Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Tumult and Trauma of Eva's Life

In a dispassionate summary of her final days, an attending physician wrote that Eva "... was admitted [to the hospital] because she was having severe abdominal pain... Her condition worsened. She expired on May 11, 1972."

Eva, my second great-grandmother, succumbed to ovarian cancer at the age of 86, ending a life marked by unrelenting adversity.

Eva Matilda Adaline Lamb Stevens Fagan

A Wayward Childhood

Born in Vermont in December 1885, she was baptized four months later as Eva Matilda Adaline in a Methodist Church across the border in Quebec, Canada. She was the eldest child of Francis and Phoebe (Jarvis) Lamb.

Eva Lamb's April 1886 Baptism - Methodist Church,
Windsor, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada

When his daughter was born, Francis (Frank) Stephen Lamb was a brakeman for the railroad. The young family lived in Island Pond, Vermont, which was situated on the Grand Trunk Railway midway between Montreal and Portland, Maine.

In the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, the Lamb family was enumerated in Denver, Colorado. Curiously, Frank used a modified version of his middle name as his surname (Stephen became Stephens). Family lore said Frank killed a man in Canada and changed his name to evade the law. No evidence has surfaced to corroborate the Canadian murder mystery. However, for the rest of his life, he used this alias.

1900 US Federal Census, excerpt of Frank Stephens family in Denver, Colorado

Frank and Phoebe had a tumultuous marriage. In June 1901, it was punctuated by a violent attack. Frank, suspecting an adulterous relationship, shot a gentleman friend of Phoebe's. The salacious scandal splashed their personal lives across Denver's headlines, left an innocent bystander clinging to life, sent Frank into hiding deep inside a Colorado mine shaft, and shattered the Lamb family (see Till Jealousy and Bullets Do Us Part).

Newspaper accounts included an interview with Eva. She tearfully told a reporter with the Denver Rocky Mountain News that, "Papa and mamma have been quarreling off and on for over two years."

A month after the violent attack, the Denver Post published an article: "Children Gone: Stephens Family Disintegrating at a Rate That Frightens Mother - Stephens Suspected." The article revealed that Eva was now "wayward" and had been sent to the Home for Incorrigible Girls.

Unto My Beloved Wife

Three years after her parents' calamitous quarrel, Eva married William John Stevens.

William, a young gold miner from Idaho Springs, Colorado, had grown up in a mining family. His father, Thomas, was born to a mining family in Cornwall, England, immigrated to Canada and eventually moved to the Rocky Mountains where he was killed in an 1886 mine explosion.

William and Eva (Lamb) Stevens
Photo from the collection of Stevens cousin Amy Goodman

William and Eva settled in Idaho Springs and had two children: Thurlow (born in 1907) and Bernice (born in 1910). But tragedy loomed. Just three months shy of their 12-year wedding anniversary, William died at the age of 36 from mitral insufficiency and Bright's Disease. The contributing causes of death were dropsy and miners disease.

Tragically, William must have known he was dying. In February 1916, one month before his untimely death, he drafted his will. With moving language, he bequeathed his estate and effects "unto my beloved wife, Eva A. Stevens, absolutely; and I appoint her sole executrix of this my will, and guardian of my infant children during their respective minorities."

Excerpt from William Stevens' February 1916 Last Will and Testament

At the age of 30, Eva was a widow with two young children to raise.

Hardships To The End

Eva's medical records indicated that she was afflicted with influenza soon after her husband's passing, perhaps an early victim of the Spanish flu pandemic that swept the world in 1918.

In about 1919, Eva married Thomas Fagan. By the enumeration of the 1920 U.S. Federal Census, the Fagans were living in Denver.

On November 1, 1930, Eva's daughter Bernice married Robert O'Connor. Less than five months later, she gave birth to a daughter named Beverly (my grandmother). Clearly, Bernice was already pregnant when she married Robert. Tragically, one week after the birth, Bernice passed away due to complications. She was only twenty years old.

Five days after Bernice's death, on April 1, 1931, Thomas and Eva Fagan petitioned to adopt Beverly as their own child. A court determined "that consent in writing by said Robert V. O'Connor, sole surviving parent of said child, has heretofore been given to the petitioners herein for the adoption of said child, Beverly Bernice O'Connor..." and a decree granted the adoption, changing Beverly's surname from O'Connor to Fagan.

In later life, Beverly shared that, during the Great Depression, she spent her early childhood living in a tent city while Thomas Fagan worked on the construction of Hoover Dam. She wrote in her journal that Eva "was very mean to Grandpa [Thomas] and I never knew why. I realized that Grandpa was drinking then the fights would start."

Thomas passed away in August 1950, once again leaving Eva a widow. She was 64 years old.

A decade later, in January 1961, her son Thurlow passed away from a sudden heart attack. Eva had outlived her last surviving child.

A Quiet Repose

In her final years, Eva lived alone in a mobile home in a Denver trailer park.

Eva pictured standing outside her mobile home

She was close with her granddaughter Beverly and her young family. She cooked and had a special knack for baking breads, especially wheat and rye. She busied herself gardening in the small yard in front of her trailer, and sewing clothes for her great-grandchildren who all remember her affectionately.

Eva in a rare film clip, 1957

One could mistake her serene golden years for a life happily lived, but, in reality, that facade belied its true churning turbulence.

Eva's childhood was fraught. She lost her first husband. She outlived her daughter and raised her granddaughter as her own child. She lived in poverty with an alcoholic husband and outlived him. Then, the final injury, she lived through the sudden death of her son - her last living child.

Indeed, Eva lived a life of tumult and trauma.

Perhaps that's why she refused to ever discuss the past with Beverly. Forgetting was a coping mechanism. Forgetting allowed Eva to move beyond the incessant heartaches and survive in a world that had dealt her an exceedingly heavy hand.


  1. So much sadness in one life. And how noble she was to adopt your grandmother. How old was she (Eva) at that point? You must have great stories from your grandmother.

    1. Eva was 45 when her daughter died and then adopted her granddaughter.

      Unfortunately, my grandmother wasn't much of a storyteller. Once when I pushed her to share something - anything - about the past, she told me that Eva herself was adamant about no strolls down memory lane. With all that sadness, I can understand why Eva wouldn't want to look back.

  2. I guess that is understandable. But still---what a shame.