Tag Archives: James family

A Second Cousin of a Second Cousin

A couple years ago after researching as thoroughly as possible, I had decided my family was not related to the infamous outlaw, Jesse James. But, after finding this newspaper article recently, I’ve brought out all of my research again.

To be clear, the man interviewed happens to also be named Jesse James. He is not the outlaw, but he is definitely my grandfather’s cousin.

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Click here for source.

Evidence

Those glazed over eyes.

You know what I mean: that moment at a party when you realize you can’t remember how long you’ve been talking, and everyone that was listening is now either staring at hors d’oeuvres or smiling politely while internally wording their tweets about that boring guy who droned on for half an hour about the pros and cons of various genealogy tv shows.

It’s not happening to me as often lately, because I’ve taken genealogy off my list of topics to discuss with mixed company.

I know what you’re thinking: Screw that! Talk about what you want to talk about, and if they don’t like it, then they can just walk away.

Yes. But looking at it from the listener’s perspective, I get it. I remember history class, all those arbitrary dates and names. As someone who is not into sports, I have often found myself concentrating on suppressing a yawn at the back of my throat as some person I just met goes on and on about batting averages and World Series and I don’t even know what else.

I’ve realized that me and Sports Person were both making a mistake in presentation. We were trying to engage people with the particulars of our passions and not giving them any inkling as to what’s fueling it. Getting people interested in potentially eye-glazing subjects is all about the packaging:

“Hey, Sports Person, what is it about watching sports that interests you so much?”

“I guess I just really love seeing evidence of what people can do when they pull together for a common goal. I love following the stories of the individual players, knowing where they came from and how they found a place on a team, many of them having to travel to other countries in order to do so. Plus I connect to people when I see them doing something they’re passionate about.”

“Oh. I can completely get behind that. That’s exactly why I like genealogy. Tell me more about this sportsball thing.”

Yeah, that conversation would never happen around an hors d’oeuvres table…or anywhere else for that matter. That’s why I’m choosing to keep the subject in my back pocket except when I’m around other family historians. When I do mention it at parties, I try to keep it short and not bury the lede. But, since I have you here, let me tell you what I have decided to say:

My father didn’t know his parents. I started researching my family to find out more about them. I discovered stories and pictures and documents that filled in the holes of my family’s story. One photo I found was of my father as a little boy, a phase in his life that I’d never seen evidence of before.

Ralph Robert James206278_10150167032337612_6034898_n

I was surprised to find out I actually looked quite a bit like him (a fact that wasn’t obvious when I was a kid and he was a brown-haired and bearded adult).

Then I got a photo of my dad’s mother.

Mary Lou

I saw where my father and I got our blue eyes, and the way we set our jaw when we smile. I was dumbfounded by how obvious the connection was. I realized that the features I see in the mirror are hand-me-downs; they are not mine at all.

I learned that my grandmother lived in southern Missouri, and I read her account of living in the Dustbowl during the Great Depression. It made real those seemingly arbitrary dates and events I studied in high school: My family was there; they lived through it. I wish I’d listened better to those lessons in class, because they very much shaped my father’s upbringing.

That’s what I would say.

Or I might just tell the story of what happened to me last night. I received my paternal grandfather’s Social Security Application in the mail. The information it provides is fairly innocuous, but it is the first document I’ve uncovered that is written in his own hand. His signature ends the form like a period. The distinctive capital R, the serpentine curls of the e and s at the end of our shared last name.

It is my own handwriting.

The man passed away 2 years before I was born, and my father did not grow up in his house. But there it was plain as day: undeniable evidence of my connection to him.

To think that the chemicals in our cells can determine even the smallest details about our lives, like how we write our names. It’s just baffling to me. And these reminders that who I am is not completely in my control are comforting. Destiny, and all that. Making more of those connections inspires me to keep searching through my own history and to listen to the histories of other people’s families.

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.

 

 

Baby-daddy

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

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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.

The Closet In the Basement

On my ninth Christmas Eve, my parents went out— probably to finish Christmas shopping. They had put Arnold, my 17-year-old oldest brother in charge of my other brother, Hans, and me. Arnold told me he wanted to show me something in the basement. It was thrilling following him and Hans down the stairs. My brothers actually wanted to do something with me for once! This could go either very well or very badly.

Our basement has this closet in one corner that was locked year-round. That was where they led me. The door of the closet is made of raggedy, gnarled barn board slats. Up until that night, I was always scared of that door. It looked like what a gate to Hell looks like in old movies, you know? Now that I think about it, one of my brothers probably planted that image in my head.

Hans inserted a key into the lock, then threw open the door. Christmas presents! Tons of them in various states of dress. We ogled the ones that weren’t wrapped, and Hans showed me how to carefully peel back the Scotch tape from the presents that were.

Before I peeked at my first present though, Arnold prepped me on how to act surprised when I opened the gifts the next morning: “Remember exactly how you feel when you see what’s inside, Nathan. That way you can recreate it when you open this in front of Mom and Dad.” I had to ask what recreate meant. Once they told me, I couldn’t get over how smart my brothers were.

After we had our fill looking at the presents, we patted the tape back down. Arnold locked the closet door. When my parents came home that night, we were primly seated in front of the television, quiet as mice.

*****

A few weeks ago, Arnold told me he is moving to Seattle. It’s really good news. He needs a change. His announcement just shook me and I couldn’t figure out why. Then, I remembered the night my brothers showed me the Christmas closet.

That’s the memory that comes back to me whenever I walk into my parents’ house and see the presents under their tree. Now that even my niece and nephew are adults, the holidays are less about presents and more about appreciating being together as a family.

That’s what jolted me about Arnold’s announcement. His moving to Seattle is the beginning of the end of that. His son and daughter will still be in Michigan. He’s not abandoning us, but his Christmas visits will inevitably dwindle. I’ll feel his absence. I’ll want to go down to that basement and throw open that creepy closet door hoping Arnold’s in there waiting to surprise us.

 

Connecting with My Grandfather

I’ve never met my grandfather, Ralph. My father didn’t really know him either. He was an alcoholic and he abandoned my dad at the age of 8. I assumed that was all there was to know.

Dad only told one story about him. The story took place on the roof of what would become my childhood home. After years of repeatedly disappointing my father, he was trying to reestablish a connection. Ralph chose to reconnect by helping my father build our house.

CCC working
CCC men dig a ditch.

It was 1970. Ralph was in his mid-60s. He and my dad were putting the roof on the house. While they were hammering and tarring, Ralph started talking about how the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) ruined his life. It was the reason he lost his job, and the reason he started drinking. The CCC was part of President Roosevelt’s economic recovery plan for America during the Great Depression. It allowed the government to hire three million men to build roads, plant trees, and dig ditches across the country between 1933 to 1942.

The story has always confused me. How could a program whose sole purpose was to hire millions of people put my grandfather out of work? I had no idea.  I decided to look into it, hoping to understand him a little better.

In the 1930 census, I found him listed along with my great-grandparents. He was working for a county in Iowa as an assistant engineer three years before the CCC began. Mystery solved, I thoughtThe CCC, being a national program, must have made the County guys, like my grandfather, obsolete. Roosevelt formed the CCC; Ralph lost his job.

In the 1940 census, I found this:

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

So, my theory was wrong. My grandfather wasn’t let go when the CCC started. He kept his job well into its heyday. Not only that, somewhere along the way he had picked up a wife and 2 daughters I didn’t know about. Holy cow!

Using phone directories (which listed peoples’ professions alongside their addresses back then), I find out that Ralph was let go as an engineer sometime in 1941. With that information, I had to form a new theory: the CCC must have finished all the work a county engineer would be hired to do. When the CCC started to disintegrate, the county probably realized there was no more work for my semi-educated 36-year-old grandfather.

I say semi-educated because the censuses consistently list Ralph’s highest level of education as 8th grade. ‘Engineer’ was just a title; he didn’t have a degree.

In 1942, Ralph was divorced from Gladys, broke, lacking purpose, and living in Flint, Michigan. The directory states that he was running a pool hall there. Before, I would have blamed him for allowing himself to be near the alcohol in the pool halls, accelerating his and his second family’s self-destruction. But I realize now that if I had lost both my job and my family in less than a year, I might start drinking, too.

I don’t like that he took such a long time to get his act together, but I’m grateful that he eventually did it. That he was there in 1970 on that rooftop with my dad. That he tried and succeeded to connect.

(l to r) Bill James, Eva Burns, Ralph James
My grandfather is the man on the right.

Get Well Soon

Everything hurt—chewing, coughing, breathing even—so between the nurses’ questions about pain levels and decreasing dosages, I occupied myself by staring at the television. The Streets of San Francisco was on. Steve Keller was chasing a bad guy across a parking lot. Rosalyn, my wife, must have gone down to make a call, and I was alone when Albert walked into my room.

“Look at you. That contraption you’re in makes you look like a robot. You ain’t auditioning to be the next ‘Six Million Dollar Man,’ are you?” He was talking about my back brace. He stopped a few feet short of my bed and waited for a reply. His bell-bottomed slacks cinched below the volleyball of his belly and pooled at his loafers. He looked ridiculous.

But instead of telling him so, I dryly said, “You should have called an ambulance” and moved my eyes back to the tv.

“You know why I didn’t.”

“They’re medics, not policemen. All they would have asked you to do is point to where I was.”

Albert had been in and out of jail since I was the size of a quarter: theft, public intoxication, child neglect. He didn’t like policemen, so after watching me fall off the roof, he got in his car and drove until he found someone else to deal with me. Yet another example of my father’s problems taking priority over my well being.

“I’d have had to file a report, wouldn’t I?”

“People don’t know about your record unless you tell them, you know. I can’t believe you just left me there. What if I’d died?”

“Stop being over-dramatic. You were breathing. You hadn’t broken anything. Rosalyn was only down the street, so I went and got her. I figured she’d want to ride with you.”

I had been re-roofing the house. Albert was there helping me as part of a reward system we’d worked out. He started calling me about five years ago to apologize and ask to be a part of my life. I eventually gave him the chance to prove it. He sobered up; I started acknowledging his presence. He managed to stay out of jail for a year; I invited him to dinner, and so on. It had taken him three years to work up to being my assistant carpenter.

“You should have forgotten yourself for a second and called a damn ambulance.”

“You only fell fifteen feet. And you got here, didn’t you? Besides, you’ve always been good at taking care of yourself.”

“No thanks to you, Dad.” I sneered. “I had to learn to take care of myself because my parents were too lit to feed me. You know, I was talking to Carol a few weeks ago and she told me this cute story from when I was young. Seems she found me on a kitchen counter one morning chowing down on some dry spaghetti noodles. When I asked her how old she thought I’d been, do you know what she said?”

Albert was so silent that, even through my anger and the pain medication,  I registered the tinkling of a commercial jingle playing on the television. I’d never brought up the bad years before; he didn’t know how to respond.

“She said I was five months old. Have you ever heard of a baby so young being able to climb onto a countertop? I must have been pretty motivated to get up there, huh? Bet I was hungry, and I bet I had to learn real quick that in order to stop the hunger I needed to climb counters and open cabinets. So, fuck you, Dad, for teaching me the hard way that I only have myself to rely on.”

I don’t know if it was the anger, the concussion, or the medication, but a wave of nausea overtook me. I grabbed the bed pan. When I finished, I saw the back of him turn out of my room. It was just like him to leave when someone was holding him accountable for something.

 
*****
This story is very loosely based on family folklore.

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