Prior to her death on November 4, 1982, my great aunt, Elisa Louise Williams Lumpkin, thoughtfully recorded various memories from her childhood. Louise tediously pecked out some thirty-three pages of narrative on a manual typewriter so, in her own words, her grandchildren could “realize the blessings that are theirs in a modern world, different in so many ways.”
Louise reached deep into the recesses of her memory to describe long-forgotten events of her childhood – a trip by covered wagon, an outbreak of Typhoid Fever, one-room schools, a flood, and hangings. But, as I read and re-read “The Moving Family,” I found myself focused on the fragmented remnants of Louise’s memory about Artie Mae Williams, her oldest sister and the second-born child of Eliza Louise Taggart and Thomas Claiborn Williams.
In the following pages, I have attempted to combine bits and pieces of Louise’s memories of her sister with the genealogical information I have found through my research. While I can take no credit as the source of these stories, I have tried to articulate them in such a way as to paint a realistic, inspiring portrait of my great-aunt, who was truly a selfless individual. I hope my attempt to paraphrase and embellish the work of Louise does justice to the memory of Artie Mae.
No disrespect intended, but I can only imagine Tom Williams, my maternal great-grandfather, was quite the rounder. He was known to drink too much, which sometimes reportedly caused him to neglect his family. But there must have been a good side to him as well, because it appears his children were faithful to him to the end.
Thomas Claiborn Williams was born on June 16, 1851, in Goodman, Holmes County, Mississippi. He was the only child born to Jeff Winston Williams and Mary Susan Morris; because, sadly, his mother died shortly before his second birthday. His father remarried in less than two years to his mother’s sister, Tom’s aunt, and had four sons. After Harriet’s untimely death in 1863, his father married a third time in 1865, a marriage that produced nine children, five sons and four daughters. So it seems Tom went from being firstborn son to motherless child to oldest child of fourteen siblings, and was possibly lost in the crowd.
Tom often recounted to his grandchildren that he had fought in the Civil War. He would have been very young, probably serving as a water boy. He related that he was injured, shot in the leg, during the battle at Vicksburg and subsequently imprisoned on Ship Island off the Mississippi Gulf Coast for some six to eight months. Such traumatic experiences were difficult enough for mature men, much less for a young boy of 12 to 13.
In 1872 at the age of twenty-one, Tom married Martha C. Harris of Johnson County, Arkansas. Within less than a year, their son, Wiley Winston Williams, was born; but, alas, Tom’s young wife died within three months of his birth. It must have felt like Tom’s life was stuck on instant replay. Fearing he could not be both a caregiver and a breadwinner, he chose to entrust his newborn son into the care of his in-laws in order to move on with his life. And move on he did! He and his first-born were not reunited for some 18 – 19 years.
Tom rounded up wild horses in Texas, driving them back to Louisiana and Mississippi to sell. He drifted freely from Texas to Louisiana and Mississippi and back. He was known to be a good farmer and a talented carpenter. Apparently, by 1876-1877, he met and married Eliza Louise Taggart, probably in Holmes County, Mississippi. They settled in or around Poplarville, Pearl River County, Mississippi, close to the Mississippi/Louisiana state line. Around 1877, John Carroll Williams, the first of their nine children was born. By the time their youngest son, Hilton Anthony Williams, was born in 1895, Tom’s wanderlust resurfaced with a vengeance and all he could think of or talk about was returning to Texas in search of available land, better jobs, greater opportunities. He told Eliza the drier climate in Texas would be beneficial for her asthma, as well.
In late December 1897, they sold everything they could, packed what was left, and bought one-way train tickets for Texas. Based on Louise’s memories, the train trip took four days, over the 1897 New Years holiday, with several stops en route. The journey to Texas, with nine children, was an adventure in and of itself. The family eventually found lodging in a small community known as Pledge, Texas, where Tom and the older boys worked on a local ranch and in the wheat fields.
Unfortunately, Eliza’s health did not improve, but grew markedly worse after arriving in Texas. She was soon diagnosed with consumption, as tuberculosis was called in those days. As summer approached, her condition grew worse yet and before the fall of 1898, Eliza was too ill to leave her bed. At that point in time, Artie, a lovely young woman of twenty-three, readily took on the responsibility of caring for her mother and seven younger siblings. When the doctor from nearby Wharton, Texas, refused to ride out to the area where they lived, Tom eventually made the decision to move his family again, into Wharton, so Eliza could have proper medical attention. If Louise’s memory served her, they moved to Wharton on December 14, 1898. On December 22, 1898, Eliza died from consumption and, ready or not, Artie became the mother figure for the family.
Tom and his older sons soon decided the family would fare better if they moved back to the country where they could farm; they settled some ten miles outside Wharton. Tom found a vacant, two-story house with five rooms, located two miles from the closest neighbor and one and a half miles from a one-room schoolhouse. Louise recalled that “Artie filled Mother’s place as well as anyone could fill it;” but Louise believed that, through it all, it was Artie who missed Eliza most.
Years before her illness decimated her, Eliza likely focused much of her attention on Artie, as much because of her demeanor as her age. She taught Artie all the skills needed to survive during such hard times – making soap, thrashing rice, cooking over an open fire, sewing, and, in general, caring for a family before the turn of the century. Clearly, it was Artie who permeated Louise’s memory, even before Eliza’s death – Artie who took two-year old Louise to have her photo taken, Artie who donned a white sheet and floated past an open window to scare the younger kids, and Artie who tried, in vain, to teach Louise not to be jealous of her baby brother, Hilton.
Artie’s role only intensified after Eliza’s death. Where Eliza had prayed with her children nightly, Artie read the Bible to them. She often quoted Bible verses or a Bible story to them to reinforce some point she was trying to make, or made one of them read a chapter as punishment for misbehaving. She must have sung hymns to the younger children because Louise spoke of the church songs Artie had learned in Mississippi.
When Louise was to participate in a school commencement program, Artie made her “a pretty, white, lace-trimmed dress, the likes of which I had never owned before.” Artie frequently took in sewing to earn a little money because Tom, more often than not, spent what money he earned on whiskey. I imagine she saved scraps of fabric, lace, and other embellishments to make clothing for her siblings.
If the children happened upon a stand of wild berries, they would strip the vines clean, knowing Artie could can them for later use. Artie had become quite a cook, willing to try whatever was necessary. Although she had never shot a gun before, when her younger brother Roland was gravely ill with Typhoid Fever, she surely shot a squirrel, skinned it, and cooked it down for the broth to give him the sustenance he desperately needed.
By Thanksgiving of 1899, Tom moved the family again; this time, it was a matter of mere miles, to higher ground. Sometime shortly thereafter, though, he convinced his children they needed to move yet again, to China, Texas, to work in the rice paddies. They packed what earthly possessions they could in two covered wagons and set out on what Tom estimated would be a brief six or seven day journey. Finally, one month and four days later, after an unbelievably difficult trip, they reached their destination. In sharp contrast to their circumstances, today the drive would take less than two and one-half hours. However, the weather had been against them. They had traveled slowly through heavy rainfall for days; and by the time they reached the Trinity River the ferry had broken free of its cable due to the swollen waters. Unable to cross, they backtracked about a mile to a shed they had passed, where they set up temporary living quarters. They were literally trapped inside this lean-to for days, as the rains continued to rage. While living in these squalid conditions, Louise was stricken with malaria; fortunately Tom and Artie had packed calomel and quinine and were able to treat her. They had run out of food, so the boys caught rabbits and frogs whenever possible or Artie fed them biscuits and flour gravy. Louise remembered being hungry much of the time.
In China, Artie’s cooking skills were widely touted. The Methodist Church they attended sponsored “box suppers” to raise money for the church. Artie’s contribution was often considered a show box, decorated with fancy ribbons and containing delicious fare. Those who purchased a boxed supper were afforded an opportunity to eat with the cook; Artie’s box always brought a good price, not only because of her cooking but also because of her company. The young men of the community found her attractive and pursued her relentlessly; but to quote Louise, “Artie was so loyal to us that she would not consider marriage.”
On September 8, 1900, the Great Storm savagely devastated Galveston, Texas. Possibly the most horrific hurricane ever to strike the states, it claimed over 6,000 lives. Although the family was living some seventy-five miles from Galveston, they suffered a tremendous loss. The family had no choice but to live in a tent, at that point, because the storm had destroyed their home. Tom struggled for some months, trying to recover from the storm; but eventually he determined it was in the best interest of his family to return to Poplarville, Mississippi. The family set about preparing for yet another move. Artie borrowed a sewing machine from the plantation that had taken them in for eighteen hours during and immediately following the storm. In preparation for their trip, she sewed new shirts for the boys and underwear and dresses for the girls. The only thing Artie had been able to save from the storm was a riding saddle, a ladies’ sidesaddle, which she gave to the mistress of the plantation to repay her kindnesses.
Louise recalled that about the time the family was unpacking in Mississippi, President William McKinley was shot in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, and died eight days later. Word of his death spread from big cities to small, rural communities, albeit slower than by today’s standards. The President was just beginning his second term in office and had auspicious plans for the country, as it struggled to end a depression. Artie undoubtedly had auspicious plans of her own, for her young sisters; she prayed more opportunity would befall them than she had been afforded. Then, she set about doing what was necessary to make it so. Artie sewed for other families in Mississippi to pay for an etiquette/charm class for Louise. She also tried to provide piano lessons for the girls; but without a piano to practice on, they soon had to give up the lessons.
John, the eldest brother, had moved to Arizona soon after Eliza’s death, taking younger Jeff with him. Bob and Roland had taken jobs and moved out, leaving Tom, Artie, Fannie, Louise, and Hilton behind. Logically, fewer people in the household meant fewer people to provide for; but realistically, it also meant fewer male residents to make ends meet.
Tom worried about his family living so close to the sawmill, as it often caught fire. He once again uprooted his diminishing clan and moved them into an empty house farther from the dangers of the mill. Ever the farmer, Tom surely understood the significance of strong roots; however, he continued to uproot his family, time and time again. Whether it was wanderlust or whiskey, we will never know; but Tom seemingly could not stay in one place for long. Over the next five or so years, Tom moved his family from house to house in Poplarville at least five more times
Artie’s health began to decline, as she was constantly plagued with a number of complaints. Fannie and Louise had to assume more responsibility at home, as Artie spent endless days in bed. By early 1910, Louise had taken a college course in Poplarville, which afforded her a teaching certificate. When she was selected to be the next marm at the Red Top School, she moved to the rural area and boarded with a local family. Fannie became Artie’s sole caretaker. Perhaps Louise’s words were the best measure of Artie’s condition at that point in time: “Sister Artie seemed sick and tired and my heart ached for her.” During the 1910 Christmas break, Louise learned that Artie had been diagnosed with pellagra. Webster’s Dictionary defines pellagra as a “disease marked by dermatitis, gastrointestinal disorders, and central nervous system symptoms and associated with a diet deficient in niacin and protein.” After years of neglecting her own diet, sacrificing her own health, in order to provide for her brothers and sisters, Artie’s suffering escalated out of control. Often, death from pellagra is attributed to complications from infections, massive malnutrition brought on by constant diarrhea, blood loss due to bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract, or severe encephalopathic syndrome.
By late spring of 1911, Artie was too weak to walk. Her brother Bob came home to assess her condition firsthand. He petitioned Artie’s doctor to recommend a nurse who could travel with her and they made plans to transport her to The Baroness Erlanger Hospital, which still serves the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area today. Artie, on a cot, was carried to the train depot by the loving men in her family and followed by her devoted sisters. Bob and the nurse made the trip in the baggage coach with Artie.
Although the medical staff at Erlanger had little experience treating pellagra, they did the best they could to help her. She seemed to rally the first few days and even talked with Bob about Louise’s singing voice. But as the days progressed, her conversation changed. Artie still spoke of singing, but said it was that of angelic voices. She told Bob the angels were singing as they came for her in a boat, while Jesus waited for her just across the river. She told Bob that Louise’s singing sounded more like rattling tin pans when compared to the voices of the angels. Artie Mae Williams died that night, May 21, 1911.
Bob lovingly escorted her body home to Mississippi. Following a funeral service at the Methodist Church, Artie was laid to rest in the Poplarville City Cemetery. Louise commented that, even as adults, the family was “lost without her.” It was some years before her younger brother, Tom, Jr., placed a fitting tombstone on her grave.
Although Artie was only 36 years old at the time of her death, the thirteen years since the death of her mother had been incredibly long and difficult. At too young an age, Artie had been burdened with the responsibility of watching over an alcoholic father, caring for seven younger siblings, managing the household, and, more often than not, being the breadwinner for the family. But she never looked back! She accomplished what most would have deemed impossible, all the while developing an ever more loving relationship with her family. Artie never married; there was simply no time for her personal life. Consequently, Artie was never a biological mother, but, oh, what a sweet, sweet surrogate!