Mary Naughton was born around 1867 in Minnesota, the eldest girl in a group of 8 siblings, 5 of whom survived to adulthood. Their father died in 1875 at age 44, and the youngest child of the family was born posthumously in February 1876. The oldest boy went to work as a messenger and telegraph operator by the time he was 15, and eventually took up as a carpenter/roofer around 1883, before dying very young in 1890. Mary started working in 1884 as a clerk, and eventually began working as a print compositor at Graphic Illustrating Company and then the West St. Paul Times around 1894, where she stayed until at least 1899. Her remaining brothers all scattered out of the house, and her only sister entered a convent around 1894.
Mary worked as a clerk (where was unspecified in the city directory) from 1902 to 1904, when her mother died. Her mother’s will specified that she should have a room in the house that was willed to her younger brother, and she was still living there in 1905. But then in 1906, she vanished. Under normal conditions, I would have assumed that she married and Ancestry’s algorithm couldn’t connect her to her married name.
But then something odd happened: a Mary Naughton, same birth year and born in Minnesota, appeared in Colorado Springs, Colorado, working as a print compositor.
She was listed in the Colorado Springs directory in 1909 and 1910 as a printer for the Manitou Journal. In 1911, she was listed as a clerk, but from 1912 through 1916, she was listed as a printer or a compositor for the Manitou Springs Journal.
Manitou Springs, and Colorado Springs in general, was a medical destination, known for its mineral waters and crisp, clean, mountain air, both of which were prescribed as treatments for patients with tuberculosis. By 1900, apparently, about a third of the population in the area were patients there for treatment. It does raise the question as to why Mary chose Manitou Springs as her new home — did she have tuberculosis? Was she simply well enough to keep working?
Mary lived at 147 Deer Path Ave until 1914 (it looks like most of the local houses there are more modern now), then moved to Capitol Hill near Montcalm Sanitorium in 1915 and 1916.
This is a fascinating area of the town. The original Montcalm Sanitarium was built near the Miramont Castle, a building constructed as a private residence by Father Jean Baptiste Francolon. According to this website, “Francolon was from France, and had lived in several countries as a diplomat’s son. It’s believed that the priest chose architectural styles that he liked from those countries. He designed his 1885 [sic, other sources say 1895] 30-room castle in nine architecture styles: shingle-style Queen Anne, English Tudor, domestic Elizabethan, Romanesque, Flemish stepped gables, Venetian Ogree, Byzantine, Moorish and half-timber Chateau. The castle has hidden compartments and tunnels and is built against a mountain, secured to the mountain by huge bolts.”
Per this article, Francolon and his mother built an earlier house next to where they later built the castle, and donated that house to the Sister of Mercy to become a tuberculosis sanitarium (Montcalm). He apparently built both places with his mother’s money (she was the daughter of a French count), and his parishioners didn’t like that he came from wealth. The mother superior of the Sisters of Mercy accused him of molesting children, and a lynch mob drove Francolon out of town ca 1900. His mother returned to France a few months later.
The Sisters began to move their sanitarium into the vacant Miramont around 1904, and completed the move when the original sanitarium burnt down in 1907. So by the time Mary moved there, the Castle was well and truly established as a health destination. The houses along Capitol Hill Avenue appear to have been built by and large in the late 1880s and 1890s, and at least some were probably boarding houses.
The last time I could find her in the city directory was 1916, when she was 49. I was disappointed that there were no death records available for the area.
But then a Mary Elaine Naughton appears in Colorado Springs, marrying an optometrist named Eugene D McC— on December 22, 1920. According to their marriage license, they were both living in Cook County, Illinois, (presumably Chicago) at the time, and I guess decided to elope to Colorado Springs.
My speculation ran wild at this point: was this Mary, who having perhaps run off to do war work, landed in Chicago, fell in love, and eloped back to her favorite place?
The couple appears to have stopped there on their way to Los Angeles, where they settled down. In 1921, they had one child, Eugene D Jr. This did give me pause: she would have been in her early 50s at that point, even if her birth year was a little wobbly in the way of census records. But weirder things have happened. Or they could have adopted.
The family appears in the 1930 and 1940 censuses, and there was another clue that this might not be my Mary: her birth year was slotted into the 1890s. Could she possibly lie about her age to that extent? I’ve seen several examples of people (not just women) munging their age about on census records, my grandfather among them, but not usually more than about 10 years. My gut was saying no, but my brain was still chasing down the rabbit hole.
Eugene Jr, an optometrist like his dad, married a woman who sounded utterly lovely, who had performed with Sonia Henie and Esther Williams. They had one son, who got a full football scholarship to Stanford. He’s now a guitar player based out of Texas.
Around the time I found him and dropped him email to see if I could make a connection, I found Mary and her Eugene traveling back from Mexico in 1933, and all my hopes fell over with a thud. Mary was listed as being born in Chicago on May 26, 1898.
I followed the rabbit hole to the conclusion: Eugene Sr apparently died of a coronary thrombosis while staying at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas on November 24, 1956, age 67. According to his brief obituary, he was on vacation. Mary appears to have died in 1965, and her gravestone seems to indicate that she was 67 or 68 years old. And then I received the final nail in the wild speculation: email from this Mary’s grandson, indicating that she was most definitely from Chicago, not the Twin Cities.
So I’m back to 1916 and the mysterious disappearance of Mary Naughton, originally of St Paul, Minnesota. The logical conclusion here is that she probably died. Perhaps she went to Manitou Springs originally because she had tuberculosis, as I speculated earlier, and while she was well enough for several years to work, it finally caught up with her. Maybe she ended up in one of the local sanitariums, perhaps even Montcalm.
My lesson here is to listen to my gut when it tells me that I’m going down a wrong path, no matter how attractive having a solution may be. I can apply my critical gut instinct to other people’s family trees (especially all those that are like “oh look we’re related to a Scottish laird/British nobility with no documentation at all!”), and I need to make sure I’m bringing that same critical thinking to my own trees.
(Originally published on February 19, 2020, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)
The Phelps Mansion Haunting in Stratford, Connecticut, is a case of poltergeist activity that has intrigued me for decades, in part because of the bizarreness of the activity. It is remarkable for the extraordinary nature of the haunting: at the heart of it were multiple creepy religious life-sized dioramas built in remarkably little time out of household materials and the family’s clothing.
It’s also been covered by many different ghost sites and books about haunted New England, so I’m going to synthesize what I’ve found and add in a bit of historical research of my own. Let’s start with a discussion of the “hero” of the tale, Reverend Eliakim Phelps.
A Short History of the Reverend Eliakim Phelps
The Phelps family has been knocking around New England for quite some time. William Phelps, the original immigrant, arrived in 1630 on the Mary and John. He helped found Dorchester, MA, and Windsor, CT. His son, Nathaniel Phelps, was one of the first settlers of Northampton, MA; Nathaniel’s son William and grandson William remained there.
William Jr’s son Eliakim Phelps was born 1709 in Northampton; he moved to Belchertown in 1731 or 1732 (the town was first settled in 1731) and died in 1777. His first wife, Elizabeth Rust of Northampton, died in 1752, age 40, and by her he had 6 children. He then married Elizabeth Davis of Springfield, and had, as his second son, Eliakim (who died in 1824), who had 6 children: Abner, Daniel, William, Eliakim, Asenath, and Diana. (I think Asenath is a cool name!)
It is this last Eliakim, son of Eliakim, who stars in our story.
Some highlights from his life:
Eliakim was born March 20, 1790, in Belchertown, MA.
In 1814, he graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY.
In 1816, he married Sarah Adams (b. 1791) in Wilbraham, MA.
In 1818, he “settled in the ministry in West Brookfield” and was the 5th pastor of the West Brookfield Congregational church. (This is worth noting as most sources identify him as a Presbyterian minister.)
In 1826, he resigned his ministry to become (briefly) principal of the Female Classical Seminary (founded in 1825 and no longer in operation by 1853, though I can’t find when it closed exactly) in West Brookfield, MA.
In the aftermath of leaving the Seminary, he “afterwards settled at Geneva, NY, and [was] dismissed from there.” It was apparently a Presbyterian church, indicating that he had engaged in some of the crossover between Congregationalists and Presbyterians. No clue about the dismissal!
In 1835, he was elected Secretary of the American Educational Society, and the family moved to Philadelphia.
In 1840, he and his family were living in Moyamensing, Pennsylvania (now part of south Philadelphia).
In 1844, he received an honorary degree from Delaware College.
In November 1845, his wife Sarah was carried off by fever, leaving Eliakim a widower with 3 more-or-less adult children (1 of the 4 children died young).
In 1846, he remarried to a young widow, Sarah B Kennedy Nicholson (b. 1814, only 6 years older than his oldest surviving child)), and took in her 3 children by her previous husband: Ann, Henry, and Hannah Nicholson.
In 1848, he purchased a house in Stratford, CT, and moved his family there.
In 1858, his second wife Sarah died in Philadelphia of uterine cancer.
In 1860, Eliakim and his young teen son Sidney were living in what appeared to be a boarding house in Woodstock, CT.
In 1880, Eliakim was living with his son Henry Martyn Phelps in Weehawken, NJ.
Eliakim died on December 29, 1880, age 90, in Weehawken..
Our story also features Eliakim’s second wife Sarah and her 3 children by her first marriage (Anna, Henry/Harry, and Hannah), as well as their toddler son Sidney.
Now that we understand some of the major players, let’s talk about another major piece of this story: the house.
The mansion was built in 1826: a 3-story Greek Revival home at 1738 Elm Street, Stratford, CT. It was built by General Matthias Nicoll (1758-1830) for his daughter Eliza Hopkins Nicoll (1786-1851) and son-in-law Captain George Robert Dowdall (1782-1829). The center hallway of the home was apparently designed by Eliza for George, and was meant to be reminiscent of the main deck of his clipper ship: 12′ wide and 70′ long, with twin staircases leading to the second floor. The house had 4 Doric columns across the front, and the interior was elegantly appointed with chandeliers, carved paneling, and molded plaster work.
Some sources say that Phelps purchased the mansion from Captain Dowdall, while other sources say that he bought it after the deaths of both Dowdalls — Findagrave.com gives different information though: Captain. Dowdall was long dead (died in 1829), and Eliza was clearly in her sunset years (died in 1851), so Phelps likely purchased the house from Eliza, who then moved to Otisville, NY, likely to live with a family member until she died.
The Phelps family owned the house until 1859, when Rev Phelps sold it to Moses Beach, founder of The New York Sun. The home was later inherited by his son Alfred, who was a long-time editor of The Scientific American and ran a private school from the home called the Stratford Institute. In the 1940s, the mansion was covered into a nursing home, the Restmore Convalescent Home, and was bought by Alliance Medical Inns in the 1960s. Financial issues prevented the plans the company had for it, and it boarded up and abandoned the house by 1970. Vandals caused considerable damage to the building, and it was demolished in 1972, by some accounts, and in 1974 by others.
From the house to the greater environment, let’s discuss what was going on in the world at this time.
Many Spiritualists point to 1848, when the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, NY, had their first momentous night of communicating with spirits, as the beginning of Spiritualism. Basically, the home of the Fox family began to be troubled by noises, shaking, and persistent knocking sounds. When the 2 younger girls fled their bedroom one night in apparent terror, they began asking the “spirits” to respond to their counting with knocking, and the spirits accommodated. So began their long and storied careers as mediums, communicating with spirits such as “Mr. Splitfoot” and others. The Fox Sisters moved to Rochester, and newspapers of the time (specifically, the New York Herald and New York Tribune, that I could find) referred to them as the Rochester Ladies as of 1850. Maggie confessed that their work had all been a hoax in 1888. But while the confession destroyed their careers, it did not stop Spiritualism from continuing to grow.
David Chapin, in his book Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, notes:
Eliakim was known to be fascinated by Spiritualism, as well as mesmerism, and this interest carried through much of his family. At least one of his children (Austin) went on to also become Congregationalist clergy, and Austin’s daughter became a prolific feminist writer, producing nearly 60 volumes of prose and poetry in her life, including Biblical romances, antivivisectionist works… and 3 Spiritualist novels. So I think there’s plenty of evidence for the effects of Spiritualism on the Phelps family.
We have the players and the stage — what was the play?
On March 4, 1850, an old friend of Eliakim’s came calling on him at Elm Street, and after dinner and conversation, they apparently decided to try a seance. They apparently heard “intermittent, disorganized rappings” but nothing else. (Citro, 28)
On Sunday, March 10, 1850, the family returned from church to find all the doors standing open and the family’s belongings were strewn across the floor. In one bedroom, chillingly, Mrs. Phelps’ nightgown was laid out on a bed, sleeves crossed over the chest in imitation of a corpse and stockings at the bottom. Nothing appeared to be stolen — his gold watch and the family silver were in view and undisturbed — so they straightened the house and Eliakim sent the family back to church for afternoon services. Meanwhile, he lurked in the upstairs of the house, waiting for the burglars to return. He heard nothing, and then crept downstairs and saw that the dining room was filled with eleven women, some kneeling, some standing, some holding Bibles, and all completely still: all of them seemed focused on a tiny demonic figure suspended by a cord in the center of the room.
The figures were made by stuffing rags and other materials into the family’s clothing.
According to Joseph A Citro’s book, Passing Strange:
Other events occurred during the next 6 months, such as objects moving through the air, family members being carried or pinched and slapped by invisible forces, windows breaking (some 71 windows broke, which seems like an appalling amount of money for repairs if it was a hoax), food appearing and being flung at family members, and loud rappings, knockings, and cries. In one incident, an umbrella leaped into the air and flew some 25 feet away, and smaller objects would fly from locations without any visible force to fling them.
At one point shortly after the haunting began, Mrs. Phelps begged her husband to find someone to help, so he enjoined his friend Rev John Mitchell to investigate. Mitchell decided that it must be the children having a prank, so he locked them away in the house. However, the disturbances continued, and he witnessed moving objects, among other activities, such as seeing objects appear and drop out of the air, and this convinced him that it could not be a hoax or prank.
Investigators, spiritualists, and journalists began to turn up at the house to document and attempt to prove/disprove the events. No witnesses or investigators were ever able to determine a human perpetrator of the events. These included Eliakim’s son Austin and Eliakim’s brother Abner, both of whom were sober, well-thought-of professional men in the Boston environs who were none too pleased about the family notoriety and had every reason to debunk the haunting. They heard pounding on the front door that they could not ascertain the source of, despite waiting on either side of it — the pounding occurred on the door between them, with no visible source. One night, the pounding had moved to Anna’s door, and according to Citro:
Anna, the 17-year-old, was pinched and slapped, generally in view of the family, bruises and welts appearing on her arms and face. Henry, the 12-year-old, got the worst of it, apparently: he was pelted by stones while driving with his stepfather, he was carried across a room by something invisible and dropped on the floor, was thrown into a cistern of water, and several times vanished, once found in a hay mound unconscious, once found outside, tied up and suspended from a tree, and once found stuffed into the shelf of a closet with a rope around his neck.
Eliakim had apparently made attempts to communicate with the spirits perpetrating these events early on, but shut those attempts down because the communications had been so blasphemous and offensive. No transcripts were published, so we only have his word for it, and the word of his friend Mitchell, who also attempted communication. The entities apparently occasionally left Bibles open to significant passages, scrawled symbols on walls, and then, in a dramatic turn, began dropping written messages on the family, generally signed “by Sam Slick, Beelzebub, or H.P. Devil. One that fluttered into existence at Mrs. Phelp’s tea party said, ‘Sir Sambo’s compliments and begs the laddyes to accept as a token of esteem.'” (Citro, 29).
Eventually, however, he was worn down and agreed to another seance. The spirit this time claimed to be a soul in hell, requested pumpkin pie and a glass of gin, and then claimed to have been a law clerk who’d done work for Mrs. Phelps and committed fraud. Eliakim decided that this communication — despite discovering that fraud had been committed via a trip to the Philadelphia law firm in question — was worthless and bad.
Eliakim moved the family to Philadelphia for the winter of 1850-1851, and returned in the spring of 1851, where they were no longer disturbed. According to some accounts, they stayed in the house until 1859, when Phelps sold it to Moses Beach, though they were clearly in Philadelphia in October 1858 when Mrs. Phelps died — possibly Eliakim had taken her to Philadelphia for treatment.
Apparently, there were no other reports of supernatural occurrences until it was a nursing home, at which time some staff reported strange noises and other odd occurrences,. Inevitably, Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated the house.
Supernatural theories for the Phelps haunting range from spirits raised by Eliakim’s seance to the two eldest stepchildren, Anna and Henry, being conduits for paranormal energies, to there being a ghost involved, either a murdered peddler or a woman murdered for being a witch. The non-supernatural theories tend to focus on Henry as the prankster, or on Anna and Henry as teaming up for the hoax. If the latter, perhaps Anna did not return with the family in 1851 — I have found evidence for possibly multiple marriages for her, and she might’ve decided to get away from the family by getting hitched while in Philadelphia, which would have left Henry without his partner-in-crime. Henry, for his part, went to sea, married, and had 2 children. He died in Philadelphia at age 32 of valvular disease of the heart. Of the third child I can find no trace.
Sidney, the child of Eliakim and Sarah, who notably does not appear to figure in any of the stories, married and had one child, and seems to have also died fairly young, around 46, in Philadelphia.
While many of the newspaper articles of 1850 that I’ve managed to find seem to dismiss the entire event out of hand as at least as much of a hoax as they assumed the Fox Sisters to be perpetrating, there do seem to be considerable numbers of investigators who failed to find human sources for the activities. Was the mansion haunted? If not, how were the remarkable tableaus created and how were objects flown through the air in front of witnesses? That no one who subsequently owned the mansion found secret panels or doors, or other automation of deception buried in the walls suggests that at the very least, Rev Phelps was not himself necessarily involved, and may have been an inadvertent dupe of the entire adventure.
Doolittle, Mark. Historical Sketch of the Congregational Church in Belchertown, Mass., from its Organization, 114 Years, with Notices of the Pastors and Officers, and List of Communicants Chronologically Arranged, Tracing Genealogies, Intermarries, and Family Relatives. Northampton, MA: Hopkins, Bridgman & Co; 1852. Available at: archive.org/stream/historicalsketchcc00dool/historicalsketchcc00dool_djvu.txt
Johann Peter Albrecht came from a family who had been in Walldorf, Germany, for at least 5 generations. He was born on October 13, 1836, which made him a subject of the Grand Duke of Baden.
He sailed from Le Havre, France, on the ship Helvetia, arriving in New York City on November 28, 1853. It appears that he may have sailed with a cousin or uncle’s family, since he was 17 and listed in his own entry separate from Georg and Catharine Albrecht’s family on the same ship.
There was a revolution in Baden in 1849 and in 1852, the Grand Duke died, leaving his second son ruling by regency in place of his apparently incompetent eldest son. Meanwhile, the Potato Famine of Ireland was also happening in Germany. And Peter’s mother died in 1850. I could see it all combining to make 1853 a good year to bail out for the US.
Barbara Gaebel, was born on July 14, 1839, in Großbockenheim, Bavaria — the larger of 2 small town subcenters, apparently, of a municipality currently known as Bockenheim an der Weinstraße. Her parents were Carl Gaebel and Jacobina Kennel. I found 2 possible courses for Barbara’s early life:
her mother remarried in 1841 and went on to have 9 children with that man, with the presumption of the era that Carl Gaebel had died
Carl and Jacoba Gabel arrived in New York City with 1-year-old Barbara on July 20, 1840, aboard the ship Elisha Denison, having sailed from LeHavre
I’m opting to consider the latter the canonical version at this point. In the late 1830s, Bavaria became much less friendly toward Catholics; it might not be unreasonable, if the Gabels were Catholic (which later evidence suggests), to think they might have hightailed it out of there with their infant.
Both the Helvetia and the Elisha Denison appear to have been 3-masted square-rigger ships that traversed the Atlantic regularly. The Helvetia was a newer ship, built in 1850, able to make the trip in between 38 and 53 days, apparently. We can probably expect that the Elisha Denison took somewhat longer, though I can’t find any immediate stats on that.
In any case, Peter and Barbara married sometime before 1860 and were settled in Philadelphia by 1860.
Their first child, Charles, was born on August 3, 1860, in Pennsylvania, and they went on to have at least 11 children:
Emma Regina (1871–1946)
Anna Maria (1875–1903)
You’ll notice a few things in their list of children:
There’s a gap between Charles (born 1860) and Catharine (born 1866) which is, in most part, explicable by Peter spending 3.5 years in the Union Army. He was a private in the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, Company A, and was apparently the surgeon’s assistant by dint of his training as a butcher. (Yes, surgery in the Civil War was exactly that horrifying.)
3 of the children didn’t make it out of infancy, which is not unusual at all. Peter Jr and Oliver each died a few hours after birth, Clara died of teething and pneumonia (likely an infection from teething that spread to the lungs).
There is an interesting cluster of 4 children dying between 1896 and 1903.
It is this last that I find especially fascinating. Hang on, let’s put the deaths in order, add in Peter and Barbara, and add causes of death.
Barbara, 13 April 1896: inanition
Catharine, 18 October 1896: acute myelitis
Charles, 4 January 1897: pleuropneumonia
George, 27 April 1902: pulmonary phthisis
Anna Maria, 20 September 1903: tuberculosis
Peter Sr, 15 April 1904: cancer of the throat and face, with the contribution of “effusion on the brain”
Parts of Philadelphia in the late 1800s were so densely populated that tuberculosis ran rampant. I also note that all the Albrecht children were still living at home as of 1896 — 8 children and 2 parents living in a corner house either behind or above the butcher shop on South 8th St. That made for pretty crowded conditions.
Barbara’s cause of death, as we know from previous death certificate adventures, is thoroughly unhelpful. She stopped eating. It could have been cancer. It could have been any disease at all. Her obituary is unhelpful too.
ALBRECHT. On the 13th. BARBARA, wife of Peter Albrecht. nee Goebel, aged 56 years. The relatives and friends of the family are respectfully invited to attend the funeral, on Friday morning at 7.30 o’clock, from her husband’s residence, 1401 South Eighth street. High Mass at St. Alphonsus’ Church. Interment at Holy Cross Cemetery.
Catharine died 6 months after her mother. This could be terrible luck — she developed acute myelitis — inflammation of the spinal cord as a result of… something? Some infectious disease, most likely. It could have been typhoid (there was a sizable outbreak in 1898-1899), or polio (an up and coming disease), or influenza (there had been a pandemic in 1890, but there’s always the yearly flu). It could also have been tuberculosis. Now, we have no evidence from the documents that TB was knocking about in the Albrechts’ crowded house yet.
But less than 3 months later, Charles died of pleuropneumonia (pneumonia complicated by pleurisy, or inflammation of the tissues around the lungs). This is a really odd cluster of bad luck. I mean, it could be just bad luck. There could’ve been a flu outbreak that took out both brother and sister that winter. Especially because we still don’t have proof of TB. But pleurisy is one of the first symptoms of TB outside the lungs, and the doctor may have been simply literal. I have also seen this diagnosis crop up in another family in a mother whose child subsequently died of TB, suggesting that the mother had had it as well.
But then George died of pulmonary phthisis — the unnecessarily unpronounceable 19th century medical term for pulmonary tuberculosis. Granted, he died 5 years after Charles, but TB can have a long latency period. He might have caught something else that compromised his immune system — another round of flu, perhaps — and that allowed latent TB to become active. Or possibly the previous deaths were not TB at all and he just picked it up at work sometime.
A year and 5 months later, Anna also dies of TB. Did she also have latent TB, or did she avoid it until George got it? It’s impossible to know now.
And lastly went Peter, 7 months after Anna and 8 years almost to the day after Barbara died. Cancer of the throat and face is not necessarily directly linked to TB, though TB does increase chances of it. Apparently, laryngeal TB can masquerade as cancer, forming a sizable mass. But the involvement of the face argues against that misdiagnosis. The era suggests that this could have been tobacco use, of course, or perhaps some horrific chemical exposure that only butchers might experience. But at this distance one can never tell.
Certainly it could be terrible luck. Bad luck continued to dog this family even after this horrific cluster of deaths left only 4 children behind.
Emma Regina (1871–1946)
It is worth noting that Emma got the heck out of Dodge in 1899 when she got married and moved out, which probably kept her from having to be potentially infected by TB (assuming there wasn’t an earlier outbreak that she survived). Elizabeth married in October 1902, after George died and before Anna. This left Margaret and John in the house when Anna, then Peter died. Margaret went into service, living in a home with a family with a small child in a middling-wealthy part of Philadelphia, while John moved in with Elizabeth a few blocks down South 8th St, in the house next-door to Peter’s first butcher shop.
John died first, in 1928 of gangrene of the right foot due to diabetes. Emma, sometime in the early 1940s, also experienced complications from diabetes that resulted in amputation of one of her legs.
Elizabeth, who was married but never seems to have had children, died next, the evening of October 26, 1941, in Philadelphia, age 69. She’d been struck by “a car that failed to stop” at 17th St and Passyunk Ave, just 3 blocks from her house.
Emma died on January 10, 1946, age 74, having been the only one of her siblings to have children, and having lived to know her 5 grandsons and even met at least one great-grandchild. Margaret died in February 1956 at the age of 79, and was buried near Emma (and Emma’s husband) and John.
I continue to have deep suspicions about the entire death cluster that comprises 8 years around the turn of the century, though I don’t have any proof. It’s sort of like another, smaller cluster in another branch of the family that is extremely suggestive that the family suffered a Helicobacter pylori infection. I’ll never know the answers, but the evidence is tantalizing and I’ll just keep speculating as long as I work on these family trees.
Here is a tale of how an inherited health issue becomes clearer the deeper one looks into a family tree. (A lesson from a family tree I have worked on.)
It starts with looking at the recent adult generation of a family tree I was working on. I knew from information from the family that 3 amab first cousins of that generation were all diagnosed with cancer and died before age 50:
1 case of acute leukemia in late adolescence
1 case of non-Hodgkins lymphoma before age 25
1 case of colorectal cancer at age 40
There was also possibly an afab first cousin with cancer, but I couldn’t get specifics, and that person might not have been a step-cousin.
That… seems like rather a lot of people with cancer. So I took a look at the next generation back.
Two of the 4 siblings died of cancer — one of breast cancer diagnosed before age 60, and one of lung cancer around age 80. In general, 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 USians will develop cancer at some point in their lives, so 2 of 4 is a bit above average. Certainly noticeable considering the generation after them.
So I looked at the parents of those 4 siblings.
Their mother died at 81 of heart failure. However, their father (let’s call him Pete) died at age 48 due to generalized metastatic cancer — no information on the primary cancer. (He apparently died during a minor surgical procedure, and when they did the autopsy, they found that he had generalized metastasis. The death certificate indicated that his cervical lymph nodes were particularly affected. Lymphoma? Or just metastasis from some other primary cancer?) If we presume that there is a genetic cause of all these cancers, it seems obvious from which parent it might have come!
I was able to uncover death certificates for Pete’s parents. Both of them died fairly young, which was an intriguing start. But one of the problems with death certificates, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is that some doctors are incredibly literal. “John Doe died of pulmonary edema” — what caused John’s pulmonary edema? Was it heart failure? Was it cancer? Was it an infectious disease? Who knows?
Pete’s father Michael died at age 58 of a pulmonary embolism and endocarditis, and had a history of apoplexy (stroke) a year earlier. That seems straightforwardly cardiovascular enough (though cancer can increase the risk of stroke by altering the clotting of the blood). Pete’s mother Mary died at age 42 of a cerebral embolism in the middle of the 1918 flu pandemic (October 14, 1918) and was living near Philadelphia, which was one of the worst-hit cities in the US. Influenza, like many other viruses, can increase the risk of stroke, and a lot of doctors weren’t adding influenza as a cause of death on certificates at the time. So we may have an answer there.
A quick check one generation back provided some more data:
Michael’s father died at 75 of pulmonary edema with a contributing factor of hypertrophy of the prostate. Overgrowth of the prostate in a 75-year-old man in 1923 could have been benign hypertrophy OR it could have been prostate cancer. There’s really no telling, unfortunately.
Michael’s mother died at 64 of “ruptured compensation,” which is either heart failure or decompensated valvular disease of the heart. That’s fairly clearly cardiac. Sadly, his parents were immigrants from a country with no easily-accessible online data, so I can’t hunt more medical history there.
Mary’s father died at 85 of arteriosclerosis. Her mother died at 49 of uremia, which wasn’t all that unusual in 1899 — it was a common cause of death for those with diabetes, for instance, or any of several other conditions that might injure the kidneys. And they too were immigrants, where information stops.
Let’s Check the Siblings
Back down the tree to Pete. He had a bunch of siblings! Some more data:
Jim, who died at 61 of metastatic colon cancer
Catherine, who died at 2 months of pneumonia
Mary, who died at 70 of a sudden heart attack
Frank, who died at 4 of “hemorrhages”
Claire, who died at 6 months of lobar pneumonia
Jean, who died at age 86 of unknown causes
Michael, who died at age 1 years of meningitis and pneumonia
Joe, who died at age 84 of unknown causes
Let’s take a quick run down Jim’s tree, since he’s the most obvious person who died of cancer in adulthood. He had 3 children:
Jean, who died at 74 of unknown causes, though her obituary suggested donations to the “bone marrow unit” of the local hospital, which suggests blood cancer; Jean had 1 child::
Sandra, who died at age 59 of leukemia, and had 2 children:
Brian, who died at age 21 of leukemia
Nan, who is still alive
Bob, who died at 83 of melanoma; Bob had 3 children:
Bob Jr, who died at age 41 of anaphylactic shock from multiple yellowjacket stings
Cathy, who is still alive
Cheryl, who is still alive
Darcy, who is still alive
Wow, okay, Jean, her daughter, and her grandson certainly seem to factor into the equation here. Bob, at 83 with melanoma, might or might not be a related data point.
That’s a lot of cancer in 2 family branches, happening to relatively young people, especially when one compares to the unaffected family branches, where most people died of cardiovascular disease. Striking, you might call it if you were a genealogist and a geneticist.
Many cancer-predisposing genes are inherited in an autosomal dominant fashion, meaning that only one copy needs to be inherited to manifest. But these genes are also influenced by environmental factors, which is why they generally only increase the risk of developing cancer, rather than making it an absolute future. They also tend to mutate fairly often: for instance, when inherited BRCA1 mutations are found in someone with breast or ovarian cancer, about 40% of the time that person doesn’t have a family history of cancer. There was a decent chance, when all I knew about was Pete and his descendents, that Pete was gene patient zero..
However, given what I found with Pete’s brother Jim and his descendents, we’re probably looking at a gene that was inherited from one of their parents, both of whom died youngish of apparently noncancerous causes. Is there any way to look into that? Siblings again!
Pete’s mother Mary had a couple of siblings, but the only one I could find a death date on was a woman who died of a stroke just a couple years after Mary. Strokes were really going around in that family! The 1918-1920 period was pretty stressful.
Pete’s father Michael had more traceable siblings:
Mary, who died at 74, and of her 7 children, 1 died in infancy, 1 died at age 38 (“after a brief illness”), 1 died at 53 (“following a short illness”), and the rest died between the ages of 76 and 100.
Dan, who died at 77, and of his 3 children, 1 died at 32 after “an illness of 10 weeks,” 1 died at 73, and the last died at 97.
Tony, who died at 68 of emphysema and bronchitis, and had no children.
Lou, who died at 80 after a “brief illness,” and of his 5 children, 1 died at 76 after a “lengthy illness,” 1 died at age 2 of enterocolitis, 1 died at age 68 of unknown causes, 1 died at 69 of a heart attack, and 1 died at 83 of Alzheimer’s.
There is nothing jumping out as a potential run of cancer in this part of the family, with the possible exceptions of the 2 mysterious 30-somethings and 1 50-something dying after brief/short/10-week illnesses. Brief illnesses in 50-somethings are usually cardiac, but in 30-somethings, it’s a big question mark. But none of the 5 siblings appear to have died young or markedly of cancer. If we’re postulating an autosomal dominant gene, then about half of the siblings should have turned up with something. Granted, we don’t know about actual cause of death for 3 of them.
I must reluctantly come to the conclusion that we don’t have sufficient data to conclude which parent gave Jim and Pete their hypothetical cancer gene.
All right, if we’re going to go down the track of hypothetical cancer genes, what are we looking at?
Our only certain data points are:
1 case of generalized metastatic cancer of unknown origin (amab)
1 case of melanoma (amab)
1 case of breast cancer (afab)
1 case of lung cancer (afab)
2 cases of colorectal cancer (amab)
4 or 5 cases of leukemia or lymphoma (3 amab, 1 or 2 afab)
The melanoma and lung cancer can almost be written off as incidentals: the fellow who died of melanoma happened to have an address in a known beach town, the woman who died of lung cancer was a nearly lifelong smoker, both of them over 80. Which leaves us leukemia/lymphoma predominant, with colorectal and breast cancer in the mix. Not a lot of data to work with. The sex balance is interesting: 6 males, 3 females. Should we be looking at an X-chromosome-linked gene? Or is there some protective quality in action? Or do we just have a random assortment that happens to have an imbalance? Again, not a lot of data. If I could get information on the many unknowns, it might give us more insight.
This is, at this point, not the pattern of either of the BRCA gene mutations. In both BRCA1 and BRCA2, there is an overwhelming majority of breast and ovarian cancers (along with closely related cancers like fallopian tube cancer and primary peritoneal cancer), with an increased chance of pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. Another cancer syndrome that comes up at the top of literature searches is Li-Fraumeni syndrome (a mutation in the gene TP53), but it has cancer types not seen in this family: sarcoma, brain cancer, and adrenal cancer. It’s also almost completely penetrant in its classic form, meaning that people who inherit the mutation are going to get cancer if they live long enough.
This is likely a gene mutation that is incompletely penetrant — just in the initial family branch, there are apparent generation skips — but most likely autosomal dominant inheritance, given the way it can show up in every generation. (The family would have to have remarkably crap luck to keep marrying mutation carriers from other families.) There are a lot of familial cancer syndromes out there, and more being found all the time. Just running cancer predisposition searches on Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) can be overwhelming: a search for “leukemia predisposition” brings back 1900 results.
I’m not a cancer geneticist by a long shot, but I can see the outlines of patterns in family history research. This is just one family that I’ve spotted with such an issue — there are others that I’ve run across in other families that show even more definite patterns, ones where I can say, “Oh, I bet there’s a BRCA issue here,” or, “Looks like one of the familial colorectal cancer genes.”
This is just varied enough to be hard to make an untutored call. It looks like a pattern. It feels like a pattern. But I suspect that a cancer geneticist would probably want to do some gene sequencing on the family to spot the source of the issue, and to be able to test the family members who are at risk. And get a paper from it, of course.
At least a decade ago, a long-time friend of mine who was adopted (we’ll call her Elena; note that names of all living people and some dead people are changed for privacy) and I were talking over some wine, and I offered to hook her up with some online adoption registries in case she was interested in finding her bio-parents. She had her bio-mom’s name, name of the lawyer who handled the adoption, her date of birth, and the hospital she was born in. So that was the info I plunked into the internet.
And that was where this story just started to get interesting.
Elena’s adoption was handled by Helen Tanos Hope. In brief: the adoptions handled by Hope are characterized by some writers as “grey market” — a little sketchy, entirely legal. For instance, Elena’s adoptive father spent a week in Juarez, Mexico, to finalize the paperwork for the adoption. Not the usual procedure, really. When Hope died, her records went into the trash — also not usual procedure. Another lawyer managed to salvage a large proportion of the records, but there are whole registries dedicated to people adopted through Hope’s services because of the lack of records.
After that bit of exciting news, though, everything went quiescent. Elena added herself to some other adoption registries; I got one hit on a registry that I poked, but the email address for the birth mother who was listed was no longer functioning.
Then 4 years ago, everything picked up: Elena’s birth mother, Claire, found her on one of the registries and wrote her a birthday card. Elena called me not long after she read the card and gave me both Claire’s name and her bio-father’s name — I’ll call him Bill throughout — asking me to poke at Ancestry and see what turned up.
And then we started a wild ride over the next couple of days.
His full name was surprisingly findable and turned up a lot of hits that were specific for him and his father (Bill was named for his father).
I shook the family tree pretty hard, and a bunch of stuff fell out.
Bill was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1928. I had to doublecheck this date in multiple records, because that made him 10 years older than he’d told Claire he was when he met her in the mid-1960s. But I found multiple sources for the birthdate, and those sources also corresponded with his later move to Florida. I was pretty certain I was looking at the correct Bill.
In 1931, Bill was in a head-on car crash that nearly killed his mother, the driver — another driver had swerved out of the line of cars and hit her car head-on. Apparently the car following theirs also hit them, then sped off without checking on anyone or giving information. Her mother and sister-in-law were also in the car and, like Bill, received severe cuts and bruises. Fortunately, despite the hopeless tone of the newspaper article, Bill’s mother survived (and lived to be 91).
By 1940, his family had moved to Staten Island, New York, where his father worked as a ferry/marine engineer. Bill attended Ralph R. McKee Career & Technical High School in Staten Island, graduating in 1946. In 1953, I found a record of him living in Miami, Florida, with his parents, working as a mechanic for American Airmotive Corporation (which apparently was founded earlier than 1954).
For New Year’s 1954, he traveled to Key West. And then in 1955, the first hint of things to come: a divorce from a woman named Carmella.
Now, Florida’s marriage and divorce records are pretty complete on Ancestry. The fact that I couldn’t find a record for his marriage to Carmella suggests that perhaps that marriage happened elsewhere — Staten Island, perhaps, or New Jersey. Unfortunately, her maiden name was nowhere to be found, so I still haven’t managed to locate her.
But no worries! There’s plenty more where she came from, as evidenced by the 1955 Florida marriage record of Bill and Jan.
Followed by the 1959 Florida divorce from Jan.
And the July 1959 Florida marriage to Phyllis.
And the March 1966 Florida divorce from Phyllis.
And the May 1975 Nevada marriage to Gayle.
And the 1979 divorce from Gayle.
And the July 1979 Nevada marriage to Myrtle.
And the September 1982 California divorce from Myrtle.
And the October 1982 California marriage to Ladonna.
I kept expecting more to turn up, so I kept shaking the tree.
When Bill died in 2007 in Washington state, he was apparently still married to Ladonna, which surprised me. So I went back and started digging into the ex-wives a bit more.
Jan was born on Long Island in 1935. She married Bill in 1955 and divorced him in 1959. In 1961, she married Charlie. She divorced Charlie in 1965. In 1967, she married Les. She appears to still be alive and married to Les.
Phyllis was born in New York in 1930. She married Harry sometime in the early 1950s in New York. She divorced Harry in June 1959 and married Bill in July 1959. She divorced Bill in March 1966 and married Charlie (yes, same Charlie as above) in October 1966. She divorced Charlie in May 1968, and married Greg in February 1969. She divorced Greg in July 1970. When she died in 2013, she was living in California.
We know from Claire ‘s letter and subsequent discussions that the time between 1967 and ~1974 was when Claire was with Bill. She met him in 1967, a charming musician who had recently survived a major car accident. He was working at a local music shop as a music teacher and instrument repairman, and spending a lot of time on his steel-hulled, twin-engine, teak-decked, mahogany-trimmed 36-foot Chriscraft motor boat. Claire had Elena in 1968 — we later found that Phyllis apparently helped arrange the adoption via Helen Hope. Bill and Claire stayed together, and he apparently abandoned his Chriscraft and bought a steam-fired tugboat called the NYC Central #3, which Claire described as “roughly 100 feet of derelict steel which he had the delusion of restoring to its former glory.” They lived there for a couple of years and had a lot of parties. They moved to a house for a year, and then Bill decided on a move to Colorado. They never married, thus no marriage record, or divorce record when she left him.
Gayle was born in Nebraska in 1942. In 1958, she married George in Colorado. She divorced him in February 1970, then married Rick in March 1970. Presumably, there was a divorce, since she married Bill in 1975. She divorced Bill in 1979, and I haven’t found any further marriages. I do note that when she died in 2003, she had retained Rick’s last name, not Bill’s.
Myrtle was born in 1924 in Detroit, Michigan, notably the only one of Bill’s wives to be older than him. She married Gene in 1949 in Detroit. Sometime near and about 1975, she married another guy because that’s when her last name changed again. Then she divorced him and married Bill in Nevada in 1979. She divorced Bill in California in 1982, and then in 1983 married another William. As far as I can tell, she remained married to him until she died in 2001.
Ladonna was born in 1933 in Texas. At some point, perhaps in the early 60s, she married Roy, and then divorced him in 1966 in California. On Hallowe’en 1967, she married Robert. That lasted until March 1971, when she divorced him. At some point after that, she married James, and then divorced him in 1978. In 1982, she married Bill, and stayed married to him until he died in 2007. She died in 2008.
Subsequent searching turned up a Fredrica [Bill’s last name] in Miami, which blew us out of the water, because Claire knew who she was — she was the woman (well, girl, really, because she was 16-17, as Claire had been) Bill had been in a relationship before her. I did some more digging: Fredrica was born in 1948 in California, and I found her actual last name. I found her as a cheerleader in a high school in Louisiana in 1965 or so, found a marriage record to a guy named Lazaro in 1967 in Miami, followed by a divorce in 1973. Then I found that she’d died in Texas in 1993. A local historical society provided me with her obituary — she’d died in a car accident. With the information in the obituary, I managed to connect with her younger brother on Facebook, and he told me the following tale: while their family had been gone for a vacation, Fredrica had gone to New Orleans for a jazz festival, where she met Bill in the French Quarter. After, apparently, a wild weekend, Bill brought her back to the family house, where she packed a bag and left them a note that she’d “split” with Bill to Miami. After some consideration, their father moved the family to Miami to be close to her. She’d changed to attending high school there, and had taken Bill to her prom. Eventually, though, she broke up with Bill, and we know he almost immediately got involved with Claire.
So then I started hunting — were there any other kids? I couldn’t find Carmella, Jan didn’t seem to have any, and neither did Gayle — Myrtle was in her 50s when she married Bill, likewise Ladonna. So then I looked at Phyllis. Her obituary listed 4 children! I started poking them for ages. Three of them were born during her years with Harry, but I couldn’t dig up a birth year immediately on the fourth — April. It took me a lot of hunting, but I narrowed her age down and it seemed very likely that she was born during Phyllis’ first year of marriage to Bill. I started Googling her.
That was when I tripped over the news story about April and her art. In the course of the interview, she mentioned that she was adopted and that she’d tracked down her bio-parents, Phyllis and Bill.
Suddenly, I knew I’d found a half-sister for Elena.
Elena reached out to April, and that contact brought a wealth of information. Like, for instance, that in addition to her and her 3 half-siblings, Phyllis had also had a baby with Bill in high school. Who had, naturally, been put up for adoption. April had been hunting for her for years.
That fall, there was quite a get-together at Elena’s house, with both Claire and April converging, and all of them insisting I come along. It was an exhausting but delightful and thoroughly enlightening weekend. We got a much better feel for how charismatic Bill had been (despite the somewhat appalling prom photo I had acquired from Fredrica’s brother), some more history about Claire’s life with him, and, moreover, from April, an idea of the lifelong passion Phyllis had had for him.
For the most part, the family tree stopped providing a wild ride after that. Bill’s family history was unremarkable except for the odd coincidence that they were from the state that Elena had been taken home to after her adoption. The family consisted of marine engineers who mostly worked on shipping on the local rivers. Bill’s father came from an extremely large family with some German antecedents while his mother descended from an originally Quaker lineage that shared ancestors with Richard Nixon.
April did AncestryDNA in the hope of locating her lost full sister, and finally, in early 2018, she succeeded! Florence lived in the state next to Elena’s, and in the spring, the 3 sisters met at Elena’s house. Happy endings all around!
I’m still frustrated by being unable to track down Bill’s first wife, Carmella — I would bet that there was at least one child involved in that marriage. But neither New York nor New Jersey are very forthcoming with marriage records at this time, so I have to be satisfied with having made some human connections with what I had in hand… as well as having documented at least the legally recorded side of the startling web of relationships twined around Bill.
As you know by now, it’s the people who die surprisingly young who most often surprise me on their death certificates or, in states failing to have useful records that Ancestry or FamilySearch have managed to wangle out of them, news stories. And they’re the ones I generally go hunting for in terms of cause of death. In the case of women, it’s usually sadly predictable; for instance, in a tree I’m working on, I recently spotted a woman who’d died in 1944 in her 30s. Then I found that a child of hers was born in 1944. I compared his birthday to her death day and… yeah, she’d died 2 days after he was born. Puerperal fever got a LOT of women before the general availability of really effective antibiotics. Now, I don’t have her death certificate — thanks, Michigan — so it could have been eclampsia, since there were antibiotics at this point that generally put down puerperal fever, and eclampsia is harder to put down; or it could have been a hemorrhage, or any of a handful of other causes of mortality in new mothers.
When men die super-young, it’s either disease or something more interesting than puerperal fever. For instance, I’ve got one guy who died within a month of his wedding of meningitis. That said, it’s often worth hunting for news stories if there’s no death certificate, because small towns and the demise of a promising young man often equal Big News (see also Cousin Frank’s Sudden Death).
As it was in the case of Oscar Beauregarde Russell.
Disclaimer: O B Russell is part of a tree that is not mine, but that I’ve been working on. Permission granted by the person whose tree it is for me to write about interesting things I find in the tree.
Oscar was born on August 31, 1861, in Verona, Mississippi, just a few months after the opening of the Civil War (and he, of course, lived in a place that probably refers to it as the War Between The States, but this is my version of the story, so you get my [accurate] Yankee predilections for terminology). He was the ninth child of George Daniel Russell and Emily Menville Stovall, grandson of George Russell, who was a close friend of Davy Crockett and played by Buddy Ebsen in Disney’s Davy Crockett television series.
On May 18, 1882, in Bell, Texas, Oscar married Leila Eubank, daughter of John Thomas Eubank and Julia Jackson Eubank. As he proceeded into what was apparently a promising career in the dairy business, he and Leila had 7 children.
On March 20, 1897, however, Oscar made a Bad Choice.
BAIRD STAR – FRIDAY Mar 26, 1897, CRUSHED TO DEATH: There was a horrible accident in the railroad yards here last Saturday night in which Mr. O B Russell, brother of our County Attorney, B L Russell, and partner with Mr. H G Parker, dairyman, was instantly killed. Mr. Russell came up town after supper on some business and returning in company with Arthur Waldrou they went down through the T&P Ry yards on their way to the dairy farm just south of the depot. There were several freight cars standing on the main line and they walked to a point just east of the telegraph office where they found an opening between the cars. Arthur Waldrou crossed the track in safety, but the space between the cars from some cause closed up suddenly and caught Mr. Russell between the draw heads and crushed him to death instantly; a coupling link having passed entirely through his body just above the hips. Mr. Russell had a lamp chimney in his hand when struck and when found the chimney was still in his hand unbroken. Mr. Russell leaves a wife and seven children to mourn his loss, besides several brothers and sisters and his aged mother who lives at Putnam. Two sisters, Mrs. M E Surles, of Putnam and Mrs. R Day of Abilene, came in Sunday to attend the funeral at Baird Cemetery. Mr Frank Russell of Sipe Springs was telegraphed the sad news at once but did not receive it until too late to be present at the funeral; but came in on Monday. It was a sad affair and THE STAR extends sincere sympathy to the widow and orphan children so suddenly robbed of husband and father. Mr. Russell was born in 1861 and was therefore about 36 years of age. In the mourning of life, while the shadows still falling towards the west, suddenly and without a moments warning the summons came and he passed over the river. Mr. Russell we understand carried a small amount of life insurance $1000 in the Royal Union Co. of Des Moines.
Yes, you read that correctly: he walked through a train yard as a short cut. He walked between 2 train cars that his friend had just successfully walked between. One of the cars moved for an unknown reason and he was transfixed by the coupling between the cars, instantly killed, and found still standing with his lamp in his hand.
The United States was in transition between train couplers at that point. Originally, they used link-and-pin couplers, which required a human to be between moving train cars in order to lock those cars together, and maimed or killed a LOT of railway workers.
In order to address the safety concerns, the US mandated a transition from these link and pin couplers to automatic knuckle or Janney couplers over the course of about 5 years. So there were transition couplers that could accept either type.
And then there were just the knuckle couplers.
Because 1897 was squarely in the transition period, we can’t know which type of coupler went entirely through Oscar above the hips, but we can be… pretty glad he apparently died instantly. And very sorry for Mr. Waldrou, who presumably turned back when his friend wasn’t immediately behind him and found some serious nightmare fuel instead.
The obituary notes that his sudden death left his widow and 7 children… but actually it was 8, because Leila gave birth to their last child 6 months later. Those 8 children were:
Edith Mae Russell (1884–1974)
Oscar Burton Russell (1886–1954)
Emily C Russell (1888–1913)
John T Russell (1889–1925)
William Stovall Russell (1891–1972)
Robert Lee Russell (1893–1951)
Clarence Tatom Russell (1895–1964)
Eunice Vivian Russell (1897–1980)
Leila took the children and presumably the insurance settlement away from Baird, Texas, to Lampasas, Texas, where her father lived. They were living in a house she owned in Lampasas in 1900. However, her father died in late 1900, and perhaps there was a motivation to move closer to her husband’s family again, since she moved the family back to Callahan County by 1910. By 1920, it appears that all her children had moved out to their own lives, and she moved back closer to her roots, to Bertram, Texas, where she lived with one of her nieces. While I can’t find her in 1930, by 1935 she was living with her youngest daughter Vivian and her family in Forth Worth, Texas, and by 1940, they were in Arlington, Texas, (near Austin). Leila lived until 1953, and died in San Luis Obispo, California, age 88, still apparently living with Vivian and her family (since Vivian’s husband died in the same city in 1960).
Just before Xmas, I managed to finish my third genealogy book, Arborvitae: The McLaughlin Family. (Keep in mind that I research, write, lay out, and edit this myself, so there will inevitably be errors. My dad already caught one. *sweatdrop*)
I have one more main branch of my family to complete, and then I can start working on some of the married-in branches as gifts for some of my cousins. Meanwhile, I’m working on one for a dear friend, and another writeup for another dear friend.
Onward and upward before I revisit any of the existing ones for updates.
It was pretty startling in the case of someone named John to find something so definitive: it identified him by name, birthplace, and date of birth, as well as including his mother’s name and her home address. And here he was, being received into Sing Sing Prison in New York, far from his Philadelphia home.
For being so definitive, it raised a lot of questions: alias was listed as “Mason.” Was he just called Mason? Was he also known as John Mason? His plea was listed as “confession” and then we see his crime: murder 2nd degree. And that brought me up short, especially in a 19-year-old.
Fortunately, I wasn’t left in suspense: there was a description of the criminal act: “while armed, shot and killed a man [illegible]”. This took place on July 24, 1935, in New York City. He was sentenced on April 15, 1936, and received at the prison on April 16. His sentence? 20 to life. However, he became eligible for parole on March 13, 1949.
Of interest, he had 2 accomplices — Timothy Curran and James Hanks — both of whom are listed as deceased. Well! Were they deceased by the hand of the law, or by other forces? A Timothy Curran was received at Sing Sing on February 6, 1930, for attempted burglary, with a sentence of 5 years (eligible for parole 2/19/34), though there’s no sign of James Hanks in the available records.
John’s only apparently legitimate employment was for a week in 1934, working as a clerk at a wage of $5/week. Other interesting bits and bobs of information are available from this intake: he could read and write, he was Catholic but did not attend church, and he was living at 1 Convent Avenue, New York, when he was arrested (an apartment building that is either in Manhattanville or Harlem, it’s hard to tell on the map, and I’m not well-versed enough in NYC geography to determine).
This rather surprising bit of history made it easier to chase down John’s particular rabbit hole. Interestingly, by 1943, he was apparently back in Philadelphia, because he’d registered for the draft there. Time off for good behavior?
And then, in another Ancestry family tree, I found that John married his sister-in-law’s sister Theresa, who was on her second marriage. I poked a little deeper into her family and she married her first husband, Hugh, in 1945. But then he vanished in 1950 and turned up as skeletal remains in a car in the Delaware River when a dredge picked the car up in 1955. The car went into the river at Vine Street in Philadelphia, which appears to be right where the Ben Franklin Bridge is (I’m from the MidAtlantic and much of my family is from Philly, but I don’t have a good mental map of Philly, so I resort to GoogleMaps).
Bones in River Linked to Bodies Of Autoists Missing Since ’50 Delaware Yields Car At Vine St. Pieces of human bones found by divers on the riverbed near the point where a 1947 Pontiac sedan was dredged from the Delaware River Wednesday appeared yesterday to have solved the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of two Philadelphia men missing since 1950. Capt. David Roberts of the Homicide Squad reported that his men, late yesterday afternoon, sent to the morgue several bones and fragments, believed to be those of a human being, which were brought to the surface by divers of the Motor Harbor Police. BOTH REPORTED MISSING The divers were sent to the bottom of the river, about 30 feet off Pier 17 at Vie st., after a search of the mud-filled interior of the sedan had disclosed no sign of its occupants. Patrolmen Norton Stevenson, Bernard Corcoran and Edward Roman, the three divers, brought up two humerus bones (those of the upper arm); one femur, one ulna, one radius, one scapula, and eight rib bones in the course of their search. Sgt. John McBridge of the Homicide Squad said the bones were definitely human. He said the divers would return to the scene this morning to search for skulls, so that positive identification might be made through dental work. The occupants, at the time the automobile apparently plunged into the river in December, 1950, were believed to have been George Hubbard, 30, then of 2136 S. Lee st., the owner of the car, and Hugh Gillespie, 28, of 2312 N. Colorado st. Sgt. John J. McBride of the Homicide Squad said records showed that Hubbard’s wife, Mary, reported him missing Dec. 15, 1950, and that Gillespie’s wife, Theresa, reported him missing Dec. 20. The two men, both employed on the loading platform at the Mid-States Freight Lines, Inc., were last seen, police said, leaving a taproom near 5th st. and Columbia ave., a short distance from the freight lines platform. FIND PIECE OF CLOTH Detective Edmund Repsch and Samuel Powell of the Homicide Squad, the first ones sent to investigate the wreckage of the machine after a city Department of Commerce dredge brought it up, arranged to have an engine company hose out the interior of the car yesterday. All that they found in it was a rotted piece of khaki cloth, similar to the material of the trousers Hubbard was wearing when he disappeared. Captain Roberts ordered divers sent down upon learning that the top of the car broke loose as it was being hauled to the surface and that some of the contents might have spilled to the bottom. Hubbard’s widow, now living with her mother and three children at 2143 S. Lee st., became hysterical upon learning of the discovery of her husband’s car, and required sedatives from a physician.
Leaving a taproom, alas, is suggestive of a terribly mundane reason for the car ending up in the river. I do find it interesting, though, that it took Theresa some five days longer than her counterpart to report her husband missing.
So John seems to have done his time and married a grieving widow (seriously, how awful must that have been, 5 years missing and no idea what happened?), and they went on to have 2 more kids together. Happily ever after!
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.
I had gotten distracted by John! I proceeded to go hunting down the other sibling in the family who wasn’t amenable to easy location: his older brother Charles. Everything proceeded normally enough until the 1940 census, when where did I find him?
If you’ve seen any ghost hunter shows or shows about Al Capone, you’ve seen Eastern State Penitentiary, the infamous Philadelphia prison built as a showpiece of “modern” correctional thought in 1829, constructed to provide solitary confinement for up to 300 prisoners. The guards and administrators also imposed further tortures on the prisoners for various infractions, and by the early 20th century, overcrowding collapsed the solitary confinement scheme. There were a number of notorious inmates, though Capone was the most famous.
All right then. Some Googling ensued and turned up a doozy of an article on a Find-a-Grave for a police officer who had been killed.
Policeman David H. Wiley Philadelphia Police Department Pennsylvania End of Watch: Sunday, April 10, 1932 Biographical Info Age: 31 Tour of Duty: Appointed 1924. Badge Number: 3245 Incident Details Cause of Death: Gunfire Date of Incident: Sunday, April 10, 1932 Weapon Used: Gun; Unknown type Suspect Info: Charles A. […] Policeman Wiley was shot and killed as he and his partner investigated a suspicious vehicle parked in front of a the Petkov Co. tobacco firm on Market Street near 4th Street that he and other officers suspected contained burglars who had robbed the business. After observing two men exit the building, place bundles in the car, and then return to the building, the officers approached the vehicle. Without warning, the driver, Charles […], 19, fired point blank at Wiley and sped away. One of the four shots he fired punctured the policeman’s lung. Four males were arrested and confessed to the incident. Angered at [Charles], they implicated him as the shooter and explained they thought the shooting of Wiley was “unneccessary.” Instead of shooting, they said, [Charles] should have given an agreed signal and then driven away. By blaming [Charles], police said, they were hopeful of avoiding trial on a murder charge. Four others were held on charges of receiving goods stolen by the robbers. All were convicted and two were initially sentenced to die in the electric chair, including [Charles]. The group of burglars was suspected in the murder of Policeman William Henderson one month earlier, but were never charged due to a lack of evidence. [Charles] and Danny Piccarelli got new trials that spared them death sentences. [Charles], who faced tough times in the old Tenderloin District, pled guilty in his new trial and only got 10 years. After getting out, he was picked up repeatedly – a jewel robbery, an extortion case, an assault and battery case in which he allegedly sat it out on the curb while a woman neighbor got cut 24 times. Twice guns were found. But [Charles] always managed to beat the charge and kept walking about on parole. In 1936, during one his stays in prison, [Charles] received a letter from his brother John, also a criminal, that a Judge Carroll called “a classic”: “Why did we do these things we are in prison for? Why did we turn out bad when our three brothers kept honest? What will happen to us after we are dead?” Charles […] and his brother John were the sons of a crane operator, who, before he was crippled by polio, “never let us go hungry.” “It wasn’t until after my father died that all we had to eat was potatoes.” “The first time I got pinched I was only eight years old. A big Irish cop pulled me in and a woman hit him over the head with an umbrella. But everyone got arrested every once in a while in the Tenderloin. It was a tough neighborhood. You saw flashy-dressed men getting out of big cars in front of bum-looking houses. They were gunmen and the houses was where they lived. It didn’t add up. And I should have seen it but didn’t. All the money those men had they pulled a gun for. But I didn’t think about that. I just thought about making money – any way I could. The boys who shot it out with the cops [Patrolman Harry Cooper was shot and killed] in the Olney bank holdup [May 4, 1926] were a couple of years ahead of me. I remember when they brought their bodies home from the penitentiary after they were electrocuted [March 7, 1927]. A bunch of us kids went to the wakes. The whole neighborhood was down in the mouth about it. But I was still making honest money then – hustling newspapers and shining shoes for maybe a buck an afternoon after school. I was a choir boy and my mother took me to church every Sunday.””What happened to the faith our mother learned us? Why did you and me throw it away when our brothers kept it? I don’t know. I wish I knew. It was the biggest mistake either one of us ever made.” In 1955, the 42-year old Charles […] was arrested for a safe-breaking burglary. [Charles] was held in the 12th and Pine street stationhouse which bore the plaque in memory of Officer Wiley who [Charles] murdered in 1932. Wiley was a six-year veteran of the force. He had been commended for meritorious service several times. He was the youngest of ten children of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen H. Wiley. At the age of 15 he enlisted in the Naval Reserves for service in the World War. He joined the police in 1924. He was unmarried and lived at 1624 Oregon av. His father, retired at the time of his son’s death, was a city fireman more than 30 years. Sources: 1. The Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc. http://www.odmp.org/officer/14179-policeman-david-h.-wiley 2. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin 3. 1930 U.S. Federal Census 4. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Veterans Burial Cards, 1929-1990; Archive Collection Number: Series 1-13; Folder Number: 534.
Well! Both John and Charles were clearly casualties of poverty and opportunity, only where John managed to find his way out, Charles got stuck in doing what he knew how to do (which seemed to be quite a lot, really). Charles also seemed to be pretty good at getting himself out of prison, despite being a career criminal.
Despite a lot of hunting, I couldn’t find out what had happened to Charles after the information about being picked up for safecracking in 1955. I eventually found one of John’s children on Facebook, and she told me that Charles had been killed in a bar on Christmas Eve, 1975: shot 3 times in the chest at age 63.
We can hope that Charles was as happy in his life as brother John seemed to have been in his. John lived until 1991, dying at age 74. Theresa passed away in 2004, age 79. They seem to have been well-loved by their family.
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.
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.
On September 18, 1914, Frank Hogan left his home in Waseca, Minnesota, to attend the town fair in Janesville, the next town over. Around 8:30 that night, he was taken abruptly ill on the street, and was carried, unconscious, to his uncle’s house. He was seen by a doctor there, but never recovered consciousness and died around 4 am on September 19, 1914.
There were 3 different obituaries in the local papers. For example, the Janesville Argus, Sept. 23, 1914:
Death of Frank Hogan Frank Hogan, of Waseca, was taken ill in this place on Thursday afternoon while visiting the fair. He was taken to the home of his uncle, James Joyce, and medical aid secured. He lingered until about four o’clock Friday morning when he passed away. The deceased resided with his mother at Waseca. He was a painter by trade. Until a year ago it is said he followed his trade in Minneapolis. He was an efficient workman and an energetic young man. His age was bout thirty years. The remains were taken to Waseca where the funeral was conducted Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, in the Waseca Journal-Radical, Sept. 23, 1914:
Frank Hogan, son of Mrs. M. Hogan, of this city, died at Janesville last Friday morning. He was taken suddenly ill there the evening before at about 8:30 o’clock. He was taken in an unconscious condition to the home of his uncle, James Joyce, and his mother and sisters were summoned from this city. They were taken by autos to his bedside. He never recovered consciousness and died about 4 o’clock Friday morning. The remains were taken to his home in this city Friday afternoon. The funeral was held from the Catholic church Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock and interment was made in the Catholic cemetery. Michael Francis Hogan was born in Janesville, and was about 30 years old. He came with his mother and sisters to this city about 18 years ago and except for a few years in the twin cities, this city for the most part has been his home. He was a painter and paperhanger and was employed in painting a house in this city at the time of his death. He went to Janesville Thursday morning to attend the street fair. The deceased is survived by his mother, Mrs. M. Hogan, and two sisters, Misses Nellie and Katherine of this city. The relatives have the sympathy of all in their trouble.
And the Waseca Herald, Sept. 24, 1914:
The people of this community were greatly shocked last Friday morning upon hearing of the death of Frank Hogan, who died very suddenly at Janesville early that morning. He went up to Janesville Thursday morning to attend the fair, and that evening about nine o’clock, suddenly became very ill on the street. He was taken to the home of his uncle, James Joyce, and passed away there about four o’clock Friday morning. Heart trouble was the cause of his death. His mother and sisters were with him when he died. His remains were brought here Friday afternoon on the two o’clock train and taken to the home of his mother. The funeral took place at the Catholic church Sunday afternoon, Rev. Fr. Treanor officiating, and interment was made in the Catholic cemetery. Deceased was born in Janesville March 25, 1884, and came to this city when about ten years old, where he has made his home every since. He followed the trade of a painter and paperhanger. He is survived by his mother and two sisters, Nellie and Katherine, all of this city, who have the sincere sympathy of many friends. Those from out of town who attended the funeral are: Mrs. Mary Maher of St. Paul; Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Mulcahey of Waterville; Mrs. N. McCormick and daughter, Margaret, of Tracy; Mrs. C.R. Wattles of Sheyenne, N.D.; Mr. and Mrs. T. Sullivan of Ames, Ia.
There are some fascinating details behind the scenes of this sad story.
For instance, in none of these 3 obituaries is his father, Michael Hogan, mentioned. Michaelwas alive and well, living in Janesville. We don’t see the fact that his mother, Mary Joyce, married Michael Hogan on May 25, 1882, in Janesville, where her family also lived (the uncle to whose home Frank was conveyed on the fateful night was her brother James Joyce). She was 20 years old.
Her early marriage was dogged by tragedy, with two of her younger siblings dying later that same year, one in August and the other in November, and a third sibling dying 2 years later. (Which all smacks of tuberculosis, but I don’t have their death certificates to check.) Then, sometime between the birth of her last child, Mary, in 1890, and the Minnesota census in 1895, she took her oldest 3 children off to Waseca where she went into service as a domestic. In the 1900 census, her mother Margaret Joyce and youngest child Mary had joined them in Waseca, where Mary Hogan the elder was working as a washerwoman and listing herself in the census as widowed.
Meanwhile, Michael was living with his parents. After the deaths of his parents in 1906 and 1908, Michael settled into living with his younger brother John. In 1910, he also listed himself (or perhaps his brother did) as widowed.
And so we are left to wonder what the circumstances were as Mary Hogan worked to support herself, her children (youngest child Mary appears to have died between 1900 and 1910 — notice that she’s not listed as a survivor of Frank either), and her mother. Her mother died in 1913, and perhaps that’s when Frank came come from the big city.
The last thing that is obscured by the glowing obituaries is his cause of death. “Heart trouble” is given as the cause of death, though that’s pretty rare in 30-year-olds. Unfortunately, there are no digital archives online for Minnesota death certificates. Fortunately, I had met a cousin online who was happy poking into death certificates for the family, and who was willing and able to hunt down Frank’s.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as his cause of death, but I absolutely did NOT expect to see “Coma” with a comment next to it: “think he took one dose of cocaine.” In the blank for the contributing cause underneath was written, “Cocaine fiend.”
In the early years of the 20th century, cocaine use had grown in the United States. Inevitably, there was a cultural reaction to its use and the cultural assumptions around its use: that it was a dark urban underground habit, that it was being forced on workers to get more productivity out of them, and even worse, far more racist myths. (For more information, check out the Wikipedia article.) In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act required that items containing cocaine add its presence to their labels. And in December 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed that required that cocaine and narcotics only be dispensed with a doctor’s order.
Michael died in 1928, age 72, in Janesville, and I have to say that his obituary was an exercise in “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Compared to the effulgent obituaries I have read of Michael’s brothers, sisters, and cousins, this was dry bare bones. It leads me to conclude that he was not a popular man, and we can probably guess at a violent temper, given that Mary moved a town away to get her children away from him.
Mary lived until 1949, age 87, and Frank’s 2 sisters, Katherine and Nellie, never married. Katherine died in 1960 in Owatonna, Minnesota, age 73, and Nellie, who had worked briefly as a stenographer in Minneapolis around the time her brother was also up there, died in 1969 in Janesville, age 85.
So perhaps a bit of the big city had followed Frank home to the farmlands of his home. Or perhaps he was just the victim of one dose, taken out of curiosity, because he wanted a bit of an upper to hang out longer at the fair with his friends. It’s another of those mysteries of genealogy, where the hints are tantalizing and the truth has long since died with the players of that particular drama.