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Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

My Life with Lillian: The Year (And Then Some) I Spent Transcribing MS B173

July 14th, 2021

Last July, I mentioned in our ‘Spencer Public Services Working from Home’ blog post that one of my work from home projects was creating transcriptions of some of our handwritten collection materials. Well readers, a year later here is the follow-up on one of those transcriptions – the Lillian North diary – and a bit of the story of how a New York suffragist helped me through the pandemic.

Photograph of the first page of Lillian North’s diary with entries from January 1 and 2, 1915.
The first page of Lillian’s diary with entries from January 1 and 2, 1915. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click image to enlarge.

Who was Lillian North?

Lillian was born on August 17, 1881, in Stafford, New York, to parents George and Mary Thomas Radley. On September 26, 1906, Lillian married Frank North, a farmer. They were married for fifty-seven years before Frank’s death in October 1963.

Lillian’s diary entries span from January 1, 1915, to May 14, 1917, and detail her day-to-day life as a homemaker and farm wife. Her days were full of activity: cleaning and improving the house, washing and mending clothes, baking bread and pies, canning pickles and strawberries, and churning her prize-winning butter. I can confirm that I was motivated to clean on more than one occasion after working on this transcription; you would be, too, after reading about Lillian cleaning daily while your dishes stared at you from the kitchen sink.

Photograph of the entries in Lillian North's diary from September 21 and 22, 1916.
Entries in Lillian’s diary from September 21 and 22, 1916. She mentions spending the day at the suffrage tent at the fair and her butter being named first premium. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click image to enlarge.

Outside of her work managing the home and helping on the farm, Lillian attended social engagements and community events almost every week. In her diary she recounts automobile rides and dinners with friends, visiting with her mother and sisters, weekly church, and listening to various speakers and concerts in the area. She frequently attended meetings for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Ladies Aid Society, and The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. She was involved in the women’s suffrage movement as well – attending meetings and talks and even campaigning for the cause. It was her work as a suffragist that initially introduced me to her diary while I was conducting research for other projects related to the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Photograph of Lillian North's diary entry from October 13, 1915.
Photograph of Lillian North's diary entry from October 13, 1915.
Lillian’s entry from October 13, 1915, highlights a suffrage lecture given by Mrs. Phillip Snowden of London and Mrs. Keating from Colorado. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click images to enlarge.

Where did this project take me?

Working on this transcription took me on a bit of a journey; I found myself embroiled in some side research projects I was not expecting to do when I started. While the diary provides extensive details about Lillian’s day-to-day life for over two years, there was so much more I wanted to know about her and her family beyond 1917 when the diary ends. I began researching, trying to find whatever I could find based on the information in the diary, our published finding aid, and our records from when the diary was acquired. Eventually, I tracked down obituaries for Lillian, Frank, and Lillian’s mother Mary Radley via

In addition to wanting to know more about Lillian, my curiosity was piqued about some of the acronyms and abbreviations in the diary. What did all of them mean? Several of them I deciphered fairly quickly with the help of some online resources. Others were not so easy to interpret or did not seem to be related to any organizations I could find. By taking clues from the context in which these acronyms appeared and some additional research, I was able to make some guesses about possible meanings, but questions still abound.

All of these side projects did lead somewhere beyond satisfying my own curiosity: The additional information gleaned from the obituaries allowed us to update the biographical information in our online finding aid – providing a more accurate picture of Lillian’s life and family. We also added the list of possible meanings for the acronyms and abbreviations in hopes that this would help future researchers who are interested in the diary and Lillian’s many activities and organizations.

Photograph of Lillian North’s obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), December 19, 1963.
Lillian North’s obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), December 19, 1963. Courtesy Click image to enlarge.

Why did it take over a year to transcribe one item?

Now, I know many of you are probably wondering how I am just now finishing the transcription of Lillian’s diary – a full year after that initial blog post. After all, this is not the first item I have transcribed so this should be a faster process, right? Well, here are a few details to consider:

It’s a long story: Lillian’s diary is not quite like the other items the staff at Spencer have transcribed. We typically focus on transcribing shorter documents, primarily letters. Lillian wrote daily in her diary for over two years; there are over 700 entries and roughly 200 pages to transcribe. It was only because of the pandemic and working from home that I even had time to take on a transcription project of this scope. No matter how fast I worked, this was going to be a long project.

Handwritten = hard: Reading someone’s handwriting can be a challenge (how many of us frequently wonder if our doctors are writing actual words on those prescription pads?). Add in factors like age, access, and series of acronyms and abbreviations and, suddenly, handwriting can become practically indecipherable. You have to learn to look for patterns in how someone shapes their letters and rely on context clues frequently – a process that takes time to do.

Photograph of entries in Lillian North's diary from June 23, 25, and 27, 1916.
Entries in Lillian’s diary from June 23, 25, and 27, 1916. These more crowded pages show some of the reading difficulties associated with this transcription, including Lillian’s use of abbreviations. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click image to enlarge.

There is only one of me: Working on transcriptions was only one of my work from home projects during the pandemic. I was also revising training documents, updating instruction plans, participating in professional development opportunities, and conducting research and creating content for other projects, most notably other blog posts and an online exhibit – to name a few things. Some of these activities had scheduled times and due dates; creating a transcription for general use did not so it was the project to fill hours and provide breaks instead of the top priority.

Opening up: Spencer Research Library re-opened at the beginning of the school year in August! With the re-opening came an end to my full-time work from home status. I was back in the building several days a week and helping with paging, shelving, reference, and instruction. Even though I was still working from home some days, my focus shifted to other projects that supported what was happening onsite. Again, a transcription without any specific deadline was moved to the back burner more often than not.

Saying good-bye: The world turned upside down in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic brought unimaginable stress, trauma, and heartbreak to so many. In the last year and half many lost their lives, their livelihood, and their loved ones. I recognize that I am incredibly fortunate that I was able to continue working and that my family and friends were largely spared from any serious health issues related to COVID-19. However, that does not mean 2020 was without difficulties for me – particularly related to mental and emotional health.

I live by myself in a one-bedroom apartment. Honestly, I am quite the homebody and pretty introverted so prolonged periods of time in my own space and on my own are welcome. But despite my introverted tendencies, I also have people I enjoy seeing and spending time with regularly – family, friends, colleagues. And then poof! I really could not see anyone, especially not frequently, for quite some time. That gets lonely after a while and I could feel the effects. All of this was on top of the anxiety I was feeling about work and school and life in general during the pandemic.

During that time Lillian’s diary became a distraction from the uncertainty and isolation I was experiencing. After reading increasingly grim outlooks on public health, I could turn to this diary and read about Lillian taking the family horse to get re-shoed or working on a sewing project with a friend. Reading and transcribing Lillian’s diary was like talking with one of my friends about their week when our lives were not consumed by COVID-19; it was a welcome break. As time went on and I became more invested in Lillian’s life, I began to procrastinate on this project – prolonging the point when I would finish the transcription and lose this source of comfort at a time when I really needed it.

Photograph of the last page of Lillian North’s diary, 1917.
The last page of Lillian’s diary, written on the inside of the back cover. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click image to enlarge.

At the end of Lillian’s diary, she ran out of pages and began writing on the inside of the cover. Why? The reason is likely pretty practical – to save money, to use up all the available space, etc. – but the appearance gives the sense that she was trying to put off saying good-bye to this little book for as long as possible. It is a feeling I am all too familiar with as I reach the end of this project and, more importantly, my life with Lillian.

Emily Beran
Public Services

Military Musician: The Diary of Thomas C. Key

September 22nd, 2017

“This book while today may not be of much value to me, I hope will in future years become priceless.”

                – Diary of Thomas C. Key, 1918

Image of the cover of Thomas Key's World War I diary

The cover of Thomas C. Key’s diary.
Call Number: RH MS B75.
Click image to enlarge.

Image of the first page of entries in Thomas Key's World War I diary

The first page of entries in Thomas Key’s World War I diary.
Call Number: RH MS B75. Click image to enlarge.

Thomas C. Key was a member of Company F in the 357th infantry division of the American Expeditionary Forces from 1917 to 1919. In March 1918 he became a member of the infantry band before being transferred overseas. He was stationed in parts of France and Germany from 1918 until his discharge in June 1919. During his time in the Army, he filled this diary with daily updates – concert preparation details; the receipt of a letter from his wife, Edna; the daily weather, etc. – so that in later years he would have a record of his military service.

Image of the title page of Thomas Key's World War I diary

The title page of Thomas Key’s World War I diary with a photograph
of his wife, Edna. Call Number: RH MS B75. Click image to enlarge.

Image of a list of European towns in Thomas Key's World War I diary

Key’s list of the towns he visited in Europe during World War I.
Call Number: RH MS B75. Click image to enlarge.

In addition to Key’s entries from his time in Europe, the diary includes entries from his life after he returned home as well as a list of addresses for his bandmates, some of his family history details, and his transcriptions of military poems, essays, and burial rites.

Image of the civilian addresses of bandmates in Thomas Key's World War I diary

The civilian addresses of Key’s bandmates.
Call Number: RH MS B75. Click image to enlarge.

Image of family history information in Thomas Key's World War I diary

Family history in the diary, including information about Thomas’s relative
Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner.
Call Number: RH MS B75. Click image to enlarge.

Emily Beran
Public Services

A Nineteenth-Century Woman’s New Year’s Resolutions

December 30th, 2015

According to Wikipedia, a New Year’s resolution is “a tradition, most common in the Western Hemisphere but also found in the Eastern Hemisphere, in which a person makes a promise to do an act of self-improvement or something slightly nice, such as opening doors for people, beginning from New Year’s Day.” In January 1864 Elizabeth Duncan wrote down her resolutions on the back pages of her new diary. Little did she know that 150 years later we would use her resolutions to gain insight into what it was like to be a women in the Midwest during her lifetime.

Photograph of Elizabeth Duncan, circa 1860-1865

Photograph of Elizabeth Duncan, circa 1860-1865.
Ladies of Lawrence Portrait Album. Call Number: RH PH 51.
Click image to enlarge.

Wesley Duncan (1814-1902) and his second wife Elizabeth (1837-1879) became residents of Lawrence, Kansas, in May 1855, when the town was less than one year old. Wesley was in the dry goods and grocery business. In 1867 the family left Lawrence and traveled to California, where they briefly settled in San Jose. Sometime around 1868 they returned to Lawrence, and Wesley opened a hardware store.

Kenneth Spencer Research Library holds three of Elizabeth’s diaries, covering the years 1864, 1867, and 1868. The 1864 diary, shown here, was a gift to Elizabeth from her favorite nephew. On January 1st of that year she recorded that “This morning was intens[e]ly cold but I think some warmer than yesterday I wished all the folks a happy new year. About noon Fred Eggert…presented me this book which I value very highly.” The next day she wrote, in part, “I am going to try to live a more elevated life this year than I did last.”

Image of Elizabeth Duncan's diary, front cover

The front cover of Elizabeth’s 1864 diary. Elizabeth Duncan Collection.
Call Number: RH MS A26. Click image to enlarge.

Image of Elizabeth Duncan's diary, inscription

The inscription on the inside cover of Elizabeth’s diary reads
“From Fred to his Aunt Bettie as a New Years Present Jan 1st 1864.”
Elizabeth Duncan Collection. Call Number: RH MS A26.
Click image to enlarge.

Image of Elizabeth Duncan's diary, title page

The title page of Elizabeth’s diary. Elizabeth Duncan Collection.
Call Number: RH MS A26. Click image to enlarge.

Elizabeth began writing in this diary four months after Quantrill’s Raid, an event that took place in the turbulent years of strife between Kansas and Missouri during the American Civil War. Writing in her diary faithfully throughout 1864, Elizabeth primarily spoke of her family, daily life, and the people she knew. She only occasionally mentioned incidents and issues concerning the war and politics of the time.

In January 1864, Elizabeth (age 26) and her husband Wesley (age 50) had been married for almost ten years. Their household included two daughters, two-year-old Katie and one-year-old Cettie; seventeen-year-old William (“Willie”), Wesley’s son from his first marriage; and Ella Jackson, a nineteen-year-old domestic helper.

Image of Elizabeth Duncan's diary, New Year's resolutions

Elizabeth’s resolutions for 1864. Elizabeth Duncan Collection.
Call Number: RH MS A26. Click image to enlarge.

Elizabeth wrote her New Year’s resolutions on the volume’s back pages, dating them January 21, 1864. They are transcribed here.

Jan 21st 1864

Today I have determined more fully to live an humble and devoted Christian and so [illegible] that I may make more steady progress in the good way I have determined to pass the following 1st resolutions which are as follows.

Resolved that I will let no day pass without reading two or more chapters in the Bible or Testament.

2nd Resolved that I have stated times and place for secret prayer and if I am hindered in any way so as I am not possible attend to it just at the stated time I will improve the very first opportunity after.

3rd Resolved that I will be more firm with the children and not let my temper get control of me.

It appears that Elizabeth added another resolution later that year.

4 Resolved that by the grace of God assisting me I will do all in my power to make those around me happy especially our own family. July 22nd, 1864

To learn more about Elizabeth, her diary, and her life in 1864, check out Katie H. Armitage’s article in Kansas History; see also Armitage’s article about Duncan’s 1867-1868 diaries.

Kathy Lafferty
Public Services

Dear Mother, Dear Sister, Dear Diary: Women’s Stories from the Kansas Frontier

October 22nd, 2013

Kansas Territory was opened for settlement in 1854, and women accompanied or joined their husbands and families and helped build new communities. These women’s stories survive through the letters and diaries they left behind, some of which have been preserved – and can be discovered – in Spencer’s Kansas Collection.

Image of "Friendship" needlepoint bookmark

“Friendship” needlepoint fabric bookmark, originally between blank unnumbered leaves 218-219,
Thankful Sophia Mayo Journal, Call Number: RH MS P875. Click image to enlarge.

In November 1854, Elizabeth Mallory and her sister Jennie Crittenden left Wethersfield, Connecticut, and headed west to Kansas. They came as part of the sixth contingent of the Emigrant Aid Company, an organization dedicated to sending citizens with anti-slavery sentiments to the new Kansas Territory to ensure that it would not be admitted as a slave state. Elizabeth’s husband Anson H. Mallory had left with the first Company party in July and was waiting for the sisters in Lawrence.

Elizabeth and Jennie wrote to their mother and siblings from 1859 to the mid-1860s, and these letters give us a glimpse into their lives during Kansas’ earliest years. For example, the excerpt below is from a letter Elizabeth wrote to her mother on June 28, 1863, reassuring her that all was well. Abandoned by her husband Anson, Elizabeth had recently been granted a divorce. She resumed using her maiden name and signed her letters “ESC.” In 1857, sister Jennie had married George F. Earl, who came to Lawrence as a member of the Emigrant Aid Company and served as a Captain in Kansas Company A during the Civil War.

Image of the second page of a letter, Elizabeth Crittenden to her mother, June 28, 1863

Second page of a letter, Elizabeth Crittenden to her mother, June 28, 1863,
Jennie Earl and Elizabeth S. C. Correspondence,
Call Number: RH MS P285. Click image to enlarge.

My health is good and I am enjoying life and health better than I have for many months and I can say years that have past, I have all the dressmaking that I can do, and am getting alonge as regards the worlds goods better then thousands [illegible] me, I have a good family in my House and I am boarding with them which makes it very pleasant for me. I was with Jennie when she was sick [giving birth] she has a nice large Girl. It weighed 12 pounds when it was born she had not named it when I saw her last which was a week ago, she has gone down to Paolia where her Husband is stationed.

Elizabeth survived Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence on August 21, 1863, and wrote to her brother about her experiences the next month.

Image of the first page of a letter, Elizabeth Crittenden to her brother, September 22, 1863

Image of the second page of a letter, Elizabeth Crittenden to her brother, September 22, 1863

Image of the third page of a letter, Elizabeth Crittenden to her brother, September 22, 1863

Letter, Elizabeth Crittenden to her brother, September 22, 1863,
Jennie Earl and Elizabeth S. C. Correspondence,
Call Number: RH MS P285. Click image to enlarge.

My dear Brother you know nothing of the Horrors of this war, nor neather did I, untill the 21st day of August, our town was surprised about day light, by 300 men headed by Quandrel who murdered every man that came in their way, most of our people were in bed, and the Rebels would knock at the door and when the men opened the door, they would shoot them down, and then rush in, and set fire to the house, threatening death to the women, if they stird, and by that way the House would get to burning so fast, that it would be impossable to get the bodys of their Husbands out, so that they would have to burn up.

Elizabeth also described the raid in a letter to her mother; this document is included in Spencer’s current exhibit about Quantrill’s Raid and can be accessed with a transcription as part of our accompanying online exhibit (see

Another early Kansas woman, Sarah Goss Clark, left Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and moved to Kansas with her husband Lymon (Timothy Limon Clark) in 1864. Sarah’s brother Nathaniel was a noted ornithologist who helped found Neosho Falls in 1857. As is often the case regarding migrations, other family members eventually joined him in Kansas. The Sarah Goss Clark papers include her diaries from 1864 to 1874, correspondence with her mother and siblings, and other miscellaneous items. In her earliest diary, Sarah discusses many of her family members and the trials she faced during her first year in Kansas.

Image of entries in Sarah Goss Clark's diary, July-December 1864

Entries in Sarah Goss Clark’s diary, July-December 1864, Sarah Goss Clark Papers,
Call Number: RH MS 839. Click image to enlarge.

Image of entries in Sarah Goss Clark's diary, January 1865

Entries in Sarah Goss Clark’s diary, January 1865, Sarah Goss Clark Papers,
Call Number: RH MS 839. Click image to enlarge.

July 4. 1864. First spent in Kansas. Joseph & Alex. went to Leroy on horsback for the fourth. Doing my work with Little Lucy’s help.
Nov.24th Thanksgiving day. We are paying no attention to the day Lyman & Stickney
[her husband and brother] gone to find and purchase some oxen.
Sunday. Christmas. Feel lonley today. I feel that many changes have taken place in our situation & family since last Christmas. It is just four monthes to day since our dear little Freddie died. The thoughts of it fills me with sadness.
Jan. 7th my birthday forty seven to-day. Why have I been spared so many years, when so many promising young lives have been taken.

When we read these women’s original letters to their “Dear Mothers” and the diary entries they wrote, we can feel their joys and sorrows and gain a deeper understanding of the everyday challenges faced by Kansas’ earliest settlers.

Tina Nolan Shepperd
Student Technician, Conservation Services

“As Quiet as the Holy Sabath in a Civilized Land”

July 3rd, 2013

Beside marking the United States’ 237th birthday, tomorrow is also the 150th anniversary of the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, a turning point of the Civil War. Spencer’s Kansas Collection contains a handful of accounts by Union soldiers who participated in the siege and capture of the bluff city on the Mississippi River. The most detailed record is contained within seven diaries kept by James W. Jessee (1838-1907).

Photograph of cover of James W. Jessee's Diary

Cover of James W. Jessee’s Diary. December 1, 1862 – August 2, 1863.
James W. Jessee Papers. Call number: RH VLT MS E4 Vol. 3.

Within his diaries, James recorded the day-by-day details of his three years as a corporal, and then sergeant, in Co. K, 8th Regiment of Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He included descriptions of army life, commentary about the war’s progress, updates about the weather and his health, and accounts of his regiment’s involvement in some of the most significant campaigns and battles of the Western Theater.

Photograph of James W. Jessee's diary entry at Vicksburg for July 3-4, 1863

James W. Jessee’s diary entry for July 3rd and 4th, 1863. James W. Jessee Papers.
Call number: RH VLT MS E4, Vol. 3. Click image to enlarge.

Above are James’s diary entries for July 3rd and 4th, 1863. Like other sections of the diary, they were written in a code apparently devised by James: vowels, “y,” and “w” are substituted with the numbers one through seven. Luckily, James’s great-great-grandson Alan D. Selig has transcribed the diaries, returning them to standard English while retaining original spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

Before Vicks July the 3d 1863 Health good as usual now at present. Weather very warm and Sultry Boys in fine spirits and full of hope

8t A.M. flag of truce came out in front of A. G. Smiths division. Borne By two generals who was Blindfolded and taken to [Union general Ulysses S.] grants head quarters. A cessation of hostilities ensued. federal and Rebel troops stood upon their rifle pits with impunity. a Bout ten A.M. a reb. fired at the Col. of the 32d C. wounded one man the Col. ordered the Picket to fire. a peice of artilery fired with grape killing 17 rebs &c

afternoon [Confederate general John C.] Pemberton met Grant in front of our division. to arrange terms of Surrender. that Being the object of the flag of truce the whole afternoon was spent in in consultation By the two Gen’s. and the most of the night, as I understand.

7 P.M. called into line and sent out on Picket. orders not to fire untill further orders all very quiet indeed. feel quite lost.

no news from the rear to day. —

Before Vicksburgh, Sat. July 4th 1863 thus the eighty Seventh anniversary of our national independence was ushered in as quiet as the Holy Sabath in a civilized land. all was peace and quiet. we could scarcely realize that we was at war. and in front of a hostile foe. though now subdued by hunger 8t A. m. rebel officers came out. sent a communication to “Grant” which said that vicksburgh was ours. was called in to get ready to march into town, and at twelve the Brigade was formed and [Union general John A.] Logan’s division marched in and took formal Possession of the Place got into town just at two. PM. and to my great surprise found the City But little injured By the Morter fleet. they have caves dug all through town to hide in in times of Bombardment, found the Rebs nearly starved and much fatigued. &c they had actualy Been eating mule meat, also hostile against Pemberton. and many disgusted with the Rebel service. moved out & camped Back of the Rebel works, the question is which out Ranks Grant or the 4th of July

Photograph of James W. Jessee's military promotion appointment to Sergeant, Company "K" of the 8th Regiment of Illinois Infantry Volunteer, June 18, 1864.

James W. Jessee’s appointment to Sergeant, Co. “K,” 8th Illinois, June 18, 1864.
James W. Jessee Papers. Call number: RH MS Q68. Click image to enlarge.

Born and raised in central Illinois, James W. Jessee moved to Kansas with his family when it became a territory in 1854. As residents of Douglas County, members of the Jessee family were active in the free-state cause. James returned to Illinois in the winter of 1858, settling in as a farmer and preacher. The twenty-two year old mustered into the 8th Illinois on June 25, 1861; records at the Illinois State Archives describe him as 5′ 8 1/2″ with brown hair, hazel eyes, and a light complexion. After mustering out of the army on July 30, 1864, James once again became an Illinois farmer. He, his wife Marie Caroline Standiford Jessee (1847-1922), and their children later relocated to Kansas, settling on a farm in Osage County where James resided until his death.

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services