Part 2, Finding Lena

screen capture from Rebellion, Season 2, episode 1 (Netflix 2019)

There are no photographs of Allena Finnegan, not a single one.  Not now, not ever. 

I feel confident in this declaration. 

I doubt there were childhood photographs of any of Miles and Maggie’s six children, and it is possible that there was never a single photograph of Miles, though I imagine that photographs once existed (and may still exist) of Maggie, who died in Peoria, Illinois in 1930. 

As the children grew into adulthood, so too did the consumer technologies of amateur photography. I haven’t seen them; however, just as there are photographs of their brother Frank, my grandfather, there must be photographs of grown up Rose, Annie, Nellie, and Mae.

But Lena didn’t grow up.

Allena (Lena) Finnegan was the fifth sister whose name could never seem to be recalled in the family stories.  She died when she was eleven-years-old in a freak wagon accident in Leadville, Colorado on July 2, 1906.  Her death made sensational headline news the following day on page 6 of the Leadville Herald Democrat

The story itself reads as follows:

An accident occurred yesterday afternoon about 3 o’clock which may prove fatal to little Lena Finnegan, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Miles Finnegan of Stringtown. 

H. Kissinger, driver for the J. B. Clune establishment on West Chestnut street, was delivering goods in Stringtown and Malta, and the girl got into the wagon for a ride to her home.  While standing in front of a house where Kissinger was leaving some groceries, one of the of the horses of the team became nervous and jumped over the tongue of the wagon.  Immediately a runaway ensued, the frightened horses tearing madly down the road upsetting the wagon and hurling the child against a telegraph pole.  Hastily summoning an express wagon Kissinger took her to a physician’s office.

The little one, who is only 11 years old, was screaming piteously and powerful anesthetics were administered when the surgeons proceeded to dress her wounds.  Her nose was broken, her jaw smashed and entire head lacerated and bruised, the brain being affected.  Several times during the dressing of her wounds life seemed to be extinct, and it was necessary to administer the most powerful drug known to materia medica, elixir of nitro glycerine, to  renew heart action.  After all that surgery could do, the poor little one, unconscious, was placed in a carriage and taken to her home at Stringtown, the presiding physicians expressing but little hope of her recovery.

While “little Lena” Finnegan is the occasion of this story, she is hardly the subject.  Neither are her parents nor poor Mr. H. Kissinger, whose small act of kindness went so horrifically awry.  They become merely the objects of a melodramatic news story—the drama of “a runaway” horse-drawn wagon tearing madly down the road, of a little girl’s brains dashed against a telegraph pole, of the valiant efforts by the good doctors using the most potent medicine known to mankind.  (If I teach Mark Twain’s Roughing It again, I will contextualize the book in part by having students read three days of the Leadville Herald Democrat for both content and style.)

The last word on Allena Finnegan, as far as the local newspaper is concerned, comes in the final line with the image of “the presiding physicians expressing but little hope of her recovery.” There is no follow-up story, no death notice, no funeral announcement. The doctors’ bleak prognosis and the maudlin image of the unconscious child delivered home is enough to say “The End” in a story about a young, dirt-poor Irish girl whose death remains but a mere formality. Surname aside, the paper doesn’t need to explicitly say that she’s Irish; they’re all Irish in Stringtown.

We are given a death without a life, a body but no ghost. 

[Footnote to Lena Finnegan]

It turns out there may in fact be a ghost after all.

Last week, on Monday, May 13, 2019, the Republic of Ireland’s ambassador to the United States visited Leadville in order to acknowledge and support continuing research into the 1,700 to 2,000 unattended and unmarked graves in the “Free Catholic” (now called the “Old Catholic”) section of Evergreen Cemetery. Professor Jim Walsh of the University of Colorado Denver began this work three years ago as a student course project.

The remains of Lena Finnegan are likely here.

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