Hidden in Plain Sight

On the back of my great-uncle Dale’s World War II draft card was a complete hidden gem that I had completely overlooked. I had assumed it was just a plain old WW2 draft card where the goodies are all on the front – their address, employer, person who knows your address, etc., so I never really paid much attention to the back of Dale’s card. Last night, I think my eye balls about popped out of my head when I read the reverse of Dale’s card.

Let me back up a sec for new readers. My great-uncle Dale has been notoriously hard to document. I have always assumed it was because he was a merchant marine and just missed being enumerated, had no land records to his name with transient employment, and he was single with no dependents. He’s been a real humdinger to trace. But awhile back I got lucky and found him in 1930 in Montana, arrested for armed robbery. I even got the bonus mug shot from those records and an accompanying news article to describe his crime in detail. So, in searching for Dale, I thought I had pretty much ground to a halt…. and then …

I flipped over his card and saw this …

“Known to this institution as: Daniel W. Shea.” The “institution” being the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. What? Wait. Who is Daniel W. Shea? At first, I thought this must have been indexed incorrectly, and flipped back and forth several pages to see if it belonged to someone else. Nope. It sure seemed to belong to Dale. So I went searching in the newspapers.

From the Santa Maria Times (California), 4 Feb 1939, page 1, column 6.

Apparently, in Santa Monica during early February 1939, Dale (aka Daniel Shea), was drunk off his rocker, swaggers up to the post office clerk, did the whole “finger-as-a-gun” trick and told the clerk to “Pass over the business or I’ll fill you full of lead.” The clerk, not believing he is in any real danger, simply ducks down behind the counter and the other post office workers call the cops. Dale/Daniel flees the post office and then a few minutes later, attempts to rob a motorist who just simply drove off, unconvinced by his finger gun. WHAT?! When the cops apprehended him, he was, of course, unarmed and they booked him on “suspicion of intoxication and attempted robbery.” Robbing a post office is a federal crime so it’s no wonder that Dale was in the U.S. Penitentiary! Apparently, he didn’t learn a thing from his 1930 arrest in Montana for armed robbery.

However, I am baffled by his draft card a bit. The back says the date of registration was 18 October 1940 in Lewisburg, PA, but the stamp for the local board says Los Angeles, CA, 1 November 1940, which is where he was reportedly living/working at the time of the 1939 robbery. So did he get out and his card was sent back to LA with him? I’m just confused a bit on the logistics of where he was and when. It’s such fresh, new information though that I haven’t had time to really dig into this alias of his yet.

Eventually, armed with this new information, I’ll be returning to Dale Stewart sometime in the near future when I have more time. Right now, I’m “on the clock” for my certification and that’s my first priority. Dale will have to wait a bit longer but golly, I’m sure fascinated by him and his life.

However, it did remind me of a powerful lesson today – CHECK BOTH SIDES! You never know what information is hidden in plain sight. Remember in September when I searched the whole cemetery for my grandmother’s headstone in dismay because I couldn’t find it but was delighted to find her brother’s? My grandparents were on the BACK of his stone. I was literally standing right there and didn’t look on the back and missed them completely. Duh. AND, on my mother-in-law’s maternal grandfather’s draft card we learned, he was missing a finger from a work accident. You never know what gems are lurking on the back of draft cards, headstones, contracts, etc. so just flip it. FLIP IT.

The Fighting Stewarts

When I first started documenting my Stewart grandparents, I didn’t realize how much of their story would occupy a space in my brain. Some people might have found a murder/suicide in their family, noted its tragedy, and moved on but for me, for whatever reason, I have been particularly haunted and captivated by the murder of my grandmother Esther and the subsequent suicide of my grandfather William. (Seriously, I know you’re all probably tired of reading about them already.) There is just something in me that wants to understand why things escalated to that extreme that fateful day in January 1914. So I’ve kept looking and searching…

Now, I have searched every variation of Stewart and William H Stewart to find any scrap of information in the newspapers online, even searching his known alias of “Thomas” (which I’ve never found the reasoning behind that name choice). I’ve searched in every town they lived in, in every county they or their parents lived in, and even searching in adjacent counties in the off-chance they spent time there as well in-between census dates and city directory entries. But as you know, they’re constantly updating newspapers online and adding more all the time and so when I returned to my Stewart research, I found this tiny snippet from August 25, 1904, in The Times Recorder newspaper in Zanesville, Ohio.

From The Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio), 25 August 1904, pg 5, col 3. Click to view larger.

While it might not seem staggering news for some, for me, it gave me a HUGE glimpse into their marriage ten years before their murder/suicide. Noting that this was the “third occasion” since their 1902 marriage (that was known), what more happened that wasn’t documented? I also find it boggling that she assaulted him first but yet he was the one charged and fined. It sounds like she got the worst of it as she still had marks, but weren’t women culpable of assault too?

Also, their first child, Frances, was still alive and while she is not named outright, she is still mentioned in the article. She would sadly die the following month in September of cholera infantum. (Which is an interesting disease to read about if you haven’t – it differs from cholera that we know of in that the mother can actually over-feed and be a cause of the child’s demise. It’s fascinating to read.)

In a news article following their deaths, her brother Asbury gives an example of how Esther and William fought all the time about the silliest, smallest things including an argument over the placement of a knife in the kitchen to where they didn’t speak for two weeks following. Another article eluded to how they fought quite a bit and always made up quickly afterward. Asbury admitted his sister (and William, too) had a hot temper, and this article just confirms everything Asbury stated and more. They seemed to be ready to fight over every little thing.

So while this would just seem a boring article to some, to me, it’s like cracking the door open just a bit wider into their marriage seeing just how volatile it really must have been from the very beginning. When I first visited William’s grave a couple years ago, I stood there for the longest time feeling very sour towards him for the way he affected so many people that day. His bullets in 1914 would ripple down and cause damage in his family through his sons’ suicides in 1943 and 1958 and truthfully, even beyond that in the way their son Glenn would treat his wife/children by being so aloof and uncaring before his 1958 death. (My mom just recently told me that her father had positively NO good memories of his father Glenn at all and was bitter towards him, even long past his death.)

With this article now though, I somehow have shifted some of the blame towards Esther, too. I had always felt she was just a victim, but it looks now like she was an instigator and perpetrator, as well. While she doesn’t have a stone currently, I know where she’s buried, and I wonder how I will feel when I go back. Will I feel sympathy again, or perhaps something different knowing she was part of the mayhem and destruction that followed? Funny how your family’s narrative can change with just a newspaper snippet.

The Eccard Family Tragedy Explained

From The Lima News (Lima, Ohio),
14 Oct 1915, Thu • Pg 10, Col 4


One of the more outrageous family stories I share with my genealogy students is the double suicide of my 3rd great-grandparents, the Eccards, in 1915. I had used their tragic deaths as a way to illustrate how to be prepared for finding sad and unexpected events in your family tree.  But now, in light of new evidence, I can use them to illustrate how family lore can absolutely be wrong and why you need that paper trail to corroborate (or disprove) things you’ve been told.  Such is the case with the Eccards.

When I first found their death certificates in the process of doing my DAR application, I turned to my great Aunt Rosie, the Eccards’ great-granddaughter.  If you’ve read me before, you might remember Aunt Rosie was also interested in genealogy until her death this past year, so I turned to her a lot with questions.  So, when I asked her about the Eccards, she shared that her grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Eccard Jones, was very pregnant at the time so she wasn’t able to attend her parent’s funerals.  She also said that she heard two theories about why they committed suicide – one was that they were swindled out of their farm by a sleazy lawyer and the other was that the wife, Mary Alice Drake Eccard, was terminally ill and her husband Gideon couldn’t bear to live without her and they had a “suicide pact” of sorts.

As part of my regular search, I did check into the land transactions to see if some lawyer did swindle them and I found nothing at all to indicate that they were ever land owners.  In fact, in every census that the Eccards were married, they rented so that theory seemed to be debunked.  As far as Mary Alice being terminally ill, that was harder to discount or disprove but her death certificate gives no mention of a secondary cause or illness – just the carbolic acid caused her sudden death.  Even 103 years later, I think that would be hard to actually disprove with all certainty, but it doesn’t feel like she was suffering from any terminal causes.  (especially in light of my newly found evidence)

In the newspapers online, I found just the tiniest mention of their double suicide.  No details, no motives, and most notably, no obituaries.  I didn’t find that out of place or abnormal really because it wouldn’t be the first time a family has opted not to publish an obituary.  Given the grim circumstances surrounding their deaths, I understood maybe there just wasn’t one out there to be found and let it go at that.  I had a small mention in the paper that corroborated their death certificates, so I was satisfied enough to move on.

However, this past month, I’d been working on “bushing out” my tree branches on the Eccard line and while working on their daughter, Carrie Belle, I couldn’t find her obituary either.  I was in the process of writing to the local library for Carrie Belle’s obituary and while typing the letter, I decided “Heck with it. I’m just going to ask them if they have the parents’ too.”  Happily, the librarian got back to me very quickly!

The librarian had found Carrie’s obituary and even provided me with the death certificates for her and both her parents.  (I was appreciative, of course, but I already had those.)  However, she sent me something so unexpected and amazing!  It completely changed the story as my Aunt Rosie had told me. I feel like I hit the genealogy jackpot.  She sent me the joint obituaries of Gideon and Mary Alice, along with an article about the circumstances of that day.

The Eccard obituaries & sensational details into their deaths.

To summarize the article (and you can click it to enlarge and read more), it appears that Gideon and his wife, Mary Alice, went out that day to town and picked up shoes and peaches.  After they drove their horse and buggy home, a little grandson ran out of the house and startled the horse.  Apparently, there were heated words exchanged between Mary Alice and her daughter-in-law.  Shortly after their argument, Mary Alice went to the barn and drank a vial of carbolic acid and dropped dead.  She was found by Gideon, who called out to his daughter Carrie Belle and the daughter-in-law, who came running to the barn. They found him crying, and in his grief, he ran over and drank a bottle of aconite. The doctor was called and when he arrived, Gideon was still able to talk and was trying to explain what had happened and why.  The doctor administered medicine to make him vomit but unfortunately the poison ended up being too much, and he died anyway.

*BOOM*  Mind completely blown. 

In addition to having this demolish the stories of what my Aunt Rosie had told me, I was also left with a boatload of questions!  I know Gideon was devastated so I get his grief was motivation for drinking aconite but what kinds of harsh and hurtful words were exchanged that day to cause Mary Alice to go and drink poison like that?  That seems so rash of a response.  I can only imagine that there was some other source of contention going on there as well.  Maybe some long standing resentment or problems within the family circle? 

I’m also left with a puzzle.  I had no idea that Gideon witnessed the events at Gettysburg but I’m oddly not sure how he did.  His parents were both from Maryland and lived there their entire lives.  I did not find any service records for Gideon nor his father Noah. Gideon’s grandfather Peter did serve in the War of 1812 but I think he was old at the start of the Civil War. Gideon was there in Maryland all his life, still in 1870 even, years after the war and then suddenly, he pops into Ohio by 1880.  So how would he have seen Gettysburg?  Where does that fit in?  Accompanied uncles maybe?  I have yet to branch up and out that that far yet.  It’s an interesting detail for later research to be sure. 

I’m truly happy though now. I have a new way to talk about the Eccards in my teaching aside from using them as examples of what sad things can possibly crop up.  Now I can talk about them in regard to disregarding assumptions, continually looking for that paper trail, and how you still REALLY do need to do some old-fashioned letter writing to find things that aren’t online.  I stress it enough to them already, but now I have an even better example to show them of why you still have to do offline legwork as well. 

Long Sought After Info Found on Emma Drake Herman

Ever have that one relative whose story that you just can’t get out of your mind?  I have several of those relatives like that but one that stands out for me is my 4th great aunt, Emma Drake Leist Herman.  February of last year, I wrote about what I knew of her story which included the suicide of her last husband, Henry Herman, who drank carbolic acid they morning after they had a fight.  As incredible as that tidbit was, Emma’s story continued to be fascinating as her death certificate revealed she died at 8 pm on 2 June 1916 at age 39 from shock with a contributory cause as lightning.  What was she doing outside in a storm at 8 pm?  Color me fascinated!