Elizabeth (Lizzie) Petske

Written By: nppladmin - Jan• 13•22

All during the month of October, the North Platte History Friday posts are going to feature the people who were impacted the most by Annie Cook. Last week we started with Annie Cook and this week, we are looking at the life of her sister, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Knox. If you want to know more about Annie, be sure to check out the book “Evil Obsession” by Nellie Snyder Yost.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Petske was born February 26, 1878 in Denver, Colorado. Lizzie was a happy, friendly child who loved helping her parents with their livery stable. Newspaper accounts and the book Evil Obsession all indicate that Lizzie had some type of intellectual disability.

Lizzie’s life took an unfortunate turn in 1900, when she was 22 years old. Her sister, Annie, convinced their parents that Lizzie’s mental status was so low that she would never find a husband. Annie promised their parents that she would take good care of her sister, on her farm, here in Nebraska.

By the summer of 1900, Lizzie had moved to Hershey, Nebraska. And as such, she began a lifetime of abuse by Annie Cook.

But Lizzie had a secret; when she was living in Colorado with her parents, she had begun a friendship with a man from Hyannis, Nebraska—Joe Knox. So, when Annie wanted to bring Lizzie to Hershey/North Platte, she was happy to go because then she could see Joe more often and start courting him.

Sadly, it didn’t take long for Annie’s verbal and physical abuse to start. Lizzie and Annie’s daughter Clara started working together in the poultry houses. Annie had started raising turkeys, ducks, and guinea hens to sell for extra money, as well as give to prominent businessmen, for favors. Lizzie started her day at 4:00AM. She had to milk the cows, feed the chickens, and prepare breakfast for the household and workers, do laundry, clean Annie’s house, etc. Then, depending on the time of year, she would be in the fields planting crops, picking corn, drawing water from the well to keep the young fruit trees growing. There was always a large garden to tend to, as well as putting up preserves, vegetables, and fruit for winter. She was kept working from before dawn to after sundown. During Thanksgiving and Christmas Times, Lizzie had to kill the poultry, pluck the feathers off, clean and dress the poultry for Annie’s customers. Then back to milking the cows in the evening and check on the chickens.

Annie would feed Lizzie and Clara gruel, so she didn’t have to spend money on food. Lizzie wore rags for clothes, and nothing went to waste on the farm. Every scrap, every piece of trash had some other use for Annie. Nothing was thrown away. Nobody knew what was really going on because Annie lavished her guests and customers with the best quality items on the farm. Annie and the family went to the Lutheran church in Hershey occasionally and would be allowed to wear “good, church” clothes, because appearances must be kept up. Guests would get bags of perfect apples and Lizzie ate ones with worms in them. Buyers got the best dressed chickens, while Lizzie ate soup made from the heads and tails of the chickens.

Annie whipped all her farm workers with a buggy whip, including Lizzie. And yet, there was one chore Lizzie was happy to do – walk down the lane and fetch the mail. That meant she could send and receive letters from Joe Knox, without Annie knowing about it.

Within a year of working on the farm, Lizzie finally wrote Joe about how Annie abused her and that she kept Joe’s letters a secret from Annie. He visited her at Annie’s farm in December 1900 and promised that he would marry Lizzie in the spring. Annie was in town during Joe’s visit and did not know about it.

In May of 1901, Joe kept his promise and the morning they were to be married, Lizzie started walking before the sun was up. She alternated between walking and running, terrified that Annie would come after her and overtake her on the road. Lizzie made it to the courthouse and married Joe.

Annie showed up a few days later in Hyannis. Annie used her “vanilla voice” stating how frightened and worried they all were when they couldn’t’ find Lizzie. To Joe and his family, Annie’s soothing, sweet voice sounded rational and sincere. But her eyes were dark with anger and Lizzie knew Annie had come to take her back home. By the end of the visit, Annie’s vanilla voice had turned to rage and anger; she began to scream and shout at Joe. Joe ordered Annie off the premises. He told Annie that Lizzie was his wife and she wasn’t going anywhere. Annie left full of rage; and without Lizzie.

Lizzie was relieved and so happy to stay with Joe in Hyannis. She helped at his parents’ hotel and stables. Lizzie loved working at the hotel, it was much easier than working for Annie. On July 13, 1902, (about one year after Annie’s visit), Lizzie and Joe had their first and only child, a little girl named Mary. Mary Knox was born on July 13, 1902 in Hyannis, Nebraska.

In 1905, Joe’s mother passed away and they had to sell the hotel. Which meant that Joe and his father went back to working the fields as ranch hands. Lizzie was busy taking care of Mary and her husband. Annie happened to write Mary around this time, asking for her to come for a visit. Lizzie believed that maybe Annie had changed and decided to go for a visit with Annie.

Lizzie knew the moment Annie picked her up, it was a big mistake. Annie yelled at Lizzie all the way back to the farm. Upon arrival at the farm, Annie immediately put Lizzie back to work milking the cows and checking the chickens before bed.

Joe Knox tried to go get Lizzie several times, and Annie met him with her shotgun every time. After trying a couple times to get his wife back, Joe Knox gave up trying. They eventually divorced on the grounds of abandonment.

Lizzie’s daughter, Mary was only 3 years old, when they were taken to the farm, so she wasn’t much use to Annie. So Annie sent her to live with her brother in Colorado. As soon as Mary was old enough to be a farm-hand, Annie went and brought her back to the farm.

Over the years, Lizzie and Mary endured physical and mental abuse by Annie. Mary tried several times as a teenager to run away, only to be brought back to Annie’s farm by Sheriff Art Salisbury.

When Mary was 22 years old, she got in a horrible fight with Annie. Annie wanted Mary to start working in her prostitution houses and Mary refused. A fight ensued and Annie stabbed her with a knife. Mary ran away and thankfully, this time found herself picked up by the newly elected Sheriff Lyman Berthe. Berthe stated that Mary was free, white, and over 21 years of age, so she did not have to return to Annie Cook’s farm if she didn’t want to return.

Mary was free at last. She adapted to a world without mental and physical abuse with the help of Ada Kelly. Ada was the wife of AP Kelly, North Platte Telegraph editor. She was a kind Christian woman who did everything she could to rehabilitate individuals who had fallen into “a bad way.” Mary tried to rescue her mother several times, but never succeeded. Mary married twice. Her second husband was her great love, Louis Cauffman. Mary Cauffman died July 10, 1987.

Lizzie never left Annie’s farm until Annie died in 1952. After Annie’s death, Lizzie went to live with Mary and her husband Louis. Lizzie was malnourished. Her body was scarred and she was mentally broken. Annie had knocked out most of Lizzie’s teeth over the years.

Mary filed a claim for Lizzie for $75,000 against Annie’s estate, for all her years of work without pay. Three years later, Lizzie was awarded $32,000. But the estate was contested. More years went by and a lawyer finally offered $12,000, as a settlement. Mary took it, to continue providing care for her mother.

Lizzie lived with Mary until her death on September 9, 1958. The only thing Lizzie ever requested was to NOT be buried in the Cook plot at the North Platte Cemetery. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Knox is buried some distance away from the Cook plot; and Mary is buried with her beloved Louis Cauffman. Mary died on July 10, 1987.

Thank you for reading and we’ll see you next week for another person impacted by Annie Cook.

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