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  • Writer's pictureDonna Hechler Porter

The Tragedy of Mary Emma McQueen-Martin

One of the more interesting mysteries on the family tree surrounds Mary Emma McQueen Martin.

Now, I learned of this young woman, who was a daughter of James Polk McQueen and his first wife, Mary Jane Mahaffey, when my grandfather, Woodrow McQueen, gave me some family group sheets that had been given to him by other researchers. Now, being listed on the family group sheet was nothing new. However, beside her name were penciled in the words burned to death.

And so - my quest began to find out what happened.

Mary Emma McQueen, who seems to have gone by the name Emma according to census records, was born on 1 September 1878 in Tyler County, Texas, probably in the James McQueen log cabin that still stands on my cousin JuJu Standley's property. Emma was their sixth child and third daughter (older brothers were Amos Mit, John Robert, and James Allie; older sisters were Sallie McQueen and Lizzie McQueen).

Sometime between 1880 and 1883, Emma's mother, Mary Jane, passed away, as did her brother James Allie. James (Emma's father) married a second time to Sarah Jane Lowe, and two more children were born into the family - Scott McQueen in 1886 and Bertie McQueen in 1889. In 1895, when Emma was seventeen years old, her step-mother passed away. James did not remarry a third time.

One of the hardships for women after the Civil War seems to have been the lack of availability of eligible men to marry. More than one woman on the family tree married late in life and married a much older man in the period between the war and 1900. More than one woman entered into a less than desirable marriage probably because their options were limited.

Whether this was the case with Emma or not, is not certain. What is known, is that in 1909, Emma married William Martin. She was 31 years old, and he was 54 years old - clearly old enough to be her father. In the 1910 census, they were living next door to her father, James.

According to census records, Martin was born in Tennessee, while his father was born in Scotland and his mother in Ireland. He had been married before.

Martin may well have not been in Tyler County long before marrying Emma, and it is likely he was not well-known either. There are several land purchases in Tyler County by a William Martin in the 1890s and around the time of his marriage to Emma, but without more to go on I cannot determine if they are his or not, nor can I locate him in the 1900 census, at least in Tyler County. Based on the little information I have, he appears to be an outsider and a recent transplant from the east, and such marriages I have noticed, while doing genealogy, rarely turned out well. This one appears to have been no exception. The six days between the issuance of the marriage license and the marriage further raises eyebrows.

Two years into her marriage to Martin, in January of 1911, Emma burned to death.

I have heard two versions of the tale. One version states she was washing clothes outside one day when her dress caught fire. No foul intent in that version. No ill advised actions by anyone. Such accidents were possible and did happen, although not nearly as often as we have been told. More on that in a moment.

The other, and more sinister version, is that her husband became angry with her and pushed her into the fireplace. Her dress subsequently caught on fire and she burned to death.

One of the greatest myths in American history is that before 1900 childbirth was the leading cause of death in women in America and dresses catching on fire was the second. Casting aside the skewed death rates from childbirth for another day, there are a few reasons why death by fire was not the norm for women at that time. Those reasons, also, give us pause to consider Emma's tragedy.

First, it is true that women wore long dresses day in and day out in the 18th and 19th centuries, .women were used to their dresses, and they were used to being around fires. Before 1900, the cloths to make clothes were generally linens and wools, and embers did not light to such fabrics with ease.

By 1910, the fabrics had expanded to include flannel, silk, muslin, and cotton (the latter of which can be quite flammable), but the long and hooped skirts and/or layers of petticoats of previous generations had been replaced by far less fabric around the legs. Even if we argue that, perhaps, being a country girl and the daughter of a farmer, Emma was not in tune with the latest fashions, a quick perusal of 1900 fashions yields very little change in ten years.

1910 fashion plate, but 1900 looks very similar.

And, all of this makes me suspicious of the tale of her dress catching on fire simply because she was too close to the flames. Sure, the dresses were still long. But women knew how to wear their dresses and how to avoid the flames, and death by this means was actually quite rare in any time period. So, on the face of the facts, there seems to have been more to the tragedy. Could the truth lie somewhere with or between the two stories? What of the family's own mutterings that Emma was more than capable of handling fires (and probably her clothing, too).

Perhaps, the truth lies in both tales? The family always felt that Martin had something to do with her death. Had he fabricated the story about her dress catching on fire when he had actually pushed her into the flames?

Gravehouse in Vinson Cemetery belonging to a McQueen (long forgotten). The flat

headstones were placed in the cemetery by Bertie McQueen. One of the stones is for Emma.

The family never spoke of Emma's death except in hushed undertones and quiet whispers, and that was seldom. Her tragedy, apparently, was theirs to keep. How her death was dealt with, after they buried her in the Vinson Cemetery not far from the James McQueen homestead, was done in private amongst themselves.

It should be noted, however, that William Martin simply . . . disappears.

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