by Charles Hartley
First published in The Pioneer News in March 2023.
As March is Women's History Month, I shared the story of two Bullitt County sisters whose lives took decidedly unconventional turns more than a century ago.
Martha Margaret Bowman, often called Mattie, was the first sister in our story. A daughter of Henry Clay and Susie (Elder) Bowman, she was about 19 when, after her mother's death, her father married Florence Quick as his second wife.
Shortly thereafter, Mattie made a trip to St. Louis to visit her mother's brother Basil Elder's family. Living near the Elders was the Buchanan family including Asa Buchanan who was then 22. Asa and Mattie fell in love, and according to a newspaper report, "one day they rode out to Clayton (which bordered St. Louis) and were married" in February 1893.
Asa Buchanan was a sometimes painter and contractor, but his real interest was in race horses, and his new father-in-law did not approve of the marriage, making relations between the young couple and her parents strained.
In May 1895, Mattie gave birth to a son they named William, and when the boy was about 5, in an attempt to reconcile with her parents, they sent a photo of the boy to the Bowmans. It appears to have softened the grandfather's heart, for they were invited to come back to Kentucky for a visit near Christmas time in 1900.
Apparently things did not go well, especially with the step-mother, and they prepared to leave early to return to Missouri. And that takes us to the second sister.
Susan Alma Bowman was born in August 1882 according to the 1900 census, and had passed her 18th birthday. Under then Kentucky law, she was still a minor, and under the authority of her parents. However, it appears from newspaper reports of the time that she was deeply unhappy living in the household with her step-mother.
When Asa and Mattie prepared to leave, Alma decided to join them without telling anyone. It seems that she accompanied them to the railroad depot, and only then told her sister that she intended to go with them to Missouri. Knowing how unhappy she was, they agreed to let her come with them.
When her father learned that she had left, he sent his son, Bernie Bowman, after her to bring her back to Shepherdsville. The various newspaper reports of the time create some confusion about the subsequent events, but it seems that the Buchanans and Alma avoided him and managed to board the train in Louisville that took them back to St. Louis.
However, the Bowmans' pursuit continued. Bernie Bowman traveled to St. Louis, and attempted to locate Alma to bring her home. When this failed, his father had a Kentucky warrant issued for Asa Buchanan's arrest on an apparently trumped up charge of assaulting Bernie's wife. They also charged that the Buchanan's had kidnapped Alma.
While Alma was still a minor in Kentucky, in Missouri the legal age was 18, meaning that she was her own authority there. When Asa was arrested on the Kentucky warrant, Mattie and Alma successfully pleaded with the Missouri governor to reject the Kentucky warrant and refuse to send Asa back to Kentucky.
All of this had taken about a month, so by the end of January 1901, with the Bowmans frustrated, Alma settled in with her sister and brother-in-law in St. Louis.
The next we hear of them is in May 1902, when a newspaper in St. Louis reported that Martha Buchanan had filed suit for divorce, alleging "that her husband squandered all his salary on the races and that he had wasted an estate which was left him by his mother.
"She further charged that the defendant many times and in many places told her that he did not care for her and that if she had any pride about her she would leave him and never come back."
She was supported in her petition by Asa Buchanan's own sister, and in June she was granted the divorce. Again, newspaper reports tended to sensationalize the break-up, but it appears that during the previous year, Asa and Alma had fallen in love, and Martha, recognizing this, had determined to step aside and allow them to be together.
In October, Asa and Alma slipped across the state line into Illinois and were married.
And now you are wondering what happened next. Did they live happily ever? And what about Martha, what would become of her? Well, as Paul Harvey used to say, "Now here is the rest of the story."
By 1910, Asa and Alma were living in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was working as a painting contractor, and they had a son, Joseph Elliot, who was 6, and had been born in Missouri. Also, Asa's son, William, was also living with them.
Then in 1920, they were in New Orleans with Elliot and a daughter Mildred who was 9 and had been born in Utah. Asa had apparently given up the contractor work, and was listed in the census as a "race horse man." William, who was now 25, was not listed with them.
They continued to travel, and by 1930 they were in Detroit, Michigan with both Elliot and Mildred still at home. Asa had gone back to painting houses for a living. Elliot was a machinist in an auto factory, and Mildred was a typist at a rubber company.
By 1940 Asa and Alma were back in St. Louis. No occupation was given for either of them. Mildred had married Lathrop Creason, an industrial engineer, and they were living in Salt Lake City. Elliott had married Tempest Fox in 1939, and continued to live in Michigan.
The travel bug continued to bite this family for, in 1950, Asa and Alma were living next door to Lathrop and Mildred in Birmingham, Alabama. Alma died there in 1952. Her obituary indicated that both Elliot and Mattie's son, William, were living in Detroit. Asa Buchanan lived until 1956. Their marriage had lasted 50 years.
Meanwhile, what had become of Mattie?
We first discover her in Hannibal, Missouri in the 1910 census, married to Virgil Nesbitt, a railroad brakeman. They had been married 8 years, indicating that they married not long after her divorce from Asa.
By 1920, they were living in Casper, Wyoming. Virgil was now a freight train conductor. She was now going by her middle name, Margaret. Living with them was her sister Lillian, the widow of Rufus Foster.
Then, in March 1921, Margaret gave birth to a son they named for his father. She was already in her early forties with this birth. Then in 1924, her husband barely survived an automobile accident.
By 1925, Margaret was described in the newspaper as the district superintendent of the Wyoming Children's Home Finding Society, a society that found homes for orphaned children. She would later be identified as a social worker.
The three of them were still in Casper in the 1930 census. Then, for some reason they were identified as living in Bibb County, Georgia in 1940, but by 1943 they were back in Casper where the local newspaper wrote that "Mr. and Mrs. Virgil O. Nesbitt of this city have recently returned from a trip to visit their son in San Diego, and also a short tour into Mexico."
We kind of lose track of them but they apparently moved to California, perhaps to be close to their son, and we find both of them buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. Martha Margaret (Bowman) Nesbitt died in August 1952; Virgil lived until February 1961.
That means that they too were married approximately 50 years.
It has been interesting to me to follow the lives of these two sisters. Hope you have enjoyed the journey as well.
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The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 27 Mar 2023 . Page URL: bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/bowman-sisters.html