Among the peculiarly English ideas which the Colonists brought to Massachusetts, which all the wear and tear of democracy have not been able to obliterate, was that of family. Family feeling, family pride, family hope and fear and desire, were, in my early day, strongly-marked traits. Genealogy was a thing at the tip of every person’s tongue, and in every person’s mind…. “Of a very respectable family,” was a sentence so often repeated at the old fireside that its influence went in part to make up my character.
Harriet Beecher Stowe. I picked up that gem in David Hackett Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed, an excellent work on folkways in American history. The quote resonated with me because, generally speaking, I feel that I come from a “very respectable family.” The characters that make up my genealogy were cowboys and trailblazers, pilgrims and pioneers, immigrants and explorers. I’m proud of the heritage they left me and I enjoy researching their lives and cultures.
I was rummaging around my family history a while back, tidying up records here and citing sources there, when I came across the 1913 death certificate of my great-great-grandfather, Andrew Walter “Sam” Hartsfield, who died in Bisbee, Arizona*. I noted that he died rather young, and made a quick scan for the cause of death. Here’s what I found:
He was shot?! My interest was piqued: after all, the man died a violent death in a rowdy western town at the hands of a cold-named villain. On a hunch, I pulled up The Bisbee Daily Review—the town newspaper—at around the listed date of death to see if there might be any account of the event.
The story made the front page. But it wasn’t what I thought it would be.
Considerable mystery, indeed! Reading the article, I learned that Sam Hartsfield and Cliff Winters were good friends. They had worked together for years, loaned each other money, and even traveled to South America together to get a feel for business prospects below the equator. Sam was a frequent guest in the Winters home. For reasons unknown, Sam threatened Cliff’s wife one evening while Cliff was out. The next day, at about 1:30 pm, Sam approached the Winters home, where Cliff was waiting.
What passed between the two men is not known. Two shots rang out in quick succession. Officer Gibson, who lives next door, jumped up and ran into the Winters yard, where he saw Harstfield on the ground, apparently lifeless, with blood gushing from a hole in his neck. Winters stood in the door. Gibson asked him if he had done the shooting, to which he nodded assent.
Sam had on his person a small pocket knife and a silver dollar.
The Bisbee Daily Review published a follow-up piece after the inquest, shedding more light on the situation. A reporter described the inquest:
The hour and a half of the proceedings before the coroner was filled with a narrative which touched the depths of despair, remorse and torn heartstrings. It pictured a man whose desire halted at none of the ties of friendship in order that he might attain, and on the other side a husband whose faith and confidence in, and his loyalty to his wife and friend, forbade a thought of suspicion.
According to the newspaper account, Sam Hartsfield was a scoundrel. The Winters family was his target. Sam gained the family’s trust and friendship, then whispered lies to Mrs. Winters besmirching Cliff’s character. Sam manipulated her. He seduced her into adultery. He mocked her guilt and remorse. He threatened to kill her if she spoke. He threatened to kill himself. He swallowed poison–almost dying–to prove his gravity. He stalked her to the point of terror.
Mrs. Winters confessed to her husband the night before the shooting and, after a restless night of pacing, Cliff vowed to protect her. Which he did.
It’s possible that Sam was innocent—or guilty to a lesser degree—and a victim of a great and terrible conspiracy. Of course, there’s only one side to this kind of story. The facts as presented, however, come to one conclusion: this great-great grandfather of mine was a bad guy.
The last paragraph of the inquest article reads, “With it all there is to be remembered that there is a sadder family in Tombstone canyon mourning its dead.” In that small, sad family was a nine year old boy named Audie Ray.
This particular chapter ends well. Audie Ray Hartsfield reversed the direction of the Hartsfield narrative. From a young age he labored hard to support his family through the lean and poverty-stricken years following the death of his father. He had a gift for numbers—particularly rapid mental calculation—and attended the University of Arizona. He became an engineer, married my great-grandma, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and raised a strong family of his own.
This, folks, is family history—and not just mine, but that of the whole human race. Reading East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, reminded me that mankind—the Trasks, the Hartsfields, the entire family of Adam—continually reenacts a tale of reversal of circumstance (for better or for worse) due to the exercise of moral agency. As human beings we are a strange and wonderful hybrid, morally influenced—but never predetermined—by our fathers. “Maybe it’s true,” Steinbeck wrote, “that we are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous.”
*Note to non-Arizonans: Bisbee was a copper boomtown around the turn of the century; it’s just down the road from Tombstone—yes, that Tombstone.