July 7, 1996

The Emily Project

By Wilson Ring, Associated Press writer

(Reprinted with the permission of the Associated Press)

"Friday, October 28 -- Cold: Helped mother with the house work. Then in the afternoon went up to Bern's and on up to Evelyn's cross-lots. Then she and I rode up to Gassetts and out to town -- farm. Got caught in shower coming home. Mother and Dad went up to Proctorsville -- Lodge doings. Earl and Ethel and Winnifred came in for few minutes. Ernest Manley and Nat and I went out to Springfield to the movies. Saw Norma Shearer in 'Smiling Through.' I thought it was very, very good. Natalie cross and ugly all evening."

In 1932, the 24-year-old Emily could have been any one of thousands of young, New England women, self-conscious about her looks and her prospects for love. She voted for Herbert Hoover, was an avid reader, and probably worked as a nurse or in some other kind of health care.

She had family in the Chester-Ludlow, Vt., area, but she lived and worked in the Springfield, Mass., area, too.

And chances are her name wasn't Emily.

The clues about Emily's life are contained in a diary passed down through the years until it was sold last fall at a flea market in Waterbury, Vt. There is no name identifying the author.

A Toronto woman bought the 4-inch-by-6-inch "Daily Reminder" and took it home. After reading the entries she wanted to know who the author was.

"It's like maddeningly vague. There is no hint of who she is. There is nothing but the entries," said Amy Singer. "It's so close, we know (the identity) is there."

She turned to the world for help. Ms. Singer dubbed the author Emily, after her favorite cat, and posted the entries on the World Wide Web.

The page, "The Emily Project," has attracted about 10,000 Net browsers from around the world. About 30 have interpreted the clues and offered hints at Emily's identity.

Elementary-school teachers across North America have used the page as a class project, genealogists have taken an interest, and the curious from as far away as England have e-mailed in their thoughts.

The web page has won numerous awards from different Internet organizations. It was so popular it attracted the attention of the state of Vermont, which links the The Emily Project to the state's Web page, making it easily accessible to anyone looking for information about Vermont.

Ms. Singer and her husband are computer aficionados and self-described "New England freaks." They found the diary at a flea market at the edge of Waterbury last Sept. 30.

"Inside, there's a page allotted for each day and some of them are written upon in quirky, irregular script. For 80 cents we took it away with us and began to read," said the introduction to The Emily Project, written by Ms. Singer and posted on the World Wide Web. "As we did, we found ourselves wondering more about this young woman. And by the time we got to her entry for March 6th, she had become real to us. For the purposes of this project, we decided to call her Emily."

The entries themselves are mostly mundane tidbits of daily life:

"Sunday, January 23 -- rain: Worked all day. Read at noon and ate my lunch. Went with Mrs. Tucker and Miss Hatch to see Cassile's Engagements -- a 4 act comedy put on by the Women's Club at the Masonic Temple. Had a 1/2 grapefruit before going to bed."

A few offer poignant insights into the mind of a young, single woman coming of age in the depths of the Depression:

"Sunday, March 6: Slept, ate, read all morning. After lunch read till I went with Mrs. Smith to passion song at South Church. Then home in rain. Supper, tennis, wrote letter to Mater. Did a few records and lo, it's now 11:30. Don't know why but I'm in a blue mood. Life's so funny. I'm tired all the time. Can't seem to find the zest I need for my works. I don't dislike my job. Still I want more fun. Fact is, I want a boy friend. One to take me to the movies and dances. To love me and cherish me with gentle care. Why can't I have it? I'm not so hateful to look at, though no beauty. I'm not a fool if I do act it."

Ms. Singer had concerns about publishing such intimate thoughts, even though anonymous.

"What if she finds out? She's probably not with us," she said from Toronto. "There is really nothing there questionable."

While the diary is intermittent and doesn't have the author's name, it does offer clues. There are references to Vermont towns, like Chester, Springfield, Ludlow, and the hamlets of Gassetts and Proctorsville.

"Saturday, October 29 -- pleasant: Well, I'm 24 years old today. How fast the years do go by. How I wish they didn't. One dreads becoming old. Helped Mater with the housework. Then after dinner Dad saddle and I rode the horse to Springfield. About 10 miles or so. Then home. In the evening Ethel and Earl and Winnifred came by. Brought me a box of chocolates. Mother and Dad gave me silk stockings. Had cider and apples. Read for a while after going to bed."

There are also obvious references to Springfield, Mass., and her work in health care.

"Wednesday, November 2 -- Pleasant, cool: Walked to work. Miss Mole went into Wesson Hospital to have an operation for appendix in am so Miss Crofts is back in Olivet and I am supposed to have charge in the orchard. Worked all am. Then had clinic this pm. About 40 babies there, 2 visitors from the staff. Miss Durwood drove me in, but I had to take the car over to the garage. Don't know. May play cards tonight."

And there are references to the world around her.

"Tuesday, November 8 -- cold: Worked all day. Then after work walked down from garage. Stopped at Commercial High School and cast my first vote for Pres. Hoover."

Ms. Singer posted some of the e-mail responses she got from readers. Most responses were posted without identifying the sender.

"Gassetts: October 28 entry 'Gassetts' is correct. It is a small village at intersection of Rte 10 and 103 in Chester. Is on the main road from Springfield to Ludlow."

Ms. Singer did identify one contributor:

"Our youngest contributor. December 24th's entry was written by Andrew Park. He's in the 3rd grade at Harding Academy in Memphis, TN!

"Cross-lots: 'Cross-lots' refers to a method of traversing property in the shortest manner rather than the use of streets."

For Ms. Singer, the search is as important as the eventual solution.

"I just don't want to solve it too fast," she said. "It takes away the mystery of this."

July 8, 1996

The Emily Project solved

"Emily" was Irma Rowe, long-time Vermont public health nurse

By Wilson Ring, Associated Press writer

(Reprinted with the permission of the Associated Press)

For almost a year, Internet browsers from across the world have been trying to learn the identity of a 1932 diary writer known to the world as "Emily."

The mystery is solved.

"Emily" died Dec. 15 in a Ludlow, Vt., nursing home, just as the search for her identity got under way.

Her name was Irma Rowe and until shortly before her death she lived in a stone house on the main street of Chester, Vt.

The most revealing clue to the diary writer's identity is the Oct. 29 entry:

"Saturday, October 29 -- pleasant: Well, I'm 24 years old today. How fast the years do go by. How I wish they didn't. One dreads becoming old. Helped Mater with the housework. Then after dinner Dad saddle and I rode the horse to Springfield. About 10 miles or so. Then home. In the evening Ethel and Earl and Winnifred came by. Brought me a box of chocolates. Mother and Dad gave me silk stockings. Had cider and apples. Read for a while after going to bed."

That entry coupled with the place names from the Chester, Springfield, Ludlow area of Vermont gave a needed hint as to where she was born.

A series of telephone calls and trips around the state by The Associated Press put together the puzzle.

Chester Town Clerk Sandy Walker found that a girl was born Oct. 29, 1908, to Edith Jane Earl and Ernest Gilman Horton. Her name was Irma.

The state archives in Middlesex found a 1954 punch-card marriage certificate that bore the names Irma Horton and Edward Rowe. The 45-year-old Irma Horton married Edward Rowe on June 27 in Chester.

A second call to Ms. Walker with the name Irma Rowe elicited an excited, "Oh, that's who she was."

Many people in Chester remember Irma as a nurse. But it wasn't until the diary was shown to a nephew, Paul Horton of Rutland, Vt., that the last hints of mystery disappeared.

"That's her," Mr. Horton said after reading the diary entries. He was referred to in the Feb. 20 entry as, "The cutest fellow. Just 6 months now."

Andrew Ojanen, a trustee of the Chester Historical Society, has a photo from the Chester High School Class of 1926. The demure, shy-looking girl at the right of the photo is Irma, one of a class of 16.

Irma's niece Winnifred Horton Longe, now 71, and sister-in-law Ethel Horton, 93, still live across Vermont Route 11 from the well-kept stone house where Irma and her husband lived. After his Nov. 13, 1993 death, she remained there until she moved to the nursing home.

Winnifred and Ethel, along with Ethel's late husband, Earl, were referred to throughout the 1932 diary.

"She would have just loved this," Ms. Longe said of how Irma would have felt about the worldwide search undertaken by "The Emily Project." She spoke in front of her Chester home, where she now lives with her mother.

Last September, Amy Singer of Toronto paid 80 cents for the "Daily Reminder" from 1932 that contained Irma's thoughts but not her name. Intrigued by the entries and wanting to learn who the author was, Ms. Singer typed the entries into a computer, posted them on the World Wide Web, and asked the world for help in learning the identity of the woman she dubbed "Emily."

"She was small, very petite," Paul Horton said of his Aunt Irma. "She was probably four-eleven."

People remember her as outgoing, with a quick smile. The diary offers plenty of evidence of her love of books, but she also loved to sew and loved the outdoors, Mr. Horton said.

"She loved to walk," Ms. Longe said.

Irma was an amateur historian and an activist with the Daughters of the American Revolution. At some point in her life she suffered from tuberculosis, which might explain the single, cryptic entry that speaks of Irma being admitted to the hospital. And it could also explain why Irma slept so much.

"Tuesday, May 10: I got up when the girls went off to work but read etc. Worked on my red pajamas. Ate lunch with Winnie. Then she walked down with me to where we got a taxi and I went on over to the hospital about 3:30. Was admitted to A2, room 2."

But there was never any further explanation, no mention of why she was in the hospital or if she had recovered.

"It was interesting reading it for myself," Paul Horton said after reading Irma's diary. "My grandfather and grandmother kept journals. I think a lot of people in the older times kept them."

Neither Mr. Horton nor Ms. Longe knew why Irma waited until so late in life to marry. She had boyfriends over the years. Perhaps it was because she had to care for her aging parents, Mr. Horton said.

He said his aunt graduated from the Peter Bent Brigham School of Nursing in Boston. He didn't know when.

A call to the Brigham and Woman's Hospital in Boston, the descendent of the older school, found her listed as a 1930 graduate.

Relatives remember that Irma worked in the Springfield area, as mentioned in the diary, but she also worked in the Old Lyme, Conn., and the Albany, N.Y., areas before returning for good to her native Chester.

Neither Paul Horton nor Ms. Longe knew how Irma's diary ended up at the Waterbury, Vt., flea market where Ms. Singer bought it.

"The only thing I can think of is, a year, year-and-a-half ago when she was in the nursing home we sold the house and the contents," Mr. Horton said. "There was an awful lot of stuff that was there."

Doris Hastings is a public health nurse from Chester who retired in June after 28 years. She worked with Irma Rowe for a year in the late 1960s up until Ms. Rowe retired.

Irma would have spent her years helping new mothers, running tuberculosis clinics, and shampooing children's heads for lice, Ms. Hastings said.

And Ms. Hastings -- who is almost as short as Irma was -- still has a stool Irma gave her.

"Because Irma was so short, Ed made her a footstool. She always had it under her desk to keep her feet on. When she retired she gave it to me," Ms. Hastings said. When Ms. Hastings retired last month, she brought the stool home with her.

Meanwhile, Ms. Singer said that on one level she was disappointed to have the mystery of "Emily" solved. On another, she's glad to learn who wrote the diary.

"I felt like I knew her. She affects people," Ms. Singer said.

"Everybody has the exact same concerns. It's so completely universal and timeless," she said. "That's one of the reasons I had to find out who she was."

And what is she going to do now that the search for Emily's identity is over?

"I'll find another diary and start a new one."

August 11, 1996

Mystery Diary Provides
Distant Mirror on Web Site


For about nine months, the 1932 diary of a young, unknown New England woman has delighted and intrigued Internet readers who stumbled across her journal on a Web site called The Emily Project.

Through reading her simple chronicle of daily life over half a century ago, they learned of a woman who referred to her mother by the old-fashioned endearment "Mater," who took pride in her sewing, who enjoyed listening to Eddie Cantor on the radio and watching Norma Shearer on the big screen.

With proper Yankee stoicism, she filled her diary with accounts of her actions, not her feelings. But every now and then, she would reveal a very human emotion, a sentiment capable of reaching across the decades from the golden age of the talkie to the salad days of the Internet. "Don't know why but I'm in a blue mood," she wrote on March 6. "Life's so funny. I'm tired all the time."

Thousands of readers have wondered about the true identity of this woman, dubbed "Emily" by the woman who found the diary.

Last month, a reporter for The Associated Press, looking for a feature to write on a slow week, solved the mystery. "Emily," he discovered after a calling around to town clerks' offices and other sources, was Irma Horton Rowe, a public health nurse and nursing supervisor. She died last December at the age of 87, never imagining that the journal she had kept during the same year she voted to keep Herbert Hoover in the White House had been posted two months earlier on something called the World Wide Web.

The site was the creation of Amy Singer, a Toronto-based freelance Web designer who happens to like flea markets. Last fall, on a leaf-peeping visit to Vermont, she stopped at one. "There were 400 pounds of Tupperware and jumper cables," she recalled. "And a diary. Not just a diary. Someone had written in it."

As she and her husband rode through the countryside, Singer read aloud from the journal, bound in black leather and inscribed on the front with the words "Daily Reminder" in gold. "It was charming and sweet," Singer says. "And then we got to that March 6 entry. Here it was 60 years ago, and she was expressing the same basic feelings we have today. I read that and felt connected to her."

She was also frustrated that the diarist's name was no place to be found in the journal.

Without waiting to unpack from her trip, Singer sat down at her computer and set out to create a Web site built around the daily reminder. Naming the anonymous diarist "Emily" -- after her favorite cat -- Singer decided to use the Web site to give people a slice of life from another era and the chance to help her solve the mystery of "Emily's" identity. Readers were invited not only to read Emily's entries, but to submit fitting ones of their own from the dates that she had missed.

The site drew tremendous interest. It has recorded about 10,000 visits and has received praise from numerous Web publications. Vermonters have joined schoolchildren as well as adult readers from as far away as England in visiting the site and trying to solve the mystery.

The Emily Project has also stirred the imaginations of about 40 people who have submitted diary entries of their own or contributed information that fleshes out the diary. "'Burnham's was a woman's clothing store and Forbes & Wallace, a large department store," one reader wrote anonymously, explaining that these names in "Emily's" Jan. 13 entry must have referred to two Springfield, Mass., retailers.

The fictional entries -- which are clearly distinguished from the authentic entries on the Web site -- were chosen based on their feel for the time and tone of the diary. A Vermont reader well familiar with the state's "mud season" -- the period of the winter thaw -- contributed this April 30 entry: "Spring seems late this year. Rain off and on for two weeks now. With the muddy roads, it's been hard to do the rounds. Saw first coltsfoot blooming today."

Among the readers of the diary was Wilson A. Ring, a Montpelier, Vt.,-based Associated Press reporter, who learned about the site in late spring, when he wrote an article on Vermont's state Web master. "I stored The Emily Project away as a story to do on a slow week when I was looking to do a weekend feature," Ring said.

Ring used clues from the diary to help him. "Emily's" birthday entry -- "Well, I'm 24 years old today. How fast the years do go by. How I wish they didn't" -- was key. Armed with the date of birth, he began calling town clerks' offices in southern Vermont, choosing towns that were mentioned in passing in the journal.

His second call brought him to the Sandra K. Walker, Chester town clerk, who culled through records and found only one birth recorded on Oct. 29, 1908 -- a girl, Irma Rowe.

A visit to the state records office yielded a marriage certificate -- and her married name, Horton. Calls to relatives confirmed that the diary must have been hers.

One of those relatives, Winifred M. Longe, still lives in Chester, not far from the stone house where her aunt spent her early and her last years. Longe is not sure how Irma would have reacted to the idea of her diary being published. "She might think people were nosing into her business," Longe says. "But I also think the notoriety of it would please her."

For her part, Sandra Walker, the town clerk and keeper of municipal records going back to the 1760s, is hoping that the Web site, and solved mystery, will help kindle an interest in the past among Internet-attuned young people, many of whom regard history as the stuff of dusty, boring tomes. "We all have a history," Walker said. "And I think maybe The Emily Project will point out that it is important to document events, that some day people will care."

Even though the mystery has been solved, Singer intends to continue updating the Emily Project site. "I still want to find out who everybody mentioned in the diary is," she said. "I want to fill in the family tree and get more pictures. I'd also like to fill up the story. Maybe I can find a snippet of the Norma Shearer movie and put it up there."

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company

The Emily Project © 1995-2001 Marblehead Publishing Co.