The Half-Life of Freida Lovewell

When I suggested that the appearance of little Freida Lovewell among the crowd of relatives and well-wishers at a celebration in or near the town of Lovewell, might help pinpoint the date when a pair of family photographs was taken, I assumed that the information given about Freida was accurate.  According to Gloria Lovewell's “The Lovewell Family” Freida was born February 16, 1913, and died at the age of two years,* apparently placing her death early in 1915.  Because a vintage newspaper item published about an anniversary party honoring Thomas and Orel Jane Lovewell in 1916 could easily pass for a description of those photos, I decided to double-check the stats on Freida.  If some evidence could only nudge her timeline forward a year or so, the photographs and the news item might line up quite nicely.  

There are several other young people in the family reunion photograph who are a few years older than Freida, but can we really tell from a blurry halftoned clipping whether Stephen Lovewell’s son Tom, born in October 1910, was 3, 4, or 5 years old when he stopped squirming and had his picture snapped that day?  I have photos of my daughter taken when she was 4 but easily could have passed for 10 (Yes, I broke out in a cold sweat when I first saw them).  An infant, on the other hand, undergoes rapid development over a matter of months, usually at a fairly standard rate.  Freida’s inclusion in the family portrait could be even more helpful than finding a speck of carbon-14.  However, just as carbon-14 provides a neat little atomic clock only because it has a known half-life of 5,700 years, Freida can put a firm date on that gathering of Lovewell relatives only if we’re sure about when she was born.

The thought kept nagging me because Freida’s father, William Frank Lovewell, was a year off about his own date of birth.  Census figures throughout his adult life and the date chiseled on his headstone show that William Frank honestly thought he had been born in 1878.  His own father’s handwritten record on a pension form and a newspaper item announcing his birth prove that he was really born in 1877.

According to an item in the September 29, 1914 edition of the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune, the date given for Freida’s birthday in “The Lovewell Family,” February 16, 1913, must be about right, while the poor girl's life was cut even shorter than we thought.

Dies of Serious Ailment

Freida Elizabeth Lovewell, nineteen-month-old baby of Mr. and Mrs. W. F. Lovewell of the Brighton vicinity, died Saturday evening at a local hospital of an ailment which works very much like cholera.  The little girl was brought here only recently for treatment.  The funeral was held yesterday from the Howe and Maloney chapel conducted by Rev. O. O. Wood.

Judging from the date of publication, Freida Lovewell could have died no later than September 26, 1914.  She was around long enough to attend only one of her grandfather’s birthdays, his 88th, which was celebrated on December 20, 1913.  There were a couple of wedding anniversaries during her brief span of time, but since they marked the 47th and 48th years of the Lovewell marriage, humdrum milestones, even if there had been festivities with family members lining up for cake and hand-cranked ice cream, newspapers apparently didn’t find them newsworthy.  Freida would have been only six weeks old at her grandparents' 47th anniversary in 1913, ten months old at her grandfather's birthday that December, and almost fourteen months when the wedding anniversary rolled around again the following April. 

So, for my money, all available evidence still points to those photographs having been taken on Thomas's 88th birthday party held on December 20, 1913.**  As a bonus, my dogged search also turned up the moment when Thomas Lovewell’s age slipped a sprocket. 

For a man who claimed to eschew publicity, Thomas seemed addicted to dropping by newspaper offices and chewing the fat with country editors.  As he made the rounds in late December 1895 he informed the proprietors of various papers that he had just turned 7o.  Reporting on a trip to Topeka to visit his cousin Joseph Taplin Lovewell in 1902, the Topeka State Journal remarked that the well-preserved 76-year-old pioneer could "out travel  most men who are 50 years younger.”  He was then a few months away from turning 77.  One decade later, newspapers around the state marked his 87th birthday on December 20, 1912.  As mentioned above, his 88th birthday in December 1913 drew a large assembly of relatives. An item in the December 28, 1914, Topeka Daily Capital falls right in line with the rest:

Indian Scout Is 89

Lovewell, Kan., Dec. 27 - Thomas Lovewell has just celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday and is enjoying pretty good health.  Mr. Lovewell is the oldest settler in the western part of Republic county, having settled on the White Rock creek in 1866.  He had been an Indian scout for a number of years before that and can tell some interesting stories. 

Towards the end of December 1915, a correspondent from the Courtland Register dropped by the Lovewell farm north of the little town Thomas had founded almost thirty years earlier in Jewell County, hoping to interview the pioneer on the occasion of his 90th birthday, and ask him about some of those interesting stories.  The reporter must have been disappointed on two counts.  He was told that the birthday just celebrated was his 89th (again), and the guest of honor evidently was not feeling talkative that day.  Yet, Thomas Lovewell did grant an interview, giving the writer two choice pieces of information that would be forgotten, or at least would almost never figure into accounts of his life for the next hundred years.


* I originally gave her age at death as two years and two months, conflating the ages of two of William Frank Lovewell’s unfortunate children, Freida and her sister Opal, who died at two months.  According to Gloria Lovewell, Opal was laid to rest next to Freida in October, 1914. 

** For the final word on that frequently-misunderstood photograph, which was taken April 1, 1916, see The Face-Maker Makes the Case"

© Dale Switzer 2023