Mabel, the glamorous queen of Dogtown

*Discovering history is like looking at a shadow and trying to see the object.  A personal history is more complex, often containing many versions of a story. Archaeological evidence and public records help reveal this shadow but the human at the core is a mystery. The Mabel Collection is a shadow with a glamorous Queen at the center.

The true story of how I found Mabel has never been told fully, it starts with traffic.  Going north on Hampton blvd and turning left into Dogtown can be hard at rush hour and the truth is, the street Mabel lived on was a shortcut. That rainy night I felt deep within my core the need to stop.

   The rain wasn’t pouring but it was steady, and Union Men smoked cigarettes across the street at the Union Hall entrance.  I had to be quick but the strength of that old intuitive pull was intense and a deep feeling of certainty that something was here that needed my attention.

  The cute little house on the tiny hill had a light on, but showing an empty room, slightly lighting up the dumpster in front . My dumpster diver mind sorted the data in milliseconds, construction efforts means most likely a rehab but worth a look. The dumpster on the street had 3 nice neat round black plastic bags, and I looked in each. 1. Vintage clothes 2. Glass/hardware 3. Historical paperwork.  

  I like the phrase “metaphysical magnet”, like a salmon returning to spawn upstream in place he’s never been.  A dumpster diver seeks out the value within the refuse of a civilization and I felt the Story from the instant I knew the contents of the trash bags.  Why do I value these Souls found in dumpsters?  That is the puzzle tackled within the Project.


At home I spread out the collection, discovering 89 percent was in amazing condition. Everything was thrown in plastic tubs, to be explored, discovered and made into Art for the next 5 years.  Now, only a few items remain and attempts to return the items to family have not been fruitful. The Dresses ended up the hands of seamstress, one was used for an Art Installation, where Mabel’s things ended up in a mandala, her spirit on display. Three fitting Scrapbooks tell her story in the original form.

Finally I wrote an article called Mabel the Glamorous Queen of Dogtown as an homage, to a woman I didn’t know. It was a beautiful story that highlighted her family history, and the Press I discovered online.  Turns out, I was only partly right about her life, family members corrected my ignorance and as time mythologizes into history, only parts remain. Conjecture removed!

This is the new story, updated and redone….

the Queen of Dogtown: Mabel the Glamorous

(*featured in this photo is not actually Mabel but Ginny. her daughter. a mistake i correct)

Should I call Mabel by the name on her death certificate?  The one left by her late husband Norman, or maybe after her first husband Jennings.   George Gittens, her father left a strong name and she remained proud of that heritage. The Gittens name carries weight in Dogtown with a deep history in the area long before the “dogs” and the Irish.  No, I can’t honor a woman such as her with any man’s name.   I dub her Mabel, the glamorous Queen of Dogtown.   

  Mabel was born on May 23 in the year 1904, a mere 10 min walk from the greatest show at the time, the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair.  Her family made a fortune during those years having a saloon, hotel and grocer.  I have her the paperwork from her first loan, and paid bills throughout the 1940s. She disappears from public record until 1937, where she is listed as married to Jennings Stubbs according to Father P.J. O’Connor’s book,  “History of Cheltenham and St James Parish“.   

  Suddenly she is there again in 1941.  A 37 year old mother of 3 girls, taking a punch from a car thief.  She was on her way to her father’s saloon on Manchester with friends and a 1000 dollars.  The man punched her in the face and she pretended to faint, removing the money from her purse.  They stole the car and got away with 5 bucks, abandoning the car blocks away.  The story worked it’s way across America making it all the way to the East Coast. 

What wasn’t known at the time, was her family had a long history of being stolen from.  Her father was in the paper regularly as his employees were robbed quite frequently back during Prohibition when the Saloon became a Grocer, when a piano repair man stole his piano, and a former employee stole payroll.  It was still the wild west in Dogtown and the lower class area attracted crime in Depression era America.  This was her tough St Louis neighborhood and Mabel came from a long line of strong people.

Gittens family history: The Gittins family had come to this country in a sailing vessel from Wales, a trip that took 93 days.  After landing in Florida they proceeded to the Mississippi River up to St. Louis on a steamboat where an ox cart was bought to take them out to what is now Forest Park.   To forge the money they needed in the new world, they built a cabin and established a coal mine.

Several Gittins were born in that cabin at the very spot where the St Louis Zoo is now situated.  Mr. Gittins, his son, and his brother, James Elley, operated coal mines in Forest Park for years building a collective pool of money.   When rich enough, the Gittens moved to Cheltenham.  This was just after the Icarians sold a massive piece of land cheaply when they failed in their attempt at a Utopian Socialist paradise.   The Gittens built their grocery store and hotel, all with the family name proudly displayed and in 1875, George enters the picture.

In 1895, George William Gittins, opened a saloon at 5867 Manchester Avenue. He became a popular figure in the neighborhood as was the Gittens saloon.   George made a lot more money a few years later when he bought a clay mine on Tamm Avenue. His wealth continued to increase as he became the owner of several other mines in Maryland Heights. Finally in 1910 the business was incorporated under the following officers: George W. Gittins, his son Albert E. Gittins and his daughter’s husband…Jennings Stubbs *all of this is verified by the old paperwork left behind.

Mabel enters the story as a Daughter, Wife, Bar owner and Mother.

When one lays out Mabel’s things it feels like stepping into a museum.  An archaeological dig that  attempts to tell a story through each item, here are some signifying aspects.
  Her clothes are all from the 1970s and in near perfect condition.
  The popcorn, whiskey, food products were also frozen in time.
  I found “filled in” crosswords and two very well used dictionaries.
  The Catholic hymnals however were new as if never opened.  Rosary beads missing the cross, also like new.
  Her taste in books was classic fiction. 
  The postcards are to “Grandma” from her son and grandchild, she kept them as treasures.
  Hardware box was full of vintage items. 
 Paperwork shows she returned to live with Dad for awhile in 1966, maybe?  
The sunglasses were well worn and the dresses were high end.

Can you see her, in the 1970’s era light blue pant-suit?  She walks to the veggie stand on Tamm ave. after church and waves to familiar people on porches.   Her white vintage sunglasses reflect the shotgun houses, and the hills of Dogtown.  She knows every corner and remembers smells from when the mines and the rail roads left black soot on the windows.  She has heard all the World’s Fair stories and walks to the zoo grounds where her ancestors pulled out coal and bore children. 

She survived the Depression, when the bodies of Workers crossed the landscape and prohibition threatened her family.  She walked these streets during two World Wars and participated when the men were gone and women took over.  She saw “white flight” as the old southern racism ran rampant, while her Irish neighborhood with its ancient Catholic customs and parades remained the same as if stuck in a time warp. 

 Mabel comes from a long line of strong people and her family is her strength.   She is the last of the wild women of Dogtown. 

Dumpster Archeology has what was left untouched for 30 years after her death.   Three bags of trash left in a dumpster, when the house was sold.  There is little that is certain except taxes, real estate sales, deeds, and a mystery of why she never left.    What would Mabel say about herself?  Mabel was your average American woman, who wanted more, and was thankful for what she had.  Yet there is more under the surface.  A yearning for a life she never had.  That big what if……  

This is the non-scientific part of Dumpster Archeology.  The feelings, those metaphysical magnetic emotions shining out from the Dumpsters that speak to me of a woman who fulfilled the American Dream and wanted more.  Perhaps she wanted one more moment of spotlight, to be called interesting, smart, desired and maybe even glamorous. 

Can a woman be both strong and want attention from those she loves?    To be a Queen for even one day?   Dogtown never had a Queen, this little hamlet of space nestled between Forest Park and South City.  So I declare without any attempt to find competition. 
Mabel is the Glamorous Queen of Dogtown!

This is the real Mabel — Queen of Dogtown