My favorite genealogy series, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? returns this summer on Sunday, July 26th at 9/8c on TLC with a heart-wrenching episode with actress Ginnifer Goodwin who you probably know from her “Big Love” HBO series and ABCs “Once Upon A Time” where she stars opposite her husband.
Ginnifer Goodwin knows nothing about her paternal grandfather’s family because he refused to talk about his parents. She goes on a journey to uncover the truth behind her great-grandparents’ story, and is shocked at what she discovers.
I’ll just warn you now, get the Kleenex box. You’ll need it.
Ginnifer never knew her paternal grandfather, John Barton Goodwin, who died when she was an infant. She’s been haunted by the lack of information surrounding his family line; he never talked about his parents to her father, Tim. Understanding the generations that laid the foundation for her has grown more important to her since becoming a mother herself. The birth of her son Oliver has reignited her desire to know why her grandfather never spoke of his mother and father.
Ginnifer starts her search for information with her dad, who recalls that his father John Barton Goodwin’s parents were named Nellie Barton and John “Al” Goodwin, and that for some unknown reason, John Barton Goodwin was abandoned or left home when he was just 11 years old, making his own way in life in Memphis, Tennessee.
The last time he did any research, Tim found a 1910 Census return in which Nellie, Al and John Barton are living in Batesville, Arkansas, along with John’s older sister, Pearl. Ginnifer wonders what could have happened for Nellie to have let 11 year old John leave her home, and heads to Arkansas to see if she can find some answers.
Local records in Batesville reveal, surprisingly, that Nellie’s maiden name was Haynes, not Barton, and a search for her marriage record returns a result for Nellie and a man named J.D. Williams, not Ginnifer’s great grandfather, Al Goodwin! Can this be right?
What happened with Nellie’s first marriage that she eventually married Al Goodwin? Was Nellie a young widow? The local genealogist explains that death records of this time are incomplete and advises that Ginnifer visit the Independence County Courthouse to search for evidence for the other alternative to the end of a marriage: divorce records.
Next, Ginnifer meets with a historian, who has found a case for Nellie suing J.D. Williams (a.k.a. “Duff”) for divorce. Ginnifer discovers that Nellie successfully sued for divorce when Duff abandoned Nellie while pregnant for their daughter Pearl just months after their marriage.
Ginnier discovers that Duff Williams sued Nellie for divorce first, and only married Nellie to avoid jail time for having sex with her outside of matrimony. But the tables were turned when he falsely accused Nellie in court of adultery, and his lies sent him to prison. Three years later, Nellie finally files for divorce. Shortly thereafter, Nellie marrys Al Goodwin, Ginnifer’s great-grandfather, hoping for a fresh start.
Continuing her search for Nellie and Al Goodwin, Ginnifer finds that between 1906 and 1911, Al racked up 18 indictments for bootlegging and gambling, and served two years in prison. She has to ask herself….was Nellie involved?
It’s about this time that my heart truly goes out to Ginnifer. She’s finding out, but as she says at one point, ‘somehow this is not what I expected.’ Ginnifer’s tears are not cried by an actress.
In Al’s own penitentiary records, Ginnifer is shocked to see her great-grandfather’s mugshot. She can see her father’s face in Al, and I can see Al’s face in Ginnifer as well.
Then Ginnifer discovers Al had syphilis in 1906, 2 years after her grandfather was born, while married to Nellie, and was being visited by a woman other than his wife while in prison. It comes as little surprise that Nellie filed for divorce while Al was behind bars. Obviously Nellie’s life was challenging, at best, and possibly much, much worse. From later records, it appears that Nellie had another son by Al Goodwin.
In 1911, it was almost impossible for a woman to support herself, let alone with 3 children, without a husband. Ginnifer’s grandfather would have been about 6 or 7 at this time. It would be another 5 years until he left home at age 11, choosing to fend for himself against almost astronomical odds. Why would he do this? What happened?
Ginnifer forges on to see what happened to Nellie after her second divorce. She finds Nellie and her daughter Pearl in a Memphis, Tennessee City Directory… but Nellie is listed as Mrs. Nellie Wyllie – next to a third husband, Hugh Wyllie! Next, Ginnifer is surprised to discover that Nellie moved again – this time, to Louisiana! Curious why she ended up there, Ginnifer follows her great-grandmother’s trail south to Shreveport.
In Louisiana, Ginnifer pulls local newspapers which reveal the 1925 headline: “12 Alleged ‘Dope’ Law Violators Indicted” – and among the indicted is Hugh Wyllie.
Ginnifer is heartbroken as she realizes what this means for, and possibly about, her grandmother.
Next, Ginnifer is stunned to find an article in the newspaper about her great-grandmother Nellie, titled “Woman to be tried on Morphine charge.” In 1935, at age 54, Nellie plead guilty to purchasing and possessing morphine, and was sentenced to two years in federal prison. Saddened to learn her great-grandmother served time in prison, Ginnifer wonders why Nellie would be involved in drug dealing.
Was she an addict just supporting her own habit? It’s hard to say based on these documents, but if Nellie and Hugh were addicts, they might have been treated at the most famous clinic of the time, which just happened to be in nearby Shreveport, and may be the reason they ended up there.
Ginnifer meets with a drug historian, who has located the extensive records from the Shreveport drug clinic. Ginnifer comes across her great-grandmother’s entry, which states that she became addicted as a result of using morphine to treat “a heart condition and syphilis.” Ginnifer recalls Al Goodwin’s prison record in which he too suffered from syphilis. Jim informs Ginnifer that Nellie was probably introduced to morphine by a doctor as it was liberally prescribed to syphilis patients for pain associated with the early stages of the disease. That disease was not cureable until the discovery of antibiotics.
Medical addiction was, in the words of the historian, “ubiquitous among women” during that timeframe. Doctors prescribed cocaine, heroin and morphine for a wide variety of medical conditions. Realizing that people were becoming addicted by the hundreds of thousands, the government stepped in to regulate and then prohibit the sale of these drugs beginning in 1914 and extending through the 1920s and 1930s. Each step which tightened the legal noose created an ever-growing underground market for thousands of already-addicted patients with no avenue for drugs or cure. Women were disproportionately represented in the number of addicted victims, and in 1923, 75% of the women in federal prisons were there due to violations of the Harrison Act which prohibited the sale of opiates.
Ginnifer discovers that Nellie’s addiction stretched back 11 years to a time when John Barton Goodwin was just 6 years old, finally revealing the most likely reason he was eventually abandoned or left home so young. Finally, Ginnifer is dismayed to find an additional entry for Nellie’s daughter Pearl, who also suffered from morphine addiction and entered the clinic on the same day as her mother. Nellie checked the box that indicated that she wanted to be cured, but obviously, judging from the court records another dozen years later, she wasn’t. Sadly, the clinic closed the following year, and Nellie was once again on her own. In another 11 years, she too would become one of those women in the federal penitentiary, serving two years. Ironically, that’s probably when her addiction was cured. Given her advanced age at death, I’m guessing she was also cured of syphilis when antibiotics became available after WWII. Amazingly, Nellie lived to age 82.
Nellie’s obituary from 1963 shows that she was only survived by her two sons. Pearl had gone before her mother.
At the end, Ginnifer heads to Minden Cemetery outside Shreveport to pay respects to her great-grandmother who lived to be 82. At Nellie’s gravesite, Ginnifer considers this woman she’s come to know, who suffered through a string of terrible relationships and more. Understanding that her great-grandparents weren’t necessarily model citizens, Ginnifer empathizes with Nellie and Al, who battled internal demons. In many ways, especially for Nellie, this is a story of tragedy.
Through bittersweet tears, Ginnifer is glad to have finally learned the story of her great-grandparents and hopes it will open up her family’s hearts and let healing begin.
Come see for yourself this Sunday evening, July 26th at 9/8c on TLC – and bring Kleenex, lots of Kleenex!