Monday, December 29, 2014

What I Learned This Year: Part The First

I have to start with how much I learned about my ancestry that I never knew before.

For example, I now know my mother's father's full name, where and when he was born, how, where and when he died, some of the highlights (well, low lights) of his career as a (petty?) criminal, how many children he fathered with how many women, and quite a bit about his family.

My mother told me she had few memories of her father because he died when she was five years old, and she had very few memories before she and her mother and stepfather moved to California from Indianapolis when she was six. I suspect she had no memories of her biological father at all. He was arrested for burglarizing a drug store in Indianapolis when she was six months old in May of 1912. He appeared in court a week later, and his case was given to the grand jury. In August, my mother's mother sued him for divorce. From that point, he disappears from Indianapolis.

Next time he turns up in the records, he's in St. Louis, working on the railroad. In 1914, his 'wife' in St. Louis (whether they are legally married or not, I don't know) gives birth to a daughter. And in December of 1916, he's killed in a horrible railyard accident. His death certificate lists the manner of his death as "Body cut in two."

In 1917, my mother's mother married again in Santa Ana, California, to a man who was a neighbor and possibly a friend and colleague of my mother's biological father.

My mother had been told that her father died in a streetcar accident in Indianapolis, but that wasn't so. She'd been told he was a streetcar conductor in Indianapolis, which he was at the time he met her mother, apparently. But he was living in St. Louis when he died; he was working as a railway switchman. His older brother was a Linotype operator for the St. Louis Globe newspaper at the time and had been living in St. Louis since about 1890.

At some point, Harold -- my mother's father's older brother in St. Louis -- seems to have married my mother's father's first wife Maud who had divorced my mother's father sometime before 1910. Or maybe he didn't marry her. They were living together as husband and wife, but who knows whether they were married? I don't.

I haven't been able to figure out whether my mother's biological father was legally married to anyone but Maud, as there seems to be no record of any other legal wife but her. But in those days, I've found, common law marriages were routine, and it's quite possible that his other wives were common law.

The problem is that my mother was sure there was a scandal when he died and it was discovered he had another family "at the other end of the line," as both wives and daughters appeared at his funeral. My understanding was that all this happened in Indianapolis, but it couldn't have. He died and is buried  in St. Louis. The only way it could have happened is if my mother (then a five year old girl) and her mother traveled to St. Louis for the funeral. I suspect that's what actually took place.

My mother was convinced her father was a bigamist because of the wife and daughter "at the other end of the line." But that may not be true. He may not have been a bigamist in the legal sense. I found no record that he was legally married or divorced from my mother's mother, for example, nor were there any indications in the records that my mother's mother and father ever lived together as husband and wife. Instead my mother's mother is listed as living with her mother and aunts in Indianapolis, even after my mother was born, until they moved to California in 1917 -- almost a year after my mother's father's death in St. Louis.

That story still holds some mysteries, but the story I was told, that my mother's father was a streetcar conductor who had died in a streetcar accident in Indianapolis when she was five wasn't quite accurate, and I'm pretty sure it's what my mother was told and passed on to me without any particular knowledge of her own about it. She said she remembered the little girl -- the two year old daughter of her father's other wife -- and she felt sorry for her. If that's true, then more than likely that meeting took place in St. Louis. But she never mentioned St. Louis in her tellings of the stories. I doubt she remembered where she was at the time.

My mother's father is buried in Friedens Cemetery in North St. Louis (actually in Bellfonatine Neighbors). This is about a mile from Calvary Cemetery where Dred Scott is buried, and about two miles from St. John's Cemetery where Mike Brown is buried.

In the early '80's I lived and worked for a time in St. Louis -- well, it was actually in Webster Groves -- but I had no idea that my mother's father ever lived or was buried there. Instead, I used some of my free time to go to Iowa where I was born and where my father had lived and died. I didn't check out his grave -- which I've never seen in person, though I have seen pictures -- but I did check out his house, and recapture some of my earlier memories of the town.

If I had known my mother's father had connections to St. Louis, I would have made a kind of pilgrimage to various sites I know about now, but had no knowledge of then. For example, the railyard where he died is still there by the Mississippi River. It looks like a Superfund site, but the tracks and much of the other infrastructure that existed in 1916 is still in place. The homes where he was listed as living are no longer there because they were torn down to build the freeways, but his older brother's place in Baden (north of St. Louis) still stands.

Baden, I found out this year, has an interesting connection with my father's family, too. In that case, though, the Baden is in Germany where my father's mother's parents were from. I'd been told they were Germans, but exactly where they were from was somewhat murky. Frankfurt, Prussia, Bavaria, Munich were all mentioned, but not Baden, interestingly. Apparently, from what I was able to find out, my father's mother's parents were from a little village called Weibstadt that has been absorbed by Heidelberg and therefore no longer exists. There may have been travels and sojourns elsewhere in Germany ("Germany" didn't exist at the time, either), but if so, it would have been when they were children. Both my father's mother's parents emigrated to America when they were 15 years old in 1855.

I was told that the family was "probably originally Jewish," but I have yet to see any proof of it. It's possible as there are Jewish families in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands with the same last name, but I haven't found any direct connection between them. At any rate, the family had long been Catholic by the time they came to America.

In researching the Irish side of my father's roots, I found there was a good deal of confusion and not a little Blarney. My father was convinced that we were descended from a prominent American Revolutionary family with deep roots in Maryland. Well... no. Not the way I found the line, at any rate. I will say it is possible that my father's Irish ancestors and the Maryland family he claimed descent from were related distantly, in Ireland, but there is no connection between them and my father's ancestors after 1700 or so. They may not even be branches of the same family as several independent and unrelated families use the same last name.

There was confusion, however, because apparently two brothers emigrated to America with their families at two different times and settled in the same places, first in Ohio and then in Iowa. Edward emigrated with his family in 1842 and settled near Springfield, Ohio; his brother Alexander emigrated with his family in 1850 and settled nearby. Both brothers and most of their families then moved to Iowa in 1857, where they appear to have taken up a number of farmsteads in the general vicinity of Davenport.  Edward and Alexander's families and descendants are so intertwined and they use many of the same given names so it's difficult to sort out just who was who. There are similar problems sorting out who the mothers were, as there were at least four different women married to Edward and Alexander, and indications are that two of them were sisters, and one may have been traded between the brothers, first married to one and then to the other.

I have not been able to unravel who is actually related to whom and how beyond my father's father's generation where it's pretty straightforward and clear. Earlier, however, it's very confused and confusing.

Again, this kind of informality of marriage and relationships was not uncommon in the 19th century. It seemed in fact to be a feature not a bug of the Westward Expansion. Today we might think it's very odd -- I certainly do -- but apparently it wasn't in those days, and people took it quite naturally.

We have a notion of Victorian patriarchy, prudishness and propriety that doesn't quite match the reality. 

My mother and her mother were part of matriarchies, for example, in which men were at best useful accessories and often enough were little more than despised interlopers. "Sperm donors."

From the research I did this year, I found that my mother's mother's mother, Ida, had been widowed in 1904. She set up a household for her mother, herself, her sisters (all widows themselves) and their children (two boys and a girl) in Indianapolis. Ida apparently inherited a lot of property from her husband -- who I found she hadn't lived with for years before he died as he had moved back to his parent's house to take care of his own mother who was apparently an invalid. Ida was left well off for the rest of her life, however, though her sisters were apparently not so well fixed after their husbands died.

My mother's mother, Edna -- Ida's daughter -- worked as a telephone operator at an Indianapolis bank managed by my mother's father's younger brother, George. I suspect that any memories my mother said she had of her biological father were actually of George, who would have been her uncle, but I don't know that for certain. All I'm sure of is that her father left Indianapolis sometime between mid-1912 and mid-1913 (when my mother was not even two years old)  whereas Edna and my mother stayed in Indianapolis until 1917 -- when they moved to California with Leo who became my mother's step-father.

I learned much more about other characters among my ancestors this year, people I'd only heard about previously. Many were long dead, but others were still alive when I was young though I didn't meet or know them.

One was my father's older brother Vincent. He was accused of and tried for the murder of his wife, Garla a couple of years before I was born. He and his wife cared for -- essentially they adopted -- my half-brother Terry after my father's first wife Ted (nickname for Thelma) died in childbirth.  Vincent's alibi was that he was with his mistress in town when Garla died, and he said he discovered her body at the foot of the stairs when he returned home the next morning. The prosecutor claimed that Vincent had beaten her to death as she had numerous bruises on her body. The cause of death was a brain hemorrhage.

My half-brother was apparently the only witness, but he could not testify due to his condition -- now called autism. He was 11 or 12 years old at the time.

Vincent was tried for murder twice. The first jury hung; the second acquitted him. I didn't know about the first trial until this year. My father had been one of his defense attorneys -- the only time he tried a criminal case in court -- and he kept voluminous records and wrote a newsletter for the rest of the family describing what was going on, but the records I've seen and the story he told didn't mention the first trial and the hung jury, just the second trial and the acquittal. That story included the fact of my half-brother's testimony to the judge in chambers, but not what his testimony was. My father's story was that the judge then directed a verdict of "not-guilty."

I didn't know what happened to Vincent until this year. He moved to Santa Barbara in 1947 with his mistress from Iowa and they were married. He died in 1962, in Santa Barbara. I had no idea he was there. From 1949 to 1953, I lived 50 miles north of Santa Barbara, and from 1953 to 1959, I lived in Los Angeles, a few hours south on Highway 101 from Santa Barbara. The only thing I knew about Vincent at that time was that he'd left town after he was acquitted and his whereabouts were "unknown."

Whether anybody (for example, my parents) knew where he was and just didn't want to say, I don't know, but I was surprised as heck to learn he was in Santa Barbara until his death, as I had no idea until I saw records this year.

There were many more things I learned this year about my ancestors and their relatives. I'm still attempting to process all of it. I've started to novelize some of the story as that seems to be the best way for me to understand what I've learned.

In some ways, I wish I'd known these things before now,  but in other ways, I'm not convinced it would make any difference. All my grandparents were dead by the time I was born, and the stories I heard about "my people" when I was young were not that far from true. I'm far from convinced the records I've seen this year are necessarily true themselves -- especially Census records, which are notoriously untrue.

People make up stories about their own past as well as that of their ancestors.

Maybe next year, I'll be able to fictionalize what I've learned this year...

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