Broth without bread
Margaret Josephine Witt (1868–1915)
When Josie Witt married into the Jones family of Macon County, Tennessee in 1895, she brought with her a five-year-old daughter born out of wedlock. Josie’s mother-in-law, Maria, did not approve of her son’s choice of bride.
Josie’s granddaughters grew up knowing Maria Jones disapproved of Josie but not how she expressed it. Did she refuse Josie her company, talk behind her back, deny her son’s family much-needed support?
Whatever punishment Maria doled out, Josie likely absorbed it, accepting that rejection as part of her short, hard existence, defined by work, poverty, illness and far too many babies.
One of those babies, daughter Lillie, recalled that she and her siblings often went hungry; Josie’s example led her to proclaim she would never have more children than she could reasonably take care of.
Was that a bitter indictment of her mother? Or, was it acknowledgment of Josie’s legacy, recognition that her mother had left one thing of value to her children?
Margaret Josephine “Josie” Witt was the first-born child of Caleb Witt, a Virginia farmer who came to Tennessee in the 1830s, and his second wife, Polly Wallace, a native Tennessean 37 years younger than her husband.
Caleb had been married to first wife Jane Lee 29 years when she died in 1859. A year later, Caleb was working as a carpenter, living alone in Smith County near his brother Dandridge’s farm and family. In 1867, he married 22-year-old Polly, and they settled down together in Macon County, on the farm adjacent to her parents’.
Polly was illiterate, a not unusual condition for 19th-century farm girls. That may explain why, at 11, Josie hadn’t learned to read or write, and she wasn’t enrolled in school. Polly presumably kept her home to tend her younger siblings. It was early training for what would occupy Josie the remainder of her life.
First on board was Dona Beasly, the baby girl who made Josie soiled goods in the eyes of her mother-in-law. It’s possible Beasly was the surname of her father, but it’s something Josie’s descendants can’t confirm. The girl was five when Josie married Auzy Peyton Jones, the son of Kentucky-born William Burl Jones and the formidable Maria (pronounced Mariah) Dycus.
Had Maria longed for a fertile daughter-in-law to provide her with grandchildren, Josie would have fulfilled all her hopes. After marrying Auzy, she gave birth to 10 children between 1897 and 1913. All but two lived to adulthood.
At the turn of the century, Auzy and Josie were working their farm in Macon County; three sons — Hugh, Eldon, Clifton — and 10-year-old Dona completed the household. A granddaughter recalls stories of how hard the young marrieds worked, with Josie plowing fields with a mule. But, being young, Josie also found time to fashion high-necked dresses to hide a goiter and to entertain her family by playing tunes on her autoharp.
By 1910, the Jones family had exploded: fraternal twins, a boy and girl, were born in 1900. The boy, Willie, died of what was likely sudden infant death syndrome, and Josie blamed herself, despite the doctor’s reassurances. The girl, Lillie, lived to be 87 years old.
Two more girls — Lela and Miriam — and a boy, Delford, followed that loss. At some point, Josie and her unmarried daughter Dona, 19, may have been expecting at the same time: Dona gave birth in 1909 to a baby girl and, within a year, Dona died after giving birth to a second. Josie moved her granddaughters into the Jones’ crowded cabin.
Being a grandmother didn’t end Josie’s reproductive years: in 1911, another daughter was born and died. But after the birth of Effie Eugene in March 1913, Auzy and Josie stopped making Joneses. At 45, Josie must have been bone-weary of pregnancy and labor, cooking and laundry, and the deprivations caused by too little money. Her health likely suffered.
Supporting such a family surely wore down Auzy as well. By 1910, he not only worked the farm, but made himself available for odd jobs. Well-digging — hard, dirty, seasonal work — was his specialty. On June 8, 1915, Auzy took a break from the sun to walk down to the spring for a drink of water. Too much cold liquid “locked his bowels” is how the family remembers it. The official cause of death was “an obstruction of the bowel.”
Josie, a widow with a houseful of children — they ranged from 18-year-old Hugh to two-year-old Effie Eugene — began looking for new homes for her children as soon as Auzy was buried. A granddaughter likened their dispersal to giving away a litter of kittens. Some found jobs, others moved in with neighbors, one entered an orphanage in Nashville. Most married young, apparently eager to recreate a family for themselves.
It’s not known whether Josie placed all her children in time. Six months after Auzy’s death, on December 13, 1915, Josie died. Her death certificate gives a terse cause: hernia. It was likely a strangulated hernia.
She was 47 years, eight months, and 28 days old.
As for daughter Lillie, she took her mother’s example to heart. She raised three beloved children who never went to bed hungry.
[The story of Effie Eugene Jones can be found among my ancestories on Medium. It’s called CUT SHORT 1].