William Stewart’s beloved wife, Mary, was dead.
He was only in his early 40’s, still a relatively young man. He had planned on spending the rest of his life with her. But it was not to be.
Grieving, William sent his two children, Pearl and William, to live with his brother near Charlotte, Iowa. He loved them dearly, but he just couldn’t bring himself to take care of them.
The loss of a loved one is a hard thing. To some extent, their lives are intertwined with our own, and we weave our hopes and plans for the future with theirs. This is especially true when it comes to a significant other.
We share so much with them, from the mundane to the truly intimate. They are our companions, our support, and our guides. When they go, it can leave us a little – lost.
William Stewart began having dark thoughts soon after Mary’s death. In the beginning, he might have been able to push them aside. It probably started small, creeping into his mind when he was reading a book, or sitting at the dinner table.
Most people could probably understand William being sad. His wife had just died; it was almost expected. But as the days turned into weeks, and then months, William began to sink into the depths of depression.
In those days, people called it melancholia, but it was the same thing. While there had been some progress made in the field of mental health between the beginning of the 20th Century and 1920, treatment could be downright medieval in some case. Methods ran the gamut from being truly helpful to being outright damaging. Ice water baths, electroshock therapy, and even lobotomies were not out of the question in treating the mentally ill.
There may have been people he could have talked to. Perhaps he would have been able to work out his depression to a point where it was manageable and he was able to recover. The sad truth is, if he did try, we’ll never know now. Even if he had, the person he spoke to might not have really understood his condition, let alone understood how to help him deal with it.
Mary had been his life, his one and only. William didn’t want to go on without her. He wanted more than anything to be with her. Eventually, his thoughts turned to suicide. He didn’t want to go on without her.
He tried moving on. He tried dating, if that’s what you want to call it. But the sex wasn’t enough to keep those thoughts from leaking in. He still loved Mary, and missed her terribly.
At some point, whatever barriers that were keeping that leak at bay started to break down. From there, it was a gradual, downhill process.
Over the next several months, William allowed himself to sink lower into his despair. But, at the same time, he also began to plan. And to prepare. William Stewart had decided that it was time for him to die.
William knew that he loved his children, and didn’t want to leave them behind. In his agitated state, he reasoned that he would simply take them with him. Perhaps he thought that way the entire family would be reunited in death, and be happy again.
Next, he decided that he would shoot the children first, and then commit suicide. He probably decided that he would wait until they were sleeping, because he didn’t want them to suffer. As for himself, at this point he might have even seen death as a release from his constant mental torment.
On May 27, 1920, William drove to Charlotte and picked up Pearl and William.
They loved their father, and were probably happy to see him. They went back to Davenport, where William had made his preparations. He had already bought a revolver and ammunition that same day. He also wrote letters explaining his actions. He had even made plans to put aside some money with the suicide note so that his brother could pay to have him and the children buried properly.
At some point during what he thought was going to be his last day on earth, William ran into a neighbor. They began talking, and, for whatever reason, William mentioned that he was going to kill his children that night. Perhaps it was at the forefront of his thoughts, and so it slipped out.
William finished the conversation, and then went back into his apartment.
The neighbor was extremely concerned. They went to the local police station, and reported what William had told them and where he lived.
Three officers were sent to William’s residence on West Sixth Street. With two young children in what could very well imminent danger, they forced their way into the apartment.
William, who was sitting alone in the living room, was a little surprised to see three policeman come crashing through his front door. He was probably even more surprised when two of them began searching his rooms while the third stayed with him.
Pearl and young William were found upstairs, sound asleep and unharmed. Once they knew the children were safe, the policeman began to question William about the neighbor’s allegations.
At first, William was very open about the whole thing. He admitted his plan, and freely answered any questions. But after a bit, he stopped talking, especially when the officers asked him where the gun was.
They took William upstairs with them as they continued to search for the would-be murder weapon. He wouldn’t talk about it, but kept looking toward a corner of the ceiling in one room every time the gun was mentioned. The officers noticed, and found the revolver sitting on top of a rafter. .
William was taken to jail while the children were taken into protective custody.
Thankfully, a horrific tragedy was avoided that night.
Depression is a still very much an issue in modern society. In 1920, William Stewart may not have been able to get the help that he needed before his illness led him to believe that murder and suicide was an acceptable answer. He travelled a dark and lonely road, and it almost cost two children their lives.
But today, there is light in the darkness. There is help for people like William who, for whatever causes and reasons, suffer from depression. If you are one of them, then take him as a cautionary tale of where the road you are on can take you. Know that you’re not alone, and that there is help.
History doesn’t always have to repeat itself.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please check in every week or so for brand new true stories of triumph, tragedy, and everything in-between. If you want to make it easier on yourself, you can subscribe to John’s blog and have new entries sent directly to your inbox, or you can ‘Like’ the Kitchen Table Historian Facebook page, and receive them in your news feed.
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‘Police Block Father’s Plot to Slay Babes.’ The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 5/28/1920
‘Buys Gun to Kill Himself and Children.’ The Daily Times, 5/28/1920
‘Stewart Says He Wouldn’t Kill Children.’ The Daily Times, 5/29/1920
‘Drops Suicide and Pleads for His Children.’ The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 5/29/1920
1 thought on “Suicidal: William Stewart Walks the Long, Dark Path in 1920”
I’m glad the children were saved in time, unlike in some of your other stories! What ever happened to William? I know the outlook for someone with severe mental illness back then would not have been great.