Jessie Billings Stewart

12 April 1879 – 27 October 1925

This is such an unusual little headstone, with just the name and then this little metal handle with her etiquette-book married name inscribed on it. I have no idea of the significance of the handle, if any, but it struck me as quite curious and interesting.

Jessie was the youngest of eight children born to an Iowa farmer and his wife, both originally from New England and their people having been in the US for at least a couple of generations.

At some point before 1900, her father died, and she, her mother, and her nearest older sister Maude moved to Chicago. The lack of the 1890 census leaves this transition period largely a mystery, but Maude married in 1897 and in 1900, Jessie and her mother were living with Maude and her new family, and Jessie is working as a clerk.

One presumes it was in the context of her working life that she met her future husband, Alexander Heron Stewart who was himself working as a tailor in downtown Chicago.

Alex was born in Scotland, the oldest of five children, and the third generation (at least) of tailors in his family. In the mid-1880s, his whole family including, it seems, his grandfather, emigrated from Scotland and settled in Chicago, opening a merchant tailor shop at 30 N. Michigan Av. which seems to have afforded them an excellent living.

In 1902, Jessie and Alex married. Alex was a purebred dog enthusiast and a very prominent figure in the Chicago scene. I found several articles documenting his participation in various shows with various breeds of dogs as well as his work as a show judge and as president of the Chicago Kennel Club over many years. An English Bulldog named Strathway Prince Albert seems to have been a real standout, winning the show in 1913 and taking sixteen prizes. The dog was such a champion, Alex was offered thousands for it on the spot by more than one other show dog breeder. All offers were refused.

There is very little information about Jessie, however, and it isn’t clear if she was also a participant in the dog-show world. The couple lived very well and had a house in Highland Park near Lake Michigan (though the street doesn’t seem to exist anymore at least by the same name). They also had servants and traveled abroad on a few occasions, seeming to enjoy a peripatetic Jazz Age lifestyle.

Tragically, that all came to an end in October of 1925 when Jessie took her own life, her actions only discovered when Tiny, her dog whom she’d left behind on the snowy shore, refused to leave his spot as he waited for her return. Alex told authorities his wife had been unwell for many months and he “accepted the belief that she had jumped into the lake.” (Belvidere Daily Republican, 28 October 1925, page 1)

Alex remarried and lived on at the same house for many more years and continued to participate in the dog-breeding and showing world. His second wife is almost impossible to trace, but she either passed away or they divorced between 1942 and 1948 for he married a third time in 1948, and it is this wife who is mentioned in his very brief obituary in 1950. I was surprised not to find more of a write-up about his prominent dog-show past, though perhaps such things weren’t of as much interest in the post-WWII world.

Though I couldn’t find a death record, from the timing of the obituary, it seems Alex died almost 25 years to the day after Jessie. He is buried at Rosehill.

RIP Jessie, Alex, and little Tiny who died after alerting authorities to his mistress’s sad fate.

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