- Fairbury News staff
Books tell stories of past
Amy (Kinzer) Steidinger of Forrest loves history and genealogy.
"You just find so many great stories when you study the past," Steidinger acknowledged.
In 1994, she was researching her husband's family when she came across the story of a mother, Hanna Hohulin Moser, and her three young children who all mysteriously died on the same day almost 100 years earlier.
"It took a while to put together the pieces," Steidinger explains. "When I first started researching the story, you had to drive to historical societies and use microfiche machines to find newspaper articles. It was slow work."
It turned out that the woman's husband, Samuel Moser, was shunned after being excommunicated from his church in the farming community of Tremont. After five years of struggling with rejection and depression, he finally killed his family. The manhunt, arrest, and trial were front-page news across the country for a year and a half and there were plenty of old documents and articles to uncover.
Steidinger, a graduate of Prairie Central High School, is also a teacher and mother of four. She could only research and write in the summer and would have to pack it away when she went back to school in the fall. Even in the summer, it was always a challenge to balance work and family time.
In 2006, she returned to Illinois State University and completed a Master's degree in History hoping to more fully understand the historical and religious context of the story she was writing. Then, in 2012 with the book almost finished, Steidinger’s house burned down. Much of her research and documentation was destroyed.
Though some files were saved on a laptop, she basically had to start over again. But even having to retrace her steps had its rewards as new technology and digital archives made new information available.
"I was so privileged to meet and work with so many people along the way, family members and historians that helped answer questions," explained Steidinger. "The story is tragic but there are so many lessons to be learned from the past if we take the time to understand."
The book, So Many Fragile Things, was released in 2020.
“We pulled it all together and finally the story is told,” said Steidinger.
But it didn't end there.
Samuel Moser spent his last days at the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet. A few years ago, the prison opened for tours and Amy and her brother immediately planned a trip.
"The tour is incredible like going back in time. I just kept thinking 'If these walls could talk the stories they could tell,'" Steidinger said.
When there weren't enough books to buy in the gift shop, she went home and put her research skills to work. This resulted in two other books, Old Joliet Prison: When Convicts Wore Stripes and Joliet Prison Blues: A Century of Stories (The History Press).
The books are collections of short stories of the men and women who lived and worked at the old prison that operated from 1857-2006. The back cover of the first book reads, "From the no-account and notorious, to the reform-minded and heroic," these are the stories of "lunatics and lawmen, counterfeiters and call girls, grave robbers and politicians."
Steidinger especially finds it interesting how the female convicts were treated. They were housed on an upper floor of the administration building and only allowed outside two days a year on Christmas Day and the Fourth of July.
This iconic prison was also the setting for many Hollywood productions, including “Prison Break” and “The Blues Brothers” movie. The Joliet Area Historical Museum currently conducts tours and hosts events like concerts within the old limestone prison walls to raise money for restorations. More information can be found at www.jolietprison.org.
A book talk and signing will be presented by Steidinger at Dominy Memorial Library, 201 South Third Street in Fairbury, on Saturday, July 24 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Refreshments will be provided.
The books are available for sale locally at The Spotted Owl in Fairbury, as well as online through Barnes and Noble or Amazon.