Chapter 2: The Honor of the Van Sandts
James William Van Sandt had followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor serving the people of Carbon. James had good reason to be proud of both his father, Dr. William Harrison Van Sandt, and his grandfather, John Van Sandt.
John was born in Fleming County, Kentucky, about twenty miles south of the Ohio River. He owned slaves but grew to abhor the institution of slavery, so he took his slaves into Ohio and freed them. Van Sandt stayed in Ohio and purchased a farm in Hamilton County, which he named Mount Pierpont after Massachusetts abolitionist John Pierpont. He took his abolitionism a step farther and became active in the Underground Railroad.
As The Brazil Times has noted before, one of the slaves he helped was Eliza Harris, whose escape from her master was recounted in "Uncle Tom's Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe used Van Sandt as the model for John Van Trompe, a character in the novel, and Mount Pierpont became known as the "Eliza House."
John Van Sandt was caught by local authorities while aiding eight runaway slaves on April 23, 1842. Even though Ohio was a “free state,” it was still against the law to assist a slave who was running away from an owner.
John was tried and convicted, sentenced to imprisonment, fined $500, and ordered to pay $1200 in damages to the slaves’ owner. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, which sustained the judgment in 1847. Van Sandt was dead by then; his family lost Mount Pierpont to pay his debts.
John had over 20 children by two wives; 11 lived to adulthood. In 1849, Mrs. Nancy Bowen Van Sandt, John’s second wife, brought her four children to Putnam County, Indiana. Son William Harrison Van Sandt studied medicine with a local physician and then attended Rush Medical College in Chicago. When the Civil War started, he dropped out of medical school and joined the Union army. He was with Sherman on his march to the sea.
John finished his medical studies at the Indiana Medical School in Indianapolis. He began his practice in Brunerstown, Putnam County, and then moved to Carbon, where he practiced medicine for about 50 years.
William married Putnam County native Orlena Ellis, and they had three children, one of them dying very young. William must have been pleased when his only son, James, a tall, handsome, and well-mannered young man, decided to become a physician. James attended DePauw University and then Indiana University’s Medical School in Indianapolis.
While in Indianapolis, James Van Sandt met Grace Covington, and some unusual things happened. Before Grace and William Cowan divorced, they were living in Chicago. The 1910 Federal Census showed that Grace had had a baby that was still living, but the child was not living with William and Grace. Little Edison Cowan appears in the 1920 Federal Census as a “boarder” in Indianapolis with the Smith family. Perhaps during that time foster children were counted as boarders, but why wasn’t Edison living with his mother or father?
Grace had regained her maiden name after the divorce, so it is not clear if James Van Sandt knew that she had been married or that she had a son. No matter—the handsome couple fell in love, and on November 18, 1911, they married in Hamilton County, Indiana.
Nothing appeared in the local newspapers about their engagement or wedding, even though the groom was the Van Sandt’s only son at a time when even a trip from Carbon to visit friends in Brazil merited at least three lines of newsprint. The oddest thing was the couple’s application for a wedding license. James stated that he was older than he was and gave incorrect names for his parents.
Grace and James had a baby girl, Mary Jane, in Indianapolis in 1913. After James graduated third in his class from medical school in 1914, he, Grace, and baby Jane moved to Carbon, where James joined his father’s medical practice. In 1915, their second and last child, a daughter named Elizabeth Ann and called “Betty” was born. No sign of Edison.
Next week, trouble visits the Van Sandt’s home.