It was cold out but fair that night as Arthur Jasper Heflin walked along Franklin Pike. Middle Tennessee wasn’t as suburban as it is now, a place of shopping malls and celebrity sightings at the Outback Steakhouse by the Cool Springs Galleria. It was quiet once you left the pools of light by roadhouses like The Lousy Duck. Then you were under the canopy of stars and in the country of night, where the November trees were dead claws rising from graves, the green that would come in March seeming a century away.
Heflin went by Jasper. He was a laborer and farmhand by occupation, married to a lively woman named Mamie Johnson.
At some point during his walk, headlights appeared. They swayed a bit as they came down the long, gentle hill toward him. He bowed his head to keep the glare out of his eyes. He tried to step a little further toward the fence running between the highway and farmland. But something was wrong. The car wasn’t quite on the road. The driver was perhaps sleepy or drunk.
Jasper was a little drunk himself. He decided not to worry about it. A man couldn’t go through life afraid of everything. There was not enough whiskey in the world to ease that kind of fear.
Jasper thought of his occasional boss, a man they called the Bull o’ the Woods. It was an ironic name if you saw the man at a distance. He was slender and not even 5’10”. But he had the presence of a 7-footer with shoulders wide enough to haul a calf. That was a fella who wasn’t afraid of much, thought Jasper.
He looked up. The headlights of the oncoming car grew until they swallowed him.
November 14, 1937
The litany of injuries was gruesome:
Compound comminuted fracture of the right frontal bone & extensive injury to the brain (his skull had virtually exploded on the right side)
Fracture of both bones of both lower legs
Secondary shock — due to loss of blood
They formed a list of what a good 1930s American sedan of modest size could do to the human body in the wrong hands.
The wrong hands that night, according to a report in the Nashville Banner, belonged to Frank Allen of North First Street. The shattered body belonged to the former Arthur Jasper Heflin.
Heflin’s wife Mamie, that lively girl, was alone in the world.
But she still had her job. A crisp $3 a week, cooking and cleaning for Ms. Bertha, whose nerves were constantly shot. At least in part due to her marriage to Jasper’s off-again, on-again boss, The Bull o’ the Woods, Harry Brent Dalton.
Mamie knew that Harry–my great grandfather–would take good care of her.
The preceding is the first installment in a work of fiction based closely on real events. Some names have been changed to protect me from the wrath of elderly, distant relatives.
While many dates will be accurate and events will be described as they were recorded in various legal and personal documents as well as aging memories, I elected to fashion the connecting tissues myself to lend structure to the narrative.
Sources: Nashville Banner and The Tennessean via newspapers.com; a variety of archived Tennessee state civil records found via ancestry.com.
Lawrence, Kansas is 41 miles west of Kansas City. The weather in Lawrence on February 4, 1915, was “generally fair,” though there was a chance of snow in the “west portion” that night.
Edith Channel was walking west, into that snow.
There are no reliable, current records of a publication titled “Our Country” based in Kansas City in 1915. At least, there aren’t any easily found online.
The Weekly Post in Kansas City was a real paper. It began publishing in 1912 and continued through the 20s.
The Old Santa Fe Trail led travelers to California in 1915. They might pass sites still haunted by the West’s chronic conflicts. “Comanches and Pawnees,” wrote author C.A. Higgins in 1915, had once made “almost every toilsome mile of the slow passage through Kansas dangerous for the wagon trains that wound slowly across the plains…”
Slowly, perhaps near a walking pace. Edith Channel could have kept up with those wagon trains.
Miss Edith Channel, a Kansas City stenographer who is walking from Kansas City to San Francisco, arrived here last night and this morning left for Pawnee Rock. She is making the journey without funds other than what she earns on the way through selling subscriptions to Our Country, the weekly edition of the Kansas City Post. Miss Channel is a pretty young lady, and a Kansas girl, having been born in Topeka. This winter physicians told her she would have to go west and leave Kansas City or she would be liable to contract tuberculosis so she gave up the stenographic job and decided to go to California. […] She started February 24 and spent ten days visiting a brother in Topeka. The longest walk she has made in one day has been about 15 miles and she has hardly got used to the matter of walking yet but is making a little better time. She left about noon for Pawnee Rock.
She carries 14 pounds of luggage and is pretty cheerful over the prospects of the journey. she expects to get to San Francisco in plenty of time to see the fair and was particularly overjoyed here to find out that the roads were much better in the western part of the state than here. She has to make the trip now on the railroad right of way and thinks the trail road will be better to travel on.
“Miss Channel left Kansas City on the 2nd of February,” wrote the Democrat reporter. “She is making the trip alone… to the San Francisco Fair,” the article continued, “and is writing her experiences for the Kansas City Post.”
Edith Channel was “evidently not traveling for her health,” reported the Democrat, “for she has the appearance of being possessed of her full share of that article, and when she starts off impresses one with a confidence in her ability to reach her goal.”
The Democrat stated that Edith was “rather small, and dresses in a walking suit of khaki, and says that except for the fact that her muscles were a little sore from the effect of her unusual exercise she feels none the worse for her experience.
She thought she might reach San Francisco “some time in June.”
On July 21, 1915, The Santa Cruz Evening News published a photo of Edith Channel and a traveling companion, Olive Louise Woodward.
“With the three essentially feminine treasures,” wrote the Evening News, “–a curling iron, a small alcohol lamp and a jar of cold cream, reinforced with a wicked-looking revolver and a canteen, Edith Channel walked 2000 miles, alone–from Kansas City to Los Angeles.”
Edith’s journey, said the Evening News, had been made “to regain her lost health.”
A few days later, on July 24, 1915, the Fort Wayne, Indiana Sentinel published the same photo of Edith and her companion. The accompanying article was simply a longer version of the one published in the Santa Cruz paper.
Edith “never wanted for food,” she said. She’d met “many tramps and travelers,” but “they never molested or insulted me.”
“When I got to the Grand Canyon,” said Edith, she “stopped ten days.”
Edith was traveling the 500 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco with Olive Louise Woodward, “a nineteen-year-old girl who has already traveled all the way from Derby, England, to Vancouver, thence to Los Angeles, unaccompanied, though not on foot.”
Olive’s intention was “to gain experience, scare away a natural timidity of nature and eventually win her way into the movies.”
The girls were planning on 15 to 20 miles a day.
Edith Channel reached San Francisco at the end of July. “Upon arrival,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle, “she went at once to the tuberculosis booth in the Palace of Education at the exposition.”
Edith there explained to the head physician that her father and grandfather had died from the disease.
The physician examined her and “pronounced the young woman in perfect health.”
“A complete cure,” he said, “The exercise and out-of-doors life did it.”
Edith’s age was given in articles as 23 and 25. The US Federal Census from 1900 listed a 23-year-old Earl Dinsmore living with an Edith and Lester Channel, both 24. A Kansas State Census taken in March 1905 shows a 29-year-old Edith Channel living Lincoln, Kansas with a J.J. Channel and a boy of 12, Carl Hill. The next Federal Census 5 years later finds an Edith aged 34 living in Pennsylvania with a Chester Channel.
It seems likely Edith really was 39 or 40 when she died, rather than the ages she gave to various newspaper reporters along her journey west.
Some articles about her suicide stated she had been employed by the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which closed just before she died.
The lies and secrets Edith kept as she carried her pack across the west in the last year of her life don’t matter now. She was a singer; sure. A writer–okay. A photographer? Whatever.
Finding the first trace of her journey in those old papers, addled, distracted and pressured reporters haphazardly gathering the bits of her story on the way–that long-distance view was too compelling to not trace. Like piloting a time-traveling drone quietly buzzing above her head as she strode the tracks and the roads.
The vast buzzsaw of the Great War was sweeping a continent an ocean away, and soon enough, America would join the fight. Anarchists and spies were setting bombs up and down the East Coast. Inventors and innovators were flourishing.
In Kansas, a woman decided to make a new younger self. She might have just been a liar. But maybe she saw that she still looked young and saw an opportunity to grab something before it faded away. Even if she didn’t have tuberculosis–the white plague–when she arrived at the Exposition, even if that was another fiction, it no longer matters. She packed her curling iron, cold cream, a lamp, and a gun. She set out on the Santa Fe Trail. She had a purpose, that much is clear.
She must have found something she needed on her walk. It might have been her English friend Olive. It might have been the moments of fame in the papers, always a few pages back from the war reports.
Of course, it didn’t fix whatever was broken within. And Edith seems to have been forgotten outside the microfilm machines scanning papers across the years, the scanners digitizing those images.
I don’t truly know why Edith Channel made her journey. But across 100 years I can see her, a ghost in khaki with her soft hat and her pack, under the hard stars and those great skies out west that terrify, and awe.