Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Workday Wednesday: The Disappearance of Alfred Michaels

Finding Alfred Michaels has been for me an exercise in chasing shadows. Every time I think I've got what I need to figure out how he disappeared, he disappears again.

I recently discovered Alfred on eighty U.S. passenger lists coming in and out of Boston from 1933-1937. And needless to say, they've painted a more complete picture of his life.

Postcard from the RMS Lady Somers, Canadian ocean liner

Alfred worked on the Lady Somers, a cruise ship that traveled between Canada and the Caribbean. It made frequent stops in Boston, but also included stops in Havana, Cuba; Nassau, The Bahamas, and Kingston, Jamaica. As you can imagine, making port in this many countries greatly increases the chance of finding passenger lists. has the lists as they made port in Boston, and Alfred appears on lists for both the Lady Somers and the Lady Hawkins.

Alfred's career begins aboard the Lady Hawkins between 1929 and 1930, but the records pick up in January 1931, beginning with making port in Boston after setting sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is listed here as a general steward, among the bottom of the cruise line hierarchy. But notice that all of the General Stewards are not listed together on this list. They are organized by what part of the ship they work in--and Alfred is a General Steward somewhere in or around the garden lounge.

Alfred Michaels on the Passenger and Crew list for the Lady Hawkins, 22 January 1931

These particular rooms on the ship gave Alfred access to the passengers--a responsibility which was only given to those who were well-trained in terms of social etiquette, grooming, and personal refinement. While the stark social separation between blacks and whites would have been felt in these positions, we can also determine that Alfred was not a typical manual laborer. He likely had some education, and previous experience which would have gotten him the job. He also would have been reasonably well-trusted in terms of access to the guests.

The story continues in much the same way throughout 1931 until Alfred begins to change positions in that section of the ship. His first change happens when he becomes a smoke room steward in May, then a lounge steward in August, and eventually as the garden lounge steward in September. The higher up on the passenger list you were, the closer you were to the captain. The separation was not only one of distance on the ship, but of pay and skin color. The social order of the 1930's becomes tangible through this crew list, and we see that Alfred was concerned about getting ahead.

Imagine a roll call in which a man with a ledger passes systematically through the ship. That's the way this list is organized. We see check marks next to the names as the roll was taken. Also notice that the garden lounge room and the library are next to each other. This becomes relevant as Alfred continues moving his way up the passenger list.

Alfred remains a garden room steward for a year, between December 1931 and December 1932. We can also question whether it was a position of authority, whether the general stewards answered to him through a chain of command. If so, this was one of the few positions of its kind available to him because of his race.

Alfred Michaels on the Passenger and Crew List for the Lady Hawkins, 3 September 1931

The library steward position is one he would have had easy access to observe, if not receive some mentoring from the library steward on the Lady Hawkins. For the duration of the time that Alfred was the garden lounge steward on Lady Hawkins, William Dixon was the library steward. They would have seen a lot of each other throughout this time, and might have been friends. William Dixon was between 5 and 8 years older than Alfred, and had been on the ship between 3 and years. While William Dixon's entries vary widely, it's clear that he had been around longer than Alfred. Assuming he didn't want to take his friend's job, the only way for him to continue his upward momentum was to seek work elsewhere.

In December 1932, Alfred changes ships. Whether this was through reassignment or a voluntary change, we can't say based on these records. But once Alfred begins his service on the Lady Somers, he is working as a library steward.

On these lists from 2-3 January 1935, when some new details emerge. Alfred has also dropped 20 pounds, and now has a tattoo on his left forearm. There's no more mention of the mole on his forehead that was his only defining feature on the lists from the Lady Hawkins. And life, as they say, appears to be smooth sailing from here on out. He makes no more changes in position for the duration of his time aboard the Lady Somers. Whether he could not advance or simply didn't want to, the records don't give any hints as to the reason.

Alfred Michaels on the Passenger and Crew list of the Lady Somers, 2 January 1935

In 1935, Alfred is attempting to enter Halifax, Nova Scotia. He petitioned for entrance into Canada on the grounds of meeting his fiancee, Muriel Ince. The record is dated 31 January 1935, so by that time we can see that they've met and become engaged. But how long they've known each other or how they would have met is still a mystery. We also see that he has been denied entrance, for reasons that the records do not make apparent. They've provided codes that correspond to reasons, but I've yet to find a resource that will explain them.

Alfred Michaels on the rolls of the Canadian Immigration Service, 7 January 1935

Here is an interesting story as we read between the lines. Recall the record of his marriage to Muriel Ince. They were married on 1 February 1936, a year and a day after he was not permitted to see her.

Marriage record between Alfred Michaels and Muriel Ince
Halifax, Nova Scotia - 1 February 1936

I have a passenger list that states Alfred was aboard the Lady Somers in Boston on 30 January 1936--just two days before he was married in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Muriel must have been a nervous wreck wondering when he'd show up. And we see that a major aspect of their relationship would be his repeated and prolonged absence because of being aboard the ship.

The last record I have of Alfred aboard the Lady Somers is from 11 December 1937. It's also the last record I have of him alive. Beyond this point he disappears, and I've never had any clue as to where he went. But if you look closely at this list, you can see there's a scribbled word next to his name.

Alfred Michaels on an unmarked passenger list index provides ship name as Lady Somers, dated 11 December 1937


Vincent Lambert has the same word and some additional details next to his name. I didn't know what to make of this. His notes almost seemed like legal notes in relation to some sort of case. I don't know why I thought that, or where I got the idea to explore the other images had in this collection. But I decided to scroll through the other images to see if they didn't say something else about Alfred's desertion.

Maybe it was divine providence, because I finally got an answer:

Roll T938, Arriving at Boston, MA, 1917-1943, Roll 219. Image 249
Letter from Patterson, Wylde & Co., detailing Alfred Michael's desertion from the Lady Somers
Accessible on

Alfred Michaels was reported of participating in a robbery. And here's where we need some legal help. In our current English vernacular, theft is theft. We treat robbery and burglary as synonyms for theft. But the actual legal definition of robbery (as provided by is, "the felonious taking of the property of another from his or her person or in his or her immediate presence, against his or her will, by violence or intimidation."

These records do not reveal if Alfred is guilty. Perhaps exploring Vincent Lambert's final outcome would reveal more details of the incident. But it certainly explains why Alfred doesn't show up in any aspect of his family's life on paper beyond that point.

But the question of where Alfred went beyond this day in Boston becomes very interesting. Did he return to Jamaica to his family? Did he flee from Boston and remain in the US? Did he return to Halifax to be with his wife? Each possibility carries with it certain risks of discovery.

Sometimes being a genealogist requires us to think like a fugitive-weighing pros and cons we would never imagine in any other way. In the meantime, I have to use what I know. Vincent Lambert is a perfect stranger to me, but finding out more about him may be my only chance of finding Alfred from here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Wishful Wednesday: Charles Henry Pinheiro

Available at the British National Archives in Kew

The thought occurred to me today that Charles Pinheiro likely never saw his parents again after he joined the Royal Navy. And I'm sure that must have weighed on his heart beyond description. To know that you will begin again on the other side of the globe, and never again see your mother's face... what it took to make that sacrifice I may never understand.

But I do know that the only reason I know as much as I do about my Barbados lines is precisely because he moved away. I may not have been so lucky to know this much had the story been different, and I were speaking of Barbados instead of Canada. But then again, if this had been Barbados instead of Canada I undoubtedly wouldn't be here.

Charles' marriage certificate names his parents--Henry and Caroline Pinheiro. What were they like? Did they ever write to their son? Did he have brothers and sisters? What did he leave behind in Barbados? Can I ever know more about his family?

If I could talk to any group of people from my family history, I'd reach out to Charles and his family. I might never know them otherwise.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

That's Not My Name!

Having information about a person with no evidence is like copying the answer on a test that requires you to show your work. It doesn't matter that you have the right answer; if you can't prove it, is it really an answer? Do you get full credit? Can you really feel secure that it IS the right answer?

That has been my relationship so far with John H. Bennett and Mary Arthur, parents of Lillian Belle Bennett.

Lillian is pretty well documented in the lives of her children. I have her listed as mother in numerous obituaries and birth records, so I've always been confident that she really is the mother. But no amount of searching was revealing who her parents were. In fact, the last time I knew this much about someone and still couldn't get anywhere was with Annie Rorer. It just didn't make sense, given that Lillian didn't appear to be any sort of orphan like Annie was.

So the first time I saw Lillian's parents listed as John Bennett and Mary Arthur was some time when I was in college. Whether it was Rootsweb or an Ancestry tree or some other such place I don't remember. All I remember, and have been working through ever since, is that no one ever provided any sort of evidence. 

They gave the answer--Lillian Belle Bennett, married to Charlie Keatts on 23 September 1890, but didn't show any work.

In hindsight, I see now that I was never going to find the answer on the internet. And it wasn't until my research trip to Pittsylvania County that I discovered what the problem was... really, what the problems were.

The first problem is that Pittsylvania County publishes almost none of their records online. They're in books, on microfilm at the Library of Virginia, or on site in the Clerk of the Court's office in Chatham. But not online. Google all you want, it just won't happen.

The second, infinitely more frustrating problem, is that Lillian is not her real name. In fact, I have no idea WHAT her name is!

On this census record, her name is Martha...

John H. Bennett and family on the 1880 Census in Pittylvania County, Virginia
Also note that Absalom and Elizabeth Bennett also appear. This will become relevant shortly.

On this marriage record, her name is Linda...

Marriage record for Charles L. Keatts, dated 23 September 1890

On this marriage record, her name is "Sis"...

Marriage record for Giles Keats and Callie May Fenity, dated 24 December 1936

But on this one...

See top left: Marriage record for Charles H. Keats

And in this obituary...

Obituary for Posie Lester Keatts

Her name is Lillian.

First off, let's answer the important question. How do we know that this information is accurate? Well, look at some of the ancillary information on the records. All of the information for her husband's family is correct. Husband, Charlie Keatts with father Richard C. Keatts and mother Susan. The date also matches the date given be the anonymous tipster of yesteryear.

The real solution would be to find some other documentation to settle the matter. And fortunately for me, the holy grail of all evidence was also available in the Clerk's office in Chatham, VA.

The chancery court case settling the estate of Absalom Bennett, grandfather of Lillian/Linda/Martha and father of John H. Bennett.

Absalom Bennett had quite a bit of property. At his death, he was old enough to have grandchildren, and in some cases great-grandchildren. There were so many different descendants that had legal claim on the property that the only thing to do was to sell the farm, settle the debts, and divide what was left among a LONG list of people.

John H. Bennett portion of the heirs list for his father, Absalom Bennett
Note that the name in the image for the daughter in question is Sis Keatts
What you see here is a genealogy which was handwritten between 1915 and 1917 to establish paternity for my great grandfather, Giles Blanton Keats. Through his mother--referred to throughout these records as Sis, Lillian, Linda, and Lil--we have decisive legal evidence that proves their claim to this estate, and to this family. Lillian's father is listed as John H. Bennett, son of Absalom Bennett.

Which brings us to a happy close with this marriage record for John H. Bennett and Mary Arthur, married on 12 May 1868 in Pittsylvania County, Virginia!

So in the end, what is my great great grandmother's name?

I still have no idea.

And this may be the one time in my research that it truly doesn't matter, because I figured it out anyway.