Truth is, indeed, stranger than Fiction. When you have read the pathetic narrative here related by a devoted daughter of Mr. Wilbur Sturtevant, the long-lost husband and father, you will probably admit that it is one of the most romantic true stories of real life you have ever read. “Wide World” readers will be glad to know that Mr. and Mrs. Sturtevant are still alive and well, and their story is widely known on the “other side.”
They were a family of four: the mother and bread-winner; Emma, the sister-mother of thirteen or so; and the two little girls, Myrta and Myra, who were just beginning to go to school. They were a happy family, too, living their quiet life in the little village of Chagrin Falls, upon the picturesque Chagrin River. The most interesting event of the week was the arrival of the fat letter from far-away “papa,” which must first of all be read by the mother. Then Emma, with two eager listeners at her knee, would tell the interesting news it contained and the messages to each little sister, and they would say “Oh, I wish papa would come home! When do you think he will?” “When he is rich, and that will be soon, I know,” was the confident answer.
Early in the spring of 1876, when Myra was still a baby and Myrta only two years older, Wilbur Sturtevant left his little family to go to Colorado. He had before him a business career in Cleveland, Ohio, but the close confinement of office-work was telling upon his health. He resolved to endeavour to regain it, and at the same time to prospect in the rich mining district about Leadville. Discouragement after discouragement met him, however. His wife, who had been most tenderly reared — an only daughter of wealthy parents — bravely came to the rescue and supported the little family at home.
Her father had recently died, and it was discovered that nothing remained of his large fortune. Her girlhood and young womanhood had been particularly free from care or sorrow; but now all was changed. When sorrows come, they come not in single spies, but in battalions. A short time after her father’s death Mrs. Sturtevant lost her mother also; then, when she was depending most upon the cheer her husband’s letters brought, they suddenly ceased to come — most terrible blow of all. Weeks passed into months, months dragged themselves wearily on until almost a year had been spent — a time of heart sickness, of loneliness, of hope deferred and bereavement. But at last the long period of waiting seemed over. One day there came a letter with the old familiar postmark, but it was ad dressed in a strange hand. It contained meagre news — only the information that the writer held valuable papers belonging to Wilbur Sturtevant, whom he supposed to be dead. The letter went on to say that the papers would be forwarded upon receipt of ten dollars. When they came they proved to be merely letters: those the family themselves had written mainly, the wifely ones, Emma’s girlish ones, and those printed by the children. At a later date there developed the scrawl of their first schooldays. The packet also contained the gifts sent at the last Christmastide; these and the later letters had never even been opened. They were valuable papers to him who had cherished them so carefully; but the mother could not help thinking that the man who had sent them to her, and who was so eager to obtain the money for them, knew more than he cared to tell. Every effort that her slender means would allow was put forth to find some news of the lost husband. But it was all to no avail; not the slightest trace of him could be found, and presently, herself almost dead with grief, she mourned him as dead. The lingering hope that he might be living was kept alive by Emma’s ardent faith in the lost father and belief that he would return. She was his favourite daughter — a lovely child of eight when he went away. For five years his letters served to keep his dear memory bright in her heart; then followed the years of silence. Emma had blossomed into young womanhood when, one day, she began a letter to her grandmother, her father’s mother: “Dear Grandma, Do you know, grandma dear, I still think that papa will come back to us? Whenever I see a strange man upon the streets of our little town, the first glimpse of him makes my heart beat more rapidly. I never hear the whistle of the train coming into the station but I think, ‘Perhaps.’ Yes, I’m sure some day he will “Here there was an interruption; the letter (which is before me as I write) was never finished. Some weeks later fever claimed the writer as its victim, and death came to her when life seemed more full of hope and promise than the incomplete letter, which is now folded away in Emma’s little Bible, kept by the mother as one of the most precious of all things. Then, indeed, was that mother desolate. The cottage home that had been so dear seemed to mock her. The vines which grew upon its walls had been trained by Emma’s hands; the anemones and hepaticas, which blossomed as soon as the snow left the ground, were brought from the woods by Emma when she was beau tiful and bright and well. The hedge of roses along the lane; the lilac bush; the syringas and the lilies of the valley — all seemed to speak her name, for she had loved them and they her. When the first great grief had passed the mother remembered the dead daughter’s wish — that the little sisters might have a better education than that afforded by the high school of Chagrin Falls.
So in the spring of 1888 Mrs. Sturtevant took her remaining daughters to the college town of Oberlin. Here a quiet life, which lasted for eight long years, was entered upon. It was during these years in Oberlin that there occurred a circumstance of peculiar interest to this narrative — something which comes with reluctance from the pen, because the credulity of both the Editor and the readers of The Wide World Magazine will be sorely taxed. The writer can only repeat what has already been said in the letter which accompanies this manuscript, that the following is strictly true in every detail. When Mrs. Sturtevant went to Oberlin there accompanied her a young woman, who became engaged to an Oberlin student and married him. After their marriage Mr. and Mrs. Goldbach made their home some eight miles from Oberlin, at Elyria, Ohio. Mrs. Sturtevant had never been to see them in their new home, when one Friday night, after school, she determined to leave the house in the girls’ care and visit Mrs. Goldbach over Sunday. She had not previously written, nor did she know definitely in what part of the town her friend lived ; but without asking the way she went directly to the right house. Her ring was answered by the young wife herself, who exclaimed— rather inhospitably, perhaps “Why, Mrs. Sturtevant! How did you happen to come tonight?” As they went through the hall, however, the young hostess clearly showed her guest that she was welcome, and it was not until after supper that her first surprised exclamation was explained. “Shall I tell Mrs. Sturtevant?” she asked her husband. “I don’t know why not,” was the reply. “Some peculiar coincidence has brought her here.” Then Mrs. Goldbach told her story. When she was ill she had for a nurse a woman who was a spiritualist.
She was very desirous that Mrs. Goldbach should use her “planchette”, but the latter looked upon it as the greatest nonsense, and when she consented it was only that she might be amused during the long winter evenings. This “planchette” was a rude, home made affair, perhaps two feet in length, having printed upon it the alphabet, the numerals, and the words “yes” and “no”. It was upon this that the finger-tips were rested. When a supposed message was being given it moved smoothly over the larger board, but when pushed voluntarily there was apparent friction. On Thursday of that week, whenever any member of the household sat down to the board there was spelled out one name. In the evening Mr. and Mrs. Goldbach sat down, and again that same name appeared. This time there was more: “Tell Mary, to-morrow.” After a pause the pointer went to the number nine, then again came to the name which had appeared so often; it was ” Wilbur Sturtevant.” Friday had come, and a few hours before nine Mrs. Sturtevant unexpectedly appeared at Mrs. Goldbach’s door. When nine o’elock came Mrs. Sturtevant, thinking she was doing something most foolish, but impelled by curiosity, sat down with Mr. Goldbach. Scarcely a moment passed before she gave her entire attention to the strange thing that was happening beneath her fingers. The board readily spelled her husband’s name. “Ask whatever you wish to know,” said Mr. Goldbach. “I can’t,” Mrs. Sturtevant replied, shortly. So he asked the questions instead. Mrs. Goldbach sat at a table and wrote in pencil each letter of the message as it was designated. The following is a part of it: “Murdered – in – mine Indian hunting-knife.” Mrs. Sturtevant did not accept the popular belief that this phenomenon was due to spirits, but from that time until six years later there lingered in her mind not the slightest doubt that her husband was dead. But you may dismiss this incident from your mind if you wish. In 1896, the year that both daughters were to be graduated — a time when money was greatly needed in the little household there came the happy news that the widow of Wilbur Sturtevant, who had served three years as lieutenant in the Civil War, was granted a pension and back pay besides for six years. A Government detective had worked upon the case, and as no trace of Wilbur Sturtevant could be found, it was decided that his widow was entitled to a pension. But the papers were never filled up, nor was the money drawn, for almost at the same whelming tidings.
Nearly twenty years had now passed since Wilbur Sturtevant left the place where he had so many friends, and now they learned that out in sunny California, on the Sierra Madre foothills, there lived a shrewd but kindly character whose name was Wilbur Sturtevant. Doubt could not long remain. Every day brought new and convincing proofs of his identity, and finally there came a long letter which contained a sad story of betrayed friend ship, of treachery, of hopelessness, and homelessness. During all those years the lost husband and father had never sought to conceal his identity and never even had changed his name. Away back in the first days of his mining life his health began to mend, and after long waiting fortune began to favour him in still another way. He confided to a supposed friend the knowledge of a rich mineral find. How rich it really was he was not so well aware as his confidant, who thought that for such high stakes a treacherous game was quite worth while. Those were lawless days in the Western mining towns, and with comparative ease the scoundrel succeeded in his evil purpose. Making an ally of the postmaster of the little mining camp near Leadville, he wrested from Mr. Sturtevant by fraudulent means the valuable claim. At the same time there were stolen from the poor man’s camp many of his personal belongings, among which was a packet of letters.
More than that, letters to him and from him were intercepted, and in this way the unsuspecting victim was systematically cut off from all communication with his friends. After weary waiting for letters and months of despair and discouragement, Sturtevant left that part of the country, and vowed in his heart never to return or to seek to know anything of the home people who had cruelly deserted him, as he supposed, because of his unsuccessful career. This morbid fancy was strengthened by the fact that some time later he saw some of his old associates, who failed to recognise him. Nor is there little wonder that in this typical Western man, with bronzed skin and cowboy attire, there was nothing to remind former acquaintances of the well-dressed city man, who was their minister’s son. However, he conceived the idea that they did not care to know him, and from that time on he made no effort to communicate with the people in the East.
The narrow escapes and thrilling adventures encountered during those years of the castaway’s Western wandering life might easily fill a volume, but they must be passed by, as must also the account of the two-thousand-mile journey which the family took to meet the long-lost and ever-loved husband and father.
Before they left Oberlin many were the laughing remarks made by Mrs. Sturtevant’s friends about the “infallible planchette.” But the mystery was not then explained, and perhaps only partially so a few months later when the re-united family were together once more in California.
What a meeting! The writer of these lines says Sturtevant will not attempt to describe it. It was October. The San Gabriel Valley had received the first welcome rain of the season and the sun had taken on its former aspect of pitilessness for one day. When night came the family were glad to rest out on the terrace in front of the cottage to catch any faint breeze that might be blowing from the Sierra Madre Mountains. It seemed breathless, yet every now and then the long strips of bark split from the eucalyptus trees, and their leaves moved ever so slightly, sending forth the pungent odour that yesterday’s rain had made more distinct. Mr. Sturtevant was sitting with his chair tilted against a tree, and his sombrero was on his knees. The moon-lit sky silhouetted his fine profile, and brought into relief his pic turesque head with its thick grey hair. He was busying himself with the filling and lighting of a brierwood pipe. Pressing the tobacco firmly down in the bowl, he took several long puffs, and in a moment circles of smoke were rising and enveloping his head and shoulders in a hazy cloud. His pipe’s influence seemed to start retrospective memories, for he told wonderful tales of camp-life, of cowboy life, of mines, of mountains, and of desperadoes— and of mental torture beyond adequate expression.
“Seven years ago,” he said,” we were prospecting over in Death Valley. I remember the night we came through Inaker’s Pass, and made our camp near a dried-up river-bed. It was cold. Even on such a hot night as this it almost makes me shiver to think how the keen wind went through us, and how the burros huddled with their noses together while we made the fire. “After our supper of bacon and frijoles, which we had brought from our last camp, my partner went off to hunt a better water supply. I felt more than usual the loneliness of the desolate place, so I cast about for something a little more enlivening. Some rods from the camp-fire I found what I at first supposed was a rise in the ground, but it proved to be an abandoned mine which had been but little worked. It could furnish shelter from the wind, I thought, and immediately I began moving our outfit to the new abode. I built a second fire in front of the tunnel-shaped mine, and I thought myself quite cosy when at last I sat down to smoke my pipe. “Suddenly there loomed between me and the fire the most savage-looking Indian I have ever seen. He was drunk; I knew it in a minute. I sprang to my feet, for I saw the gleam of a knife tightly clutched in his hand. There he stood, armed, between me and my only way of escape. He gave an ugly grunt, and I, though keenly alert, affected indifference. “Gim’me bacon”; and he pointed with his knife to the meat I had suspended on a rope. I took it down. ‘”Gim’me flour.” That, too, I handed him. It was our last sack. “Gim’me tobac.” By this time my blood had begun to flow more calmly, and I hesitated an instant before I made over to him a commodity which is so precious to a miner fifty miles from any store. But the instant was too long: he made an uncertain lunge toward me with knife uplifted. It passed just above my shoulder, and caught in the folds of the bandanna round my neck. I jerked the knife from him and threw it down. It struck with a thud against the side of the tunnel. By a lucky chance I had escaped with a mere scratch. The Indian staggered back and muttered, ‘White man no ‘fraid Injun.’ He reeled out into the darkness, too drunk to carry out his murderous purpose.I, too came out of the hole, nearer the fire, where I sat down shivering more with fear, now that the danger was over, than with cold. Often before had I been in tight places, but the loneliness of the place oppressed me strangely, and I shuddered to think how nearly I had been murdered in a lonely mine by a drunken Indian with a hunting- knife.” When the last words fell from the narrator’s lips his hearers seemed to see them again pencilled on a slip of paper: “Murdered in mine — Indian — hunting-knife.” “When was it?” someone asked, eagerly. “When did it happen, you mean? Well, it was seven years ago this fall. I remember particularly, for along about that time I was thinking more than usual about my family back East. I longed to send a message to you, yet something held me back.” When Mrs. Sturtevant heard this she could not but feel that the message had reached her, for it was seven years ago that she had made her memorable visit to Mrs. Goldbach. Whether we call it merely a singular coincidence, or let psychology explain it as “mental telepathy,” it is at least remarkable.
Mr. and Mrs. Sturtevant now live in a picturesque home so near the Sierra Madre Mountains that their mighty shadows are cast over it while still the day is bright.
The cottage is at the “foot of the trail,” where is only the beginning of beauties. As Hamlin Garland says, “The trail is poetry; a waggon road is prose; the railroad arithmetic.” Surely there was never more enchanting poetry than this trail, many miles of which were made by Mr. Sturtevant’s own hands. There are magnificent views from it of other and higher mountains; there are the long stretches down into the valley, with its checker-board of orange-orchards and alfalfa fields. Bordering it all with its beautiful blue is the ocean, some forty miles away, where, upon a clear day, may be seen from the trail the Island of Santa Catalina. “A Califomian Paradise,” as Professor Holder calls it — Professor Holder, of Pasadena, whose well-known name so often figures in The Wide World Magazine. The distant charms are not the only ones, for the traveller upon the back of his sure-footed burro constantly meets with new delights. Hundreds of feet above and below him sweep the mountain sides, green with chaparral and fringed evergreens. There are sylvan retreats, where sparkle mountain streams, and the canyons where shine in their season the brilliant holly-berry ‘midst the dark leaves. Best of all is the journey’s end, Camp Sturtevant, of which Mr. Sturtevant was the originator and is now the proprietor. It is a little village of tents, with a rustic dining-room and a log-cabin sitting-room with a quaint old fireplace. It is shaded by large spruce and live oak trees, while bays, alders,’ and maples line the banks of the stream. The furnishings of the camp are simple and rustic, as everything must be packed up by burros. But no essential to comfort is lacking, and there is a distinct gain in novelty and picturesqueness. Various trails radiate from camp, and one may follow them with all the pleasure and glory of an explorer to wild depths or magnificent heights. For the hunter there is fine game — the deer, an occasional bear, and at long intervals there may be seen a mountain lion; while trout-fishing in the San Gabriel is a most enticing pastime. It is a pleasure to think that in the midst of such beautiful surroundings the story of two lives may end as did those fairy tales of our childish days . “And they lived happy ever after.