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.


Apple said...

I've enjoyed this series very much. Our black sheep ancestors are usually very interesting.

heinz57 said...

Yes, and the black sheep also tend to leave a paper trail!

Thanks for your comment, and thanks for the link on your blog!

SJSealesWA said...

Hello - I was so excited to find this blog. My great-grandfather was John Vermillion - Blanche Branch's Brother. Did she ever have any stories to tell about him? Thank you so much for sharing all of your work. You write wonderfully and I have enjoyed it very very much.

Heinz 57 said...


So nice to hear from you. Email me at familyhistorybites@gmail.com and we can figure out how we fit together.