52 Ancestors – Week 1 – Fresh Start

I contemplated for a couple of days on this week’s 52 Ancestors topic of fresh start deciding how to approach it. I settled on one of my ancestors who made a fresh start which had the most effect on my life. My ancestor of the week is Lillie Mae Weatherspoon, my father’s paternal Grandmother. Her fresh start in life not only changed her life but led to a whole branch of “Fulkerson” family members which are not Fulkerson at all. I am one of those Fulkerson relatives and this is the tale of how I was born with the surname Fulkerson.

Lillie Weatherspoon

1912 – 1999

Lillie Mae Weatherspoon was born into a poor family in the boot hill region of Missouri. Her date of birth was 22 January 1912. She was the second child born to the union of William Weatherspoon and Fanny Bennett. An older sister Nellie died in childhood. After Lillie’s birth, brothers Claude, Clyde, and Cledeth joined the family.

Humble Beginnings

The 1920 census supplies the rare snapshot of the family unit, lacking only Nellie who was already deceased. Also living in the household is Elmer Bennett. Elmer was Fanny’s nephew, the illegitimate child of her older sister Victoria. While it is impossible to understand the level of dysfunction in the family from a simple census record, family lore and other documents paint a picture that is less than rosy.

1920 Census

Shattered Childhood

Not long after the 1920 census Lillie’s family dissolved. Her parent’s marriage split up. Her mother abandoned the family to marry a man named William Denbow in 1923. Lillie remained with her father, William Weatherspoon, and helped care for her brothers.

Murder, Marriage, and Mayhem

Behind the scenes a bigger problem was brewing as a grisly murder rocked Ripley County, Missouri. In June 1926, the mutilated bodies of the elderly Van Patton brothers were discovered, and the consensus was that they were murdered.

Within the year, James Wesley Bennett, Fanny’s brother was charged with the crime of murder. The shock of the involvement of her son in the grisly crime helped contribute to the death of Lillie’s maternal grandmother.

Amidst all the chaos in her family life Lillie decided to get married. She accepted the marriage proposal of William Baker, a man 13 years her senior. Lillie Weatherspoon and William Baker were married on 24 September 1926. She was 14 years old at the time.

In July 1927 Lillie’s father died. It seemed to be a final blow to whatever was left of her childhood family. On 12 February 1929 Lillie gave birth to her only child, Jay Dee Baker.

1930 census
1930 Census

Turning the Page

Tales told by Lillie late in life tell of a marriage plagued by alcohol and violence. The marriage was ill fated and short lived. According to the stories told by Lillie the ultimate end came about one morning after Bill Baker returned from a night of drinking. He spilled hot coffee on their child and according to Lillie she hit him in the head with a cast iron pan, grabbed the baby, and didn’t quit running until she made it to Iowa.

The next several years are a period of mystery. Tales she was willing to share with me tell of her operating what she called “beer gardens” with her mother. I have heard tales from other families that say she may have lived a very rough life during the period and dappled in prostitution to support herself and her child.

Seven years pass with no known documents of Lillie’s life. She appears again in records on 5 June 1937. She married Moman Harold Fulkerson, a widower with no children who lived in Flint, Michigan and worked in the auto factories. On their marriage record Lillie used an alias. She was still married to William Baker.

Lillie Mae Weatherspoon and Moman Harold Fulkerson wedding photo

On 7 Nov 1938 Lillie took the final step to her fresh start. She officially divorced William Baker.

On the 1940 census Lillie and her son are living with her 2nd husband in a working class neighborhood in Flint, Michigan. Lillie would live out the rest of her life in the house.

1940 Census
1940 Census.

A name change

On 4 February 1947 M.H. Fulkerson adopted Jay Dee Baker and changed his name officially from Baker to Fulkerson.

adoption papers for Jay Dee Baker and name change to Fulkerson.

Lillie Mae Weatherspoon is my fresh start ancestor. Through her life she managed to find ways to create a fresh start for both herself and her son. Her fresh start led to me being born with the surname Fulkerson.

Lillie Mae and M.H. Fulkerson

Gretna Green Weddings

Genealogical research is a fun adventure. Decades into the hobby, I still frequently find myself discovering new terms and learning new things. Gretna Green is the term I learned recently.

Gretna Green is a town in Scotland that was famous for being a runaway wedding destination. The town gained its reputation when English marriage laws prohibited marriage under the age of 21. Younger English couples crossed the Scottish border and the first town they arrived at was Gretna Green, Scotland.

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Historic image of Gretna Green Scotland By This image is available from the National Library of Scotland under the sequence number or Shelfmark ID Blaikie.SNPG. You can see this image in its original context, along with the rest of the Library’s digital collections, in the NLS Digital Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33984166

The term Gretna Green came to be associated with any locale that drew residents from nearby areas to skirt more restrictive marriage laws where the couple lived. Las Vegas, Nevada is a modern day Gretna Green. Various places served as Gretna Green locations at different periods. Angola, Indiana was a popular Gretna Green destination for residents of Michigan.

The first time I encountered a Gretna Green marriage was when I located the marriage license of my Great Grandmother and her second husband. I searched for that record for years before I finally discovered it. When I looked at the information provided it was no shock I had such trouble. My Great Grandmother provided details that were less than honest and they married far from the city they lived their lives together in. Overall, I found it rather easily considering the details she provided.

 

Normally I would discard the incorrect facts as a case of poor record keeping. In this instance, I am certain the details recorded were as my Great Grandmother provided them. The details she provided, and the reality of the situation as ferreted out by actual supporting documents and records, tell the rest of the story. I have little doubt my Great Grandparents married in Angola, Indiana to avoid too many unwanted questions about their…primarily her…past. Indiana law required them to both be over the age of 18 and unmarried. No documentation was required to prove the facts as presented were accurate. Good thing, she could not have provided documents to prove the facts she provides unless she made them!

Couples had various reasons for Gretna Green weddings. Some like my Great Grandmother had a history that she was trying to escape. Others may have been just looking for the excitement of eloping, or just avoiding family involvement in the ceremony. Whatever their reason Gretna Green weddings have been a genealogy roadblock challenge to overcome since the dawn of time.

A Strange Tale in Ripley County, Missouri

Recently I stumbled upon an article about an odd double murder that happened nearly a 100 years ago which left me fascinated and delving deeper for more information.  The murders took place in Ripley County, Missouri during prohibition.

Ripley County was an area with a reputation for lawlessness.  Homemade corn liquor poured from stills long before the law forbidding alcohol in the country.  A lack of roads inhibited the law enforcement authorities from cracking down on unsavory types in a region where many of the locals traveled by the many waterways that snaked through the area.

The region was mostly poor; a majority of the population was illiterate.  Many of the people in the area had immigrated to the area during the lumber boom after 1880, most of them from Tennessee.  Small family farms and timber operations were the main industries of the area.

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Lillie Mae Weatherspoon

In 1920 the Bennett family lived on the South Branch of the Buffalo Creek in Pine Township in Ripley County.  The family is headed by 62 year old widow Celia Louisa “Lucy” Bennett.  Also living with her at the time was her 34 year old son, J.W. Bennett, and 17 year old Gertie Bennett, a granddaughter whose mother was deceased.  Lucy claimed to be a farmer and reported that she owned her land.  Living next door to Lucy in 1920 were her daughter Fanny, with her husband Willie Weatherspoon, and their children.  The family had resided on the same land for over 10 years.   My Great Grandmother, Lillie Mae Weatherspoon, was one of Willie and Fanny’s children.

A gruesome discovery rocked the region in June 1926 when the bodies of Ernest and Frank Van Patton were discovered.  The old men had been dead, exposed to the elements and animals, about a week prior to discovery.  The men were misers and local rumors indicated they had a hidden wealth of money which was never recovered.  Local authorities were unable to solve the strange demise of the Van Patton brothers for a year.

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The Springfield Leader Springfield, MO June 20, 1926 pg 1

A break came in the case when 17 year old Cecil Atchinson walked into the local police station and told Joe Cochran a strange tale which implicated his uncle J.W. Bennett and another man, George Williamson, in the murder of the Van Patton brothers by poison in an attempt to rob the men.  Cecil also confessed that he confessed the tale to his grandmother, Lucy Bennett, and the tale shocked her so bad she died.  He claimed that on her death bed she ordered him to turn his uncle in.  J.W. was also implicated in a murder attempt on George Williamson by placing dynamite in his stove causing an explosion which injured the intended victim.

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Simpson’s Leader-Times Kittanning, Pennsylvania May 16, 1927 pg 12

J.W Bennett was convicted of the double murder of the Van Patton brothers and the attempted murder of George Williamson.  He was sentenced to life in Missouri State Prison in November 1927.  J.W. was the only one to receive a murder conviction and he quickly appealed his case.

In May 1928 the Missouri Supreme Court amended the conviction against J.W. Bennett and ordered that he had to be given a new trial.  The Supreme Court found issue with both the confessions signed by illiterate men and by the lack of physical evidence in the case.  The condition of the bodies when discovered had made a cause of death impossible to determine.  J.W. was released and never retried for the crime as far as I have been able to determine.

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The Sedalia Democrat Sedalia, MO May 25, 1928 pg 8

Joe Cochran the man who cracked the Van Patton case went on to have a very successful career.  He made headlines in several big cases involving recovery of stolen Army equipment, the recovery of a stolen mill, stopping a crazed man armed with a gun, and breaking up a counterfeit coin ring.  He also survived at least one assassin attempt.  In 1933 he was elected Vice President of the newly formed Midwest Peace Officers Association which was created as a multi-state agency to fight the rampant crime in the region.  After the mid 1930’s he appears to have left law enforcement.

By 1952 Joe Cochran owned a tavern operating in Doniphan.  He was gunned down during broad daylight on Main Street by a man named Ace Robinson.  Another man was also injured in the shooting.  Ace Robinson was instantly arrested and claimed he killed Cochran in self defense after years of extortion attempts by Cochran.  Ace Robinson claimed Joe Cochran had recently began to make threats against his life and that he shot him when he thought he was going to shoot him.  Joe Cochran was buried in the Doniphan Oak Ridge Cemetery.

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St Louis Post-Dispatch St Louis, MO June 20, 1952

Ace Robinson was found innocent of murder in 1953.  It was decided that he shot Joe Cochran in self-defense.  Ace died in 1956 of natural causes.  He is buried in the same cemetery as Joe Cochran.

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Macon Chronicle-Herald Macon, MO Apr 29, 1953 pg 1

 

What a strange series of events.  More to come on this one…

Cover Photo:

Sterling, Illinois
Mon, Jun 21, 1926 – Page 1

Baker

What’s in a surname?

I grew up with a surname I hated.  It was unpleasant to the ears, hard to spell, and easy for school children to mock.  I was eager to get married in life if for no reason more than I wanted to change my last name.

I think I was about 14 the first time I realized in talking to my Great Grandmother that it was only a twist of fate that gave me that much disliked name and that biologically I had zero connection to it.  In a different world, under better circumstances, I would have been born with the last name Baker.  The countless hours I wasted in my life spelling my maiden name could have all been saved if not for that one adoption.

A Dark Page in Family History

My Great Grandmother, Lillie Weatherspoon, was in her early teens when she married her first husband.  His name was Willie Baker and they had one child together, my grandfather Jay Dee.  In the tale shared with me by my Great Grandmother her first husband was a mean tempered man who liked to drink a lot and become physically abusive.  According to the story shared with me while sitting on the front porch of her house on Niagra Street in Flint, Michigan some 60 years later the last night she spent living with Willie was around the year 1930 and they lived near Paragould, Arkansas.  My Grandfather was just a baby at the time.  Willie had gone out for a typical night of drinking.  Lillie said she had reached her breaking point and resolved to not be beaten when he returned home and spent hours wandering the house armed with a knife before finally going to sleep.  She said by some miracle he never came home that night.

Willie did return the next morning.  While sitting at the breakfast table he spilled hot coffee on the baby.  That was the final straw and Lillie laid him out with a cast iron pan to the head, grabbed the baby and started running.   She didn’t stop until she reached Iowa.

The next decade of my Great Grandmother’s life was a dark period that she didn’t like to discuss.  Somehow over that time she managed to make it from Iowa to Michigan and meet and marry the man I would know as my Great Grandfather.  Moman Harold Fulkerson was a childless widower several years older than Lillie who adopted my Grandfather and raised him as his own child, including changing his last name from Baker.

Digging Up Old Skeletons

Willie and the surname Baker became a closed chapter that was more or less forgotten.  Growing up I never realized my Great Grandfather wasn’t truly my Great Grandfather.   It was only by chance that I sat down with my Great Grandmother that one afternoon and started prying into her past.  When I talked to my Father about it I was surprised to learn that he too was aware of the family history but beyond that the topic was laid to rest again.

It would take another 20 years before I would research information about the mysterious Willie Baker.  All my great Grandparents, my grandparents, even my Father were deceased before I decided to dig into the forgotten biological Baker branch.  Relying on hazy memories of that afternoon so long ago I decided to see what I could find out about him.

The Puzzle Pieces

A marriage license from September 24, 1926 in Lake City, Arkansas was my first hit.  Lillie Weatherspoon married W.D. Baker.  I had confirmation that the name I recalled was likely correct.  It was time to hunt up more.  I found the 1930 census for Greene County, Arkansas with William Baker, wife Lillie, and son J.D. living on a farm.  Their divorce was recorded Greene County, Arkansas in 1938.  The 1940 census finds a divorced William Baker still living in Greene County, Arkansas as a lodger and working as a timber cutter.  The last record for Willie Baker is a simple tombstone in the New Friendship Cemetery in Greene County, Arkansas with a death date of 1950.  He never remarried and fathered no other children.

I have managed to find a few details about Willie’s family but nothing extensive so far.  His parents, James Baker and Viola Morgan, were both from Crockett County, Tennessee and brought their small family to Greene County, Arkansas sometime between 1901 and 1908.  Tragedy struck the family and both James and Viola died within months of each other, James in October of 1915, Viola in February of 1916.  I haven’t found a cause of death yet but both pneumonia and malaria was prevalent in the area at the time, Viola received several doctor’s visits in the last couple days of her life.

James and Viola left 5 orphaned children when they died.  The children were split up and boarded out to various different people.  A receipt included in Viola’s estate documents show George Ferguson of Greene County, Arkansas receiving payment for the boarding of Willie; likely the same George Ferguson that is present in the 1930 household of Willie, Lillie, and their son.   Willie would have been about 16 when his parents passed away.  By the time of the 1920 census he had moved on from the Ferguson farm, I’m currently unsure where he was located at that time although records indicate he probably wasn’t far from the area he spent his entire life in.

Questions Remain

In all my research so far I haven’t located much that would reveal the character of that mysterious Great Grandfather that never was.  I can only wonder if the tragedies that befell his early life with the death of his parents and the subsequent experience of being an orphan in rough region led him to become the person my Great Grandmother described.  I haven’t located any indication that Willie Baker ever had any legal troubles during his life.  There was no indication he ever harassed my Great Grandmother after she left him so perhaps Willie recovered from his drinking problem after the loss of his family.  He appears to have lived an uneventful life.