Archivist as Detective: Who Is “A”?

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

Diary book with lined pages opened to pages labeled Sunday Mar 23 and Monday Mar 24. Handwriting fills the Mar 23 page and half fills the Mar 24 page.
John Appleton Knowles diary, 1902

When I cataloged the papers of John Appleton Knowles, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by some cryptic references in his 1902 diary. Archivists, of course, don’t have time to read all the material they process—in general, we skim—but these references stood out to me because of their frequency and the obvious emotional undercurrent.

In 1902, John Knowles was a junior at Harvard and, from all indications, a typical young man of his time and class. His father was the founder of a paper manufacturing company, and the Knowles family lived on Beacon Street in the Back Bay. John did well enough academically, but directed most of his energy into his social life and athletics. He hung out with friends, attended dances, and was an enthusiastic participant in and supporter of Harvard sports (football and crew, primarily). He also had an on-again-off-again relationship with a young woman he referred to as “A.”

I knew, from my background research, that three years later John would marry a woman named Anna Elizabeth Clement. If I could definitively identify A as his future wife Anna, I’d be able to include her name in the catalog record and guide to the collection.

Reading John’s 1902 diary was a little like walking into the middle of a movie because his relationship with the mysterious A was already in full swing. Here are some examples of early entries mentioning her.

Last Copley Hall dance tonight. Had a rotten time taking it all and all. A treated me well though. (7 Feb.)

Went to Eliot Hall in the evening. A was there and so it was not so terribly bad. Drove home with her. Dont know what to think about her. (14 Feb.)

Went to see A in the evening. Did not get on very well. Dont think she cares anything for me. (25 Feb.)

Got a letter from A. She may care a little for me after all. (12 Mar.)

And that’s just up to March! During the year, John’s emotions seesawed from elation to despair, back up to hope, and down again to disappointment. I couldn’t help sympathizing with him. He was obviously smitten with this young woman, but insecure about the relationship. His diary really captures the ups and downs of young romance. For example, on one particularly despondent day, he wrote:

Evening I went out to see A. Pouring rain. We hardly said a word to each other. I get depressed whenever I go out there. Knowing that she does not care for me at all is the reason. It seems hopeless. (28 Feb.)

The couple had heated arguments, but it’s not always clear what they were about. In several entries, John expressed jealousy that other young men (“dopes”) were visiting A. Another day, A told John he didn’t “treat her with respect.”

Sometimes, A was “nicer” or in a “jovial mood.” And apparently they were seeing enough of each other to set the local gossips talking.

Went to the theater to see Ethel Barrymore in the evening with A. There were a lot of people we knew there and probably every one is certain that we are engaged now. (27 Mar.)

But it wasn’t meant to be, and by summer, John had begun to see the writing on the wall. He wrote resignedly on 9 June, “She is peculiar and doesn’t care a rip for me. I am going to stop bothering her, by hanging on, if I can.” He saw less and less of her after that.

In the meantime, a few other young women had managed to turn John’s head. Gretchen Howes was “rather nice” and “a bully sensible girl,” but “not up to A by a great many miles,” according to John. Louise Brooks was “all right only talks a good deal.” He liked Dorothy Bigelow “very much.” He was also attracted to Henrietta Wigglesworth, a “fine girl” he met at a dance in April. Henrietta, probably a student at Farmington (Me.) State Normal School, was, in fact, “the finest girl I ever met, I think.” Less than a week after meeting her, he “dreamed of Farmington all last night.”

But no one appears throughout John’s 1902 diary as often as A. Who was she? On closer reading of the text, I found a clue pointing me to her identity. In a few entries, this letter “A” seems to correlate with the surname Lincoln. For example, on 15 May, A invited John to Cohasset the following Saturday. Flipping ahead to Saturday’s entry, I saw that he went to Cohasset “with the three Lincolns on the 9.43 train.” The rest of the “the L family” would come down in July.

It looked like I had a last name for my mystery woman: Lincoln. I skimmed back through the diary and zeroed in on passages related to that family. A few also included the name Agnes, though never “Agnes Lincoln.” Could A be Agnes Lincoln?

I did an online search for “Agnes Lincoln” and “Cohasset” and found a 1902 article in the Boston Post about the wedding of a Christine Lincoln of Brookline, daughter of Albert L. Lincoln, Jr. One of the attendants was Miss Agnes Lincoln, sister of the bride. The writer described her as “a handsome well set up girl, who has been a great favorite since her presentation last year.”

Armed now with the name of a father and a town, I set out to confirm that my inference was correct. Another online search led me to a book entitled Burials and Inscriptions in the Walnut Street Cemetery of Brookline, Massachusetts (coincidentally also part of the MHS collection). According to this book, a Brookline man named Albert Lamb Lincoln died on 23 Feb. 1903.

Luckily, John’s papers include his diary for that year. Sure enough, he wrote on 23 Feb. 1903: “A’s grandfather has just died. He was 93 [actually, 92] years old and out of his mind, so I guess he is much better off now.”

I built a Lincoln family tree from a combination of print and online sources, and all the details lined up. Agnes was the daughter of Albert L. Lincoln, Jr. and Edith (Williams) Lincoln, which would explain why there were so many Williamses at her sister’s wedding, as described in the Boston Post article. And Agnes turned 19 on 9 Aug. 1902, which John noted and underlined at the top of his diary entry for that day.

I’d found her!

In 1907, Agnes married a man named James Dean. Interestingly, John knew the Deans, who visited the Knowles home on a few occasions in 1902. John also mentioned members of the Clement family, possibly relatives of his own future wife, Anna.

In this Beehive post, I’ve focused primarily on John’s earliest diary, but the MHS collection of his papers contains a total of 34 diaries he kept between 1902 and 1949, the year of his death. They cover a wide range of fascinating subjects, including his separation and divorce from his wife and difficulties between them related to their two sons, his service in World War I and the effects of a gas attack, his repeated attempts to give up alcohol, and his second marriage in 1941 to Nancy Boyle. His writing is honest and compelling.