Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mystery Letters

I was tidying up in the log room the other day and ran across the old letters and photos of anonymous people from back in the early 1900's that we had found at a yard sale this summer. Although there is nothing earth-shaking in them, I get a strange sensation of time-traveling every time I read the letters or look at the pictures. The letters talk of visiting, shopping, and local news in the gossipy style of a day when people didn't have telephones and the mail was the main avenue of communication. The photos depict happiness and sadness (the one of the baby in the casket is chilling).

Perhaps it was serendipity that a strange story landed in my work email today as part of a Google Alert for "West Virginia" and "library." The article tells the story of a strange letter sent to a man who had been dead for years. Odd that anger and hurt could survive through generations and lead to investigation into just who the recipient really was.

That got me wondering what other "mystery letters" might have surfaced over the years, and sent people scrambling for answers long after the principals in the letter were past caring?

Quite a few, I learned. A few online searches turned up the following:

An angry German letter writer vows revenge for a wrong perpetuated, she believes, many years ago. Only problem? No one by the name to which she sent the letter seems to have ever lived in the town in Pennsylvania to which it was sent.

A letter written in 1927 arrived at its destination in 1994. No one by the addressed name had ever lived at the address, apparently, so the young woman on her way to a new life in Peru may never have known why she received no response.

Was Mrs. Jefferson Davis really the author of this late 1800's letter that details the life of southern women during the Civil War?

A letter fragment contains bits of important Western US history: "the letter weaves a harrowing tale of starvation, mutiny, and cannibalism."

How did letters written in 1950 get inside the walls of a trolley car abandoned at a much earlier date?

A letter in code sent to the Fermi Accelerator Lab in 2007 is still apparently not completely cracked.

Bits and pieces of a torn-up letter from the 1800's help reveal some family history.

Was it murder or suicide? Was the letter an attempt to frame her husband, or a call for revenge from the grave?

The lost Lincoln letters: where are they now? Do they truly exist?

Everyone in a tiny Irish village gets a handwritten letter from a stranger. Who sent them, and why?

For a storyteller, this could be a treasure trove of material--or for a writer, an entire book (and if you want to give it a go, by all means feel free to use these links as a starting place!). In my father's and grandmother's many boxes of letters and photos there are several that left us wondering who the people were who sent them, and what they were to our family.

When we sort book donations at the library, old letters, photos and cards often fall from the pages of books. Apparently no one thought to check before packing up the items to donate, and there is no way for us to track back to the owners.

I wonder how many of you have found an anonymous letter in a book or in the belongings of family who passed on, in a house you lived in or somewhere else?


laoi gaul~williams said...

oh my i have just spent a happy hour, when i should be working on my studies of Homer, going through all of the links here...what joy!
the only thing i have ever found in a book was a shopping list!

Granny Sue said...

Isn't it intriguing, laoi? I've found letters (one recent find was written in French), photos, bookmarks, canceled checks, a paycheck, receipts, tissues, pressed flowers, candy wrappers, a dollar, speech notes, and all kinds of other stuff. I actually have a box in my office of the variety of stuff we find here, thinking maybe a display might come of it one day. But even the used books I buy contain the same kinds of things.


You are into real treasure now. I bought my first box of old letters 15 years ago when I first started storytelling and they seeded one of my programs - Uncommon Threads. That opened the door for me to realized how valuable this kind of connecting is. Letters, especially handwritten are like drawings - as close as we can get to those lost folks. Lets do an evening on these stories from letters!

Granny Sue said...

Sounds like a plan, Ellouise!

Karen Chace said...

Hi Granny Sue,

I did indeed find some old letters, written by my step-father to his first wife as he traveled by train for his Army training for WWII. It opened up a new window into the life of a man I thought I knew. I plan to write a story about it one day.

Thanks for sharing your treasure trove.


Angela said...

Hey Granny Sue!

I haven't found any long lost letters but we did find a picture of an old man with his chihuahua on his lap when we were tearing down our old house. Sadly I tossed it.

Janet, said...

Very interesting post, Susanne. Dad has all the letters he and mom wrote when he was in the army in the 1940s and I have a letter from my aunt to my mom when she was pregnant with my oldest sister, she was warning her about St. Francis Hospital, saying they would save the baby and not the mother if something went wrong. I've got old school books with scribblings inside the covers, poems, weather conditions...etc. I love reading them.

Granny Sue said...

I would like to write or tell a story about my Dad's letters one day too, Karen. I also have many letters written by my granny and aunts in England to my mother. Nothing earth-shattering in them, but the everyday details of life in their times are fascinating. Sometimes the stories to be told take longer to come to the surface--that's where I am with my Dad's letters. What to tell? What is the thing that needs to be told? How to tell it? The questions every storyteller faces, but when it's personal, it's even more difficult.

Granny Sue said...

I've tossed some things that I've later regretted too, Angela. Don't you wonder who the man was, and about the little dog? Ah well, you may find other things later on that will tell you another story.

Granny Sue said...

Janet, I bet that one day you'll write a story about those letters!

Rowan said...

Old letters are like a window back into time, fascinating things. I have no really old family letters but when I am gone my children will find a stash of letters written to me by my husband before we were married and letters from my mum and various aunts and cousins. All of those will be a window onto my life. I don't have time to follow the links right now but shall come back later and read them.

Granny Sue said...

Perfectly put, Rowan. Windows back in time--that's exactly what they are. You can hear the writer's voice again.

hart said...

I have a little postcard with a nattily dressed teddy bear on it. The card is addressed to my stern grandfather Templeton, calling him "My Darling Tempe". The card was sent by his own father while he was out west for a TB cure that I know he never made it home from. It is so odd to have this little scrap of paper outlast both the men. --Jane

Susan at Stony River said...

Wonderful! I never found an old letter by accident, but I did used to go to PRONI (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland) and just read old letters in their archives. I was supposed to be working LOL.

Granny Sue said...

Aha! Archives! I never thought about that. In some ways reading the letters makes me feel like a voyeur, knowing things about these strangers that I am sure they never intended for my eyes. And yet, it also feels like I am honoring their memory too.

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