Saturday, July 13, 2013

a secret marriage?

My great-great-grandfather Oscar Wadleigh in 1887
Through the course of my research, I have discovered that my great-great-grandfather Oscar Wadleigh had what was apparently a secret relationship (and possible marriage) with a woman other than his wife. This post explores that connection and the paths I have taken to discover it.

Oscar Wadleigh

My great-great-grandfather Oscar S. Wadleigh was born in 1865 in Sanbornton, New Hampshire. As a young adult in the early 1880s, he left his hometown and moved to Boston, Massachusetts where he began working as a traveling salesman. In about 1885 he moved to Franklin, New York. It was while living there that he met and became engaged to a woman named Charlotte Winters who lived in the nearby village of Cannonsville, New York where she worked in her father's general store. They were married in 1887 and afterwards moved to Buffalo, New York where they began to raise a family. They had two sons: Odin and Gerald.  They lived in several locations in New York state until 1912, when they moved to New York City, where they lived first in Brooklyn and then in Queens. Oscar was a prominent and successful book publisher, and was a founder and executive of several publishing companies.

Oscar and Charlotte were married from 1887 until her death in 1924. According to the story handed down in the family, Oscar remained a widower until his own death just 8 years later in 1932. In reality though, there was much more to the story.

The Mystery Relationship

The first clue was the 1930 census. In the federal census of that year, there were two different Oscar Wadleighs enumerated in households in New York City. In one, a 63-year old named Oscar S. Wadleigh was living in the household of his son Gerald in Queens. His marital status was listed as widowed. In the other, a 58-year old Oscar S. Wadleigh was enumerated in a household in the Bronx. He was married to Lucy Wadleigh and they lived with Lucy's sister Victoria Michelin. Despite the similarities, I figured that it was a coincidence and did not think about it any further.

It was only after doing further research and collecting additional records that I began to suspect that these two Oscar Wadleighs were actually the same man. In the 1925 state census, Oscar was also enumerated twice; with his son Gerald in Queens and with this woman named Lucy in the Bronx. In city directories between 1925 and 1931, Oscar was variously listed either in Queens or in Bronx.

Finally, I received Oscar's 1932 death certificate in which Lucy Wadleigh was clearly listed as his wife. Then in Oscar's 1932 probate records, Lucy was listed as his wife and Gerald and Odin were listed as his sons. Clearly then, our Oscar Wadleigh was married to Lucy at the time of his death. Why then was no mention of Lucy ever made in any information passed down to Wadleigh descendants? Why was Oscar enumerated separately in two different censuses? Why was he listed as a widower in his son's household? Why was there no mention of a surviving spouse in any of his four obituaries? Additionally, after extensive research I have been unable to find any proof that Oscar and Lucy were ever actually married.

According to the censuses and city directories, Oscar and Lucy began living together in about 1924, not long after the death of Charlotte in February 1924. They were apparently married at about this time, but there is no record that they were married in New York City or in any of the surrounding areas.  Perhaps they eloped and married elsewhere. Or maybe it was a common-law marriage. There is nothing especially remarkable about a man getting remarried after the death of his first wife, until I realized that there was even more to the story.

The situation became complicated even further when I discovered that in 1915 (long before the death of his wife Charlotte), Oscar purchased a vacant lot in the Bronx from Lucy. It shows that Oscar and Lucy knew each other during the lifetime of his wife and must have had some sort of relationship before Charlotte's death. The fact that Oscar and Lucy began living together (and were perhaps married) soon after Charlotte's death seems to show indecent haste. The situation may have been entirely innocent, but if that was the case then why the apparent secrecy about the relationship? And why was their relationship not acknowledged by Oscar's children? One possible explanation is that Oscar was having an affair with this woman during the lifetime of his wife.

Another twist is that when Oscar and Charlotte moved to Queens in 1914, their house was purchased only by Charlotte and remained solely in her name until her death in 1924. Although there could have been many different reasons for this arrangement, I can't help but speculate why this happened. Charlotte had inherited some money from her father who died in 1911, but there is no reason that Oscar could not have been put on title to the house even if she was responsible for financing it. Perhaps Charlotte was aware of the possible affair(s) and wanted to secure the house for herself (and her sons) in case her husband divorced her or she died.

When Oscar purchased the vacant lot from Lucy in November 1915, he listed his address as his old apartment in Brooklyn, rather than the house that his wife Charlotte purchased in Queens in April 1914. This may be an indication that Oscar and Charlotte were briefly separated during the mid-1910s, even though the 1915 census and city directories indicated that they lived together (in Queens).

The Other Woman: Lucia Michelin

Lucy's brother Antonio Michelin from his 1921 passport application
Lucia Margarita Michelin was born in 1878 in Vicenza (near Venice) in northern Italy. In 1902, at the age of 24, Lucia came by herself to America. She lived briefly in Pennsylvania before settling in Manhattan in New York City in 1903. Within the next 4 years, three of her younger siblings (Antonio, Rosina and Victoria) came over from Italy and joined her there. They lived in several different apartments in Manhattan before moving to the Bronx in about 1911. After moving to America, Lucia usually went by the English version of her name: Lucy.

I have not been able to locate any photographs of Lucy. The only description is from her naturalization paperwork in which she indicated in 1918 that she was 5'5", weighed 150 pounds, had brown hair, grey eyes and a fair complexion.  I do though have a photograph of her brother Antonio (right), taken from his passport application.

Throughout her adulthood, Lucy always worked in the garment industry. Her occupation has been listed as: silk spinner, designer and embroiderer. Her sister Rosina moved back to Italy, but her remaining siblings Victoria and Antonio continued to live with her. Other than Lucy's possible marriage to Oscar, none of them ever married or had any children. In 1911, Lucy purchased a vacant lot of land in the Morris Park neighborhood of the Bronx that she subsequently sold to Oscar Wadleigh in 1915. Why did either of them own this land? Did they know each other before their 1915 real estate transaction? As early as 1900, while Oscar still lived with his family in upstate New York, he frequently came to New York City on business trips. Perhaps he originally met Lucy (or other women) on one of these business trips.
The signatures of Lucia and her stepson Odin in 1932, signing the
administration of Oscar's estate over to her other stepson Gerald.


When Oscar died in 1932, Lucy received one-third of his life insurance policy, which amounted to about $425 (the other thirds going to his sons). At that time, she also signed the administration of his estate over to her stepson Gerald Wadleigh, who subsequently inherited the rest of Oscar's property including the house purchased by Charlotte in 1914.  
After the estate was settled, she and her siblings returned to Italy, where they lived for a few years during the mid-1930s.  They returned to the Bronx before 1939 and remained there.  Lucia continued working as an embroiderer.  She never remarried and used the last name Wadleigh until her death.  She died of natural causes in 1957, at the age of 78.
It is entirely possible that Oscar's sons simply didn't approve of their father's choice in a wife or didn't approve of any woman who would replace their mother. The sad reality is that it would have been unusual for an Anglo-Saxon professional like Oscar to have been in a relationship with an Italian immigrant. Perhaps simple ethnic prejudice was the cause of the lack of acceptance by his family. It is also possible that Oscar somehow kept his relationship a secret and his sons didn't even know about her until his death.

One suggestion was that because Lucy was an Italian immigrant, Oscar may have married her (or pretend to marry her) to assist her in gaining citizenship. This possibility was ruled out though because Lucy became a US citizen on her own in 1922.

After all this research, there is really more questions than answers. What we do know is that after the death of his wife in 1924, Oscar began living with Lucy Michelin and that they considered themselves married. They knew each other since at least 1915, but the circumstances of their relationship are not known. After Oscar's death in 1932, Lucy was not acknowledged as his wife, except under strictly legal circumstances, and she was effectively forgotten by his family. What then was the extent of Oscar and Lucy's relationship? A true love story? Or something else?

Perhaps surviving records from Lucy's family might shed some light on this mystery. Unfortunately, her sister Victoria had died in 1941 and her brother Antonio returned to Italy where he died in 1958. At the time, the only surviving relatives were two nephews who lived in Italy. Perhaps they, or their descendants, may have some information or knowledge about this relationship.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

silent film actress: Rhea Mitchell

Rhea Mitchell was born in 1890 in Portland, Oregon.  Her mother, Lillie Ross Mitchell, was the first cousin of my great-grandfather Ben Plymale of Medford, Oregon.  Rhea's grandmother, Elizabeth Plymale Ross, was the sister of my great-great-grandfather William Plymale.

Early Life

Rhea Mitchell was raised in Portland, Oregon, the only child of Willis and Lillie Mitchell.  Her father worked as a local shipping clerk to support the family.  In his spare time though, he volunteered as a stage hand at a local theater.  It was because of this early exposure that Rhea ultimately became involved with theater and acting.  Rhea's talents were soon noticed by her father's boss George Baker, the manager of the Baker Stock Company in Portland. In 1907, at the age of 17, she was given her first role in a local theater production.  Over the next several years, she continued acting with the Baker Stock Company in Portland, quickly going form minor to leading roles in the performances.  Her success and popularity soon prompted her boss to send her to act in theater companies in other cities.  Between 1911 and 1913, she lived and acted in Spokane, Washington; Seattle, Washington; Vancouver, BC; and San Francisco, California.  During this time period, she also switched from traditional theater performances to vaudeville acts in the Orpheum Circuit. It was while acting in Vancouver, BC that she was apparently discovered by movie scouts. 

Silent Movie Actress

Rhea Mitchell and costar Fred Stone in the 1918 film "The Goat"
Although Rhea loved stage acting, her dream was to act in the movies.  Luckily for her, she was quickly discovered and signed by a movie studio, the New York Motion Picture Company.  In 1913, she moved to Los Angeles and began her long career as a Hollywood film actress.  The height of Rhea's popularity was during the 1910s, when she was frequently the lead role in variety of silent movies.  She frequently appeared in Westerns opposite leading man, William S. Hart.  Rhea continued acting in films up until her final role in 1952, spanning a career of nearly 40 years.  Unfortunately, we do not know exactly how many films she appeared in; partly because many of the early ones have been lost and she was not credited in all of the movies she appeared in.  Estimates range from 64 to over 100. 

Surviving records infer that life as an actress during the 1910s was perhaps not as glamorous as it now is.  In a letter that she wrote in 1914, she indicated that she often had to ride on horseback to movie sets that were not accessible by vehicle.  During this time period, she had to commute from her apartment in Hollywood to the movie studio which was then located on the ocean in the Santa Ynez Canyon in Santa Monica, which at the time was very remote. (The movie studio in Santa Monica became known as Inceville.)  She indicated in her letter that her workdays often lasted 12 hours.  She wrote "I have a cunning apartment, and loads of nice acquaintances whom I scarcely have time to bow to, I'm so busy.  and when I'm not busy, I'm sleeping. Sometimes I just fall into bed, dead tired from climbing hills or being pursued through gullies."  During this time period, she gained the nickname "little stunt girl", because of her willingness to attempt thrilling scenes that other actresses avoided.  In her 1914 letter, she complained about having to "drown herself" in a stream in January during filming.

1916 newspaper advertisement for one of Rhea's movies
In her letter, Rhea indicated that while she was happy being a film actress, she missed acting on stage.  In particular she missed performing in front of an audience and being given flowers.  Because of this, she often returned to act on stage during her career as a film actress.  Rhea's popularity lessened in 1919, when she was replaced in a film by a younger woman.  In that same year, she sued her producer for $55,000 for breach of contract.  In the suit, she claimed that she had only been paid $10,000 over the course of two years for a three year contract. 

Even though Rhea's film roles lessened, she continued to act.  She also put her attention to writing.  In the late 1920s she worked as a scenarist (screenwriter) on a variety of films.  In a 1928 article, she explained that screenwriting was difficult and dissuaded "wannabe" writers from attempting it.  She explained; "It is ridiculous to say that every person is a potential author. The very drivel most amateurs write would prove it.  And "having an urge" to write is by no means the equivalent of an ability to write."

Her Murder

Rhea Mitchell in the 1915 film "On the Night Stage"
Rhea Mitchell was never married and spent the rest of her life living in a variety of apartments in Los Angeles.  After the death of her mother in 1943, she lived alone.  After the end of her film career in the early 1950s, she supplemented her income by managing apartment buildings.  On September 17, 1957, her dead body was discovered in the dressing room of her apartment in the La Brea neighborhood of Los Angeles, having been strangled by the sash of her blue silk robe.  Initially, police feared that her death was connected to a serial-killer strangler in the Los Angeles area.  Since her windows and doors were locked though, it was assumed that she knew her killer and let him/her into her apartment. 

After the discovery, police questioned the buildings' two janitors, who were the last known people to see her alive.  One of the janitors, Sonnie Hartford, failed a lie detector test and was immediately booked on suspicion of murder.  At first he denied everything but eventually confessed to the murder.  He at first explained that he did not know why he did it, and elaborated: "I liked her. She was a very decent woman."  After more time had passed though, he explained that he had made an obscene remark to her (or "complimentary" in his words) which offended her.  He then killed her so that she wouldn't tell the owner of the building.  During the course of the investigation it was revealed that Sonnie was on probation for a robbery conviction.  Eventually, in February 1958, Sonnie pled guilty to second degree murder.  It is not known what his sentence was or what eventually happened to him.  Interestingly, newspaper articles from Los Angeles during the murder investigation expressed fears that the incident would incite further racial unrest because Sonnie Hartford happened to be African American.

Rhea Mitchell was 66 years old at the time of the murder.  She is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Since Rhea was never married and was an only child, she had no close relatives. Her closest relatives were some cousins who lived in Seattle, who were questioned after her death. As an adult, Rhea often went by the nickname "Ginger."