Family Skeletons

The purpose of this blog is quite simple. I hope that by sharing stories and personal essays about my family –and perhaps yours if you care to participate- we can all learn more about where we came from. By doing that, maybe we handle our present day problems in a manner that will enable us to become better people.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Was It Murder? revisited.

For those of you who read my original post concerning the questions surrounding my Great-grandfather's death in 1916 and want more information, that is now available.  It takes the form of a new ebook, available here in your choice of formats.  Titled "Was It Murder?  The Life And Mysterious Death of John Thomas Wacaster (1848 - 1916)", it contains almost 5,500 words, photos of John Thomas and his first wife, Caroline Millaway, along with images of both his and his second wife's death certificates, marriage license and affidavits to the Confederate Pension Board.

There's also a fascinating period photo of a group of two-story buildings that may be the boarding house (and possible bordello) where John Thomas died.  There is, of course, no way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that John Thomas Wacaster was shot and killed by his second wife.  Or that she was a Madam.  Or that the boarding house they owned (that is a documented fact) also functioned as a bordello.

All I can suggest is that you read the ebook and reach your own conclusion as a jury of one.

Monday, May 05, 2008

It Was Only A Nail In The Foot.

If the story of my grandfather’s ambush and my mother’s malaria doesn’t give you some idea of just how tough everyone was in Mississippi during the early 1900s, this espisode should settle the question.

When they lived on a farm in Amory (Didn’t own it. Rented it as far as I know. Sharecropping doesn’t make sense because my grandfather was a very poor farmer, according to my mother.), they had a few cows. As cows do so frequently, theirs tended to disappear. I don’t know the entire reason, but my mother, who was somewhere around 8 or 9 at the time, was told to go check on a particular cow. Between the house and cow was probably several acres of land and a few gates. On the way to check on the cow, or possibly on her way back, my mother stepped on a 2’ x 4’ that had a spike sticking out of it. The piece with the nail was probably two or three feet long.

At any rate, it wasn’t enough to step on the board. I know, you’re already ahead of me. That’s right, she stepped square on the nail, driving it up under the ball of her foot. Well, as she told it, she sat down and worked on pulling the nail out. Nothing doing. It was stuck fast. So, she did the only thing she could do. Made her way back to the house, dragging the board with her. Along the way, she duitifully opened AND closed every gate she went thru. Had to. She’d have gotten a whipping if she hadn’t.

When she got to the house, Roxie (her mother) spent some time working on the board and finally managed to pull the nail out of my mother’s foot...along with a chunk of flesh surrounding the nail. Did they call a doctor? Nope. Poured coal oil on it and that was it. No doctor, no tetnus shot (tetnus shots didn’t exist), no stitches.

According to my mother, she got over it without any further attention. Sustain that kind of injury today and you’d wind up with an ambulance, hospital operating room (or emergency room at the very least), anesthetic, sterile cloths, latex gloves, blood workup, eight or ten stitches, possibly a skin graft, followup doctor’s appointments and counseling to help you deal with the emotional trauma.

Back then they jerked the nail out while you were laying in the yard, soaked the open wound in coal oil and told you to quit crying. By the next day, you were running barefoot in the dirt and never gave a thought to infection ...which you didn’t get in the first place.

And we think we’re tough? Not a chance.

Friday, October 05, 2007

It was only a mastectomy.

When my mother was around 82, she fell and broke her leg. This was not the typical elderly hip fracture. You know the type I’m talking about. Instead of falling and then breaking a bone, the bone snaps due to osteoporosis and then you fall. Not in her case. She had just quit working after 64 years on telephone switchboards (as the result of the store she was working in closing down) was just as active as she had ever been and definitely did not have osteoporosis. Anyway, she walked out on the back porch, turned around and caught her foot on a board, leaving her nowhere to go but down. When she hit, I heard the bone crack.

In spite of my comments to the contrary, she insisted that she hadn’t broken anything and picked herself up off the floor with the intention of going to the store. She made it about twenty feet before the thigh muscles tightened up and she was forced to sit down. Over her continuous objections that nothing was broken, it was paramedic and ambulance time.

At the hospital, they confirmed what I already knew. She had a broken leg. Fortunately it was far enough down that a hip replacement wasn’t necessary. Her comment to the orthopedic surgeon? “Hurry up and fix it so I can get back to the house.”

It wound up being sixteen days before she saw the house again, but her attitude darn sure didn’t change. Repair of the leg was a piece of cake, but while in the hospital, a lump was discovered in her right breast. Come to find out, she had known it was there and was planning on seeing the doctor. Eventually.

A biopsy confirmed breast cancer and a mammogram implied that it was significantly larger than it turned out to be. The next day, after a modified radical mastectomy, she was in her room when a visitor arrived. It so happened that the visitor was a volunteer from the Reach For Recovery organization and she was carrying her little brown bag with a selection of items in it. Never did know what was actually in it, thanks to my mother’s attitude.

The visitor starts into her typical spiel, not realizing that my mother was anything but typical. I wasn’t there, but according to my mother, it went something like this:

“Good mornin’ honey. I know you’re in terrible pain and you’re worried about how long it’s going to take to recover and regain the use of your arm. Well, darlin’, if you work real hard and follow your therapist’s instructions, it won’t be more than a few months and you’ll be able to get your arm level with your shoulder. And then....”

Aside from that being the absolutely wrong way to talk to my mother, what the visitor didn’t know was that my mother had a high pain threshold, an even higher pain tolerance and was mule-head stubborn to boot. Before the little gal could complete her spiel, my mother looked at her, raised her arm (on the mastectomy side) straight over her head til it was pointed at the ceiling, rotated the arm 360 degrees at the shoulder, put her arm down and said “You mean like this?”

The visitor took one look at her, picked up her little brown bag, turned around and walked out the door without saying another word.

Not only did the broken leg heal without a problem, the cancer never returned and my mother lived another fifteen years, dying at the relatively advanced age of 97.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

You can't sit in the back of the bus!

In 1922, my mother, her mother, sister and youngest brother moved from Amory, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. To say that it was culture shock would’ve been an understatement. They went from living in the country to the mysteries and regulations of the big city.

The differences were manifested in many ways. For one thing, my mother (who was a very tender 16 years of age) had never seen milk in a bottle. She wound up working at the phone company (AT&T) and made it back and forth to work by doing what most people did. Riding the bus.

Keep in mind that my mother was the only member of her family who was not a bigot or racist. How she managed to escape that mindset I will never know, but she did. Throw in ignorance of city ways, combine with a huge dose of country girl naivete and the result was almost totally predictable. Or if you prefer to look at it another way, she was about 35 years ahead of her time.

At any rate, one day she caught the bus. Whether to or from work I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. When she got on, she found that the bus was packed. The only seat left was at the very back of the bus. So, she trucks on back to the remaining seat and sits down.

In case y’all are wondering why any of this is unusual, you have to remember that we’re dealing with Memphis, Tennessee in 1922 in the Deep South. Segregation was the rule of the day. White peolple sat in the front of the bus and blacks sat in the back. That was the way it was and no one ever challenged it. But then they hadn’t run across anyone like my mother, either.

It didn’t take long after she sat down for the bus driver to pull over and bring the bus to a stop. He gets out of his seat, walks back to where my mother was sitting and told her she had to move up to the front. Keep in mind there were no seats in the front, but she still was ordered to move up front.

Her reaction to the driver? “Why?”

His response? “Because. You can't sit in the back of the bus.”

Her retort? “Why?”

The bus driver. “You don’t belong here.”

Her. “Why?”

I don’t know how long the exchange went on, but she finally moved up front. It was a very small episode and as far as I know, she never tried to sit in the back of the bus again. That’s just the way things were in Memphis at that time and you followed the rules. But I would suggest that was one of those very tiny ripples that eventually culminated in the Civil Rights movement some 35 years later.

Monday, March 26, 2007

She Was Not An Indian Princess

The second wife of my maternal great-grandfather was a lot of things. Irish, small, petite, two-time widow, probable Madam and bordello operator, boarding house owner and likely murderess. But one thing attributed to her she absolutely was not. An Indian Princess.

If you don’t think genealogy creates ‘history’ cut out of whole cloth, think again. All too often, people don’t like what they discover about their everlovin’ ancestors. After all, their ancestors would never do anything illegal or immoral. All of their ancestors were refined, educated people who they can be proud of. Uh-huh.

The truth is that we all have more than a few skeletons in the closet. In spite of that, we still keep trying to gloss over the rough spots. Even those who have researched their family history for years can be guilty of it.

But back to my great-grandmother. One researcher who has spent years focusing on my family line started making the statement that great-grandmother was a Chickasaw Indian Princess. Despite the fact that there is absolutely no truth to the story, it’s wound up on the internet and has now become set in cement. How you stop it spreading, I don’t have a clue.

The best thing I can do is to provide the truth. To that end, consider the following:

Where the story got started is most likely due to the fact that her first husband was a Chickasaw Indian and the son of the last chief of the Northern Mississippi Chickasaw. Throw in a little bit of romance and the fact that Pocahontas was referred to on occasion as an Indian Princess great-grandmother was an Indian Princess.

While that all sounds glorious, the fact of the matter is that American Indians did not and do not have Princesses. I even asked a full-blood Chickasaw Indian that I had occasion to meet about that. When he quit laughing, he confirmed the statement. Beyond that, my great-grandmother married an Indian. That didn’t make her an Indian any more than it made him a white eyes.

Great-grandmother was a full-blood Irishwoman with a maiden name of McCollum. If that ain’t Irish, I ain’t half Italian! What’s really more interesting than the Indian Princess fantasy is what happened to her first husband. She was only 27 when she married my great-grandfather...and she was already a widow. Since it’s likely that she murdered my great-grandfather (see my post titled Was It Murder?), it makes you wonder if she had anything to do with her first husband’s demise.

So, to cram this entire Indian Princess thing into a nutshell, the following points need to be understood:

* Great-grandmother’s maiden name was McCollum.
* She was Irish.
* She married a Chickasaw Indian
* Her first husband died...or she killed him.
* She married my great-grandfather.
* She probably ran a bordello and was most likely a Madam.
* She probably murdered my great-grandfather.

But there’s one thing about my great-grandmother that is absolutely, positively, irrevocably and demonstrably not true....

She was no Indian Princess.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Was it murder?

My great-grandfather, b. Feb 5, 1848, married his second wife in 1892, two and a half years after my great-grandmother died giving him his ninth child. Little information has come to light during the time from 1892 and 1913.

Apparently, he spent most of his working years alternating between farming and the railroad. That kind of split occupation wasn't all that surprising in the family, partly due to farming being totally reliant on God and the weather. If you have a bad crop or bad year, you need some way to bring in some money. The railroad provided that way. It's not an unreasonable assumption that it also appealed to the wanderlust that so many in the family had ...and still have..., giving them a chance to ramble and make money doing it. Same comments would apply to those who became builders or carpenters.

In 1913, if his death certificate is to be believed on that point, my great-grandfather and his second wife moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He would have been 65 at the time, with his wife being 48. According to my mother, they opened a boarding house. His wife ran the boarding house while he was off working for the railroad. On March 20, 1916, my great-grandfather died in Memphis, Tennessee and was buried on March 22, 1916 in Tupelo, Mississippi. That much is known and can be supported by documentation. But there is far more to the story.

According to the story my mother heard (presumably from her mother), my great-grandfather returned home from his railroad job one evening and was about to enter the house. His wife allegedly made a statement to the police that she thought a burglar was trying to break in, so she picked up a pistol and shot the 'intruder' who turned out to be, of course, my great-grandfather. The story, to this point, has more than a few holes in it (besides the hole or holes in my great-grandfather’s body).

For starters, why did his wife fire (apparently thru the door or wall) before identifying the intruder? If she already had the pistol in her hand, she could have certainly waited the extra few seconds needed to identify the intruder...or at least to make sure it wasn't her husband.

She most certainly was used to his unscheduled comings and goings that would have been an ordinary part of railroad employment. Then there's the matter of her boarders also moving about at all hours. She would scarcely have been huddled in her locked boarding house, jumping at every little noise.

This tends to suggest that she wanted her husband out of the way for whatever reason and took advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself. The precise reason will have to remain pure speculation, but consider a couple of points. It's a virtual certainty that my great-grandfather knew of his wife's probable illicit activities (see point 2 below). Whether he condoned that behavior, simply turned a blind eye to it or was an active participant in the business will never be known.

His death certificate is loaded with discrepancies and contradictions. One or two errors is not uncommon, but the number and combination of the ones on this death certificate leads inexorably to certain conclusions.

Consider the following:

1. Stated name of his mother is wrong. This can be supported with documentation.

2. The doctor attended him from Dec 12, 1915 to Mar 20, 1916, according to the certificate. That may or may not be true, as you will see later. Diagnosis of mitral regurgitation is open to question because of something I learned when my mother died. The physician who certifies the death frequently has never seen the deceased.

Beyond that, unless an autopsy is performed, whatever is listed as a cause of death is literally an educated guess. Since mitral regurgitation refers to a mitral valve in the heart that doesn't fully close, it's usually a chronic condition. Yet the doctor allegedly had only attended him for just over three months.

If there was a conspiracy to cover up the shooting (My mother specifically stated that her father and one of his brothers made several trips to Memphis trying to prove that the woman deliberately shot my great-grandfather.), the death certificate would have been a total fabrication. Whether they proved it or not, their trips to Memphis definitely supports the statement that my great-grandfather was gunshot. And keep in mind that a gunshot could have inflicted damage of a sort that would have
wound up involving the mitral valve prior to his death. In this way, my great-grandfather would have died from mitral regurgitation as an immediate cause of death, but the instigating cause would have been a gunshot. As to why the incident would have beencovered up?

According to my mother, my great-grandfather’s wife was known to her patrons as Road House Red. Given that, there's a definite possibility that she ran an operation that was more than just a plain boarding house. Bordello is one name for it, or House of ill Repute if your delicate sensibilities require a gentler term. If some of her clients just happened to be Memphis cops, city officials or county officials, then you have the reason for a coverup.

3. Finally, check out the various dates, especially the date and location of his burial. He died on March 20, 1916 at 4:00 p.m. in Memphis, Tennessee. Incidentally, he died in their boarding house at 1231 Latham Avenue. The death certificate was signed on March 21,1916. He was transported, presumably in a casket and by train, from Memphis, Tennessee to Tupelo, Mississippi, and buried on March 22, 1916. That's a distance of 100 miles. From the time of his death to his interment was less than 48 hours, which is awfully cottonpickin' fast for that time period...unless you've got something to hide. Hmm-m-m-m?

There are two other problem areas on the death certificate. The doctor signed it on the 21st of March. However, normal practice (as with my mother’s) is for the doctor to sign it only after the deceased has been buried. Why did he sign it the day before the burial? And the last point that is really strange. The registrar recorded the death certificate on the 21st of March...the same day the doctor signed it and the day before my great-grandfather was buried! My mother’s death certificate wasn't recorded until the 15th of July, 2002, which was the same day the certified certificate was issued and three weeks after her death. Death certificates can't be issued until they're recorded and they can't be recorded until final disposition of the body is known. In other words, where it's buried.

Based on the discrepancies just discussed, the bottom line is this: My great-grandfather was probably murdered by his wife and the death certificate was more than likely a complete coverup that included the police, doctor, county registrar and no telling who else.

If that isn't enough, his wife spent the next twenty years submitting letters, testimonials and affidavits to the Confederate Pension Board in an attempt to receive his civil war pension. What's interesting is that she claimed a right to the pension as his surviving widow. Since she had substantial supporting documentation (the marriage license alone would have been enough, you would think), it makes you wonder what else the Pension Board knew.

At this late date, there's probably no way to be absolutely certain that this analysis is correct. Every person involved has been dead for decades (and over a century in some cases), so it's basically a question of getting the historical record as accurate as possible. However, I think you would agree there's at least an eighty per cent probability that she did, indeed, murder my great-grandfather and escaped prosecution as the result of a coverup by public officials.

Could you get a conviction in a court of law? Absolutely not, because you would need proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But civil court is another matter. A preponderance of the evidence is all that's necessary and I'd suggest there's more than enough evidence to meet that criteria.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

But they had a telephone.

My mother was born in 1905 in a log house (not a cabin) that sat at the top a hill between two pine trees. It wasn’t their house, of course, but belonged to a relative. I haven’t been able to find out the exact relationship yet, but they were fairly well off. At some point in time, the house burned. Whether while my mother was living there or not, I can’t say.

At any rate, my mother’s entire family wound up living in the country outside of Amory, Mississippi. As I’ve indicated in previous posts, their house left a lot to be desired. No screens on the windows, no running water, no electricity, coal oil lamps for light and a wood fired stove for cooking. Also a fireplace, which was used for cooking and provided light and heat to boot. But they had a telephone.

On the face it, that sounds strange. But if you stop to think about it, it wasn’t. Electricity required two lines and a high voltage. A telephone, on the other hand, only took one line and it was low voltage. To make a call, all you had to do was pick up the earpiece, stand in front of the mouthpiece and crank the handle mounted on the side of the housing. Before very long, the operator came on the line with that classic phrase “number puhleeze!”. You told her who you wanted, she connected you and then it was your turn.

By the way, if you’ve never experienced a telephone conversation on one of those early wall phones, or heard about it from someone who had, you’ve missed something. Let’s see if I can give you an idea of what it was like.

To begin with, once you had your party on the line, you had more than a few hangers on. Frequently the whole town plus the operator. All you had to do was pick up the phone and you could hear what anyone else was saying, a true party line. They say there are no secrets in a small town and those telephones were one of the reasons.

The early wall phones helped build your lungs, too. You have to remember, this was new technology to most people and they couldn’t get it into their heads that you didn’t have to raise your voice if someone was five miles away. Conversations went something like this: Edna? EDNA? CAN YOU HEAR ME, EDNA? And Edna would say: ROXIE? I CAN HEAR YOU ROXIE. CAN YOU HEAR ME? I HOPE YOU CAN HEAR ME WHEN YOU’RE SO FAR AWAY!!

Not only could you hear her, you ran the risk of blowing your eardrum out from the volume. But that’s the way they thought you had to talk because they were calling LONG DISTANCE.

Despite many conversations occurring at the top of their lungs and many people simply being afraid to even touch one of those evil things (yes, it was considered the spawn of the Devil by some), all it took for them to be accepted was for a child to survive measles or pnumonia or an accident where they fell in the fire because a phone was available to call the doctor.

My mother and her family may not have had what we consider the comforts of home, mainly because of a philandering father (my grandfather) who refused to properly provide for them, but they had a telephone.