The Innocence of a Place
By Margaret Ronald
13 January 2014
According to the most popular story about the East Braxton disappearances, Edwin Wilbraham claimed just before the flood that his sordid past had finally caught up to him. This, like most of the stories, bears little relation to reality; Wilbraham didn't have much of a past to be sordid, unless you count thirty years as a county lawyer. But the story sticks—after all, if there wasn't something wrong to begin with, why would everything else have happened?
This is the sort of circular logic that I keep running into. There is no evidence that any of the students at the ostentatiously-named Braxton Academy for Young Girls were mistreated, but because they went missing, people assumed the school must have been the reason for it. The neighbors never reported even a peep of impropriety, but there must have been some unspecified depravity behind their innocence. Even a century later, justification after the fact has become what passes for history.
Granted, there isn't much to work with outside of said justifications. Only a few shreds of material evidence survived the events: a few incomplete and water-stained notes in the school's daybook, a broken rowboat lodged in a tree, water damage to the first story of Wilbraham's house.
The photograph of fifteen little girls in navy blue smocks and white pinafores, staring out at the camera as if facing a judge.
The place where I live these days is nothing like the empty, evocative hills of East Braxton. I've driven through the Midwest several times, and the blank horizon punctuated by abandoned brick buildings is worlds apart from these crowded glass-and-steel edifices. Even the foundations are different; my apartment complex was built on fill, as were the surrounding city blocks. Dredged up out of the lake, it is possibly one of the newest places in the country, geologically speaking. Even most of what I keep in the apartment is new; I've never been one for haunting thrift stores, and I hate hand-me-downs.
Robbie used to say that my preference for new things indicated a deep-seated need for a clean slate. It's simpler than that; if I want a tangible past, all I have to do is return to my work. Which I do, often, and which irritated Robbie more than the shininess of my countertops.
This marks the fundamental difference between us as historians. Robbie believes every minor detail tells part of a greater story, while I see instead the stories people make up to justify what has happened. Even when, as with East Braxton, there is nothing that can justify it.
There is one contemporary report from East Braxton: Florence Ibbotson, a fifteen-year-old girl from Swampscott, Massachusetts, had come out west to stay with her aunt and uncle that summer. Confined to her bed for unspecified health reasons, Ibbotson had brought her father's telescope and used it to stave off boredom by watching her surroundings. Under other circumstances her record would be a fascinating list of minutiae; as it is, it remains the only eyewitness account of the disappearances. However, Ibbotson's description is usually dismissed; scholarly regard for the diaries of fifteen-year-old girls is not particularly high.
This is, in fact, what first drew me to the case, as I'm inclined to accept an eyewitness account over later interpolation. The rejection of Ibbotson as primary source puzzled me considerably, although I understand a little more these days. I suspect attitudes toward my own scholarship will be similar fifty or a hundred years from now.
DeLellis notes Ibbotson in passing in his study of female journalists of the 1930s, linking these early descriptions to her career with the Tulsa Record and short-lived "Boston marriage." He believes that the record represents a "shivering moment on the edge of sexuality, denying it while fascinated by it and ultimately consigning it to enigma." Frankly, there is about as much cause to speculate on Ibbotson's sexuality as there is about Wilbraham's sordid past or my countertops; it becomes, like the "curse" story, an ex post facto rationalization, as if that would cause the account itself to go away.
Here is what we know about East Braxton: the cluster of houses barely deserved the name of town. Edwin Wilbraham's house stood closest to the Academy, with only a well between them. Both overlooked a bend of the river that separated them from the other few houses of East Braxton, including Ibbotson's uncle's house.
On August 13, 1911, heavy rains caused the river to flood. The rapidly rising waters reached the doors of Braxton Academy, cutting them off from outside contact. As an act of charity Edwin Wilbraham opened his house to the headmistress and student body of fifteen girls, ages eight to fourteen. His own house, though slightly smaller than the school, was on higher ground.
Ibbotson describes Wilbraham "running back & forth with a cape flung over his head to shepherd even the last to his door." Comparing this figure with the white-haired, dignified lawyer shown in county photographs makes for some amusing imagery, though I'm certain he didn't find it amusing at the time. The girls knew Wilbraham well, as he'd given a few guest lectures and was friends with the headmistress, Ginevra Farles. (And yet again, we find later interpretations take this for a sign of something sinister. Robbie in particular claims they must have been lovers.)
The last note from that day concerns Grainger Schutz, sometime-groundskeeper for both Wilbraham and the Academy, heading to the well that stood between school and house. Ibbotson describes his hesitant, careful gait as if he were stuck in the mud with each step, pulling one foot free and starting to turn back only to set it again in a line toward the plain stone of the well.
If Ibbotson is to be believed, Schutz was the first. While her record breaks after this observation—her uncle had called her to supper—there is no further mention of Schutz. Of the justifications afterwards, the one that spread farthest was that he had gone mad and attacked the girls, disposing of their bodies in the flood before drowning himself.
I've checked the history of Grainger Schutz and found nothing to indicate any basis for this. He was a handyman who worked for several local farms, no criminal record, no hint of scandal. It's all clearly, crushingly normal, as bare of reasons as the walls of my building are bare of ornamentation. Only his disappearance from the record stands out, swallowed by time and an inconvenient lacuna.
Ibbotson's record picks up the next morning, after two fathers came by hoping to help their daughters. Ibbotson's uncle seems to have reassured them that Wilbraham was taking care of the girls, and given the state of the river at the time, it's understandable that the fathers decided to wait it out. Ibbotson herself continued to watch through her telescope off and on as the rain continued.
I can certainly sympathize; even though the rain here is hardly as bad and the risk of flood practically nonexistent on the new fill, after a while one does start looking for any distraction. The sound of the rain is monotonous but not unpleasant; what is mildly disturbing is how the rain on the glass changes the quality of the light, turning it from gray to an undersea green. It is sometimes easy to believe that my entire apartment is beneath the water somewhere, submerged deep under sky and stone.
I find distraction in writing up my notes—as Ibbotson did, later on in life. I wonder if she, too, discovered inconsistencies as she went along, if she found the drumming of rain as conducive to a meditative state. Surely that would explain her time in Kansas; surely that would mark yet another similarity between us.
At the time, though, Ibbotson found a different sort of distraction in pointing her telescope at Wilbraham's house, where despite the rain a strange game appeared to be in progress. As Ibbotson puts it:
Three or four girls stand at the doorway, then one runs outside. Sometimes the others run to catch her; sometimes they hold on to the doorframe as if it were an anchor, and it must be Mr. Wilbraham or Miss Farles who runs after. They or the girls catch their friend & pull her back into the house. First Cassie Garlin, then Beatrice Silber, then Victoria Bahn. And now Cassie again; she has nearly made it to the water, but Miss Farles has pulled her back, dragging her heels in the mud.
This has happened six times in the last hour. Once Miss Farles herself kept running past Sadie & Mr. Wilbraham had to grab her around the waist and carry both her and Sadie back to the house. I think if it had not been Sadie, who is the smallest at Braxton, he would have lost one of them.
It is as if they seek something in the water, but they fear to leave the house and fear to let their schoolmates leave.
I did some follow-up research into children's games in the Midwest in the 1910s, but was unable to finish it to my satisfaction. Lately I have found it difficult to spend time in the library stacks, due to a sensation that veers between claustrophobia and mania. It is all too easy to fall victim to such feelings in those dark aisles as the motion-sensitive lights forget my presence and shut off one by one.
That the relevant sections of the library are all several stories underground is, I once believed, irrelevant. Robbie claimed it must be linked to his theory of chthonic psychoses, but I drew the line at being considered a case study. I am not a subject. Neither are the girls of the Academy subjects for amateur psychoanalysis; their "game" is no more a manifestation of their psychological disturbance than the cleanliness of my apartment is of mine. (And, as the notes stack up on either side of me and even drift onto the floor, that cleanliness becomes moot.)
The first conclusion that many draw on reading Ibbotson's account is that the girls were trying to escape—but if so, why try one moment and recapture a fellow the next? And why would the headmistress attempt escape, when by this paradigm she would be considered a captor? Both questions assume that there was something to run from at Wilbraham's house, which is certainly what fires the more lurid imagination. (See the "true history" Waters Rising, which reads like a pulp novel, all breathless scandal and insinuation. Robbie gave me a copy when he heard what I was researching; I've since given it back with errors marked.)
I think Ibbotson has the right of it, though she does not fully articulate it: the girls were not escaping from anything, but running toward something instead.
Ibbotson records the girls running out of the house eighteen separate times, noting when she could their identity. Her account breaks briefly—the result of another family interruption—and when it restarts, she seems shaken. Small wonder why, as the description that follows is of Miss Farles and one of the girls struggling at the edge of the well. "Struggling" is inaccurate, but it's unclear what would be accurate, and Ibbotson herself acknowledges this:
It was Victoria Bahn, I am sure of it. She is the only one with yellow hair like that. I think she must have fallen in the well, but I do not know how she could have done so or even crossed the water to reach it. Miss Farles was trying to pull her out & she hung over the rim of the well like laundry on the line. They were yelling at each other. I could not hear what they were yelling but I think they were fighting. I thought for a moment that Miss Farles might be trying to push her in but she wasn't. She was pulling. She grabbed her arms & pulled but Victoria was pulling too & she slid back out of Miss Farles hands & Miss Farles fell on her backside she had been pulling so hard. Miss Farles sat in the mud for a long time then stood to go to the house. Then she turned around & went back for her.
The record ends there with a wide blot of ink, as if Ibbotson thought to start again but could not decide how.
"Went back for her." The more I think about it, the more uncertain I am about that line. I've read nearly every article Ibbotson contributed to at the Tulsa Record, including a number of disasters, fires, floods, and tornadoes, many of which demonstrated people's individual acts of heroism. Yet at no point does she ever use the phrase "went back for [someone]," even when it is clearly accurate for the situation described. Ibbotson appears to have a marked aversion to the phrase—an aversion I find I am beginning to share. (For example, if Robbie came back now to this apartment drowning in paper, I doubt he would be coming back for me.) If I were DeLellis, I would posit that this is one of the few clear points where East Braxton had a definite effect on Ibbotson's later work.
However, I'm not DeLellis. I can only guess at the reason: that Ibbotson knew, somehow, that though Miss Farles did go back, she did not go back for anyone. She was not in a position to rescue Victoria Bahn, not even to rescue herself.
It took a good deal of digging—especially once it became difficult to descend into the library stacks—to find more information on Ibbotson herself and her later career. In the end, I had to contact DeLellis directly, resulting in a mildly humiliating back-and-forth over the point of my research.
Following the breakup of her "Boston marriage," Ibbotson traveled back east, but only got as far as Kansas. In 1938, she checked into a hotel and spent four days in isolation. Hotel staff reported hearing her typewriter incessantly, even at night, though as the four days coincided with a week of rain one wonders how clearly they could hear anything. On the fifth day, she burnt what she'd written, walked out of the hotel, and disappeared.
Little investigation was spent on Florence Ibbotson's disappearance, as she had no family and few close friends to push for one. She was as alone as I am, it seems. I find the image of her writing in that hotel room compelling, whether she was composing a tell-all confession or assembling her own notes or even succumbing to "unconscious writing" (a phenomenon I've noticed a bit in myself, as I go without sleep to finish these notes). To me, it is less important what she wrote than that she wrote at all.
The contemporaneous appearance of a major sinkhole nearby is, I must believe, a coincidence.
The view from my window is all rain, murky and indistinct. If I did not know the other buildings were there, I would be hard pressed to believe it. It doesn't help that I've printed all of my notes and stacked them on top of my books; the view outside is now mostly blocked by pages and pages on East Braxton, a greater quantity of detail on paper than what remains at the site itself.
According to contemporary records, the rain stopped overnight, but the floodwaters did not recede. Ibbotson continued to watch, but there was nothing to see. Wilbraham's house was quiet and the Academy was empty.
Actually, this is misleading as well. Ibbotson clearly describes the water levels at multiple points during her record (understandably, as the river was nearing her uncle's house as well). On the morning of August 13, she describes the steps of Braxton Academy as dry, while water had crept up to the door of Wilbraham's house and "spilled over the threshold."
I have gone over the elevation maps several times. Wilbraham's house was situated at least eight feet higher than the Academy, hence why he'd offered it as sanctuary. For the water to be up to the doorstep, let alone inside the house, Braxton Academy would have to be inundated.
The easiest assumption is that Ibbotson is mistaken. But I find I can't believe that. The easiest assumption to make about East Braxton in general is that something caused it, that "every atrocity has its seeds in a past horror" as Robbie puts it. I've pointed out to him that this is a just-world fallacy, and he insists that it is not. He believes that regardless of the girls' personal innocence, something must have come before to cause the disappearances. I don't believe that, and I refuse to make the easy assumption of Ibbotson either. She deserves more.
Ibbotson further describes "a rowboat pulled up by Mr. Wilbraham's house, with several furrows next to it." The rowboat gave cover to the official story: that the girls went out after the rain stopped and capsized in the still-dangerous floodwaters. It's not unheard of for such things to happen, but the explanation does not hold up. Even assuming a larger rowboat than the one described, it would have taken at least three trips to lose all of the students, never mind Wilbraham himself.
Ibbotson continued to search for any signs of movement, and at last Wilbraham and three of the Academy students emerged from the back of the house. Ibbotson describes how the girls pushed the rowboat partly into the water and got in, then waited for Wilbraham. He stood by his house for several minutes ("holding the frame of the door tight", as Ibbotson puts it), then joined them and began to row across the floodwaters. The flood should have carried them away, but either Wilbraham was stronger than his years suggested or the current had eased. They beached the rowboat on the other side of the water, near the old well, and two of the girls got out immediately. In Ibbotson's words:
They went in. They went into the well. It was like they were jumping a fence in a game. I shouted but only Uncle heard and he called up to be quiet. I am quiet but they still jumped in.
When I looked away from the well Mr. Wilbraham & Cassie who is eight were standing beside it. They were holding hands & they were looking back at me through the scope. They were looking back at me. [This line is written in heavy printing and underlined.]
Mr. Wilbraham bent down and cupped his hands together & Cassie put her foot in them as if he were helping her up onto a horse. He gave her a boost & she put one leg then the other over the well. She sat on the edge, kicking her heels, then slid over into the well. Mr. Wilbraham waited till she was fully down, then descended after.
Note the choice of word there: "descended." Not jumped. I get the image of Wilbraham's white head slowly disappearing, step after step, as if he were simply descending a staircase.
Robbie, when I showed him this part of the record, decided that the well must therefore have been part of an "Indian burial ground." I disliked the idea, but completeness is important. I researched Native American tribes in the area prior to settlement and even spoke to a few Potawatomi. They had nothing to say about it (and one was mildly offended by the "burial ground" insinuation). Robbie sulked, as he does when proven wrong, and insisted that they must be hiding something. This proved the last straw in what little of a relationship we had, and I asked him to leave.
I do not regret doing so; if he cannot handle a contradicted hypothesis, then he has no business pursuing history, our relative records of grant funding notwithstanding. Although I do admit that the apartment has taken on a deeper emptiness without his visits. Even leaving doesn't help, or I imagine it wouldn't; the apartment is on the fifth floor, but I keep imagining that I would go down six, seven, eight floors, past the sound of rain and the green-washed gutters. It is a long, long stair, farther than I could see even if there were light, and there is something at the bottom. Something other than the fifteen all in navy and white, who are waiting very patiently for me.
The rain is now slackening, but the light in my apartment remains submarine and uneven. I could go outside, I think. It is light enough that I could walk for a while. I could easily do so, and something deeper than instinct tells me that I should.
Obviously, I need to keep distracting myself. I will write, as Ibbotson wrote.
With or without Ibbotson's record, the stories were quickly embroidered by people trying to figure out what had happened. Eventually the pattern of justification settled in: either the girls had been stupid enough to get into the boat, or Wilbraham had not been trustworthy, or Schutz had taken out some personal madness on the lot. All easy answers, none adequate. Ibbotson was condemned for using a tragedy to gain attention, and her record ignored.
A few months ago I visited East Braxton. My photos of the place are more scenic than useful, although I find myself gazing at them more and more, as if they were windows out into a place without rain. There wasn't much to see in 1911 and there isn't much to see now. Wilbraham's house has since been razed to the foundation; the Academy is open to the sky, its brick walls only a shell. The hills are fields for dairy cattle, and cowpats dot the grass.
The well itself has long since been filled in, leaving only a circle of stones embedded in the ground and a faintly paler shade of grass. I did some poking around but did not want to disturb that sandy fill. Whatever was there has since moved on.
I mean "moved on," of course, in the sense of public opinion. I’m certain that is what I mean.
If we accept Ibbotson's version of events, then the question is no longer "how did they disappear?" It becomes twofold: "why did they go," and "where are the bodies?" None were ever found, in the well or outside it.
I found a note in one of my margins just now. I don't remember writing it, but then I've produced a lot of writing in the past few days and don't remember the details of that, either. This must have been from my last venture into the stacks, when I had to run out before the forgetful lights caught up with me. The answer to both questions, it reads, is the same. They are with what called them.
It's a useless note. You would think that distance would be enough to muffle any call. Probably Ibbotson thought so; distance and time were her bulwarks against what happened, but she was no historian. She did not know how frail such things are, how time can be a conduit as much as a barrier. What did she think would happen, I wonder, writing in that Kansas hotel room? Even distraction must end eventually.
Robbie is convinced that for something truly unnatural to have happened at East Braxton, it has to have been presaged in the history of the place. I asked him, the last time we spoke, whether he would believe the same if something happened here, on new land and the blank slate of this building. Of course he said yes. Even I, as unremarkable as I am (his words), must provide a reason for something to happen.
I can't agree. If the innocence of a child counts for nothing, surely the innocence of a place is similarly meaningless. I think maybe sometimes the inexplicable comes out of nowhere, regardless of how new or untouched that space is, regardless of intention or action or even belief. Sometimes there is no good reason for history.
Robbie—when he bothers to speak to me these days—tells me that I spend too much time on this work, that I should get outside. Perhaps he's right. It's stopped raining, although the gutters are still heavy with greenish water. I should get outside.