I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever be done researching my great uncle Dale Stewart. Dale’s life has been and continues to be, a source of constant fascination for me. He’s like a puzzle I want to solve. Frequent readers and family might recall that Dale was quite the failed bank robber and I’ve documented his trail across the USA by the places he spent time in prison. Dale is just fascinating to me as a cautionary tale in nature versus nurture. I think he’d have made a great case study for someone in the field of psychology.
A few weeks ago, I had to go back to Ohio before my father passed away and while there, I took time to stop at the cemetery and visit the grave of Dale’s father, William H Stewart, and his grandparents, John and Minerva Stewart – which is a funny story for another day. After visiting their graves, my thoughts began to wander back to Dale as they do from time to time.
A while back I ordered Dale’s full military jacket from NARA and one of the things that jumped out at me was an April 1942 letter Dale sent to the Marines asking for a replacement certificate of discharge to show his time in service. It had always bothered me that the return address was Florence, Arizona but he stated that the parole board in Los Angeles was asking for this certificate so that’s why he needed a replacement. Florence to LA is over 6.5 hours by car today so why was he living in one place but another place so far away was asking him to provide his military service certificate?
I started poking around some vintage photos from the 1940s of Florence, Arizona, and found that there was a good-sized state prison there. I had a hunch and I groaned to myself as I started searching for more info on the prison. The Arizona prison system had a historical prison register online and when I searched, of course, Dale was there. Why wouldn’t he be? It was just inevitable that he would be.
The register indicated you could order copies of the records so I sent away for them. While the details are scant as to what he actually did or where in Arizona the crime was committed, Dale was convicted on 7 April 1941 for Grand Theft and sentenced to 1.5 to 3 years starting on 25 March 1941. I have not found a corroborating news article describing any theft on his part even though I searched his known aliases. Of course, he could have used another one that I’m not aware of! On 16 July 1942, Dale applied for and was granted parole to begin 25 September 1942. So that means, Dale was in jail in April 1942 when he sent the letter to the Marines and BEFORE he was given parole.
Dale died by suicide in the Olive View Sanitarium in Los Angles on 23 January 1943. The occupation on his death certificate says he was a gardener and I have always wondered if he was a staff gardener that lived on the property or if he was an actual patient of Olive View. Had Dale found a job in Los Angeles that prompted his application for parole? And having secured a job, is that why the LA draft board was requesting a copy of his service certificate?
Dale’s Arizona prison record gave me another glimpse into his mindset at the end of his life. At the time of arrest, he wrote “surgical nurse” as his occupation, and at first, I thought the outright lie was sort of funny but then it hit me how incredibly sad that really was. Was this the proof that Dale had some mental issues going on? Frankly, Dale wasn’t educated enough to be a surgical nurse. There is no way he had the proper training to perform that job – he was in jail more than he was ever out in the real world. His education while in the children’s home system in the early 1920s was hardly adequate by any standard. I would turn to his military career for vocational training but he enlisted as a drummer and was discharged as less as desirable for desertion in 1927. I can’t even fathom where he would have attained any sort of medical training to remotely claim a surgical nurse occupation when he was crisscrossing the country and spending stints in jail wherever he went.
Throughout the years, I’ve had lots of conversations with my family and with other genealogists who had serial jailbirds in their family tree, about what could have possibly motivated Dale to commit the series of crimes that he did. Dale drank, and apparently, he drank a lot. As I mentioned previously in other posts, his niece remembers him coming to Ohio to visit and that he and her father (his brother) was drunk the entire time. One of his most “interesting” robberies was when he was skunk drunk and going the whole finger gun in the pocket thing to hold up a post office in San Diego. Witnesses laughed at him for staggering around and didn’t really take him serious at all. I wonder if at the end of his life, was Dale suffering the effects of long-term drinking on his brain? Another genealogist had asked if I knew Dale’s sexual orientation – I did not – and suggested, that in a time when living openly gay was not acceptable, perhaps prison afforded him a chance to (for lack of a better term) live within a world where gay sex did happen. My husband believes that Dale was one of those prisoners who did not know how to function outside of prison on his own, given that he was orphaned and grew up in a system that did not prepare him or give him skills that would ensure his success as an adult. Perhaps during the Great Depression, finding himself inside the walls of a prison where he was given regular meals, a bed to sleep on, and was out of the elements and not on the streets was the best solution he could come up with. I’m not sure I’ll ever really know his motivations but I still feel bad knowing he died alone and in such a horrific manner in a world so far removed from his Ohio roots.