A Mystery Letter Becomes an Archivist’s Quest
By Kieran Robertson
Often the study of history begins by establishing a basic agreed upon set of facts. To begin interpreting an event or a person’s life, it’s useful to be able to consult a basic timeline of well-documented moments as a baseline from which to work. But what happens when even those basic facts elude us?
This happened to me recently when a new donation came into the Manuscripts Office. The collection included one letter, found in a small baking powder can in the walls of the donor’s house. (Both the can and the letter still have a very strong floral odor.)
The letter was written to a “Miss Anna” by one Amelia Haas, in 1901. Amelia is begging Miss Anna to allow Amelia to return to Anna’s home. She also asks for financial help, citing her sick baby Ralph as a need for some quick cash.
I offered to research this letter, not only because it was interesting, but because I thought the research would be quick and easy. The letter was found in Clermont County, Amelia’s last name was Haas, and she had a child named Ralph. That was certainly enough information to pull up some census records and get some background information about Ms. Haas.
What a fool I was!
Amelia appears once in the census. In Hamilton County. With her named spelled incorrectly. And in 1920, many years after she wrote this letter. I should have known not to pull the string that began to unravel this frustrating mystery. From that moment, this single piece of paper, now known at our office as “The Miss Anna Letter” has become my white whale, my one true quest. I just need to know.
“Emila” and Ralph Haas in the 1920 census, Courtesy of Ancestry.com.
Research is not easy. Finding the very few facts I have about Amelia Haas took weeks, many failed leads, and even help from another archive. I scoured atlases, comparing these historic maps to a modern depiction of where the letter was found (thanks Google Maps). I read and reread the letter, trying to use any little detail that I could to trace Amelia. Below is a summary of what I finally found (and how):
In 1892, Amelia Haas’s mother, also named Amelia Haas, passed away. Amelia had many older siblings above the age of 18. However she and her brother George were still children. They were adopted by a man named George Burnett of Clermont County.
This information was found thanks to the Clermont County Probate Court. They provided a copy of Amelia and George’s adoption information for me. I found out that the court had this information by taking a chance on an index of Clermont County Court records, shelved in the county history section of the OHC Archives/Library.
This information about Amelia’s adoption is certain- I’ve got a reliable record to back it up. What follows is not definite. I’ve had to do a little inferring, and I will be the first to admit that I could be completely wrong.
I believe that Amelia Haas worked in a brothel in Cincinnati on Longworth Street, c. 1900-1901. Amelia was sent away by her boss, Miss Anna, and went back to live in Clermont County with her adopted father, George Burnett. From here she wrote this letter to Miss Anna begging to return to her life in Cincinnati. I believe that Anna’s last name was Merkel.
“Some of this slum district included a long, red brick building of three stories- saloons on the lower floor, brothels and gambling houses above. In the Longworth district, when booze was king, there was a murder nearly every Saturday night. The sure-thing gamblers, the second-story workers, the pickpockets made the saloons and gambling joints of Longworth street their hang-out.” – Union Signal, 1918
This inference can be made using various clues provided in Amelia’s letter. First, she mentions Miss Anna buying her clothes at “Miss Blosses.” In 1900, Ella Bloss was a dressmaker in Cincinnati, suggesting that Miss Anna occupied the city area.
Amelia also mentions a desire to get back to “311.” In the 1900 census, 311 Longworth Street (Cincinnati) and the neighboring buildings are listed as housing many female landlords and young, apparently unemployed, single women.
Among these women is a landlord named Anna, and two girls named Pearl and Bertha. In her letter Amelia mentions her friends Pearl and Bertha, but does not include last names. However, after weeks of searching, I cannot find one other occurrence of an Anna, Pearl, and Bertha living together in the 1900 census for Clermont County or Hamilton County. Secondary sources further confirm that Longworth Street was known as a red light district in 1900.
Longworth Street in the census, 1900, Courtesy of Ancestry.com
Why, over a hundred years later, was Amelia’s letter still in Clermont County? I suspect that the squire she hired to carry her letter never successfully made his delivery.
So why is Amelia so hard to track down? And if we can’t say much for certain about this letter, why would the Ohio History Connection bother preserving it?
Certain groups of people are just harder to trace in historic records. This includes people like Amelia. Amelia was frequently moving between two cities, was likely very poor, and lost ties to her family. All of these things make it less likely that Amelia will appear in the records that we have come to rely on to trace past individuals.
For example, Amelia does not appear in the 1900 census. She wrote this letter in 1901, so we know she existed in 1900. But what if she was traveling between Clermont County and Cincinnati when the census taker came? What if she was already working at Miss Anna’s, but she was out at the store when the census taker arrived? She didn’t have parents around who would have reported her information anyways.
Aside from basic government records, individuals of a lower social class such as Amelia also appear much less often in archives. Because Amelia moved around so often, she wasn’t going to save a lot of family heirlooms (especially considering she was an orphan and her family heirlooms were likely scattered anyways). Amelia likely did not have the money to have pictures taken of her and her son Ralph. Maybe Ralph was embarrassed of his mother’s livelihood and threw away any traces of Miss Anna. Or, more likely, he was also moving around often to find work and did not have the space to store mementos of his mother.
In addition, many individuals were barred from creating the types of items that can be preserved. For example, many enslaved Africans in the United States were not given any opportunity to learn to read or write. Even if they managed to get ahold of some writing utensils, there was no way to record and preserve their thoughts on paper.
So letters like Amelia’s are rare. While we cannot pin down an exact timeline of Amelia’s experiences, the fact that she created a tangible item that we can preserve is very important. To better understand the experiences of people from the past, we need to give them a chance to speak in their own words. Words like Amelia’s are unusual. We need to preserve them at any chance we get.