My Grandma Shellabarger told me that she had 4 siblings. They were Margaret, Julia, Viola, and a brother, John, who died as a baby shortly after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. I went many years thinking of the poor John dying so young. But, John didn’t really die in 1906.
He was the boy who lived
Just like Harry Potter only without the lightning bolt on the forehead. Instead, he had a tattoo on his finger.
When I found the Jackson family in the 1910 Census, I realized my grandmother had lied. My great grandparents were listed in Oakland, California with all their children: Margaret, Anna, Julia, Viola, and oldest son, John. Yes, that John. The one who died
He’s there in 1920, too.
I confronting my grandma about her brother. When I told her I found him alive in the census, her answer confounded me. Her answer was something like “Oh, that was the other John!” She told me he had a wife, maybe two kids, and “ugly” red hair which she scowled at in disdain.
There was no other John. They didn’t have any other children. John was born 3 weeks before the 1906 earthquake and he survived much to my great grandmother’s credit. Those were trying times.
So, why did my grandmother kick him out of the family by claiming he died as a baby?
I’m not sure, but a missing piece to his story may add insight. At the age of 19, he married Mary Riley. He worked for Key System with his father as a Fireman’s Helper. The job didn’t last and neither did the marriage. Shortly after 1930 they divorced and he disappeared.
The disappearance is noteworthy because what I’ve been told is John was a wanderer who rode the rails. He was a hobo, a vagabond going wherever the trains took him. Just like Jack London seeking adventure from one train stop to the next.
I guess John felt out of place once he settled down. He was confined by marriage and work. He needed to be on the move and so he left. His mother confided that she worried about him all the time.
His sister, my grandmother, must have worried, too. Perhaps my grandmother got tired of worrying about her brother, so she decided she never knew him.
Life during WWII with the WPA
John reappeared in records when he filled out his WWII draft registration card. At that time he was living in Oakland, CA, but notice his employer “WPA Project”. You can see around the border and in the address field three different projects that he was working on in a one year span.
- 16 Oct 1940 – S.R.A. Camp Eel River, Farley, Mendocino Co., CA
- 21 Jan 1941 – Box T, Sharp Park, San Mateo Co., CA
- 3 Mar 1941 – 421 7th Street, Oakland, Alameda Co., CA
- 17 Dec 1941 – W.P.A. Camp Pacific, Box 911, Monterey Co., CA
- 22 Dec 1941 – 421 7th Street, Oakland, Alameda Co., CA
Notice his permanent address of 421 7th Street is also that of his friend, John Lavender.
For many men, the WPA was the only work they could find. That may be so for John as well. But, it was another way to live outside the lines. He helped build and maintain wild areas and stayed far away from cities.
His life comes in and out of focus
John died in 1943 of pneumonia. His father was the informant. He noted his son worked for the Oakland Tribune newspaper. I don’t know if that’s true or not. It’s not on the draft card. It may be where he worked before the WPA. It is unclear how close John was to his father. His other siblings had no contact with their father whatsoever.
Just like the tattoo on John’s finger, he remains a mystery. But, maybe a little less so now that I know about his wandering spirit.
It feels very much like John was out of place with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Maybe the only place he felt right was when he was on the trains. Maybe he was meant to wander.
John’s life was brief. But, not as brief as my Grandmother said. He died at the age of 37. There are no photos to say he was here.
Do you have a wanderer in your family tree? Tell us about them in the comments.
This article was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge, Week 3: Out of Place