It took special permission from the dean, as well as a bit of explaining, but in college two of us journalism majors finagled our way into a Criminal Investigation class reserved exclusively for criminal justice students. Well before CSI became a prime-time sensation, we studied everything from fingerprints to gunpowder stippling. It’s not just any class that the instructor tosses blood on your desk and tells you to examine the splatters.

I enrolled in that course in preparation for a career as a crime-beat reporter. It was a short-lived dream, and the alarm clock of reality jolted me awake in the middle of the antiques industry. Yet the two instructors of CJ-354, detectives from the Evansville Police Department, hadn’t wasted their time. I’m still following their lessons, even though I now write about antiques rather than grisly murders.

Nonetheless, I’m continuing to discover stories told by the things people leave behind. Whether probing a suspicious death or scrutinizing a Civil War archive, you just need an idea of what to look for and then the patience to investigate.

The latest project involved an oil-on-board painting purchased at an auction of Indiana art conducted by Jacksons Auction & Real Estate Co. of Indianapolis. Even though noted artwork was displayed front and center, it was a landscape at the back of the room, where the lesser paintings were hung, that I kept returning to that day.

The work depicted an early park scene, with children sitting under trees and a split-rail fence in the background. Scrawled at an angle in red paint in the lower-left corner was a name and a date, “Mary T. Hadley. 1894-5.”

An 1890s painting by Mary T. Hadley.

A Google search on my smartphone turned up an art teacher by that name with ties to several Indiana towns. That bit of information was like finding fingerprints at a crime scene. I didn’t know what I had, but I knew it was worth following up. I bought the painting for $88 and took the body of evidence home to continue the investigation.

In a way, the identity of Mary T. Hadley was inconsequential. I liked the landscape even before I knew it had a connection to my home state. Since I’d been meaning to replace a piece of artwork in my office, Hadley’s painting came along at the right time.

Yet, this was also a reminder. The somewhat primitive scene was reminiscent of a 19th-century pencil drawing I underbid more than 10 years ago at a country auction. I stayed hours at the sale for that piece of folk art, and I should have pushed the price higher than I did before dropping out. I regret not having bought the drawing. Even though I knew nothing about the work, it had the right look.

So it was with the Hadley painting. The look was more important than the name. Then again, the name might put the painting in context.

Using online resources, I confirmed what I had previously learned on my smartphone. One bit of information eventually led me to another. In the end, I was able to piece together bits of Mary Hadley’s life.

A 1914 account from The History of Hendricks County (Indiana) included a biography of the Harvey family. George Harvey, a native of Parke County, Indiana, was a married farmer with three young children when he chose to fight in the Civil War, enlisting with the 31st Indiana Volunteer Infantry.

Mustering in as a captain, he saw action in Tennessee in 1862 — at Fort Henry on Feb. 6; Fort Donelson on Feb. 11-16; and Shiloh, where he was killed on April 6, the first day of battle.

One of the children left behind would grow up to be an art teacher. Mary T. Harvey was born in March 1859. In 1886 she married Otis Clay Hadley, a native of Danville, Ind., who started his higher education at Wabash College before transferring to Yale College (now Yale University), where he graduated in 1879. The couple moved to Kansas City, Mo., where George died of typhoid fever at his home in 1892, cutting short a successful business career. At the time of his death, he was vice president and treasurer of the Kansas City Omnibus and Carriage Company, president of the Atlas Carriage Works, and vice president of the Springfield, Yellville and White River Railroad in northern Arkansas, according to A History of the Class of Seventy-Nine.

Mary, who was childless, moved back to Indiana, where she busied herself in the classroom. A 1906 issue of The Educator-Journal noted, “Mrs. Mary T. Hadley lectured before the Parke County Teachers’ Association, Dec. 1st and 2d. on art. Her lectures were much complimented by everybody there. She has taught drawing and art in the college here for a long time, and during the last two years has given much attention to drawing for the public schools. That work she will present during the spring and summer terms for the students that may desire it.”

The History of Hendricks County added, “… Mrs. Mary T. Hadley, the widow of Otis C. Hadley, who is now a teacher of art in the public schools of Lebanon, Indiana. For a number of years she was at the head of the art department in the Danville schools, and also the Central Normal College. She teaches for the love of art and cares nothing for the financial side of the profession.”

In 1918 Mary married David Strouse. It was the second marriage for each. He died 10 years later, in 1928. Mary died in April 1951 and is buried at the Rockville Cemetery in Parke County.

Unlisted as an artist, she remains virtually unknown today. Yet, her painting of a park setting with figures, executed in her mid 30s, has a certain charm. And, I must admit, it fits in well in my office.

This story of Mary T. Hadley isn’t a solved case. There are obituaries I have yet to access, and more to be learned. But a few hours of detective work uncovered enough information to provide a glimpse of the person behind the signature.

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