Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Trials of Cora Birdsall: Prologue

The Trials of Cora Birdsall: Prologue

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 16, 2014

For many years the old mining camp at Marysvale, Utah, held town reunions on Memorial Day – anyone with ties to that town was invited to a weekend-long party. There was (maybe is – I don’t know whether the tradition continues) a rodeo or a horse race; the old outdoor roller-rink/dance-hall was dammed up and filled with shallow water so that small children could splash around and grab for trout in the “fish rodeo”; everybody would meet in the cemetery on Monday morning and clean and decorate graves and enjoy a short ceremony at the flagpole, and the elementary school would be decorated with local history displays and opened as a venue for old friends and visitors to reminisce about the oversized past of the undersized town.

I used to go to those town reunions, in the 1990s. I’d take my laptop and printer, in the days when not everybody had that equipment, and set up on a table in the school. For the cost of the paper, I’d print out all the historical bits and pieces I had gathered about anybody’s ancestors. Sometimes I’d get the oldtimers talking, and, with the lid of my laptop tilted down over my hands so nobody would be distracted by the speed of my typing, I’d transcribe their talk verbatim and gather new stories for my collection.

My mother was born in Marysvale, but I’ve spent a cumulative total of perhaps one week there, on overnight research trips or an hour or two in the cemetery while I was passing through to somewhere else. So of course I was unknown and had to identify myself at my first town reunion by giving my full local genealogy. “My mother was born here. Her parents were Homer Taylor and Edith Hall – Homer was born here, and they met while Edith was teaching school at Alunite [another mining camp, and now a ghost town, up the road]. Homer was the son of Jared Taylor – he was one of the first settlers in Marysvale – oh, you know about Jared? Yes, he was one of the signers of the first recorded mining deed, and a sheriff, and the first presiding elder of the Marysvale branch … no, his wife Elsie wasn’t from here. She was from over the mountain, at Monroe …”

Jared died in 1895; Elsie lived until 1958, so there were still surprising numbers of oldtimers who remembered her. She was the one who wouldn’t sell her farmland for a uranium processing mill, and there were still some hard feelings about the money townsmen didn’t make … but also some relief that the town didn’t become the Superfund cleanup site that the alternative millsite became elsewhere. People still remembered that Elsie kept goats for their milk, not because she drank goats’ milk, but because there were sometimes babies in town who needed goats’ milk when their mothers couldn’t nurse and cows’ milk disagreed with them. She always had such good posture, people remembered, and they recalled her running across her fields to catch the train, which made a special stop when she flagged it down.

They remembered something else, too, but they always chose their words carefully to find out whether I knew about that other memory. “We kids used to stop at her house for cookies sometimes … there was someone else living there with her, wasn’t there?”

Yes, there was. “That was her sister, my aunt Cora. Did you ever see her? What can you tell me about her?”

But few people had actually seen Cora, except at a distance. She never came out of her room when anyone else was there. Even my own mother had never really seen her, except when Cora slipped out of the back bedroom to go use the outhouse – there had been indoor plumbing for many years, but Cora preferred that nothing change. My mother, visiting as a child, had been cautioned not to speak to Cora, but to let her go and come without seeming to notice her. Cora was happier that way, my mother’s grandmother told her.

So I found no new stories about my aunt Cora. People knew she was there, and they knew there was something not quite right about her, but they didn’t know what, or why, or when her mind had closed in on itself. My mother didn’t either.

But I do. I dug the story out of records – church records and legal records and newspapers and other records, created in Utah and Nebraska and Washington, D.C. I know why my aunt Cora lived in a shadowy world inside of herself.

And I know why my great-grandmother Elsie did not pass the story along to her children and grandchildren. On the one hand, she did us all a favor: She loved the gospel and was a loyal, faithful, active member of the Church for the rest of her life, but I’m sure she was afraid that if she passed Cora’s story on to younger generations, it would shake faith. After all, what happened to Cora was the proximate cause of her parents’ leaving the Church. What happened to Cora was brutal, but that did not invalidate any part of the gospel, in Elsie’s eyes. She counted on the Atonement to make all things right for Cora. Elsie could do her part by caring for Cora until the day Cora died, and she could protect her posterity by not passing on the story.

But on the other hand, not telling Cora’s story has made Cora a non-presence in this world, the shadowy figure that caused Marysvalites to be sure I already knew about my aunt’s mental illness before they spoke of it to me.

That’s not right. I’m going to tell Cora’s story, here, in as many parts as it takes to tell it as fully as I know it.

Some of you may be able to ferret out the public part of Cora’s story. While I normally applaud contributions from readers – you always make a post more meaningful by adding to what I knew – this time I’m going to ask that nobody jump the gun by telling anything that I haven’t yet told. Please let me tell her story as it comes, in however many parts it takes to tell it. I’m very protective of Cora, who couldn’t tell her own story, and of Elsie, who chose to protect her posterity.



  1. Ardis, What a set-up! I think we’re all sitting now on pins and needles waiting to find out the rest of the story.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 16, 2014 @ 9:54 am

  2. me too me too… *waiting*

    Comment by Coffinberry — June 16, 2014 @ 10:10 am

  3. I’m looking forward to your story, sad as it is, for the chance to enjoy your magnificent story telling. Thank you for sharing your family with us in such a compelling way.

    Comment by Amy T — June 16, 2014 @ 10:35 am

  4. Yeah, very compelling.

    Comment by David Y. — June 16, 2014 @ 10:40 am

  5. You do tell a good story, Ardis! I’m with Amy–anxious to hear the rest of the tale, as sad as it may be.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 16, 2014 @ 10:55 am

  6. I’m looking forward to this as an good example of how to deal with difficult issues in family history (of which my family has plenty).

    Comment by Grant — June 16, 2014 @ 11:13 am

  7. I’m looking forward to all the parts.

    Comment by Matt — June 16, 2014 @ 11:14 am

  8. This will easily compete with watching World Cup matches, so I am all in. Can’t wait!

    Comment by kevinf — June 16, 2014 @ 11:17 am

  9. Poor Cora. I feel sorry for her already. We all want very much to be people who matter.

    Comment by LauraN — June 16, 2014 @ 11:24 am

  10. I know your sensitivity and compassion will do Cora full justice, Ardis.

    Comment by Alison — June 16, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

  11. As someone who her siblings would rather didn’t exist, I already feel some kinship with Cora.

    Comment by Juliathepoet — June 17, 2014 @ 6:26 am

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