Mysteries of the Archives: the Case of the Confusing Correspondence
By Kieran Robertson
Join me, dear reader, as I investigate this library’s most confusing conundrums, peskiest problems, and marvelous misunderstandings in another edition of: Mysteries of the Archives.
Recently I was working with a large scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings from a nearby Columbus neighborhood called Linden.
Archivists don’t really like newspaper clippings. Most modern newspapers were printed on inexpensive paper that deteriorates very quickly. Also, if the clippings aren’t associated with any other material, they don’t really offer any new information. If you want to know what the newspaper reported that day, you can check our large newspaper collection.
But then a few envelopes slipped out of the scrapbook pages.
Looking at the envelopes I noticed a few clues:
With these clues in mind, I guessed that the letters were Pvt. Wolber’s letters home to his girlfriend.
However the first letter reads: “Dear Harriet, You are a sweet, thoughtful, and clever girl (and this isn’t a love letter either).” The letter goes on to talk about Wolber’s girlfriend. So Theory #1 didn’t hold up for long.
I continued to skim the letters, noticing that Harriet also received notes from another soldier, Lt. Copley. He must have known Harriet’s family, because he writes “give my regards to your folks.”
Another line from Lt. Copley caught my eye:
“I miss school—especially these Sept. days. Many pleasant memories are wafted back to me—the good times we had, the pleasant classes, the friendly, even mischievous faces, the plays I used to read to you, and the thousand and one interests we shared together.”
Now I was thoroughly confused. Were Harriet and Lt. Copley classmates? Why would he be reading plays to her? That seems like an odd thing for two friends to do.
Before digging further into the letters, I figured I would expand my clue notebook by finding Harriet in the census. Since the envelopes were postmarked 1942, I checked out the 1940 census.
According to my findings, Harriet Donavan was in the 5th grade in 1940.
I was very confused by this information. It didn’t seem to me that Harriet was related to either letter writer- they addressed her as friend. How many adults do most 7th graders know (besides their family members)?
So I turned back to the newspaper clippings, waiting for the answer to appear.
Fortunately, I spied a familiar name: Lieutenant Paul G.H. Wolber. The article was entitled “Former Linden-McKinley Teacher Marries.”
One sentence cleared up all of my questions, “Lieut. Paul G. H. Wolber of the United States army, a former English and Science teacher
at McKinley was married Thursday…”
Her teachers! Harriet was writing letters to her teachers while they served in World War II.
As I dove deeper into the letters, certain phrases I had skimmed over started to pop out, as if they were being highlighted before my eyes.
“I was surprised to get an air-mail special from one of my special pupils”
“I’ve heard how splendid is the new building.”
“And give my greetings to your teacher, Mr. Briggs.”
“I can’t help but wonder how many more Septembers will come and go before I see you all again.”
And so, I was reminded of one of the most important lessons for detectives of history: never assume that you know the people of the past.
Sometimes we can use prior knowledge to understand history. For example, I know that a lot of archives have war letters sent to wives, girlfriends, parents, siblings, and close friends. However, we must always remember that each new situation can be different. Through primary sources, individuals from the past can speak for themselves.
Hopefully you can use this lesson to do some of your own exciting sleuthing.
Until next time, dear reader.