’s called by my family, my grandmother asked her if I was writing about the attic, which honestly sent chills down my spine.

But this post pertains to my second novel, The Gritty Ones, and, in small part to my current WIP. While I was researching for my current WIP on the life, death, and trial for murder of Belle Sutliff, my 2x great- aunt and sister to my main character, William Edward Sutliff, I discovered an editorial piece that Belle had written prior to her death had been published in part by the Monticello Express, a newspaper published in Monticello, Jones, Iowa, located about thirty miles northwest of Oxford Mills, Jones, Iowa where Belle and William lived. I had tried searching for it through the Anamosa Library newspaper database, but quickly discovered that the Monticello Express was not part of the database. I then tried searching their website to no avail. So I emailed the editor who quickly responded with an extremely helpful link to the database. A search of”Sutliff” brought up the article I was looking for, and then some.


One such article, dated 21 October 1920. Beneath news for Center Junction, Jones, Iowa was the following newsfeed:

Mr. and Mrs. Olin Watson, of Maquoketa [Jackson County, Iowa],
visited in the Thomas Daw­son home, last Sunday. They took little
Margaret Sutliff home with them.

My jaw dropped. And here’s why.

You can read more about my Sutliff line here and here, but I’ll give you a not-short synopsis of the family. Because, as you’re about to read, things are hell-ah complicated.

Margaret Sutliff was a younger sister to my great-grandmother, Irene (Sutliff) Wildrick. Their parents were William Edward and Myrtle Louella (DuBois) Sutliff. Myrtle,  following a complicated birth – made more so by the fact that the family was under quarantine with Scarlet Fever – passed away due to septicemia in May of 1918. The baby, Mildred, survived, and sometime after Myrtle’s death, Irene, Margaret, Mildred, and three other siblings’ – Lillian, the eldest, Evelyn, and Gilbert – were separated and sent to live with various relatives. Another son, the second eldest, Milburn, remained at home in Manilla, Crawford, Iowa.

Lillian went to live with Myrtle’s mother, Mary, who by then had fled to South Dakota and was living in Custer; Evelyn was taken in by Thomas and Della Dawson (listed in the article above). Della was the children’s aunt, the half-sister of William Edward. Both Irene and Gilbert were taken in by Edward and Eva (Sutliff) Bumgarner of Gooding, Gooding, Idaho. Eva was William Edward’s sister. Baby Mildred was adopted by Thomas and Della’s daughter, Alice and her husband, Dr. J.M. Young.

But what became of Margaret?

For years, my only clue was a newspaper article that was published in the Omaha World Herald on 15 October 1940.

Omahan Reunited with Sister After 23 Years Apart

Mrs. Freeman Wildrick, 28, of 3706 Arbor street, returned Sunday night from Los Angeles where she met a sister, Mrs. Margaret Fuller, 24, whom she had not seen in 23 years.

The sisters, two among seven children, were separated after the death of their mother in Manilla, Ia. Margaret, a year old baby in frail health, was placed out for adoption.

An older sister, Mrs. Robert [Evelyn] Livingstone, Anamosa, Ia., heard of the whereabouts of Margaret about two or three years ago through the aunt who had assisted in arranging Margaret’s adoption. Through Mrs. Livingstone, the Los Angeles reunion was effected.

This article began the long and arduous search for Margaret. I eventually discovered that she had been adopted by John and Ada Drysdale. At some point, John and Ada either divorced, or Ada passed away, as he remarried a woman named Ruth. They eventually moved to Amarillo, TX. John died sometime before 1940 when Margaret and Ruth ended up in California.

Through research and in speaking with family members, I learned that Margaret was extremely ill at the time of her mother’s death. While my heart aches at the thought of these siblings being separated – and especially at the knowledge that Margaret was the only one to be completely torn away from her birth family – I can understand why she was given up for adoption, and to a doctor. He would’ve had the means, both mentally and financially to care for Margaret in her illness.

Margaret was married at least three times. Albert Fuller, whom she was married to at the time the article was written; Berthold Symnack whom she married on 7 May 1949 in Los Angeles; and Albert Lerwold whom she married on New Year’s Eve 1961 in Clark County, Nevada. She did not have children. On 14 October 1993, she passed away in Downey, Los Angeles, California.

But I still have questions.

Who was the aunt who had orchestrated her adoption? When was she adopted? Was Margaret aware of her adoption or did it come as a shock? Why was Lillian the only child to go to live with Myrtle’s family? Myrtle had two sisters: Chloe, who also lived in South Dakota; and a half-sister, Belle, who lived in Eastern Iowa.

While some questions will never have answers, the article from the Monticello Express did answer some. From the article and my research before, I assumed the children were separated sometime between September 1918-1920. Because in September 1918, men aged 18 to 45 had to register for the draft which would’ve then included William. And in 1920, William Edward and his son Milburn moved from Manilla to Omaha. As most of the children can be found on the 1920 census, I assumed they were living with their surrogate families prior to the enumeration, which took began in January of that year, rather than in early spring or summer as in previous censuses.

But what made my stomach flip was the name of family who took Margaret home. In The Gritty Ones, I had written Margaret as being taken in by Della along with Evelyn. But I wrote that she wasn’t recovering and that Della had been unable to afford her care and so she was given to a doctor and his family to ensure Margaret received the best possible care. At the time, I regretted not going with my original intuition: that Margaret was taken by Myrtle’s half-sister, Belle. Because as I was researching, there was a constant thought running through my mind: why didn’t Belle take in one of the children?

An article I had found in the Anamosa newspaper database, dated 15 August 1907 of the Anamosa Journal:

Mrs. Myrtle Sutliff and 4 children from the west are visiting relatives in town.  She is a sister to Mrs. O.O. Watson and a sister-in-law to Mrs. F. Dawson.

I assumed that Myrtle was close to her half-sister, to have traveled from Manilla to Center Junction. So why wouldn’t Belle have been there for Myrtle’s children?

Turns out, she was.

Belle’s story has been a mystery in itself as well. She was born in 1876 when her mother, Mary Morton, was only fifteen. Mary, who had also been separated by her siblings following her mother’s death, was working for and living with a neighboring family. Mary was raped by a farmhand, I believe to be John Norton, who was working a nearby farm to where Mary was residing in those years, but following the birth of Belle, disappeared.

Belle was then taken from Mary and was adopted by Ellen Eldred of nearby Wyoming, Jones, Iowa. But I believe she was allowed contact with Mary as Belle’s relations with Myrtle may indicate. These were also small towns where everyone knew each other and adoption laws were nearly non-existent at the time.

In 1899, Belle married Olen Watson in Chicago, Cook, Illinois. She gave birth to two children: a son, Glenn, in 1904; and a daughter, Leola, in 1907.

And, in 1920, she took care of Margaret Sutliff for a time. Confirming what my gut was saying all along.


I may never know who orchestrated Margaret’s adoption, whether it was Della or Belle or both, but I did learn one thing from this:

I should always, always trust my intuition.

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