Sunday, July 5, 2015


This will be a somewhat different post on my father's birthday than I've done before.

In the past year, I've done a lot of ancestral research and I've found out a lot of things I didn't know before while I've confirmed quite a bit of what I was told as well. By the time I was born, all my grandparents were dead, and I didn't grow up around uncles and aunts and cousins. I knew that they existed -- and had no idea how close they were -- but I never saw them, never knew them, with the exception of my father's sister Alice and her husband Max and their son Bob. I have long known there were quite a few others, but I didn't know they were living as close by as they were -- in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area, and in the Sacramento area. My father and his sisters Alice and Eleanor are the only ones who stayed in Iowa.

But the problem is I'm not sure now if he was my biological father. If he wasn't, as I suspect he might not have been, it would go far toward explaining some of what I thought were simply his quirks and later neglectfulness.

He was born on the banks of the Mississippi River on the 5th of July 1901. I'm sure it was hotter than holy hell that day. He was the second son of his parents, William Henry and Elizabeth Veronica. Elizabeth would go on to have ten children altogether, the last, a son, Eugene, born in 1916. Nine of her children would live to adulthood. A middle daughter, Marian, was killed when she was 12 or 13 due to a sledding accident. A boy came sledding down the hill at great speed. Marian didn't get out of the way fast enough, and the sled hit her in the head. She was dead on the scene.

William Henry was an attorney, farmer, real estate magnate, and a minor politician in Eastern Iowa, with clients in several counties along the Mississippi. He himself had been born to Irish parents, James and Alice, who had come from Ireland in the 1840s and 50s, just before and just after the Famine. I'd been told stories that the Irish side of the family had emigrated to America in the 1600s, to Maryland where they became prominent and were heavily involved in the Revolution and the establishment of the independent United States of America, which made my father's birth on the Fifth of July a kind of coda to the whole matter of American Independence.

This turned out to be melarky. Quite some time ago, I started researching that history, and found that no matter how I tried, I couldn't make a direct connection with the prominent Maryland family and my own. In other words, I couldn't find any of my supposed Maryland ancestors who'd gone West, through Virginia and Ohio and eventually settled in Iowa. The names were different as were their directions of travel. I let the issue sit for a while because I thought there might have been an ancestor whose name I didn't know, and who might not have been mentioned along with the others. I didn't know whether there was an unfound connection or not.

But then when I did the research on my father's ancestors I came across the records that showed that my father's grandfather, James, had emigrated from Ireland with his father Alexander (and perhaps a brother Edward and other relatives, I'm not sure) in either 1842 or 1850. The stories I found in county histories used one or the other date, and census records used 1850 when the question was asked. Nowhere near the 1688 date I'd been told. The confusion of dates (1842 or 1850?) may be because there were two waves of immigration by members of the family and who came when wasn't necessarily clear to later historians, scholars, students -- and family members. Be that as it may, I found there was no direct connection between my ancestors and the Maryland family of the same name, although there may have been an ancestral connection between them in Ireland prior to 1688 (that's still a matter of much murk, as the history in Ireland is a tangled mess...)

Regardless of the fact that the family origin in Maryland was wrong, the story of the journey from Maryland to Ohio and thence to Iowa was pretty much right. Soon after landing in Baltimore in 1842 -- or 1850 -- they commenced to travel west -- doubtless on the B & O Railroad if they could afford it or on the parallel National Road if they couldn't pay the train fare -- to the area around Springfield, Ohio, where they took up farming for several years before moving on to the then-Frontier of Scott County, Iowa, where they settled in 1856-7 on several farms between Princeton and LeClaire.

As far as I could tell, the whole family as well as others who weren't blood relations but who were somehow connected with the family moved en masse from Ohio to Iowa.  The story was that they moved because the "opportunities" were better in Iowa.

This is a fairly typical story of western migration at the time. I found in my studies of the Gold Rush to California that people in established communities in the east, particularly in upstate New York, Indiana, and Ohio, would pull up stakes and head west to the gold fields of California -- despite the fact that they were doing relatively well where they were. In fact, they had to be doing relatively well where they were because heading west was so expensive, rather startlingly expensive it seems to me. They had to have money to begin with, or they couldn't have made the trip, whether to California or simply to the other side of the Mississippi River.

These were not, in other words, hardy, hardscrabble Pioneers. They were for the most part well-established, successful and well-off members of noted families in well-settled communities.

So it would seem to have been with my father's ancestors who moved from Ohio to Iowa in the mid-1850s. The farms they took up in Scott County provided them with a handsome enough income that their offspring could go to college and in many cases become lawyers and/or growers (the next generation kept the farms) and become political players in their communities -- which stretched from Davenport to Clinton and beyond.

This was the family my father was born into.

His mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of German immigrants -- Reinhold and Veronica -- who arrived in this country from different parts of Germany in 1855. Actually, there wasn't a Germany at the time, only German kingdoms, states and principalities, all nominally independent. Reinhold left his home town of Waibstadt (he spelled it "Weibstadt" which made it very difficult for me to find it as I was doing research) -- between Heidelberg and Heilbronn in the province (then-Kingdom) of Baden -- now Baden-Wurttemberg -- in 1854 when he was 14. He made it to Le Havre, France, and arrived in New York in 1855. He lived in New York, in Brooklyn, until 1863 when he took out citizenship papers and moved to Iowa as a carpenter on the Chicago and North Western Railroad, where he lived and worked the rest of his life.

His wife, Veronica, came from Koblenz, (then spelled Coblenz) on the Rhine, in what was then a Prussian province. So far as I can tell, her family were Jewish conversos to Catholicism. The story was that Reinhold's family were also originally Jewish, but I've found no convincing evidence that is so. However, almost all the families in the Koblenz area of Germany that shared Veronica's maiden last name were Jewish, so I think it is likely she was descended from conversos even if he wasn't.

According to the story I was told, Veronica never learned English, and so she was never able to easily communicate with her offspring.

Reinhold died in 1901, two weeks after my father was born, so my father never knew his German grandfather, and he could barely communicate with his German grandmother. Veronica died in 1918, possibly a victim of the Spanish flu.

By 1918, my father was a 2nd Lieutenant in the recently organized Iowa Expeditionary Force training for deployment in Europe. He and his troops would never go to Europe, as the Armistice would be signed before their training was done, but the experience of drilling with his troops on the town's central square was always a thrill to him, something he looked back on fondly, even though he was barely 17 years old at the time.

He went to the University of Iowa starting in 1920 to study law. His older brother Vincent was already there in the Dentistry School, but somehow, Vincent got a law degree, too. My father graduated from the University of Iowa in 1924. This I knew. There was no secret about it. But I found something else, something startling as heck to me. Whether it was a secret, I can't be sure, but it is something I knew nothing of before last year.

My father got married on his 21st birthday in Davenport at St. Mary's Rectory to a woman named Bernice (called by her middle name Evelyn) who was from Iowa City, and they remained married for at least 10 years. I had no idea. None.

This first marriage was never mentioned to me at all, and I would have known nothing about it if I hadn't stumbled on the records -- including marriage certificate and 1925 Iowa census and 1930 federal census -- that my father was married to Bernice/Evelyn. They had no children, and by 1935 were no longer wed. My father was actually married to someone else in 1935, a woman named Thelma from Waterloo, Iowa. I knew about her because she was the mother of my half-brother Terry. She died shortly after Terry was born, probably from an infection, but the cause of her death was never entirely clear to me. Her death was devastating to my father. He kept her close in his heart and memory for the rest of his life.

Terry, it would later be discovered, suffered from what is now called autism, but then he was categorized as an "idiot savant" when it was recognized that there was something wrong with him. Shortly after his birth and the death of his mother, he was given to my father's older brother Vincent and Vincent's wife Garla.They raised him as their own son.

My father and his wife Bernice/Evelyn and Vincent and his wife Garla had been very close during the 20s and 30s. They had lived and worked together as a kind of team in Iowa and Illinois (I had known nothing about the Illinois venture, either) doing primarily real estate title work. At some point, Vincent shifted from a dentistry to law major at U of I, and he became a lawyer. I don't know when that happened. Later, after Bernice/Evelyn was out of the picture, my father and Vincent and Garla shared the same house in Iowa (c. 1940) and continued working together at the family law firm. Terry was listed in that census as Vincent and Garla's son.

Later, Vincent and Garla would move out of town, apparently to one of the farms owned by the family. William Henry, my father's father, died in 1940, and I suspect the farm that Vincent and Garla moved to was part of their inheritance, just as the house in town where my father lived was part of his inheritance.

In 1946, Garla... died.

Exactly what happened was never entirely clear. Vincent said he came home one morning from spending the night with his mistress Pauline in town, and he found Garla dead at the foot of the stairs.

According to the medical examiner, her body was covered with bruises, and it was in his opinion highly unlikely that she had died by accident. Vincent was arrested and charged with her murder.

I had been told of his arrest and trial and acquittal, but I hadn't known that there were two trials, as the first ended with a hung jury. Terry was a witness to whatever happened, but he was not allowed to testify as he was ruled incompetent. In the second trial, however, he was interviewed in chambers, and subsequently the judge directed a verdict of acquittal -- it was reported in the newspapers as a unanimous not-guilty verdict, but my father's detailed version of what happened said the verdict was directed from the bench. This indicates to me that Terry's testimony -- which wasn't described by my father, as he was not in chambers when Terry was interviewed -- essentially verified that Vincent hadn't done it. Who did, or if anyone did, is unclear. My suspicion is that Terry may have been the one who caused Garla's death, assuming it wasn't an accident.

I learned, too, that soon after his acquittal, Vincent moved to Santa Barbara where he married Pauline. He practiced law in Santa Barbara until his death in 1961. I had no idea he was there. From 1949 to 1953, I lived in Santa Maria, just up the road from Santa Barbara, but I had no idea Vincent was so nearby.

Vincent was mentioned but my understanding was that he stayed in Iowa. Not so according to the records.

My parents met in 1944 at McClellan Field in Sacramento, and they were married in 1947 in San Francisco (or possibly in Reno. They honeymooned in San Francisco at any rate.) Both my mother and father were serving in the Army Air Corps when they met, my mother as a medical technician, my father as a training officer.

In 1945, my mother sent a letter to my father saying she had just given birth to stillborn twin daughters fathered by himself. He kept the letter for the rest of his life, and I found it among his papers after his death. I had no idea, of course, that any such birth -- stillborn or not -- had taken place as it was never mentioned by my mother or father.

My suspicion is that she actually had an abortion, but I have no way of knowing for sure. Her subsequent story was that she contracted polio and had to leave the armed forces before the end of the war, but according to the letter, she was forced to leave the WAACs in 1945 because she was pregnant. The story that she told about having polio was -- I believe -- false. In fact, I never believed it was true, though I didn't know about her pregnancy until after my father died in 1969.

My mother and older sister moved to Iowa after my parents were married in 1947. I was conceived shortly after they arrived in December of 1947. I was born in August of 1948, and my parents were divorced in May of 1949. My mother then drove back to California in my father's 1942 Packard Clipper (with infant me in the backseat) which she received as part of the divorce settlement. She got the car, $1000 in cash, and $50 a month child support for me until I was 18 (or possibly 21). My sister took the train back to California.

My mother lived as a single mother from then on.

My father came to visit once, in 1951. I thought he came specifically to visit me/us... but now I think not. He had relatives all up and down California at the time, in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area. Now I think he merely stopped by to visit me and my mother, but he was actually in California to visit his many other relatives. His child support payments subsequently became erratic, and he would only pay if my mother called and pestered him. Ultimately, he stopped paying child support altogether, and no amount of cajoling could get him to pay any more.

I was sent to stay with him in Iowa during the summers of 1961 and 62. During that time, he told me many things, and one of them -- that I paid little attention to at the time -- was that no one in his family had red hair. My mother did, however, and obviously, I must have inherited my red hair from her... except it takes two red-head genes to have a red-headed offspring, and he was telling me that he didn't know of any other red-headed family members... ohhhh, it finally dawned on me, he was obliquely pointing out that he might not actually be my father at all.

He never questioned my paternity outright, but after 1951 I had very little contact with him (phone calls at Christmas and/or my birthday some years, other years, nothing), and those two summers in 1961 and 62 that I spent in Iowa were followed by very little contact. After 1966, there was none at all. He wouldn't answer his phone and he wouldn't respond to letters. I contacted his sister Alice who lived down the street from him, and she said even she rarely saw or spoke to him. He had become a hermit.

Now I think it is possible that he discovered or decided that he was not my biological father when he came to visit in 1951 which was the reason for his subsequent erratic contact and support.

If I was not his son -- except legally -- then he would have little reason to be particularly interested or supportive...

His quip about no one else in his family having red hair was the tip-off -- which of course I didn't understand at the time. I was not familiar with the genetic requirements of red-headedness, and it didn't occur to me until quite a bit later that he might have been suggesting that he wasn't my father, not biologically.

If he wasn't my biological father, who might have been?

There are a couple of potential candidates, friends of my father's, one of whom at least I know was a red-head -- as he represented my father's estate and I worked with him for months after my father's death to settle his affairs.

My mother had often mentioned him -- that friend and fellow attorney -- fondly as one of the only people in Iowa she got along with when -- briefly -- she lived there.

I know his name, but I won't mention it here, as he had a large family of his own, and it wouldn't really be fair to them to suggest that he might have been my biological father -- without any evidence other than a "possibility."

The reason for my parents' divorce was stated as mental cruelty, but according to my mother, the precipitating cause was that one night my father got drunk and got into bed with my 14 year old sister which terrified her. My mother filed for divorce within a week. My father didn't contest it.

Forever afterwards, my sister held a grudge against my father -- if he was my father -- and she considered him beneath contempt. My mother, on the other hand, was more or less ambivalent about him, and after he had a heart attack in 1955, they seriously considered reconciling and re-marrying. But it didn't happen.

The sticking point may have been her refusal to return to Iowa under any circumstances and his reluctance to live in California -- despite having so many relatives in the state.

Or it may have been something else, I'm not sure. All I recall is that the two of them were considering getting back together, and I thought it was pretty exciting. I was annoyed that it didn't happen.

It was considered highly unusual for a single mother to live independently in suburban Southern California at the time, in fact, it was almost unheard of. While I had no urge to live in Iowa, I was eager for my father to re-join his family in California. I don't know for sure why it didn't happen, but I do know that at the time, my father was looking after another sister, Eleanor, who was crippled with scoliosis. She was his secretary at his law office and lived upstairs in his house. His son, Terry, didn't stay with Vincent after the death of his wife Garla but was placed with another family who were friends of my father's in town. They looked after him until they could no longer do so due to their own age and infirmity. Terry was then placed in a state hospital (I'm not sure which one -- there was one near Dubuque and one near Davenport) where I assume he spent the rest of his life. I'm not certain, but I think he died in 1972 at the state hospital, but I have so far been unable to confirm it. My memory is hazy, but I believe I got a letter from the attorney who had handled my father's estate -- the attorney who might be my biological father -- saying that my half-brother had passed away.

At any rate, in 1955, my father was taking care of his sister Eleanor and was responsible for the care of his older son, so I suspect that he felt he couldn't leave Iowa to re-marry my mother and live in California.

There are still many unknowns in this story, unknowns I may never learn the truth of, but over the last year I've learned a great deal about my father and his life that I knew little or nothing of prior to plunging into ancestral research last year. I will no doubt continue to refer to him as "my father" even if, as may be, he was not my biological father. It hardly makes a difference since the man I suspect may have been my biological father never suggested he was nor did my mother ever suggest to me that the man I thought was my father might not have been.

My father died in January of 1969; my mother died in 1987; and my sister died in 1993. I'm not certain when my brother died, but I suspect it was in 1972.  I discovered in my research that I had cousins living in Sloughhouse near Sacramento until 2009 when the last one died; I had no idea. I knew about two aunts living in the San Francisco area, but I never knew exactly where, and I didn't know until recently that there was a third aunt in the Bay Area as well.

I discovered that one aunt had lived within half-a-block of my own apartment in San Francisco, though not at the same time that I lived there, and that her husband had been the manager of the Geary Theatre where I was employed when I lived in San Francisco, though I was unable to determine if he was there when I was working there (I think not, though his name was vaguely familiar when I first learned it.)

I made many other discoveries and found many other connections and linkages that I'd known nothing of previously, some of which I may detail here.

It's all been an extraordinary journey for me that I'm still attempting to fathom. So many Americans know so little about their own heritage and ancestry. Many of the stories we may have been told -- if we've been told anything -- are likely false. On the other hand, many other stories may simply be incomplete, either because the story-tellers don't know the details or because they purposely leave out details.

I relied on the Google and, along with for primary resources. Ancestry and Newspaper Archive are both paid services, neither of which are complete -- or cheap for that matter -- but from them I have gained a great deal of information, including my father's previously unknown first marriage.

About that marriage: Bernice/Evelyn went back to Iowa City at some point after 1932, and she lived there until whenever she died, sometime after 1969. I wasn't able to find a death date for her, but she was apparently a valued employee at the University Hospital until she passed away. She had been a University Hospital employee when my father met her in 1921. They married in 1922. My mother met my father at the base hospital at McClellan Field in 1944. They married in 1947. I wonder if my father's other wife, Thelma, had also been a hospital worker before they were married...

So many questions... sometimes so easy, other times so difficult, to find answers...

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