Sunday, February 7, 2016
The Final Escape
While John Hogue—if it was, indeed, our John Hogue—may have survived the blast from the 1944 mining disaster up in Shinnston, West Virginia, chances were against him for long term survival in his chosen profession. Most coal miners who survived the more immediate occupational hazards of their trade would eventually succumb, likely from a more insidious and slow-acting threat to their health, whether from Black Lung disease or from other coal mining-related respiratory diseases. Even after concerted effort to improve working conditions for coal miners later in the twentieth century, the sad statistic was that, for career coal miners working more than twenty five years, prevalence of Black Lung disease was still at thirty two percent. In John Hogue's day, it was likely worse.
While I have no way yet to determine what finally claimed the man's life, the Hogue obituary, published in the Charleston Daily Mail on August 16, 1956, mentioned he died at his home—then in Ridgeview, just south of Charleston—"after a long illness."
Perhaps, given John Hogue's life story, for him to have attained the age of seventy one may have been considered sufficient. Remembering he, at one point, was not slated to have lived beyond his thirties, it may have been an outright blessing. Added to the hazards of his most recent occupation would have been the baggage of a fugitive's lifestyle and youthful indiscretions with unnamed addictive substances, all potentially detrimental to one's lifespan.
Whether seventy one—or ninety one—it is never enough for the one who is living it. Nor is it sufficient for the family members that person leaves behind. In Hogue's case, considering his 1940 marriage, you know he had to have left a young wife, and possibly also children. That, in fact, was confirmed in his obituary, noting three daughters, "all at home."
Left behind, in addition to his immediate family, was his brother Andrew, who with his wife had moved from the Hogues' hometown of Charleston to Beckley. Another brother, a military man then living in southern California, and a married sister still in Charleston, also survived him. Both his half-brothers and his unmarried half-sister from his mother's first marriage were all gone now.
With his late-life marriage and his children still living at home in the mid 1950s, the likelihood of that next generation still being with us—somewhere—sets me wondering. Do those children even know about the tumultuous past of their father? Was that reprieve and narrow escape from dying the death of a condemned man now a family legacy to be passed down through the generations? Or, like many men of that era, did John Hogue simply put all that unfortunate experience behind him—and behind the closed lips of family members who would prefer not to relive the trauma by repeating the tale?
Then, too, with a story so unusual, so incredible, I feel the pull to pursue additional contemporaneous documentation to glean every detail of the full story. Some of that would entail pulling records from archives in Manitoba and Ontario, as well as stateside in West Virginia. And, as the story itself became embedded within a larger social context of not only fading public support for capital punishment, but the escalation of concurrent war-time involvement both in Canada and the United States, it would reflect the interwoven aspects of such impacts as these.
The tragedy of the rise and fall of dynasties is usually reserved for the sagas of the famous and the powerful, but in an ancestral trajectory that arced with the pinnacle of America's first Supreme Court Chief Justice and maintained its dignity through the respected men and women taking their place in the subsequent generations of the Hogue and Patrick families, the same dynamics play themselves out in the microcosm of John Syme Hogue's lifespan. As much as he descended from a "well respected" and "long prominent" family in the Kanawha Valley region, the final token representing his life remembered was nothing more than a humble stone marking his existence in the family plot back home in Charleston. From the looks of it, one would never have guessed what that dash between the 1885 and the 1956 entailed.
Above: Photograph of the stone marking the grave of John Syme Hogue at Spring Hill Cemetery in Charleston, West Virginia. Photograph courtesy of Find A Grave volunteer Pj; used by permission.