Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

These are my grandmother's peonies.  

As a side-effect of my parents' divorce and my father's remarriage, I have THREE grandmothers.  When I was an adolescent, one of my younger siblings ( I can't recall which one) thought it wasn't fair that I had an extra grandmother. What can I say, I was lucky.

All three of my grandmothers had been young women during World War II.  Perhaps this, along with traditions of the time, led to one of the common threads I experienced with each of them--Memorial Day visits to the cemetery.  

While I remember taking flowers with each of them to their respective family plots, no one prepared for Memorial Day as thoroughly as Grandma Beth. She dedicated a large portion of her beautiful yard to beds of peonies and iris specifically for Memorial Day flower arrangements.  

Honoring and remembering family members was lively and colorful--the flowers and the stories.  Much of what I know about my ancestors was told to me in a cemetery. 

Even gardening to me has generational pull...I have tried to gather parts of floral family history and carry the pieces with me.  Iris, roses, and these peonies have history I remember every time they bloom.

Today is Memorial Day, and I will be going to the cemetery with my one remaining grandmother.  We will undoubtedly run into cousins, and stories will be retold about the people whose grave sites we are visiting.   This is tradition.  What can I say--I am lucky.

Sunday, May 6, 2012



This is Faye, my grandmother's aunt.   She holds the keys to one of the biggest mysteries in my family tree.

It is Faye's sister, Blanche, who I recently discovered to be my hidden great-grandmother.  My grandmother Norma would have only been 5 years old when Blanche was murdered. Even before being orphaned, Norma was being raised by Faye and Blanche's parents as their own.  I do not know when or how Norma was told about her true parentage, but the secret was kept for decades.

There were many reasons for the secrecy.  By almost any measure, Faye and Blanche were the source of scandal for their family.  Besides the more typical things such as divorce and illegitimate birth, both Faye and Blanche were involved in nefarious (and apparently profitable) activities. By all accounts, Faye was in charge.  Blanche was the older sister, but never as tough as Faye.

The girls' father, Mose, was hard working, but poor.  The best job he ever had was as a mechanic for the Denver Rio Grande Railroad.  By the time this picture was taken, it was the Great Depression, and Mose was scraping by, herding sheep in the Utah mountains.  Blanche had tried, and fairly succeeded, to marry her way out of poverty.  Her first husband was from a well-off and respectable family.  When Blanche married her second husband, Norma's father, they lived in an apartment in the rich side of town, where the rent was four times what her father Mose was paying for his house. 

Faye left school early, and worked in a Salt Lake City ice cream parlor.  Could this be where she met her first husband ?  I don't know.  I have yet to track down any civil or church document for their union.  The only reason I even know his name is because one day, Faye's little brother was looking for his birth certificate.  Rifling through the Victrola cabinet where his mother kept all important papers, Lee found a Post Office Wanted poster-there was the face of his uncle Philip Chadwick, Faye's husband.  The flyer is long gone, but Lee pointed Philip out to me in a family group photo. The name is likely an alias, and I have not found any matching records of Faye or Philip.

I don't know what ever became of Philip, but Faye left Utah for Sacramento sometime before 1932.  This picture was actually taken on one of her visits home.  I imagine it was this trip when Blanche decided to try her luck in California.  Her second divorce is dated 1934.  Not much longer after this, Norma is listed in her grandparents' church congregation--as their daughter.

It was in the Coroner's inquest transcript of Blanche's murder that I found her alias--Dorothy Owens.  Someone identifying herself as a sister was interviewed at the time, and gave her name as Patsy Owens.  With these names, and an archivist's help, Blanche's mugshot as Dorothy was discovered at the Center for Sacramento History. Arrested with Blanche was a friend who used the alias Leta Owens. One look at her picture, and I could tell she was definitely NOT Faye.  I visited the Center myself, and searched through the mugbooks--I could not find anyone who resembled  Faye.  Since the girls came west in 1933, and Blanche was killed in 1937, there was no census taken in that time.  I did search City Directories, and found Dorothy and Leta, but not Faye.

As for the murder, Faye's account to the family and the coroner's inquest are vastly different.  Reading the inquest, it is clearly fiction.  Police corruption and vice are extensively documented in the newspapers of the time.  According to the family story, both Faye and Leta fled Sacramento immediately following Blanche's death.

Faye went to Hawaii.  She continued to return home on occasion, visits punctuated with trips to the bank to stash jewelry and cash.  Faye carried a handgun, and her Hawaiian husband ran a Tailor shop in Hilo, supposedly as a front for his heroin trade.  Faye's brother Lee could only tell me the husband's last name.  Another marriage document I have yet to locate . . .

In 1961, Faye came home to Utah after some trouble in Hawaii.  A friend had written home to Faye's mother, telling tales of outlandish behavior, public drunkenness, and morphine addiction. The friend said Faye had been taken to the hospital's psych ward.  The friend's letter, and those from Faye before this incident, came from an area notorious in Hawaii for prostitution and opium.

Lee drove his mother to Salt Lake to retrieve Faye.  They picked her up downtown-not at the airport. Her head was shaved and wrapped in a scarf to cover marks she said came from a fire. Supposedly the Tailor shop had burned down, and her husband died.  Before getting in the car, Faye pulled some papers out of her purse, crumpled and threw them to the ground. She set them on fire, and when they were completely destroyed, got into the car to go home.

Faye's erratic behavior continued, and she was admitted several times for treatment at the State Hospital.  I have read through her records, and not once did she give the true name of her Hawaiian husband.  Faye never had children, and died in 1968-taking her secrets with her.

I wrote to the Hawaiian Police department, and was rewarded with four accident reports and one incident report.  With these, I can place Faye and her husband in Hawaii as early as 1949.  I also confirmed that her story of a fire and dead husband was not true. I waited excitedly for the 1940 census, since I now know the street she lived on while married.  I searched the appropriate enumeration district and somehow cannot find her house number there, or any household that resembles hers.  Now I am waiting for the indexing to be completed.

Her lifetime of eluding detection has colored and thwarted my research.  I want clues to who really killed my great-grandmother in Sacramento, but without Faye's alias and their associates, I have only hypotheses.