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Mr. Widby was absentminded, but a solid community citizen of Hannibal, Mo., and Pike County, Ill.

John M. Widby walked four blocks in the snow in 1894, in order to have lunch with his wife. He jiggled the door only to find it locked. It was then that he remembered that she had gone home to Barry, Ill., for a visit with her family. The remodeled or rebuilt house, at 613-615 Center, is now the home of Steve and Lynne Ayers. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY


Mr. Widby. John M. Widby, to be precise.

The son of Mathias and Elizabeth Yancey Widby, who were among the most prominent of folks in Pike County, Ill., John M. Widby earned a respected standing on his own during his lifetime, which spanned from 1850 to 1897. An early educator and later a key business manager and salesman, no statue was to be erected in central park to celebrate his accomplishments, yet his interactions with his fellow citizens led to his legacy as a fine man, and a bright and dedicated – yet sometimes absent minded – neighbor and friend.


John M. Widby and Emma Jane Sellers were united in marriage in 1873 in Adams County, Ill.

A year later, John Widby was listed in the Barry Adage newspaper as among the Pike County, Ill., students who were attending the Normal School for teachers.

In March 1876, he was principal of the Select School at Kinderhook, Ill., and Miss Mattie Terry was teaching the primary department.

The following September, the staff was announced for the opening of the school year at Barry, Ill.:

J.F. Clark, principal, room 7; Miss Maggie Benbrook, asst. room 7; Mr. William Smith, Room 6; Mr. John Widby, Room 5; Miss Emma Bentley, Room 4; Miss Helen Bonnel, Room 4; Miss Melissa Hewitt, room 3; and Miss Mary Poling, Room 1.

That same month John and Emma Widby became homeowners, purchasing the house and lot in Barry, Ill., previously owned by Walter Scott.

At Barry, Ill., Mr. Widby taught in the high school.

The Feb. 3, 1877 edition of the Barry Adage carried the recount of an encounter that included Mr. Widby’s participation.

“It was suddenly announced, on Friday afternoon, that John Nickison, a little wagon maker of this place, … had been up to the house of John Widby, one of the teachers in the high school, to administrator condign punishment upon the pedagogue for an alleged ill-treatment of one of Mr. Nickison’s children at school.”

The newspaper reported: “It appears that Mr. Nickison has two children attending school, one under the supervision of Miss Bently, and the other under Mr. Widby. Miss Bently had occasion to correct the little boy, and the sister told Miss Bently that she had wrongfully accused her brother – in plain English that she lied. The young lady told some of her school mates in the presence of Mr. Widby, what she had told Miss Bently. Mr. Widby, however, took no action in the matter until the principal of the school, Mr. Clark, came to his room, and in the presence of his scholars informed Mr. Clark, that the young Miss in question should remain half an hour after school every night until she apologized to Miss Bently. The first installment of the sentence was carried out on Thursday night.”

At the noon hour the following day, Mr. Nickison made his way to Mr. Widby’s residence, where the school teacher was partaking in his lunch.

Mr. Widby’s grandmother, Mrs. Yancey, answered the door, and witnessed the confrontation between the two men, the newspaper reported.

“Mr. Widby, who was eating dinner at the time, was duly informed that a gentleman at the door wished to see him, and at once repaired to the place to meet the infuriated little man, who at once informed him that he had come to kick him about the person usually hit when a man intends to do a right good job of kicking. Mr. Widby informed the waspish little hewer of wood that he was using language unbecoming a gentleman, in the presence of ladies – to control himself, and reason the matter, and he would soon convince him that he (Mr. Widby) was perfectly justifiable in the course he had pursued.”

Mr. Nickison continued using the same language as before. “Patience ceased to be a virtue with Mr. Widby, so he slapped the wagon maker in the face with the flat of his hand, turned him around facing the gate and the toe of his boot assisted him out of the yard into the street. As the little man hobbled away he informed Mr. Widby that his school teaching was all over now and that he was going up to serve Mr. Clark in the same manner he came to serve Mr. Widby.”

Mr. Widby’s teaching career in Pike County, Ill., continued until at least 1880. In 1885, John M. Widby and his wife were living in Hannibal, where he was working as a salesman for Collins Bros. and Company, 120 N. Main St.


Pike County, Ill., native John M. Widby’s face was a familiar one in Hannibal beginning in 1885. During that era, Widby was a popular and successful clothing store clerk at three major Hannibal stores, first at Collins Bros. & Co., then at Williams & Co., and finally at Joseph Lesem’s clothing store.

He and his wife, Emma Jane Sellers Widby, lived at 613 Center Street in 1894, at which time Mr. Widby’s absent mindededness caught the attention of a Courier-Post reporter. The subsequent story was later reprinted in the Feb. 15, 1894 Quincy Daily Herald.

It was winter, the newspaper reported, and there was considerable snow on the ground. Widby had spent his morning marking a big invoice of new goods at the store at the Lesem store, located on the southwest corner of Center and Main in downtown Hannibal. At lunchtime – as a matter of habit – he walked to his house for his noon meal.

Lo and behold, he had forgotten that his wife had left that morning to visit friends and family in their native Pike County, Ill. In fact, he didn’t remember she was gone until he wiggled and jiggled the door at 613 Center St., and found it locked.

Begrudgingly, he walked back downtown along Center Street, at which time he encountered the newspaper reporter.

“I wish you would kick me all over this park for my absent mindedness! Here I have spludged through the snow for at least a half mile, just because I had forgotten that my wife had gone to Barry!”

“The reporter gave him one hard kick and then left him.”


By the spring of 1896, John M. and Emma Widby had moved back to their hometown of Barry, Ill., where Mr. Widby had taken a job as manager of the Bowles and Traynor’s clothing store.

He had spent the day in Hannibal, and returned to Barry in the evening. Because the day was warm, he had left the transom over the front door open to facilitate air flow. Before retiring for the evening, he attempted to close the transom. Instead, it broke and fell with a crash.

The Quincy Morning Whig reported on March 1, 1896: “The broken glass struck Mr. Widby on the face and lacerated his cheek and throat in a horrible manner. Nearly all the flesh of one cheek was torn off and his neck and throat cut in such a manner that the jugular vein was exposed. One side of his mustache was entirely cut off by the falling glass. A surgeon and physician was immediately called and dressed the wounds, but the blood flowed so freely that it became necessary to cut the stitches and redress the wounds. The probabilities are that Mr. Widby will be disfigured for life.”

While his wounds were not immediately fatal, they served as a precursor for an early death.

He died June 17, 1897, at the age of 47. He was buried at Barry, Ill.

Notes of interest:

While in Hannibal, Mr. and Mrs. Widby lived at 613 Center, where the current home of Steve and Lynne Ayers now stands.

In 1894, while still living in Hannibal, Mr. Widby was one of the selected jurors for Dorcas Hampton’s challenge of her father’s will, “The Notorious Madam Shaw,” by Mary Lou Montgomery.

Source: A sampling of newspaper clippings from the Barry Adage newspaper during the 1870s, is contained in “Newspaper Archives Related to New Philadelphia,” Ill.

John M. Widby worked at the Lesem store, located on the southwest corner of Center and Main in downtown Hannibal, in 1894. Forgetting that his wife was visiting family in Barry, Ill., he left the store at lunchtime and walked four blocks in the snow, only to discover that his house was locked upon his arrival. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

This picture of snow swirling in Central Park may have been reminiscent of the scene in February 1894, when John M. Widby walked home for lunch. He remembered, after he arrived at his front door, that his wife had left for a visit to their mutual hometown of Barry, Ill. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

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