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The Drowning of Chas Denison

Another pair of graves in Kalamazoo caught my and Darwin's attention.  Two stones that had fallen flat on their reported that Guy Chandler and Chas Denison had died in 1859.  DROWNED, the stones reported in big letters.  Chas's stone included that he was 11 years old.

This we found heart-wrenchingly sad.  Darwin and I envisioned two best friends going down to the river for a swim. One of them gets into trouble, and the other tries unsuccessfully to save him.  They both drown together.

A cursory search on my phone turned up nothing on the the names, and we moved on to other graves.  The story woudln't leave Darwin alone, however, and later that evening back at the bed and breakfast, Darwin revved up his laptop for some serious research.  He turned up a great deal of information, including an article that appeared in the newspaper just after the sad events happened.  The reality was rather different than we imagined it.  Here's what he pieced together:

Charles "Chas" Denison lived in Dowagiac, Michigan, a ways southwest of Kalamazoo.  A spiffy new railroad ran along what is now I-94, a short distance from Dowagiac.  Chas's parents apparently decided to let the boy spend the summer at his maternal grandparents' home in Kalamazoo.  They probably drove him by buggy up to the train station and saw him off not long after school got out in the summer of 1859.  It would be the last time they ever saw him.

Chas's grandparents, Horace Penfield and Katherine Chandler Penfield, met Chas's train in Kalamazoo and he embarked on a summer of fun at Grandma and Grandpa's.  Or maybe Grandma and Grandpa needed some help around the house and Chas was it.  Or maybe it was a combination of both.

If you have sharp eyes, you will have noticed Katherine's maiden name was Chandler.  According to census records, Grandma Katherine's brother Guy Chandler, who was 51 and a confirmed bachelor, was living with his sister and his brother-in-law Horace.  This meant Guy was Chas's great-uncle.

One Thursday, Chas and Guy went down to the Kalamazoo river for some swimming.  Perhaps Chas wanted to go but Grandma and Grandpa said he couldn't go by himself and they were too busy to take him, and Great-Uncle Guy offered.  Or perhaps Great-Uncle Guy thought some swimming might make for some fine uncle-nephew bonding time.  Or perhaps the two of them had been doing some hard work and decided a bit of swimming was the perfect way to cool off.  (The awful part of my brain creates other, more sinister, motives for Uncle Guy wanting to spend some alone time in a bathing suit or skinny dipping with his pre-pubescent nephew, but Occam's Razor tells me to keep it simple.)  They went down to the river together--

--and never came back.

Here we have supposition again.  We know the river was running a little high.  Most likely Chas got caught in a bad current and Guy jumped in to save him, only to be caught himself.  Or perhaps it was the other way around.  (Or, the sinister part of my brain says, Chas was fighting his uncle off in the river, lost his footing, and both of them were swept away.)  We don't know.  There were no witnesses.

Horace and Katherine must have eventually noticed that Guy and Chas had been gone for an awfully long time.  Worried, they no doubt ran down to the river to check on them and found their things on the riverbank.  Now terrified, Horace searched the river while Katherine ran back to town to shout for help.  The town mobilized, searching riverbank and water, shouting their names, rowing in boats, perhaps even floating bread with dabs of mercury on it in a desperate folkloric attempt to find something, anything.

Telegraph lines had already appeared in Michigan by 1859.  Horace and Katherine must have discussed whether or not they should send to Chas's parents, living in blissful ignorance down in Dowagiac.  Did they do it, or did they wait until they had confirmation?

We do know that young Chas's body washed ashore on Friday.  Great-Uncle Guy's body showed up on Saturday.

We can only imagine what it must have been like for Chas's parents to get the news, either by telegram ("Come to Kalamazoo. Stop. Chas drowned. Stop. Funeral tomorrow. Stop.") or in person.  The self-recrimination ("If we hadn't let him go to Kalamazoo, he'd still be alive!") and blame ("How could you let him go swimming in the river?") and gut-punch sorrow.

The funeral was attended by over 100 children, Chas's classmates who came in from Dowagiac.  Chas and his uncle Guy were buried side-by-side, not in the Chandler family plot, but in a plot of their own.  Perhaps it was that the Denisons didn't live in Kalamazoo, so they didn't have a family plot in the cemetery, and they were angry at Katherine and Horace (who were eventually buried elsewhere in the cemetery), so they didn't want Chas buried near them.  Or perhaps there was no room in the Chandler family plot for Chas, and the family didn't want Chas to be buried alone, so they buried his protector Uncle Guy next to him.  Or perhaps it was something else entirely.

Every grave has a story.
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