“Paul’s eyes rested upon Sweetheart’s hungrily, longingly. She wasn’t his sister! She was no blood relation, or connection at all—yet!” Those lines from Ella Wister Haines’ novel Mysterious Sweetheart captured the attention of readers who favored the works of this Iowa writer in the 1920s. Haines’ idea for this story came from a family member who described a blood-dripping dagger appearing to her in a dream. “The vividness of the isolated incident started me thinking in terms of plot,” Haines explained. It was one of three novels she wrote over her career.
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Cheryl Mullenbach is the author of non-fiction books for young people. Her work has been recognized by International Literacy Association, American Library Association, National Council for Social Studies, and FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
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Haines had dreamed of becoming a writer as a school girl; but marriage and motherhood intervened, leaving her little time to pursue her craft. During the Great War she dedicated any spare time to several organizations including the Red Cross. But in 1919 she sold an article to Successful Farming magazine, and other stories followed with People’s Popular Monthly and Mother’s Home Life magazines. Her work caught the attention of a publisher of syndicated feature stories, and she secured a contract to write two stories a year. They ran as series in newspapers across the country.
As wife of Des Moines businessman, Jansen Haines, manager of Des Moines Gas Company, she could easily have spent her time in leisure activities; but she bristled at any suggestion she was an “idle sitter-in-the-sun” female. Haines spent every morning writing after getting her four kids off to school. Her afternoons and evenings were devoted to family and home. “Please don’t refer to me as a society woman,” Haines once told a reporter. “I want my writing to stand or fall on its own artistic merit. I work very hard. I play bridge some and go out evenings, but that is the extent of my social activities.”
While some of Haines’ writing centered around fictional characters and settings, she also wrote nonfiction. Her articles “Back to the Land for Women,” “A Public Health Nurse,” and “A Mile of Window Boxes” ran in Woman’s Weekly magazine in 1921. In “Ella Wister Haines Tells Story of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address As Related by Her Aunt,” carried in the Des Moines Tribune in 1928, Haines wrote about an interview she had conducted several years earlier with Sarah Tyler Wister, who as a teen had attended the events at Gettysburg in 1863. Haines wrote of her aunt’s memories of Lincoln: “the stoop of his shoulders” and the “weariness of those dangling arms” as the president spoke those famous words, “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent…”
“The speech made a tremendous impression but we still were too close to that terrible period to know that Lincoln’s address would be like the shot fired around the world,” Haines’ Aunt Sarah recalled. “There was a lot of criticism of the president, from every side. People thought he’d let the war run on too long, and had freed the slaves too soon.”
Haines eventually moved to Pennsylvania, where she took a position as director of the Educational Film Service for the Philadelphia Electric Company, a position she held for 20 years. As part of her duties she lectured on the history and advantages of electric service. In 1939 the American Historical Society included Haines in its Encyclopedia of Biography. She authored two books compiled from family letters during both world wars, and she was herself the subject of a book examining the lives of turn-of-the-century women. She co-authored Glimpses into History, a record of the Colonial Dames of America in 1961.
- Downs, Winfield Scott. Encyclopedia of Biography, vol 10, p 155, University of Michigan: American Historical Society, 1939.
- “Ella Wister Haines Tells Story of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address As Related by Her Aunt,” Des Moines Tribune, Feb. 11, 1928.
- “Mysterious Sweetheart,” Gazette (Pittsburgh) Times, Sept. 13, 1926.
- “Society Woman’s Story Beginning in Tribune Friday Started in Dream,” Des Moines Tribune, Aug. 10, 1926.
- Terranova, Kristen, “Ella Eustis Wister Haines (1879-1969)” (1998). People and Places. 13.
- Writer’s Monthly, vol 18, p 369, Springfield, Massachusetts: Home Correspondence School, July 1921.