When Aunt Mamie was young her boyfriend got her pregnant. Not only did he refuse to marry her, but laughed at her when they met on the street.
So, she got a gun and shot him.
So many questions!
Did he die? “Oh, Patty, I don’t know.”
Did she go to prison? “Patty, that’s the whole story; I don’t know any more.”
She did know that the baby was her cousin Helen, who grew up, got married and lived a long life. And we had a picture of Aunt Mamie as an elderly lady—she looked fierce!
But that was all we knew. Aunt Mamie married into the family, and no one knew her maiden name. I somehow assumed she grew up in New York City, which did not turn out to be the case. So when I started searching for articles about the incident I couldn’t find anything, either in online newspaper indexes or later in full-text databases. I remember thinking that this was probably a typical family story, one that became more dramatic and gaudier as it was passed down over the years. The truth was probably very ordinary.
A few weeks ago I was searching in Ancestry.com, looking for information on Aunt Mamie’s husband, Charley Jackman, our great-grandmother’s half-brother. I found his obituary, with the married name of their daughter Helen. I looked her up and found her marriage certificate, which included … Aunt Mamie’s maiden name.
When I looked up the name: Mamie Reting, many articles appeared that had been saved by another family history buff. In Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank.com there were still more articles.
The family story was true.
Mamie Reting claimed that in September of 1898, Edward Grafe, who worked in a local printer’s shop, had locked her in the shop and, in the words of the Cincinnati Enquirer, “accomplished her ruin.” She became pregnant and had the baby in May of 1899. Over the following months she repeatedly confronted Grafe, insisting that he marry her and make their child legitimate. He refused to do so. In November 1899 Mamie met him on the street outside the printer’s office. When Grafe again refused to marry her, she shot him four times in the back. He died a few days later, steadfastly insisting that he was not the father of Mamie’s baby.
The grand jury went back and forth about indicting her for the murder, and finally went forward with the indictment in late January, 1900. Mamie was taken into custody, with her baby. “Jailer Rushman and his wife have provided her a comfortable room and she takes her meals with them,” according to the Cincinnati Post.
At the trial in March, 1900, Mamie’s defense attorney, Rogers Wright, claimed that Mamie was temporarily insane at the time of the murder. In the preceding months she attempted suicide at least once, and she did not sleep for days before the shooting. In addition to the testimony of family and friends, the defense called four doctors who testified that Mamie was “undoubtedly suffering from melancholia, and the worst form of it.” After the fourth doctor’s testimony, the prosecutor asked the Court to instruct the jury to find Mamie Reting not guilty, on the ground of insanity. They did so on March 21.
Mamie was directed to be examined before the Probate Court and released into the custody of her father, Cincinnati Fire Chief Frank Reting. She was otherwise free.
The story was picked up by the Associated Press and printed in newspapers across the country. But after the acquittal, there were no more stories about the case. According to the 1910 census, Mamie married Charles Jackman two years after the trial. They raised Mamie’s daughter Helen and remained together until Charles’ death in 1949. Mamie died, aged 86, in 1964.
In every family there are stories—and secrets. Now that an increasing variety of information is available online, through family history programs, cemetery indexes, newspaper databases and other sources, some of these stories can be verified, and secrets revealed.
In fact, in researching Mamie Reting’s story another family mystery emerged. But that is for another post …