Hard Lines

Life in rerun, now playing near you.

  1. One of my great-grandfathers, James Shepley, was born in Saco, Maine, in 1826, went to Bowdoin College, and set up a law practice in the frontier town of Red Cloud, Minnesota, where he had a hand in the writing of the state constitution. In his mid-thirties, he won a Civil War commission as an aide to a cousin of his, General George Shepley, but he contracted malaria and was confined for months to a hospital in New Orleans. Back home at last and eager to recover his health, he became a farm manager in Naples, Maine. He was married by this time, with three children, and in 1873, hoping to improve the Shepley fortunes, he bought into a sheep ranch near Fresno, California, and went west with a friend. He planned to bring his family out to join him, once he got settled. One spring night in 1874, while sleeping at a camp at Little Dry Creek, he was murdered—garroted with a piece of wire. Two Portuguese sheepherders were tried for the crime but acquitted; there was no evidence of a robbery or suggestion of some other motive, and the case was dropped. The mystery was never cleared up.

    His widow, Mary Barrows Shepley, now abruptly deprived of income, moved to a house in Boston with her children and began taking in boarders. An impoverished gentility was preserved, though just barely, and rescue arrived at last as if from the pages of Jane Austen. One of the boarders, a young businessman named Charles Sergeant, fell in love with the youngest Shepley child—Elizabeth, known as Bessie—...