Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What’s Up With This Name Stuff, Anyway?

When you are researching a fairly common name—John Stevens, say—you absolutely have to take special pains to insure you are not barking up the wrong (family) tree.

Think of it: there are currently over five million people in the United States alone with the first name John. Couple that with the one hundred twenty second most popular surname—Stevens—and you net a result of nearly thirty five hundred guys currently walking around in this country with the same name as my husband’s great-grandfather.

Now you see the utility of inserting the middle name, Kelly.

(I found that little bit of trivia, by the way, by Googling “How many people have the surname Stevens?” and landing on a doubtful website that claimed to provide the answer to such a question. I have no idea how accurate their claims are, or how carefully they do their number crunching to come up with the results. Let’s just say this is a less than scientific foray into the possibilities.)

So yesterday, I half-jokingly tossed out the question of whether there might be two John Kelly Stevenses in Fort Wayne in the early 1900s. After all, that could be a possibility for resolving my two dilemmas with the inexplicable newspaper assertions I’ve found.

Taking a survey of all the news stories I’ve found on the man, his name seems to have morphed, over the years, from John K. Stevens to J. Kelly Stevens to even, sometimes, just plain Kelly Stevens. See, for example, the October 30, 1915, entry in The Fort Wayne Sentinel under the headline, “Jail Bird of Cider Souse Fame is Back—Bill Kirby Tore Up His Breeks Just to Spite a Saloon Keeper”:
...Patrolman Kelly Stevens was called in and Kirby was arrested. He was taken to headquarters clothed in a blanket....
Why did he seem to find the insertion of Kelly so useful?

For one thing, Kelly actually was his middle name—the addition of his mother’s maiden name to his father’s namesake.

But there was another handy Kelly link—that of his own second wife’s family. Those of you who have been following along with A Family Tapestry for the duration may remember that the man whose mother was named Catherine Kelly also married a woman named Catherine Kelly.

While Catherine Kelly, the wife, died shortly after giving birth to a son (William Stevens, who later moved to Chicago and married Agnes Tully), evidently her husband maintained ties with the Fort Wayne Kelly family long after Catherine’s passing.

In fact, what I have yet to be able to fully document is the possibility that John Kelly Stevens actually worked with a distant relative during his tenure at the Fort Wayne Police Department. The man’s name was Richard Kelly, and he sometimes partnered with John Kelly in capers mentioned in the various city newspapers—and sometimes served as his sergeant. Richard Kelly actually preceded John Kelly Stevens on the police force, having been appointed in 1891, five years before John Kelly Stevens came on board.

While I have yet to substantiate the familial relationship—this is a subject I’ll explore further in posts in a couple weeks—there evidently was an affinity between John K. Stevens and the extended Kelly family of Fort Wayne. For whatever reason, it was a connection he sought to exploit, over the years, with the added emphasis provided by the change in how he used his own name.


  1. I was thinking (and in the shower no less, where I do best thinking) that I might have a hypothesis for the John Kelly Stevens(es?)

    The Fort Wayne John Kelly was probably a "celebrity-like" figure in his day, and considered "newsworthy" (or find some dirt worthy) and the newspaper might have had a list of such people that they "scanned" the wire reports for "hits". John Kelly, being from Lafayette/Columbus might have had a "doppelganger" of the same name living there - which indeed there was as we saw in yesterday's comment. Could an inattentive reporter/clerk have noted a wire service story that seemed to be "fit to print" and never verified it?

    1. Inattentive is probably the key word here, and yes, that most likely could have happened. I know it's happened in other situations, so very possible. Another possibility is seeing the name "John Kelly" without the "Stevens" and just presuming it was the same person without double-checking first.

      I'm not sure whether you can put John Kelly in the realm of "celebrity-like," but people around town sure liked to talk about him!


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