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.

"Massachusetts, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1963," ( : accessed 13 November 2014), digital image, "List or Manifest of Aliens Employed on the Vessel as Members of Crew" [Vessel: Lady Hawkins, arriving at Boston, Mass. on January 22, 1931], p. 3; citing NARA T-938, roll 132

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.

"Massachusetts, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1963," ( : accessed 13 November 2014), digital image, "List or Manifest of Aliens Employed on the Vessel as Members of Crew" [Vessel: Lady Hawkins, arriving at Boston, Mass. on September 3, 1931], p. 3; citing NARA T-938, roll 140.

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.

"Massachusetts, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1963," ( : accessed 13 November 2014), digital image, "List or Manifest of Aliens Employed on the Vessel as Members of Crew" [Vessel: Lady Somers, arriving at Boston, Mass. on January 3, 1935], p. 3; citing NARA T-938, roll 180.

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.

"Border Crossings: From U.S. to Canada, 1908-1935," ( : accessed 13 November 2014), digital image, "Canadian Immigration Service, Report of Admissions and Rejections at the Port of Halifax, N.S., for the Month ending January 31, 1935" , p. 12; citing Library and Archives Canada RG 76-C, roll T-15390.

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.

Nova Scotia Historical Vital Statistics, digital images, Nova Scotia Archvies, ( : 13 November 2014), Entry for marriage of Alfred Michaels and Muriel Ince, citing Halifax County, Nova Scotia, "Registration Year 1936, Book 80," p. 43.

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.

"Massachusetts, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1963," ( : accessed 13 November 2014), digital image, "List or Manifest of Aliens Employed on the Vessel as Members of Crew" [Vessel: Lady Somers, arriving at Boston, Mass. on December 11, 1937], p. 3; citing NARA T-938, roll 219.


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
"Massachusetts, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1963," ( : accessed 13 November 2014), digital image, "Letter from Patterson, Wylde & Co. Attn: Mr. Ambrose," [dated December 15, 1937], p. 177; citing NARA T-938, roll 219. [Unindexed, Image 249 in viewer]

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.