Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mystery Solved! 1882 Diary Writer Discovered

I like to frequent antique shops regularly because they're fun and because I am always on a mission to find sample materials for teaching about archives and cultural heritage. Last year I made my best antique shop find ever when I stumbled across a diary from 1882 that covers six months in someone's life. You can read about my early 1882 diary explorations here:

The Diary Project Begins
The Diary Project - First Stop. Biddeford, Maine
The Diary Project Continues - Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, Maine

I quickly realized that my diary was from Kennebunkport. I have taken my time and do research when I get an opportunity to do it. I've puttered on the Internet looking for information about the town and its 1882 inhabitants. Last week I made my third trip to Maine to do some research in local libraries and archives there. While on my previous two trips, I keyed in on names mentioned in the diary, so I knew with whom my diary writer was friendly. I was lucky in that my diary writer included first and last names of the individuals with whom he had contact. This time, I aimed to focus in on particular events that seemed pertinent to figuring out exactly who this person is.

I first intended to start my research with a minister who appears a few times in the diary. The diary even said that he married my diarist, but the recording of a marriage was so casual, that I thought I misunderstood "This afternoon I was married..." (If this indeed was a marriage in the sense I was thinking of it, I realized that this book was most assuredly written by a man because it was addressed so cavalierly. Surely a nineteenth century woman would have more to say about this occasion?  I had other clues indicating this was written by a man, including the purchase of an overcoat and the mention of running a shop, but I still was not positive of the gender.)

This is the only mention of a marriage in my 1882 diary: "This afternoon I was
married by Mr. Lyman Chase at the parsonage at half past two in the afternoon."

Unfortunately, the research center in Kennebunkport had no finding aids. I had to rely on the knowledge of the assistant helping me. With tables turned -- archivist as researcher -- this was exceptionally hard to do. I can appreciate researchers who want to explore our vaults despite our rules to the contrary. I was in a similar boat, but the lack of any sort of collection index was particularly frustrating.

As I asked questions about the minister, I quickly realized that this was perhaps the wrong tact. I shifted gears and asked if the Center had any marriage records. They did and the booklet recording nineteenth century marriages was arranged alphabetically, not by date. Preparing for a long morning of browsing names, I was pleasantly surprised to find what I was seeking within a matter of minutes. A record of a gentleman married to a woman named Nell was written with the date my diary casually mentions its writer being married. Nell is mentioned over and over again in my diary. I thought Nell was just a friend. Turns out she's my diarist's wife. (See? A man!)

Kennebunkport. My new research home away from home.
I am not quite ready to reveal who my diarist is, but I will say that he was well-known in Kennebunkport. The information about his life neatly unfolded before me. I found out where he was buried and visited his grave. I found out where he lived and visited his home, which is still standing. I found out where he worked and think that the building may still be standing, but I need to do more research on that. What remains for me is in the details. I know who this man was. I know that there is a lot of information out there about him. Some of the things I found in my diary I suspect will shed a little light on how things worked in town, or at the very least, will tie together some long lost stories.

Mystery remains about the exact location of the diary
writer's business
The diary includes mostly just a few sentences each day from January to June 1882, but they are sentences packed with relationships, activities, and news. My elementary school-aged daughter will continue to assist me on this project. I found this latest information without her by my side, but she will accompany me on a trip back to Maine over her spring vacation. I will show her the burial site, the house, and downtown where our diary friend worked. My daughter plans to draw photos of these sites. I am also helping her to pick one aspect of the diary or this gentleman that she can focus on for her own research. Perhaps she can learn about his children. Perhaps because this is a sea side town, she might want to explore something about the beach...I will leave it to her, but will help her make a list of possibilities.

Today I welcome a new member of my historical community. I never knew him and he would never have suspected that someone like me would take any interest in him one day. But here I am. Our legacies will be woven together in a historical timeline that often takes human stories to very unexpected places.

Perhaps the next big mystery is: How did this little diary end up in a small shop on Route 13 in northern Massachusetts? I've got a few ideas for figuring out its provenance, so stay tuned!


  1. Great post, Melissa! Do you plan to track down descendants?

  2. Yes, I do plan to track them down. I'm going to try to start on that later this year.

  3. I enjoy reading your posts. Looking forward to the next one and spring vacation! Michelle

  4. So pleased at this little reveal today Melissa, I'm hooked. I hope your daughter has fun unearthing this mystery and making her own discoveries.

  5. What a wonderful discovery for you during this trip. Looking forward to hearing more about your progress. You have my curiosity piqued!