09 September 2013

Mystery Monday: Murder and Triumph in the Life of Annie Rorer Fenity

I have mentioned before that Annie Rorer Fenity has been an ongoing challenge for me in terms of trying to figure out who her parents are. She is incredibly well-documented throughout her married life, and evidence to link her and her husband and children together abound. But her past has always been a mystery. And the longer it takes to unravel someone's past, the greater the indication that they went to great lengths to hide it.

The earliest census I will be able to find her on is the 1900 census because she was born in 1885, and the 1890 census went up in flames. She is shown as living with her uncle James William Nance, her aunt Willie Nance, and her brother John Rorer.


Annie Rorer Fenity on the 1900 Census for Pittsylvania County, Virginia

I was unsure as to whether or not the Annie who appears here is my Annie. Then I realized that Pomp Fenity, her future husband, appears on the next page.


Pomp Fenity on the 1900 Census for Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Having confirmed that she is indeed the right Annie, I decided to research her aunt and uncle under the assumption that they were her guardians. Only then did the sad truth begin to unravel. In ten years of research, I have never seen a story fall into place the same way this one did.

The first time I searched for James W. Nance on Heritage Quest, I began with the next census, the 1910. There was only one entry for the entire state of Virginia for James Nance in 1910, and this was the image I found.


James William Nance on the 1910 Census for Goochland County, Virginia

Notice how the occupation for every single person on this page is "Prisoner."

I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. My heart broke for Annie, and I didn't even know the sad story in full yet. I didn't need to see the documentation to recognize this man for what he was. I've seen this story enough times in my family to see it coming from a distance at this point.

Having signed up for a free trial to Newspapers.com, I did a search for James W. Nance to see what would turn up. The hits were instantaneous.


James W. Nance in The Washington Post, "Beating Cost Her Life," 21 Sep 1906

James W. Nance in the Alexandria Gazette, "Alleged Fatal Beating"

James W. Nance beat his wife until she was covered in bruises, totally disfigured. When she tried to escape him by hiding under the bed, he dragged her out from her hiding place, and continued to pummel her until she was dead. When a neighbor came to see what the commotion was about, he found James covered in her blood. The article reveals that James and Willie both were given to fighting and alcoholism, and this kind of behavior was common for them.

At the end of the article, it says there was a witness who was refusing to speak until he was to testify in court. In all likelihood, as much as I don't want it to be true, it was probably Annie's brother John. He would have only been 17 at the time. Annie had already married the previous year, but she wasn't living far from where this happened. Just one page away as the census taker travels.

I have no doubt that she was exposed to this type of fighting when she lived with these relatives. In all likelihood, she was probably abused in her uncle's alcoholic rages as well. My heart breaks for her to think on it.

Everyone around her would have heard about this incident. In a small community like this, it would have been the only thing people were talking about. There would have been no escaping the unwanted attention, the pity and judgment in people's eyes. Knowing that the newspapers are only taking the shame of it and spreading it as far as the words can be carried. I have been in her position in that regard. It was a miserable experience I won't soon forget, and I doubt she did either.

But in discovering this tragedy, I still find something to celebrate. Knowing that she and I are family, feeling her connection to me being strengthened as I discover the truth about her, feeling the same love from her that I feel for her because of what she passed through--that is the triumph in our survival. We both have traveled the path of doing the impossible--creating something ex nihilo--literally, from nothing.

Annie Rorer Fentiy has not been an easy person to get to know. And I'm not finished yet. I've still yet to figure out who her parents were, what happened to them, and what possessed the bonehead who decided to put two innocent children into the custody of dysfunctional alcoholics. But what I have discovered so far has been worth knowing, as terrible as the truth is. I needed to know her story because I can see how she pulled herself out of the mouth of hell.

I needed to see her strength, and the reflection of it in my own.