Addicted To Candee

Helen Churchill CandeeHistory is full of people. 

I know, kinda self-evident – right? Like, obviously.

But stop and think for a moment about everyone you currently know or know of – people you love, people you envy, people you admire, even people you kinda wish would get eaten by aliens who digest their victims alive while mating with other scarier aliens with lots of sharp parts and stinky excretions. Everyone.  

Now multiply that number by, oh… let’s say infinity. That’s essentially how many people have lived at some point, but who you’ll never meet. People you’ve never even heard of. Human lives for which you couldn’t unearth an iota of real understanding if you devoted the rest of your life to it. 

Everything they said. Everything they did. What they felt, how they reacted, what they thought about – it can be a bit overwhelming. I mean, I can’t even remember the Presidents in order. (I’m always so distracted by Fillmore that I lose Franklin Pierce. Damn you, Millard!)

And then there are those unpredictable moments when someone catches your attention. You start to actively seek whatever little information is out there about them. It’s particularly tantalizing if there’s enough out there that you’re able to keep digging, but they’re far from being a household name. It’s like discovering that awesome indy band before they sold out and went commercial. You find yourself wanting great things for them, historically speaking, but no – the label wants the cute lead singer out front although everyone should have understood that what made it all work in the first place was the synergy and tension between all three of the songwriters, so what the hell, Balderdash Biscuit?! Warner $#%^ing Brothers?! Yeah, Color Me Viscous sold thirty-thousand copies, but you know who didn’t buy it on both vinyl AND CD? Integrity, that’s who!

Er… what I mean is, it’s hard to describe the sensation when you discover those obscure historical figures, noteworthy enough to have left a mark, but essentially unknown today. Especially when you fall in love. It’s magical, and yet unfortunate, because they’re dead. Seriously dead. Way, way dead.

Helen Churchill Candee was born in 1858 as Helen Churchill (her mother’s maiden name) Hungerford of New York. Her father was a successful merchant, and Helen grew up in relative comfort. More importantly, she was exposed to ideas and stories, music and art, history and culture, in ways unlikely to have been possible had she lived a generation before, or in her generation in almost any other part of the country. She started her formal education young in one of America’s first kindergartens, then attended the sort of girls’ boarding school only available to a certain quality of family, and even then primarily in New England.

Before she was a teenager she knew multiple languages, was schooled in grace and etiquette, and probably knew more history and literature than a majority of adult men in the nation at the time. She was particularly inspired, according to one diary entry, by an event at which Charles Dickens read aloud from one of his works. 

I’m telling you all of this because I’m going to be singing Helen’s praises soon, and I’m probably going to try to make a point about opportunity and upbringing in relation to education and long-term success and personal fulfillment. I don’t run the most focused or coherent blog you’ll ever adore, but I do tend to circle back to the ‘education’ theme. It’s in the title, you know. 

I’m firmly convinced Candee had a gift for observing people and a writing about them in amusing, poignant, and illuminating ways. I’ll carry on about her knack for capturing architectural nuances, crop production reports, and historical minutia accurately and informatively, but still continually circles back to the human experience and make all the rest of it matter. Some of that, no doubt, was from good genes and good choices. But those gifts were nurtured, and honed, drawn out, and refined, by her social and economic status. As a mid-19th century female, her abilities were given full shine due thanks to her specific geography. She took advantage of her opportunities, no doubt – and made some of her own along the way. It’s just that they were opportunities unavailable to most, whatever their gender or birthplace.  

That’s one of the things about history which just slaps you in the brain sometimes – the unimaginable variety of factors that play into who someone is or becomes, does or doesn’t do. Honestly, it boggles. I like to think choice still plays a pretty important role as well, but you can only choose from, um… your options

My word count is skyrocketing and I haven’t really gotten to the nature of my Candee addiction, have I?

Maybe I should skip to what brought her to Oklahoma and started her writing professionally. That’s how I came to know of her, after all – her pieces on Oklahoma Territory and the people therein. It wasn’t until I started researching her that I found out about her helping to remodel the White House or surviving the Titanic or riding that white horse at the head of the women’s rights march in Washington, D.C., the day before Woodrow Wilson took office. All that came later – for me, at least. It started in pre-statehood Oklahoma. 

Helen fell in love with successful businessman Edward Candee of Connecticut, and they married in 1880. She was 22. For 15 years, Edward was able to continue and expand the lifestyle to which Helen had grown accustomed. They traveled and they entertained – and not in that desperate, Gatsby-sort-of-way we read about a generation later. The Candees didn’t use their money to buy imitation culture; they used their resources to become cultured and to support culture. They were how success is supposed to work.

But there was one little problem. Henry turned out to be short-tempered and abusive. The details are thin, and even what we have from court records is suspect (being testimony given in order to secure a divorce and all), but apparently he drank excessively and often exploded at Helen and the kids, Edith and Harold. Helen decided to leave him. 

The thing was, in addition to the substantial social stigma of divorce in the 19th century, it was a damned difficult thing to secure legally. Helen hired a private detective to follow Henry on his various business trips, and while specific accusations are a bit fuzzy, she went to court in New York convinced she had sufficient proof of his unfaithfulness and/or abusiveness to secure her freedom.

The court did not agree. And now it was in the papers – public records being public and all. 

Here’s where specifics of time and place insert themselves into the equation yet again. Divorce was problematic across most of the civilized northeast, but there were places further west quite proud of their liberal unmarrying laws. The Dakotas had become the traditional vacation spot for those wishing to reboot their personal narratives with minimal time and effort – residency there could be established in a mere six months, and the courts were generous when it came to breaking sacred bonds. Lawyers and boosters in other western states advertised the comfort and convenience of their hotels, their climate, their recreation… and for a time capitalism’s wonders were fully unleashed in the direction of mommy not loving daddy anymore.

Oklahoma Territory had them all beat, however. 90 days – that’s how long you needed to establish residency. 90 days and you’re eligible to file. If your soon-to-be ex doesn’t show, the court appoints someone to speak on his or her behalf, whether they knew their “client” or not. Generally things were wrapped up in time to grab some lunch before getting back to shenanigans. 

Boasting of being a divorce mill in order to build population wasn’t necessarily anything to be proud of, but then neither was getting a divorce. Helen secured transportation for herself, Edith, and Harold, and off they went to the most hoppingest happeningest big-little metropolis of the entire Territory…

Guthrie. 

And that’s where her story really began for me. Because Helen wasn’t going to play the wounded woman or become someone’s mercy case. She had a family to support, and looking around, she had a pretty good idea where to begin. 

She was going to tell the world about Oklahoma. For money. Turns out she was damned good at it. 

Next: Candee’s Oklahoma – “Run In, My Children, and Help Yourselves…”

HCC Grave Stone

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