Saturday, April 14, 2018

The venerable Lewis Bonnett's death by newspaper

Lewis Bonnett, ca. 1881
Death claimed one of Lucas County's most successful and highly respected farmers, Lewis Bonnett, back in June of 1899 --- but it was the location rather than the fatal heart attack that caused many a tongue to wag.

Mr. Bonnett, widowed and a venerable 69 years of age, passed to his reward in a seedy hotel room above an equally seedy Chicago State Street bar in the company of a friend and two apparent ladies of the evening.

When at home near Chariton, Lew --- as he generally was known --- was the proprietor of The Pines, a farming operation of some 3,000 acres just south of Chariton that specialized in sheep --- thousands and thousands of sheep. It was, in fact, the sale of a rail car full of lambs that had taken him into Chicago in the first place. He also had a number of other business interests, including a building still partially upright on the south side of the square, home to the Sportsman Bar before its recent collapse.

Although some in Chariton blamed sensational reporting in the Chicago newspapers for the gossip that began to spread soon after Mr. Bonnett's demise, the actual stories were rather modest --- although picked up and published across Iowa and elsewhere in the days that followed. The Chicago Tribune, in fact, got the name and age wrong, as reflected in this item published Page 4 on Sunday, June 11, under the headline, "Sudden Death of Stockman: Lawrence Bonnett of Chariton, Ia., Expires Under Suspicious Circumstances."

"Lawrence Bonnett, 65 years old, a stockman of Chariton, Ia., died suddenly last night in a room at 308 State street under circumstances which the police consider suspicious.

"A few minutes prior to his death, it is said, he had been drinking with John Weffle, Lura Conn, and Hattie Livingstone in John Weiss' saloon below. Bonnett and Weffle were staying at the Drovers' Hotel, 848 Broad street. The body was taken to Rolston's Undertaking rooms, 22 Adams street.

"Leutenant Barrett thinks Bonnett died of heart failure, but he arrested Weffle and the two women and will detain them until after the inquest."


News of the death reached Chariton by telegraph on Sunday morning, and all three of Chariton's newspapers --- the Thursday Patriot, Thursday Herald and Friday Democrat --- reported on it later in the week, but adopted varying approaches.

The Patriot, published on Thursday --- the day after the funeral --- reported that, "Last Sunday morning a telegram from Chicago announced the sudden death of Lewis Bonnett. Naturally the community was greatly shocked and further news of the sad event were anxiously awaited. George Bonnett, son of the deceased, and H.D. Copeland went to Chicago at once. They found the body in control of the Coroner and were present at the inquest. The newspaper dispatches sent out were as usual sensational and misleading. Several persons were placed under arrest upon the presumption that Mr. Bonnett died from possible violence, but the investigation proved this to be entirely unfounded. The verdict of the Corner's jury was that the deceased died from heart trouble and all persons arrested on suspicion were released and wholly exonerated from having anything to do with the cause of death."

At this point, however, rather than just shutting up, The Patriot editor climbed aboard his editorial high horse and began to moralize, a tactic that didn't do much to subdue the rumors about the circumstances of Bonnett's death then circulating.

"Therefore, realizing how undertain is life, and how soon perhaps, many of us may need charitable judgement," he wrote, "we should not indulge in self righteous, unsparing condemnation of the dead. When the Divine hand is raised in solemn majesty over a closed life, human judgement may well be silent. The dead are beyond our puny efforts to do them evil or good. We may unnecessarily, hurt the feelings of the living but the dead are safe from our power to praise or censure."

Whoa! This is NOT effective damage control, sir.


The editor of The Herald, also published on Thursday, produced a more detailed report and in doing so recorded for posterity the official narrative, in Lucas County at least, of a favorite son's death:

"The facts and circumstances connected with the death of Lewis Bonnett, have been so distorted by the sensational articles appearing in the Chicago papers that we deem it but just to his friends and relatives to publish the following account thereof as we get it from H.D. Copeland, who went to Chicago on last Sunday.

"It appears that Mr. Bonnett had been suffering with heart disease for several years and that he had frequently predicted that he would suddenly die some day from the effect thereof. He went to Chicago to sell a car load of sheep. He disposed of his sheep, and on Saturday morning he made a small investment in wheat on the board of trade which he was informed in the evening had netted him a profit of $750. In the afternoon, he with a friend attended the races. They returned to their hotel at the stockyards and took supper about 6 o'clock p.m. After supper, Mr. Bonnett, feeling well pleased over the result of his wheat investment, suggested that they should go to town and attend some theater, remarking that he could afford to purchase the tickets.

"They went to Kohl & Middleton's Museum, 310 State Street, just opposite the Seigel-Cooper store. About 11 o'clock, after the show was over they started back to their hotel, but while crossing the street Bonnett suddenly fell to the street helpless, and he was carried into a saloon and from there to a room in a hotel over the saloon. Parties were immediately dispatched for a physician, but Mr. Bonnett was dead when the physician arrived. The post-mortum examination showed very clearly that he died from fatty degeneration of the heart.

"It is supposed that the heat, exercise and excitement of the day brought on the attack which resulted in his death. About the time of his death, the police entered the room and, as the reputation of the hotel was not good, they assumed that he had been drugged and robbed, and arrested every person, including two girls, until they could make an investigation. After making inquiry they were all released. This was the only foundation for the sensational stories published in the Chicago and Kansas City papers. The story that Mr. Bonnett had been robbed of some money and a valuable diamond stud was without foundation, as it was afterwards ascertained that he had safely deposited his money and diamond before leaving the hotel."


The editor of The Democrat, published on Friday, June 16, averted his editorial gaze entirely from the circumstances of death and just published the following obituary, telling us more about the life rather than the death of Mr. Bonnett:

"The news of the sudden death of Mr. Lewis Bonnett, which occurred in Chicago last Saturday evening, and which was due to heart failure, came as a great shock to his family and friends.

"The remains were brought to this city Monday evening and on Wednesday morning at ten o'clock largely attended funeral services, conducted by Rev. W. V. Whitten, were held at his late home, "The Pines," in Benton township. A large concourse of sorrowing friends then followed the remains to their last resting place in the Chariton cemetery.

"Lewis Bonnett was born in Mount Vernon, Knox county, Ohio, on May 24, 1830, and was the son of John and Elizabeth Bonnett. When a young man he moved to Illinois where he started out on his own responsibility, his first occupation being that of school teacher in Piatt county. He was next employed on a stock farm in McLean county.

"He has herded stock on the place where now stands Rush Medical college and is familiar with all the country about Chicago. Ever since 1852 he has been more or less interested in the stock business, raising, buying and selling. Through the kindness of his father he secured one hundred acres of land in Illinois which he sold before coming to Iowa.

"He came to this state in 1865, and his first location was here in Chariton. The following year he moved to Benton township where he has since resided. In his operations here Mr. Bonnett was wonderfully successful and became one of the wealthiest men in the county. He was a prominent democrat and in 1884 was a candidate for congress.

"On December 12, 1859, he was united in marriage to Miss Maria Virgin, who died March 17, 1890. They were the parents of five children, John V., Arthur Isaac, George Y., Louis Rex, and Mrs. E. Ruth Trump, all of whom are living and in their sorrow have the heartfelt sympathy of the entire community."


As a footnote to Chariton Cemetery history, both Lewis and his wife, Maria, were interred initially in the Stanton Vault --- during the 1890s among the most prestigious final resting places Lucas County offered. As the years passed and the vault was allowed to deteriorate, however, their children evacuated the remains to the highest point in the southern part of the cemetery, overlooking the Chariton River valley below, where they continue to rest, one hopes, in peace.

Rather than discarding the iron-bound marble doors that had fronted their vaults in the Stanton mausoleum, the family brought them along to the new resting place where they remain, although in a badly deteriorated condition.

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