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Historically Speaking: The mystery at the library

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Photo by Janice Dunnahoo The rediscovered sculpture of Mignon from Johann Wolfgang von Geothe's novel "Wilhelm Meister Apprenticeship." Sculpted by Leopold Bracony, the statuette was donated to the Carnegie Library in Roswell in 1912.

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily

Record

Several weeks ago, I received an email from a lady — she wants to stay anonymous, she said — which included an obituary of one Mary Stuart Armstrong, and a question about a statue named “Mignon,” that had been donated to the Roswell Public Library in 1912, from the estate of Stuart Armstrong. The person sending the email wanted to know what had happened to the statue. Did anyone know about it? This of course, piqued my curiosity. Was it still around? That was more than 100 years ago — I had to find out.

First I will share a couple of the obituaries about Stuart Armstrong — she was quite the lady.

June 19, 1912, Chicago Examiner, Chicago, Illinois

“Mrs. Mary Stuart Armstrong, news of whose death has just been received, was for many years a dignified and striking figure in Chicago. She published a Society paper, the ‘Elite,’ the tone of which never dropped, she was prominent at the Columbus Exposition and had an individual prestige not always attained and retained by women who leave the accustomed life they are born to, and strike out encouragingly along new ways for duty’s sake.

“Mrs. Armstrong was a southern girl-from Mississippi, I think — and married early, a young physician, who took her to an old homestead in a small village. A few years later, Dr. Armstrong died a shocking death — shot by a … highwayman, as he drove to a patient along a country road. His wife came to Chicago to earn a living for herself, and her little son, and did it well.”

Roswell Daily Record

Monday, June 17, 1912, Page 4

“Mrs. Armstrong Laid To Rest

“Funeral Rites For the Late Esteemed Benefactress

“Mrs. Armstrong Laid To Rest

“Simple funeral rites for the late esteemed benefactress Sunday — Sketch of her life.

“With the same friends acting as pallbearers, who had laid her son, Dr. W. O. Armstrong away, but a few weeks ago, the remains of the late Mrs. Mary Stuart Armstrong were interred Sunday afternoon at South Side Cemetery (today’s South Park Cemetery). The services were extremely simple at the request of the deceased, no ceremony, however, being performed.

“A number of the friends, learning of the death Saturday afternoon, assembled at the Gage & Company parlors and at 4 o’clock the funeral party left for the cemetery. Mrs. Armstrong had been reared in the Friend’s Faith, and it was her request that no public services be held. Those who officiated as pallbearers were W. M. Hodges, James and Will Newman, James Coates, L.R. Phillips, and R.C.Horner.

* * *

“Less than a week has it since Mrs. Armstrong made a gift to the Carnegie Library which will cause her name to be handed down to posterity as one interested in the advancement of art and education, and genuine regret is expressed over the entire city that the kindly donor should be called hence.

“The gift was that of the $1,500 statuette depicting the character “Mignon” in Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister” in honor of which gift, a public reception was given on Tuesday evening of last week.

“The gift was but characteristic of the bread (a typo, most likely it should have said “breed”), culture, and willingness of the donor to strengthen interest in art and education. Many years of her life were spent in literary work of different kinds, she being Editor and owner of ‘Elite,’ a well-known Chicago literary publication for some years, after the death of her husband.

“The deceased had been in frail health for some time and her demise was not wholly unexpected, though the hope was entertained, to the last, that her life might be spared.

“Mrs. Armstrong was a native of Springfield, Ohio, but early in life moved to Cincinnati where she grew up and was married. Her husband’s death occurred at Terre Haute, Indiana and soon after, Mrs. Armstrong became associated with the ‘Elite’ magazine, remaining editor in chief until about three years ago when she followed her son to Roswell and they resided in the country until her death came.

“Deceased is survived by a Mrs. Clark of Chicago who left but a few days ago for her home in Chicago, called back by urgent business. Mrs. G.M. Peacock and Mrs. A.W. Block of this city are cousins of the deceased. Mrs. William Palmer Armstrong, daughter-in-law and Hedrick Armstrong, grandson, still reside on the farm near town.”

After a somewhat lengthy visit — off the library premises as it happened — with Enid Costly, director of the Roswell Public Library, she thought the statuette was still there, and that she knew which one it might be. Sure enough, it was still there, but it had probably been many years since anyone knew its origins. It has been there all along, though the story and history behind it had been lost — if any paperwork was ever even filed on it — more than 100 years ago. What a wonderful discovery, and how great to know the story behind it.

About the character of the statuette:

“Mignon” was the main character in the German novel “Wilhelm Meister Apprenticeship” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in the mid 1790s. Her character was a mysterious and waif-like child who sings of her traumatic past, and in particular the song “Kennst du das Land,” (Do you know the Land) where she expresses her desire to find a father figure in the novel’s young hero. This song commanded the attention of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt, of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, Hugo Wolf and Alban Berg. A great many composers were drawn to this philosophical coming-of-age tale.

About the artist:

The artist (sculptor) of the statuette was Leopold Bracony, born in Rome, Italy in 1847. He arrived in the United States, New York City, April 25, 1893. Bracony was asked to go to Canton, Ohio, for a brief time to execute a bust of Mrs. William McKinley (in these times most wives went by the name of their husband) — shortly before McKinley’s inauguration as the 25th president of the United States — then spent six weeks at the White House modeling a bust of President McKinley. While at the White House he stated that “he never met a more kindly man than Mr. McKinley, and at the same time a more dignified man,” which was published in the Franklin Reporter, Vol. 41, No. 29, July 18, 1912.

There is more to be said about this artist and his works, but to get back to the library and the statuette — now that its true identity and value has been revealed — it has been removed for a much needed cleaning. It will soon find a new home within the library in a professional and secure encasement. The public will be notified when it is on display again. Who knows, possibly with another unveiling and public reception for this century.

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.