Margaret Sutton and the Judy Bolton Mysteries

When Jessica emailed me and asked if I had ever heard of the Margaret Sutton, I had to admit that I had not. After a couple emails back and forth – in which she sent me rough directions to the cemetery where Sutton was buried – I decided to visit the grave of the Pennsylvania author the next time I was in the region.

A couple months later, I found myself on Route 6 and decided to make a slight detour south of the historic route to locate the grave of Margaret Sutton. As I drove south from Lymansville on Route 872, headed to the collection of buildings known as Inez, I turned off Route 872 onto Heith Road. A short distance later, I saw Homer Cemetery clinging to the hillside on the southern side of the road. I slowed in front of the set of steps that led from the road to the cemetery.

“Where in the world do I park?” I wondered aloud. I drove a short distance and turned around. Approaching from the other direction, I could see a set of tracks that led to the cemetery. I cautiously followed the narrow set of tracks that were bordered on one side by the cemetery and the other by a slight drop-off.

I parked and stepped out of the vehicle to study the cemetery. The first thing that entered into my mind was – Why were all the graves I wanted to visit lately at the top of steep hillsides?

I carefully made my way up the hillside to the area where Jessica stated Margaret Sutton was buried. As I made my way to the top of the hill, I scanned the nearby stones. Initially I did not see Sutton’s grave, but another grave caught my attention – Victor Beebe, who was a historian and the author of the History of Potter County Pennsylvania.

I carefully scanned the stones around Victor’s grave, knowing that Margaret was his daughter but did not immediately see her grave, though it was right in front of me. The memorial next to his was in the shape of a bench with the words “Come Rest Awhile” engraved on the front of it. I walked carefully around the bench, searching for the identity of the person buried at this spot. In the shadow of the seat, on the bench’s leg, was the following information: “In Loving Memory / Of / Margaret Sutton / Hunting / Born Rachel Beebe.”

Born January 22, 1903, Rachel Irene Beebe was the daughter of Victor and Estella Beebe. At an early age, her parents encouraged her and her siblings to write and Rachel filled tablets with stories. Her parents fueled the imagination of the Beebe children with folktales and history, a combination that would later influence Sutton’s writings. She graduated from the public school system before attending the Rochester Business Institute in New York and upon graduating she was employed as a secretary.

Sutton married William Sutton in 1924 and she began her writing career soon after, writing stories for Dorothy, her stepdaughter. Drawing from the stories she heard as a child, Sutton recalled a character she had written about as a child – Judy Bolton – and in 1932 published her first novel, The Vanishing Shadow under the pen name Margaret Sutton. Her debut novel would be the first of thirty-eight novels featuring Judy Bolton.

The towns featured in her writings were based on places that existed in her childhood home of Potter County. The Vanishing Shadow was based on a real event that happened near the southern edge of Potter County in 1911 – the Austin Dam disaster. Her second novel, The Haunted Attic, was based on the house her family moved to in Coudersport when she was still young. The legend of the Ole Bull colony and the sound of the area being haunted by ghostly violin music would serve as the basis for Clue in the Ruined Castle.

Although another strong female detective – Nancy Drew – would also capture the attention of young readers, the two strong female characters had two distinctive differences.

The first is with the age of the main character. Over the series, Judy matures as the series moves forward. Judy moves from high school to getting a job and getting married, while Nancy remained the same age throughout the series. The reader is able to see Judy’s life from the start to the series end and in those volumes, Judy grows from a teenage girl to a strong, mature woman.

The second major difference is in the authors. Sutton was the solo writer for the entire Judy Bolton series, unlike the Nancy Drew series which would employ ghost writers to keep the popularity of the teen detective on the shelves.

Though the Judy Bolton series was her most popular series, these were not the only books she wrote. She wrote two books about Gail Gardner – which were based on the letters sent home by her niece – a young lady training as a nurse. Some of her other noted novels include: A Shepherd Boy of Australia, Two Boys of the Ohio Valley, Lollypop: The True Story of a Little Dog, Jemima, Daughter of Daniel Boone, and Palace Wagon Family: A True Story of the Donner Party.

While Sutton would often return to Potter County to seek inspiration, she and William would settle on Long Island where they would raise their family and be an active part of the community. She was a founding member of the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Freeport, New York, where she was the first Sunday school teacher. Sutton would write the Sunday school’s curriculum, producing Letters to Live By, which became extremely popular among congregations across America.

In 1965, after forty years of marriage, William died. In 1975 Margaret would marry Everett Hunting, a long-time friend, but kept the Sutton identity for her penname. The couple moved to Berkeley, California and remained there until 1993. That year they returned to central Pennsylvania and sadly Everett passed shortly after their move. Sutton died June 21, 2001, at Lock Haven Hospital in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, from natural causes. She was returned to her childhood home and rests with her parents and siblings on the hillside overlooking Odin.

I finished remembering the author whose homeland greatly influenced her writings before I carefully made my way down the hillside, leaving her to rest on the hillside overlooking the rolling hills of Potter County.

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