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The Kidnapping of Mary McConnell Borah

Mary McConnell as a young woman, LCHS Photo McConnell.M.03

Mary McConnell Borah is perhaps best known as the oldest daughter of William J. McConnell and the elegant wife of famed Idaho Senator William Borah. But while the passing of time tends to turn the details of a life into this type of easy shorthand, the details are where the real magic happens.

Recently I came across an oral history with Mary McConnell Borah, conducted in 1971, a little over four years before her death at the age of 105. It caught my eye because the topic summary included the line, “Her kidnapping as a baby.” Never having heard of this, my first assumption was that it was some kind of ransom plot against her father, who at the time was already a prominent figure throughout the West. But the truth of the event is perhaps even stranger, for though it was quickly resolved, it was also apparently a completely random encounter.

When Mary was born, she was “disfigured” by red spots that appeared to be blood under the skin (perhaps petechiae, a condition that causes bleeding in the capillaries). Her mother Louisa was in frail health, so Mary’s grandmother, who, according to Mary “should have been a doctor” if she were a man, undertook to take the baby to a famous doctor in Portland. On the train to the city, the grandmother noticed a strange woman staring at her grandchild. Mary relates in her oral history that, “the woman fascinated her [grandmother]. She wasn't afraid of her but this woman never took her eyes off of [me].”

Mary McConnell Borah, LCHS Photo Borah.M.001

Arriving at their hotel, the grandmother turned from the reservation desk to find the same strange woman. The clerk asked the woman what kind of room she would like, and she responded, “I'll not take a room now because I expect a friend to meet me here. And she'll probably have her plans.”

Baby Mary was nestled into bed in their room, and her grandmother went off to the bathroom, a good distance away since hotel rooms did not have their own bathrooms at the time. Upon returning to the room, she discovered that the baby was gone. Screaming down the hall “my grandchild has been kidnapped!” she attracted the attention of a large conference of men in the lobby. A nearby porter said he’d seen a woman going out the back door carrying a large bundle. According to Mary’s retelling, “the men all started out. They forgot that they were being delegates to some sort of convention. They went out to hunt me.” Very shortly, they located the woman, who turned out to be very strong, and had a bit of difficulty getting the baby away from her.

No more is said about the event in her oral history, so we don’t know what became of the kidnapper, or how the rest of the family might have reacted to the news. Life for the McConnell family, and later the Borahs, would have certainly turned out differently had the kidnapping succeeded. I also find it very interesting how such a terrifying event can become a brief footnote to a long, full life like Mary’s.

Preserving details such as this are one of the many reasons that the work of historians and historical associations are so important. Most of us won’t dine with dignitaries at the White House, or have our childhood homes commemorated like the McConnell Mansion, but all of our lives are full of tales and memories that can be informative, if not purely fascinating, to future generations.

Elaina Pierson Office Coordinator Latah County Historical Society

The full transcript and recording of Mary McConnell Borah’s oral history, as well as those of almost 200 other residents of Latah County, can be found at the University of Idaho’s Digital Initiatives website.

Additional information for this article was found in McConnell Mansion & its Residents, by Nancy Ruth Peterson.

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