The story is well known in the family, and the retellings have been repeated with surprisingly fidelity. I first heard the tale from my great aunt Kittie, on the occasion of her brother Vin's 100th birthday. An audio tape of her story was made, but unfortunately does not survive.
The legend goes like this:
The family of Henry "Harry" Still, Margaret Leonice Needham Still and their daughter Cricket lived in Beloit, KS in the early 1880s. Cricket was an accomplished horsewoman, having won many races despite her youth.
It is said that Harry was a gambling man, and chanced to get into a poker game with a Canadian horseman named Jacobs. Harry's luck was poor, and he soon found himself out of money. Desperate to win back his losses, Harry made a bold wager: the hand of his daughter Cricket on the turn of a single hand of poker. Needless to say, Harry lost.
When told of the wager, Cricket is said to have honored her father's debt, and left town with Jacobs, headed east on the next train.
Harry was said to have gotten out of town, too, for when Mrs. Still found out she was furious. She grabbed a shotgun, and headed out after both Harry and Jacobs. She found Harry (but refrained from shooting him), but never caught up with Cricket and Jacobs.
The story gets even better when it is observed that in 1978 the thoroughbred "Affirmed" won the Triple Crown, and that "Affirmed" was owned and trained by a family named Jacobs! The listener is left to connect the dots.
A wonderful story, but like so many legends, it has only a tiny kernel of truth to it.
The True Story
The truth is a longer, more complicated story. It is now possible to reconstruct the story thanks to a well-preserved set of letters between Cricket, John W. Jacobs, and Cricket's aunt Carrie Needham. Carrie and her mother, Risa, were obviously held in high regard by both Cricket and John, who confided things to them that were obviously secret to all others. Carrie kept these letters, and I came to have them in 2004 through the generosity of Bob and Pat Needham, who had saved them from the family farm.
There is a list of the principal characters in this story at the end, with links to their genealogical data and the sources used to assemble this account.
Stillio, by his first wife Jane. Jane died in 1863, and Harry remarried to Margaret Leonice Needham in Onarga, IL in 1864.
John W. Jacobs (hereafter "John" or "JW") was (probably) born in Ontario in about 1833. He married to an unknown first wife around 1860, who bore him two children before (presumably) dying about 1865. John remarried to a woman named Mary (this may be Mary Hayes, who married a JW Jacobs in Sangamon county Illinois on 25 Dec 1871). They lived in Plano, IL, where Mary bore four children. The family moved to Nebraska in 1878, and then again to Beloit in 1884. JW was a very successful livestock trader, and an avid horseman.
It may be that Harry and JW met one another as business partners in Ohio and/or Illinois. The stationary used for many of their letters bear the letterheads of "Still's Crescent Cultivator", or "Jacobs Neck Yoke & Mfg. Co.", both of Tiffin, OH. Other stationary is from a hotel in Chicago, and there are references to business trips to Chicago. Both men had an inventive streak, and a gallery of patents awarded to Harry and JW, both singly and jointly, is now available.
The earliest documented association of the families is a short sports article from the "Atchison (KS) Globe" of 08 Feb 1882:
"Miss Cricket Still, of Beloit, left yesterday for New Orleans, where, on March 20th, she rides a twenty mile race against Miss Mamie Wheeler, a Canadian girl. She has eight horses in St. Louis, under the training of Mr. Jacobs, of Omaha. Cricket is in good trim, and weighs five pounds less than she did when the famous race at Bismarck was rode."
Cricket, born in May of 1866, would have been not quite 16 at this time. It would seem, however, that she had already caught John's eye in more than a purely professional way. JW writes from Lincoln to Carrie on 19 Mar 1883:
"I would be pleased to get transportation for your mother and for Cricket if the motive would not be misconstrued. Of course they would know that the passes came through me and would think that there was a collusion to get Cricket there that I might see her, or some construction of that kind, when I would cut my right hand off rather than place Cricket in a position she would receive censure from her folks.
"Much as I would like to see Cricket I can only see her by the approval of her parents. But it would be impossible to make Mr. Still think that was my position. I could get a pass for Mrs. Needham and one if you think there would be no misconstruction upon the part of Mr. Still."
He writes again on 08 Apr 1883 (the underscored "man" is in the original):
"Carrie I am just so mad for anything. My letters does not reach Mrs. Still, neither does Cricket get the children's. Nellie sent Cricket some pictures of the horses and Johnny sent her a picture of his calf. She will not get any of them. That man is making a fearful mistake which he will find out when it is too late."
Something is obviously afoot, and with historical hidsight we know that Harry has reason to quite properly construe JW's intentions as less than honorable.
Despite the 33 year difference in their ages, or that JW is a married man and the father of six children, four still at home, Cricket Still and John W. Jacobs were secretly wed, probably on 17 Dec 1885. JW had presumably obtained a divorce from his wife Mary prior to this, but no record of either the marriage or the divorce has yet been found. The evidence for both comes from the letters.
In a letter mailed from Beloit to Carrie and dated 21 Dec 1885, Cricket writes:
"Carrie I am so nervous I can't write. The little slip I put in you can read or not as you like - it is nothing but an old saying."
The said little slip reads:
"Happy is the bride the sun shines on. - Dec. 17th '85"
Only an actual wedding invitation could have been clearer to Carrie, who would have been perhaps the only other person to know all the details of what was going on. JW makes it even clearer in a letter from 12 Feb 1886, the most crucial of many telling letters he wrote that month:
"I know a man that has been married 2 months; has kissed his wife 11 times, 9 of them had their head jerked of his fear some person would see them. Well, I guess it is all right or will be soon."
It also seems that the everyone now fears the wrath not of Mr. Still, but of Mrs. Still, who may have been the last to know. JW writes from Beloit to Carrie on 10 Feb 1886:
"Have not given Cricket your letter yet. Shall probably go to Denver about the 10th of next month. Shall take Cricket with me. We will probably make you a visit before we go.
"I shall tell Mrs. Still myself before leaving. If she is going to abuse any person it shall be me. Cricket has had enough of it. Although I can hardly blame Mrs. Still from her standpoint.
"It seems cruel for to keep her thinking as she does when things are so different. I should have told her long ago had Cricket been willing but she dreaded her anger. I would give anything for a long talk with you."
Why has JW's concern shifted from Harry to Leonice? A hint may lie in this letter, reproduced in its entirely, from JW to Carrie on 11 Feb 1886:
"I am out of humor. Mr. Still was going today. I had given him money, got him transportation to Chicago with letters of introduction and recommendations from the RR Co to the partners he was expecting to go with.
"Well I guess he spent the most of the money today for something that did not do him or any other person any good and has postponed his trip until Monday, when I expect that he will want a hundred or so more money which he will continue to waste.
"I am tired. Things remain as they were and I expect will until I get really sharp when I shall take Cricket and go. I shall want you to keep five head of Jerseys and some horses. If I get things in shape will try and help you buy the land for Hawley.
"Well, Carrie, I am hot. Would give a horse to see you just one hour.
"Have not had a chance to talk to Cricket today. Gave her your letter. She read it. She said you was right; that was all she had a chance to say for her mother followed her out to where I was. Well, such is life. But there will be a change with a vengeance.
"Give regards to your mother. Write me a good long letter."
This is one of several letters in which JW makes veiled references to Harry being improvident with money. There's no proof that I've found, but this may be the origin of the legend's claim that Harry was a gambler. It's also clear that the Jacobs, Stills and Needhams are tightly bound not just as friends and family, but as business partners. Harry may not have been able to afford to deny Cricket and JW their affair.
The most revealing letter of the lot is a long one from JW to Carrie on 27 Mar 1886. In it, he refers to divorcing his wife Mary and of talking to the local newpaper editor about refuting the various rumors spawned by news of the affair. The editor of the "Gazette" wisely advises him not to drag the matter into even brighter light. Most astonishingly, Mary seems to have accepted the situation with grace and showed no ill-will to either JW or Cricket (she would ultimately be buried as the "wife of JW Jacobs" beside JW's sister in Beloit; I hereby nominate this woman for sainthood).
From the 27 March letter:
"I went to Dodge, the editor of the "Gazette", and consulted with him in reference to publishing the facts and he said that it was the last thing he would do as every man and woman in town knew it, as Mrs. Still had written to some, and he and the other editors have got the records of both (illegible) and divorce and would have published at last week. But he thought while people knew the facts he would not, if he was concerned, want it placed before their eyes in black and white for them to look at, when they looked as it was a private matter and does not concern the public...
"It is true that Cricket and I ride on the streets together. We have a right to. Cricket and Mary ride on the street together. I have ridden on the street with both of them at once. Whose business is it as long as Mary accepts the situation with Cricket.
"Mary says to any person that asks her that she perhaps knows more about it than they can know...
"Mary has been very kind to both of us ever since she received Mrs. Still's letter...
"We are pretty well satisfied with one another and as long as long as we retain your mother's, yours and George's good wishes I shall not discommodate myself to make the rest think well or ill of me."
With the divorce and marriage a done deal and the public recriminations over, everyone seems to turn to the practicalities. An initial plan for JW and Cricket to move to Colorado seems to have fallen through, perhaps due to the pressing needs of the livestock and delays in legal work. JW was a substantial landholder, and Cricket evidently also owned land in her own name. There are references to getting the deeds in order in the letters of April and May, and in June several land transfers are published.
JW and Cricket leave Beloit, initially to attend the Texas State Fair in Dallas. They apparently stay in Texas for some time; at one point they say they intend to stay through May 1887.
In the meantime, the Stills apparently leave Beloit. In the 09 Jul 1886 newspapers, the Still residence is offered for rent through a third party. I have not found evidence, but I presume that the Stills returned to Tonganoxie and the original farm that Stillio was operating.
By August of 1887 Cricket and JW are in Brighton Beach, NY, a stop in what seems to be extensive travels through the east. In about January of 1888 they ultimately settle in Fremont, OH - not coincidentally, I'm sure, Harry's former home town.
Things once again become complicated, as Cricket becomes pregnant and JW's health turns for the worse. Albert Wilson Jacobs is born on 02 Dec 1888, and JW dies on 04 May 1889 after "several months of illness". By this time the Stills have returned to Ohio themselves, and the family will remain reunited ever after.
After a brief stay in Virginia, where Cricket is apparently pursuing a business venture involving Harry's patented automatic feed boxes, the family moves to Baltimore, MD. On 14 Sep 1904, Cricket marries Leon Tubbs, a veterinarian, and they settle on the "Swan Harbor" farm at Havre de Grace, MD. Cricket will have one more child, Bonnie Tubbs, born on 29 Oct 1906.
But What About The Horse?
Finally, there's the legend's implied connection between the JW Jacobs family and the famous Jacobs family of thoroughbred horse racing fame. There is no such connection. The patriarch of that Jacobs family was Hirsch Jacobs. According to his 1970 New York Times obituary, "he was born April 8, 1904, on East 62d Street, one of 10 children of an immigrant tailor". The genealogy of "Affirmed" is also well known (sired by "Exclusive Native" out of "Won't Tell You") and in no way connects to Cricket's beloved "Peach".