Monday, January 9, 2017

Pondering the Dead Lists

As I'm old and ill myself, thoughts of mortality naturally enter into my consciousness -- perhaps more than I want them to. Death of course is part of the pageant of life, and I can't say I'm particularly frightened of shuffling off this mortal coil when the time comes, whenever that may be. For all my current health problems, I'm doing pretty well. Frustrations there are aplenty, but it could be so much worse, and so I'm grateful for whatever time I have left and whatever joy and insight I can find and share in that time.

In exploring my ancestry, I'm finding out about people and incidents of death and let's call it mayhem that I knew little or nothing about unmotil recently.

It started with my uncle Vincent who was tried (twice) for the murder of his wife in 1946. My father was one of his defense attorneys, so I knew something about it but not a whole lot. The main take away was that he was acquitted, but how that happened seemed a bit mysterious to me. What I gathered was that my brother -- who was there when his aunt died -- was interviewed in chambers, and subsequently, the court directed a verdict of acquittal. But I didn't know that this was his second trial, and that the first trial had ended in a hung jury -- 9-3, acquital. I also had no idea what the situation really was in Vincent's household and how his wife might have met her demise by cruel accident just as Vincent claimed in his defense.

His alibi was that he was at his mistress's house when his wife fell down the stairs, hit her head and expired. He found her body when he returned the next morning. Called the police, one thing led to another, and he was arrested and charged with murder 2.

One theory was that an intruder had come into the house -- for robbery perhaps -- and bludgeoned her to death. The other theory was that she had just fallen to her death down a flight of stairs, hit her head on a table and that was that.

The prosecution argued that in a drunken rage, Vincent had pushed her down the stairs and left her to die while he went to dally with his mistress in town.

That was actually what my mother believed to be the case, and there was always that kernel of doubt about what had happened.

But my brother was a witness, the only witness, really. He could not testify because he was ruled incompetent.He was 11 years old at the time and severely physically and mentally disabled. He had been raised by his aunt and uncle, Vincent and Garla, since his mother died at his birth. My father could not look after him and Vincent and Garla could not have children of their own, so they took my brother in and raised him as their son.

The extent of his disabilities were manifested over years. He couldn't stand up or walk on his own, he couldn't talk until he was about eight years old, he had repeated seizures. He was in much worse shape than I thought. I only saw him when I was an infant. He was in private care after Garla's death and it was thought unwise for me to see him or him to see me later on. So I never did.

As a witness, I'm not sure what he might have said, or if what he said in chambers made any sense. But apparently it was enough, combined with other evidence, for the judge to declare there wasn't a case for murder.

I learned from a cousin I discovered online that Garla had many problems herself. She drank heavily for one thing. But maybe worse, and what could easily have been the proximate cause of her death, was that she couldn't see very well. From her descriptions of what was happening, her vision would come and go -- she could see for a time, and then her central vision would go blank and she could only see peripherally, sometimes not even that. It can't be corrected with glasses, of course. If she was tipsy and lost her vision the night of her death, well... that would be that, wouldn't it?

Vincent claimed he had left the house in the afternoon to go see Pauline his mistress, and he stayed with her until the next morning. She corroborated his alibi in court. The prosecution's claim was that Vincent had dispatched his wife so he could marry Pauline. They both denied it vigorously.

Well, as it turned out, after his acquittal, Vincent and Pauline were married and they moved to Santa Barbara where they lived the rest of their lives. Hm. Stranger things. I didn't know they were in Santa Barbara -- I thought they'd stayed in Iowa. I periodically lived in Santa Maria, just up the road from Santa Barbara. Stranger things indeed. Vincent died in 1962 which was the last year I saw my father. I think there is a connection, but I'm not entirely sure what it is.

Next on the dead list was my mother's biological father Lawrence. He died when she was five years old in 1916. She told me she remembered very little (I think nothing) about him, but that she clearly recalled attending his funeral where it was discovered he had another wife and daughter. Ooops. This supposedly led to a big scandal, and eventually my mother and her mother moved to California from Indianapolis "to escape the shame."

The shame? Yes. According to my mother, the "discovery" of Lawrence's other family at his funeral was scandalous because it meant that he was a bigamist.

But as I've explored the situation and the public record, I'm not sure it was such a scandal at all. Nor am I convinced that Lawrence's death was an accident.

According to the story I was told and my mother seemed to believe, Lawrence was killed in a streetcar accident in Indianapolis when he was crushed between the cars.

Except that's not quite what happened. He wasn't in Indianapolis, he was in St. Louis. It wasn't a street car accident, it was a railyard incident, and he was indeed caught between two rail cars, a freight car and a refrigerator car, and he was cut in half.

Yes, he had another wife and daughter in St. Louis, but whether he was a bigamist, I can't say. There are hints that he was never legally married to my mother's mother [Note: I found a marriage notice today (01/10/2017); Lawrence and Edna were married on February 4, 1910 in Louisville, KY, yet in April 1910, Lawrence was listed in the census as divorced] but I've found a record of his marriage to his St. Louis wife and to another wife in Indianapolis from whom he was divorced. He had another child by a young girl in Indianapolis (she was 16) the same year my mother was born, as well three children by his first wife, and another daughter by his St. Louis wife. There may have been others, who knows?

The point is that he was quite a ladies' man, and this is one reason why I'm suspicious of his death in the railyard.

For his St. Louis wife subsequently married the yard boss. How... convenient.

Railyard incidents leading to the death of switchmen weren't all that rare in those days as worker safety was not the highest priority, but it was certainly possible to arrange "accidents" should the need arise.

It may have arisen in Lawrence's case simply because... well, any number of reasons. At any rate, he died, and soon thereafter my mother and her mother and Leo, a friend of Larry's from his Indianapolis days who married my mother's mother, decamped for California and a new life. Things went well for them. And then they didn't. But that's another story.

Most recently -- yesterday in fact -- I came across the story of what happened to my mother's grandfather Joseph. He died in 1904, well before my mother's birth. His wife, Ida, then put on her widow's weeds (she always wore black said my mother) and... well, "mourned" is probably too grand a term. More accurately, she declared her independence, and she lived with her children and her widowed sisters and their children until the household broke up in 1917 with the departure of my mother's family to California. Ida went to Chicago with her son, Ralph. Ida's sisters, Nora and Lillian (or Josephine, her first name which she didn't use) stayed in Indianapolis. Ida would return to Indianapolis after Ralph got married c. 1920, an she lived there (as a widow) with one or another of her sisters (both of whom remarried) until her death in 1935.

Joseph, Ida's husband and Edna's father (Edna was my mother's mother) was shot and killed by his mistress Ella on May 24, 1904, apparently after he told her he was "through with her."

According to news reports, he'd been seeing Ella for years, and he basically hadn't lived in the same household as Ida and their children for years before that. Supposedly he moved out to take care of his ill and disabled mother across town. But then at some point, he sent his mother to Chicago to be looked after by his sister who lived there, and Joseph stayed at his mother's house while he prepared to close it. At least that was his story. He had taken up with Ella Hicks, a married woman, at sometime during his separation from Ida.

Ella claimed she only did Joseph's washing and when he made an indecent proposal to her that day, she defended herself with her revolver, thus the murder was actually self defense, don't you see? But apparently there were witnesses to actually happened, and who knew all about Ella's affair with Joseph. Though Frank, Ella's husband, was not a witness to the murder, he apparently knew about the affair, and...I guess he was OK with it. He and Joseph were apparently buddies at any rate. Since I derive all of this from newspaper reports of the incident and Ella's trial, I can't say how much of it is true. Make no mistake, media was just as filled with falsehoods and "fake news" then as it is now, if not more so.

Witnesses said that Ella was intoxicated and was quite deliberate in shooting Joseph when he told her they were done. She was not about to let him go back to his wife or to another woman, no way, no how, and she shot him.

The jury believed that account of what happened and convicted her. She was sentenced to life in prison, but her lawyers argued for a new trial. Apparently that happened, but I don't know the outcome. They were going to try to argue an insanity defense, and maybe they were successful, but if so, I doubt Ella would have been released.

And so... I don't know what these things mean, if anything, in the vast, eternal scheme.  Yet I'm bothered by it just the same.

I didn't know. I think that's the most bothersome thing. But I don't know what I would have done if I did know about these deaths and others among my ancestors and relations. As I find that misadventure plays a role perhaps as great as illness and old age in the history of deaths in the family, and that affairs play more than a little role in those misadventures, I have to think about how that all works -- especially in the contexts of the times.

We have an image of Victorian/Edwardian propriety, let's say, that simply isn't matched by fact. In doing research, I found out my father was married three times. I knew about two of his wives, but not the first one -- she was never mentioned. I knew he had affairs, but with whom or when, nope. Well, except for one, but I'll leave that for another time.

And so it goes. In discussing some of these things with my new-found cousin, she confesses there's so much she never knew about her own family and ancestors, so much that was never said. She didn't know about me, for example, nor did I know about her, even though we lived fairly close to one another in California, and there were other cousins (all now dead) much closer -- and we knew nothing about one another. No one ever said. She said there were other cousins too that she had no knowledge of, except their names.

She said she thinks I was privileged because at least I got to know some of the family in Iowa. She never did. We both wonder if there are any relations still living in Iowa, or did they all move to California?

We don't know.

She wants to know how as many of our relatives as we can find died, for she thinks there might be a genetic thread to follow. I don't know.

For example, we share a German great-grandfather who died in 1901 a couple of weeks after my father's birth. We don't know the cause, but we do have a picture, a family portrait taken perhaps five years or sooner before his death (there's no date, but the clothes and the ages of the children indicate it was taken in the 1890s). Reinhold, our great-grandfather, appears to have fallen asleep in the portrait while reading the newspaper. I look at it and suspect he had congestive heart failure -- which would be consistent with what we see in the portrait. May be. I don't know.

She wants to know how Vincent died. I don't know for sure, but I suspect alcoholism, as he was a heavy drinker like his late wife. My father died of cancer. My mother died of emphysema -- smoked like a chimney till the end, she did.

But my sister died of pulmonary thrombosis following surgery for shattered knees injured in a prison takedown. I think I've told the story before. She was 59. My brother also died of pulmonary thrombosis, but it appears he was in a coma for a long time beforehand. He was 32.

So many things we know, and so many more things we don't know. It is a wonder...

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