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Family History: Amy and Edwin

By Madison Paul, AEBM Director of Archives


*Reworked from a speech given May 20, 2023


Taken from a speech given on May 20, 2023


Welcome to part 2 of the lecture series on Amelia Earhart’s family! Part One looked at Amelia Earhart’s grandparent’s Amelia Harres Otis and Alfred Gideon Otis, looking specifically at their role in Atchison. If you missed part one and would like to know more about this part of the Otis story you can find a written version of the speech on the museum’s website. Today we are going to continue to look at Amelia’s family, focusing on her mother, Amy, and her father, Edwin.




Amy Earhart

Amy was born February 28, 1868. She was the fourth child born to the Otis’, and the second daughter. The Otis’ had eight children including Amy, unfortunately out of the eight children born to the Otis’ five would survive to adulthood. Growing up she was surrounded by family. In this house she lived with her parents, her siblings, and her maternal grandmother, Maria Grace Harres, who moved in shortly after her husband’s death in the early 1860s. Amy’s next door neighbors were her aunts, uncles, and cousins.


When Amy was born her father, Alfred, was an established lawyer in Atchison having partnered with George W. Glick in the early 1860s. Her father also held the position of Senior Warden and Vestryman at the family church, Trinity Episcopal. Amy was born into a life of wealth and power. But most of the memories she would go on to share of her youth centered around growing up in a family that placed a great value in education and philanthropy. These values can be seen in how local newspapers wrote about the Otis family during the turn of the twentieth century.


Newspapers provide one of the best looks at her childhood and young adulthood. Because of Amy’s family’s station in this town, social columns wrote a lot about the Otis’. Thes social columns were like the Facebook or Instagram of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They told what was going on in the town. From who went to what party to what family member was visiting. For the Otis’, especially Amy, the social columns focused mainly on the positive events of their lives. Using these social columns we can tell where they were vacationing, what parties they were attending, how well a child did in a spelling contest, and who graduated from what school. It is important to note that some of these notices could be posted by an individual like a family member or from the newspapers themselves, and it is challenging to determine who the authors of the notices were. Meaning any motivations on why that particular event was noted are hard to decipher.


Education was an important part of growing up in the Otis household. Newspapers, and Amy’s later interviews, tell us that Amy graduated from high school in Atchison and that she was part of many literary societies or clubs in town. But the specifics of her daily life, and even the extent of her education, are unclear, which makes sense. What I do know for certain is that Amy attended the Latin School in Atchison located on the corner of Kansas avenue and fourth street. From there she was accepted into St. Mary’s College in Knoxville, Illinois. Whether Amy used St. Mary’s as a finishing school or as a college as we see it today is not clear. Amy only attended St. Mary’s College for a month before returning home due to illness, and she would never return to finish her schooling.


But there are pieces to this part of her story that complicate it. In the summer of 1889, between Latin School and St. Mary’s there was a diptheria epidemic that swept Atchison which Amy caught. The family oral history says that it was her grandmother that nursed her back to health with the help of a local doctor who was able to remove an obstruction in Amy’s throat before it completely cut off her airway. This illness might be the reason she left St. Mary’s so soon after the start of the term as she might not have fully recovered. With the illness comes another story that was passed down to Amy’s children. In this oral history it is said that Amy was accepted into Vassar College but was unable to attend because she was still recovering from a past illness. Or that she was not able to attend because of her father, possibly choosing St. Mary’s as a compromise. I have not been able to verify the role Vassar played in Amy’s life, but it is part of the legacy Amy wanted to be told.


Newspapers also noted Amy’s philanthropic efforts. For example, in 1886 Amy competed for the Latin School in a spelling contest against the local high school. The event was a fundraiser, donating the money earned from admissions to the library. Amy tied for first place with four others on outs and misses but did not win the contest. She also participated in Christmas drives and other charitable events.


Family history has an important role in how we tell Amy’s story. There are two stories Amelia and her sister Muriel grew up with that I want to talk about today. The first is that Amy was the first woman to summit Pikes Peak in Colorado in 1890. Amy did summit Pikes Peak, climbing farther than some others in her group. When she reached the peak she was met by a couple of park rangers. They told her that they believed she was the first woman to have climbed to the top. When she reached the bottom of the mountain she wrote to her sister telling her the news. She had no reason to doubt that she had indeed made history and that is the information shared within the community, her family, and to her children. And while it would be amazing if that story was factual, the first recorded white woman to actually summit Pikes Peak was Julia Archibald Holmes fifty years earlier in 1858. It is important to remember that Amy believed this to be the truth, and she passed her truth on. It is important to keep that story going as it is one that might have shaped the world view of Amy’s daughters. The second story is that of Amelia Earhart’s father, Edwin.


In June of 1890 at a garden party thrown by Amy, she would officially meet her husband, Edwin Earhart. The story Muriel tells in her book, Amelia, My Courageous Sister goes:

“One of Amelia’s and my favorite childhood tales was the story of how our parents first met at her presentation ball in 1890. The garden party was held in the middle of June. Grandfather had a carpenter build a floor around the old wrought-iron Stag-at-Eve in their backyard. The garden was decorated elegantly and Japanese lanterns hung every few feet... Seven musicians from St. Joseph played waltzes and reels. As Mother stood by the porch steps with her parents, greeting all the guests, our Uncle Mark introduced his friend Edwin Earhart. Mother confessed she liked him right away and she soon knew that he liked her also.” (Morrissey 7) While it is possible Amy didn’t meet Edwin until this party, he was very much a part of Atchison society and was probably known to the Otis’ before the event.





Edwin Earhart

So who was Edwin? Edwin was about a year older than Amy, born in 1867 to Rev. David Earhart and Mary Earhart. By 1879 he was living in Atchison. Some records suggest he lived in Pennsylvania for part of his childhood before moving to Atchison to join his father. He even made Atchison newspapers starting at the age of fourteen, when in June of 1881 he fell from a swing at the Atchison Institute and broke both of his arms. In June of 1881 he graduated from the Atchison Institute giving an original oration which he called “Friction”. The same year Amy’s brother William also graduated from the Atchison Institute (he also presented an essay he wrote entitled “Prophecy”).


I want to stop here for a second. The Atchison Institute was started by Edwin’s sister, Harriet Monroe. While the school would eventually become Midland College, the Atchison Institute would be known as one of the best schools in Atchison. Which might have been why Amy’s father sent his oldest son there. Harriet would become known as Mother Monroe a successful author, speaker, and missionary. (284 History of Atchison Kansas By Sheffield Ingalls Lawrence Kansas 1916)


From 1882-1886 Edwin attended Thiel College, the same college his sister attended. His father hoped he would become a reverend. But in 1888 he went back to college, attending the law program at the University of Kansas and becoming a member of Phi Gamma Delta. When he joined the fraternity a newspaper article was written, stating that Edwin had joined and that “this is the first step in gentility and greatness at college” 19 November 1888 The Atchison Daily Globe


In 1889 he graduated and moved back to Atchison, opening a successful law practice. Again local newspapers printed his name. He took on criminal cases, but advertised his specialty as collections. He was considered to be one of the next big lawyers in Atchison. Articles were written about his different cases many of them sharing similar feelings to a statement written in the Atchison Daily Globe in 1889 which read, “ES Earhart…is attracting much favorable comment among the older lawyers for the way he is conducting the case” 11 December 1889 p 1 Atchison Daily Globe were written. Unfortunately today we don’t talk a lot about Edwin. Alfred Otis forbade the marriage until Edwin made 500 dollars a month the equivalent of 2,000 dollars in 2023, it would take him five years.


There are a lot of unanswered questions about Edwin like; why did Amy’s family not support the marriage? His sister taught their sons, he was bright, people in Atchison liked him and respected him and his family. The easiest answer for me is that he was born into the wrong social class. A man from a poor family. But, like Amy’s father who improved his social standing, he was actively working towards bettering his position and it seemed to be working.


Amy and Edwin wouldn’t marry until 1895 at a small wedding at the Otis’ church, Trinity Episcopal.


Conclusion

It is this family that Amelia Earhart was born into. Two strong parents who came from different worlds. A mother who summited Pikes Peak; a father who worked hard to elevate his position. Without understanding Amelia’s parents, we are not able to understand the world in which she and her sister would grow up. The people who helped to shape them into who they would become.



Citations

  • Amy Otis Earhart Papers, 1884-1987. MC 398. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

  • Atchison Daily Globe. Dec 11, 1889. https://www.newspapers.com/image/480029929/?terms=Earhart&match=1. Newspapers.com

  • Atchison Daily Globe. Nov 19, 1888. https://www.newspapers.com/image/480173157/?terms=Earhart&match=1. Newspapers.com.

  • "Background material by Mrs. E and Muriel": Interview questions re: Amelia Earhart (unidentified interviewer) and responses (incomplete) by Amy Otis Earhart, typescript, n.d.; Notes by Amy Otis Earhart on Amelia Earhart's upbringing and family life, manuscript and typescript, n.d.; Family information by Muriel Earhart Morrissey, typescript, n.d.; Miscellaneous lists by Amy Otis Earhart re: her papers, etc.. Papers of Amy Otis Earhart, 1884-1987, MC 398; M-129, 4., Box: 1. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.

  • “From Saturday’s Daily.” Atchison Weekly Patriot. Nov 27, 1886. https://www.newspapers.com/image/367191896/?terms=Spelling%20Contest&match=1. Newspapers.com.

  • Ingalls, Sheffield. History of Atchison County. (Kansas:Standard Publishing Company, 1916) (284)

  • Lawrence Journal. “Graduates of 1889”. June 6, 1889. https://www.newspapers.com/image/489062787/?terms=Earhart&match=1. Newspapers.com.

  • Morrissey, Muriel Earhart and Carol L. Osborne. Amelia My Courageous Sister: Biography of Amelia Earhart (California: Osborne Publisher, 1987)

  • Paul, Madison. “Forgotten Otis: Founders of Atchison.” Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum. https://www.ameliaearhartmuseum.org/single-post/forgotten-otis-founders-of-atchison

  • “Personal”. Atchison Daily Champion. Sep 17, 1889. https://www.newspapers.com/image/109930677/?terms=Amy%20Otis&match=1. Newspapers.com.

  • “Personal.” Atchison Daily Patriot. Nov 20, 1886. https://www.newspapers.com/image/153144923/?terms=Amy%20Otis&match=1. Newspapers.com.

  • “The Little Globe”. Atchison Daily Globe. May 10, 1881. https://www.newspapers.com/image/11694300/?terms=%22Ed%20Earhart%22&match=1. Newspapers.com.

  • Thiel College. “Amelia Earhart H’32”. Thiel College. https://www.thiel.edu/about/thiel-college-connection-to-amelia-earhart

  • U.S. National Park Service. “Julia Archibald Holmes. “ U.S. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/people/julia-archibald-holmes.htm




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