Yesterday's News

Great story, but facts of romance writer's life don't appear to check out

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
August 28, 2005

A Corydon native named Maria Powell was the Barbara Cartland of the magazine world a century ago.

That was the impression given in an article that appeared in the Gleaner and Journal Aug. 31, 1930. The article was reprinted 75 years ago from a St. Louis newspaper, because folks at the Gleaner thought her "many friends here will read it with interest."

By 1930, she was rather elderly, her name was Mrs. W. F. Turner, and she lived at 511 Veronica Ave. in East St. Louis. A St. Louis reporter "quite by accident" discovered she had been "at one time a popular and widely known author of love stories. One hardly knows where to begin recording Mrs. Turner's experiences, for they have been many and varied."

Yes, and probably somewhat fictionalized, too. I'm not casting aspersions on Maria Powell, but some of the story she told the St. Louis reporter doesn't check out. That doesn't mean she wasn't a popular romance writer; it just means she didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. But let me allow her to tell her story, then I'll point out where I think she strays from the truth.

"I was born near Henderson, Ky. My mother was from England and it is from her I received my material for my English love stories.

"I wrote my first story when I was ten years old. My mother sent it away and I received a check for ten dollars. I wrote from that time on and made much money."

OK, time for a reality check. Yes, there actually was a Maria H. Powell who lived in the Corydon vicinity. She first appears as a 3-year-old in the 1860 census -- in the nearby Smith Mills neighborhood -- the daughter of James M. and Matilda Powell, and she had two older siblings. Both parents were born in Kentucky; the mother was emphatically not English. That probably was a little self-mythologizing to promote her knack for churning out English romances.

Powell was married Sept. 12, 1882, in the Corydon Methodist Church to J. William Eakins, according to the marriage certificate. She was 25 and he was 42. And that also conflicts with the story she told the St. Louis reporter.

"I didn't marry until late in life," she said. "I made enough money writing to live in good style. I wrote under various nom de plumes but my real name before my marriage was Maria Powell."

Powell was most definitely a writer. A 1903 story titled "Only Three Words," apparently "received widespread comment upon its appearance in the various magazines. It was syndicated and Mrs. Turner received $7,000 in cash and royalties during its run. She declared that the publishers received $31,000 as their share."

During the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago she wrote for a Chicago newspaper: "She had a special page entitled 'Curios in Literature and History.'

"Besides love stories, Mrs. Turner wrote editorials for the various magazines she contributed to, physical culture articles and expositions of literature."

I must admit I'm a little skeptical of Powell's claims because she seemed to hunger for publicity -- but was fearful of revealing too much.

"I have been offered a big price for the story of my life, but it will never be told. I have had many adventures but I don't want them published. I don't like for my personal affairs to be made known to the general public.

"And she told many absorbing and exciting tales of her life, which she expressly forbade publishing, but which were very interesting."

She quit writing in 1910, she said, because "I broke both arms. My husband always made enough for us to live on in good style, anyway."

I'm not absolutely certain the elderly Mrs. W.F. Turner of East St. Louis is the same person as the young Maria Powell who married here in 1882. But she's the only Maria Powell I could find in Henderson County in the latter half of the 1800s.

Furthermore, there is a more plausible explanation why she began writing romance fiction. Her marriage to Eakins lasted only five years before he filed for divorce, according to court records at the Henderson County Judicial Center. She probably began writing for a living more out of desperation than anything else, because back then there were few honorable ways for a divorced woman to make a good living.

Her reluctance to have her personal affairs publicly aired probably stem -- at least partly -- from that divorce, which back then had a definite air of disrepute about it.

Many a good story has been ruined by attempts to verify it, and I fear that's what I may have done here, but more research needs to be done to separate the fact from the fiction of Maria Powell.

140 years ago

A comparison of taxable property in Henderson County between 1860 and 1865 drastically showed the effects of the Civil War, according to an 1865 article in the Henderson Reporter.

Pounds of tobacco dropped from 8.1 million to 5.2 million, with commensurate drops in production of corn and wheat. Total value of taxable property dropped from $11.3 million to $6.2 million, with the loss of $3.8 million worth of slaves representing the biggest part of that decrease.

50 years ago

The city of Henderson's recent purchase of land on outer Fifth Street for industrial uses quickly paid off, as the Eureka Plating Co. of Detroit announced plans to erect a building there, according to a 1955 article in The Gleaner.

The plant was expected to employ 50 to 75 workers.

25 years ago

Ground was broken on the second phase of the Second Street improvement project, according to a 1980 article in The Gleaner.

Gov. John Y. Brown and other dignitaries shoveled some ceremonial dirt, beginning the widening of Second Street from Klutey Park Plaza to the city's eastern outskirts.



Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS