Devil's Head Diary

The Mysterious William H. Brown


My paternal grandmother was tiny, about 94 pounds fully-clothed and dripping wet. I seriously doubt that anyone ever described her as a handsome woman. Think Granny Clampett — without the looks. She was stubborn, headstrong and as fierce as a banty hen. She did not cotton to socializing, church-going or idleness. Granny Clampett — without the charm.

As a child she had been regarded as sickly and frail, and she was. But she lived independently and managed her farm until her 96th year and only then did she begrudgingly accept assistance.

After her death, I happened upon additional information in an old leather-bound church record. The record runs from 1855 to 1871 and spans an interesting 16-year period in Missouri history.

The first six and a half pages are devoted to Minutes of Session. Seldom is more than one line of the leather-bound volume skipped between recorded notes. However, in 1859, the record becomes sporadic and less detailed. After the March 10, 1861 meeting, a half-page is left blank and the next entry, written by my great-grandfather begins at the top of the next page. It simply states: 1866, September 17.

“Now about this time a National difficulty occurred and the church became somewhat scattered and in a disorganized state.&rdquo

The 19 words representing a five and a half year gap are a singular example of understatement and an insight into the way unpleasantness should be handled — unpleasantness doesn’t warrant mention. (Unfortunately, dear readers, economy of phraseology and mention of unpleasantness is not a genetic trait.)

As an 8-year-old, I knew as much about my paternal grandfather, William H. Brown, as a casual reader would know about the Civil War from that cryptic entry in the New Mt. Pleasant Church registry.

Needless to say, there was unpleasantness associated with that shadowy character — W. H. Brown — because no one ever, ever, ever talked about him.

This was so ingrained in the family culture that I sensed that displays of overt curiosity might just lead to a fate similar to that of the proverbial cat.

However, little pitchers really do have big ears, and I reconstructed a biography based upon astute observations and a smattering of overheard conversations. The most significant occurred on a Texas-hot summer day. I was diligently minding my own business on the porch swing while my grandmother and a neighbor chatted nearby. My ears pricked up when the conversation veered to: “The day Mr. Brown died…”

The neighbor described a trip into town as a small boy where he had witnessed the very public death of my mysterious ancestor. He described blood on the red granite steps, and the agony of Mr. Brown in his death throes on the steps of the post office.

Since I could read, I knew that chiseled above the post office door were the letters B-A-N-K, and that does not spell “post office” in any language.

I had seen enough cowboy movies to surmise why tales about my dad’s dad were taboo.

Intrigued, further little-pitcher-style investigation ensued and the mystery deepened as new facts were revealed.

The marriage had been forbidden and she had been disowned by her doting father.

Shortly after the marriage, her groom left Missouri and headed to Texas alone.

She followed but her journey was interrupted when my uncle was born in Oklahoma Territory.

Within a year after their reunion in Texas, she was pregnant again.

Her husband died before that baby — my daddy — was born.

It was an epic story. Headstrong but naive girl defies parents, flees, has a baby and another on the way when her beloved dies on the steps of the B-A-N-K. Woman faces down gossip and community condemnation, raises two children alone, manages a farm, and when her parents lose everything in a sketchy financial deal she takes them in and supports them in their dotage.

Wow! My fantasy “Woman-Undaunted” script wrote itself in my head. By the time I was 40, all that remained was figuring camera angles and selecting the cast.

Truth was revealed when my brother and I were sorting through the mementos of Grandmother’s long life. Imagine my surprise and, yes, chagrin, to have my whole-cloth fabrication ripped asunder.

We learned that the Most Reverend William H. Brown had died when he went to deposit the Sunday collection. The move to Texas was in search of a drier clime, not an escape from the law. He was a victim of tuberculosis, not a shoot-out or a vengeful bounty hunter.

My movie was never made and my whole family history had to be edited and re-worked. It was interesting to learn that my brother had constructed a different and slightly racier story about the star-crossed lovers — one that explains the dramatic differences in looks and stature between my Daddy and his older brother — but I remain scandalized for having been raised in a family without a family scandal.

Carolyn Wiley is an award-winning humor columnist who lives in Longbranch.