Lona Winterhalter – My Mother

My mother was born on the afternoon of September 25, 1941 to Lonnie Winterhalter and his wife Elsie Westphal. Her parents intended to name Lana, after Lana Turner, but somehow her birth certificate ended up with Lona, I don’t know why my grandparents never had it corrected – maybe they thought it was unique and decided to stay with it, who knows.  Lona was raised a Lutheran, baptized into the faith in 1951, though by the time I was born she had moved away from organized religion; I like to think she was more of a deist than agnostic or atheist.  When I was young I attended Sunday school; later in life my mother told me that she pulled me out of Sunday school when I came home one Sunday and told her we shouldn’t vote for someone because of their religion.

The earliest photograph Lona WinterhalterI have of my mother shows a young girl with bright eyes, freckles and a mop of blonde curls. You can see the joy and happiness in her eyes, she a young girl who looks forward to tomorrow. I don’t know that I can I ever saw that young girl in my mother; by the time I really was old enough to understand who she was the young girl was gone, replaced by a woman whose life was far removed from the dreams of her youth.

My mother rarely talked about her childhood. I know her grandfather would take her to the race track to watch the horses run; my Mom said she used to enjoy that. That is about the only personal story I remember my mother ever sharing. Everything else  I know comes from talking to others who knew her – but not her mind, her hopes or dreams.

The two biggest resources I have for my mother’s youth are my aunt and my mother’s best friend. Their accounts differ in a lot ways, but there is one area where they seem to agree – my mother was not happy about her home life. In their own way each paints a picture of young woman who wanted more out life.

Nobody that I’ve spoken to knows when or how my parents met. They didn’t attend the same school. Los Angeles was a smaller place in the 1950’s so it may be that they simply met at a local hang-out and started to talk. My parents eloped on October 3, 1959; it must have been one heck of a surprise to my grandparents. My mother told me once that on the trip back my father’s car broke down and they had to call my great grandfather for help.

I’m not sure where my parents lived once they returned home. My mother returned to school but dropped out not too long afterwards. My mother said she got tired of all the other girls asking my mother what it was like to married which in the vernacular of 1959 meant that they kept asking her about sex. My mother, who was already a quiet girl, found it was all too much and choose to drop out of school and become a fulltime stay-at-home wife.

After more than one miscarriage my mother finally managed to carry a pregnancy to full term – the result was me.  My parent’s marriage didn’t last very long. I suspect that neither of them was really ready to be adults, let alone the parents of a small child. Both spent time dealing with mental health issues.

The Other Victims of July 1905

Although most of the excitement surrounding the murder of Katie James in 1905 involved the search for Katie and the woman suspected of killing her, there were other victims of which almost nothing is told; these victims were the children of Katie and Fannie Norton; Lulu Blanche James and Roy, Leta & Elsie Ham.

Lulu Blanche was only 18 months old when her mother was murdered. A newspaper article from the Weatherford Democrat says the following:

The Weatherford Democrat, Thursday, January 23, 1913

Blanche James Dead

Another chapter in one of the saddest tragedies in connection with Weatherford’s early history ended recently with the death of Little Blanche James. A letter received by the Cheyenne Marble Works of this place Monday from Mr. DeWitt at Knowles states that he had just got a letter form his sister, Mrs. Shinsteffer who had been notified of the death of the little girl on Jan. 2nd. So little can be known of the fact except that the girl had been visiting her father and took sick with spinal meningitis from which she died. The letter from Mr. DeWitt closed with the cry of the old man’s broken heart, “I think they might have might have let me know. I would like to have been with her.

Many of our readers will remember the gruesome story. Seven years ago Mrs. James, having had trouble with her husband on account of his cruelty, had come to Weatherford to her father, Mr. DeWitt. At Clinton she met with Mrs. Ham who offered to drive her through the country. Some place on that lonely drive she was murdered. The body was afterwards found hidden in the bushes near Deer Creek. A little boy related that a woman driving the wagon called hi and asked him to hold the baby as the horses were fractious, then drove furiously away leaving the little child in his arms. Two years ago a trace of the murderer was found in Colorado but she was wanted for stealing horses in New Mexico, so she could not be brought back here for trial until her sentence expires.

But many have asked, what became of the little babe deprived of its mothers care and left to strangers? The father came and took the child, never letting Mr. DeWitt have anything to do with her or to see her. Mr. James married again, but through the years the child was guarded from any knowledge of her grandfather. Mrs. Shinsteffer, the sister of Mr. DeWitt, lived in the same county, Dewey county, and through neighbors kept track of the child and informed Mr. DeWitt. The old gentleman in the course of time amassed considerable property. Mrs. James was his only child and he has no heir. It was the wish of his heart to have and to help little Blanche. Although he was not allowed to see her he could not resist sending her pretty clothes. These were sent through his sister and without letting them know where they came from. Mr. James always told his daughter that her mother still lived and that the clothes were sent by her. And so the story ends with the death of little Blanche.”

The Ham children spent their last days together as a family traveling to Guthrie Oklahoma. On July 11, 1905 they were placed for adoption by their Mother Mary Francis Norton, who then left for Shawnee where she eventually committed suicide. Roy, the older brother was 13, his two sisters Elsie and Leta only eleven and seven.

The records that survive show the children placed with families in August 1905; sadly they were not kept together. The entries state:

* Roy Ham-With farmer, good people man and wife of Quaker faith.
* Elsie Ham-With intelligent family, who will give the child a good home. Methodist faith.
* Leta Ham-With Dr. B. and his wife, no children, fine people. The child will have good advantages. Presbyterian and Methodist Churches preferred.

Roy and his sisters had little contact with one another. All letters between the siblings were sent via the Children’s Home. While the records are incomplete they do show that at least in the beginning the children tried to maintain contact with one another. Transcripts of the few remaining letters show the children adapted well to their new lives. Only Roy seems to make any mention of their mother, and even that is only a short sentence to say he is sorry to hear she is dead.

I haven’t been able to track down anything about the family Roy Ham was placed with. He kind of disappears until October 1918 when dies of pneumonia. Roy’s obit in the Kansas City Star of October 20, 1918 reads:

Ham-Roy L Ham, 26 years old, died Friday at the home of Mr. and Mrs. W. D. Gilmer, 5948 Brooklyn Avenue, of pneumonia. He made his home at that address. His father, Taylor Ham, lives in Turlington, Tex. Two sisters also survive him.

Roy’s sisters never knew what happened to their brother.

Elsie Ham married in October 1913. She and her husband had three children, a boy and two girls. Her son died during World War II; I don’t know what ever became of her daughters or if she ever shared with them the sad story of their grandmother’s life and death.

Leta was perhaps the luckiest of the three Ham children. She was placed with a doctor who eventually adopted her. She wrote to her brother of her little pony and of the four dolls she had. Leta too went on to marry, raise children and live her life.

The Three Slack Brothers – Who Were They?

A couple of months ago I met up with a cousin who had some very interesting items. Aside from family photographs that I had never seen, he also had a letter from my Great, Great Grandfather, Jessie Slack. It passes down the oral history of our family starting with Benage Slack.

According to the letter Benage was born in 1695. He and his wife had three sons who came over to America from England in the early part of the 1700’s and went to work in the shipyards of Philadelphia. One of the brothers went south while the other two remained in the north. The two brothers never knew what became of their southbound brother. From what I can make out the brothers names were William, Philip and Daniel.

In the letter Jessie relates a story about a day in 1917 when he and his wife Emma went to a new store. Emma picked out a new dress and paid for it with a check that Jessie had signed. When the owner say his name he called out to his wife whose maiden name was Slack. Jessie relates the conversation they shared about their common ancestors. It’s here that Jessie says the names of the three brothers were William, Philip and Daniel.

In my research I have come across the names of William and Philip in records I obtained from Canadian sources; some but not all regarding the United Empire Loyalists. So I am beginning to develop a theory that Daniel is the brother who went south, William and Philip the brothers who stayed in the north until after the Revolution when they migrated to Canada.

It’s just one of many leads I have to follow. With every new discovery I make I find myself with several more clues to questions I didn’t even know to ask. But I guess that is why I like the personal history of tracing my family tree – it’s not events but people I learn about, and people are always more interesting.

Who Are We?

I went on a little road trip a couple weeks ago to meet a distant cousin who lives a couple of hours south of me. We had a very enjoyable visit; we discussed more than just genealogy, we talked about growing up, the history of California and other topics like kids and work. I’ve even been invited to come down for a day of fishing in the spring, which is technically only a few days away.

Of course the main purpose of the visit was to share family information, and we did a lot of that. He shared with me some photographs, a couple of letters and a partial diary that his grandmother kept. She wasn’t very good at writing in the diary and most of what she wrote talks about the loneliness she feels being in her 80’s and isolated from family and friends.

One of the photographs he shared with me has become quite the little conversation piece because we don’t know who it is. At first we thought it might be Jesse Slack, the common ancestor from whom our two branches of the tree originate; we thought this because that is what his mother wrote on the back of the photograph. I had some doubts because in all the other photographs I’ve seen of Jesse he has long white hair and a mustache where the gentleman in this photograph doesn’t.

I sent the photograph to Myrtle, one of the only people still alive who knew Jesse and his wife Emma Hobson, to see if she recognized these two people as Jesse and Emma or if they were perhaps someone else. Myrtle confirmed the people in the photograph are not Jesse and Emma. My next thought was that it might be Henry Slack and his wife Tamar Hobson, Emma’s sister, but the clothing worn by the couple seem to be from the late 1920’s or early 1930’s; Henry and Tamar died in the early 1920’s.

So here I am with but another little mystery that needs solving. In all likelihood this couple is from the generation after Jesse and Emma. Maybe one day I’ll connect with a family member who will recognize them. In the meantime I’ll just hold on the photo in my electronic box of stuff.

Katie Dewitt James – The Rest of the Story?

My last post was about the murder of a distant cousin in 1905 – Katie Dewitt James. The post gave the basic story of Katie and her ill-fated trip to visit relatives after she had filed for divorce from her husband.

However there is so much more to the story. There is the story of young man who was said to have seen Katie’s body in the back of a wagon; a woman who supposedly claimed to have been a part of the murder – if her paramour is to be believed. There is also the curious reaction of her husband and his air-tight alibi that just happened to be provided by a friend who was also the local deputy sheriff.

The story of the young man who claimed to have seen Katie’s body in the back of a buggy is an interesting one, and one that seems to lend some credence to other stories told about the murder.

According to the nephew of George Cornell, the man who found Katie’s body in August 1905, a young man came to Mr. Cornell’s law office in Oklahoma City and detailed what he saw on the day of Katie’s murder.

On the day of Katie’s murder the young man was cutting fence posts near Deer Creek when he was approached by four people, 2 men and 2 women. He was asked to open the gate for them and as they passed by he saw blood dripping out of the buggy.  When one of the men noticed that the young man had seen the blood he raised the alarm and the group stopped. At first there was some disagreement among the group about how to handle the situation; one of the women consistently cried out for the young man to be killed to keep him from talking about what he’d seen however, one of the men said there had been enough killing and that he had another idea – an idea that if this story is true is somewhat gruesome.

In the back of the buggy a canvas tarp had been used to cover up the source of the blood. The man pulled back the tarp and revealed the body of woman with blood streaming out of head wound. The body was pulled from the buggy and the young man was forced to sever the head from the body with the axe he’d been using to cut fence post. Once the deed was done the group departed with a warning to the young man that he was now part of the murder and if told anyone he’d be strung up along with the rest of them.

Sometime after the young man told his story to Mr. Cornell, Mr. James and another man visited with Mr. Cornell at his office. When the topic of Katie’s murder and the young man’s story was mentioned, both Mr. James and his friend are said to have become uneasy.

The story told by this young man seems rather interesting because it brings back the idea that Mrs. Norton may not have acted alone. Could the four people this young man met have been Alta Hood, Fanny Norton, Katie’s husband and his friend the deputy sheriff?

Lost Resources in the Digital Age

My great, great grandfather, Jesse Slack, was one of the people who kept things and one of the things he kept was all his old letters. When Jesse died the family was going to burn all his old letters; Myrtle Shaw, Jesse’s granddaughter, took a handful of them as mementos. She said she later regretted not taking all of the letters as they would have such a treasure trove of family history.

Letters from previous generations really are a wonderful find. They help to bring these people back to life by giving us a glimpse into their daily lives. It’s sad that so many people didn’t keep old letters; with e-mail taking over from letters I wonder if we haven’t seen the end of this resource as a way to reach back and get in touch with our past.

Photographs are another potential treasure trove of information, although they can also be a source of mystery even if everyone in the photo is identified. Photographs used to be treasured items, not like today where digital photography allows us to take so many photographs that they become disposable. This may another source of information that will disappear over time as we keep photographs in a digital form.

E-mails and photographs, text messages – these little pieces of communications are kept in private accounts that once we die or change service providers are deleted, never to be recovered. I remember reading about a young soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, I don’t recall which. His parents wanted access to his e-mail account so they could print out all the e-mails and keep them as a reminder of his life, but privacy rules by the e-mail provider didn’t allow for anyone else to gain access to his account. I don’t know if they ever got access, something inside me says they probably didn’t.

This has made think that perhaps I should keep a list of passwords to e-mails accounts, this blog and other websites where I have family history and photographs so that when I’m gone this information isn’t lost.