James Tilton looked across the Eads Bridge to the St. Louis streetlights casting a glow on the Mississippi River. While waiting for his shift to end, the railroad worker paused to enjoy the cool evening breeze. It was then he spotted a lady’s purse sitting near the tollbooth. Inside it had a few bills along with a letter addressed to the local Catholic relief agency. Where was it’s owner, Marie Hollearn?
It was shaping into a mystery. A mystery that began in Southern Ohio.
Richards Family Settles Circleville, Ohio
In the mid-1800s, German families were emigrating to southern Ohio. Many were escaping the German political revolution, while others wanted the opportunities in a new country. The Richards family were looking for both when they arrived in Chillicothe, which is south of Columbus.
Conrad Richards (1836-1900), who emigrated with his parents, had tried several trades in his life. Finally, he settled on barrel making and started the Cooperage Manufactory company. Barrels were in high demand, which contributed to his success. At the height of operations, he had twenty employees. Associates described Conrad as a clever and shrewd businessman who had a pleasant disposition.
His wife, Teresa Kellhofer (1846-1910), was also German. Her father had grown produce. Unlike Conrad, her family arrived in Ohio earlier as she was born there.
In the late 1870s, their fourth of seven children, Marie Richards (1874-1906) was born. She was educated; her parents provided her with a life of leisure. Often, she and her first cousin, Elizabeth Grohe (1875-1956) were listed in the society pages of the local Chillicothe paper as visiting one another or attending extravagant parties.
The paper describes Marie as “well known in area” and a “charming young lady.” When she announced her engagement, the wedding was an anticipated event. Several high-society people were part of the ceremony.
James Hollearn Raised in Kentucky
James Jacob Hollearn (1868-1905) had a different life. He was the youngest son of Irish immigrants, John Hollearn (~1830-1893) and Margaret Barry Hollearn (~1830-1912). He grew up in Montgomery County, Kentucky with a large family. Both parents worked humble jobs to support the family.
Of all their sons, a better future for him was planned. In 1870, they moved to Bath County, KY, to be near the Sharpsburg Academy, a private school. James attended the exclusive academy for a few semesters. His prospects for the future seemed boundless.
Around 1890, James’s older brother, Frank Hollearn (1854-1922), moved his family to Cincinnati, so, he could run a daily market. A few years later, James joined the family and worked as a clerk in a nearby market. They lived in the Walnut Hills area, which is east of downtown. It was a popular area that was flourishing.
Marie Has a Fairytale Wedding
Today couples meet online, so it is not odd if they live far away from one another. James and Marie lived hours apart; how could they have met? One possibility is through work. Nearly all of Marie’s uncles worked in some facet of the grocery supply business. It is conceivable the families became acquainted through that context.
In the fall of 1896, the couple married in what was described as the most beautiful wedding Circleville had ever seen. On the much-awaited day, Marie wore a stunning silky white gown with a delicate lacy veil. Her bouquet had pink roses. The wedding took place on a Wednesday morning at the St Joseph’s Catholic Church. Marie’s cousin, the popular Elizabeth Grohe, was the maid of honor.
Conrad Richards hosted the wedding reception at his modern, elegant home on East Mill Street. The tables were set and ready to receive many special guests. Fresh pink roses that matched the bridal bouquet decorated the smart white tablecloths.
After the event, Marie changed to a chic blue and green going-away suit trimmed in green velvet. It was designed in Paris. She seemed like a princess, riding off to Cincinnati with her prince.
Nine months later, Richard Conrad Hollearn (1897-1972) arrived. He was named for his grandfather, whom the parents respected so much. The couple added two daughters in the coming years: Bertha “Birdie” Hollearn (1900-1990) and Agnes Hollearn (1903-1978).
James had a lifestyle to support, an expensive one. He had help from his father-in-law.
Reversal of Fortune Tied to Father’s Demise
As James was growing his family, he was also growing a grocery business. He moved the market from Walnut Hills into downtown Cincinnati. His home was a few blocks away on Main Street.
Conrad supported the couple and guided the business. Around 1899, Conrad sells his cooperage business. His health is in decline. He is asthmatic, possibly from his early silver mining days in Germany.
In 1900, Conrad dies unexpectedly. Within a few years, the couple experience a reversal of fortune. Cincinnati is not growing at the same pace as other cities. The family doesn’t have the same generosity as Conrad. James’s business fails, which creates enormous debts to repay.
Their extended family provided financial support, but it was not enough. The business failure weighs heavily on him. His brother, Frank, had moved to Chicago, so he did not have the wise council he might have relied on. He takes factory work as a clothing dyer. It was long hours for little pay.
The couple is forced into Cincinnati’s tenement housing. Tenements are apartments for the under privileged. Most have small rooms with no windows. They were unsanitary, loud, and unsafe; some lacking basics such as a fire escape. It must have felt like a tomb to Marie.
Often, she was found sobbing, as she described her former affluent lifestyle. Clearly, this was not the path she expected for herself. Neighbors later report that James was rarely seen; she was alone.
St. Louis Held Promise for Marie Hollearn
Her friends encourage Marie toward the hustling city of St. Louis. By 1900, it was America’s fourth largest city with no sign of slowing down. The city seemed dripping with opportunity for a young mother with little skills.
In July 1905, Marie took this advice. With a trunk of belongings, Marie and the children take the train to St. Louis. She abandons James; she does not even say goodbye.
St. Louis did not pour miracles on Marie. Finding stable income as a single mother proved an incredible task. At first, she may have hoped that James would join her. He could walk away from the debt and have a fresh start. It would not take long for her to realize it would not happen.
Twelve days later, the police would find James dead in his rented room. He had died several days earlier, but because he was alone, no one found him. The patrolman reported he had a dollar in his pocket and some letters. Perhaps one from Marie?
Many thought he died of a broken heart, but the coroner rules it as heat stroke. Was he so defeated that he sat in a hot room until death took him? His mother brought his body to his Kentucky home for burial.
Young Richard Travels by Train
Marie was on her own in a new city. She did not have any friends or family. Her sister-in-law, Margaret “Maggie” Hollearn Kearns (1864-1945), offered to take her oldest child, Richard. She lived in Mt. Sterling, KY with her husband, John J Kearns (1856-1926), and young daughter.
Within two months, Marie realizes that is a wise choice. She brings her seven-year-old boy to a Southern Railway train at Union Station. Around his small neck, she places a string with a tag on it.
Then, just as if he were common cargo, she places him on the overnight train to Kentucky. He would never see his mother again.
The story was covered in the newspapers. Richard explained he was the richest he had ever been. The other passengers had given him nickels and dimes. He had several addresses of those who asked him to write to them once he reached safety.
He had made friends with the conductor, who provided him with a place to sleep. The kindness and concern of these strangers highlights how unusual his solo journey was.
These few months must have been traumatic for him. Richard had moved away from his father to a new city. Then he was sent alone on the train to his aunt’s house. Both parents, in their own way, abandoned him.
Sisters of Mercy Provide Aid Young Widow
Even with two children, Marie struggled because she could not sustain housing and hold a job. There were not any government social programs available to single mothers. The services were provided by religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church. The Archdiocese of St. Louis ran an industrial school called The Sisters of Mercy. They had a social support program for single parents. The institution supplied training, food, and shelter for these children.
Most likely the girls were living with the nuns there while their mother worked various jobs to support herself. Marie’s friends described her as morose. She had threatened suicide often. Her hope that the situation would improve vanished slowly.
Marie Hollearn Warned to Leave Town or Face Jail
In the summer of 1906, she was fired from her job at the department store. Within a few days, George Saunders[i] evicts Marie from her rented room on Washington Ave. Later, he claimed he did not approve of the women friends she entertained, so he asked her to leave.
From there Marie rents a room in a boarding house. Saunders further alleged Marie called his wife with stories about him. On the morning of July 26, Saunders finds Marie. He threatens to have her arrested if she does not leave town within twenty-four hours. What could Marie have told his wife for him to make such an extreme demand?
Marie is shaken but she believes his threat. She goes to Union Station to buy a ticket for her daughters and herself. Later, she tells friends she could not leave because she did not have enough money for the tickets. Marie was unsure if her daughters would be released into her custody. She was trapped in an impossible and unforgiving situation.
Her landlady, Jennie Roberts, said Marie would not eat because she was so upset. Marie sent a message and confided that “it will be all over for me” if the reply was not positive. Was the message to the nuns about custody of her daughters? Maybe she asked someone for a loan or a favor? We only know she did not get the answer she needed.
Marie Seeks Answer at Eads Bridge
In 1874, the Eads Bridge opened to connect St. Louis, MO to East Saint Louis, IL by reaching over a mile across the Mississippi River. The arched bridge stands over six stories high. The height allowed large steamships to pass under it while allowing street traffic on top and a train on the lower level.
As they built the bridge, the men had to fight the Mississippi River’s strong current. Many died and were injured while building the huge pylons in the water. The water rushing towards its destination in the Gulf of Mexico did not slow for anyone.
Marie believed she was out of options. Her fairytale youth in Ohio had not prepared her for the real world. She hastily penned a letter and headed toward Eads Bridge as the sun cast its final glow over the day.
Marie made her way onto the bridge and walked toward the east side. It was literally the last mile she would walk. Maybe she was gathering her confidence or hoping someone would approach her with a solution. The city lights danced on the dark water rushing away from St. Louis.
Nearing the tollgate booth, she placed her purse where it could be found. Then she turned and walked back toward the center. It was Marie’s last act, but no one saw her descent into her watery grave. Just as in life, she was invisible.
People who attempt suicide in this way confessed the plunge toward the water seemed like minutes, not seconds. During the fall, they regretted the choice. People are surprised to learn that it is not the fall that kills you. Death occurs from the blunt force trauma of your body hitting the water; it is much like a car accident. If the impact alone does not end your life, the current pulls your body down causing you to drown. It is a violent and painful exit.
Where is Marie?
The railroad employee found her purse, but not her. The bridge authorities contact the police. At first, it was unclear if Marie had left town or died. There was not a body. No witnesses came forward.
The police are suspicious. They delivered the letter to the institution. In the letter, Marie expresses her despair, her guilt, and her hopes for her children. The letter was posted in the St. Louis newspaper.
The nuns felt bound to follow the orders in the letter. They asked the landlady, Mrs. Phillips, for Marie’s possessions. Mrs. Phillips refused their request straight away. The trunk would stay in the rented room until the lease period ended. Besides, she was not sure Marie was even dead. The message was clear, they were making assumptions and overstepping. It was her last effort to protect Marie.
The police contacted the family. Her brother-in-law, Frank, sent word that he wanted answers. Everyone was confused about what had happened to Marie, even though they knew the most likely scenario.
Four days later, the mystery ended. A ferry company found her body in the early morning hours. She had washed ashore on the Illinois side. After being in the water that long, a body does not look normal. Instead, it is discolored and bloated. Her clothes and a locket of hair were taken to Mrs. Phillips, who confirmed it was what Marie was wearing.
The Sisters of Mercy felt the children were best kept with them. The head mistress said the girls would remain in the orphanage until they were of age saying it was their dying mother’s wish. They said even their family members would be refused.
Marie’s mother sent instructions for a modest funeral and had her buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in East St. Louis.
This is a true story based on public records and newspaper stories. James Hollearn is my great grandmother’s uncle. This family’s story stayed with me for weeks because it was so tragic. Usually, I start from my family member’s viewpoint. However, this was Marie’s story. Sadly, in her father’s attempt to safeguard her, he achieved the opposite.
All was not lost, Marie and James had children with resilience. Despite their traumatic childhoods, they became productive adults with families of their own.
Richard Serves in WWI
The Kearns raised Marie’s son as they promised. Richard joined the Marine Corps and served in the 54th Company during World War I. When discharged, they noted he had “excellent character.” He moved to Chicago, near his Uncle Frank, where he was a sign painter. He married and had two children. His first wife died shortly after they married. Around 1945, he and his second wife moved to Los Angeles, CA. He died in 1972 and was buried there.
The Sisters Were Bonded
The girls were raised in the orphanage. Twenty years would pass before this system was abandoned. Modern thinking was that society should find ways for children to stay with a parent or in a foster home.
Birdie and Agnes were bonded for life. After leaving the orphanage, Birdie worked as a telephone operator in St. Louis. She married and had a son. Agnes lived with her family for a few years before moving to Chicago. She took work in a department store. She married but never had children. When Birdie divorced her husband, she moved to Chicago and lived with Agnes.
Later, the sisters moved to San Diego, CA, perhaps to escape the Chicago winters and be closer to their brother. Agnes died in 1978. Twelve years later, Birdie died. The sisters are buried in the same grave in Cook County, IL.
Family Group Sheets
- James Hollearn Family Group Sheet
- Conrad Richards Family Group Sheet
- Margaret Hollearn Kearns Family Group Sheet
[i] Was not able to confirm the details for either of the property owners. This information came from the St. Louis Times-Dispatch.