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The Interesting History of the Charles C. Lawrence Jr. Scrapbooks

The fifth post by Deana Thomas in the From the Archive blog series. Check back on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month for more from this series! As an archivist, I often have the privilege of processing collections. At times processing can be tedious--sorting, re-housing, and numbering collections can be a boring process. However, there are collections where you get to read amazing letters and see incredible photographs. There are collections that make the tediousness of the job worth it. My favorite collections are those where I get to peer into the lives of another era. A great example of this type of collection is the Charles C. Lawrence, Jr., collection (MSS 220). The collection consists of two scrapbooks of letters almost exclusively from Charles Lawrence, Jr., to his first wife Laura McGaha Lawrence.[1]

From the first letter I read, I was hooked. I wanted to understand what happened before and after the letters; I wanted to know why these scrapbooks were created? Were they created by Charles in order to commemorate his relationship with Laura? Did he forget the scrapbooks existed as his life moved forward? Did his second wife know about them?  After reading all of the 220 letters in the collection, most of my questions remain unanswered. What is clear is that whether the scrapbooks were created by Charles or a family member of Laura’s, someone (based on the address that the scrapbooks were found, I suspect it was Charles) kept them from 1945 to 1996. A person unconnected to the family bought the scrapbooks at an estate sale in Frankfort, Kentucky. This person, then donated the scrapbooks to the Kentucky Historical Society. So, who were Charles Lawrence and Laura McGaha? I learned that the couple met while Charles was training for the Air Force in Oakland, California in 1942. Within five months of meeting, they got married on November 8, 1942 and less than a month later, Charles was sent to Missouri, then Miami, and finally Panama in 1943 (Charles would spend the last six or so months of his deployment stationed on Baltra Island in the Galapagos Islands). Charles remained away from home for two years returning to live with his wife in Oakland in January 1945. On February 9, 1945, Laura died after contracting the flu and pneumonia. After her death, Laura was buried in the Frankfort Cemetery Charles returned to live in his hometown of Frankfort, Ky.

Charles and Laura knew each other for a little over 2 ½ years and for 2 of those years, they were separated by thousands of miles. The letters in the collection cover the bulk of their relationship. (While Laura’s letters are not included in the collection, based on Charles’ questions and responses, you can get a sense of what she was writing.)  Reading through them, you get insight into the kind of relationship the couple had, the worldview of Charles, and what they had in mind for their future together. In the letters, the couple argues about Laura joining the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, confess their deep sexual desires for one another, discuss Laura’s working situation, the use of birth control and begin to plan for their life after Charles’s military enlistment ends.

In addition to learning about Charles and Laura, I also learned that Charles had two sisters, Katherine McDonald (later Carter) and Tevis Lawrence (later Cunningham). Laura had a brother, Charles Norman McGaha, and a sister, Sybil McGaha (later Anderson). In several of the letters Charles writes about Sybil’s relationship with a boyfriend named Dick. At the time, 1943-1944, Sybil was 15 or16 years old but in what seemed like a serious and potentially volatile relationship.[2] In one letter Charles mentions the dissolution of his sister’s marriage, writing that Katherine’s husband, Kenton, left her for another woman.[3]   While stationed in Panama and the Galapagos, Charles describes visiting Panama City and observing the living situation of Panamanians; Charles also describes various animals he encounters while exploring his temporary home. I became, and still am, intrigued by this snippet into the lives of Charles and Laura Lawrence and how the letters in this collection are great primary sources for researchers on several topics. So, for the next three blog posts, I am going to explore: Laura and Charles’ long distance relationship, Charles’ views on Panama and the Galapagos and how Laura (and even Charles to some extent) expressed some of the societal changes that were occurring in America during WWII.   Footnotes: [1] There are also several letters from Charles Lawrence’s sister (Katherine Frances McDonald) and mother (Edith G. Lawrence) to Laura Lawrence. There are no letters from Laura. [2] Charles never says that Dick has physically hurt Sybil but mentions several times that his behavior is unbecoming and mentions that Dick beat a dog and should not be allowed in the family’s home. [3] The couple divorced in 1945 and in 1954 Katherine would remarry an unnamed man becoming Katherine Frances Carter.

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