Wisconsin antique bottle and advertising club

Whatever Happened to Bella?

Note in a Bottle Solves a Century-old Mystery

Charlie knew it was a good one when he found it - a small-town Wisconsin hutch he had not seen before. What made it especially interesting was what was inside. Holding it up in the dim light he could see a rolled-up piece of paper, probably a note. The rest of his dive would have to wait. He slowly ascended to the surface 35 feet above him to check it out. He had no idea the sequence of events that would follow.

Charlie was a volunteer with the local fire department as a recovery diver. He and some teammates were looking for a car that went through the ice six years earlier in Long Lake, located 10 miles west of Sheboygan. He was also an old bottle enthusiast so he always kept his eyes open for bottles anytime he dove. It was 1965.

When he got back to shore that he saw that is was a Hutchinson soda bottle from Silver Creek Bottling Works Sheboygan. The seal was compromised by the pressure change during the ascent and the note got wet along the edge, but it was still legible. Charlie was shocked when he read it. “Commited Sucide the 20th of April 1896. eny Person that find my Body Is Requested to Notify Mrs. Kate Clark 460 Ashland St Clevland Ohio out of work and despondent Miss Bella Masterson” (as written misspellings).

Charlie took the note to the Sheboygan Press newspaper who then contacted the local Sherriff’s department. Divers could not find remains in the area where the bottle was found. The police also searched historical records but were unable to find any information about Bella Masterson or any report of a body, suicide or disappearance in 1896. Without a record of death there was no way to know if it was legit. The local press ran a story about the note.

Fifteen-year-old Sheboygan resident Doug Murphy was intrigued by the story – so much so that he cut out the newspaper article and put it in a file folder. Over the subsequent years, no further information related to Bella or the suicide note came to light.

In 1999, some 34 years after the bottle discovery, divers found a human skull and other bones in 12 feet of water just off the east shore in Long Lake. Sheriff’s department divers subsequently recovered additional bones, about 85% of a complete skeleton. They were in poor condition. Forensic pathologist Dr. Leslie Eisenberg examined them and concluded that they belonged to a female over 50 years of age. The woman had suffered from Osteoporosis, a collapsed spine, arthritis, had a wrist that had been broken and healed without medical treatment and was missing several teeth. Based on the appearance of the bones she estimated that they could be several hundred years old. DNA testing was not widely used in 1999 but based on the size and shape of the thigh bone and apparent age of the remains Dr. Eisenberg concluded that they were probably from a Native American Indian. It was a headline story in the Sheboygan Chronicle.

Police asked the Wisconsin State Historical Society to search their archives for information about Bella Masterson but they too were unable to find anything. Lacking any hard evidence linking the bones to the suicide note the remains were turned over to Native Americans and were interred at an Indian burial ground.
When Doug read the article, he remembered the story about the suicide note and still had the 34-year-old newspaper clipping. He took 1965 clipping to the Chronicle and to the Sherriff’s department. The facts seemed to fit that the remains were those of poor Bella but the remains had already been buried and lacking conclusive proof they left them there.

Bella’s note said that she was unemployed and despondent. Most women at the time did not work unless they were unmarried and poor. In 1896 the US was in one of the worst economic depressions in its history. She was suffering from severe health problems. The social safety net at the time was very poor for people like Bella. Her note made no mention of a family – just her friend Kate who lived far away in Cleveland. Given the circumstances, it is not hard to understand why Bella decided to take her own life.

How did the bottle end up at the bottom of the lake? Bella must have known that the bottle even sealed would not float due to the thickness of the glass. Perhaps she left the bottle in the boat where it would almost certainly be found but the boat capsized when she went over the side. We’ll never know exactly what happened that day but clearly, things did not go according to her plan. Bella intended for both the note and her body to be found so that Kate could be notified. The bottle was found about 200 yards from the spot where the skeleton was found. The bottle probably marks the spot where she drowned. Her body most likely re-floated due to methane gas build-up when decomposition set in several days later and it drifted to shore and sank without being discovered. Kate Clark never got the message and probably wondered whatever became of her dear friend Bella.

Doug Murphy put together an exhibit for the local historical society. Charlie donated the original note and Doug had the newspaper articles from 1965 and 1999. The exhibit was displayed at the Long Lake Recreational Area near Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
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Author: Peter Maas
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