The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


March 18, 2012

The McAdams mystery

In an old section of Edgewood Cemetery, perched near the Ashtabula River Gulf, is a row of worn, simple tombstones that give no hint of the great mystery behind the deaths they represent.

One of them is flat on its back, dust slowly reclaiming its own, yet bearing a surname’s faint outline. Kneel there a moment, close your eyes, trace the shallow letters with your index finger and speak aloud the sensations from your finger tip: M-C-A-D-A-M-S.

Now, open your eyes, and look to the far end of the row, where a barely legible “Eliza” appears for a few minutes every afternoon as the oblique sun opens the tombstone’s eyes.

These are the only clues the cemetery itself lends to this mystery, and in a few more years of rain washing clean the slate of death, those clues also will be gone.

The scribe has upstaged the stonecutter; the paper record survived far longer than the sandstone. According to the cemetery’s record book, the deceased in this row are members of the Alexander and Rebecca McAdams family; Eliza was Alexander’s second wife.

Paper and ink reveal the mystery:

Julia died Feb. 27, 1848, age 14;

Arthur died Jan. 1, 1850. age 8;  

Abagail died Jan. 4, 1850, age 21;

Walter died Aug. 15, 1850, age 14;

Luther, followed a month later, age 12.

Rebecca died Feb. 6, 1851.

What plague or misfortune befell this family? Measles, scarlet fever or small pox? A New Year’s Day fire that claimed one life and left others to linger screaming in pain for days or months before death finally quenched the suffering? Or was this necklace of death strung by the claws of a relentless beast that stalked the farm, or the soft fingers of a family member with dark eyes and even darker motives?


Jeanette McAdams: Tall and beautiful with dark brown hair, pink complexion, a pretty round chin, ready wit and keen eye, she broke many a country boy’s heart as her lithe limbs moved gracefully along the village streets. But genetics had failed to give Jeanette eyes equal to the bounty of her other features. The windows to her world were deep set and filled with restlessness; they captured all light and gave back nothing but questions. They were as dark as the night she adored, for it was this blackness that gave cloak and venue to Jeanette’s “odd practice” of rambling across the countryside while dressed like a man. Jeanette McAdams embraced the night like a spring peeper and the male persona like a gladiator.

Predictably, an eccentric like Jeanette was ill-suited to the monotony of mid-19th century Ashtabula County, and she moved to Cleveland while in her late teens.

Her family lived about 1.5 miles east of Ashtabula Village on the North Ridge (Route 20). The home was on the north side of the road, a few hundred yards west of where Field Brook crosses the highway. If you dine at Bob Evans, it is likely your table is just a few hundred feet from where the old McAdams’ farmhouse stood.

On a cold day in February 1848, Jeanette unexpectedly paid a visit to the homeplace. The family gathered around the hearth that night, catching up on the news of the day and making preparations for the departure of Julia, the couple’s 14-year-old, about to board with a family in the village, where she would attend school.

Julia sang softly as she hemmed a handkerchief and listened to Jeanette’s stories of city life. Glancing Julia’s way, Alexander noticed that although his daughter was still softly singing, her face had taken on a chalky appearance. He made no comment about it, the carefree hours quickly passed and it was soon time to retire. But after Alexander and Rebecca dispersed to their beds upstairs, Jeanette, from the bottom of the staircase, cried out, “Mother, Julia is very sick!”

A doctor was called, but he could only confirm the family’s worst fear.

The child was laid to rest in Edgewood Cemetery. The McAdams family went about their farm work, the grief adding another layer of burden to their labors. Jeanette stayed on and assisted as she could, but never spoke of the dead sibling. And one day, she disappeared — in the wake of her departure, there was a report of a shabby tramp along the road to Cleveland, suggesting Jeanette was once again up to her odd practices.

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