The uncanny connection between Arthur Conan Doyle and Goessel, Kansas
It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense. (Mark Twain)
And what I’m about to tell you is strange and utterly true.
I’m a historical science fiction author. While I write fiction, I fit a lot of history into my timeline. Doing so can be precarious. When you’re writing about real things, anything can happen.
This week I was researching Arthur Conan Doyle, author of many books but perhaps most famously known for Sherlock Holmes. He might cringe at that. He did not wish to write as many stories of the beloved detective as exist. The demand was so great that he kept writing until at last, he killed the detective to stop the demand once and for all. Readers reacted by wearing black mourning bands as if Holmes were real.
Conan Doyle missed the fan uproar over the death of his character because he was in America doing a lecture tour. The year was 1894.
Seems pretty straight forward, right? Not from where I’m sitting.
You see, Conan Doyle sailed to the United States on the steamship the Elbe, the captain of which was Captain Kurt von Goessel. Von Goessel was my grandmother’s first cousin and is well-known for his heroic acts in transporting German immigrants to America. The Elbe was struck in a tragic accident a by another ship and sank. Von Goessel is known for going down with his ship. Due to harsh weather conditions that echo of the future sinking of the Titanic--it sank in 1912--they could not launch all the rescue boats. Two were launched. One capsized. Only twenty passengers survived, and they were nearly frozen upon rescue. Of those, only one was a woman.
What I did not know until recently was that it was he who transported Conan Doyle to America. During that voyage, Conan Doyle wrote a poem to von Goessel in his autograph book. As the original is lost at sea, I was delighted to find a copy of the poem:
Luck to the Elbe in every weather,
May her fortune never fail her;
Boat and master match together,
Gallant ship and gallant sailor.
Sadly, the ship, the sailor, and the album are all deep in the North Sea.
But the story does not end here. While those words are lost to time and tide, here they are!
My grandmother was an orphan. It was not until the 1980s that she discovered her family and learned of this connection with the captain. In so doing, we found family in Germany and the United States. Further, there was one more surprise: There was a town in Kansas named after the good captain!
1874 saw the first wave of an immigration of German-speaking Russian Mennonite to south-central Kansas. And while it is not believed von Goessel was responsible for transporting any of these, a community in Kansas found that they required a post office in order to receive medical supplies. In order to have a post office, they needed to become a town. That required a name. Dr. Richert read the story of Captain Kurt von Goessel, and he submitted the name Goessel to the U.S. Postal Department. It was accepted on April 13, 1895.
And so this blog is about my family, Arthur Conan Doyle and the happenstance meeting with a cousin, a poem, and a town in Kansas. We all share a history that is preposterous and utterly real. You can’t make up fiction like this. Well, you could, but you’d be up all night stitching together all the pieces.
In the 1980s my grandmother had the great fortune to meet her family for the first of two occasions. Our German relatives (many of whom were her first cousins) and our American relatives descended upon the town of Goessel to enjoy their annual Threshing Days festival.
It is my pleasure to add this piece of history back into its proper place and let the words of a great man written to another great man be enjoyed by a new group of readers.
Now I have added a spoiler that there is some kind of connection with Arthur Conan Doyle—and perhaps Kansas?—to a future Jamie Poole book.
If you are interested in historical science fiction: Think Outlander meets Lord of the Rings. (We’re not in Kansas anymore!), contact us at email@example.com or visit these stores:
Also available on Redbubble, designs that celebrate Captain Kurt von Goessel's heroics. Check them out.
More designs than what is featured here: