Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Reading Between the Lines

Even predictable family histories can have surprising twists. In following the path that brought John Blain's photograph from Walnut, Kansas, to Lodi, California, where I found it in an antique shop, it turns out that John's widow Harriet had likely carried it to California herself when she moved here.

What wasn't so apparent, however, was what brought her to California in the first place—and why her 1920 census entry showed her as a divorced woman instead of the widow we know she was. In order to ferret out a possible explanation, we need to take a closer look at some documents.

First, let's review what we saw in the previous census records. In 1910, she was listed as a widow living in her own home with her four daughters and two men who were boarding at her place. Interestingly enough, by the time of the 1915 Kansas state census, we find Harriet's four daughters—Emma, Rozella, and the twins Vida and Vera—with their surname mistakenly entered as "Brain" instead of Blain. The girls' mom Harriet is in the same household as well, only now her name is listed as Johnson, not Blain. The head of household is one Benjamin Johnson.

Perhaps you remember from yesterday—or saw it for yourself when you clicked over to check out the 1915 census reference—that that name Benjamin Johnson seems familiar. It is. While Johnson is a common surname in America, the chance, in the same town of three thousand inhabitants, that there were two immigrants from England named Benjamin Johnson who worked as a "gatherer" in a glass factory would be rather slim. Harriet likely married the same Benjamin Johnson who was formerly boarding at her home.

But what, five years later, landed Harriet halfway across the continent in the city of Stockton in the middle of California? Reading between the lines—or at least inspecting those census line entries closely—can give us hints about what might have happened.

On that same 1915 state census, the state of Kansas had a continuation page in which the enumerator was required to answer a few more questions about each resident. One question involved naming the place of birth, state or country, of each resident. Another question inquired, "Where from to Kansas?"—in other words, what was the place immediately preceding the person's residence in Kansas for this 1915 census.

For Benjamin Johnson, we discover that, though he was born in England, the place where he lived before coming to Kansas was in the state of California. Could he, wishing to return to California after his marriage to Harriet, have talked her into moving there with him? And then subsequently divorced her after their arrival in California? Or had Harriet decided to leave Kansas entirely after her divorce?

Although I have not been able to locate the marriage record for Benjamin and Harriet, nor any sign of their divorce record, I turned to the city directories in Stockton to see if anything could be found.

Unfortunately for my brilliant idea, the 1920 city directory—in the same year that the census reported Harriet to be divorced and returned to her surname Blain—showed a listing for Benjamin Johnson as residing at 1436 South San Joaquin Street. That, if you remember from yesterday, is the same place where Harriet was listed in the 1920 census.

I have had some widowed friends who, even in our current day, chose to keep their listings as under the name of their husband, so perhaps that was Harriet's thinking back in 1920. Or perhaps, that was the same year that the divorce proceedings were finalized. While I subsequently learned that there were two Benjamin Johnsons in Stockton at that time, I did find a separate census entry for one Bennie Johnson, boarding at a home on East Jackson Street, only a few blocks from Harriet's home. In that 1920 census entry, "Bennie" showed as a resident alien from England whose employment was as a glass "gathrer"—almost certainly Harriet's divorced husband Benjamin.

What likely happened, in the course of the decade from the last time we had found the widowed Harriet still in Kansas, was that she married the man who was boarding at her residence. He, having already lived and worked in California, may have liked it there or heard of a promising job opening there and wished to return, this time with Harriet and her four daughters in tow. Perhaps the decision to move was arrived at, once the Missouri Supreme Court decision was handed down on Harriet's lawsuit against the railroad company whose locomotive had precipitated her first husband's death. No sense sticking around in Kansas after that.

After their marriage broke up, with Harriet so far from home and having possibly had financial setbacks not only from the sudden loss of John Blain, but possibly also from her broken marriage to Benjamin Johnson, she likely didn't have the resources to bundle up her four nearly-grown daughters to move back to Kansas.

In the end, and not much after that 1920 census and divorce, Harriet Isabel Beeman Blain Johnson—the gal born in Nebraska, married in Missouri, widowed in Kansas, and divorced in California—passed away on 22 May, 1921, at the age of fifty three years. She died of a ruptured gall bladder at the local hospital, Saint Joseph's, perhaps indicating a lingering health problem for which she didn't have the money to treat properly.

Her death certificate, posted online at Ancestry.com on a family member's tree, included names of familiar local establishments, longstanding in Stockton's history: the undertaker at B. C. Wallace, the burial at Park View Cemetery, established by Benjamin Wallace only a few years earlier and taking their first burials by 1917.

In the end, Harriet hadn't stayed in Stockton for many years at all—six years at the most, if she and Benjamin Johnson had moved here right after that 1915 Kansas state census. Predictably, her daughters, still quite young at her passing, eventually married and moved on, some of them nearby to the Bay area, some staying closer to Stockton.

When we think about the personal micro-history of each resident of a city, we sometimes assume those people have had a longstanding relationship with the city in which they live. That is not always true. Cities are sometimes more like living, breathing entities than rigid, cemented monoliths, with the residents flowing in and out, stopping to stay sometimes for years, sometimes for only a season. Some circulate among nearby locales, others come from far away, then leave for even greater distances. If we could envision a city's story through the people who call it home, we'd see a thriving network of movement and connection with places near and far. For some, the story of that connection may be joyous, but for others who are passing through, the history they carry with them can be quite sad. Whichever the case, the tokens they leave behind can sometimes tell that unspoken story to us for them, even if they haven't left more of a clue than their name and the logo of the photography studio which captured their likeness.

Images, above, from the 1915 Kansas state census and the 1920 Stockton, California, city directory, courtesy Ancestry.com


  1. "Reading between the lines" is exactly what every genealogist has to learn to do with the clues our ancestors leave behind. Thanks for sharing this interesting story and your insights about Harriet's life!

    1. Thank you, Marian! Whether these people of past centuries ever knew they'd be sharing their life with us or not, it is always interesting to see what has unfolded for them and to briefly touch on the details of their story.

      Agreed, reading between the lines is a skill we all need to further develop. I'm grateful that we have the tools and documents so close at hand so we can look from record to record. Sometimes, the answer is buried deep within those multiple details.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Miss Merry! It certainly is a fun challenge.

  3. Replies
    1. Oh, yes! There is much more to say on that...but I have to wait a while, first...


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