Back in the 1990s, I bought a box of diaries at auction. It turned out that almost all of them were written by the same individual, Ada Semple Ames. You couldn’t sit down by the fire and simply read them — the handwriting was impossible. So I took to transcribing them, a page a day. The oldest of the diaries was from 1876. It turned out they weren’t all diaries — many of the volumes were journals. The writing was beautiful. At that point, I thought of it as a most satisfying hobby.
Once I’d finished, I realized I had to know more. I found family genealogy — including a grandfather who was a U.S. Senator from Illinois; an uncle who became the governor of Washington Territory; a whole clan of Semples in Scotland; and both a mother and a grandmother who were capable of running elaborate Victorian homes —and prosperous businesses as well. I also found relations living in Annapolis, Maryland. The actual diaries and journals went to them.
Next, I set to finding out how the diaries came to be sold at an auction here in Portsmouth, NH. I called the auctioneer. By law, he explained, he couldn’t answer many of my questions, but he did tell me that Ada’s family summered in Rye, NH, five miles down the coast from where I live, and that Ada’s sister had finally settled in Rye. And then he asked me a question I will never forget. “I trust you bought the box of Semple/Ames/Turner photos?” I hadn’t, nor could he tell me who had. That fact still pains me to this day.
However, before I knew it, I was planning trips. First, a visit to St. Louis, where Ada had grown up, and Elsah, Illinois, where Ada and her mother had their summer homes. The Historic Elsah Foundation arranged for a luncheon at Elistoun, Ada’s home, which is now owned by Principia College, and Principia opened their vaults of Semple/Ames/Turner materials to me.
Then, for fun, we followed Ada’s itinerary through Scotland, and to Paris and Germany where she and her siblings were taken for their education. I hijacked a Harvard tour to pay a call at the fortress of Königstein, near Dresden, where Ada had spent an afternoon almost 120 years earlier to the day. I took notes everywhere we went, and finally, I set to putting everything I had together as a book.
The part I could never imagine, however, was how to sell such a book, and so it sat, simmering on a back burner — until a friend suggested I simply post it as a blog. Of course!
So — do come and meet my friend Ada! You can access her at:
I will be posting sections daily until it’s all up there in the ether. I can only imagine what Ada would think of this!
Nancy W. Grossman © 2013
A 21st Century Victorian Blog!