I'm not certain you can call "mooching" a legal term, but it was a term which could land a person in jail—at least in 1940s Decatur, Illinois. Discovering that the local newspaper applied that charge to a man who turned out to be my second cousin twice removed elicits two responses from me. One, of course, has to do with genealogy—you knew that; otherwise, why share it here?—and the other happens to have the potential to be a risky fascination on my part.
Delving into our roots can be risky in its own right. We start out, thinking well of our parents and assuming they came from worthy stock. We move from the generations we knew personally and step into the unknown of those who have gone before—and left us not a trace of information on their origins. Eventually, we step back from the family tree we have constructed and realize it has taken a shape vaguely reminiscent of that Norman Rockwell painting, "A Family Tree," which at its root included both a princess and a pirate.
After having discovered uplifting stories in my own family tree of people who managed to rise about their life's hardships to achieve notable accomplishments, I slammed right into a brick wall which, once chipped away, revealed a few tales I hadn't expected. That's when I realized I was staring at news reports which answered the risky questions I've always wanted to ask.
You see, in our decade of plenty—along with its paradox, the proliferation of the "homeless"—I have always had that inexplicable desire to approach one of these unfortunate people and have an "open" conversation with them. Something along the lines of asking, "How did you get to this point in your life?"
Whether the answer would be coming from a victim of post-traumatic stress following a tour of military duty, or coming from a young person plagued with mental illness (or simply under the influence of debilitating substances), it might end up being an answer delivered in a less safe manner than my unreasonable self might expect. So I have always kept a respectful distance and kept my mouth shut. But one always wonders....
Yet here, in the quiet of my own home, I've poked away at news records of a bygone era and run into a report of someone being jailed for "mooching." On December 28, 1942—right in the midst of the season proclaiming "peace on earth, good will toward men," an unidentified Decatur newspaper provided a small announcement under the headline, "Accused of Mooching."
Henry Froggett, 60, who police accused of "mooching" on the streets, was held in county jail today under a warrant charging vagrancy.
I never would have discovered this unfortunate turn of events for any man named Henry Froggett, if it weren't for the genealogical chase which led me, in search of my third great-grandparents' place of birth, to trace their grandchildren's life trajectories. From William and Cassandra Fincher Riley in North Carolina, I had wandered across the mountains to northeastern Tennessee, where they settled and saw at least two of their children marry in Washington County. From there, their son's family moved onward in Tennessee and eventually to Indiana, where their granddaughter Rachel Elizabeth Riley had married a man by the name of William Froggett.
The unfortunate Henry Froggett of the newspaper report was Rachel and William Froggett's youngest son, who had somehow stumbled his way from the family home in Putnam County, Indiana, to the city of Decatur in Illinois. And it wasn't simply that he was down on his luck that Christmas season of 1942; his, it turns out, was a story filled with instances of a hard luck life. This was just the kind of story which could obliterate my determination to stay the course and stick to my research goal. I had to take the detour.