Unearthed: Aunt Edith’s First Act

Drama teacher, world traveler, film actress, and single woman on the go.

This Unearthed post has been challenging and personal for me.

My blog avatar is a photo of my great-great aunt, Edith Mack. When I began this project, I wanted her to be the guiding spirit of my research. What I know of Edith is fantastic. I dearly want to do her justice and tell her story well.

1917 edith
Edith, aged 22

However, what I DON’T know of her life is also extensive. Putting her life in my usual chronological format has been like trying to climb a ladder with missing rungs. The gaps from event to event are long.

But as she might say: The show must go on. Instead of a timeline, this one will be more like a scrapbook.

This is not the last time I will write about her. I’m not done with her yet.

What I Know for Sure

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Although Edith is my great-great aunt, my grandpa Stuart called her Aunt Edith, my mom called her Aunt Edith, and I call her Aunt Edith. It’s easier on everyone.

If I ever did meet her, I was a tiny baby. I have no memory of her, so my starting point is the stories my mom related to me. All of them are amazing — and almost all of them are unverified.

● Edith was single her whole life because her fiance was killed in World War I.

● Edith went to Russia during the Bolshevik revolution.

● A college friend of Edith’s married very well and then was widowed. The friend paid for the two women to take a limousine tour through Europe.

● Edith taught drama at the college level.

● During WWII, Edith was in a train crash somewhere outside of Washington DC. She was trapped in the wreckage for a day before they could get to her, with only candy bars to eat.

The college teaching is a definite. All the rest are either untrue, or half-true. But the stories I CAN pin down are great.

* * * *

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Blue dot: Family home on Belle Plaine, 1900. Pink dot: My first apartment. I had no idea.

Aunt Edith started out as Edith Madeline Mack, born here in Chicago, in February 1895.1

Her parents, Frank and Emma Jane, were Connecticut transplants with a 14-year-old daughter, Bessie. Four other children had died in between the two girls, leading to the big age gap. There were 12 years between Edith and my grandpa Stuart (her nephew), but 14 between Edith and her sister. My sense is that for Stuart and his brothers, Edith was less like an aunt and more like an older sister. They adored her.2

* * * *

Chicago Tribune; July 11, 1909
Chicago Tribune; July 11, 1909

Despite the age difference, Edith and Bessie’s lives would be closely connected. They would live near each other, or even in the same home, for years at a time. An early clue is this newspaper clipping from 1909. Bessie and her husband James were vacationing in Ludington, Mich., probably with their three little boys in tow. Fourteen-year-old Edith came along with them. Bessie would have been pregnant with their last son, so an extra pair of hands was probably very welcome.

* * * *

oak-park-oak-leaves-jul-11-1914-p-1
Oak Leaves (Oak Park, IL); July 11, 1914

Even in girlhood, Edith shows an exploring and adventurous spirit. She had many travels ahead.

* * * *

Chicago Examiner; Oct. 11, 1914
Chicago Examiner; Oct. 11, 1914

Bessie had graduated from Northwestern University some years before. Edith followed her sister’s path, getting a degree in English and focusing on drama and oratory.

I hesitate to say Edith was a Lisa Simpson type, but… she kind of was. She was That Girl. In college, she shone.3

Screenshot_2019-06-30 Bulletin

Chicago_Tribune_Tue__Jun_12__1917_

There’s no way to know whether my mom’s story about Edith’s dead fiancé is true. She never did marry. Instead, education and the stage were her focus for her whole life.

* * * *

Daily News (New York); 15 Sep 1921
Daily News (New York); 15 Sep 1921

This little clipping was a tremendous find for me.

The backstory is that Edith’s brother-in-law (my great-grandpa), James Shields, had embarked on his third career. He had been a minister and a well-known prohibitionist. Now he was in the silent movie business, making wholesome films with moral messages and Christian themes. This was one of his films.

As shown in the article Edith and a crew of others are on their way to Pennsylvania, where they filmed scenes for his latest film, Maker of Men.

Pittston Gazette; Sept 6, 1921
Pittston Gazette; Sept 6, 1921

I love the image of this ragtag bunch showing up in a tiny Pennsylvania town to make movies. Edith must have been in her element. It’s got such a “let’s put on a show!” feel to it. The movie came out in 1922, and was shown in churches and organizations throughout the U.S.

* * * *

Bradentown Evening Herald; Dec. 20, 1924
By 1924, Edith’s father had died and her mother was remarried. Bradentown Evening Herald (Bradenton, Fla.); Dec. 20, 1924

* * * *

europe 1925 trip
Arriving July 1925 in Plymouth, England. Returning via Bremen in September. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.

I know from immigration records that Edith had at least one trip to Europe. Could this be the limousine trip my mother mentioned? The idea of two women taking a limo tour through 1920s Europe makes me a little woozy with jealousy. It’s a Merchant Ivory movie, but for real.

I so hope this was that trip. I hope it was magnificent.

* * * *

The News Leader (Staunton, VA); July 13, 1932
The News Leader (Staunton, VA); July 13, 1932

Did Edith go to Russia during the Revolution? No.

But did Edith go to Russia? YES.

There’s so much to unpack in this little clipping. (You can imagine my face when I found it. Again: No one told me!)

The Little Theatre in Lynchburg was one of a string of theatres, all based around Stanislavsky’s concept of a “little theatre” — dramatics that were stripped down from the conventional stage, authentically human, not overblown. MODERN. the Little Theatre movement was part of a sea change in drama. You’ve heard of method acting? That came from this idea.

Edith began working with the theatre in Lynchburg around 1927, was in charge of it by 1932, and also taught drama at Randolph Macon Women’s College.

It makes sense that, ever the student, she would go to the source. But sadly, I know nothing about this trip beyond the single news clipping. It blows me away that she would do this. What a trip this must have been.

Even more interesting: In 1932, the U.S. did not have diplomatic relations with Russia. This story is why I filed a FOIPA request with the FBI this week (like a real detective!). I’m hoping fervently that there is some sort of documentation in the government’s files. My hunch is that a single woman, traveling to visit Russia, would have raised some eyebrows. At the very least, she probably would have needed special paperwork.

It will probably be months before I hear anything. Cross your fingers. ☗


Sources

[1] “New map of Chicago showing street car lines in colors and street numbers in even hundreds/Rufus Blanchard.” 1897.
[2] Social Security Death Index; 1900 US Census.
[3] Northwestern University Yearbook, 1917. Northwestern University Bulletin (Evanston, Ill.); June 30, 1917. Chicago Tribune; 12 Jun 1917; Page 7

© 2019 Tori Brovet/All rights reserved

Author: Ms. Snoop

ABOUT I was lucky to be born into a family of genealogists, and to be gifted a family tree already bristling with names. Along the way, other names have somehow found me. My job is to listen to their stories.

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