Like many other Americans, I’ve been trying to figure out why honest, intelligent people support Donald J. Trump. But today I’m putting that aside to write about my paternal grandmother’s criminal past that had never been revealed to anyone in our family—including my mom and dad—until a stranger came to my folks’ home in Zion, Illinois. I was visiting there at the time.
The stranger introduced herself as Linda Godfrey, an author from the small town of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and explained that she was writing about Myrtle Schaude, my grandfather’s second wife (his first wife died in an auto accident). At first I thought Linda was working on some kind of genealogy project. No, she said, she was writing a book about Myrtle. As an author of dozens of nonfiction books, I wondered what was so interesting about Myrtle. What had I missed? What would inspire a book length manuscript? We would soon find out.
“You’d better sit down,” Linda said. “This may be a shock.” Indeed. That was an understatement.
Linda explained that she had been researching for another book and came across newspapers stories regarding a woman who had poisoned her husband and tried to kill her children. Her name was Myrtle Schaude. And she was on trial for murder. The Elkhorn Independent newspaper headlines labeled her the “Poison Widow.” As part of research for her book, Linda said she’d like to know more about Myrtle’s life with my mom and our family.
As Linda told us bits and pieces of stories printed in news accounts and in court files, my mother just shook her head and said simply, “This couldn’t be the same Myrtle” that our family knew. Myrtle had been a housekeeper in my mom’s home; she had cared for my bedridden maternal grandmother; she had cooked meals for the family; she had done exquisite needlework; she had been an active church member. In short, she appeared as an upright, pious citizen.
Over the months that followed Linda’s visit, I learned more and more about Myrtle’s early life. Linda sent me copies of newspaper articles and, via email, relayed numerous 1924 accounts of testimony in court. I talked to my brothers and children about Grandma Mc, as she was known. They had no clues and were as dumbfounded as I was.
Myrtle had married my grandfather Charles McGarrahan when Ruth, the youngest of his children and the only girl, was a teenager. All of her brothers (my McGarrahan uncles) were deceased. So I called Aunt Ruth to get her opinion about her stepmother. “Couldn’t be the same Myrtle,” she said.
However, the facts in the case—the evidence could not be denied. Myrtle was a murderer and she was sentenced to prison. But after five years, the governor of Wisconsin pardoned her. If you are curious about the rest of the story, you can read about it in Linda Godfrey’s book The Poison Widow: A True Story of Sin, Strychnine, and Murder (2003).
I picked up my copy of the book a few days ago, and it made me wonder again, how could this person we knew as Grandma Mc keep her shocking past secret over all the decades we had known her? I have been left with still another question: What does one really know about anyone?