Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Known and the Unknown-or What Has DNA Done For Me ?

I saw a little advertisement graphic from today. It listed the breakdown of exactly how many ancestors a person has at each generational step. For example, each human mathematically has 32 Great-great-great grandparents. The graphic carried the formula out to 10 Great grandparents, at which point, the total was 4,098 ancestors per human.

Just as everything involving humanity, the math might dictate one thing, but Reality almost always diverges from the path. One factor in everyone's ancestry eventually is "pedigree collapse". Instead of consisting of all unique individuals, a tree may have multiple places occupied by a single individual. This typically happens when the parents of an ancestor are related to each other (sometimes unbeknownst to themselves). Since we are ALL eventually related to each other, our ancestor total does not keep growing exponentially.

Pedigree collapse is not my focus, although I do know of at least one case, within five generations in my tree. This is actually fairly common.

After reading the Ancestry graphic, I engaged in a little genealogical memory exercise. I decided to try and recall as many of my 32 Third Great grandparents as I could. I knew going into this exercise that I would not be able to list them all. I was able to come up with 22 names, several almost stumped me, and one is actually questionable as to whether she belongs.

It was no surprise that 16 of those names represent all of my 3rd Greats from my paternal line. That line has been carefully tended, and centrally located in one geographic area for generations, creating a living repository from their descendants. We know each other, and our shared heritage.

Over the past 10 years or so, research into my maternal line has brought with it stories, rumors, and mysteries that cast doubt on my written pedigree. With DNA testing, I have been able to confirm the veracity of those stories, and now have 10 Third Great grandparents whose names I know only from my recent record searches and online family trees built by people I do not know.

DNA testing affected my paternal line as well, but in different ways. My grandmother and her siblings have searched for years for a SOLID link to the genealogy of their paternal grandfather John Patrick. We have submitted both autosomal and YDNA tests from the remaining siblings. (Autosomal tests for all ancestry. Y-DNA tests a male along his direct paternal line). So far, no immediate close matches have resulted.

There have been some glimpses into parts of that line's heritage of which we were previously unaware. A significant percentage of  my grandmother's ethnicity estimate takes her ancestor pool further into Europe than she had ever considered. Additionally, YDNA testing implies that Once Upon a Time, their family name may have been Bailey rather than Patrick.

As with pedigree collapse, finding a different name than your own tied to your YDNA is fairly common. It's really to be expected. People change their names, children are born and raised by families other than their genetic parents, and yes, sometimes people lie about paternity. In actuality, patrilineal naming patterns are a recent practice as world history goes, and mostly Anglocentric. If your ancestry takes you back to anywhere outside of the United Kingdom, your Family Name will have any number of origins. Even with the many varied reasons behind such differences, people are often upset by these changes to the family narrative.

Ethnic heritage is another factor of DNA testing that can cause consternation. My own ethnicity estimate includes the surprise slivers of heritage from Africa and Polynesia. For me, this is fascinating. I have a friend however, who is still trying to process the fact that her ethnic heritage is different than the 75% Irish, 25% Italian she has embraced as a hard and fast truth all her life.

Of the 22 Third Greats I was able to recall by name, there are only 14 who I could tell you anything about. And for half of those, I barely know anything, though I'm sure resources are available to me. only about 8 are familiar enough to me that they come close to feeling real. They are the Known. So many are silently Unknown.

Unknown                                                            Known

John Bastin                                                          Thomas David Evans
Ann Jaggers                                                         Priscilla Merriman
Frances Potter (connection unsure)                William Cox
William Morgan White                                      Rebecca Fox
Eliza Maria Sawyer                                             Jonathan C. Harrington, Sr.
Jens Hansen                                                         Julia Ann Clark
Maren Kirsten Nielsdatter                                 John B. Patrick
Michel Rasmusen                                                Charles Hulet
Elle Sorensdatter                                                 Mary Lawson
Ambrose H. Pierce                                              Charles Morris
Elizabeth McCorkle                                             Ann Ellwood
George W. WIlliams                                            Isaac Garner Shepherd                                      
Catherine Bolinger                                               Josephine Nielsen                                             
James Fulton Porterfield                                    Alma Cox
Orpha C Donnell                                                  Emily Page
Uriah Smith
Mary E. ________

Finally, for all of my disappointment that I know little about so many, I am dearly aware that genealogy for so many opens doors to secrets and mysteries that may not be welcome. I have encountered this myself, as I try and connect to the living cousins who never knew about our shared lineage. For some this is a search tied to years of doubt, fear, and anxiety.  I still believe that for most, Truth can be healing, and DNA can help in that process.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Never Alone

Let me tell you about the people who live in my head.

It's always been this way. It started with books. The books I read brought real people to me.

Jane Eyre, Francie and Neely Nolan, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, The Pevensie children-Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan; were all as good as real to me.  Books like "The Call of the Wild" and "Island of the Blue Dolphins" took me to places and times I would probably never experience in the flesh. When Karana survived alone with her dog, by ingenuity, strength, and fortitude, I was there.

So now, as I track down details-alone or sitting with cousins, reading court transcripts, medical files, and newspaper articles, letters written in a time when to move a few states away meant a lifetime separation between parent and child; when I'm mapping out a street from a census record, these people and places are real.

Not just Blanche and Faye, or Louisa, William, and Eveline; but the other characters in their stories who are not my family, come forward and make themselves known. Scenes from their lives are played out in dark archive reading rooms and images from

I see couples trying to blend children from previous marriages, coping with job loss, depression, and addictions; pictures of families with the sun shining on their faces that day they went to the lake. . . .

When an ancestor of mine disengages from a husband, or their best friend leaves town-never to return, I follow. What happened next ? Who did they marry ? Are any of the new people with whom they connect, from associations made and nurtured behind the scenes earlier ? And sometimes, they are. Circles return and layer upon themselves.

I am there--or they are here. We're never alone.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"On the Line"

At 16 years old, Jean Larson (I am using her chosen alias) found herself far from her parents' farm, in metropolitan Sacramento. Enrolled in junior college, arrangements were made for her to earn room and board by keeping house for Kenneth and Helena MacLachlan.  Not surprisingly, studies and housework were no match for the urban social scene and the pretty things Jean saw displayed in the shop windows. She said "My family wouldn't give me any money for pretty things or good times." So Jean set out to find a job.

The St. Nicholas Pool Room and Dance Hall was advertising in the Sacramento Bee:  "Girls Wanted for Taxi Dancers". To spend the evenings dancing, and to be paid for it ? Jean applied, and was interviewed by the proprietor--Big Nick Matcovich. (I've mentioned him before, he remains my favored suspect in Blanche's killing). Realizing that there probably were age requirements to dance for pay, and encourage men to spend their money at the bar, Jean lied and said she was 18 years old.

Jean's first night of work at the dance hall was October 14th, 1933. Mabel Wortman, Betty Lynch, Billy, and Bubbles were among the new friends Jean made, and they helped her find a room to rent in the building where Mabel and Betty lived. Jean soon found that dancing for hire was not truly social. It was rare that a girl could refuse a partner, regardless of manners, hygiene, or drunkenness. For every gallant, lonely boy who only wished to spend some time with a friendly girl, there were at least as many men who felt their dime bought them hands-on access for the length of the tune. Besides this aspect, being the Swing era, the popular dances such as the Foxtrot or the jitterbug were physically taxing--particularly when required from 7pm to 2am, with few breaks. The most popular dancers were usually the most exhausted. In court, Jean said she had also been asked to be among the dancers "On Call" after closing time, but she declined.

 Jean had only been dancing for 5 nights when one night at the dance hall, Mabel offered to introduce her to a friend-Joseph Franks. Mabel said Joe was a showman, and a young, pretty girl like Jean stood to make far more money (and with far less effort) by "going on the line" with him.  Jean imagined a show business atmosphere, possible fame, and definite fortune.  Within minutes of broaching the subject, Mabel led Jean to the bar where Joe stood, smoking. Normally, employed dancers were not given real alcoholic drinks, but this night, the bartender poured Jean a beer along with Joe. Franks occupied Jean's dance ticket for the rest of the evening-only a half an hour-though no dancing occurred. It felt so grown up to Jean, sitting at the bar, receiving compliments from a worldly man who spoke glowingly of her potential.

From Big Nick's establishment; Mabel, Joe, and Jean went to eat at the Bright Spot restaurant(also known as the Red Spot--possibly a reference to communist leanings?). As they arrived, Pinky Logan, the bartender from the Dance Hall, joined them. Seated at the counter, Mabel and Pinky turned as if in their own conversation, leaving Joe and Jean to discuss her possible future under his guidance. Joe passed a flask of whiskey around the foursome, and everyone smoked. Joe offered a cigarette to Jean from his pack of Chesterfields, holding the pack toward her with one cigarette extended. Jean later said, "It tasted peculiar, but I didn't think anything about it, because he was a friend of Mabel's". Before long, Mabel said she was tired and needed to go home. Leaving Pinky behind, the three of them hailed a cab. Even though Mabel and Jean lived in the same building, only Mabel got in the cab. It was at this point, that Jean's recollections end.

In the morning, Jean awoke, fully clothed, in Joe Frank's bed in the Coloma Hotel (Another tie to Blanche. The Coloma is the same hotel where she and Faye were living at the time of  Blanche's murder). In court, Jean testified that she had no memory of their morning conversation. Joe took her out to breakfast at the Peking Cafe, and it was here that Jean revealed to him her true age. Joe Franks was no showman, nor was he so inexperienced to be surprised to hear that Jean was only 16. Unperturbed by her status as a minor, Joe assured Jean that he would "protect" her from her father, as Jean feared he would soon come to Sacramento looking for her. A chronic felon, Franks had been incarcerated for crimes involving minors at least as early as 1924.

After breakfast, Joe and Jean met up with Mabel. It was Mabel who suggested that Jean needed new dresses for dancing at the St. Nicholas, and Joe gave Mabel some money to take Jean shopping. He said she would be able to make more money if she had newer, more fashionable clothes. For the remainder of the day, Mabel guided Jean through a parade of department stores, picking out dresses, stockings,  and other accessories. Several times throughout the afternoon, Joe rejoined them briefly to give Mabel more money. Sometimes, Mabel let Jean pay for the items and keep a little change for herself. They went for lunch at Hart's Cafeteria, and finished their day with a visit to the Peter Pan beauty parlor. All along, there was a cab driver at their beck and call, commissioned to take them wherever they needed to go.

In the true pattern of predatory grooming, Joe Franks did not push Jean to immediately come to work for him. Initially, Jean had no idea what it meant to "go on the line", but Joe provided a peek in to the true nature of what such work entailed.  He told her she was not ready. that he needed to "wise her up" first. Joe explained to her how to "roll drunks". The girls Joe employed would entice drunken men to hotel rooms, and when the man passed out, their job would be to take any cash or valuables,  and clear out. (The eventual certainty of prostitution was never discussed.) But again, he emphasized that she was far too green, and not ready. In the meantime, she would need to continue working every night at the dance hall. Gifted with the glittering new wardrobe, and challenged to prove her maturity, Jean was in this way groomed and enticed. Besides, she could not go back to school or her parents' farm, how does a girl explain the fact she had gone to a hotel room and spent the night with a man she just met ? These are among the same methods traffickers have used throughout history and still do now, in contemporary time.

That night, Jean arrived for work as her updated and fashionable self. As she told the other girls of her new association with Joe Franks, some of them warned her that he was no good. As the evening progressed, Jean became more and more alarmed. Mabel tried her best to disrupt the flow of conversation and keep Jean interested in Joe Franks' proposition.  As it turns out, Jean, Mabel, and Joe were all arrested that same evening. It appears that Joe Franks (and possibly Mabel Wortman) was already known to Sacramento Police. It was not Jean who called the police. The Sacramento Bee laid credit at the feet of a new committee formed to rout out "men living off the earnings of women".

Reading newspapers from the time period, it is pretty clear that vice laws had not been vigorously enforced, with most prosecutions and arrests concentrated on immigrants and people of color. Public sentiment had been rising against the City officials and police department. One of the scenarios fueling the surge in public outcry was the encroachment of  vice activities in to the more affluent, "white" parts of town. This incident seems to have been part of a public display of efforts to appease those petitioning for action. Nick Matcovich and his dance establishments had long been targeted because their demographic included people of color.

In reality, not much of lasting impact occurred in this case. A grand Jury was empaneled with the sole charge being against Franks for "Contributing to the Delinquency of a minor". Mabel testified, proclaiming her full willingness to cooperate, and simultaneously presented the story in such a way as to absolve herself (and Nick Matcovich) of any implication of criminal intent. She portrayed Jean as a fully capable and consenting participant--even going so far as to say that Jean had paid for the shopping and other expenses from her own money.  Even with this minor charge, amendments were made to lower the gravity from a felony to an "indictable misdemeanor". Joseph Franks served less than a year in the County Jail.

This all took place in Sacramento one year before Blanche came there to live. Faye was already "in the business", however. I can't say yet that Faye knew Joe Franks, but there are multiple ties between witnesses in this case, and players in Blanche's growing drama. These people frequented the Coloma Hotel, the St. Nicholas dance hall, and the Modern Rooms.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mormon Polygamy-an example from my Family History

The people pictured above are William Wallace White, and his wives in chronological order. The women are (from Left to Right) Martha May Pancoast, Louisa Morris, and Eveline Mercy Tuckett.

William is my 2x great-grandfather, ascending from my paternal grandmother's line. Louisa Morris is the woman from which my line descends.

The practice of plural marriage—the marriage of one man to two or more women—was instituted among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s. Thereafter, for more than half a century, plural marriage was practiced by some Latter-Day Saints. William and his family are counted among these.

William and Martha May Pancoast were married in 1870, and had one daughter-Lenna May. At this point in time, they had not encountered the Mormon religion.  In 1876, when Lenna May was still a little girl, Martha died. Martha's family took the little girl in and raised her, as William worked and moved westward. Surviving records indicate he sent money and letters to Lenna May through the years.

William W. White was baptized a member of the LDS Church in 1879. Within a year's time, he met and married Louisa Morris in Salt Lake City, Utah. They were sealed in the Endowment House.

In Mormonism, marriages performed in temples are considered eternally covenanted.  In the years before the Salt Lake Temple was completed, eternal (or Celestial) ordinances were performed in the smaller Endowment House, which had been specifically built to serve this purpose while several temples were under construction. The eternal promises and ordinances performed within the walls of the temple would carry a family beyond the earthly "til death do us part". Hierarchical structures-both familial and ecclesiastical would be continued in the hereafter based upon these sealings, if all remained faithful and righteous.

In addition to the doctrine of Eternal marriage, the practice of plural marriage had been part of Mormonism from the very early days in Kirtland and Nauvoo. Entering into a plural marriage was believed to be a step in the direction of reaching the highest level of heavenly glory after the Resurrection.

The 1880s were a time of conflict between the LDS church and the US Government. Laws were passed in 1879, criminalizing the practice of plural marriage. If the Utah Territory was to be included in the body of the United States, the Mormons would be required to abandon this doctrine. At the time of William and Louisa's marriage, Brigham Young was in the last years of his life, and in October of 1880, John Taylor became the President of the LDS church. John Taylor was adamant in his resolve to continue polygamy. Shortly after being sustained as Prophet, Taylor said "One sure thing is that we will not surrender polygamy." Even more dramatic rhetoric ensued between the LDS church and the US government in the years following.

It was in this climate that William and Louisa lived for a time in Salt Lake City. By 1884, they had 2 children-Charles and Lola. William and Louisa were both educated people, Louisa being the more sober and serious of the couple. William was fond of music and theater, and writing poems. Louisa wrote articles on occasion for the Mormon women's publication, The Exponent. Both held positions of leadership within their congregations.

In about 1883 or 1884, the Whites were introduced to Eveline Mercy Tuckett.

Eveline had only recently been reunited with family in Utah. She had lived in Virginia City from infancy, raised by an aunt and uncle-active in society and theater. Until the financial crash of the silver market, Virginia City was a thriving metropolis. Eveline had married there, and was the mother of a young daughter. Her marriage ended by divorce, and at the same time, she was told the truth about her parentage. Cornered by her divorce,the illness of her uncle, and sudden destitution, Eveline and her daughter came to Salt Lake to live. In the process of reuniting with her Utah family, she joined the Mormon church.

In June of 1884, Eveline Mercy Tuckett was sealed to William Wallace White, thereby entering William, Louisa, and Eveline into plural marriage. Louisa's brother was recorded as a witness to the ceremony.

One reaction to the government efforts to end polygamy, was that polygamous families were sent to various places in the regions surrounding the Utah Territory. One such place was Mancos, Colorado; and the Whites were called to go there. Mancos was a frontier area---homes would need to be built, land tilled, fences built, and irrigation engineered. It was rugged work in a dry climate.

This is where my family history gets fuzzy on the details. Actually, fuzzy is the wrong word for it--in our family narrative, Eveline and this marriage were NEVER mentioned.  It was not until another family researcher discovered a record of the temple ordinance, that Louisa and William's grandchildren learned of this event. It was certainly a shock for them to consider that part of the history had been edited. It took some adjustment, and the discovery of more documentation to fully accept this.

It was not only the descendants of William and Louisa who were surprised by this revelation. I have been able to correspond with some descendants of Eveline's daughter, Mercy. While they knew of the marriage between Eveline and William, they had not ever been told it was a plural marriage.

The time in Mancos was not a happy time for Eveline. One factor contributing to this was the frontier nature of their existence there. So far, we have not found any journals details feelings or circumstances within the family unit, but it was common for polygamous households to crack under the many pressures of that commitment--especially for people who were not financially well-off.

Congregational records provide a scant framework establishing that the Whites made a solid effort to fulfill this tenet of their faith. In 1890, a religious leader would write in his journal that he had counseled with William and Eveline on the matter. It was not to be, however, and in 1893, the union between Eveline and William was dissolved. Eveline remarried some years later and lived the rest of her life as a faithful, monogamous Mormon.

In 1890, the LDS church would publicly announce via Manifesto, the end of the practice of plural marriage. The practice would continue in secrecy--not unlike the secrecy that had been deemed necessary during other periods during which the practice existed--until 1904.

In 1900, William must have made a trip to Salt Lake City, as it was recorded that he facilitated (by proxy) the baptism of Martha May Pancoast, and had her sealed to him as an eternal wife. This means that the marriages between William, Martha, and Louisa are eternal. Because Eveline's sealing was dissolved-something only the First Presidency of the LDS church can authorize-she is not considered part of that eternal family, but is the eternal spouse of her third and final husband James Holder.

This post is fairly reductive in many ways, but it is intended mostly as a kind of primer on the history and background before I dive deep into the stories of these people and places. Research, as always, is continuing. I want to do these people and events justice.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Stories Old as Time, or My Search Begins.

As a person born and raised in Utah, as a descendant of Mormon pioneers, genealogy is very nearly a part of my DNA. By the time I was 12 years old, I could diagram 4 generations of my ancestry off the top of my head. From my earliest childhood, I knew of the people who came by wagon, handcart, and train to live in the Land of Deseret--as the piece of Mexico they settled was once known.

Genealogy is more than a hobby in the LDS (Mormon) religion. It is a responsibility-part of The literal gathering of Israel. While missionaries are sent to invite the living inhabitants of Earth to join with us, the membership are expected to research their ancestors, and by proxy, give them the same invitation the earthly missionaries share. Data necessary to establish existence, identity, and familial connection are required in this work.

Of course, there is more to genealogy than dry data. In the process of looking for the people that precede you, their stories will unfold, tied by circumstance to the events of history. World War II might only be something you read about, until you learn your grandfather was at Iwo Jima. Horrors like the Holocaust or chattel slavery are only chapters in textbooks or scenes in movies, until you find your ancestor listed as an inventory item, just another line in a ledger ?

I was 10 or younger when my step-mother took me to the big Family History Library in Salt Lake City. She was searching through microfilms of the Federal census. She gave me a surname to look for, made sure to tell me that it might be spelled several different ways, and I was a researcher.

Within Mormonism, the gathering of one's ancestors has been a tenet from the beginning. One of the great tragedies told in my paternal family lore was that of handcart pioneers forced to leave behind the papers with their genealogy. Somewhere in Iowa, my 3x Great grandfather Thomas Evans left the records he spent years gathering in Wales, and they were never recovered.

Not ALL Mormons are caught up in genealogy, but my family certainly was.

Because of this, and my youth, I felt no sense of urgency to research my ancestry. So many generations ahead of me had been keeping those records, what could I do but copy what they had written before? When I moved to New Jersey and was married for the first time, my husband's family tree was ripe for harvest. His heritage was drastically different from mine, and heralded from a completely different geographic area of the United States than my predecessors. In preparation for future children, I set about researching his side of our family.  We had no children, and eventually divorced, but a part of me is forever tied to the stories I heard from his parents, cousins, and historical records. A result of part of that adventure is included here.

Shortly before returning to Utah, I made a last minute visit to the Goshen, NY Cemetery. Some of my ancestors are buried there. I lived within 100 miles of this cemetery for nearly 20 years, and never once thought to look for my people. Finally, with only days before my departure, I zigzagged all over that cemetery in a rainstorm, trying to find a headstone with any one of several names tied to my tree. I found nothing that day.

Back in Utah, I decided to tackle my maternal line. I would just make sure the documentation was in place for the history I knew already--4 or 5 generations of Shepherds in Utah--and then work on the "dead end" from New York over to England.

By this time in my life, my maternal grandmother Norma had already died, but my mother was still alive. I began to verify details like birth dates, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. I searched records and gathered documents, checking off boxes like a champ. One day, I was looking for my grandmother's baptism record. (A note here may be in order--in Mormonism, baptism is an ordinance performed when the child is 8 years old, not as a rite of birth). As an interconnected, but international religion, the LDS church keeps fastidious records-as fastidious as the clerk assigned to the job, anyway. Each congregation notes when a family moves in or out of their boundaries and enters data for ordinances performed.

Norma's birth certificate said she was born in 1931 in Spanish Fork, Utah; to Mose and Lillie Shepherd. Spanish Fork was an early Utah settlement, but still a small town in the 1930s. I found Mose Shepherd and his family pretty quickly. There was one problem, though. Mose and Lillie's oldest and youngest daughters-that would be Blanche and Norma, respectively-were not listed in the ledger with the family when they moved from Salt Lake City. Going further into the congregational records, I found Norma added to the membership rolls as a toddler, and at a different time than Mose and Lillie. How could that happen ?  

It doesn't take a broad stretch of the imagination to form the theory that came to my mind. With the oldest daughter, Blanche, missing, I surmised that Norma was really her daughter, and somehow came to be raised by Mose and Lillie. With only a few perfunctory searches into Utah civil records, I knew my theory was valid. My plans of searching English immigrants and New York settlers were instantly derailed.

The first of several holes in my family tree had been blown open.

On the left, Lillie C. Shepherd and on the right, Norma Shepherd.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Dance Halls and Dark Alleys

A number of years ago, I thought I would “tidy up” my maternal genealogical line so I could set about seriously researching those roots from before their time on the American continent. Having been born into a family of people culturally inclined to record their family trees, I thought it would only be a matter of finding appropriate documents to verify the known data for the first 4-6 generations.

It was not long before I found that I had a family secret or two that affected the accuracy of my genealogical record. One such discovery was of my maternal great-grandmother, Blanche. I had heard next to nothing about her. Of course, there was a reason for that. She and her sister Faye, were involved in serious criminal activities in Sacramento, CA.  Blanche was murdered in 1937, when her daughter, Norma (my grandmother) was only 6 years old. After obtaining and reading the inquest, it became clear that there was more to her murder than officially reported. (The Center for Sacramento History found a mugshot of Blanche, check out my very first blog post here-titled "By Way of Introduction" for more on that.)

Faye continued in criminal enterprises throughout California and Hawaii until she returned home a few years before her death in 1968, leaving intricate lies and half-exposed secrets in her angry wake.

I determined to learn as much as I could about the people surrounding Blanche and Faye during their time in Sacramento. I learned about their friend Kleta. I read about a WWI veteran who returned from war, and established a betting hall, but since he defied the established numbers kingpin, he was raided repeatedly by the police in an attempt to bring him down. I am forever searching for Faye's alias(es), hoping make more connections to determine who else was involved.

I am searching for the person who would have wanted Blanche dead. Who did she cross? Faye had told some in the family that Blanche had ‘talked to people she shouldn’t have”. The family narrative held that Faye and Kleta had immediately fled Sacramento in fear after Blanche’s death. I have come to find that this was not true.

The Center for Sacramento History, and the Sacramento Room (within the Central City Library) provided me with a wealth of guidance and resources. Mugbooks, property ownership maps, city directories—these all helped to build a picture of 1930s Sacramento for me.

 Who ordered Blanche’s death? Ruling out Frank Nisetich-the man mentioned above, whose betting hall, The Equipoise, survived the pressure of crooked cops and other syndicates; I sought to find the person most likely to have held the power in Sacramento vice. This brought me to N.N.S. Matcovich-otherwise known as “Big Nick”.

Big Nick was a prominent and enterprising member of Sacramento business. He owned the St. George Hotel, in which he established an "employment service". He provided agricultural laborers to local employers. The laborers lived in this hotel, paying Matcovich both for room and board, and also a commission for finding them work. Big Nick likely collected a fee from the agricultural companies, as well.

Agricultural laborers at this time were primarily single men. A large majority of the men were of Filipino heritage, or other immigrants, and people of color. At this time in California, Filipino people were considered to be a sub-class of society. The men were legally banned from being seen with white women.

In addition to the hotel, Nick owned several liquor stores and dance halls.  Known as Taxi Dance halls, these were places men could come and pay to dance with one of the many girls there. A dancer would have a ticket book, with stubs for each dance. The man could pay a dime for one dance. The dancer kept a nickel, and the other nickel went to “the House”. In addition to dancing, the women were expected to encourage the men to buy drinks for her and him. In some establishments, a commission on alcohol sold was paid to the woman. While full price was charged for each drink, the dancer would generally be given colored sugar water, though I am sure an occasional full-strength drink made its way to a thirsty dancer now and then. 

Several of Matcovitch’s dance halls were known as “Black & Tan” dance halls, because they were intended for people of color who were not allowed to enter the other dance halls (he owned one of these segregated clubs as well). Sacramento citizens fought against the opening of such establishments, but Nick convinced City Hall, and he was in business.

An extension of the dance hall market, was not surprisingly, sex trafficking. While heavily implicated-both in his own time, and in my research-Big Nick managed to escape prosecution for his certain role in the sexual exploitation of women and girls in Sacramento. Having read the file from his first divorce, it was clear that Nick reveled in his power and held no regard for women.

I have not found anything resembling firm documentation of Nick’s involvement in my great grandmother’s death-but he remains my prime suspect.  I continue to search, building biographies of the people webbed together by their places of work or residence, their marriages, and shared encounters with law enforcement. Blanche, Kleta, and Faye, materialize before me, enticing me down alleys and into the pages of books ripe with musty vanilla and secrets exposed.


Thursday, February 28, 2013


Here is my maternal line--six generations in photos.

Somewhere in this line is the story I am supposed to tell.  Multiple threads run between these women and myself--more than physical characteristics, and beyond things traditionally attributed to heredity.

It's as if from mother to mother, some work was commissioned. Hands on their young one, passing dreams and weaknesses, fears and strengths with each touch--changing the shape of the birthright as it moved through the years.

No daughter of my own, the commission must come to light through my hands another way.

Years at this, opening doors, shining light, and I still don't know how to begin. The call doesn't fade, and I never know where I will end up as I repeatedly step into secrets and hidden history. Searching for truths that were buried, weights that were borne, and brilliant flashes of happiness.  I feel them with me, I know there is a need to be understood, redeemed, and loved. I know this, because I need it, too.

I may be an old woman when it happens, but someday I will hold my birthright in my hands and show you what these women gave me.