Monday, February 29, 2016

From the Tennessee Supreme Court Case Files: Mary A. Bower v. Ellen Lunney et al

By Kim Wires

In our ongoing work to process the Tennessee Supreme Court case files, our staff, volunteers, and interns encounter many intriguing cases. One East Tennessee case was of particular interest - the case of Mary A. Bower v. Ellen Lunney et al.

A birth certificate for Mary (Donohue) Bower (b. 1879) that was used as an exhibit during the case.

In this court case, the plaintiff, Mary Bower, sought to prove to the court that she was the legitimate daughter of Thomas J. Donohue in order to claim inheritance rights to his estate. While the case itself did not offer much intrigue, the files included an impressive collection of family history records admitted as evidence.

In June 1940, Bower sued in an attempt to prove that she was indeed the legitimate daughter and sole heir of Thomas J. Donohue and therefore was the rightful heir to his estate. In the lawsuit, Bower stated: “I just want to say that my father’s name has to be vindicated and my mother’s – that is all.”

Ellen Lunney, the estate's executor, denied her claim of kinship and alleged that Donohue was a bachelor, having never married in his lifetime, and that upon his death left everything to his sole heir and next of kin, Daniel J. Donohue, his nephew. In an effort to prove the legitimacy of Bower’s claim, the court filed numerous exhibits from both sides and considered testimony from witnesses detailing the family’s history.

Some of the exhibits included were certificates of baptism, a will, a marriage certificate, a death certificate, an inventory of the estate, Thomas J. Donohue’s obituary, 28 letters from Donohue to Bower, six deeds, a copy of a business charter, a photocopy of a Bible record, and two unidentified photographs that most likely depict Thomas J. Donohue and Anna Kirk, who was Bower's mother. The transcript also provided additional genealogy information such as the names of family members and how they were related, when and where they were married, how many children they had, their religious backgrounds, residences, and birth and death dates.

An unidentified photograph used as an exhibit during the case. This photograph could possibly be Thomas J. Donohue.
An unidentified photograph used as an exhibit during the case. This photograph could possibly be Mary A. Bower.

A correspondence from Thomas J. Donohue to Mary A. Bower, 1907.

In the end, the court ruled that Donohue was considered a bachelor because there were no marriage or divorce records linking him to Anna Kirk. The court determined that Bower was the illegitimate daughter of Thomas Donohue. The court also noted that Anna Kirk was married and living with another man at the time of her death and had children by him. Bower was awarded $1,275.54 and Lunney was awarded compensation as executor of the estate.

Obituary for T. J. Donohue used as an exhibit in the case.
When doing genealogy research, it's easy to forget that court cases can hold valuable information, especially if a case pits family members against one another. Testimony, depositions, and exhibits could be the missing puzzle pieces of your family history. This case is a wonderful example of how the Tennessee Supreme Court Records Project can be another useful tool in your genealogy research.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Monday, February 22, 2016

Lost Counties... Bell County, Tennessee

The State of Tennessee is an ever-changing entity, evidenced by the creation and dissolution of counties throughout the state’s history. Some counties were renamed, many were proposed but never formed, and some were created and later abolished. These are sometimes known as Tennessee’s “lost counties.” James County is a famous example in East Tennessee, established in 1871, from parts of Hamilton and Bradley counties, it existed for 49 years until a referendum dissolved it in 1920.

A map of the proposed Bell County, Tennessee.

A flurry of new counties were proposed after the State Constitution of 1870, due to the reduction of size and population thresholds for creation. Bell and Nashoba counties, in southwestern Tennessee, were among those that were proposed but never established, while James County was one that actually materialized. Bell County was proposed by an act of the state legislature on December 20, 1870, created from the southern sections of Fayette, Hardeman, and McNairy counties.

An 1870 Public Act of the Tennessee General Assembly that established Bell County.

New counties are established for a variety of reasons; residents often want to have a county seat closer to home, and may also desire more local governance. It is unclear exactly why the citizens of the proposed Bell County wished for their own dominion, but they overwhelmingly did. In the referendum held on February 22, 1871, the citizens voted 1284 to 295 in favor of the new county.

The March 2, 1871 issue of the Somerville Falcon that reported the results of the referendum.

However, the commissioners of the existing counties did not relinquish the land so easily. Running through the middle of the proposed county was the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which to these rural counties was an important source of tax revenue. At least two court cases were filed to quash the formation of this new county: The Counties of Hardeman and Fayette et al v. J. C. Wells et al; and Thomas H. Cocke et al v. John G. Gooch et al.

The court case, The Counties of Hardeman and Fayette et al v. J. C. Wells et al, attempted to block the creation of Bell County, reached the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The court case, Thomas H. Cocke et al v. John G. Gooch et al, was filed in Fayette County Chancery Court by the county commissioners and, due to issues of constitutionality, reached the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In the latter case, the plaintiffs argued that Bell County was unconstitutionally established, because the number of votes in favor of the new county was not a two-thirds majority of the voting populace, just a two-thirds majority of those who voted. The plaintiffs prevailed with a Supreme Court opinion written by Judge Peter Turney, who later became Governor. Article 4 of the State Constitution at the time defined qualified voters to be “Every male person of the age of twenty-one years, being a citizen of the United States and a resident of this State for twelve months, and of the county for six months…” Casting aside various arguments presented by the defense, Turney decreed “In the case of all laws, it is the intent of the lawgiver that is to be enforced… It is to be presumed that language has been employed with sufficient precision to convey it, and …nothing will remain except to enforce it.” He goes on to say, “The language of the clause is plain and unambiguous…” and that “we can not presume that the framers of the Constitution did not understand the plain and unambiguous expressions employed to mean more or less than their face imparts.”

Thomas H. Cocke et al v. John G. Gooch et al, determined the fate of Bell County. The Tennessee Supreme Court and Justice Peter Turney ruled that the results of the referendum did not constitute a constitutional majority, and therefore Bell County could not be established.

Bell County is a well-documented example of the complex process of county organization. It is important to understand how the state and its counties came into being, and there is no better place to do so than at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Visit "Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives" online at to learn more.

Addendum: Nashoba County, seen on the map, faced the same fate as Bell County. It too was legislated into being but never jumped the legal hurdles to establish its existence; in fact it most likely stagnated as a direct result of Bell County’s failure.

An 1871 Public Act of the Tennessee General Assembly that established Nashoba County.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Friday, February 19, 2016

Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped recognizes Black History Month

February has been recognized as “Black History Month” in the United States and Canada at least since 1970. It is a time when we recognize the achievements and sacrifices of Africans and people of African-American descent.

Many people make a special effort to read about the achievements of African-Americans during February, and the Tennessee Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped would like to recommend a few titles from its collections:

  • One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York, by Arthur Browne, is the story of the first African- American New York Police Department officer, Samuel Battle (1883-1966), who also mentored the first African-American member of the Fire Department of New York. It is available in audio format.

  • Say You’re One of Them is a collection of short stories by the Nigerian priest, Uwem Akpan, about children struggling to survive in war-torn Africa. The collection was recommended by media star and adopted Nashvillian Oprah Winfrey in 2009. It is available in audio and large print formats.

  • Award-winning children’s book author Carole Boston Weatherford’s book, Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century, is a biography of African-American opera singer Mary Violet Leontyne Price. Written for children in grades two through four, it’s available in audio format.

  • Even the Stars Look Lonesome is a collection of essays by the accomplished poet Maya Angelou on topics such as aging, fame, family, marriage, sexuality, and Africa. It is available in audio, braille and large print formats.

These are just a few of the many fine books about African-American history available through the Tennessee Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped.

The Tennessee Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped is a section of the Tennessee State Library & Archives, which is a division of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s Office. For more information on the Tennessee Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped, go to the library’s web page at:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

New Maps Online, Including Tennessee’s “Bell County”

Here's a quick geography quiz: Where in Tennessee would one find Bell County?

The short answer is, "nowhere." But oh, what might have been.

A map of the proposed Bell County, Tennessee.

In 1870, the Tennessee General Assembly proposed a new county along the state's southwestern border, which would have included parts of Fayette, Hardeman and McNairy counties. Residents of what was called Bell County adopted a referendum to secede from the three existing counties, but those counties fought back - perhaps concerned about the loss of the lucrative Memphis and Charleston Railroad line.

The legacy counties prevailed in the Tennessee Supreme Court, successfully arguing that Bell County's residents hadn't met the constitutional voting requirement needed to create a new county.

Although Bell County never officially came to exist, there are nevertheless maps of what it would have looked like. And one of these maps is among the new additions to the Tennessee Virtual Archive.

The Tennessee Virtual Archive, run by the Library and Archives, has hundreds of digitized maps from counties throughout the state, which are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. These maps are extremely important to historians because they often include details about geographic features such as hollows, ridges and streams as well as human-made structures like roads, schools, churches and even individual homes. In some cases, the maps provide information about who the landowners were at the point in time when the maps were made.

In addition to the rare map of the proposed Bell County, within the last month Library and Archives staff members have added maps from many different Tennessee counties - all of which do exist. These maps show a wealth of detail about long gone landowners, houses, schools and churches.

To learn more about the maps available at the Library and Archives, go to and click on the "Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives" link under the Online Resources heading.

And stay tuned in the coming days for a more lengthy blog post detailing the history of this long lost county known as Bell County.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Friday, February 12, 2016

Don't Just Sit There... Knit Something

The Page Knit Center

Tennessee has a long history of supporting folk arts and traditional crafts. A legacy of handicrafts (such as quilting, woodworking, broom making, basket making, chair making, weaving, sewing, knitting, tatting, crochet, whittling, pottery making, instrument making, etc.) has been carefully passed down from one generation to the next. But, if one is not an inheritor of such a skill, how is it acquired? If the skill is knitting or needle craft, for many years in Nashville the answer would have been Page Knit Center.

The storefront to the Page Knit Center, from the Agnes Seals Burt Scrapbook in the Jesse C. Burt Jr. Papers, 1920-1981.

Page Knit Center was located on 21st Ave. South in what is commonly known as Hillsboro Village. The business was owned and operated by Mrs. Eugene H. (Louise “Dot” Gant) Page, Mrs. Agnes Louise Seals Burt, and Miss Mattie Sue Osborne. It opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 1950 “with one box of yarn - and a lot of flowers.” According to an article in The Nashville Banner from February 17, 1975, the proprietors “opened the store to fulfill longtime dreams each had of turning their hobbies of knitting and needlepoint into a business.” The business grew. By 1951, Page Knit Center was an exhibitor at a small business clinic held by the Nashville Business and Professional Women’s Club and, by 1975, the business had a staff of 12.

A page from the Agnes Seals Burt Scrapbook in the Jesse C. Burt Jr. Papers, 1920-1981.

Not only did Page Knit Center sell craft supplies and completed projects (such as knitted socks) but they also taught the skills one needed to complete folk art projects. Mrs. Burt was quoted in the Banner article as saying: “If you buy something from us, you get free instruction until you wear it out of here happily.”

Advertisement and business card from the Agnes Seals Burt Scrapbook in the Jesse C. Burt Jr. Papers, 1920-1981.

A page from the Agnes Seals Burt Scrapbook in the Jesse C. Burt Jr. Papers, 1920-1981.

Page Knit Center also promoted knitting and needle crafts as a form of art therapy. The Banner article stated that “more than one Nashville doctor has sent patients suffering from bad cases of the nerves to the knit center for a bit of therapy.” And a newspaper ad for the center proclaimed: “Ease Cigarette Nerves through KNITTING.”

A page from the Agnes Seals Burt Scrapbook in the Jesse C. Burt Jr. Papers, 1920-1981.

Just like so many of the old traditions, Page Knit Center has faded into obscurity. The business was sold to Elizabeth Scherer in 1979 (Mrs. Page having sold her share in 1976) and later closed its doors for good. However, its story and memory live on in the archives reminding us to learn a new skill and carry on Tennessee’s traditional arts. In other words: “Don’t Just Sit There! Knit Something.”

For more information on Page Knit Center and Mrs. Agnes Burt, take a look at the Jesse C. Burt Jr. Papers ( at the Library & Archives.

To view historic images of Tennessee’s folk art and craft traditions, please see the Arts, Crafts, & Folklife Photographs ( and the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project ( Collections on TeVA (Tennessee Virtual Archive).

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hidden Hazard: Exploding Soda Fountains

Lately carbonated beverages have been taking a beating in the media. Especially in their larger sizes, “sodas” are pilloried for their contributions to poor nutrition, obesity, and Type II diabetes among all ages. It wasn’t always so.

Modern carbonated “soft drinks” descend from the soda fountain, which dispensed these beverages on demand to earlier Americans. Our images of this wholesome institution contain no shadow of any hazards associated with these sodas, or with the fountains that purveyed them.

“Soda Fountain Photograph” (#4483) -- Henry Sudekum’s Ice Cream Store on Broadway in Nashville (1904). The store’s soda fountain dispensing station is on the right behind the counter.

Such hazards did exist. In August, 1872, Harper’s Magazine observed: “…there is considerable danger attending the manufacture of soda water. Frightful explosions sometimes occur, from the carelessness of the operator, or unnoticeable defects of the apparatus.”

At least two such explosions did occur in the heart of Tennessee’s capital city.

On May 12, 1881 the Nashville Daily American ran an article entitled “A Frightful Fate. J.R. Turner Instantly Killed by a Soda Fountain Explosion. His Skull Crushed to Pieces and His Brains Scattered.” The explicit details of Turner’s injuries, suffered in his store at 15 Broad Street, would gratify the most morbid viewer of contemporary forensic crime shows.

On May 13, the same paper published a follow-up story reporting an interview with J. C. Wharton, of “the well-known druggists” Wharton & Co., “as to the nature and causes of soda fountain explosions, in connection with the accident by which Mr. R. J. Turner lost his life.” Wharton reassured readers that such explosions were not associated with the ornate soda fountain itself, but with the pressure tanks used to create and store carbonated water. These tanks were generally located at the back of the store which housed the fountain. (Mr. Wharton, we suspect, did not want to discourage trade at his own establishment’s soda fountain.)

From the May 12, 1881 edition of The Daily American, reporting the death of J. R. Turner in a soda fountain explosion. A contemporary news outlet would probably edit out the more grisly details.

A shorter article in this edition, “The First Soda Fountain Explosion,” reported that such an event had previously occurred “…where Billy Fisher now has a saloon on Union Street. A man named Adam Henderson, on the 4th of July, 29 years ago, while charging a fount, was instantly killed by its explosion.”

From the May 13, 1881 edition of The Daily American, a retrospective report of an 1852 explosion and fatality. The date given for the explosion, the 4th of July, appears to be in error.

The date reported was evidence of sloppy reporting. The interment records for the Nashville City Cemetery show that A. Henderson, “killed by explosion,” was buried there on May 16, 1852. The cemetery’s official history (p. 27) confirms that “poor Adam Henderson … was killed in 1852 when the soda fountain at the Union Street confectionery shop exploded.”

Nashville’s soda fountain explosions were hardly unique. A cursory search on the internet yielded accounts of other fatal blasts in locations as diverse as Chattanooga, New York, Pittsburgh, Winchester, Massachusetts, and Adelaide, South Australia.

Compared to disasters like the Sultana riverboat fire and the Dutchman’s Bend train wreck, soda fountain explosions killed relatively few Tennesseans. Today we have eliminated their dangers, partly by replacing the fountain soda with the bottled variety, and the soda fountain with the convenience store. In the process we have created a new health hazard, far less horrific, but far more widespread.

The interment book of Nashville City Cemetery gives Henderson’s burial date as May 16, 1852. Cause of death listed is “killed by explosion.”

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Friday, February 5, 2016

"Alone In His Field"... The Book Art of Bernhardt Wall

What could someone convey in artwork roughly the size of a postage stamp? If you were master etcher Bernhardt Wall, a great deal.

Our Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) contains a unit on Wall, showcasing his talents with art from his volume, Following Andrew Jackson. Also, when delving into a folder of correspondence between Wall and former State Librarian and Archivist Mary Daniel Moore, we located a miniature volume entitled Walliana pasted to the top of a 1947 letter. A self-portrait of Wall, “Ye Etcher,” is included in the little book, as well as a detailed image of Abraham Lincoln, who is the subject of an 85-volume set in the pictorial biographical series Wall began in 1931. Wall even works into the tiny volume the historical origin of his 400-year-old art form with an illustration of monks. He writes, “As did the Monks of old I personally design, etch, print, and bind my books.”

This tiny volume is not much larger than a quarter.

Bernhardt Wall's self-portrait in miniature.

Wall's artwork stands out for several reasons. Wall used a steel pencil to etch his images and text in reverse in wax onto copper plates that were then immersed in acid. He considered himself a painter/etcher due to the artistry required to manipulate and print the etched plates. Once the plates were prepared, Wall inked and hand-printed each page of his books before binding them. Wall began his career as a commercial artist. Prior to etching, his artistic mediums had been watercolors, pencil, and ink. He had, however, received early tutelage from etcher Henry Reuterdahl and master printer, etcher, and caricature artist William Auerbach-Levy.

A closer look at Wall's self-portrait.

Wall began etching books in 1914, and he was the only known etcher at the time who etched, printed, bound, and sold his own volumes. The prolific Wall produced 140 etched books and never lost what he called his “itch to etch.” The quote that appears in the title of this blog post comes from Mary Daniel Moore and references his uncommon endeavors.

Wall met Moore on a research visit to Nashville in the 1930s. Correspondence in our Bernhardt Wall Collection between Wall and the longtime state librarian and archivist begins in 1935 and extends to 1949. Moore assisted Wall over the years in obtaining images upon which to base etchings in his biographical series. His subjects included Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Andrew Jackson, Edwin Markham, Lafayette, and J.M. Whistler.

Moore convinced Wall to stage an exhibition and lecture in Nashville for her Centennial Club in December of 1935. You can get a sense for Wall’s artistic process, his tireless work ethic, his frequent travel for research and exhibition, and his numerous limited edition projects come through reading these letters.

Wall lectured on etching at many places, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, the University of Missouri, and the National Library in Madrid, Spain. The British Museum, the Library of Congress, and Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Brown universities house his books, and the private collections of J.P. Morgan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Henry Clay Frick also contain his works.

A sketch of President Abraham Lincoln.

Additional Wall miniature books are held by the Huntington Library and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A & M University has a significant Bernhardt Wall manuscript collection, and Wall’s alma mater of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee received a large archival collection of Wall correspondence and artwork. Lincoln Memorial also maintains an impressive digital exhibit fittingly entitled, “Following Bernhardt Wall: A Pictorial Biography of the Etcher of Books.”

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is proud to house in its Bernhardt Wall Collection 12 bound volumes, in addition to the aforementioned letters. We encourage patrons to visit the manuscript section of the Library and Archives and explore the world of pioneer etcher Bernhardt Wall.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Library and Archives Joins Instagram

The Tennessee State Library and Archives has opened an Instagram account as part of its ongoing efforts to share the wonderful books, maps and other materials held in its collections.

Instagram is a social media platform that allows individuals and groups to connect to one another through photos, videos and key terms, which are identified by hashtags. By following different individuals, groups and subjects, Instagram users become part of a larger community of people who share their interests.

Visit tnlibarchives on Instagram for our latest posts.

"This is a great new communications tool for the Library and Archives," State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill said. "Instagram is a platform that's popular with many younger people, so hopefully we'll reach some of them for the first time. Regardless of the users' ages, though, Instagram is a great forum for sharing digital images of historical significance. We have so many resources here that more people would use if they simply knew about them."

The Library and Archives operates on several other social media platforms. It has its own Facebook page and this blog, both of which were launched in January of 2013. The organization also has a Flickr account.

Posts concerning the Library and Archives also sometimes appear on Secretary of State Tre Hargett's Twitter account, which was launched in October of 2009.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped Hosts First Book Club Gathering

On a wintery Wednesday, the Tennessee Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped (TLBPH) held its first-ever book club! It was designed specifically for patrons of the TLBPH, who were invited to participate in person or via the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ toll-free conference call line.

(The book club program is open to anyone who wants to attend in person, but only LBPH patrons can use the call-in option.)

On the designated day last month, a group of 15 staff members and patrons participated in a lively discussion of Harper Lee’s recently-discovered book, Go Set a Watchman.

The discussion was led by Susan Gordon, an avid reader and archivist in the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Participants discussed a variety of topics, including Harper Lee’s uses of humor to relieve tension in her books. The discussion also explored whether the Atticus Finch character, heroically portrayed in Harper Lee’s first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, was actually a racist. There was no consensus on the topic.

The group also discussed how both books explored change—and resistance to it, which seemed relevant to some of the race-related issues of modern times.

During a discussion about the theme of duty, the group talked about whether the character Scout should return to her hometown of Maycomb to care for her father, Atticus Finch, and whether Finch was a better father or lawyer.

TLBPH hopes to have book club discussions four times per year. The next one is scheduled for sometime in April. For more information, contact Ruth Hemphill, TLBPH's outreach librarian at (615) 741-3917 or

TLBPH is a section of the Tennessee State Library and Archives, which is a division of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office. For more information on the TLBPH, visit:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State