Telling Me What I Need to Hear: Charles Kelley

I’ll be honest. This summer has been rough. Nothing serious. Just several unexpected life changes happening in the course of a month that have upset my very routined life. It’s been the kind of time where I’ve had to stop and remind myself of the things that ARE going well, you know?

Yeah. You know.

Okay, so keep that in mind while I tell you about my great-grand uncle, Charles Russell Kelley.

Charley was born near Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in July 1871. He was the eighth child and fourth son of John W. and Eliza Hurd Kelley. When he was four, he moved with his family to the western edge of Iowa. His parents were farmers, and they settled in Lewis Township, just outside Council Bluffs. He went to school, of course, and, when he was 21, married Mary Cleary, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who worked for the railroad. Charley and Mary married across the river in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1892. Quite a few of the Kelley siblings married there. Perhaps it was the fashion to go to the big city to tie the knot, or maybe that’s where the Kelleys attended church. In either case, they settled in Council Bluffs proper afterward.

The couple had two children: Charles Jr., born in 1893, and Florence May, born in 1897. Charley was listed as a teamster—someone who drove a team of work animals for a living—in the 1900 census. Not the most lucrative of jobs, but they must have been doing all right because they had a servant to help take care of their children.

In 1910, Charley was a caller at the railroad. If my research is correct, he was the one that announced arrivals and departures at the train station.

In April 1912, he was appointed as a detective in the Council Bluffs police department.

He and his partner, Joe Rauterkus, saw all sides of their small city while solving crimes to be sure. According to city records, they dealt with a lot of burglary, assaults, and domestic disputes. Not a lot of murders in the small Midwestern town. Every day after work, Charley would take the bus home to his family and have dinner. He had worked hard for this life, moving up incrementally from farmer to teamster to become a cop when he was 41 years old. He found that the police force demanded an energy that is more plentiful in a younger person.

One day in the winter of 1927, Charley woke up, washed himself, had breakfast, and said goodbye to Mary and the kids. The usual. He got on the bus, probably thinking about the day ahead, and completely unaware what was in store for him.

Council Bluffs Nonpareil (Council Bluffs, IA), 9 Dec 1927, page 7, column 7-8, item 1.

Detective Kelley laid in bed for two weeks after his stroke, being cared for by family and friends who most likely knew what was coming. People prayed for him in churches and delivered food to the family. What a terrible time it must have been for them. Everything falling apart in the time it takes to ride the bus to work.

Yes, the moral here is a bit cliched.

Don’t take any of it for granted, all the Christmas stories tell us. Every second is precious, the self-help books profess. But I think the reason we hear that message so much is because WE NEED TO HEAR IT SO MUCH.

I certainly needed to hear it. Yeah, I’m unemployed and have some health issues. But that’s temporary. I can walk outside right now and take the bus anywhere I like. I can have dinner with my loved ones at the drop of a hat. I can still have that nice, quiet life because I’ve worked hard to move incrementally up the career ladder, despite my work being better suited perhaps to someone much younger than my 44 years. These are important reminders. All is not lost.

Sources for this post will be here shortly.

This was written for Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors. #52Ancestors

Lining Up the Suspects

Let’s play a game of Where’s Waldo?  How many red-stripey-hatted discrepancies can you find in the following newspaper articles? (Or, just skip ahead to where I tell you how many I see.)

First, here’s a nice birth announcement, published in February 1932. Ralph James is my grandfather. Gladys Hooker is the Mrs. mentioned, and the daughter is Geraldine, my half-aunt, who went by Jerry most of her life:

A Daughter - Jerry James

Next, the line-up of other suspects:

In November 1931, three months before Jerry’s birth announcement, the following article appeared in the local paper:

Mrs. Gladys James, 28, 216 Twelfth avenue, was awarded a divorce from Ralph E. James, 30, whom she charged with cruelty. They were married June 20, 1931 at Rock Port, Mo. Mrs. James was given full custody of her daughter, Geraldine, 2, and $25 alimony a month by stipulation.

In August 1941, a petition for divorce appeared:

SEVEN SEEK DIVORCE…Gladys from Ralph James, married here (Council Bluffs, Iowa) March 10, 1931.

And finally, this article appeared in January 1943:


How many discrepancies did you come up with?

I count 8. There are the three different marriage dates and two locations. That’s 5. There are two different announcements of divorce spanning 12 years. In that last article, Jerry is described as an 11-year-old son. And the biggest one…

Drum roll, please…

is the fact that my grandfather was paying $25 in alimony a month BEFORE HIS DAUGHTER WAS ACTUALLY BORN.

What is going on?

This sort of thing is where the genealogical proof standard comes in handy. Looking at all the information I’ve uncovered, not just the documents I’ve shown here, I’ve come up with some theories. I am currently casting my research nets based on these theories. Please tell me if they seem feasible or not.

Discrepancy #1: the big one. Jerry’s existence before she was born is actually pretty easily explained. If you’ve been following this series about my grandfather, you’ll remember there’s another daughter in the family, Barbara Schmidt. She would have been 2 years old in November 1931. Also, Gladys would have been 6 months pregnant with Jerry at the time this article was written. The journalist probably got confused by the daughters’ names…

Which leads me to Discrepancies 2-5: the first two wedding dates and locations.  We have June 20, 1931 in Rock Port, Missouri; and March 10, 1931 in Council Bluffs. I have not found any marriage records yet, but I think I know what this is about. The article with the June date was published BEFORE Jerry was born. 8 months before, in fact. Rock Port, Missouri, is the first town just on the other side of the Iowa border, probably the best place for a couple to marry quickly and anonymously. The second date is 11 months before little Jerry came along, and it was printed AFTER Jerry was born. If people knew how old she was, they could do the same math that I just did. Probably Gladys lied to make that math add up. So, all fingers point to the first date and place being correct.

Discrepancies 6-7: the third wedding date and the two different divorce announcements. So, if Gladys and Ralph divorced in November 1931, that would be five months after their shotgun wedding. It’s probably safe to assume their relationship was rocky. Gladys must have left for a time after this announcement, but then came back. The 1936 wedding date was probably their second marriage.

Discrepancy #8: their 11-year-old son. Her name is Jerry. The journalist probably just assumed the wrong gender when Gladys mentioned her.

Whew! I know. That was a lot. But I love the logic puzzle genealogy so often presents to me, and I love what the differing information tells me about my ancestors’ lives. I’d love to hear where you’d go next if this were your problem to solve.

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.


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:

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

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.




Last week, I told a story about how a little circled X in the 1940 Iowa Census led me to a big discovery about my grandfather, Ralph James‘s life. I found out that in January of that year he’d resigned his position as Council Bluffs Assistant County Engineer during a meeting where the board was approving raises for him and his coworkers.

Wait. During the meeting? Who would resign from their job while their salary was being negotiated? Personally, I like to hear the cha-ching before I decide to quit a job. It didn’t make sense, so I dug a little more.

My first find told me my grandfather was competent at his job. In September 1937, Ralph and his crew were loading sand when the mound collapsed on them like some backwards quicksand pit. Two men were hospitalized and later released; thirteen others were unharmed because my grandfather, the foreman, gave warning.

The next article I found was Ralph's replacementpublished in March of the same year. It introduced my grandfather’s replacement and explained that he was actually fired. I know from discussions with my dad that Ralph blamed for his job loss the Work Progress/Projects Administration (WPA)—a government program during and after the Great Depression that hired unemployed men to improve the nation’s infrastructure. But his dismissal and the relatively fast replacement make me think there must have been other factors involved.

Oh, Ralph, what did you do?

That 1940 census I mentioned before was taken in April. It listed him with his wife Gladys (my step-grandmother), and his children Barbara, 12, and Geraldine, 8.

In October 1940, the Council Bluffs newspaper published the fourth installment of draft numbers. The list of local men started with No. 1,861; Ralph was No. 1,951. I know he never fought in WWII, but having that number loom over him must have added more pressure to an already shaky situation. Drafts are fascinating and mind-boggling to me, knowing that the government could trump any plans I have for my own future. I suppose that makes me naive. . . and lucky to never have experienced it.
Petition for divorce
The next article I found confirmed that my grandfather’s life continued to fall apart. It was an announcement that Gladys petitioned for a divorce in August 1941. It gave the date and location of their marriage, new information to me. But I noticed that it introduced a story problem you’d hopefully never find in a junior high math book:

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

I had another mystery to solve. But I have answers. Read the next installment.

Sources for the documents mentioned in this post can be found here.

Ralph James is the second man on the left in the featured photo. His sister Eva is behind him. His brother, Bill, is the other man in the picture. The women in between are Bill’s wife and daughter.

The Smallest of Clues

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

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.

The Crime of Writing Tall Tales, My Notes on Bayliss Park

I wanted to jot down some of my research for my story Bayliss Park before I forget what’s true and what’s not. The genealogist in me feels guilty posting something without proper documentation. I’m already wanted by the Genealogy Police for crimes involving my flagrant use of embellishment while inventing my ancestors’ lives.

It started with this funeral notice I found on for my 2nd great-grandfather:

The funeral of Josiah James will take place this afternoon at 2 o’clock from his late residence near Wickham’s Brickyard in the northwestern part of the city. Friends invited to attend. Mr. James has been here only about three weeks, and he was stout and hearty until Thursday last when he took sick. He came from Harrison County, MO. He leaves a wife, and ten children.

(source: Daily Nonpareil, Council Bluffs, Iowa, Sunday, 02 April 1882, Page 5, Column 1)

Iowa as a state didn’t have a law for keeping death records until 1880, and the law wasn’t enforced consistently until 1924. So I don’t hold out any hope of seeing Josiah’s death certificate and determining what he passed of. Instead, I began looking into what could have brought down a “stout and hearty” man so quickly. He was obviously feeling strong enough to move his wife and six youngest children 150 miles from Missouri to Iowa just a month or so prior.

I found the article below in my process of scanning the newspapers of towns from the time in which my relatives lived there. It’s a great way to gauge a community’s world view and it’s cool for me to think that my forefathers probably read and reacted to the very same pages. Chronicling America, the Library of Congress’s free online collection of historic newspapers, is usually my first stop.

typhoid case
(source: The Weekly Graphic, Kirksville, Missouri, 4 Nov 1881)

“Let others come forward in the same manner at once.” Love it. It’s this kind of demand that makes me nostalgic for a time I never lived in. Can you imagine just leaving money at the WalMart and trusting that it would be applied to the sick man’s cause? Parts of me want to write the story of Arment and Mrs. Rudolph, even though they aren’t family. A clear example of how researching genealogy can inspire fiction.

So, Arment’s story is what sparked the idea that Josiah passed of typhoid fever. The article verifies that the disease was in the area at the time. I learned that it was common for people to contract it while traveling. If it was typhus that killed him, perhaps Josiah’s health was already compromised by the stress of starting new at the age of 54. I’ll never know; so I wrote the story to fill in some gaps. Add to my family’s lore. Genealogy Police be damned.

Olivia JamesIt occurred to me that his wife Olivia was a newly single mother in 1882, after just arriving in a new city. Thankfully, all 4 of their older children were living in Council Bluffs and could support her. Josiah and Olivia moved, it seems, to be closer to them. Still, she must have been a strong woman; it’s this fact that made me characterize her as I did. And that picture of her. I love it, but it initiates so many questions: Why is she sitting in a fancy chair outside? Who took the picture? Why does it look so staged? The interview format was a way for me to explain these questions. For more on Olivia, read my post Delano, Herbert Walker, and Hussein; or The Stories Middle Names Tell.

Samuel Hurd was the son of a Council Bluffs family. He would have been just 16 when the James brothers probably came down to Harrison County, Missouri, to help their parents move. Later, Sam would marry Lena James (the pictures are really them), as his cousin Martha would marry Lena’s older brother, Noah, my direct descendents. That family tie makes me think the Hurds and the Jameses knew each other well. So it’s not impossible that 16-year-old Samuel helped them move. What is impossible is that Lena and Sam would be courting soon after Josiah passed. Lena was only 9 at the time of the move. I aged them up for the sake of the story.