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Much Ado About Vernon

Schools were closed yesterday (and are on a two-hour delay today) because of a snowstorm, so I haven’t had a chance to do much work on Emmett’s book.

However, I found something interesting in the microfilm, and from where I sit, 108 years apart from this incident, I think it was all (mostly) much ado about nothing for one poor guy named Vernon Hinson. Amazing that it made the papers, but it must have been a slow news day in Mobile.

Here’s the story:

The headline got my attention. Source: The Pensacola Journal, January 1907.

The headline got my attention. Source: The Pensacola Journal, January 1907.

This story got in the paper because a Mobile News-Item reporter was hanging out at the police station (reading the arrest records, asking his police friends on the beat what was going on that day). Good old fashioned beat reporting.

The unnamed reporter of this story gleaned most of his information about the Florida girl, Ruth Lane, directly from the source. The article mentions right away she talks to the reporter ‘in her innocent way,’ giving the impression that she probably had fallen off the turnip truck (as my grandmother would have said) somewhere between Mobile and Lake, Mississippi — which is entirely possible. Small town girl comes to the big city seeking fame, fortune, yada, yada.

At least she got fame with her name in the paper (a very big deal back then). Who was Ruth Lane?

Unfortunately, I was unable to find anything else out about Ruth Lane, and her father, Godfrey Lane from my usual sources, which I think a bit unusual. A sawmill and steamboat operator meant successful businessman — so I find it odd that I found nothing on Godfrey, but then, the reporter may have gotten the man’s name incorrect. Also, because the reporter relied only on Ruth for family information, she may have provided incorrect details.

Enter Vernon Hinson:

The saga of Ruth Lane continues...

The saga of Ruth Lane continues…

Oh dear. The ingenue Ruth Lane follows Vernon Hinson into the telephone company building, and ensconces her into…a phone booth? Most likely, it was an office where there were a lot of other people around. The phone company was a busy place.

The ‘Young Man From the Railroad’, who brought Ruth Lane into the city and took her to the Windsor Hotel is not named. THAT is the one I’d want to talk to if I were the reporter. He’s the one who started this mess, in my view. Strike one for that Guilded Age Reporter.

So, next question: Who was Vernon Hinson?

John Vernon Hinson was born in 1885 in Mobile, Alabama, so Vernon was 22 years old when this article — and Ruth Lane — made him a minor local celebrity for a day or month or so. As I read this, it occurred to me that Vernon was not someone who was in charge of the Bell Telephone Company in Mobile at the time, and likely, he was a lower-level manager. Vernon was on the thin side, medium build, with blue eyes and brown hair; a good-looking local swain back in the day who still lived at home with his mother.

Back to the story:

So, where is Hinson's rebuttal? Nowhere. This is Ruth Lane's 15 minutes of fame.

So, where is Vernon’s rebuttal? Nowhere.

We know that all it takes is a second for something to go wrong, or a life to change, but it seems odd that Vernon would chance a good job or his reputation with his colleagues in bringing someone into a office building to ‘take liberties with her’ in a matter of a few minutes. I know it happens (and can happen), but if I were that reporter, I’d have questioned Vernon or at least others present to get the rest of the story.  Also, why would Vernon bring the police in himself to help Ruth Lane if he were trying to seduce Ruth right there in the office?

Strike two for the Guilded Age Reporter — and a big strike against Vernon Hinson, unfortunately. From where I sit, it seems to me that he was trying to help Ruth Lane, a complete stranger, but she got frightened, realized last minute that she probably shouldn’t have asked unknown young men to help her (as it looked bad), and turned on Hinson, who was just trying to help.

Operators at the time this story came out were mostly women anyway. Vernon wouldn't have worked at the switchboard. Image source:

Operators at the time this story came out were mostly women anyway. Vernon wouldn’t have worked at the switchboard. Image source:

I know that time and a deadline to get the paper out were factors here, but so was the reputation of poor old Vernon. If readers didn’t look closely at what was going on in the story, they would have only remembered Ruth’s name, Vernon’s name, and the headline — and jumped to a negative conclusion. I hope that didn’t happen. But I admit that when I first scanned the story, that was my reaction: I initially saw only the headline and the names of the parties involved, and thought Vernon was an operator — and not the kind you got when you dialed “O”.

We still don’t know what became of Ruth Lane. What happened to her once she got to the Settlement House? Did she ever hook back up with her original friend, Young Man From the Railroad? Also, did Vernon get a reprimand from his supervisor? We know he didn’t make a career at the telephone company. I wonder how long he lasted there after this article came out. Clearly, I believe Vernon was trying to be helpful, and his kindness perhaps was misconstrued by Ruth as something else. That can happen too, you know, especially if you are young, inexperienced, and newly fallen off of a turnip truck (as she seems to have been).

While we don’t know what happened to Ruth or Vernon after this event, but we do know some of what happened to Vernon later.

John Vernon Hinson, WWI draft cards. Source:

John Vernon Hinson, WWI draft cards. Source:

In the 1910 census, Vernon was listed as a partner in a restaurant, and living with that business partner, too (perhaps over the restaurant?). According to his draft card in 1918, Vernon was an electrician. The 1920 census indicated he was still an electrician, and living back at home with his parents.

Vernon died July 26, 1928, and was buried in Tuscaloosa rather than Mobile, where his family was located. He was unmarried, age 43, and an electrician. The inscription on his tombstone says, “Rest in peace, God’s will be done.” This makes me think he perhaps died in an accident on the job.

John Vernon Hinson. Death by accident? Image Source:

John Vernon Hinson. Death by accident? Image Source:

When I come across the obituary (which would likely be in the Tuscaloosa and/or Mobile papers), I’ll provide more information on what happened to him at the end.

I’ll be back on track with Emmett’s work as the week progresses.

Have a good week!

Categories: Florida History Interesting & Odd

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Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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