Susan in the Middle of History

February 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

Unfortunately I have neglected this blog recently. However, two recent reports in the media have sparked my interest in again sharing some information about Susan. The first was the news story this past January that the new governor of Illinois borrowed Susan’s family Bible for his swearing-in ceremony. That Bible has family records that Susan compiled which include some fascinating figures in her family tree. I will feature one of those relatives in a future blog post.

The second media report is a PBS program entitled “The Big Burn” which is airing for the first time on February 3. The program details the 1910 fire in the northern Rockies that destroyed 3 million acres and leveled several towns. The horrible devastation drastically changed American Forest Service policy, and Susan was in the midst of it in Wallace, Idaho. I chronicled her involvement and quoted a description of her experience in her own words in two earlier posts. I invite you to read or re-read “Susan and the Big Blow” and “Fire in Susan’s own Words.” The posts add a personal dimension to the big story that the PBS program relates.

Reflections of Memories

September 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

In a post entitled “Classics in a Classy House” that I wrote in June, 2012, I noted that both Susan and Frank Lloyd Wright followed the popular trend of their day by displaying replicas of classic statuary in their homes. These statues demonstrated that the home owner was cultured and appreciated fine art.  In Susan’s case, they undoubtedly were also an indication that she had seen the originals on her trips to Europe. 

I just returned from Europe and was fortunate enough to visit the Louvre in Paris for the first time. There I saw “Winged Victory” and “Venus de Milo.”  I was overwhelmed.  My first thought was that the statues in the Dana-Thomas House cannot begin to convey the scale, majesty, or beauty of either figure. Yet Susan tried to capture her memories and share them with her American friends through the replicas.

Then I did a very twenty-first century thing.  I had my friend take a picture of me with “Venus de Milo.” Now that I am home and looking at the photos from the trip, I realize that despite the technology of today, we still can’t convey through images the experience of seeing great masterpieces in person.  Nevertheless, like Susan, I am going to try to share my memories with you.  I hope that if you have not already done so, you too will get the opportunity to see these original magnificent masterpieces. Meanwhile, enjoy the reflections of the memories of Susan and me.

Winged Victory


The Double Blade Axe

August 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

Double-Edged-Axe-This week marks the 100th anniversary of a horrific chapter in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life.   On August 15, 1914, Julian Carlton, the cook at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, brutally axed seven people to death and burned what the press called Wright’s “Love Bungalow” to the ground.  The victims were Mamah Borthwick Cheney (Wright’s mistress), her two children, and four Taliesin workmen.  The massacre was the climax of a very public scandal involving Frank Lloyd Wright and Mrs. Chaney.  The sensational story continues to be told today in formats such as the New York Daily News (see January 25, 2014 issue), the factual Death in a Prairie House by William Drennan, and Nancy Horan’s novel Loving Frank.

The drama was a top national news story 100 years ago. Springfield’s Illinois State Journal, for example, featured articles about the slaughter on the front page August 16, 17, 18, and 19.  Follow-up stories appeared on back pages in the August 20, 30, and September 13 issues.  The August 16 Journal linked Wright to Susan with a sentence which follows the front page article:

Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, planned the beautiful residence of Mrs. Susan Lawrence Dana, now Mrs. Susan Lawrence Joergen-Dahl, on the north west corner of Fifth Street and Lawrence Avenue in Springfield and had a number of acquaintances in this city.

I wonder what emotions Susan felt as this tragedy so publicly unfolded.  She was very close to several of Wright’s family members and had visited the Spring Green complex frequently. Furthermore, because of personal problems, Susan was experiencing a deep depression at the time.  Her second husband, Lawrence Joergen-Dahl, had died a year ago, and she was struggling to recover.  I explain in the opening paragraph of Chapter 12 in Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House:

Susan remained cloistered in the Lawrence House for the last half of 1913 and most of 1914.  Her whole world was collapsing around her.  While Europe, her frequent playground, was about to break into World War I, Susan was nursing her cousin Flora back to health and trying to regain her own strength.  The resiliency she had mustered in the past did not come easily this time.

I suspect that in this vulnerable state of mind, Susan was deeply disturbed by the daily chronicles of the dreadful details of the Taliesin tragedy.  Then as today, the media is a double blade axe.  It carves out factual stories but can inflict deep wounds.  Just ask the families and friends of Michael Brown or Robin Williams.  

Some Thoughts on Susan’s Spiritualism

August 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

In a post I wrote last December, I referred to Susan’s belief that ties with the deceased were not severed at death, and she could communicate with them through spiritualism (Click here to read the post).  I elaborate in Chapter 8 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House:

[Susan] was not alone.  The supernatural permeated America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, and women at the top of the social and economic ladders were the most active participants.  At its peak at the turn of the century, spiritualism had over 10 million followers.  The National spiritualist Association of America (NSAA) defines spiritualism as “the science, philosophy and religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World.”  The mediums intervene in a variety of ways either through verbal or physical manifestations.

Not everyone of that era accepted spiritualism.  Most notably, Harry Houdini, the great illusionist, spent the last years of his life vehemently debunking the work of psychics and mediums.  He unveiled hoaxes time and again.

houdini & Beatrice

Harry and Bess Houdini

Since my husband Carl passed away last October, I have given this phenomenon a lot of thought and have come to the conclusion that both Susan and Houdini were right.  I believe as Susan did that ties with the deceased are not severed at death, but like Houdini, I do not believe that we can initiate communications with our loved ones even with the aid of a medium.  Rather, our loved ones come to us when they choose.

I base my conclusion on some personal experiences I’ve had these past months, stories friends have shared, and Houdini’s last “show.”  Houdini’s widow Bess held a séance each year on the anniversary of his death in an attempt to connect with him.  On the tenth death anniversary, the séance was broadcast on the radio world-wide.  A medium attempted to get a message from Houdini for over an hour, and finally Bess proclaimed that she was finished trying to reach him.  She bid him good-by.  As the program went off the air, a violent but extremely localized thunderstorm broke out.  It only occurred over the building that housed the radio station.  There was no rain, thunder, or lightning in any other part of town. (Click here for Houdini’s story)

Susan and Me and War

June 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

Recently I was fortunate to see the stage production “War Horse” based on the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo. I had seen Steven Spielberg’s film interpretation of the story earlier, but the stage drama brought the realities of the First World War closer to me than anything else I have experienced. Although the drama personalizes the effects of the War on British, French, and German citizens, I found myself recalling Susan’s reactions to America’s participation in that conflict.

In Chapter 14 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House I quote from a letter which Susan sent to Anna Lloyd Jones Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother in 1917:

I am so wrought up over this dreadful war I can hardly settle myself to do anything. I am helping in every way that I possibly can, but it does not seem right for us to lend ourselves to wholesale murder. What good can possibly come to us in the sacrifice of the flower of the young manhood of the world? I can see none that will ever compensate for the loss.

Susan lived through three wars. She was born during the Civil War (1862), did her patriotic part in the First World War (see earlier post “State Fair Chips”), and died just after the close of the Second World War (1946). I was a child during the Second World War and have lived through Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. As I write this, our nation’s leaders are debating renewed involvement in Iraq. To me, Susan’s statement is as valid as it was 100 years ago. I must ask myself the same question she asked, “What good could possibly come to us?”

Susan, Grace, and Me

May 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

     Once more I am following in Susan’s footsteps. I have been asked to give a presentation next week at Grace Lutheran Church where I am a member. Coincidentally, I discovered that Susan gave several programs at Grace in the latter years of the 19th century.
The current building at Seventh and Capitol Streets in Springfield was dedicated in 1893. Because of its many modern conveniences, the 400 seat “lecture hall” adjoining the sanctuary was used by many community organizations. Among those was the Woman’s Club of Springfield formed in 1894. Susan (then Mrs. E. W. Dana) was a charter and very active member of the Club. In Chapter Three of Susan Lawrence, The Enigma in the Wright House I describe her involvement:

[She] designed the member pin, chose the organizational colors (pink and green) and flower (rose), and wrote the motto: “There is no knowledge that is not power.” She served in several leadership positions. As chair of the Art Department, she developed programming in which she, other members, or guests delivered papers on various art related topics which ranged from the aesthetic (“Ancient Art”) to the practical (“ How to Hang a Picture”).

      Evidently Susan frequently presented lectures at meetings of the entire Club and Departments other than the Art Department. One presentation was documented in the January 3, 1896, Illinois State Register and the Woman’s Club Minutes. The newspaper announced: “The Home and Domestic Department of the Woman’s Club will meet this afternoon at Grace Lutheran Church at 2:30 pm. The church will be heated.” The general topic was “Our Children,” and Susan spoke on “Children in the Home.” The Woman’s Club Minutes recorded this summary of Susan’s remarks:

[Susan] told how often mothers in attempting to show love for their children made slaves of themselves,–and tyrants of the little ones. They should be taught self-control and to respect the rights of others–Every child has a right to a happy childhood and the mother must often sacrifice her personal feeling. She concluded by saying that a truly loving mother, must love all childhood.

      Since Susan had no children, one can only imagine the negative reactions of the mothers in her audience. I feel confident that when I speak in the same space where Susan presented, my audience will be more receptive because my topic will be “Susan Lawrence Dana and Grace Lutheran Church.”

Grace Lutheran Church 1893

Grace Lutheran Church 1893

Grace Lutheran Church 2014

Grace Lutheran Church 2014

Still in Susan’s Footsteps

April 25, 2014 § 6 Comments

While in New Orleans, I discovered that Susan spent a good deal of time in the Big Easy and was evidently very socially active there.  One of her visits was announced in the January 9, 1910, Daily Picayune :

Mrs. Susie Lawrence Dana of Springfield, Il., is spending a short time in New Orleans and after a short stay at the St. Charles Hotel, is the guest of her cousins, Mrs. George Halbert and Mrs. J. M. Latimer, 1511 Polymnia.

Photo and research by Gretchen Bonfert

Photo and research by Gretchen Bonfert


I couldn’t resist investigating, and, thanks to the helpful staff of the New Orleans Public Library, I discovered that Susan’s cousin’s home is still standing on a shady New Orleans street.  Of course, I got a picture to share with you. 

The fate of the St Charles Hotel was not as positive.  An urban shopping/office mall looms on the spot where the hotel once stood.  However, I did discover that it was an elegant place to stay in 1910.  Click here to read the fascinating history of the New Orleans St. Charles Hotel.

The news story that reveals most about Susan’s relationship with New Orleans was in the May 26, 1912, society column of the Daily Picayune. It read:

Cards have been received by friends in New Orleans announcing the marriage of Mrs. Susan Lawrence Dana to Mr. Lawrence Joergen-Dahl, on Tuesday, March 19, in Philadelphia, Pa. [For details, see Chapter 10 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House] At home after the 1st of December, Lawrence House, 327 East Lawrence Avenue, Springfield, Ill. The bride, who has visited New Orleans a number of times, is the cousin of Mrs. George Halbert, Mrs. J.M. Latimer and Mrs. Elizabeth McAllister White. She is a very charming and cultured woman, and has traveled extensively in this country and abroad. Mr. and Mrs. Joergen-Dahl are traveling in Europe for the summer and will on their return go to Indianapolis, the latter’s home since her childhood. During her different visits to New Orleans the bride made a number of friends who will be greatly interested in the announcement of her marriage.

We can draw two conclusions from this story.  First, no proof reader at the Daily Picayune checked the reporter’s work.  If one had, Susan would not have been moved from Springfield to Indianapolis by the end of the paragraph.  Second, Susan certainly made an impression on New Orleans society.