You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Hocking Sentinel 7.24.1890 pg. 1

The Hocking [Ohio] Sentinel, July 24, 1890, pg. 1.

In the summer of 1890, newspapers across the country ran similar notices about an unusual situation. Readers in Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin and even far-away Texas were informed that a woman had recently become a railroad contractor, and would soon be grading miles of track outside of Wellington, Ohio. At least nine separate publications printed the story in a six-week period. It is a wonderful story. The only problem? I cannot find a single piece of corroborating evidence to prove that it is true.

In the nineteenth century, before the widespread use of wire services, it was common practice for editors to exchange copies of their newspapers with publishers in other areas. These traded papers were mined for content to fill empty column space. So it is not surprising to see an atypical notice turn up in multiple places, often identically worded. Taken together, theses particular notices provide a detailed story, full of facts that, at first glance, seem easily verifiable.

A woman named Lavina Williams–familiarly known as Fannie or Fanny–was the recent widow of railroad contractor John Williams. John had been killed in Bedford, Indiana (the couple lived in nearby Columbus) in the fall of 1889, as he was finishing a job on the Evansville and Richmond Railroad for D. J. Mackey. Mrs. Williams intended to assume John’s role and complete a contract for twenty-five miles of grading work on the “Cleveland and Wellington road” outside Wellington, Ohio.

I am often asked by readers, how do you find so much information about a given topic? How do you know where to look? This post is a good example of something that should have been easy to research, but ultimately was not. I have been looking unsuccessfully for weeks for any evidence that John and Fannie Williams existed. I can find no genealogical records, nor any notices about John’s alleged accidental death in Indiana in the fall of 1889. I can find no burial records in Indiana for a John Williams who died in that location and period, nor for a Lavina/Fanny/Fannie Williams married to a man called John. Other than this batch of newspaper notices in June and July of 1890, I can find nothing further published about female railroad contractor Lavina Williams. I even searched through all the issues of the Wellington Enterprise for the summer of 1890, and found no mention of any such person or grading work going on in or around the village. (There is some activity noted around Litchfield, but that village is ten miles east of Wellington and does not fall on the rail line between Wellington and Cleveland.) D. J. Mackey was the president of both the Evansville & Terre Haute and Peoria, Decatur & Evansville railroad lines, but I cannot establish that John Williams or his widow ever worked for the man.

Was the female railroad builder a real person? I want her to be real. But as the song says, you can’t always get what you want.

UPDATE: The Bartholomew County [Indiana] Historical Society, where Columbus is located, have been undertaking an archival search at my request. They recently reported back to me that they have been unable to locate any reference to Lavina Wiliams or this story in their collections.

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