It’s funny how things happen in genealogy. Recently I sat in on the webinar “Proving Identity: Not Matching Names” at Legacy Family Tree Webinars, and then, found myself researching a similar situation. This research involved my great aunt, Margaret (Jackson) Fafri, and her bag full of husbands. Four husbands in 20 years–or so I thought. An error in the census prove to be the clue I didn’t know I needed.
Margaret’s String of Husbands
Born in 1909, Margaret grew up in Oakland, California. By the time she reached her teens her parents marriage was unraveling. At the age of 17, she ran off to Marin County, lied about her age, and married Roy J. Habenicht. Roy was some 10 years older than her. Their marriage lasted about 2 years.
Her last husband was Alfred Fafri, the man we lovingly called Uncle Buster. They married in 1944. Uncle Buster was a merchant marine. He traveled all over the world and once brought us koala stuffed animals from Australia.
The second and third husbands were the ones causing me fits. One had the last name Nelson and the other was Larry Engebretson.
The problem is I couldn’t find either men in records. Where were the marriages? Where were the divorces? It’s like they walked into Margaret’s life and walked right out. If I didn’t have a photograph of Larry I wouldn’t even know he existed.
Putting Together Margaret’s Timeline
Periodically, I’ve tried to figure out this mystery. I went back to it ince again, this time trying to fill out Margaret’s timeline. Finding the newspaper announcement where Roy and Margaret filed for annulment gave me a starting point.
I then found Margaret in the 1930 US Census as Margaret Habenicht, divorced. She was renting a room on Hayes Street. She worked as a waitress in a restaurant.
In the 1940 US Census, I found Margaret Nelson renting a room. She also was employed as a waitress but this time for a coffee shop.
That accounts for 3 husbands. Where did Larry fit in?
Turning Over Every Larry Engebretson Leaf
Larry Engerbretson proved to be a wily research subject even with an uncommon surname in California records. I could not find a marriage or divorce for them. Perhaps Larry and Margaret married in Reno, Nevada where there were no restrictions for divorcees.
I didn’t find Margaret and Larry but I began to find records for a Lawrence Engebretson who married an Emma Flavin. Maybe this was the same guy.
In the 1940 Census index, there was an entry for Larry and Emma. This Larry was from Iowa but living in San Francisco. I decided to take a peek though I didn’t really expect Margaret to be hiding in their basement.
What I found may have been better, though an ex-wife hiding in the basement would make quite a story. In the 1940 US Census, the enumerator asked Larry his name (x with a circle denotes the person who answered the questions) and Larry answered “Larry Nelson”. Then, he corrected himself and said “Larry Engebretson”. Nelson was crossed out and Engebretson written above it.
The wheels started spinning out of control. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he gave the wrong answer and that wrong answer was one of the surnames of Margaret’s missing husband!
City Directories to the Rescue
City directories really come in handy when trying put people’s lives in order. I looked for Larry Nelson, painter, with wives Margaret and Emma.
I found them! Larry and Margaret were together from 1933-1935. Then, in 1936 it is Larry and Emma.
By 1940, Larry Nelson morphs into Lawrence Engebretson. Both Larry’s were painters.
Thank goodness he was a painter and not a laborer! If his occupation had been laborer, I wouldn’t have had enough information to determine these were the same guys.
That means Margaret only had 3 husbands, not 4. 2 and 3 were the same guy!
Why Did Larry Use Two Names?
I probably won’t ever have this answer unless one of his descendants pops up. I found his birth record and he definitely started life as Lawrence Engebretson.
There are a couple of possibilities we can consider:
- We don’t know what type of painter Larry was. It wouldn’t matter if he was a house painter, but if he painted portraits, he might have used Larry Nelson as a professional name.
- There weren’t many Engebretsons in California. He may have thought the name was too different and chose something more common. The rest of his siblings stuck with Engebretson in Iowa.
- He had a secret he was hiding. This really doesn’t make sense unless he never changed his name back.
- He had more than one wife at a time, though, you’d think I’d find both Larry’s in the records at the same time.
What is clear is although Margaret went by Nelson when married to him, her family knew Larry by both names. When I asked her sister years ago to identify the Larry in the photo labeled “Margaret and Larry” she told me he was Larry Engebretson.
Since renewing this search I also learned that Larry worked with and was friends with Margaret’s brother-in-law, Frank Feldt. So, the family knew him pretty well.
Whatever reason she had for taking on two names, thank you, Larry, for having a brain fart and giving the census enumerator the wrong one. Without that flub, I may not have realized Larry Nelson and Larry Engebretson were the same guy.
Have you found any oops errors in your research? Tell us about it in the comments.
This post was written for Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Week 5: Oops!