It's a tiny thing, hardly three inches by five, covered with dark leather, and Private First Class John Norton, U.S. Army, carries it around in a plastic freezer bag. It's the diary of a teenage girl. Before he ships off to Kosovo, Norton wants to find out all he can about her.
The girl's name was Lillian Nelson, but she preferred her middle name, Idonia. She lived on Forest Avenue, near 13th Street.
"Very windy all day, went uptown in the afternoon in all the wind and bought this diary," she wrote on Feb. 24, 1898. "Gave 40 cents for it."
The last entry in the diary is just three months later, on May 29. During those three months, she gives us a rare glimpse at Knoxville during a very fascinating time, and an insight into the life of an American girl during the Victorian era.
A lifelong resident of Halls Crossroads, the diary's present keeper is a former mail carrier and former wide receiver for the short-lived semi-pro Knoxville Crusaders. He came by the diary through a former girlfriend, whose family had acquired it inadvertently when they found it in a chest they bought at an estate auction, probably back in the '60s. They had no particular interest in the diary, and gave it to Norton.
He's grown close to Idonia, and sometimes speaks of her in the present tense. "I know every word in there," he says. Norton aspires to be a football coach, but also hopes to do something with the diary someday, maybe write a book based on her lively character. In Kosovo, where his main job will be working on computers for the peacekeeping force, he says he may spend much of his off time writing about Idonia.
Her family was not rich; Fort Sanders was famous for its mansions, but the Nelsons lived in a more modest corner of the neighborhood. Her dad, Jacob Nelson, was a bookkeeper for a Furnace Company downtown. They lived next door to the "pest house," the quarantine for smallpox victims. Smallpox was rampant in Knoxville that spring.
Some historians, like those behind public TV's 1900 House, inform us that life was oppressively miserable in those days, especially for young women. But the first thing you notice, reading Idonia's diary, is that she had a whole lot of fun.
She goes to dances and church socials and taffy pulls. She listens to black and white street musicians and coaxes some railroad men into playing the "harp" for her. She takes trolley rides downtown and stays out late. She shops for hair ribbons and fans and dresses and stockings. She sings and plays piano and, after hours, "bangs on" the school organ. She waltzes and flirts with boys and gets scared by frogs and has "a fine time telling secrets." She plays hopscotch, bingo, spin the plate, and a board game called crokonole. She watches baseball games and goes on picnics and attends "lawn fetes." She rides bicycles in the dusk. She gets several letters a week and answers them. She reads popular books: Little Women, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Little Lord Fauntleroy. She goes to the resort at Neubert's Springs with the West Knoxville Walking Club. Though she doesn't seem particularly religious—she never mentions God, or faith—she attends at least seven different churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, whichever one has a party on any given night. At Church Street Methodist, she says, "Joe Galbraith sat right behind me and proved himself interesting."
Though she seems to aspire to the English of Victorian literature ("How we had to sleep three in a bed, o fate!") she often slips into country expressions ("We liked to of broke the piano to pieces.")
She snacks on cake, pineapples, strawberries, rock candy, apples, sweet pickles, peanuts, crackers, and onions, sometimes immoderately. "We eat a whole box of strawberries," she writes. "We were out on the front porch and couldn't see so we eat rotten ones and all."
She experiments with new technology: she plays piano for friends over the telephone. The song she mentions is "There'll Be a Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight." For Idonia, there often was. Downtown she has "a fine time booming." She rarely mentions her parents.
She enjoys some sort of social excursion four or five nights a week; she rarely mentions homework or chores. She has to endure some "cornie recitations" now and then, but the only sinister thing in her life, besides the smallpox threat, is the "crazy woman" who occasionally throws rocks at her.
A fellow named Milton Jarnigan apparently has a serious crush on Idonia; he drops by her house frequently, insisting that she teach him to dance. On March 29, he "stayed about two hours and I got tired of him and told him to go home." The following Sunday, "Old Milton Jarnigan was at home when I got there (dog him)." A month later, she resorts to desperate measures. "Today Milton Jarnigan came over and I locked the parlor door and jumped out of the window..."
Several of the events she describes align with newspaper accounts. She describes the March 22 lecture of "Dr. Mayo of Baltimore" on Market Square as "tiresome." (A Dr. A.D. Mayo of Boston spoke that night on the dry subject of "How Does Education Pay?") On April 12, she wrote, "Clyde Ward's father was killed at about 5:00 this afternoon. They live only two blocks from me." (An unemployed man named Ward shot himself in his front yard that day, reportedly by accident.) On May 2, she describes "watching a fire on Asylum Street, Condon's residence." (The paper reports a fire that evening at the Asylum Street residence of M.J. Condon, Irish politician and brother of the former mayor.)
Though she doesn't mention the Spanish-American War by name, she talks about watching the troops drilling at Baldwin Park, the old baseball field on the north side of her neighborhood.
On March 8, she and her friend Margie Madgett go downtown to see the "hypnotized man who was in Claiborne and Brown's window. Always remember the big fat woman who kept saying, 'he ain't asleep.'"
On that day, newspapers indicate that a man did indeed sit still for 48 hours in the show window of Claiborne, Tate and Co., a clothing store on State Street. He'd been hypnotized on stage at Staub's Theatre by a mesmerist billed as "Mr. Lee." The following Saturday, "Emma, Annie, and myself went to the matinee in the afternoon to see the Hypnotist. Always remember the funny things he made them do and how he put Jennie Lee to sleep." Many of her entries conclude with a line that starts, "Always remember..." She repeats it as if commanding herself not to forget.
Norton has visited Idonia's grave at New Gray Cemetery on Western Avenue; she's buried in a plot with her sister, Charlotte. (Hardly mentioned in the diary, Charlotte Nelson Brailey had a modest career as an opera singer.) Norton has also learned a little about Idonia's later life; in 1906, she married Roscoe McCullough, a railroad superintendent. They lived quietly in her childhood home for decades.
There's a little bit of a mystery about Idonia's age. On her 1898 birthday, when sources including her New Gray gravestone indicate she should have been 15, she writes, "Sweet Sixteen today.... Went to town with Margie...Got a gold heart and chain and some blue silk hair ribbon for birthday presents..."
Idonia died in 1964, at the age of 81 (or 82?), apparently in the house where she wrote this diary. The newspaper showed her as she'd been maybe 30 years earlier, as a middle-aged married woman: dark-haired, demure, pretty and, still apparent in her dark eyes, fun.