A Book That Changed (Family) History

We're doing something a little different with this post. Today there won't be a recipe, and this isn't your normal "review." This is going to be a more personal story about a shocker of a book at least it was a shocker to my family.
All my life, I've been fascinated by a woman that my family saw as a kind of godmother, a woman who became an extension of our family and who was beloved by the small community my mother grew up in.
Her name was Flora Beatrice Farnham. She led (we thought) a quiet existence. That doesn't mean she wasn't interesting...she definitely was. She had traveled all over the world, she was an accomplished painter and sculptor whose work is displayed in various buildings around the country, and she gave a lot of her wealth to the Catholic church.
She loved to inspire young girls to "make something" of themselves, and even helped my mother through college. She painted a mural in the church where my grandparents worshipped, and became a part of the rural Virginia community. And Miss Bea (that's how I always think of her) lived to be 103. I'll never forget how she took part in the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 as if it was her own birthday party. And in a way, it was. She turned 100 that year.
Interesting? Yes. Earth shattering. Maybe not.
And then I heard the news about a book called John Otto: Trials and Trails. The author, Alan Kania, called my family to find out if the Beatrice Farnham in his book was the same woman that we knew.
When we heard his story, we thought there was no way they could be the same person. But we were wrong. So now, here is what I know about "my" Bea Farnham from his book (and trust me, we're all in shock):
  1. We were always told that Miss Bea never married and that she was once engaged to a Navy lieutenant who died in the Spanish-American Civil War. But evidently, she was married to John Otto, a famous eccentric who forged trails in the wilds of Colorado, and even named Independence Monument and Liberty Cap.
  2. People speculated that Otto and Bea only met once or twice before they married in 1911 at the foot of Independence Monument. He always maintained that they had known each other in California.
  3. Bea was ahead of her time because she and Otto requested that the word "obey" be removed from the wedding vows, which turned out to be a sign of things to come.
  4. Bea became famous around the country, with newspapers referring to her as a renowned artist and philanthropist who was disgusted with modern society and had gone West to live a more civilized and sane life.
  5. One month after the wedding, Bea went back to her hometown in Massachusetts, supposedly to close up her estate and to return in six weeks. She never went back. She said later, "I tried hard to live his way, but I could not do it."
  6. Within a few years, Otto finally filed for divorce and was rewarded an alimony of $2,000 from Bea. See the newspaper article below from the 1914 Pittsburgh Press. It shows an amazing photo of Bea in her Western regalia.
  7. By March 1915, Bea was married again (!), this time to a cowboy and ranch foreman named Dallas Benson. Evidently, she went to the ranch to paint Western scenes and cowboys and ended up falling in love. She and Benson performed tricks on horses together, including one called "chasing the bride" that had Bea leaping from her horse and landing in Benson's arms.
Okay, at this point, I can tell you my family was beyond flabbergasted.
Many of the facts completely sync up. For example, Bea was an accomplished artist who painted many frescoes, including those that covered the walls of her small home hidden in the woods near my grandparents' house.
She was originally from Massachusetts and she did live with her mother for a time in California. One of my favorite paintings that she created was of the swallows returning to Capistrano.
And then compare the photos below. Hmmmm.
There are just too many similarities between the two Beas for them not to be (sorry) the same person.
The strange history of Bea Farnham in the book John Otto ends with her cowboy adventure. But how did she get from that ranch in Kansas to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia? When did the Catholic church become so important to her? And why was she so secretive about it all?
Those are mysteries that I'll have to dig into over the coming months. Stay tuned...
Bea Farnham and John Otto at their wedding ceremony, held at the base of Independence Monument in Colorado. Bea is wearing her grandmother's wedding dress, veil, and scarf.

Pittsburgh Press, 1914

The obituary card for "my" Bea Farnham.


  1. This is so awesome. It's great to hear about such a family surprise! I think Aunt Bea deserves a book written just about her.

  2. Beatrice was my 1st cousin twice removed based on recent genealogy work. Her father, Briggs C., was the youngest brother of my great grandfather, Ebenezer Farnum. The Farnum/Farnham's in this family were centered in Jefferson, ME. Beatrice was a very interesting lady indeed. Based on photos, her lower jaw and chin is very Farnum-like. If any more material was discovered, I would love to know! Thanks, jamesekelley@earthlink.net