Thursday, May 30, 2019

"A Mother's Love ..... or Something Else" by Peter E. Small: Part I

Genea-Musings reader Peter E. Small solved a family genealogical mystery and wrote a report about it, and I offered to publish his work on my blog.  

This will be a multi-part series posted over several weeks - probably on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Earlier parts were published in:

*  Prologue:


A Mother’s Love…..or something else?
 A True Genealogical Mystery Solved

 Copyright © 2019 Peter E. Small All Rights Reserved

 A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao Tzu

 My father and his sister were orphaned when they were very young. Their Swedish born mother died in 1920. My father was three and his sister was nine. Then, in 1931 their polio stricken father died. The Great Depression had descended globally.

 It was not due, entirely, to their age that neither my father nor my aunt knew much about their family’s origins. Although family history was not, I believe, foremost on their minds during the dark days of their adolescence.

 In fact, their father had only minimal knowledge of his family’s history. He too had endured family tragedies as a boy and then again as a young married man. But, he did possess critically important personal information which he intentionally withheld from all but a limited number of people.

 Never having known my paternal grandparents always confounded me as I was growing up and every so often I would “interrogate” my father to unearth information about his childhood. A childhood, I began to suspect, he would rather have forgotten.

 My aunt, who died at the age of 95, had a phenomenal memory for names, dates and places right up until the time of her death.

 During a conversation with her, in the summer of 1963/64, she remembered her father saying he was born in either Maine or Massachusetts and that we were related to President Pierce. She also related a memorable trip her new husband and father, had taken in 1929 or 30 to the Forest Hills section of Boston. The purpose of the trip was to visit her father’s daughter, Jessie, from a previous marriage. His first wife had died of tuberculosis in 1904. Knowing Jessie’s name proved invaluable many years later.

Likewise, the innocuous reference to President Pierce, although categorically not true, proved equally important.

 A month or so passed after those revelations and one day I received an envelope from my aunt. The envelope contained a 5x7 picture of my grandfather and Swedish grandmother, circa 1913, in their Sunday finest clothes. My aunt, age 2 or 3, was standing between them. Also enclosed was her father’s original death certificate. My aunt, I was told later, had a foot locker full of items that had sentimental value.

 As fishermen say, you have to “set” the hook before reeling in a fish. I am confident my aunt knew she was setting my genealogical hook.

 The death certificate proved to be both “a blessing and a curse”, as the saying goes.   I considered it a blessing, because at sixteen or seventeen I finally had the beginnings of a Family Tree.

My Tree extended back to my paternal great grandparents. I could not believe my good fortune.
 It proved to be a curse because, as I discovered many years later, three of the given names were wrong.

Unfortunately, the death certificate did not include an informant’s name. So, to this day, I do not know who to blame for my misfortune and all those wasted years.

Death Certificate for Albert E Small aka Elvin Edgar Small. His father’s name is recorded as either Albert or Hebert. His real name was Alpheus Edgar Small. His mother’s name is recorded as Arinda Brewer. Only slightly wrong as her real name was Rinda Brewer. 

 Some lessons are learned the hard way and this proved to be one of them. Other equally hard lessons would follow in not so rapid succession. The term “Primary and Secondary” sources was a subject I was totally unfamiliar with at this point and it would take several more years to learn that a death certificate was considered both and why. 

 I sent to the National Archives for their free packet on how to research your family history and put my first pedigree chart together. Then armed with my newly acquired possessions, I set off on what proved to be a 40 year intermittent search for three people that did not exist. Genealogy can be hard.

 I doubt most natural born citizens, living in the 21st Century United States, could go through life without their birth being documented. But in the 19th and early part of the 20th Century my great grandfather and two of his sons, who were not particularly prominent men, did just that. Proving their identities was not required of them apparently. So, they were who they said they were. 

Currently, their dates and places of birth have not been proven conclusively. But, I am fairly certain my grandfather’s brother randomly selected his date of birth. I know this to be true for other members of my extended family.

 But the subject of this expose was a very prominent man and may still be remembered, by some, to this day. He published his own autobiography in 1964 and recounted a truly phenomenal life filled with accomplishments, notoriety, fortune and fame. He called ex-president Hoover a friend and traveled widely with him. He was a successful Wall Street banker, a San Francisco newspaperman, a decorated WWII Marine Corps officer in the Pacific Theatre of operations and more. He accomplished all these things using a name he may or may not have chosen for himself and without a birth certificate to support his true identity.  

It is certainly possible that he may have died on 15 June 1976 not knowing his real name, date of birth or biological father.

 Or was his recounting of his family history and vital statistics an intentional misrepresentation concocted by him and/or his mother Carrie?

 In his book he credits his mother for what little he knew of his birth and family, but also added “mother did not always consider consistency of detail a necessity when spinning her recollective yarns.” Surely a man with his resources and intelligence could have made inquiries if he was so inclined.

 Reading his book, he gives one the impression that such things were unimportant to him. This may not be true. He was, in a sense, a manipulator of people his entire life and maintaining an untraceable persona would have made his life simpler. We may never know. But, his lack of specificity or regard for people who were documented as being a part of his life does conjure up more than a few questions. Conversely when discussing his relationships with total strangers he would go into great detail.

 Anyone who has read his book might see some of his many youthful adventures and his life as a whole in a different light if the real truth was known.

 It doesn’t seem possible, to an ardent Family Historian like me, that someone couldn’t care less about his own true identity. Then again, I look at my own family and there are some who are truly puzzled by what I do. In fairness, I must acknowledge that there is that fact to support his supposed indifference.


Randy's NOTE:  Stay tuned for the next installment of this multi-chapter report.  I will add all of the chapters to this post, and the other chapter posts, as they are published. The chapters to date are:

*  Prologue:
*  Part I:

*  Part II:
*  Part III:

*  Part IV:
*  Part V:

*  Part VI:

My thanks to Peter for sharing this mystery and its' solution with me and the Genea-Musings readers.

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Copyright (c) 2019, Peter E. Small

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1 comment:

Linda Stufflebean said...

Tantalizing story already. I am looking forward to the next chapter.