Arborvitae: Cousin Jim’s Family Myth

Sometimes, there will be Accepted Family Lore about a particular relative, especially those considered a bit peculiar by the mainstream family. I get excited every time I find evidence to the contrary of the mythology — it means I’m getting to something closer to the truth about their life story.

Cousin Jim was one of those peculiar sorts. The family legends that I’ve found indicate that after World War I, he developed PTSD (or, as they called it back then, shell shock) and started a wandering sort of hobo life. He stayed in touch with only one of his sisters, and most of the family really didn’t know what he was doing for most of his life.

So in 1916, Jim is working as a clerk for the railroad in his Midwestern city. On his 1917 draft registration card, he notes that his disabled father and his several under-12 siblings are his dependents. This is probably the reason that he doesn’t end up in the Army until September 11, 1918. His tenure is brief, since the Armistice is signed in November, and he is discharged in January 1919.

Here’s the thing that set my antennae up: he was only ever stationed at the Camp MacArthur infantry replacement and training camp in Waco, Texas.

Doesn’t sound like the sort of World War I story to dog someone with PTSD, does it? I absolutely believe that any tenure in the armed forces is capable of saddling someone with a massive case of PTSD, whether stationed at home or abroad. However, this was an interesting puncture in the narrative.

After the war, in 1920, I found him still in his town, working as a clerk again for the railroad, living back home with his family. But suddenly he went missing in 1930. Was that when he’d gone on the hobo trail, riding the rails and all that?

Then his World War II draft registration turned up: in 1942, Jim was living in Brooklyn, New York. It was absolutely him; the birthdate and place of birth matched perfectly. He gave his apparent landlady’s name as his contact. The address was in Prospect Heights, 117 St Mark’s Avenue.

St Mark’s Avenue, looking west from Vanderbilt. (About a block and a half from the address.) Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Brooklyn: St. Mark’s Avenue – Vanderbilt Avenue” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Well, that was a twist on the story.

With that information, I went back to the 1930 and 1940 censuses and looked for Jim. It was harder to look at the censuses — they don’t necessarily give the correct birth year or state of birth, since it depends on the person giving the information knowing the truth. But there he was, in 1930, listed as a roomer in a place with an Irishwoman who arrived in the US in 1873 and her adult son, a teamster, who was about 10 years older than Jim. Jim’s year of birth and birth state were right, and his parents’ places of birth were also right. The address: 344 West 49th St in midtown Manhattan, 4 blocks from Rockefeller Center, 10 blocks south of Central Park.

The 1940 census, however, doesn’t have have a James in New York City who was born in Minnesota, or any others that match his demographics. So I’m not sure where he was living — possibly in that flat in Brooklyn where he was in ’42. So that’s a bit of a mystery still.

Sometime between 1942 and 1953, he ended up back in his hometown, because he died there in June 1953. His military funeral card listed the one sister with whom he’d remained in contact as his next of kin. I expect she took whatever secrets he’d shared with her to her own grave, and we’ll never learn the whys and hows of his apparently secret life in New York City. But I treasure getting this brief glimpse into the secret.

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