The Eccard Family Tragedy Explained

From The Lima News (Lima, Ohio),
14 Oct 1915, Thu • Pg 10, Col 4


One of the more outrageous family stories I share with my genealogy students is the double suicide of my 3rd great-grandparents, the Eccards, in 1915. I had used their tragic deaths as a way to illustrate how to be prepared for finding sad and unexpected events in your family tree.  But now, in light of new evidence, I can use them to illustrate how family lore can absolutely be wrong and why you need that paper trail to corroborate (or disprove) things you’ve been told.  Such is the case with the Eccards.

When I first found their death certificates in the process of doing my DAR application, I turned to my great Aunt Rosie, the Eccards’ great-granddaughter.  If you’ve read me before, you might remember Aunt Rosie was also interested in genealogy until her death this past year, so I turned to her a lot with questions.  So, when I asked her about the Eccards, she shared that her grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Eccard Jones, was very pregnant at the time so she wasn’t able to attend her parent’s funerals.  She also said that she heard two theories about why they committed suicide – one was that they were swindled out of their farm by a sleazy lawyer and the other was that the wife, Mary Alice Drake Eccard, was terminally ill and her husband Gideon couldn’t bear to live without her and they had a “suicide pact” of sorts.

As part of my regular search, I did check into the land transactions to see if some lawyer did swindle them and I found nothing at all to indicate that they were ever land owners.  In fact, in every census that the Eccards were married, they rented so that theory seemed to be debunked.  As far as Mary Alice being terminally ill, that was harder to discount or disprove but her death certificate gives no mention of a secondary cause or illness – just the carbolic acid caused her sudden death.  Even 103 years later, I think that would be hard to actually disprove with all certainty, but it doesn’t feel like she was suffering from any terminal causes.  (especially in light of my newly found evidence)

In the newspapers online, I found just the tiniest mention of their double suicide.  No details, no motives, and most notably, no obituaries.  I didn’t find that out of place or abnormal really because it wouldn’t be the first time a family has opted not to publish an obituary.  Given the grim circumstances surrounding their deaths, I understood maybe there just wasn’t one out there to be found and let it go at that.  I had a small mention in the paper that corroborated their death certificates, so I was satisfied enough to move on.

However, this past month, I’d been working on “bushing out” my tree branches on the Eccard line and while working on their daughter, Carrie Belle, I couldn’t find her obituary either.  I was in the process of writing to the local library for Carrie Belle’s obituary and while typing the letter, I decided “Heck with it. I’m just going to ask them if they have the parents’ too.”  Happily, the librarian got back to me very quickly!

The librarian had found Carrie’s obituary and even provided me with the death certificates for her and both her parents.  (I was appreciative, of course, but I already had those.)  However, she sent me something so unexpected and amazing!  It completely changed the story as my Aunt Rosie had told me. I feel like I hit the genealogy jackpot.  She sent me the joint obituaries of Gideon and Mary Alice, along with an article about the circumstances of that day.

The Eccard obituaries & sensational details into their deaths.

To summarize the article (and you can click it to enlarge and read more), it appears that Gideon and his wife, Mary Alice, went out that day to town and picked up shoes and peaches.  After they drove their horse and buggy home, a little grandson ran out of the house and startled the horse.  Apparently, there were heated words exchanged between Mary Alice and her daughter-in-law.  Shortly after their argument, Mary Alice went to the barn and drank a vial of carbolic acid and dropped dead.  She was found by Gideon, who called out to his daughter Carrie Belle and the daughter-in-law, who came running to the barn. They found him crying, and in his grief, he ran over and drank a bottle of aconite. The doctor was called and when he arrived, Gideon was still able to talk and was trying to explain what had happened and why.  The doctor administered medicine to make him vomit but unfortunately the poison ended up being too much, and he died anyway.

*BOOM*  Mind completely blown. 

In addition to having this demolish the stories of what my Aunt Rosie had told me, I was also left with a boatload of questions!  I know Gideon was devastated so I get his grief was motivation for drinking aconite but what kinds of harsh and hurtful words were exchanged that day to cause Mary Alice to go and drink poison like that?  That seems so rash of a response.  I can only imagine that there was some other source of contention going on there as well.  Maybe some long standing resentment or problems within the family circle? 

I’m also left with a puzzle.  I had no idea that Gideon witnessed the events at Gettysburg but I’m oddly not sure how he did.  His parents were both from Maryland and lived there their entire lives.  I did not find any service records for Gideon nor his father Noah. Gideon’s grandfather Peter did serve in the War of 1812 but I think he was old at the start of the Civil War. Gideon was there in Maryland all his life, still in 1870 even, years after the war and then suddenly, he pops into Ohio by 1880.  So how would he have seen Gettysburg?  Where does that fit in?  Accompanied uncles maybe?  I have yet to branch up and out that that far yet.  It’s an interesting detail for later research to be sure. 

I’m truly happy though now. I have a new way to talk about the Eccards in my teaching aside from using them as examples of what sad things can possibly crop up.  Now I can talk about them in regard to disregarding assumptions, continually looking for that paper trail, and how you still REALLY do need to do some old-fashioned letter writing to find things that aren’t online.  I stress it enough to them already, but now I have an even better example to show them of why you still have to do offline legwork as well. 

Preserving the Papers of Captain Richard Caldwell, Blooming Grove, NY

Part of the Caldwell papers in the collection of the Moffat Library.

In October 2016, I visited the Moffat Library for part of my genealogy course program to examine historic manuscripts. The Moffat Library had in their vaults a collection of letters from the Caldwell family of Salisbury Mills. Shockingly, these handwritten parchment letters were not properly preserved and were loosely stored in a damaged box. Despite their storage, the letters were in remarkable condition with minimal damage or fading.

I approached my DAR chapter about the state of the papers.  At our March 7, 2017, meeting the Quassaick Chapter, NSDAR, voted in favor of providing the Moffat Library with a grant that would provide for preservation materials and the digitization of the 4 handwritten letters.