The Original Desperate Housewives of Des Plaines

Have you ever been tempted to peek inside someone’s diary? Sure you have. There’s a little snoop in all of us. After all, diaries are where people record their most personal thoughts and feelings. Stuff that’s not meant for anyone else to know about. Private stuff. Maybe even juicy stuff. What a temptation! But there’s just no way around the fact that reading someone else’s diary makes you a big snoop...

...Or does it? Let’s say you just happened to find someone’s diary lying around on the internet where anyone can see it. It’s just lying there open, right, so what’s the harm in looking? And if it was an old diary, like around a hundred and fifty years old, the author would be long dead. You wouldn’t be a snoop for reading that, you’d be a historian.

Luckily for you, snoop historian, the library recently added five Civil War era diaries to our diary collection on Des Plaines Memory, the local history and culture web site. And yes, there’s some juice.

Diary of Isabella Norton, December 1865 - September 1866

Preparing to scan an old diary before uploading to Des Plaines Memory.

The diaries come from the archives of the Des Plaines History Center. It took the good folks at the history center a lot of careful reading and research to figure out just who all the authors of these diaries were and how they related to each other. What they learned was that the diaries were written by four people whose lives were interconnected by blood, marriage, and geography. Although the diaries were written at different times, taken as a whole, they tell a surprisingly cohesive story that reads like a historical novel. Here is a chronological summary of the diaries, including how the different authors relate to each other:

Chester Bennett, Diary 1854-1855

Future husband of Adelia Thomas. First school master in the area. Probably not a bad guy, but he doesn’t always write nice things about other people. “It beats all how ‘styupud’ people are,” is a common sentiment. He’s a complicated man, prone to bouts of bitter loneliness. But he also displays a wickedly sly humor in bits of original verse he writes about the sometimes uncertain circumstances of his life.

Adelia Thomas, Diary 1861-1862

Future wife of Chester and daughter of Hester Thomas. Not a woman of many words. “Did a little of everything and not that much either” is one diary entry. But Adelia’s lists of household chores speak volumes about her when sandwiched between her observations about the people in her life and how she feels about them. She also records some dramatic moments about the looming Civil War: “The Rebels commenced bombing Fort Sumpter. The first commencement of the war!”

Isabella Norton, May - NOvember, 1865 and December 1865 - September 1866

We have two of Isabella’s diaries. She and her husband were neighbors of the Bennett family, having moved into the area from Chicago when the great fire destroyed their home and store. “I have taken my place at the Fair this evening for the first time, but efforts to make a sale have all been in vain…” Such are the trials of a middle class household during the last months of the Civil War.

Hester Thomas, 1877

Mother to Adelia Thomas and Chester Bennett’s mother-in-law. She seems happy in her life overall. She’s blessed with a loving family and an active life. But there is darkness in her life as well: a deadly outbreak of measles is taking the lives of both adults and children. She herself is plagued constantly with mysterious illnesses: so often “sick from over work and anxiety,” and a “weak head” that sends her to Chicago for frequent “Electro Chemical Bath” treatments.


There’s a lot more juicy local history stuff to see on Des Plaines Memory, including pictures uploaded by our visitors – which you can do here!

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