Long before my work in museums and digital archives I worked in retail management, and I got my history fix by doing genealogical work. And whenever I stumbled upon even the slightest mention of one of my relatives in the public record, whether good or bad, it made my day. So, with each item I catalog or for which I do copyright review in the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library, I try to identify not just the creator and recipient of a document, but also any names mentioned in passing. While most of our records involve persons of note who are by no means lacking in the historical records department, from politicians and royalty to authors and famed explorers, many others include everyday people. I always try to track down these common people in the records and tag the document with their full name, and birth and death dates, in hope that some future researcher or descendant might digitally discover this record related to the person they were searching for.
That being said, I try to limit myself, as I do love a mystery and it’s easy to go down the research rabbit hole searching for someone. I tend to spend more time on longer letters that seem of some importance, and try not to get sidetracked tracking down someone for a simple reply letter. The other day I was cataloging a response TR wrote to a request to come speak. The letter was only a few lines long, and of little to no importance, but in searching for the recipient, Mrs. Claire P. Plummer of the Bide-A-Wee Home, I stumbled upon a curious mystery that piqued my interest.
Plummer (nee Pawling) made the news nationwide in a story about a "millionaire tramp" who left her one-third of his estate after only knowing her for a month or two. As a historian, I've done a lot of research on tramps and hoboes, and stories of millionaire hoboes and hobo kings were popular in the press in the first decades of the twentieth century. George W. Eccleston, a twice-divorced retired farmer from Nebraska, was estranged from his family and in ill health. After tramping around the country, he arrived in Atlantic City disheveled and sick and was checked into Plummer's Bide-A-Wee Home for Incurables and the Blind. When the home could not sufficiently care for the man, he was moved into Plummer’s home to be cared for until his death in July of 1911. Prior to his passing, Eccleston gave her an envelope to open after his death, which turned out to be a new will he had drawn up in the weeks leading up to his passing. The will reads:
The deeper I dug into the story, the more the mysteries began to appear. Despite the warning not to contest it, Eccleston’s son Charles and daughter Bessie did decide to fight Plummer for her share. Bessie died by October of the same year, only two months after her father, complicating matters. There was also a third son not even mentioned in the will. Then it was discovered that his estate was worth more along the lines of $25,000-$40,000. The will, too, seemed to have holes in it. Eccleston had it hastily redrawn on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a few weeks before his death. It was witnessed by Hazel H. Kraft and Mrs. Mary E. Leach, who were described as strangers he ran into on the boardwalk. Somehow no one involved with the court proceedings realized that one of the “strangers” who served as a witness, Kraft, was Claire’s adult daughter from her first marriage to Nelson S. Hays.
The other witness, Leach, was in and out of court for bankruptcy charges and was more than $140,000 in debt with only $240 to her name in the years prior to the Eccleston case. I also came across records of Plummer being arrested for bouncing checks for the Bide-A-Wee home a year after Eccleston’s death, and the home closing soon after. By the early 1920s, Plummer was running a different nonprofit, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, aimed at creating more livable conditions for inmates. Plummer also served as President of the Shut-In Society of New Jersey. In 1921 she was involved with another contested will in Orphans Court, for a distant relative without heirs, but she was ruled against in court, with her actions being described as fraudulent, even though the woman was likely related in some manner. At her death in 1929, Plummer left daughter Hazel a $10,000 estate, so her fortunes must have turned at some point in the mid-to-late 1920s.
The problem with historical records is that they often tell conflicting stories. Were Claire Pawling Plummer and her daughter Hazel trying to scam Eccleston or was Kraft’s witnessing the signing of the will a coincidence? Was Plummer in fact a kind woman who spent her lifetime helping the less fortunate, or an opportunist? If she did inherit Eccleston’s money, even the smaller sum, why was she bouncing checks and closing the Bide-A-Wee Home less than a year and a half later? It's hard to say definitively what actually happened, but it was sure interesting chasing the story a hundred years later.