Monroe Keevey

Jan. 18, 1852 - Jan. 2, 1900
Keevey Family Tree
Lyts Family Tree

One of the few things we know for certain about James Monroe Keevey is that he is not buried in the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery. Mr. Keevey was found lying dead in the road in front of his farm in the small town of Spangle, Washington on January 3, 1900, evidently a victim of heart disease at the age of 47. His widow, visiting in Seattle at the time of his death, advised his brothers to bury him, which they did, in their home-town cemetery in Spangle. He had been the oldest child in the family, and the first of his generation to die. His brothers—and his parents—were undoubtedly shocked by his early death.

How then, if he died and was buried in eastern Washington, did Monroe Keevey’s name become associated with the early records of the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery? This question remains one of the cemetery’s enduring mysteries.

*    *    *    *

Early Years

Monroe Keevey was born in Illinois in 1852 to an Irish father and an English mother. Sometime before the birth of his brother Winfield in 1858, the small family moved to Chisago County, Minnesota, where several more children were born. In August of 1864 their father Patrick, despite having a wife and five children to support (and another on the way), joined Company G of the Minnesota 11th Infantry Regiment in defense of the Union. He served until the end of the Civil War, mustering out on May 29, 1865. He immediately returned to Elizabeth and the children and resumed farming. At least three additional children were born to the family in the years just after the war.

Unfortunately, the Keevey family did not live happily ever after. Sometime between 1875 and 1881, Patrick and Elizabeth’s marriage dissolved. Divorce was certainly not a casual or common matter in the Victorian era, but by about 1881 at the latest, Patrick was married to a new wife. Loretta was twenty years younger than Patrick’s first wife Elizabeth. “Retta” (as she was known) and Patrick went on to have two additional children together: a boy, Harry, and a girl, Katie.

How did Patrick and Elizabeth’s children respond to their father’s second marriage? It’s not hard to guess what their feelings must have been. Their new step-mother, after all, was actually younger than Monroe by a year and a half. Furthermore, there’s little doubt that Irish Patrick Keevey had originally married in the Catholic Church, and the Church’s refusal to recognize divorce was intractable. If Patrick took up with a woman other than his wife Elizabeth, even if he married the girl in a different church or a civil ceremony, he would have been considered an adulterer by his fellow Catholics. Of course, if he managed to convince the Church to annul his first marriage, he would have been free in the eyes of the church to remarry; however, that action would also have had the effect of making his children with Elizabeth illegitimate. Either way, there is little doubt that the children of his first marriage were mortified by their father’s choices. They soon decamped, taking their jilted mother with them, to Spokane County in Washington Territory to begin anew, far from the father and husband who had so disrupted their lives.

William and Mary Ellen Lyts

Not long after they arrived in eastern Washington, Monroe Keevey, then 26 years old, married a girl named Annie Carnell. The ceremony took place in Walla Walla in 1878. Unfortunately, either the marriage, or perhaps Annie herself, did not last. She appears in no further records.

It was probably not long after his brief marriage that Monroe Keevey first met William David Lyts, an auctioneer who plied his trade on both sides of the state. Perhaps Lyts helped Keevey sell off the modest household goods left over from his brief marriage to Annie. But the most fateful consequence of the meeting between the two men is that it gave Monroe Keevey the opportunity to become acquainted with Mr. Lyts’ wife Mary Ellen.

In 1880, Mary Ellen Lyts was the mother of three boys ranging in age from seven to seventeen. Like Monroe Keevey, she too had been born in Illinois, but she had been born decade or more before Monroe. However, the most important fact about Mary Ellen Lyts is that she was, to put it mildly, a woman of unconventional morals, at least in comparison with typical wives and mothers of the 19th century. In the 1880 Territorial Census, for example, we can find Williams Lyts living in King County with his wife Mary Ellen and three sons. A Federal Census also took place that same year. In that later report, Lyts is enumerated in Walla Walla with one of his sons. Although he reports to the census taker that he is married, his wife was not then present in his household. Mary Ellen appears to be instead living in Spangle with Monroe Keevey for this census report. In Spangle, she and Monroe advise the census taker that they are husband and wife.

This odd situation could be easily dismissed as sloppy census work or simple misinterpretation of the facts. However, William Lyts soon moved his family back to western Washington, perhaps trying to pre-empt the inappropriate relationship that was evidently blossoming between his wife and Monroe Keevey. Lyts and Mary Ellen, along with their three sons, were enumerated in King County for the 1883 Territorial Census just three years later.

In 1883 Monroe Keevey was also enumerated in the Territorial Census. His enumeration reveals that he too had relocated to King County since the last census (although the rest of the Keevey clan remained behind in Spangle). At that time Monroe was living with his supposed wife “M.E. Keevey,” a woman ten years his senior who was born in Illinois.

In 1885 and 1887, this pattern continued—Monroe Keevey could be found wherever William and Mary Ellen Lyts were found, and both times, with Mary Ellen evidently residing in both men’s households as the "wife".

In 1889, this pattern was temporarily broken. Monroe Keevey was living in the small King County town of Black Diamond (where the Lyts Family was also located), but so too was his father Patrick Keevey (with his second family), as well as Monroe’s younger brother Charles. Patrick left Minnesota and was actually in King County with his second family by 1887 when they were enumerated in Green River (Auburn area). Certainly Monroe would have felt that his father Patrick, of all people, was in no position to judge his flexible morals; nevertheless, this is the first time that Monroe reported his marital status as “single” to the census taker. Perhaps the near presence of family members had some influence on the situation. (The Lyts Family was a no-show in this 1889 census report).

Unfortunately, by 1892 Patrick had moved back to Slaughter (Auburn), Washington, leaving Monroe behind in Black Diamond. Once again Monroe was enumerated with his wife “M.E. Keevey.” But in this report, William Lyts reported himself as single. After enduring at least 12 years of his wife’s divided loyalties, Williams Lyts was finally moving forward without Mary Ellen.

Lyts v. Keevey

There’s more than just the circumstantial evidence of the census reports to illuminate the odd triangle formed by Monroe, Mary Ellen, and William Lyts. In early 1893, the new Washington State Supreme Court (formed after Washington finally obtained statehood in 1889), decided a case that memorialized, in some part, the relationships between these three unhappy individuals.

In the case Lyts v. Keevey (5 Wash. 606, 32 P. 534), William D. Lyts sought to recover $289 owed to him by Monroe Keevey on account. Keevey counter-sued Lyts on several causes of action, including the claim that Lyts signed a promissory note to him (Keevey) in the amount of $500, which Lyts had never paid. This promissory note, the court case reveals, was the result of an outlandish offer Keevey made to Lyts. Knowing that Lyts was unhappy that his wife Mary Ellen had “deserted him without cause,” Keevey affirmed that he himself was the cause of the unhappy state of Lyts’s marriage, and that he (Keevey), therefore, was in a unique position to repair the damage. For $500 (a very considerable amount in 1893), Keevey would convince Mary Ellen to return to her husband and would himself leave the territory. Lyts agreed to this less than scrupulous deal, and signed the promissory note at Keevey’s request.

Although the case doesn’t report on the marital status between Lyts and Mary Ellen or the location of Keevey’s residence at the time the case was originally filed, Lyts claimed he received no consideration in exchange for the promise, and, therefore, should not be obligated to pay on the note.

The state Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Lyts could not prevail on those grounds. Their decision implied that, had Keevey’s offer been a result of criminal activity (extortion or adultery, perhaps), he would not have been entitled to any consideration; however, since Lyts had not pursued this angle in his reply, the court, seemingly against all common sense, found in favor of Keevey!

As if taking Lyts’s money wasn’t enough, Keevey also took Lyts’s wife; he and Mary Ellen were officially married by September of 1893 when they moved back to Spangle in eastern Washington. For some reason, Mary Ellen agreed to the marriage despite knowing that Monroe was willing to put a literal price on the value of her affection. It probably came as no surprise to anyone that their marriage was afflicted with difficulties from the start, including many separations and disagreements during the few short years that they were officially husband and wife. Monroe Keevey barely lived to see the dawn of the 20th Century, he died on Jan. 2, 1900, just seven years after trying to restart his life with Mary Ellen in eastern Washington.

The Auburn Cemetery

Monroe Keevey’s name appears on both of the early versions of the plot map of the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery. Since we know he is not buried there, we can assume he was instead the purchaser of plot 7, and that he made that purchase sometime during the ten years from 1883 – 1893 when he resided in King County (and during which he usually co-habitated with Mary Ellen Lyts). Since the court case suggested that Keevey had problems with creditors during this period, it seems unlikely that he would have purchased the plot in preparation for some indefinite, far-off day when he or a loved one would need a burial plot. It seems far more likely that he purchased the plot only because a death had occurred.

But whose death prompted the purchase? We know that both Patrick and Elizabeth Keevey outlived their son Monroe, and that all of his siblings were also evidently alive at the time of his death. Even if he had lost a sibling, with the exception of his brother Charles, none of his brothers or sisters spent time in western Washington. It seems unlikely that they would be brought across the state and away from their adopted hometown of Spangle to be buried in King County. Monroe’s first wife Annie had either departed or died before 1880 (based on the evidence of Mary Ellen Lyts being in Monroe’s household in the census of that year) before Monroe himself ever came to the western part of the state. For whom, then, did he purchase a burial plot?

The best clue we have is in Mary Ellen’s census record of 1910. She had moved back west to Seattle by that time, having battled with Monroe’s brothers over the disposition of his estate immediately after his death (the surviving Keeveys clearly had no love for the older, fallen Mary Ellen). The 1910 census included a question directed specifically to adult women. It essentially asked, of the children you gave birth to, how many are now still living? Mary Ellen’s response: two.

Further digging into the 1910 census revealed that her sons James Lyts and Charles Lyts were still living at that time, indicating that any other children of Mary Ellen’s passed away sometime before then.

In two earlier Territorial Census reports (in 1885 and 1887), while Mary Ellen was living—at least part time—with William Lyts, there were four children in the household. In addition to James and Charles, a younger brother Stephen appeared in the Lyts home. Stephen was born in California in 1873 and lived long enough to marry twice. He was last documented as an adult in Snohomish County, Washington, and probably died somewhere in that vicinity after 1893.

The other child was a son identified only as F.W. Lyts. From his age on the two census reports, we can calculate that he was born in 1884 and probably conceived in 1883—a year in which his mother was documented in both Lyts’s and Keevey’s homes. Although he was being raised in the Lyts home, there would have been no way to prove which man fathered the boy. All we know for sure is that after being documented at age three in the 1887 Territorial census, he never appears again with the family. By 1892 at the latest, he evidently died. Monroe Keevey’s term of residence in King County (from about 1883-1893) frames the boy’s life span perfectly. The fact that Monroe Keevey purchased a cemetery plot during the same time period that this boy died is probably more than coincidental. The all-but-forgotten existence of this young boy hints that the outcome of the tangled relationship between Mary Ellen, Keevey, and Lyts was probably more tragic than we will ever know.

Old Barn On The Palouse, Spangle, Washington.
Old Barn On The Palouse, Spangle, Washington.
Photo by Larry Lawhead

*    *    *    *

All text published on this website © Amerie & Kristy Lommen 2008 – 2023.
All photographs published on this website, except where indicated, © Amerie & Kristy Lommen 2008 – 2023.
Please contact the site author(s) for permission to reproduce any material here published: