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The Dance  

Cuyahoga Falls, Summit County, Ohio
Spring, 1904

Ada Marian Howe met David Argyle Burns at an April Fools’ Day costume dance in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio in 1904.  Ada, a full-figured and beautiful girl of 18, was towered over by earnest and handsome 19-year-old Guy, and according to both, it was love at first sight.  God knows why.  Ada came in blackface as Topsy, the mischievous slave girl from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and her suitor-to-be showed up as Mrs. Katzenjammer. [1]

Mrs. Katzenjammer cartoon from 1918

It’s not clear how they were able to see beyond the absurdity of their costumes to the fundamental nobility of each other’s character and person.  Nor were Guy’s moves the practiced tactics of a natural Lothario.  His opening gambit was the offer of a chocolate with a cardboard center. [2] But there must have been chemistry, and Ada’s sense of humor and lack of pretense probably encouraged his pursuit. 

It might have helped that he was tall and kind, unlike Ada's father, who had been a dud of a dad from the get-go. And also that Ada was petite like Guy's mother, and as pretty as Miss Fenn, his adored high school English teacher.

So pursue her he did.  Relentlessly. And it worked. After a courtship of less than one month, during which they went for long walks along the Cuyahoga River every single day, Guy and Ada were engaged. 

Copy of the marriage license

And there being no objections on account of imbecility, insanity, or habitual drunkenness, the two were marriedTopsy in the parsonage of the Cuyahoga Falls Christian Church on May 27, 1904, by the Reverend D.W. Hurd.

The wedding festivities, if any, were probably bare bones, as evidenced by Mrs. Seely’s letter of July 7th, expressing surprise at the news. 

Agnes Seely was a second mother to Ada, who had gone “into service” for the Seely family in Cleveland in 1902, when she was 16, two years after her mother died.  Agnes and DeWitt Seely considered Ada a daughter, and Ada called them “Mucher and Chief.”  The Seely residence on Lexington Avenue was listed as Ada’s home address on the marriage license application. And it was probably not a coincidence that Ada named her first child Agnes Evelyn.

In a warm motherly letter written to Ada just three days before the fateful Howe-Burns encounter at the dance, “Mucher” mentioned the bi-racial Topsy-Turvy doll her granddaughter was waving out the window – perhaps the inspiration for Ada's costume, and certainly for the dolls Ada later made for her grandchildren.  Mucher clearly had no idea that Ada was in danger of marrying anyone, and in fact, alluded to Ada’s apparent plan to go west with her father Willoughby Howe.  That the Seelys were not invited to the nuptials suggests Ada and Guy were mighty anxious to get on with it. [3]

        Ada's wedding dress

Who was at the church that day? Guy's parents and sister Eliza May, no doubt, since Cuyahoga Falls Christian was just across the river from the Burns home. Guy's father didn't hold much with religion, despite being named for an itinerant and fervently charismatic 19th-century preacher of national renown named Lorenzo Dow. [4] Lorenzo Dow Burns's diary tells us that he attended church often in his youth, but circumstantial evidence suggests this was undertaken primarily as a means of meeting young ladies. Mary Rebecca, Guy's mother, is not remembered as a pious sort either -- someone more likely to order God around than submit to His will. Willoughby was probably out west searching for Wife Number Four at the time (poor Lydia had to wait until 1914, however). Ada's troubled sister Zoe might have come down with their Aunt Minnie from Cleveland for the celebration.

Ada's bridal costume was elegant whatever the scale of the ceremony. The skirt's sewn-down pleats were finished with embroidered buttoned tabs, the bow on the sateen blouse pinned with a large pearl. It might have been a hand-me-down from her dressmaker mother or a cousin, or she might have sewn it specially for the occasion. She was very handy with a needle and thread, and it's unlikely she had the money to purchase such an outfit.

The marriage license application is a testament to their haste. Guy was born in Freedom, Ohio, according to his later autobiographical notes, not Windham. Ada's birthplace is shown on the application as Bonesteel, North Dakota, but that town was neither her birthplace nor in North Dakota. In 1904 Bonesteel was a lawless South Dakota town crawling with crooks and gamblers and prostitutes, and home to her father Willoughby. (The reader is free to draw whatever conclusions seem warranted by this choice of residence.) Ada herself was born in White Lake, Dakota Territory, according to an affidavit signed by her mother's sister Alida.

But whatever the truth of it, how did Topsy born in Dakota Territory and Mrs. Katzenjammer born in Ohio happen to be at the same dance in the first place?  By what twists and turns did their paths merge that night?  

For each there’s quite a tale to tell.

Guy first......


[1] Details from Ebba's recollections.

[2] Family lore.

[3] Details taken from a set of letters Mucher wrote to Ada in 1904-1905.

[4] Lorenzo was a popular name during this period because of Lorenzo Dow (1777–1834), an eccentric itinerant American preacher, whose autobiography at one time was the second best-selling book in the United States, surpassed only by the Bible.

Wikipedia has this to say about him: Dow's public speaking mannerisms were like nothing ever seen before among the typically conservative churchgoers of the time. He shouted, he screamed, he cried, he begged, he flattered, he insulted, he challenged people and their beliefs. He told stories and made jokes. It is recorded that Lorenzo Dow often preached before open-air assemblies of 10,000 people or more and held the audiences spellbound. He traveled on foot and occasionally on horseback (when someone would donate a horse) throughout what was then the United States. A fierce abolitionist, Dow's sermons were often unpopular in the southern United States, and he frequently was threatened with personal violence. He sometimes was forcibly ejected from towns, pelted with stones, eggs, and rotten vegetables. That never stopped him; he simply walked to the next town and gave the same sermon again. Lorenzo Dow was personally unkempt. He did not practice personal hygiene and his long hair and beard were described as "never having met a comb." When those clothes became so badly worn and full of holes that they were no longer capable of covering him, some person in the audience usually would donate a replacement. The donated clothes often were not the correct size for his skinny body. Throughout most of his life, what little money he ever collected was either given away to the poor or used to purchase Bibles.