Research is always fun (for me). Especially when I find what I set out to discover. But sometimes it becomes a delight when something I was not looking for falls under my purview.
Such is the case recently when I was looking into the family background of Adolphus Dexter, a midshipman who had been appointed from the state of Ohio in 1857.
Adolphus was a first generation American. His father Edmond Dexter, had emigrated from England through Philadelphia in 1823. And soon found his way to Cincinnati where over the next quarter century he built a very successful business rectifying and selling whiskey. Trade was good, helped greatly via the nearby Ohio river, which extended his reach all the way down to New Orleans.
One of my web searches turned up a diary by someone who had worked for Adolphus’s father. Joseph J Mersman was the whiskey maker’s apprentice. He was an immigrant too, who went to work for Mr Dexter at the age of 15 for a total of ten years, during which he learned everything he needed to know to go out on his own. This journal which he kept between 1848 and 1862, was unearthed by Linda A Fisher. (She was researching a cholera outbreak in St Louis to which Joseph had moved when he went into business for himself). She found more than she was looking for. It was a treasure trove of daily life in Cincinnati and St Louis for that epoch in American history. Ms Fisher ended up transcribing the entire diary for publication, and copiously and in great depth annotated the text as an aid for the reader, creating a who’s who of the people therein and explanations for the customs etc. alluded to.
And here’s where I branched out once again on a rabbit trail. Joseph had a younger sister, Maria Agnes Mersman. She lived an unconventional life. A young girl with an affinity for horses, by age 16 (1842) she was performing as an equestrian. She ran off and joined the circus that headquartered near Cincinnati and exercised her equine gifts in the ring. While in their employ, she added to her repertoire – high wire and slack wire walking, and lion taming, and married the star (and clown) of the troop, William Lake Thatcher (stage name Bill Lake), eloping with him when they were performing down in Louisiana.
I was carried further afield, following what happened later in her life. She and her husband acquired their own circus company in 1861 (the year that Adolphus graduated from the Academy and went to war). Tragedy struck in 1869 when a bully at one of the performances in Granby Missouri shot and killed Bill Lake. She assumed control of their troop at the loss of her husband.
It was in this capacity that she met her future husband in Abilene Kansas in 1871. The town marshal, James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok took an interest in the vivacious widow. And the interest was mutual. They kept up a romantic correspondence over the next five years, which culminated in their marriage in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
She was a widow again only five months later, when Hickok was murdered in that infamous incident in Deadwood.
There were more rabbit trails branching out from here, but I’ll let you pursue those if you’ve a mind to.
Now I just want to circle back to my midshipman Adolphus Dexter and indulge in a rabbit trail of a purely imaginary kind (but not implausible). Maria’s brother Joseph mentions that he gave Christmas presents to the Dexter children in 1847, and I can’t help but wonder if he could have taken young Adolphus to see his sister that next spring when she debuted her new act as a rope walker somewhere out on the outskirts of Cincinnati – a decade before he would climb the rigging in a warship of the US Navy.