Brilliance and Dark Descent: Lulu Younkin and Her Daughter Belle, 3 Decades Apart

Lulu (Younkin) Anderson
Special Collections, San Diego Public Library

Even now, 120 years later, the story reverberates with heartache and suffering.

Lulu Younkin, educated at the University of Iowa and a teacher in the Iowa City schools, arrived in San Diego in at the age of 28, in 1887.

The daughter of attorney Archibald Campbell Younkin — niece of Dr. Edwin Younkin, renowned chair of surgery at the American Medical College — and granddaughter of Dr. Jonas Younkin, an influential country doctor and preacher who helped establish the Disciples of Christ movement in Somerset County, PA, her future bristled with vibrancy and promise.

Lulu’s catalogue

Within a short time, she was named Librarian of the San Diego Public Library, at a monthly salary of $70. One of Lulu’s first accomplishments was to organize the 7,800-book collection by the Dewey Decimal system and produce the first printed reference catalog, published in 1889. In the 212 page document, she reported that the library had “grown to a leading position among the public libraries of the State, being now second only to that of San Francisco. The institution is now an honor to the public spirit, taste and culture of San Diego.”

Fate began to intervene in the fall 1895, on an extended visit in Denver, when Lulu met an old friend from school days, Dr. Horace G. Anderson. To the great shock of her hundreds of relatives and friends, reported the Los Angeles Times, they decided to marry immediately. She resigned from her librarian position and relocated to Pitkin, Gunnison County, CO, a small mining town located 100 miles southwest of Denver, where Horace had a medical practice.

After a little more than two years of marriage, something went terribly, horribly wrong.

Lulu gave birth to a healthy baby daughter in October 1897 but apparently suffered a post-partum reaction. A story in the San Diego Union said she was afflicted with a “mental aberration” occurring “since the birth of her child a few weeks ago. [She] has been in a critical condition, resulting in her mind becoming unbalanced. Her many friends hope for her speedy recovery.” In reality, she had attempted suicide.

Lulu was admitted to what today is Patton State Hospital in Highlands, CA, where she succumbed at the age of 39 on April 25, 1898. Her grieving husband is believed to have not lived long as a widower, or abandoned the scene, but soon was gone from his baby girl’s life.

The infant, Belle Gilcrest Anderson, had been named in honor of a beloved friend and college classmate of her mother’s. Now motherless, the girl was taken into the Iowa City home of a loving uncle and aunt, Arthur and Loie (Thompson) Younkin, with an adoring uncle Edgar C. Younkin also in the household. Then in 1903, when Belle was age 5, she formally was adopted by her grandmother Mary Catherine (Jones) Younkin. A related story in the Iowa City Press-Citizen observed that “The mayor of Denver, Robert R. Wright, Jr., sanctions the adoption.”

Belle relocated into her grandmother’s home in San Diego. After high school graduation, she “showed promise of a brilliant career as a chemist,” reported the Oakland (CA) Tribune, and enrolled in the University of California. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1921 and a master’s degree in 1923, leading to an instructor’s position in the university’s department of bacteriology in Berkeley. Belle placed a very high degree of pressure on herself to perform and aimed to become a doctor of philosophy. Her ambitious drive led to a terrible mental or emotional collapse in December 1926, possibly also a suicide attempt.

Determined to earn a third degree, Belle relocated to San Francisco in early 1927. She secured a position as a research associate in chemistry as part of the Hooper Foundation of Affiliated Colleges. But when she took an oral examination for the Ph.D. degree, she failed to pass. Friends heard her say that “I’d rather be dead than a failure.” She confided to friends that “she was losing control of the brilliant mind which had brought eminence in her chosen profession,” said the Petaluma Argus-Courier, and that since her mother had committed suicide, she thought she was destined to the same end.

On the fateful day of May 19, 1927, Belle told co-workers that she was going to correct some test papers in an upstairs laboratory at the office. But instead, the 30-year-old mixed a lethal dose of poison and took a walk to a lonely spot on the Old Trocadero Road. Drinking the mixture, she died instantly, with her body discovered in an underbrush an hour later by a gardener. The tragedy was big news in the Tribune, which stated “In this manner she ended a brilliant career as a chemist,” and with her photograph illustrating the story.

In a newspaper column, Dr. Frank Crane of the McClure Newspaper Syndicate wrote that the death was “Another one of those ‘rashly importunate.’ Why hurry? Why not see what time will do? Time solves more problems than all our wit…. It is a long road that has no turning. Keep trudging along and surely some opportunity will come to you to get away from the hated routine.”

Belle’s death was not the last of the related tragedies.

Her adoring uncle Edgar Younkin, with whom she had lived in girlhood in Iowa City, and also having relocated to San Diego, must have thought Belle the bright light of his life as she grew into prominence.

But after receiving the profound shock in of Belle’s death, however, the darkness weighed on his mind for days which turned into weeks and then months, one sleepless night after another.

On the fateful day of Sept. 26, 1927, the 66-year-old Edgar went to work in his position as a night janitor at the First Trust and Savings Bank. All alone in the building in downtown San Diego, he shot himself in the head.

Final resting place of the ashes of mother and daughter,
Greenwood Memorial Park, San Diego.
Courtesy Lot Lzrd, Find-a-Grave

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