Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Uncle So Nice They Named Him Twice

Okay, so I actually don't know how nice Jehu Jehu was. But as of last week I now know something about Mr. Jehu, who was Clarence (Miles) Branch's uncle--a brother to his mother Margaret Jehu Branch (1877-1971). I found the picture above (click on it to enlarge) among Blanche's Branch's photos. It was labeled on the back "Grandpa Jehu Theater in Pennsylvania." I'd made a few half-hearted attempts to find out more, but had no luck until I heard from a cousin whose father is a Jehu--Miles Branch's last living cousin on his mother's side.

This man, who is 92, is a son of Albert Jehu (1881-1972), Margaret's younger brother. I spoke to him and his daughter last week, and he had the nicest things to say about Margaret, whom he called Aunt Maggie. He grew up in Sykesville, Pa., about 16 miles from Horatio, where Margaret and George Branch had their farm. He remembers taking the train to visit his aunt and uncle, where he always enjoyed himself. "Every day there was like a party," he said. He remembers Margaret as someone who liked to laugh and who baked bread for him.

At left (click to enlarge): We thought the woman at left in this picture was Margaret Jehu Branch, and her nephew agrees. We don't know who the other people are, but the Jehu cousins think the young woman next to Margaret looks like a Jehu.

He said his Uncle George was good to him, and he remembered playing with his cousin Harry Branch in the mines on the Branch farm. (Miles, 19 years older, had already left home.) He remembers George walking him to the railroad tracks at the end of his visits and waving his lantern to get the train to stop and pick him up.

Now, back to the theater picture, which must have been taken in 1920 or shortly thereafter, since the movie advertised at right is The Kentucky Colonel, which was released in 1920. Our cousin recognized the man standing in the center as being his uncle Jehu Jehu (1867-1935). He said that Jehu owned the theater, and that his father (Jehu's brother) Albert owned a pool hall next door. "All the Jehus were salesmen," he said, adding that Richard Jehu (1846-1919), the father of Jehu, Albert, and Margaret, had been a fishmonger in Wales and, in addition to mining coal, also sold fish in Pennsylvania.

For the record, Richard Jehu and his wife Elizabeth Thomas came from Wales right after the Civil War. Richard's father was also named Jehu Jehu, and his mother was Mary Jervis. After his parents died, Richard and his six living siblings emigrated to America. Most of them settled around Scranton, Pennsylvania, but Richard and Elizabeth went to Sykesville, near Punxsutawney. In addition to Jehu, Margaret, and Albert, they had two more daughters: Mary Jehu (1872-1966), who married William Platt, and Elizabeth Jehu (1879-1965), who married James J. Jeffries.

I won't lie to you--I love accumulating the facts and dates and data about my family. But it doesn't really come alive until you hear memories like those our cousin shared about his Aunt Maggie. That's when you start to be able to paint a picture of those who came before us and how they shaped the people we do remember.

One last picture (click to enlarge): This was taken at George and Margaret Branch's farm, some time in the late 1930s. At least some, if not all, of the kids in the picture are their grandchildren.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ira's Life on the Outside (Mostly)

I love this picture (at left; click to make it larger). This is Ira Vermillion, presumably some time after his release from prison in 1914. On the back is a note addressed to his niece, Blanche Vermillion. It says “Dear Little Neice I may be there Xmas. Your Loving Uncle Ira.” So I guess it was some time when Blanche might still have been considered “little”; considering she was born in 1907, I’d guess it was taken before 1920, when Ira turned 39.

What I love about the picture is the symbolism, which seems obvious to me: with Ira standing in front of an open window, doesn’t the picture just shout “freedom”? (There’s not even any glass!) I wonder if Ira chose this scene on purpose to celebrate his freedom, or if it was just one of the photographer’s stock sets that appealed to him for reasons he couldn’t explain.

So what happened to Ira after he was released? His prison file obviously is not nearly as informative about his life on the outside, but it does provide some clues, and a surprise.

The Vermillion family had never been spared tragedy: Ira’s mother died some time in the 1880s, when Ira was still a young boy. His older brother Will died in 1899 at the age of 20. While Ira was in prison, his oldest brother Walter died of tuberculosis (after losing two of his children). By the time he got out, his family consisted of his father, his youngest brother John (who would die before 1920) and his sister Cora.

The first thing we hear post-release is a letter from Ira to a parole officer at Leavenworth dated March 12, 1917, and written from Mesa, Washington, where Cora and her family lived. He is writing to ask for the proper form “to petition the president to have my sitizenship restored.” He goes on: “If I can get my sitizenship restored, I have a good chance to take a home-sted of 640 acres of grass land. . . . I have lived in Washington ever since I left there. The wadges are twice as much here as in Okla. I am working on big wheat ranch getting $45.00 per month and board and room.”

The next we know of Ira is in the 1920 census, when he was recorded as living on a dairy farm in Creighton, Arizona, where he was listed as a laborer. He doesn’t turn up at all in the 1930 census.

In reading about Ira, I had found myself wanting to see him as a good kid who got drunk and made a single, terrible mistake that ruined his life. But that view is hard to square with the news in another document from the prison file: On March 23, 1933, the U.S. Attorney in Tucson, Arizona, wrote to Leavenworth asking for information about Ira, who had been “arrested in this district for counterfeiting.” A similar request came from the Secret Service the next day.

So Ira got himself into trouble again, and again with the Feds! Another slip of paper was later received at Leavenworth indicating that Ira Vermillion was received at the U.S. Penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington, on November 21, 1933, to serve a three-year term for counterfeiting. I haven’t yet tried to track down any more about this crime, but I’ll keep you posted.

(At left: the McNeil Island prison in 1937. I’m sure the view was better than Leavenworth.)

After that, I know little, except that Ira evidently ended up in Arizona. Blanche Branch’s younger son remembers her mother stopping to call him while they were driving through Arizona in the 1940s, and her older son visited him in the hotel room where he lived in Tucson in 1960. "I believe I got the address from Mom and she asked me to visit him," he writes. "He was very frail and did not want to talk very much, so I didn't spend much time with him. . . . I knew at the time of the visit he would not live much longer." Social Security records indicate that he died in Arizona in March 1965. As far as I know, he never had a family of his own.

I haven’t hidden very well my excitement at uncovering all this information, but at the same time it saddens me to write about it—partly because it’s dreadful to think that anyone you’re related to could have done such a terrible thing, and partly because Ira ended up so alone, but also because I know how much shame Blanche carried around over what her uncle did. (And remember, the victim was the grandfather of several of her cousins.) Almost 90 years after the murder, she still cried at the thought of her grandchildren finding out about it. But just as sure as we can't live vicariously through the noble or celebrated deeds of our ancestors, we can't bear the burden of all they did wrong, either.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Life in Prison

In May, 1901, 19-year-old Ira Vermillion (left, click on photo to enlarge) walked into the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, where he had been sentenced to spend the rest of “his natural life at hard labor.” That was too bad for him, obviously, but in a way it was good news for a family historian. As far as I know, my ancestors weren’t avid diarists or record-keepers, and so information about them and their daily lives is pretty thin. But for 13 years, prison authorities kept track of all kinds of things about Ira: when he was sick, what work he did, when he misbehaved, with whom he corresponded. The prison file I requested from the National Archives turned out to be a treasure trove not just about Ira’s life in prison, but also about his family in general. Through correspondence records I can see where various family members lived at different times and narrow down death dates for some of them. And in a couple of cases the correspondence confirmed some family relationships I was unsure about. So before I get back to Ira, here is some general advice for family historians: find your black sheep and check his prison record.

If you’ve read the last two posts, you know that Ira was convicted of the murder of Joseph Nemecek. He was sent to Leavenworth because he was tried in federal court—Indian Territory did not have territorial courts. Leavenworth started out as a military prison and was converted to civilian use in 1895. Starting in 1897 and over the next 20 years, a new prison was being constructed with convict labor. Ira was there during much of the time the new prison was being built, and records show that he worked in the stone sawmill, on a construction crew, and briefly—apparently as a punishment—in the brickyard.

When he was received at the prison on May 11, he was examined by doctors who took a very detailed inventory of his appearance, any distinguishing marks, and his health. We learn from the forms they filled out that he was 5 foot-5, 132 pounds, had medium chestnut hair, violet blue eyes, and a medium fair complexion. He could read and write, identified himself as a Baptist, and acknowledged that he chewed tobacco, drank, and smoked.

(At left: a prison dorm at Leavenworth around 1910. Click on photo to enlarge.) His smoking would be the cause of the little trouble that he got into in prison. The first violation for which he was written up—in October 1901, was for “having a box of matches and cigarettes in his possession.” A more serious offense—making cigarettes—actually caused him to lose nine days “good time.” (Although he was serving a life sentence at the time, the prison still kept track of behavior in terms of days that could be reduced from his sentence. Typically, an inmate could be released after serving two-thirds of his term plus any days he had “lost” for misbehavior.) But mostly, Ira was written up for small offenses: “talking in ranks,” “foolishness on stairway,” “refusing bread crusts and holding hand up for more bread,” “skylarking and talking so that they could be heard from one end of the cellhouse to the other while count was being taken.”

(At left: Prisoners marching to dinner at Leavenworth in 1910. If Ira’s in that picture, he’s probably talking. Or maybe skylarking. Click photo to enlarge.)

The records also tell us something about Ira's health during this time, most notably that he had tuberculosis in 1908 and 1909 and was frequently put on "special mess" because of his condition. I don't know a lot about TB and its treatment at the time, but the fact that he survived seems somewhat remarkable, and a bit ironic. His brother Walter, a father of two living in Indian Territory, had died of the disease in 1907--is it possible that Ira survived because of the superior medical care he received in prison?

The list of letters sent and received shows that Ira did not ever go more than a month without news from home, most often from his father, Wash, who wrote to him nearly 200 times. His sister Cora also wrote frequently. Other letters came from his brother John, his aunt Jane Moore (his late mother's sister) in Aurora, Missouri, and his aunt Mary Burns (his father's sister) in Wyoming.

It's kind of touching to me that after Ira's brother Walter died in 1907, his widow, Mollie, wrote to him about twice a year. Mollie, you'll remember from the first post, was related to Joseph Nemecek, the victim of Ira's crime. But I imagine she felt a sense of familial duty to keep in touch with Ira on her late husband's behalf (though Walter himself had been none too good about writing).

The return addresses on letters from his father reveal approximately when Wash returned to Oklahoma from the state of Washington (1906), when he married again (1911), and when he moved to Oklahoma City, where Blanche Branch said he owned a furniture store (1912). Wash's second wife, whom he had married in 1894, must have died some time around 1903, as that is the last time there was a letter to or from her. [UPDATE, 3/24/09: Turns out I was wrong about this. Despite the lack of correspondence, Susan was still alive--and still married to Wash, as of the 1910 census. I had assumed that their marriage ended when she died, but I've seen online sources that say she didn't die until 1917. More on that in a later post.] Once Wash married Carey in 1911, she wrote to Ira at least once a month. She also wrote at least once on Ira's behalf. On November 30, 1912, she wrote to the warden to ask if, as Ira's pardon attorney had told her, Ira was due to be released right away. "You will pardon us for jumping at the idea—as a drowning man would cling to a straw," she wrote. (It turned out that the attorney was mistaken. He still had nearly two years to go.)

The prison file doesn’t include an account of how and why, but in 1909, President William Howard Taft commuted Ira’s sentence from life to 20 years. (At left: the commutation certificate with Taft’s signature.) I read up and discovered that Taft was unusually generous with pardons and commutations. Ira’s commutation came just a few months after Taft became president—I wonder if his attorney had tried the previous president, Teddy Roosevelt?

Once the sentence was commuted, Ira had every incentive to keep his nose clean, and except for ticking off a guard now and then, he seems to have done so. After working in all sorts of jobs, in 1912 he finally settled into a job at the corral which seems to have suited him, as he kept it for the rest of his term. (The Vermillions may have run a farm, but they seem to have had a lot of cowboy in them. And Ira's brother Walter was a horse trader.)

Near the end of his term, those nine days good time he had lost back in 1905 for making cigarettes must have been haunting him, for in July 1914, the month before he was to be released, the warden wrote to the U.S. attorney general on Ira's behalf. "Vermillion has a splendid record. He has not been reported for any offense whatsoever for more than nine years and his influence upon other prisoners is decidedly good. I respectfully recommend that the nine days lost commutation be restored to him in order that he may be released August 31, 1914."

The request was granted, and Ira was released after more than 13 years in jail.

Next post: what little I know of Ira's last fifty years.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Vermillion Murder Trial

(At left, the bridge over Walnut Creek, scene of the murder of Joseph Nemecek, in September 1900.)

In September 1900, 18-year-old Ira “Pete” Vermillion was bound over without bail for the murder of Joseph Nemecek. I’ve found no indication that he was released any time before the trial began in March 1901, so he presumably spent six months in jail waiting for his day in court.

Because the crime took place in Indian Territory, the federal court sitting at Purcell had jurisdiction. Indian Territory had something of a reputation for lawlessness, and the judge’s instructions to the grand jury addressed this in a way that a modern defense lawyer might see as prejudicial. According to the Purcell Register, the judge remarked that “there seems to be in the territory a lawless element, the chief education of which consists in knowing how to carry pistols and to discharge them. The greater number of such people are hanged, said he, the greater would be the number of lives saved.”

Jury selection in the case began on March 19 and was complete by the next day. The trial itself took just two and a half days. Ira had entered a plea of not guilty, his lawyer arguing that all the evidence against him was circumstantial.

Indeed it was, but there was plenty of it. He had been seen in town—drunk and trying to rope people with his lariat—just before the crime took place. And he was last seen heading south toward the scene of the crime. When he was found in a drunken stupor not long after the crime and not far away, he was missing a shoe, which was found in his stirrup nearby. That shoe had a piece missing from its heel, and a piece found at the crime scene was a perfect match.

The case attracted more than local attention: the Dallas Morning News ran three short articles on the trial, noting that "the peculiar circumstances surrounding the case make it especially interesting."

The jury didn’t take long: they returned a guilty verdict, but decided that the crime did not merit capital punishment. Ira was sentenced to life in prison. “The prisoner and his relatives received the verdict very calmly,” wrote the Register, “though it was a severe blow to them, especially to the parents, who stood by their boy during his time of trial.”

And surely standing by their boy had a cost for the family in the community. By the time Ira entered the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth in May, his father Wash, his stepmother Susan, and his brothers and sister were living in the state of Washington. They may have been planning the move anyway, but the timing makes me wonder if they left out of shame.

Next post: Ira’s years in Leavenworth.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

What Ira Did

“On September 15 1900 I became intoxicated and while in that condition I threw my lasso in a spirit of mischif dragging Joseph Nenecles [sic] from the buggy in which he was riding and he was dragged 250 yards receiving injuries from which he died Can give no reason for the crime except drunkeness”

So wrote Ira Monroe Vermillion (above, as seen in his prison mugshot; click on photo to enlarge) around 1910 when he was applying for “trusty prisoner” status at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. He had spent all his adult life in prison as a result of his reckless action, which killed a Czech farmer named Joseph Nemecek. (The spelling error must have been that of the clerk who typed up Ira’s application—surely Ira knew his victim’s name well enough.) In fact, he had been sentenced to life in prison for the crime, but President William Howard Taft commuted his sentence to 20 years in 1909.

I’m going to spend this and perhaps one or two more posts telling you what I’ve learned about Ira, his crime, and his punishment, largely from two useful sources: newspaper accounts reprinted in a volume of family history by a member of the Nemecek family, and Ira’s inmate file from Leavenworth, which I ordered this fall.

First off, though, who was Ira to us? He was Blanche Vermillion Branch’s uncle, a brother to her father Walter. He was the middle of five children born to John Washington (Wash) Vermillion and Martha Burrow. He was born in Lawrence County, Missouri, where both his parents had grown up. When he was still a boy—some time around 1885—his mother died, and around 1889 his father moved the family to the vicinity of Wayne, Indian Territory, and raised his children on a farm there.

(At left is a picture of Wash and his five children; they're not labeled individually, but my guess is that Walter, the oldest, is at far left, Will, the second oldest, is at far right, Ira, the third child, is seated on his father's left, and John, the fourth, is standing behind Ira. Cora, the youngest, is easy enough to spot. Click on photo to enlarge.)

The victim, too, was connected to our family. Joseph Nemecek, who also lived in the Wayne area, was the father of, among others, Andrew and James Nemecek, who each married sisters of Mollie Jicha, Blanche Vermillion’s mother. Before Nemecek’s murder, all these families were apparently on good terms, and Andrew Nemecek was even boarding with the Vermillion family when the crime took place. The family connection would later be a source of pain for Blanche, who grew up with the knowledge that her uncle had killed the grandfather of many of her closest cousins. She rarely if ever spoke about this until late in her life, and even then it was difficult for her—even though it all happened before she was born. I learned from Ira’s prison file that Blanche’s mother Mollie—whose brothers-in-law were sons of the victim—was one of Ira’s frequent correspondents in prison after her husband and Ira’s brother died in 1907.

I can't tell you too much more in terms of setting the stage for what happened. Just imagine Ira, who was nearing his 19th birthday and working as a "farm laborer" according to the census taken a few months earlier. And imagine Joseph Nemecek, a 64-year-old immigrant from Czechoslavakia and the father of eight sons, working a farm in Indian Territory.

(At left, the Vermillion boys a few years later. From left to right: John, Will, and Ira. Click on photo to enlarge.)

On the Saturday afternoon when the murder took place, Ira (who was actually known as Pete, apparently) was seen by several people in downtown Purcell, eight miles north of Wayne. As the Purcell Register put it, "he gave evidence of being strongly under the influence of liquor," and he was "seen swinging his lariat rope quite freely and had struck one man on the head in throwing the rope at him." Meanwhile, Joseph Nemecek was returning home from a visit to his oldest son, Anthon, and his wife and children, who lived on a farm across the river from Purcell near Lexington.

There were no eyewitnesses to exactly what happened next, but around six o'clock, word reached Purcell that a body had been found in Walnut Creek, below the bridge on the road that ran between Purcell and Wayne. Someone recognized the body as being Joseph Nemecek's, and his wagon and mules were found nearby. A coroner's jury determined from looking at the scene and the injuries to the body that Nemecek had been caught by a rope around his right wrist, pulled from his wagon, and dragged for some distance near and on the bridge. The body appeared to have been thrown from the bridge into the creek.

When the body was discovered, a pair of deputies went looking for the perpetrator; they soon found Ira Vermillion asleep by the side of the road, in a "drunken stupor" and missing a shoe. He claimed not to remember what had happened. He was taken to jail in Purcell.

Andrew Nemecek, Joseph's 24-year-old son, got the news about his father by telegram when he was sitting at the supper table of Ira's father and stepmother, where he was a boarder. He and Ira's father Wash jumped into a wagon together and reached the scene at about the time the deputies found Ira.

In reporting on the crime the next week, the Purcell Register said that Wash Vermillion was "well known as an honorable, upright gentleman" and that "the best of feeling existed between the two families." Indeed, no motive besides drunken mischief seems to have been raised during the trial.

In my next post, I'll talk about Ira's trial the following spring.