Not so Jennie Shinn, another of my great-great-grandmothers. Though she died a long time before I was born, she was a presence in my life, because she was the heroine of many stories told by my grandmother, her granddaughter, Cleo.
One of those stories changed markedly as I got older. When I was little, it went like this: “Gramma Shinn’s first husband, John Rock, ran away and left her.” Then, when I was in my teens: “Gramma Shinn’s first husband ran away and left her for another woman.” A good deal later – it may have been as late as when I had graduated college and gotten married – my grandmother let me have a copy of the letter that John left for Jennie before he disappeared. Jennie was about seven months pregnant at the time, and she and John had a 2-year-old son, John Jr.
June 20. 1892.
Dear Wife and Darling John. I am this evening flying a criminal from Justice. Oh how sad and heavy I feel because I love you both so dearly. Jen If the officers do not get me I will write Clint at Mentone. If Black and Brown do not ship you my desk write and tell them that if they dont ship it quickly you’ll send a paper to Mr. Bray that I left you.
Jen bear this bravely for my sake. I never knew how I loved you until tonight. I enclose you money. Never give up a dollar. Send Harve after our goods at Port Huron and burn everything except what I put in an envelope addressed to Kelso. Send that to him.
Don’t see any strangers or talk and later you’ll hear from me as I said. Geo can [illegible] himself for his work do not write or answer any letters.
Kiss Kiss Kiss for Johnnie and kiss for the babe unborn. On Dec 24 put the following in the personal column of the Times.
“Well” (or sick) “Boy” (or girl) “Write” (or not)
God be with you. I enclose you $800 —
My gramma thought it was particularly cold that John told Jennie to take an ad out in the paper to let him know about the baby’s arrival. Myself, it strikes me that he doesn’t sign off with “Love” or “Yours” or any of the usual complimentary closes, or indeed even with his name, but with “I enclose you $800.” Which, granted, was probably more use to Jennie than any amount of “Love” or “Yours,” but still.
Then, of course, there’s “I am flying a criminal from Justice.” And “burn everything.” And the business about the desk, which sounds like John may have something incriminating on Mr. Bray (whoever he is). This all sounds much more dire than just John running off with another woman. Was he trying to fool Jennie into thinking he had committed a crime so that she wouldn’t inquire into where he was or with whom?
The letter is on John’s letterhead as an agent of the Union Central Life Insurance Company. Fresh from my research into Catharine Siglin and her community, I thought I’d google around for John Rock Union Central Life Insurance, though frankly I didn’t expect to find much.
John Rock made the national news. The following paragraph, with minor variations, appeared in newspapers from the Meadville, Pennsylvania Evening Republican to the Hurley, Wisconsin Gogebic Iron Tribune.
FLINT, Mich. July 2 — John Rock, an insurance and loan agent of this city, left two weeks ago under peculiar circumstances. It has just been discovered that he took $7,000 belonging to the Union Central Life Insurance Company, of Cincinnati, deserted his wife and baby and is probably now in Canada with another woman. His wife has gone to Defiance, O., where Rock was formerly postmaster and merchant.Meadville, PA Evening Republican, July 2, 1892.
Just a year earlier, though, he was the golden boy of Defiance County.1
“Hustling” turned out to be the right word for it. John opened a dry goods store in the Sherwood post office, with prices that deeply undercut all of his competitors. Nobody could understand how he did it, until the sheriff showed up.
Saturday afternoon an attachment was issued by the Common Pleas court against John Rock, in favor of the John V. Farewell Co., of Chicago, in the sums of $102.22 and $833.36, being claims against defendant for goods sold which were not paid for. Wm. Carter was the attorney for the Chicago house and the writ was placed in the hands of Sheriff Ewing, who, accompanied by Mr. Carter, went up to Sherwood, where the defendant does business, yesterday. As it was the Sabbath, the attorney and official could do nothing but sit on the fence and see the procession go by, and not till five minutes past 12 o’clock last evening could they serve the papers on Rock.Defiance Daily Crescent, May 4, 1891
“The procession” was a bunch of John’s friends, going back and forth removing goods from the store in order to hide them so they couldn’t be repossessed.
I wonder what Jennie thought of all of this. Was she grateful to the bucket brigade getting the merchandise away from the law? Or did she realize that she had married a con artist, who might not honor his vows to her any more than he honored the bills from John V. Farewell?
His fame lingers on. The Defiance County Genealogical Society has a recent blog post with all the details of his “defalcation” (to borrow a charming word from The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s coverage of the event). The blog has a quote that caught my eye because it mentions Jennie’s sewing, which I’ll have more to say about later:
‘When John moved to Flint and secured his position there,’ said Mrs. Rock, ‘I remained in Sherwood. It was not very pleasant for me as his family and relatives did not like me. I sewed for them and as long as I sewed and charged nothing for it, I was all right, but as soon as I commenced charging for making their dresses, they did not like me any more. We never got along well together, though a couple of the girls and I were good friends….’Defiance Daily Crescent, June 27, 1892
This picture of Jennie’s life with the Rock family lines up with something she told my gramma: whenever she was in earshot, the Rocks would switch to speaking German, which Jennie didn’t understand. So I’m inclined to believe that the Daily Crescent reporter really did get an interview with Jennie and that these are more or less her words. If that’s true, Jennie flagrantly disregarded John’s instructions not to talk to anyone. Good for her!
Beyond this likelihood that Jennie went and did exactly the opposite of what John asked in his last communication, I can’t imagine how she must have felt. The photo at the top of the post was taken a couple of years after John left, and her expression speaks volumes.
John never resurfaced. He was last heard of in Mexico, if you believe the Daily Crescent. Three years later, Jennie remarried and moved to Oklahoma. Next time: John Rock turned out to be the least interesting part of her story.
1.↩ The newspaper picture of John settles a minor family disagreement. Jennie’s daughter Zena, the child with whom she was pregnant when John disappeared, believed the photo on the right was a picture of John. Her daughter Cleo was skeptical. Based on the picture in the newspaper, I’d say Zena was right.
Compare the description of John on his Wanted poster, as quoted by the Defiance Daily Crescent (July 12, 1892): “He is about 27 years old, smooth face, about five feet, ten inches in height, complexion dark, hair dark brown – nearly black; eyes black, end of nose somewhat spherical. Has habit of looking down, as if meditating, when he walks, some what stoop shouldered in consequence. Has swinging gait. Is impressive and emphatic in speech, has habit of scowling and is generally scowling or in great glee. Opens mouth wide and draws up corners showing teeth when laughing and always dresses well and is of rather good appearance.”