So much has happened in the last week related to Mrs. Wilson!
In reverse chronological order, just a few minutes ago, some kind of emergency situation happened on Prospect Place, the street that edges our property (the Wilson property) to the north. When someone dials 911 in University Heights, the police, the ambulance, and the fire truck visit, so everyone knows something happened; we just don’t know what it was.
That reminds me of what the scene must have looked like on November 20, 1937, when Eric Wilson called the emergency services to try to save Lois in the bathtub. At long last, here is the scrapbook page that started this whole odyssey on my part.
Please zoom in on the page’s jpg to see the words “Mary L. used to work for Mr. W” scrawled under the headline about Mrs. Wilson’s death. I am quite sure that was written by Alice Kelly about her sister, Mary Lou Kelly.
Those of you who have followed this story may wonder what happened in Mrs. Wilson’s story in the last few weeks, aside from the emergency situation. Well, in short, we are thinking of remodeling the bathroom. The contractor who visited was surprised at the bathtub in the house; we have 1.5 baths, the .5 of which was constructed after Eric and Betty died, and the house was purchased by Dan and Karen. The tiles are clearly Betty’s choice, circa 1964 (Dorothy, Betty’s neighbor and my friend, says gold and white were Betty’s favorite colors).
Here’s the thing: I’ve always assumed that Lois’s death happened in a clawfoot tub, which would have been deep. But the contractor who visited last week said: a) it was the oldest tub he’d ever seen (13″ deep as opposed to 15″ in houses built in the 1950s); and b) the way the tub area was constructed suggested this was the original tub.
Then, my neighbor Mike, who’s remodeling his own home, told me that Kohler tubs (which this one is) were stamped with the date of manufacture.
Does this mean that for the last (almost) 7 years I have showered in the same tub where Lois drowned?
That changes so much….
Lois Sensor’s birthday was March 17, 1903. Happy birthday 109th slightly belated! This is a beautiful, unusually warm spring that taunts depression.
My last post was inspired by the pop singer Whitney Houston, who was found dead in her hotel bathtub in early February. Lois, of course, was found dead in her bathtub in November 1937. I thought we might gain some insight about Lois’s death once we heard the final verdict on Whitney.
Whitney Houston, a beautiful, incredibly talented singer who ruled pop charts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, died of drowning as a result of chronic cocaine use, according to ABCNews.com today. That was obviously not the cause of Lois’s death in my bathtub.
In the few hours (at most) in which the local coroner investigated Lois Sensor Wilson’s death, he ruled “death by accidental drowning.” Lois was believed to have died as a result of either “falling or fainting while bathing.” Clearly, she could have easily slipped on the bathroom tile and hit her head, then fell head first into what was probably a deep, clawfoot tub and drowned. Was there water in Lois’s lungs? There was in Whitney’s, which meant she suffered some kind of heart failure or something before slipping under the water.
We’ll never know exactly what happened with Lois. As a non-relative, I have no access to her autopsy records. I’m positive her demise wasn’t cocaine-induced; it wasn’t a popular medication in the mid-1930s.
But here’s the thing: Since I learned of Lois’ sudden demise on 21 November 1937, everyone asks: How does one drown in a bathtub? If it is possible to do so, without any kind of obvious, external injury, one would probably have to be under the influence of some medication.
And Lois was. The Iowa City Press-Citizen didn’t mention that in its obituary, but the Independence Bulletin-Journal did: “She had been taking therapeutic treatments daily, and it is thought that she either fainted or slipped while in the tub.” (25 November 1937, p. 1) As the local newspaper in the town where Lois grew up, it’s most probable that the reporter or editor talked to Bess Sensor, Lois’s mother; her youngest sister, Jean; or someone else who knew of Lois’s health problems.
What were the therapeutic tonics for depression in the early to mid 1930s? I know opiates and other, now-illicit drugs were considered acceptable in the early half of the twentieth century. Could one of those be at the root of Lois’s untimely demise?
The incredibly talented Whitney Houston died Saturday (February 11) from causes yet to be determined. I never bought any of her albums or singles, but I enjoyed Whitney’s music videos, which still run through my head when I hear the songs. (I hate to admit that 25 years ago I was much more envious of her beauty than her voice, but now I appreciate both.)
Of all people, why are we discussing Whitney, you may ask, if you’ve been completely isolated from news coverage for the last 48 hours? Because Whitney’s body was found in the bathtub, and the parallels to news reports of her death are remarkably similar to Lois Wilson’s.
Of course, rumors are swirling about Whitney’s years of drug and alcohol abuse, and we need to get the final autopsy and toxicology reports before we really learn anything — and the final verdict may not be relevant to Lois. But:
Whitney was left alone for about an hour, based on news reports; Lois was left alone for at least 20 minutes.
Whitney was one of the most beautiful (famous) women in the world when she was young, but she looked much older than her age, 48, when she died, according to some photos that I won’t reprint here. Lois was one of the most beautiful women at the State University of Iowa in the 1920s, but she looked much older than her age when she died at 34. That does not imply that Lois used drugs or drink — I mention it to say that both clearly suffered.
Whitney was 5 ft, 8 inches tall, according to IMDB.com, which would seem to make it difficult to drown in a bathtub without some sort of extenuating circumstances. I’ve checked the Beverly Hilton suite descriptions at Hilton.com, and none mention over-sized tubs. I don’t know how tall Lois was, but presumably the house had a claw-tub that would have been deep but not long.
A regular reader suggested I need to explore this, and we’ll do so further once Whitney’s cause of death has been declared in a few weeks.
Rest in peace, Whitney. Thanks for the memories.
Since 1902, the Rose Bowl (in one form or another) has welcomed the New Year. As it turns out, the Rose Bowl and its accompanying Tournament of Roses Parade were big events for the Wilsons and Sensors.
Let’s start with the Sensors. We know that Lois’s younger sister, Marjorie, divorced Kermit McFarland in the late 1930s. She remarried sometime in the late 1930s to a man named David Olmsted, a mover and shaker if there ever was one — we’ll discuss him in the future — and moved to Long Beach, California, by 1941 (from Long Beach City Directory, 1941). One of David’s activities was directing the City of Long Beach’s float in the Tournament of Roses Parade.
No parade was held from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II, according to the Los Angeles Times. But in 1946, Dave Olmsted was on the job for Long Beach. In fact, he did his job so well that Long Beach won the parade’s Sweepstakes Award!One tough duty was to drive “the five queens” to Hollywood so they could be fitted in “nautical costumes of blue and white complete to hats and shoes” (Long Beach Independent, 23 Dec. 1945). Sometimes Bess Sensor, Marjorie’s mother and a respected seamstress, was drafted into helping with costumes if she was visiting.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, Mr. Wilson and his second wife, Betty, were among the first residents of University Heights to purchase a television in the early 1950s. Not surprisingly, because Mr. Wilson was such a sports fan — and, of course, it was part of his job to stay current on college athletics — the Wilsons hosted a Rose Bowl viewing party every January 1. According to their friend and neighbor Dorothy, the TV was placed at the north end of the living room. Wooden chairs would be lined in rows “like at a funeral” facing the TV, and it was a little awkward to pass down the row of seats if one needed to go upstairs to use the restroom. I figure you could fit about 6 chairs to a row.
Flash forward to 2012. Yesterday, we hosted our annual New Year’s Day party, and I told our annual guests about the Rose Bowl parties. One friend asked if we had hosted New Year’s parties before we moved here. No. Is it the house’s influence?
Today is a clear, sunny day — I’d describe the weather as almost optimistic, despite the bare trees and rapidly fading green of the grass on lawns outside. Inside my house, though, the mood is much more reflective, given that it was at about 11 a.m. on Nov. 21, in 1937, that Lois died in the bathtub.
As we know from newspaper accounts, Mr. Wilson went downtown to the Trinity Episcopal Church to fetch Ricky, then 9, from Sunday School. I don’t know whether he left from here directly or he had dropped the boy off earlier, then lingered elsewhere for coffee, or gone to work (which seems quite possible, the more I learn about him). At any rate, when they arrived home, they found Lois’s body and called emergency services, which spent 30 minutes futilely attempting to revive her.
Last year, I speculated that if Mr. Wilson had left from here to pick up Ricky, it would have taken about 20 minutes, 30 if he chatted with churchgoers, to make the trip. Richard, Lois’s nephew, has since told me about that morning: At some point on the way home, boys pelted Mr. Wilson’s windshield with snowballs. He stopped to chastise them — 2 minutes? 5? longer? — and later regretted it, thinking he might have saved Lois if he hadn’t stopped. (Richard is a terrific storyteller, and I’ll reproduce parts of his version soon.)
What the Wilsons found on their return might suggest that Lois’s death was potentially preventable, I suppose, but I doubt things were so simple.
From all accounts, Mr. Wilson and Ricky found water flowing down the staircase — the signal that something was very, very wrong. Betty Wilson, Mr. Wilson’s second wife, later told her good friend (and now my friend!) Dorothy that water was running out the front door. Dan, who bought the house when Betty died (in 1987), told me that water was running down the stairs (which he must have heard from Ricky, who inherited the house from his stepmother).
To help you picture the scenario, here’s a photo of the staircase today. I took the photo from the front steps; you can see the green front door with the staircase leading up at the immediate right and my lovely Penelope descending the stairs. At the landing where the photo stops are more 5 steps up and to the left to the top floor. The bathroom is immediately at the right of the top step on the top floor. (The mirrored door in the photo fronts a large hall closet.)
Next up: It seems the right time to address Floyd Sensor’s suicide (he was Lois’s father) in terms of its special circumstances.
In the second half of Professor Charles Bundy Wilson’s radio talk from February 1928, he waxes philosophical about the professor’s responsibility to the student. I’m struck by the next-to-last paragraph about the criticism of the then-current generation — look how similar it is to that of Generation X and, really, all of the generations since 1928.
At the University we feel great responsibility for the young lives that are entrusted to our care. We believe that a teacher has a pleasant duty and an obligation outside of the class room, and when these young people come to talk with us about their joys and imagined sorrows, we should listen to them.
Therefore, through a system of advisers and counselors, we are trying to bring about close personal contacts between student and instructor. You know it takes only a work [I think he meant “word”] sometimes to change a whole career, and every human being has a tender spot, something through which an appeal can be made. We are looking for these tender spots as avenues of approach to the real inner heart.
And then we are endeavoring to cultivate in the students a noble personality, a love for the beautiful, the good, and the true. We hope to lead them to a fuller appreciation of the finer sensibilities. During a few years after 1914 the world was looking for vices, not for virtues, but suspicion and hatred are disappearing, and beauty and virtue, like twin sisters, are now coming hand in hand to bring joy and harmony to bewildered humanity.
In spite of the criticism of the young people of the present generation, much of it undeserved, we have faith in them, and we sincerely believe that they will become just as sedate, dignified, and worthy as you have become.
We have not seen you all for many years and perhaps have not heard directly from you, but we have followed you in your various careers. Come back and see us, and be boys and girls again. Tell us what you have learned, and let us enjoy you.
We have just completed 60% of our class meetings for the semester, and any college student or instructor will be happy to complain long and hard about the stress of this point in the year. It seems like the perfect time to remind myself of why I selected my career, and Professor Charles Bundy Wilson, father of Mr. Eric Wilson, is an excellent counselor in this regard.
Professor Wilson spent 50 years at the State University of Iowa. On 20 February 1928, to mark his 40th anniversary (and, eerily, almost 10 years to the day of his death in 1938), Professor Wilson delivered a radio address to the SUI alumni. I found the transcript in the University of Iowa Archives, but there’s no indication of the occasion or the radio station(s) broadcasting. (I’ve broken it into shorter paragraphs for easier reading).
Charles Bundy Wilson
Alumni and Former Students, I am to talk to you only five minutes, but I should like to sit down with you in some quiet place and talk with you for five hours. Then we would discuss those earlier days spent in and out of the classroom, and besides you could tell what you have been doing and in what way you have made the world better. You would have many new experiences to talk about, while I should probably repeat a few ideas that I expressed long ago when some of you used to come to my office for those little visits that meant much to me.
I might perhaps say again that every time a teacher gets a glimpse into a beautiful student soul he ought to have an ambition to become a better teacher and a better man. If I should express some of the same old opinions that you had often heard, you would remember that a teacher is in the habit of repeating himself. His only defense is that students make it necessary.
To continue our conversation, I could recall some of the things you said ten, twenty, thirty, yes, forty years ago. With your wide experience you could now state with certainty whether human sympathy is not after all one of the greatest things in the world in our relation to our fellowmen and whether life is not too beautiful and too precious to be given over entirely to material interests and whether the spiritual side of life is really not more essential, for it is the very foundation of character, and through character we win the respect and love of our fellows. — To be continued.
I feel better already, and I’m not going to denigrate that by noting the major differences in higher education over the last 80 years.
In just a few hours, I’m meeting with someone who actually knew Eric and Betty Wilson, as well as Ricky (Eric and Lois’ son). She was their neighbor for 30+ years. You can imagine how thrilling this is!
Of course, I’ve been in email contact with some of the Wilson/Sensor relatives who also knew them, but this person knew them differently and was closer to their age cohort.
So… What questions should I ask? Fortunately we have other connections besides living on Golfview Avenue, so she doesn’t merely think that I’m some kind of morbid nut, and I expect there will be more opportunities to discuss the investigation in the future.
Here are the main questions I have for our first interview:
What were Eric and Betty like? (I know that she and Betty were friends.)
How did Eric meet Betty? (We haven’t discussed this on the blog, but there are some logistical issues that need to be addressed.)
Did they ever mention Lois? If so, what did they say? What did the neighbors say, if anything?
How was the house decorated? I know from Dan, the guy who bought it when Betty died in the mid-1980s, that gold and green shag carpet were the main features.
I’m going to hold off for now about asking about the relatives — Bess Sensor, Eric Jr. (Ricky), Jean Tallman, Arlo Wilson — unless they come up. They are fascinating people, and I do want to get more insight into them for telling this story, but I’m thinking it will be best to start slow.
Who knows, though? I’ll report back over the next few weeks, piecing together what I can verify from records and news stories with the first-hand account. Please do send questions if you have them.
And don’t forget: We will come back soon to Floyd Sensor. I read a terrific book this summer for fun that turned out to offer (possibly) some information into Mr. Sensor’s death.
At the end of May, I needed to go away for a few days to do some writing for my real job. I’ve found that staying in a motel in a small town is perfect for this kind of task because there aren’t many distractions.
Independence, Iowa, is an excellent choice for this exercise because it is small, it’s pretty, and it’s only about 70 miles away from IC (plus there’s an excellent Mexican restaurant called Del Rio). More importantly, it’s where Lois Sensor Wilson grew up. I think I’ve mentioned before that the State Historical Society of Iowa doesn’t contain all of the pertinent years of the Independence Bulletin-Journal for our investigation. Therefore, a sojourn to Independence — and the Buchanan County Genealogical Society (more later) — was just the ticket to pursue several goals.
The weather was beautiful, and I couldn’t resist a visit to Oakwood Cemetery, the Independence city cemetery located on the Wapsipinicon River. That’s where Floyd and Bess Sensor, along with their daughter Lyle, are buried. (Floyd and Bess were Lois’s parents.) It’s a lovely cemetery.
Next up: Floyd Sensor’s suicide was, to some extent, the result of influences beyond his control — and I don’t mean merely mental illness. Political and environmental factors were probably involved.
Tomorrow is the 87th wedding anniversary of Lois and Eric C. Wilson, and I can’t wait any longer to post a more detailed story of the wedding. Last year, I gave you the relatively short account from the Iowa City Press-Citizen, and this year we have the much more detailed description from the Independence (IA) Bulletin-Journal (25 Sept. 1924, p. 1).
“LOIS W. SENSOR WEDDED SATURDAY
IS THE BRIDE OF ERIC C. WILSON
Popular Independence Young Lady
Weds Well Known Athlete
at State University.
Saturday evening, September 20, 1924, just as the chimes were announcing the hour of 8 o’clock, Miss Lois Wilson Sensor, of Independence, changed her name from the above to Mrs. Lois Sensor Wilson, by being united in marriage with Mr. Eric C. Wilson, of Iowa City, in the apartments of the young couple at Burkley Place in that city, which had been prepared and all ready for occupancy.
Rev. Walter C. Schafer, student pastor of the Iowa City Congregational church and a friend of the bride and groom, performed the ceremony.
The bride’s corsage was in striking contrast with the simple gown of powder blue chiffon which she wore. She was unattended. The decorations were goldenrod and candlelight was used for illuminating the pretty wedding scene.
A wedding dinner later was served by Miss Melba Carpenter, a close friend, and Miss Marjorie Sensor, the bride’s sister.
— omitting paragraphs to be posted later —
Mrs. Bess M. Sensor and daughter Jean attended the wedding, returning home Monday morning.”
Notice how much more information we get from the bride’s hometown paper than the groom’s. Of course, Iowa City was (and is) much larger than Independence, which may be one reason, but the main reason Independence provides so much more detail is because this information likely came from Mrs. Sensor, who would have — naturally — been thrilled to discuss her beautiful, eldest daughter’s very successful match (though I would argue, obviously, that Eric was fortunate himself).
My trip to the Buchanan County Historical Society paid off in many ways, and I’ll be recounting those as we go along. For one: I thought we knew all there was to know about Mr. Sensor’s death. Wrong.