Telling Strangers Your Life Story, or Why Not to Go Whole Hog on Census Records

Genealogists are magicians. Don’t believe me? Watch as I make my Aunt Barbara disappear before your eyes!

In my ongoing search to learn about my grandfather, Ralph James‘s life, I came across a newspaper article that stated the date of his first marriage to Gladys Hooker. With the discovery of that date came an intriguing story problem:

If Gladys and Ralph married in 1931 and, according to the 1940 census, their first born daughter was born in 1928, then was [their first child] Barbara born out of wedlock or was she some other man’s baby girl?

First let’s all run back to that census record excerpt:

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Thanks to the Interwebz, I discovered my answerBarbara Schmidt announcement quickly AND gained another source on Gladys’s family. It seems Gladys had been married before, and that my Aunt Barbara’s last name wasn’t really James. She was no relation to me. (Presto! The author takes a bow.) Why the discrepancy? Well, think of it from Ralph’s perspective:

A stranger knocks on your door. He takes off his fedora as you greet him; he carries a clipboard. You think you are in for a sales pitch on the benefits of owning encyclopedias, but you let him in and offer him a cup of coffee anyway. He explains he’s a census taker and must ask you personal questions about your family and your life. It is all for the sake of government data at a time when the world is at war, so you oblige.

One of his questions is “What are the names of each person who regularly resides here?” You begin with facts about yourself, then your wife. You say your step-daughter’s name. You see the census taker write down your last name as hers. Do you explain? Before you decide, he’s already asking you other questions. He probably has many other households to get through today, and besides, Barbara’s father isn’t in the picture. She may as well have your last name. You leave it alone.

It’s understandable, yes?

But now I don’t completely trust what’s on the census record. How do I know little Geraldine is truly RA Daughter - Jerry Jamesalph’s daughter? I continue looking in the newspaper archives until I find it, my half-aunt’s birth announcement on February 12, 1932. There’s still the ordering of the birth certificate to deal with, but chances are it’s true.

That is, until I find this record:
first divorce announcement

Story problem #2: A newspaper article and a census record support the fact that Geraldine James was born February 11, 1932. Another article claims that her parents were married 8 months before little Jerry arrived. A third article (see last week’s post) claims her parents were married 11 months before. The articles also disagree on the location of Gladys and Ralph’s nuptials. So, which date and place are right, and is Ralph Jerry’s father?

Read the next installment of this story.

 

Confused? Start at the beginning of this series.

All sources for the documents mentioned can be found here.

Looking for a more formal biography of my ancestors? Whoo hoo! I thought of that, too.

 

 

The Smallest of Clues

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This snippet from the 1940 Federal Census looks pretty innocent, just another happy little family snuggled between neighbors on a page. Ralph, my paternal grandfather, worked for the government; Gladys, my step-grandmother, ran a beauty salon; the two little girls no doubt held hands as they skipped to school together.

But see the circled X after Ralph’s name? That’s the census taker’s way of indicating the person in the household that was interviewed. If you looked at the rest of this page you’d notice that all of the other circled Xs punctuate the ends of the wives’ names. It’s strange, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be (it wouldn’t be strange now), but imagine if Ward from Leave It To Beaver were home accepting house guests while June was at the office. What’s a county engineer doing at home on a Wednesday afternoon in early spring (the census was dated April 2)? Aren’t there potholes to fill and levies to strengthen along the Missouri River in anticipation of flooding?

That little circled X was my first clue that things were off in my grandfather’s household.

Here’s a few more columns of that same census record:

1940 Census employment columns

The “75” in Gladys’s row indicates the number of hours she worked in the salon the week before the census was taken. Whew! She’s working hard. The “Yes” in the row above, in Ralph’s row, is the answer to the census taker’s question “Are you currently seeking work?”

Oh. Well, ok then. That makes sense. Poor guy is looking for work. The listing of his previous career made me think his job loss was recent, so I went hunting in the local newspaper and found the following little side note in a rather lengthy front page article entitled: “BOARD RAISES SALARIES OF SIX PERSONS”:

Ralph James resigns

Why would my grandfather resign from a position he held for over 10 years on the very day the county board was deciding on all of his coworkers’ salaries? It just doesn’t add up…

but I have answers. Here’s the next installment, Baby-daddy.

 

For sources on the documents mentioned in this post, click here.

This post’s featured image shows Ralph James, my grandfather, on the right with his brother and sister.