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Tripped the Light Fantastic: When Ancestors Make the News

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The following is a guest post by Candice Buchanan, a reference librarian in the History and Genealogy Section in the Research and Reference Services Division. Candice worked with the Toothman family through her volunteer work with the Greene County, Pennsylvania Archives, and has their permission to write about their ancestor Abigail “Muddy” Toothman.

As genealogists meticulously reconstruct the lives and families of our ancestors, we seek more than just their names and dates. We persistently pursue those elusive details – however small – that will restore personalities to their profiles.

Clues to those characters are often discovered within the thousands of newspaper pages databased in the Library of Congress *Chronicling America historic newspaper collection.

In just such a case, this handy resource unraveled an unanticipated yarn that provided a backstory to a beautiful photograph and a bit of family folklore.

An image of Abigail "Muddy" (Kiger) Toothman.
Abigail “Muddy” (Kiger) Toothman (1870-1964); late 1880s to early 1890s, image by Shafer, Fairmont, W. Va.; item no. TOOK_AN003_0001_0008, Katherine Jane (Throckmorton) Toothman Collection, Greene Connections: Greene County, Pennsylvania Archives Project. 

The striking young woman in the smart hat is Abigail “Muddy” (Kiger) Toothman (1870-1964), wife of Harry Sterling Toothman, daughter of Lee Roy Kiger and Mary (Wells) Kiger.

To the unaware outsider, Abigail’s lovely likeness elicits admiration, but for her grandchildren it has been a source of astonished amusement. Her heirs have found it entertaining to reconcile this youthful image with the elderly woman, whom they affectionately knew as “Muddy.”

Basic family history records show that before her marriage, Abigail lived with her parents and siblings in Monongalia County, West Virginia, but her descendants knew nothing personal about her early life.

Family tradition has forgotten Muddy’s youth. Her legacy begins with the birth of her one and only child. One and only because after the labor ended, Muddy allegedly declared that she would not be doing that again. The baby boy was accordingly christened with every name that the couple may have otherwise bestowed upon several sons: Glenn Jacob Roy Thornton Toothman.

It is a tale that has run through the family along with the name. Abigail’s great-grandson, Glenn III, knew his tough ancestor during the final decade of her 93 years: “Muddy was as feisty as her hat was bold. Regardless of age, she was known to sneak out to the bar for a double-bourbon and rub of snuff. When my father (Glenn Jr.), whom she called ‘Junie,’ complained to her about this unacceptable habit, Muddy quickly put him in his place by famously saying, ‘Junie you don’t know nothing about life until you’ve lived all of it’.”

So, we had to wonder just what was the life that Abigail had lived? Enter the newspapers.

Admittedly, though we hoped to find some personal insights in the small town newspapers of days gone by, we were stunned and moved by the unexpected range of search results Chronicling America yielded.

A Childhood Full of Music!

Censuses, courthouses, and tombstones provide the essential facts about the Kigers, but give away nothing particularly warm or personal.

So, when the Morgantown, West Virginia news revealed that Abigail’s father, Lee Roy Kiger, was a popular, local musician, it was an exciting surprise!

We first find Lee Roy’s name in print when he lost his music book in 1853. 

Newspaper clipping with visible text, "“Lost, A Second Cornet Book, belonging to the late Morgantown Brass Band. The finder, or person having it in possession will please return it to Lee Roy Kiger.”
“Lost, A Second Cornet Book,” Monongalia Mirror (Morgantown, West Virginia), August 6, 1853.

Kiger-Wells Marriage

An important development necessary to Abigail’s existence was published in 1855, when her father married her mother.

A newspaper clipping with visible text that reads: “Married: On the 29th ult. by [Eld. A. J. Bowman]. Mr. Lee Roy Kiger and Miss Mary Wells, all of Morgantown.”
“Married,” Monongalia Mirror (Morgantown, West Virginia), March 31, 1855. 
Musical Farmer

By March 1859, Lee Roy and Mary were the parents of one son, Rollie, with another son, Henry, on the way. Though Census records consistently list him as a farmer and tanner, Lee Roy was clearly continuing his musical pursuits while raising his family.

A newspaper clipping with visible text, “Music! Music! The Mechanics’ Bugle Band, of this place, Lee Roy Kiger leader, are prepared, with first rate instruments and a suitable Carriage, to attend upon Conventions, Processions, &c., and to play, with a will, for Goggin, Willey and Preston, or to put in their best licks for Letcher, Montague & Tucker, as opportunities may be afforded. Terms Moderate.”
“MUSIC! MUSIC!” American Union (Morgantown, West Virginia), March 11, 1859.

Dancing Until Daylight

Twenty years later, Lee Roy and Mary had completed their family, with four known children: Rollie (1858-1933), Henry (1859-1865), Catherine (1862-1954), and Abigail (1870-1964). The three surviving Kiger kids were ages 21, 17, and 9 years old, when this all-night dance party filled their home with nimble feet.

A newspaper clipping with visible text: A PARTY of young folks went up to Lee Roy Kiger's last Thursday evening and tripped the light fantastic until near daylight.
“Personal Mention,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), August 2, 1879.

A New Sister

Abigail’s brother, Rollie was wed in 1880, to a gal from another frequently mentioned family in the social columns, Matilda Frum.

Newspaper clipping with visible text: “Married. Mr. Rawley Kiger, son of Lee Roy Kiger, and a Miss Frum, of Clinton District, were married at Taylortown last Thursday.”
“Married,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), September 18, 1880.

Apples and Friends 

Abigail was 13 years old when we first find her name in the social columns, along with an apple-cutting event hosted by her father.

Newspaper clipping with visible text:“The first applecutting of the season was held at Lee Roy Kiger’s last Wednesday night. Owing to the rain there were but few present… Miss Lulu Pickenpaugh one of Morgantown’s vivacious young ladies is visiting Miss Abbie Kiger.”
“Our Uffington Budget,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), September 1, 1883.

The Event of the Season

This one speaks for itself!

Newspaper clipping with the text: “The dance at Lee Roy Kiger’s was the event of the season. Quite a crowd of young ladies and gentleman were there from town and they tripped the light fantastic till the wee small hours of the morning and only left when the early dawn began to break.”
“Personal mentions, ” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), September 27, 1884.

 Abbie on the Town

By 1885, Abigail is out and about with friends. Many such visits back and forth made the papers. Though only the highlights are seen here, anyone interested could return to the newspapers to reconstruct this teenage girl’s social scene! 

Newspaper clipping with visible text: Miss Abbie Kiger was here last week among her young friends.”
“Personal Paragraphs,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), September 26, 1885.

Tragedy Strikes

Then life changed. Abigail was 15 years old when she lost her mother, Mary (Wells) Kiger, on December 12, 1885.

Newspaper clipping with the text, “At her home at the Round Bottom, in this county, on Saturday Dec. 12th, 1885, after an illness of several months, Mrs. Mary, wife of Leroy Kiger, aged 58 years. The remains were buried from the Baptist church in this place on Sunday afternoon and were followed to their last resting place by a large concourse of relatives and friends.”
“Deaths,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), December 19, 1885.

Another Loss

The death of Abigail’s sister-in-law on November 28, 1887, meant that her brother, Rollie, was left a widower with a young family. Several years later, after her marriage, the elder two of these three Kiger children came to live with Abigail, where they were enumerated at her home in the 1900 Census.

Newspaper clipping with text: “Mrs. Tillie Kiger, wife of Rawley Kiger, of near Uffington, died on Monday, November 28th, of consumption, aged 27 years. Deceased was an excellent lady and leaves a large circle of friends besides her husband and three little children to mourn her untimely death.”
“The Death Roll,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), December 3, 1887.

The Swan Song

Lee Roy Kiger’s active life was stilled in the spring of 1888.

Newspaper clipping with text, “We learn that Leroy Kiger was struck with paralysis a few days since, at his home at Round Bottom, and that his condition is quite critical. He is unable to move or speak. We hope for his speedy recovery.”
“Purely Personal,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), April 7, 1888.

Left to Mourn His Loss

Abigail was 17 years old when her father passed away on April 20, 1888.

Newspaper clipping with the text, "“At his late residence at Round Bottom, this county, on Friday, April 20, 1888, Leroy Kiger, in the 62nd year of his age. Deceased had been suffering for about 3 months past with paralysis and recently the attacks had been recurring so often that he had been unable to move or speak. He was born in Morgantown and had lived here all his life till a few years ago he moved to Round Bottom and engaged in farming, his occupation having been that of a tanner while he resided here. His wife preceded him in death about two years. One son and two daughters are left to mourn his loss. His remains were brought to this place on the evening train and interred in Oak Grove Cemetery.”
“KIGER,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), April 28, 1888.

Guardian Appointed

 An orphaned minor, Abigail was appointed a guardian by the Monongalia County Court. Her case is on file in the Bond Books of the County Clerk’s office at the Courthouse in Morgantown.

Newspaper clipping with the text, “May 23d he appointed John W. Lanham guardian of Abbie Kiger, minor child of Leroy Kiger, dec’d…..he appointed Rolly N. Kiger administrator of the personal estate of Leroy Kiger, dec’d.”
“County Court Proceedings of the June Session, 1888,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), June 23, 1888.

Life Goes On

In the final entry of her girlhood, Abbie makes a dramatic exit. Now 18-years-old, she leaves home alone to find her own way.

Newspaper clipping with the text, " "Miss Abbie Kiger boarded the train for Grafton Tuesday and expects to learn the millinery trade at the above named place. Success to her."
“Points about People,” New Dominion (Morgantown, West Virginia), April 20, 1889.

Coming of Age

When Abigail married Harry Sterling Toothman (1872-1951) on July 19, 1890, they both lied about their ages, saying they were 21 (bride) and 19 (groom), even though they had just turned 20 (bride) and 18 (groom). Harry’s reason is unclear because he still required his father’s signature, but Abigail avoided the required consent of her guardian by declaring herself to be of legal age. Their nuptials are recorded in Marriage Book 2, page 55 at the courthouse in Fairmont, Marion County, West Virginia.

It was in this town, where Abigail transitioned from Miss to Mrs., that she proudly donned her signature hat and sat for the photographer.

She was a girl who grew up with music and dancing, family, and friends. Her world was shaken by a succession of great losses that changed her life forever before she had even reached her majority.

But in this moment, imagining her seated in front of the camera, it’s that final newspaper notice that sets the scene for how the pieces of her story have come together, as Abigail steams off to learn her trade – millinery – the craft of designing, making, trimming and selling hats. The hat can make the lady, especially if the lady can make the hat! This feels less like a wave from the past than a wink, which seems just right for Muddy.

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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  1. Muddy was my great grandmother who I actually knew during the latter years of her life. She was always considered to be a force to reckon with and at one point as an older lady developed a habit of coming up missing to the alarm of her family. While searching, my father discovered her in the corner booth of a local watering hole with a double whiskey and scrub of snuff and when my father complained about such behavior she quickly shook her finger in his face and told him he did not know about life until he had lived all of it. He realized her truth and made arrangements to always give her a ride to her vice.

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