Internet-Genealogy • June/July 2007
When I found Pauline Amsel, murdered young, Durant, Oklahoma, 1914 scribbled on an inherited family tree, I just had to know more. But Mapquest.com placed Durant near the Texas border, a world away from my home in Israel. How could I possibly investigate a murder so far away, so long ago? My only hope was the Internet.
Pursuing the Facts
Guessing that the murder of a child would have been big news in a small town, I searched Durant Internet sites for the name of its local newspaper. Search engines brought up The Durant Democrat, published locally “for over a century, ” but whose online archives do not reach back nearly as far. With a bit of detective work, I discovered that Oklahoma Historical Society’s Newspaper Collection Database at http://www.okhistory.org holds microfilms of the Durant Weekly News, as the paper was once known. Though armed with only the year of the tragedy, the Society’s librarians readily located Pauline’s tale. As I had suspected, her murder made front page news.
“ This community received a terrible shock ….when the news spread over the countryside like wild fire, that Miss Pauline Amsel, the fourteen year old daughter of [ Jake and Celia] … had met a horrible death at the hands of an unknown assassin, who cut her throat, almost severing her head from her body, as she lay asleep,” wrote the Durant Weekly News on November 13, 1914. Jake, the article continues, believed that robbery was not a motive since nothing was taken. He was convinced that the fiend came expressly to murder his daughter.
The article also mentioned some facts that sent me scurrying for more information. Pauline’s family owned a local dry goods store, she was a student at Presbyterian Women’s College, and, for some reason, she was buried in Corsicana, TX.
In lieu of a trip to Durant, I delved into Durant’s history online, hoping to get a sense of Pauline’s life from the final years of Indian Territory through the first years of Oklahoma Statehood. Durant’s Chamber of Commerce site offered, along with photos of now and then, a map of downtown businesses. Because the newspaper article noted the address of Amsel’s store, finding its current name, Rebecca’s Gifts and Gardens, was easy, as was finding Rebecca’s email. I wrote Rebecca about our entwined histories and was rewarded with a copy of the store’s abstract, a legal writ listing its owners from 1900 onward.
Since Durant is today the Headquarters of the Choctaw Nation, I browsed http://www.choctawnation.com/, its official website, for background material. Keying “Durant” and ” Choctaw” into the online search of The Chronicles of Oklahoma, a journal published by the Oklahoma Historical Society at
http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/index.html, rewarded me with first account descriptions of the Trail of Tears, the role of Presbyterian missionaries, life at the turn of the century, and more But nothing about the Amsels.
My search at the Oklahoma Department of Library Online, located at http://www.odl.state.ok.us, was more fruitful. Entering Pauline Amsel, I discovered letters from Jake Amsel about a reward leading to his daughter’s killer tucked deep in the correspondence of Robert Williams, Governor of Oklahoma. Through email and snailmail, I was soon reading them. And, at http://memory.loc.gov/, a digital record of American history at The Library of Congress, I turned up an image of a 1906 pamphlet, “Durant, Indian Territory and Bryan County,” describing the town’s industries, agriculture, flora, fauna and more.
Determining that Durant is in Bryan County, I reached its USGen Web Project website through http://www.rootsweb.com. But the site’s entries, volunteer-compiled lists of local cemeteries, funeral homes, history, school records, land records, obituaries, and surnames, held nothing for me.
The Bryan County site’s webmaster, however, directed me to the Bryan County Heritage Society, which holds primary sources like wills, probates, naturalizations, and the like. What a breakthrough, volunteers searching though dusty civil dockets and property deeds in search of Amsels and sending them to me posthaste, complete with explanations and commentary. But Pauline’s birth, death, police, and coroners records were nowhere to be found.
When I joined the Bryan County Rootsweb Mailing Lists, its members, scattered in Oklahoma and Texas, sifting through libraries and archives, sent me scanned advertisements for Amsel’s store, as well as subsequent issues of the Durant Weekly News, which trace the ill-starred pursuit of Pauline’s killer. One of these Bryan County efriends became as obsessed as I with Pauline. In fact, she became my partner in crime as it were, my eyes and ears in Durant.
Seeking additional personal contacts, I also joined a variety of Oklahoma www. rootsweb.com general genealogy mailing lists. OK-Census-Lookup members cheerfully checked the Amsels’ particulars for 1900 and 1910. OK-Murder members pondered Pauline’s fate, but to no avail. Ok-Gen-Soc members, among them family librarians and professional genealogists, shared their expertise. A University of Texas at Arlington Libraries archivist even located the Amsel’s elusive marriage certificate. They had not wed in Durant as I had assumed, nor any other place in Indian Territory. Jake Amsel and Celia Levy married in Corsicana, TX.
The Corsicana Connection
Because the Amsels married in Corsicana, and, fourteen years later, buried their daughter there, I suspected they had family in town. Since I knew greenhorn Jake had no relatives in America, it had to be Celia. And indeed at http://www.ancestry.com, the 1880 Federal Census placed her in Louisiana– along with her sister Flora. Reversing direction, I succeed in tracing Flora to Corsicana toward the turn of the century.
Curious about Pauline’s burial, I then keyed Amsel into the Jewishgen Online Worldwide Burial Directory, one of the many databases available through http://www.jewishgen.org, the mother of all Jewish genealogy sites. And up she came: Pauline Amsel, Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery. A note to the Cemetery Committee’s secretary yielded gold. Besides photographing Pauline’s grave for me, she dug up a receipt for her casket, purchased from the Holmes Furniture Store in Durant. But she found no burial record.
Presbyterian Women’s College
In a flight of fancy, I wondered if Pauline’s school records, nearly a hundred years later, might still be moldering in Presbyterian’s basement. According to an Internet history, the school, founded by Calvinists to educate Indians, became a Presbyterian-run exclusive girls’ junior and senior high school by Statehood. Today the Presbyterian building houses the Headquarters of the Choctaw Nation.
Neither the Choctaws, the Bryan County Heritage Society, nor Durant’s Board of Education hold any old College records, however. Next, pursuing the Presbyterian angle, I happened on the Presbyterian Historical Society website at http://www.history.pcusa.org/, which led to its Montreat, NC archives. A phone call confirmed that Montreat does indeed hold Durant’s Presbyterian College records, and also connected me with a local researcher. After a flurry of emails, I received copies of Presbyterian’s 1913-1914 catalogs, replete with photographs and detailed descriptions of school courses and activities. Amazingly, I also received Pauline Amsel’s transcripts. Like many of her classmates, she was a piano major.
Who Killed Pauline?
When I shared all my discoveries about Pauline with my Durant “partner in crime,” she suggested contacting elderly Duranters , people her mother’s age who had grown up in the shadow of Pauline’s murder. Wondering if they might have known the Amsels personally, I called them. To avoid paying long-distance telephone rates from Israel, I set up a http://www.skype.com account, which, for pennies, allows me to call computer-to-telephone all over the world.
In those days parents spared their children. Instead of dwelling on the horrific, unsolved murder of a neighbor’s child, they spun tales of Pauline falling from a second-story window or committing suicide– anything but the bitter truth. Yet my sources recall, as children, hearing terrifying screams, seeing blood dripping from the windows, and speeding past the “haunted house” as fast as their legs could carry them.
Surprisingly, all the old timers dismissed the intruder-killer theory outright. Confiding that Pauline, who was Jewish, was involved with a Gentile, they added darkly that ” everyone knew” her parents were furious and forbid the liaison. “It was the mother did it,” declared Durant’s oldest men. But their wives, clucking over their weekly card game, sang a different song. “ They blamed that poor woman, but we all know he did it. ”
Pauline Amsel,, murdered young, Durant, Oklahoma, 1914
An entire world lies behind these words. And nearly a hundred years later, so does the mystery of Pauline’s death.