Clara Jane Lloyd never had any trouble remembering that Utah was admitted to the Union on January 4, 1896 – she was born two minutes after the official moment of statehood. Clara was born to an LDS family and grew up in the south end of Salt Lake Valley. She married Leroy J. Tidwell in 1915. He is harder to identify – I know he was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and he was probably the man of that name who was a deputy sheriff in the mining camps of Salt Lake County; I don’t think he was LDS.
By 1938, the Tidwell family was living in New Madrid, Missouri, a river town located where Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet. (Although it has absolutely nothing to do with this story, if you’re trying to place the name “New Madrid” you’re probably recalling having heard about the series of 1811-12 earthquakes centered near there, the most powerful ever recorded in the eastern United States. The shocks were so strong that the Mississippi River apparently flowed backward for a short time, dust filled the air and obscured the sun, and damage was reported as far away as Toronto and Maine.)
Leeroy was working for the railroad at New Madrid in 1938, and Clara was mothering five young daughters (Dorothy Utahna, 12; Virginia, 9; Billie Jean, 7; Norma Lee, 6; and Anna, 2) and their three older brothers. The family owned a large car, which they normally kept locked when it was parked near their home on the bank of the Mississippi River. Locking the car didn’t do much good, though, when the glass had been broken out of one of the windows, and the younger girls liked to crawl through the open window and play in the car.
Virginia, Billie Jean, and Norma Lee were playing in the car on June 27, 1938, when one of them managed to release the brake. The car, parked on a slope, began to move. Clara and 12-year-old Dorothy noticed the movement of the car and saw that the little girls were inside, and both ran toward the car. The car had picked up enough speed by then that it knocked Clara to the ground, but Dorothy jumped onto the running board and stayed with the car as it rolled. First Billie Jean, then Virginia, climbed out of the broken window with Dorothy’s help. But 6-year-old Norma Lee was still inside as the car hit the water, moving with enough speed that it landed 18 feet out in the river. Somehow Dorothy clung to the car.
Norma Lee did not appear at the window as her sisters had, so Dorothy climbed through the window into the sinking car. It was fully submerged by the time Dorothy found her sister and pushed her out of the window, climbing out after her. Holding her little sister tightly, Dorothy swam the 18 feet through the river to the cheers of onlookers who had begun to gather in response to Clara’s screams for help.
Father Leeroy had arrived by that time, and fearing that 2-year-old Anna was inside the car, he plunged into the river and swam out to the sunken car. By the time he had determined that no more children were in the car, he was exhausted and had to be rescued by some of those who had gathered.
The story of Dorothy’s heroism and successful rescue of three of her sisters caught the imagination of the public. I’ve been able to find the story in the newspapers of several states. Those papers sometimes mistakenly report that little Anna was in the car and had to be resuscitated. They get most of the details right, though – but only one of them reports the little bit of news that interests me today:
On August 3, five weeks after the accident and rescue, Dorothy and Virginia were baptized by LDS missionaries who had recently been calling on the family in an effort to revive their interest in the religion of Clara’s youth. (I do not know whether Dorothy’s older brothers were baptized previously, or ever; New Family Search shows that baptisms for the dead for most of the siblings, including Virginia, was done in 2011, so that source cannot be trusted on this point.)
Dorothy married Jared Edmond Wootton in 1942, raised a son and a daughter, and died in Milwaukee in 1972.