Aunt Margaret’s Bombshell Letter – 52 Ancestors #210

Aunt Margaret (1906-2005), one of my Crazy Estes aunts, wrote a bombshell letter on January 26, 1978. Little did I know that I had unwittingly been the catalyst, nor that the bomb itself would explode in my own hands a quarter century later.

That letter answered a lot of questions, but it also introduced many, MANY more mysteries, some of which I’ve been able to solve. Others, however, remain stubbornly elusive, nagging reminders of how little we sometimes know about even our closest relatives.

Introducing the Characters

Before I share the letter, I need to give you a dance card with a cast of characters, and believe me, they are truly characters. Otherwise you’ll surely miss some of the essence of the soap-opera-esque plot.

Let’s start with a pedigree chart. Three charts, actually, one for each of my grandfather, William George Estes’s marriages. He’s the character in red, below.

Lazarus Estes and his wife Elizabeth Vannoy lived at the end of Estes Holler in Claiborne County, Tennessee and died in 1918.

While Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy, called Betty, had several children, only two are mentioned in Margaret’s letter – Cornie Epperson and my grandfather who is Margaret’s father, William George Estes (1873-1971.)

William George Estes was married three times, assuming all three “marriages” were legal. I’m positive that the first one to Ollie Bolton was official, as I have the marriage documentation. The others, well, you can decide for yourself.

  • William George was first married to Ollie Bolton, having a total of 10 or 11 children. Six are mentioned in this letter and five survived to adulthood. They are, in age order, Estel, my father, Joseph “Dode,” Margaret, Minnie and Elsa.
  • William George’s second marriage was to Joice Hatfield and they had one daughter, Virginia Estes, also mentioned in Margaret’s letter.
  • William George’s third marriage was to Crocie Brewer who had a total of four children with him, but only two of which, Josephine and “red headed” Evelyn are mentioned by Margaret.

White and Black Sheep

Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy’s daughter, Cornie Estes (1878-1958), married Worth Epperson (1873-1959) and set up housekeeping right across the dirt road from Lazarus where they lived and died.

Cornie Estes and Worth Epperson celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. They seemed to be the glue in Estes Holler after Lazarus and Elizabeth died.

Cornie and Worth are buried together in the cemetery called Cedar Hill, at least it was called that by the family, on Lazarus’s land. The road between Cornie’s house and Lazarus’s was barely a two track at the time I first visited in the 1980s.

You can see the cemetery beneath the cedar tree in the center of the photo above.

William George Estes with his sister, Cornie Estes Epperson

While Lazarus seemed to have been the stable cornerstone of the family in Estes Holler, his son, William George was quite the opposite. Put bluntly, William George was unquestionably the black sheep. A very interesting black sheep, but a black sheep nonetheless who seemed to exasperate everyone around him as he drifted from one marriage and crisis to the next, leaving a trail of human carnage behind for others to unravel and clean up, as Margaret’s letter bears witness.

Aunt Margaret

William George and Ollie’s daughter Margaret, the letter-writer, born in 1906, married Edward Wyatt O’ Rourke and moved to California before 1942. The photo below was taken in 1944 and Margaret notes it was in San Francisco.

Margaret and Ed had one son who apparently married, then died (or disappeared) after having one child, a daughter, according to discussions with Margaret back in the 1970s. Unfortunately, Margaret’s stories about her son and the granddaughter were very convoluted and tangled, sometimes contradicted themselves and may have been partly the product of confusion, a propensity towards twisting the truth and mental illness that manifested as paranoia. I wasn’t sure who lived and died, when or where, but I do know it was an ungodly mess.


Aunt Margaret and her sister, Minnie, were both known to be somewhat eccentric in their later years. Ok, maybe in their earlier years too. Both were inclined to stretch the truth from time to time, and sometimes, they simply flat out fabricated stories. They were quite creative as well as experts in manipulating people to draw attention to themselves. These ladies seemed to be addicted to drama, and if there wasn’t any, they stirred some up. Before judging too harshly, read the rest of their story.

When I first read Margaret’s shocking letter, I knew that Margaret had previously been dishonest and manipulative with me. So you’ll appreciate that I had a healthy amount of skepticism about the veracity of the “truths” this letter revealed.

Margaret seemed to grow much worse as she aged as her inclination for tall tales stretched into outright paranoia. I think at one time she knew her stories were untrue, but by the 1970s and 1980s, she appeared to become increasingly unable to discern truth from fiction. The last time I spoke with Margaret who was then living in California, she insisted that I had visited her in either her second home in Hawaii or third home in Singapore and I “knew what I did.” I never met Margaret, nor did Margaret have three homes in different parts of the world, at least not to the best of my knowledge. And clearly, I didn’t “do” anything. Her accusations were nasty, unsettling and frightening. Rather than be drawn into her drama, I simply stepped away entirely, permanently.

Being aware of that history, suffice it to say, I didn’t know what to think, reading Margaret’s 1978 letter a quarter century later. I did what genealogists do, I set forth to prove, or disprove as much as possible.

Come follow along.

Solving the First Mystery

I am summarizing parts of Margaret’s 22-page hand-written tome but directly transcribing much of it, in the order in which it was written. Trust me, it needs her own words.

The letter, written in early 1978 to my step-mother, Virgie, long after my father’s 1963 death, is obviously quite friendly. Margaret opens with “My Dear,” and refers to Virgie as “my darling Sis,” although a red flag shot up when Margaret insisted on paying for a long-distance phone call by sending Virgie a check, even though “we are both on pensions.”

I learned years before that Margaret never did anything without some level of guilt being inflicted. She would voluntarily insist on doing something nice, and then inform you of what a hardship it had caused her. She seemed to live to make everyone around her feel guilty by elevating her own actions. I was a young adult when I was first exposed to Margaret’s behavior. I had never encountered anything like this before and didn’t exactly know what to “do” about it, but I did know it made me feel awful and icky. What I didn’t realize at the time is that’s exactly what it was meant to do. I’ll not ascribe motive, but since Minnie and Margaret exhibited many of the same behaviors, I suspect the root may have been family based, nature or nurture (or lack thereof,) or perhaps all three.

Margaret mentioned in her letter that she had called Virgie “a few years back” and had sent a letter as well to “the address on Hickory” in Dunkirk, Indiana which was returned.

I must say, the mention of the Hickory Street address confirmed something I had suspected from my father’s obituary and Google maps today. 501 Hickory, where Virgie lived when my father was alive is now 202 Shadyside. The houses had been renumbered, apparently between 1963 when my father died and 1978. Virgie’s home was at the intersection of the two streets.

I then thought to check in my mother’s old address book, and sure enough, Virgie’s address on Hickory had been struck through and replaced by the Shadyside address. Virgie never moved, closing her life in the house where it opened 86 years earlier.

These two side by side pictures show the house in 1919 on the left, with my father in uniform, and about 1963 on the right.

The house looks very different today, but it’s still recognizable. One mystery solved!

Margaret Thinks I Ask Too Many Questions!

Margaret begins:

“I have been trying to decide what to do about Roberta’s letter which was so abrupt and chuck full of personal questions regarding my family tree – since her mother seems to have withheld information regarding her connections with my brother, I do not feel it is any business of mine to reveal any knowledge I might have of Bill’s personal affairs or of any members of my family – and certainly not mine.”

Truthfully, this made me bristle.

All I can say is that I did ask lots of questions because there was no one else to ask and Margaret had encouraged me to do so – going so far as sending me letters with photos. I was grateful to find someone, anyone, who might have any answers. Margaret certainly never exhibited this attitude when we talked on the phone. I initially felt welcomed, even embraced. Margaret provided information, copied and sent photos and gave me the names of other people to contact. I was shocked and hurt to read that paragraph about myself.

Margaret was very uncharitable towards my mother who suffered from the behavior of my father in many ways. She didn’t live near my father’s family in Tennessee, and to the best of my knowledge, had only met his father and step-mother on one trip. She didn’t know the rest of the family, so she could hardly have withheld information she didn’t know.

Not only did Mother raise me alone, without financial support from him or support of any kind from any of his family, including Margaret, mother endured the disgrace that his choices reflected upon her. In many cases, Mother believed I was better off not knowing details of his exploits, as she did not want my opportunities to be painted with his brush after his death. Mother believed wholeheartedly that the choices she made were for my own good and in my best interest, given that she could not go back in time and “unmake” my father my father.

Ironically, Margaret closed her letter by saying exactly the same thing – that I was better off not knowing. But, now I do.

It’s wryly humorous that the very letter in which Margaret tells Virgie she isn’t going to provide me with information is the exact letter that provides me with that information. And what a revelation it was…

The First Secret Revealed

“Now I will give you a little secret of Bill’s you may have already have found out.

Our parents were divorced while young. Our father never contributed one dime to any of our support.”

Seems my grandfather had something in common with my father.

“We were all placed in foster homes and seldom had a chance to see each other until we became adults. We would then arrange a meeting at my mothers in Chicago over some holiday – never more than one or two at a time.”

I never knew that. All placed in foster homes? How incredibly sad. My heart melted. Ollie seems to have a perpetually sad look about her, even when she smiles as shown in the tiny photo at left.

My Father Ran Away to Join the Service

“Bill ran away and joined the army in 1916 by hiking his age from 14 to 18 – was a top Sargent during WWI and married Martha Dotter [sic] at Battle Creek Michigan at the age, correct age, of 16. Edna Miller was born while he was still in service. He was later divorced. My mother interfered and had the marriage annulled because of his age plus the fact that she disliked Martha who was much older than Bill.”

Had the marriage annulled? I realize that my father’s marriage to Ilo, another wife, might have been annulled, because he married under an assumed name, but I never heard anything about his marriage to Martha Dodderer being annulled. I would think a judge, especially at that time, would be very hesitant to annul a legal marriage into which a child had been born, effectively making the child illegitimate.

My sister Edna did say something about Ollie kidnapping her and taking her to Chicago when she was young, or at least trying to. So the word “interfered” might be somewhat understated.

Margaret continues:

“Bill was born in 1902 in Springdale, Arkansas. I had two other brothers born there – older ones.”

My father, according to his delayed birth certificate, was born in Sneedville, Tennessee in 1903, but then again, that birth certificate was issued based on his father’s affidavit and a Bible, also produced by my grandfather. His father wasn’t exactly the pillar of integrity.

Who knows why that birth certificate was obtained at that time, or why in Hancock County, Tennessee. If my father was born in Sneedville, or near Sneedville, that suggests that perhaps Ollie was living with or near her family at that time.

I would love to see that Bible. I had no idea a family Bible existed, nor where it is today.

Other records indicate that my father was born in 1901, so who knows for sure.

Given that Margaret was born a few years later, in 1906, she would have been recalling from memory, and she’s correct that the older children were born in Arkansas.

Margaret was only counting living siblings when she referred to “2 older brothers.” She had 4 older brothers in total. Brother Robert burned to death in a cabin in Estes Holler either not long before or about the time Margaret was born. Brother Sammy was born and died in the summer of 1893 and another child of unknown gender was born about 1896 and died before 1900 in Arkansas.

“When you were here I gave you a 8X10 picture of Bill taken at Battle Creek during WWI. I am having copies reprinted of that picture now for other members of the family.”

Ironically, Margaret did indeed copy this photo along with several more and sent them to me. Regardless of how she characterized me in this letter, without her generosity, I would not have the pictures of my family today that are included in this article. Thank you Margaret.

“It was his second hitch in the service when he was in trouble that I had investigated for you after his death.”

My father’s time in the service, including the “problematic” second hitch is detailed in the article about his love letters to Virgie.

Whatever information Margaret found went to her grave with her. Her investigation would have been before the devastating St. Louis National Personnel Record Center fire in 1973 in which my father’s records were burned.

New Year’s Day, 1944

“I last saw Bill on New Year’s Day 1944. I think the year is correct. Mother had phoned me in San Francisco that she was ill and I took a 72 hour leave from work and caught a flight back from the airfield.”

Margaret labeled this photo, “1944 New Years,” so it must have been taken in Chicago during that visit.

“She had also contacted Bill and we had arrived at mother’s the same day – we also left the following day (New Years.) Bill had some woman with him but I don’t recall her name. I think they worked at the same place and he had promised to show her Lincoln Park Zoo. She was not dressed for the freezing weather and I loaned her my fur jacket and gloves and stayed home with mother until they returned.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “some woman” in conjunction with my father.

This comment suggests that my father was coming from someplace else, since Margaret says they arrived the same day. It may also mean he came from a location significantly further south, where the weather was warmer.

On November 19, 1943, I believe my father married Ethel Hinton in Chicago, so Ethel would clearly have understood Chicago weather. However, by March of 1945, 16 months later, my father had married Dorothy Kilpatrick who lived in Richmond, Indiana. Dorothy should have been prepared for winter weather too – Richmond isn’t terribly far from Chicago. Is this woman with my father at New Year’s a new mystery woman?


“Then we each returned [to] our work. I never saw him again to speak to. However I’m sure I saw him at the post office in San Pedro in 1958 or 1959. He avoided me and seemed to just disappear in the crowd.”

In 1978, when she wrote this letter, Margaret would have been 71 and the paranoia that became very evident by the early 1980s had apparently begun. It may have been present back in the 1950s. I’m not entirely convinced that Margaret, as well as Minnie, didn’t have a form of mental illness that included paranoia well before dementia set in. They both exhibited the same types of behavior relative to being untruthful, as did my father (to some extent, minus the paranoia) and their father.

Another “Clink,” Another Teenage Girl

“Sometime before that I had received a letter from him in some clink in Kentucky.”

Wonderful, another jail record to search for before New Years of 1944. Or did she mean before 1958 or 1959? Sigh. Thanks Dad.

“Seems he had given some gal a ride across the line and she turned out to be [a] teenage runaway. He was caught with her and was in trouble because of it. He needed financial aid. I sent it to him. He also asked me to assist his wife Ethel. I had a letter from her also but can’t remember the details except that she was very much in love with him and would wait for him.”

Lord have mercy, here’s Ethel in Margaret’s letter waiting for Dad. Another piece of evidence that suggests that my father was the William Estes who married Ethel Hinton, and they are one and the same. How I would love to see that letter from Ethel.

If the woman at New Years of 1944 had been Ethel, Margaret would surely have connected those dots wouldn’t she?

Margaret may have been confused about the date or the state in which my father’s brush with the law over the teenage girl occurred. Here’s a brief timeline:

  • November 1943 – A William Estes married Ethel Hinton in Chicago. Uncertain if this is my father, but strongly suspect so, given that Margaret also mentions an Ethel.
  • New Year’s 1944 – Dad in Chicago with a woman he worked with and took to the zoo. Margaret doesn’t recall her name, but this is just 6 weeks after he married Ethel if the William Estes who married Ethel Hinton is my father.
  • December 29, 1944 until March 12, 1945 – My father worked at Eastern State Mental Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee according to their records. He was married, no wife’s name given, but a relative named Dortha Estes was also a state employee.
  • By March 15, 1945 – Dad was in Walker County, Georgia marrying a teenage girl. He was roughly 43, but lied about his age.
  • According to subsequent court records, at the time he married in Walker County, Georgia, he was already married to Dorothy Kilpatrick who lived in Richmond, Indiana. He was convicted of bigamy in Georgia. However, that episode doesn’t include an underage girl running away or Kentucky. My father and his Georgia bride were married where she lived in Walker County, Georgia under the nose of her disapproving father.
  • March 1945 through December 1948 – As a result of his “error in judgement,” he got to spend time in jail until December, 1948 when he was released and returned to Chicago.
  • February 1949 – Married Ellen in Chicago.

What happened to Ethel (Hinton?) and Dorothy Kilpatrick? Your guess is as good as mine! I’d love to know.


On November 19, 1943, one William Estes married Ethel Hinton in Chicago.

I have been unable, in spite of writing to the Cook County Clerk’s Office multiple times, to obtain the actual application which both the bride and groom would have signed, which would confirm if the groom was indeed my father. If any of my readers know how to obtain the application from Cook County, please let me know.

Name: William Estes
Marriage Date: 19 Nov 1943
Spouse: Ethel Hinton
Marriage Location: Cook County, IL
Marriage license: {7DD8EEDE-D87A-4D33-AF3D-EDFB858ECB23}
File Number: 1795725
Archive Collection Name: Cook County Genealogy Records (Marriages)
Archive repository location: Chicago, IL
Archive repository name: Cook County Clerk

Based on this information from Margaret about an Ethel along with his propensity for getting married, it surely appears likely that this is him.

If Dad married Ethel in November 1943, was in Chicago with another woman at New Years of 1944, in Knoxville married to a Dorothy by the 1944/1945 winter, and then marrying another young gal in Walker County, Georgia in March of 1945, when the heck did he have time to get in trouble in Kentucky? Oh, wait, it’s my Dad after all!

The logical gap appears to be between New Year’s of 1944 and late 1945 when he was with Dorothy which “should be” between Ethel and Dorothy as well. His bigamy conviction in Georgia provided me with Dorothy Kilpatrick’s name and that she was living in the Richmond, Indiana Camping Park at that time.

The piece of information that throws me, however, is that Margaret says that Ethel was waiting for him. This surely must be before March 1945 when Dad was married to Dorothy and marrying in Georgia and before 1949 when Dad married Ellen in Chicago, so maybe Ethel was waiting for him when he was in jail in Georgia? But he was married to Dorothy then. I’m really confused. Could he have been a trigamist – married to the gal in Georgia, Dorothy and Ethel all at the same time? Is trigamist even a word? I can’t believe I have to look this word up in connection with my father. Bigamist was bad enough.

I suspect there’s another juicy chapter buried here someplace. Was he in jail someplace ELSE involving a teenage runaway a different time? In Kentucky? Is Georgia the “clink” Margaret is talking about. Seems unlikely. I need digitized court records. That’s what I’m putting on my Christmas list! Santa, are you listening?

Ollie’s Death

“The next I heard was after mother had died in 55 and I had received the funeral bill some months later. I ate his bottom out about what he had done and why he had let Jean pass herself off as me in Chicago. Also why I had not been notified of mother’s illness. I had been sending money orders and cashiers checks to her monthly. They were easier for her to cash at the store, P.O. or bank than my personal check which was from an out of state bank. I don’t believe she had a bank account but she did have a safety deposit box. She told me that much.

She was also receiving a RR [railroad] pension from my step-father’s death – also her own social security check. Someone had to be cashing them and signing her name. Every time I phoned the house I was told she was out.”

During this time period in Chicago, my father was involved with two women. He had married Ellen in 1949 and my mother later. In 1955, my mother, while pregnant for me, was taking care of Ollie who lived with them, was terminally ill and had terrible bedsores. Ollie did not live in her own apartment, could no longer get herself out of bed, was gravely ill and in a great deal of pain before her death on April 9th. Her death certificate says that she had atherosclerotic heart disease for 1 year and multiple decubitus ulcers for 4 months. This was not a sudden illness.

My mother was VERY unhappy with my father about the circumstances. While Mother was taking care of his gravely ill mother, he was drinking heavily and was more often absent than present. I guarantee you, if Margaret had called and my mother answered, Mother assuredly would have told her that her mother was ill and asked her to come and help.

Mother didn’t know for another year and a half or so that my father had another family and the “other wife” was pregnant too, at the same time! No wonder he was drinking.

I don’t doubt that someone was cashing those checks. It could well have been my father and he might have been spending the money on liquor. On the other hand, that money could have been buying medicine for Ollie and food. Regardless, I find it odd that Margaret didn’t realize how ill her mother, then nearly 81, was and had been for some significant time. Me thinks the lady doth protest too much, justifying her own absence when her mother so desperately needed her presence. Margaret’s mother’s care fell to my pregnant mother. I assure you, my mother would have been extremely grateful for any assistance.

“He didn’t answer for awhile and then to say he tried but couldn’t find me. My address was always on my envelopes with the checks to mother. I write fairly plain and when he needed a favor he had no difficulty in locating me very very quickly – phone reverse charges, telegrams, collect or special delivery.”

My father had a way of finding people when it suited his purposes.

The Halcombs

“A couple years afterwards I was calling on Dad in Lynch, KY. We stayed at the Cumberland motel – not with the Estes or Holcomb family.”

This would have been about 1957.

I had no idea who the Holcomb family was, but a hint like this was too important not to pursue. In fact, I had never heard that name before. How important could this be, anyway, if I had never heard this name?

Buckle up and hold on!!!

A revelation emerged around 3 AM after a long day/night of searching. Bless those Kentucky birth registers, even if they are incomplete.

It seems that both of William George Estes’s daughters by Crocie had children by Halcomb (not Holcomb) men.

On April 4, 1943, John J. Halcomb was born to William Halcomb and Josephine Estes who was then aged 20 years and one month.

Josephine, above, born in 1923, was Aunt Margaret’s half-sister through their mutual father, William George Estes and his third wife, Crocie, who lived in Harlan County, Kentucky.

I don’t know if William Halcomb and Josephine were married or not. With this family, I’ve come to view the word “married” not as a legal condition, but a description used when socially convenient. However, they must have been living as a family, because Margaret says they didn’t stay with the Holcomb’s, indicting that there was a Holcomb household.

Sadly, Josephine’s son, John Halcomb perished tragically on August 9, 1965 at 9:45 PM, at the age of 22, per his death certificate. His parents were both listed on that document, and Josephine Jackson, his mother, then married to Andy Jackson, reported the death.

John died in a car accident, immediately, of multiple internal and external injuries causing shock and hemorrhage. The note on his death certificate says, “ran off roadway” on Highway 160 near Lynch. Highway 160 is the dogleg road in Harlan County that runs upwards through Lynch, beside the creek and the coal mines, to the top of Black Mountain. William George Estes and Crocie lived in “Shack 74.” on Highway 160. Everyone there lived in shacks.

John Halcomb was buried in the D. L. Creech Cemetery, the same location where William George Estes was buried a few years later, along with John’s grandmother, Crocie, who had died 4 years before his death. Neither John Halcomb nor William George nor Crocie have tombstones. Josephine and Andy Jackson’s graves are marked with funeral home markers. Once those are gone, if they aren’t already, their graves will be entirely unmarked.

The only person in this entire family to have a stone is Josephine’s sister, Evelyn, who shares one with her second husband, Marco Pusice.

John Halcomb was Josephine’s only child. In the few pictures I’ve seen of Josephine, she is never smiling. Now I have a much better idea of why.

I never knew my grandfather had this grandson, or that the grandson was killed in a car accident two years after my father was killed the same way. William George was 90 when my father died and 92 when his grandson was killed.

The Second Halcomb

Next, I discovered in the Kentucky birth records that a daughter, Joyce Lee Halcomb was born on December 13, 1953 to a Halcomb male, who I believe is Jake (maybe Jack?) Halcomb and Evelyn Estes. The Kentucky birth index doesn’t provide the entire record, only the child’s and mother’s names. Of course, Evelyn is Josephine’s sister.

Both sisters had children by Halcomb males? What???

I had to recheck these records, because frankly, I was dumbstruck. I could find no Estes and Holcomb or Halcomb marriages for either Evelyn or Josephine.

This soap opera truly never ends, but back to Margaret’s letter.

“Bill and some woman along with mother’s dog King had been there.”

I suspect that woman might have been Ellen. Margaret apparently knew my mother, at least by name, but never referenced Ellen in her letters, although my father had been married to Ellen since 1949. King died tragically when I was about a year or maybe 18 months old, so Margaret’s visit, and my father’s, was after April 1955 when Ollie died and before 1957 when King died.

Bad Checks

“Bill had cashed a bogus check on some New York Pharmaceutical Company he was said to be working for. The store that cashed the check (Balls) was looking for him. Dad had promised to make it good but he was only drawing $10 from KY state – so I went down and paid it off. Also he later wrote one on himself which bounced.”

According to a court case, Smith Ball, a controversial man, died in 1964 and had operated a second hand store in Harlan County, engaged in the business of lending money and accepted promissory notes.

A New York Pharmaceutical Company? As odd as that sounds, my father was practicing medicine in Tennessee as he came and went, so that’s entirely feasible. Maybe by this time he was one of the early “drug reps.” At that time, doctors dispensed their own medicine when they saw patients.

“Seems mother used to sign notes for him on Chicago banks and I’d end up paying them off to save his neck. Since they were always paid his credit was good so he just kept repeating it and mother kept signing and I kept paying.”

Joe “Dode” Estes

“I was also sending Dad money and helping Joe [Dode] with his medical bills only to find out he was spending it on trips to Tazewell, Tennessee while working at the same time.”

Tazewell, in Claiborne County, the epicenter of the Estes clan, was about an hour south of Harlan County. I suspect Joe, nicknamed Dode, was visiting Claiborne County from Illinois.

“I also chewed him out in 57 when Ed and I visited Eppersons and Dode was working in the cain patch after telling me he was down and couldn’t get up. We went after him and when Aunt Corny Epperson told me Joe had come there splurging money received from his son’s death in the armed service – yet crying hard luck to me, I flipped my lid and really laid him out flat with a good lecture. I never wrote to him since and was told several years later he was killed in a accident but it’s only hearsay I’m repeating what Josephine wrote me and Edna Seal had told her.”

Above, Worth Epperson, husband of Cornie Estes Epperson, at left and William George Estes, at right.

Edna Seal (1917-1987) is Edna Epperson, daughter of Worth and Cornie Estes Epperson, who married Wilson Seal (1900-1961).

Joe Estes wasn’t killed in an accident, despite the family stories to the contrary, but died an old man in 1994. His life, like my father’s, was shrouded in mystery.

My mother also thought Joe had been killed in an accident, which suggests my father believed the same thing, but Joe died in 1994 in Fairfield, Wayne County, Illinois where he apparently had been living in 1942, according to Margaret’s letter.

Joe’s granddaughter told me that her father, Charlie, at about age 10, so about 1938, witnessed “men with guns” come and take Joe away. Joe was not seen by Charlie again until he was an adult.

I did find a record from 1926 in Fowler, Indiana where Joe was arrested for stealing a car. In a 1930 newspaper article, Joe admitted that he stole 21 chickens from the farm where he was employed and was sent to the penal farm for 6 months.

In another document, the police in Indiana were questioning my father in 1938 or so about whether or not he had seen Joe. shows that Joe’s wife filed for divorce in September 1940, giving their marriage date as 1926 and separation date as September of 1930.  Their son, Robert Vernon Estes was born in March of 1931, so she didn’t file for divorce for another 9 years, which would have been after the 1938 timeframe when Joe’s oldest son, Charlie, remembered the men with guns taking Joe away.

We know Joe was in California visiting Margaret in 1942. I originally thought perhaps Joe was involved with a witness protection program, but now, I’m thinking possibly prison. The Indiana and Illinois records might yield interesting information. An “accident” would be a good way to “cover” the fact that Joe was “missing” while in prison, although that accident supposedly occurred after 1957, not between 1938 and 1942. Like I said, this man’s life is full of inconsistencies.

Joe may well have been in an accident at some point, because his granddaughter reported that he had amnesia and would wander away. Margaret also mentioned medical bills. I surely will be glad when brings the newspapers from that part of Illinois online.

Older folks in Claiborne County during my 1980s visits mentioned that at one time Joe had purchased a diner in Claiborne County with the money from his son’s death, then lost it. The son who died in the military was named Robert Vernon Estes whose family apparently discovered after the end of the Korean War in 1954 that he had perished in Korea in 1951. In August of 1952 when Robert’s mother, who had remarried, died, Robert Vernon was still listed as missing in action in her obituary.

William George Estes Dies

“Dad wrote me a nasty letter and I also cut him off. I had been sending him $25 a month and also when he was in Tazewell [Tennessee] I was sending Eppersons $25 towards his food. $50 here and there costs money and couldn’t take any more pressure. Seems I was a SOB and everyone else was just dandy.

When Dad died no one knew where to reach me and Josephine’s husband Andy arranged the funeral. Some 3 or 4 years later I learned about it and sent them double what they had paid out. Andy spent $750 and I sent $1500. Plus other amount at different times. Then I went back in the hospital for care and never contacted any of them since.”

William George Estes, my grandfather, died in 1973, 4 months shy of his 99th birthday. Andy Jackson was Josephine’s husband by 1965. I called the house in about 1978 when I was first trying to piece the puzzle of my family together. A boy, maybe age 10, answered the phone and a gruff man yelled at the boy to,”hang up, you know we don’t answer the phone after dark.” I’ve never heard of that tradition before, but mountain people were sometimes “funny” about things.

Regarding Margaret’s hospitalization, she told me in 1978 that she had liver cancer, but when they opened her up, they found a second functioning liver underneath and removed the cancerous one. Miracle or myth? I don’t know. Amazingly, she didn’t pass away until 2005, 3 months shy of her 99th birthday, so if she had cancer in one liver, with an extra one next door, the cancer clearly hadn’t spread which would be extremely unusual.

Bombshell – Grandpa was a Bigamist Too

Boom, mic drop!

“Dad was never divorced from Virginia’s mother.”

Virginia’s mother was William George’s second wife, Joice Hatfield, at left, with Virginia at right.

I can’t find any record where William George Estes and Joice Hatfield were actually married, although many of the Hancock County, Tennessee records were destroyed by fire. I’ve checked the records of Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. If you never get married legally, you don’t have to bother to get divorced. So much less hassle. So maybe William George Estes wasn’t technically a bigamist after all. Maybe.

“Josephine doesn’t know that. But there’s something Virginia doesn’t know either.

My mother caught Joice and Dad one day in bed together and nearly beat Dad to death with a plow rope because of it and the only thing that saved Joice was her Aunt, Mrs. Tom Folley pulled mom off before she killed them both. Then is when our family was broken up. Dad later got the divorce with Mrs. Folley as witness of the beating but never the reason.”

So William got divorced because Ollie beat him after catching him “in the act” of cheating? He’s lucky she didn’t kill him.

This picture appears to be the last family picture taken, in 1914, in Fowler, Indiana. Ollie looks anything but happy. Children are Margaret at left, Joe “Dode” behind her, Estel the oldest in the middle top, my father, William Sterling at right in the rear, and Minnie, the blonde child beside Ollie.

I called the clerk and rechecked for divorce records in Benton County, Indiana, where Fowler is located, from 1908-1922, with no records found. I had checked previously, but sometimes rechecking yields different results. Those divorce records might make for interesting reading as there may be more to the story. The story at this point IS that there aren’t any records in Benton County. Were William George and Ollie ever officially divorced?

Ollie moved to Chicago by 1918. Surely Mrs. Folley wouldn’t have been testifying in Chicago about something that happened in Indiana with William George who was then living in Tennessee or Kentucky with Joice.

The Hatfield-Estes-Brewer Drama

“Hatfield forced Dad to marry Joice when Virginia was born. They sent for her cousin Crocia Brewer to come and help take care of Joice and the baby. Low and behold Joice caught them in the same way mother had caught her. Joice grabbed a shot gun and was going to kill Dad and Crocia and Aunt Corney Epperson took it away from her and Grandpa Estes [Lazarus] run Dad and Crocia both off and told them if they ever came back he’d kill them both. Aunty told me this herself years later.”

This had to occur before 1918 because Lazarus died July 7, 1918. However, Virginia wasn’t born until November 25, 1918, so clearly something is amiss with this story, because Virginia was born 4 months after Lazarus died.

I heard this same story about Lazarus running William George and Joice off because of how they treated Ollie, after Ollie caught them. Same story, but cheating on different wives.

On September 12, 1918, William George Estes registered for the draft in Tazewell, Tennessee, giving “Joisce Estes” as his wife and the address as S. Tazewell, so they were apparently “married” by this time – or at least had moved back to Tennessee and were living as a couple. Joice would have been about 7 months pregnant at that time.

Clearly Margaret’s story or dates are a bit confused.

Two years later, in the 1920 census, Joice was still living with William George in Claiborne County, and Crocie along her son Horace were living with them as well. Crocie was Joice’s cousin, 2 years younger. So it appears that the incident where Joice caught William George “with” Crocie didn’t happen before the census of 1920 – because they assuredly didn’t live together after that event. By that time, Lazarus had been dead for 2 years.

If indeed Cornie Epperson took the gun away from Joice, this tells me that they were living in Estes Holler, not in Kentucky at that time – and indeed, the 1920 census bears that out.

So, I’d wager that Lazarus actually ran William George and Joice out, that William George moved back to Estes Holler in 1918 after Lazarus died, where he was living in 1920, and that the incident where he was caught carnally with Crocie happened in Estes Holler, where Cornie Estes Epperson lived, after the 1920 census.

William George Estes was a serial “cousin cheater.”

Crocie Brewer

Margaret didn’t mention this, but according to my mother, Crocie Brewer was deaf. I don’t believe she was able to speak either. My mother accompanied my father to visit William George and Crocie just one time between 1950 and 1955 and reported that my grandfather treated Crocie terribly. Mother refused to ever return. She used to shudder discussing it and flat out refused to provide any details.

Margaret continues:

“Well, the old man took her [Crocie] over in Arkansas where he and mother had started out. He made a good living for awhile with his camera. He was also a master carpenter.”

William George was a photographer, among other things. Many people had multiple skills and did whatever combination of things they could to make ends meet.

William George Estes and Ollie lived in Springdale, Washington County, Arkansas for several years after they were married. Crocie’s first child with William George, Josephine, was born March 19, 1923 in Arkansas, so Margaret’s information seems to be accurate. Perhaps he had truly worn out his welcome in Estes Holler by that time.

Given this information, Crocie would have gotten pregnant in about June of 1922, so Joice and William George would have split sometime between mid-1920 (census) and mid-1922.

“He was pretty old when he showed up at my brother Estel’s place in Appalachia, VA and confessed he had never married Crocia but by then there was children by her also. Estel didn’t know Joice had never divorced the old man so he took them over on the KY side and got them married.”

Children implies more than one child.

We know that William George Estes was in Arkansas in 1923 when Josephine was born. Daughter Helen May Estes was born in 1925, but her death certificate doesn’t indicate where. I can’t find William George in the 1930 census, so he may have been in transit or back so far on the mountain that the census taker missed him.

We know that by 1935, William George is back in Harlan County because the 1940 census says he lives in the same residence that he did in 1935 which would have been “Shack 74.” In the 1930 census, shacks 71 and 72 exist, but shack 74, apparently “up above” Lynch towards the top of the mountain, doesn’t. His appearance at his son, Estel’s house, in Appalachia, VA would have been sometime probably between 1925 and 1935.

In 1925, when the second child was born, William George was 52. He had two more children, the last one being born in 1935 when he would have been 62.

Appalachia, Virginia is located on Highway 160, down the other side of Black Mountain, across the line into Virginia, 15 miles along hairpin turns crossing the summit of the highest mountain in Kentucky.

William George lived near the top of the mountain on the Kentucky side. My mother said the drive was harrowing and treacherous and that was before the days of guardrails and paved roads.

For most of the 15 mile distance, the road is but a thread between rocks on one side and a precipice on the other, more comfortable for mountain goats than cars. It’s easy to see why John Halcomb died when he ran off the road. Today, the road has guardrails.

The first flat land that includes houses of any kind is about a mile east of Lynch on Main Street.

When I visited a few years ago, William George’s place was described by locals as “up above Lynch.” I’m sure Shack 74 is long gone. This shows Highway 160, heading “up” out of Lynch where the last houses are found today.

Bombshell Two – Worse Than Bigamy

Wow, I didn’t expect that bigamy bombshell. My grandfather was a bigamist, assuming he was actually married to either (or both) his second and/or third wives. For all I know, he could have been a trigamist too. Indeed, William George provided a right fine example for my father and the rest of his children. It’s possible that we have double trigamists, a father and son pair.

Margaret was right. Karma struck Joice for what she did to Ollie.

“The grandparents had long been dead when Dad took Josephine over to visit her relatives at the age of 15.”

The grandparents would have been Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy who both died in 1918. Josephine, born in 1923, would have been 15 in 1938. “Over to visit her relatives,” would have referred to “over the mountain,” meaning to Claiborne County.

“After that he went alone and stayed lengthy vacations leaving Crocia and the kids to make out the best way they could.”

This information implies that William George has been absent from Claiborne County for many years, from the time he and Crocie left before 1923 until about 1938. Yep, I’d say he wore out that welcome. After an absence of 15 years, as a fairly old man, he returned. But why, and why then?

In 1938, Crocia had two living children. Josephine born in 1923 (so age 15) and Evelyn (age 7,) born in 1931, just a month after smallpox killed Crocie and William George’s daughter, Helen May.

However, a baby boy, James, died in 1937 at 17 months of age…apparently of starvation. His death certificate generously says that he died of “acute intestinal indigestion due to improper feeding.” This was the secret to terrible for anyone to discuss openly.

Of course, when I read that, pieces suddenly fell into place. I remembered being told that my father and his siblings were fed moonshine in order to ease the pain in their stomachs so they could sleep when there was no food. And that was 24 years before baby James died, when William George was more physically able (assuming he was willing) to work.

Apparently Crocie and the children weren’t doing well at all, and Crocie was dealing with this alone. Where the hell was William George? Why was he hanging out in Claiborne County when he was clearly needed at home?

The 1940 census tells us that the neighbor families on Lynch Road in Harlan county were working most of the time and made $1350, $1820, $2600, $1190 (3 families) and $1720, compared to the paltry $144 made by William George Estes in the 12 months ending Dec. 31, 1939. William George, age 67, claimed he was unable to work as a farm hand, Crocie was doing housework and Josephine, age 17, was working at “other.” William George had worked no hours the previous week, and only 24 weeks the previous year.

In addition to bootlegging, William George reportedly cut timber to shore up the mine shafts. I don’t know how a man could be an unsuccessful bootlegger on a mining mountain, but apparently he was.

Oh, and if you think we’re done with the bombshells – we’re not!

Bombshell Three – A Third Halcomb?

“I helped Estel and I helped out as best we could. He wasn’t working half the time and I helped out all the way around doing without myself.

Aunt Corny was sick [died in1958] and Bill Epperson’s wife Lou wasn’t well [died 1962] but was taking care of everyone else. Meanwhile, my step-father died [1941] and I had double responsibility, no help from the others. Somehow we [we is struck through] managed to plug along – dishing out here and there and raising our own son. Both Ed and I was well fed up with the whole mess but continued to do the best we could by all of them until we caught up with what was going on. Seems like the old man would roost at Eppersons until the red headed Evelyn would go after him to come home and sign for my registered check. He’d cash it, give it to Crocia and catch the next bus back to Tazewell.”

For “red-headed Evelyn” who was born in 1931 to have been old enough to drive, this would have had to have been after 1947, or so, assuming she drove a car.

“Uncle Worth was pretty disgusted and so was everyone else. Lou wrote me and explained they hardly could feed themselves as I would send one check to Lou at Tazewell, one to Dad at Lynch so everyone didn’t show up to be fed free. It seems because people who live on farms is expected to have a generous supply of food on hand at all times and all relations welcome. First one and then the others.

I contacted the undertakers at Tazewell for an estimate of funeral cost for the old man and was going to make arrangements for his internment at the family burial plats on Cedar Hill. I was afraid he would get down sick at Eppersons and no one to pay for his funeral bill. I would have prepaid when the estimate came back. Well I never got such an eaten out as to mind my own business. His son-in-law would take care of his expenses, etc., etc. So I washed my hands of the whole shebang.

Later I was told his son-in-law, Jake, walked out on the whole mess when he learned that Evelyn, his wife, was not Dad’s daughter, but his own uncle’s daughter by Crocia. Yup!

Then the fat was in the fire. Seems Jake had been working in the mines and paying the bills. Now they were all out on their cans.”

OK, now I’m really confused. Jake was a Halcomb. If Evelyn was Jake’s uncle’s daughter, that means that Jake and Evelyn were first cousins. That’s not so unusual, but that also means that if Evelyn’s daughter or granddaughter ever DNA tests, and that’s a true allegation, I’ll never know because Evelyn wasn’t an Estes. Of course, if they test and match me, then obviously Margaret was wrong.

So both of William George’s daughters AND his wife were carrying on with and having children by Halcomb men? Lordy, I want to see what these men looked like!

I can’t exactly piece the Halcomb line together, but this is Philip Halcomb from Letcher County, KY, born in 1898, probably from the same line. He is quite handsome, but still…

In the 1930 census, there are two William Halcomb’s in Harlan County, both sons of different William Halcombs. The only Jack of even approximately the right age was born in 1926, son of Melvin and Armilda Halcomb. There’s another Jack born in 1928 to a mother named Susie – the Kentucky birth indexes don’t provide the names of the father.

So, we’re left with the question – who is Jake’s uncle? For that matter, who, exactly, was Jake?

Margaret STILL isn’t done!

The State Mental Hospital

“From what Estel told me the red headed one [Evelyn] done a time for drunkenness in the State Hospital.”

That doesn’t surprise me, given what we know about William George’s bootlegging, not to mention that Estel (left, below), Evelyn’s half-brother, reportedly continued that family tradition – having his daughters (also below) deliver moonshine in the mining town of Fleming, Letcher Co., KY where they lived in the 1940s.

Furthermore William George Estes was the grandson of Joel Vannoy (1813-1895), one of the first patients in the Eastern State Mental Hospital in Knoxville, TN when it opened it’s door in 1886. Some of Joel’s descendants were patients there as well. According to Uncle George Estes, Joel’s great-grandson who was born just 16 years after Joel died and clearly knew the family, Joel simply “lost his mind.” There is no evidence that Joel drank, but the Estes clan certainly did, and mental illness and alcohol are a very, VERY bad combination.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of “red headed Evelyn” but she is reported to have been stunningly beautiful.

The “State Hospital” in Kentucky at that time was located in Lexington, KY. Unfortunately, admissions records aren’t public after 1913.

Josephine and Andy Jackson

“Dad went to live with Josephine. Crocia died [1961]. All a mess. But my guess is with all the trouble Josephine and Andy [Jackson] went through with them it must have been a relief when both old folks died.”

I don’t know when Josephine and Andy Jackson married, but it was before her son, John Halcomb, died in 1965.

I also never knew that William George lived with daughter Josephine, apparently after Crocie’s death. He would have been 88 when Crocie passed away.

Dumping Evelyn

“Bill tried to dump Evelyn off on some of the kin folk and it didn’t work. I will always believe that’s what he was up to when I saw him in San Pedro. I think he got cold feet.”

Margaret’s paranoia was showing. The first flaw in her logic is the question of why my father, who lived in either Chicago, Illinois or northern Indiana at that time was in any way involved with Evelyn’s life in Harlan County, Kentucky, hundreds of miles away.

If my father wanted to dump Evelyn off with kinfolk, there were a heck of a lot closer places than California. Not to mention, where would he have gotten the money for that trip? My Dad was always poor as a church mouse.

Evelyn was with Jake Halcomb by 1952 when her daughter was born, so this “dumping” attempt in Margaret’s mind that supposedly happened in 1958-1959 would have been after Evelyn had been with Jake for at least 6 years and was 27 or 28 years old. That just doesn’t make sense.

Foster Homes and Elsa, the Lost Sister

“Elsa my younger sister was born 5 months after my parents was separated.”

Oh my God, poor Ollie. Forty years old, five living children, pregnant for the sixth, and a husband cheating with her 20-year-old cousin. The only child old enough to be on their own was Estel who married in February of 1914. Elsa was reported by Margaret to have been born in 1914.

“My mother had placed the rest of us in foster homes by that time. I was with the Freeman family. Dad’s x-boss, Bert Freeman was a building contractor. Dad his master carpenter. Minnie was with the Hamptons and Dode was at Pete LaFountains in Royal Center, Indiana.”

Abuse and Near Starvation

At one time, Margaret told me that my father had been married to Laila LaFountain. I wonder now if Margaret had the names Laila and Ilo confused, and the surname LaFountain mixed in for good measure. Joe was associated with that family, not my father. After all, it had been more than 60 years by the time Margaret was recalling that information.

Margaret told me that Laila used to hook Dad to the plow like a mule and whip him to plow the field. Said she saw it with her own eyes in Indiana. I was horrified and at that time, couldn’t even imagine such a thing.

The 1910 census shows no Laila LaFountain in Benton County. I’m relieved, but did someone hook Dad to a plow and whip him? Or Joe? Why would Margaret make something like that up? There is surely some grain of truth someplace. Did someone really do that to my father? Is this really why he ran away and joined the army in the middle of a war? My heart just aches.

“Sterl [my father’s nickname] had just arrived from Tazewell all tattered and torn – hungry and hollow eyes – he had stayed behind with Dad but it seems he got run off. Mother sent her cousin Ebb Cook money for his train passage and Cook sent him on to mother. “

Ebb Cook was Albert Rice Cook (1860-1942) who married Mary Jane Bolton, daughter of Milton Halen Bolton, half-brother to Ollie’s father. Ebb was Ollie’s half first cousin.

Obviously, Ebb was someone Ollie felt she could trust, and indeed, he did prove trustworthy. He probably saved my father’s life.

“A more pitiful sight you never saw. Mrs. Freeman would send me over every night with fresh milk and food for mother, Bill and clothing for the baby. Grapes were ripe so there were always plenty of juice for them. Later mother hired out as a cook in a café. Elsa was turned over to Dr. Nellie Green to care for. Dr. Green had no children of her own.”

Oh NO! Ollie had to give up her baby too??? Margaret once told me that “something was wrong” with Elsa and she died as a child, but Margaret never mentioned that Elsa was placed outside the family. Downs syndrome of course was my first thought, given Ollie’s age, but nutrition or birth trauma may have been a factor as well. I doubted the story of a female being a doctor in Benton County, Indiana, in 1914, but lo and behold, according to the 1910 census, it’s true and indeed, Nellie Green had no children.

In 1920, Nellie was still practicing, and her 19 year old nephew was living with her, but no Elsa. There are no Elsa’s or Elsia’s listed in the 1920 census that look to be candidates with the possibility of Elsie D. Bonham born in 1912. Did Elsa die in Benton County? Did she go to Chicago with Ollie and die there? Did she actually exist at all? I can find absolutely NO RECORD of this child’s birth or death, anyplace.

Margaret also told me that Ollie had twins about 1913 that both died as well, and again, no records. How can so many records be constantly missing for the same family?

1914 must have been the bottom of the barrel for Ollie – reduce to accepting charity, twins dead, another child born with challenges, no way to feed your children, and a  husband cheating with your cousin who also betrayed your trust.

“Bill was placed out on a farm with some people named Harkrider. Later mother also went to work there. Bill was at Harkriders when he ran away and joined the Army.”

For obvious reasons, my father never spoke of any of these dark and terrible days. They must have seared his soul. In 1914, he would have been between 11 and 13. So much death, grief, fear, hunger and pain.

My father would have lived and worked on that farm for about 3 years. At least he ate. This also explains why he enlisted on May 14, 1917 at Fort Benjamin Harrison, near Indianapolis. Apparently Ollie and the kids were still residing in Indiana at that time. I thought they had already moved to Chicago by then, but this explains why Dad enlisted in Indiana. The military was his escape from worse – never mind that the US was heavily engaged in WWI. War was better than Hell.

“Mother didn’t know where he was for several months and by then decided it was a good place for him. In the mean time Dode was lonesome for the hills and mountains so he left LaFountains and hopped a freight train back to Tazewell only to find Dad was no longer there. Hungry, cold and rejected by both Dad’s people and mother’s, the boy was afraid of being beaten and worked to death so he stretched his little skinny neck another foot tall and hiked up his age, borrowed some long pants off a clothesline and hiked over the mountains to Fort Monroe, VA and enlisted in the army. I’ll send you a picture of the lad in uniform. You can judge for yourself what a scared dejected little boy looks like trying to be a man of war.”

“He and I was always very close until he just didn’t give a hoot about anything but wine. I sent for and had him come out here and work in 42 but he just couldn’t adjust to California life.”

Joe in California in 1942, photo from Margaret.

I had heard from other sources that Joe had an alcohol problem. This means that all 3 of William George’s sons had alcohol addiction issues, along with at least one daughter. It’s no wonder.

“He went back to Fairfield, Illinois.

My brothers were very tall tho they were very young. Hard life gave them the older appearance.”


“Minnie was about 8 when she went to live with Dr. Pierce in Rose HiIl, VA. She was with mother very seldom after that.”

Photo of Minnie, age 8, Rose Hill, Virginia, according to Aunt Margaret.

Minnie was born in October of 1908 according to Margaret, but Minnie’s actual birth record says she was born on September 13, 1909 in Tazewell, Tennessee, so that would have meant she went to Rose Hill in about 1916. Dr. David Q. Pierce and his wife Kitty, a childless couple, raised Minnie. Margaret told me they wanted Minnie to help take care of the doctor’s wife who was somehow disabled. In the 1920 census, Minnie is age 13, listed as their granddaughter, and shown living with them. Minnie married John Raymond Price (1896-1977) in Lee County, Virginia about 1926, when, according to Minnie years later, “I was young and he was old.” By 1934, they were apparently divorced, because John R. Price married Marie Anderson in Claiborne County.

Minnie, above.

Margaret Talks About Herself

Margaret moved to Chicago with Ollie. I don’t know exactly when, but Margaret sent a photo with the words, “Mother, Franklin Park, Illinois 1918” written on the back. Given that we know that Ollie was still in Indiana in August 1917 when my father enlisted in the military, and was in Illinois in 1918, the move was apparently either in late 1917 or  1918.

Ollie looks extremely old in this photo, so much so that I wondered if this was actually Ollie’s mother, Margaret Clarkson/Claxton, of whom I have no photos. In 1918, Aunt Margaret would have been 12, Ollie would have been 44 and her mother, Margaret Claxton Bolton would have been 67. Given that Aunt Margaret labeled the photo and is in the photo, I suspect the picture is Ollie. After the living Hell Ollie had been through in the past several years, it’s no wonder she looks ragged.

“I worked for one family after another till I could get into the Cook County Hospital in Chicago and took nursing. Married young and like many other teenagers in and out of pitfalls of troubles but always managed to come out on top. Mussed up but never beaten down where I couldn’t catch a handful of hair to pull to my feet. It was not been an easy life by any means but I’ve managed to keep a fairly decent one.”

Margaret, modeling in 1925 in Chicago. Margaret was in Milwaukee in 1937, then in California by 1942.

The Plain Facts

“I’m giving you an outline of the plain facts. You will hear various tales. Just sort out facts for yourself and go from there.

I don’t think there’s anything in the family history that could be of any help to Roberta but only dampen her spirit, so I would not divulge any of this history to her. She no doubt feels she’s entitled to know but she better off to leave well enough alone. She may not be any better received by the relatives than I was. All had plenty of bread but only Uncle Howard Friar and Aunt Mary shared theirs with Mama and her Estes brats.”

James Howard Friar (1875-1962) was married to Mary Ann Bolton (1873-1942), daughter of Daniel Marson Bolton (1841-1924,) half brother of Ollie’s father. That made Mary Ann, nicknamed “Ropp,” Ollie’s half first cousin, who just happened to be her best friend as well.

Mary Ann Bolton and Howard Friar, above. The photo was probably taken by William George Estes. Notice that Mary Ann is dressed to the 9s, but Howard has worn through his shoes.

This photo taken about 1913 in Fowler, Indiana shows William George, at far right rear, with Ollie to his left. I believe the lady that Ollie has her arm around is Mary Ann “Ropp” Bolton Friar, and her husband beside her. The two men in the front right are “Smith cousins,” but I don’t know who they are or how they connect. Margaret is in the middle, Minnie in front of her mother, my Dad front left and Estel beside him. Joe was absent from the photo and at scouts, according to Margaret. It’s amazing with all of the poverty, pain and grief how these people put on happy faces for the few photos of that time. You’d never guess their struggles.

Little did Ollie know that in just a few short weeks or months, her life and that of her children would be shredded so tragically, traumatically scarring all of them permanently, the devastation rolling like an avalanche downhill to the next generations, yet to be born.

“Now you know your husband’s secret. We all loved our parents and tried to understand their motives – never loved or cared for by either and all going in different directions. Just a bunch of scared lost lambs that grew up to be a herd of hard fighting black sheep.”



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24 thoughts on “Aunt Margaret’s Bombshell Letter – 52 Ancestors #210

  1. Thank you for a frank and very moving family history. I cried when reading about Ollie, Bill, Joe and the others. Probably out of empathy. My own mother was alcoholic and gave four of her seven boys away. A month after birth I was committed by a Judge to a children’s home where i spent nearly two years before being adopted. I regret to say that i would have been better off in the children’s home i think … Your Aunt Margaret’s paranoia and bitterness is not hard to understand at all, knowing her story. She left a precious memoir, which, thank God, was passed on to you: it is like a voice from the other side, helping you to better know and understand your father’s family’s past, and the troubles which shaped it. I reckon that your Aunt Margaret’s memoir can be summed up with ”What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger”.

  2. Roberta,
    I sent two emails to your address (found elsewhere on your blog) with items that will likely interest you about Ilo and Martha.

  3. Wow, just wow. Sad stories for generations. Hopefully with secrets out in the open, future generations can learn from all this. I just pity the poor wives and children. Giving them moonshine for hungry tummies. Farming out the children. It is all just so, so awful.

  4. I alternated from laughing to nearly crying. I hope that one day you will publish a book so that future generations of your family will know their ancestors and that others might learn something about researching complicated families. I lost track a few times because I kept thinking about my own Father’s family. His family was not nearly as complicated but was mostly a mystery until the day he told me that his Father, the man I knew and loved as my Grandfather, was not his real father. His Mother had been married previously and he was the son of the first husband. It took nearly 20 more years for me to discover who the “real” father was, a Swedish immigrant. It took a few years more to find relatives (at Ancestry through DNA) and learn a bit more. Families can often be complicated but it has only been recently that we can follow tangled tales to the Truth through research which gets easier almost every year. Thank you for sharing your story!

  5. Thank you for sharing this moving family story. It’s a reminder that unless we were witnesses, we never truly know anyone’s story. Our ancestor’s foibles are best viewed through a lens filtered with compassion and grace.

    And, I needed to hear this story today, as I’m working on a branch of my own family that has very similar elements and almost a mirror cast of characters. It helps me process what I’m discovering and gives me renewed hope. You are a beautiful testament of the good that can come from a heartbreaking situation.

  6. “This picture appears to be the last family picture taken, in 1914, in Fowler, Indiana. Ollie looks anything but happy. Children are Margaret at left, Joe “Dode” behind her, Estel the oldest in the middle top, my father, William Sterling at right in the rear, and Minnie, the blonde child beside Ollie.”

    Margaret and Estel have fear in their eyes. There had to be some major problems that the adults couldn’t tackle properly for children of different ages to have that expression on their face.

    Margaret may have starved for gratefulness that never came, whenever she provided help, but isn’t it typical that enabling doesn’t produce the desired results? She may not have had the insight the understand the dynamics of her family relationships, on top of having her own issues.

  7. This must have been very difficult to write; assuredly cathartic, and I can picture you with emotion welling up at certain parts, as it did for me reading it. I was blessed with loving adoptive parents who likewise shielded me from the knowledge of my heritage until I was old enough to discover it for myself with the maturity necessary to process that knowledge. Now when I hear stories of both my birth parents, I feel sufficiently detached from that heritage, knowing and truly appreciating how so very different my upbringing was than what it could have been. That knowledge today only deepens the love I have for my adoptive parents, as I know it does you for your mother. God bless her.

  8. Some of your family problems need to be set against the larger history of the country. So many people, in particular children, were lost with the Spanish Flu. So many people died that records did not always keep up with the deaths. At the beginning of the epidemic the doctors did not really know what was happening which is reflected on death certificates. Those in charge of records may have also died so creating incomplete records made by untrained people. Families could not always afford tombstones for everyone. My family has three related people per tombstone, with sometimes wrong dates because the stones were put up years later with the last death recorded in stone. Survivors did not remember the exact year of the other deaths, but they included them on the stones anyway since they were buried in the same plot. World War I contributed to the confusion of that time.

    Prohibition in 1920, contributed to the hill people’s lack of income, or it made the income more risky. The drinkers were going to have their moonshine no matter what the laws. The drinkers also did strange things. Some children had fetal alcohol syndrome. I have noticed the family photos of moonshiners had nicer dressed families.

    Then in 1929, there was the Great Depression. Most people who lived through that seemed a bit warped later in some respect. My mother was a teenager, and it affected her all her life. She was from a farm family, so she always had food and a place to live, but mom always had to wear hand-me-downs from her older sister. When she died she had two big closets full of clothes and way too many shoes to compensate for her earlier lack. The relatives did flock around to be fed. Mom had a bit of a sour attitude toward her relatives years later, because she had suppers of cornbread and milk when the relatives who showed up unexpected for dinner got to eat the chicken she had help pick off the feathers. People did help their less fortunate relatives. It was the thing to do. Then came more confusion with World War II.

    That generation raised in the first half of the 20th Century really had it’s share of troubles, unlike my Baby Boom Era (I was born right after WWII) that had prosperity, but our own quirks in history like antibiotics and vaccines, racial protests, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, and the Viet Nam War. It is often hard to put oneself into historical settings, but it helps make better sense of people’s mind set.

    Your Aunt Margaret was very pretty, if a bit strange. Most people cannot remember exactly when things happened in their past unless it was a traumatic experience or they made a diary. At least Margaret tried to remember from her perspective. Beware of your relative’s stories! Her manipulative, drama queen attitude was not hers alone. I have seen my share of it. My dad told me it is best to ignore those people, and stay away from them if you find it necessary, and my dad was usually right. I am very sorry your dad was the way he was.

    Thank you for sharing your story and not covering up the details. Most people have black sheep in their families, and odd DNA matches. It is good you wrote about it and know you are not them. You have the freedom to be yourself.

    • We are not responsible for the behavior of our craziest relatives. Thank God for that!

      Paranoia is sometimes an early symptom of dementia. Who knows when the mental decline started and how it contributed to Margaret’s contradictory behavior? It’s also impossible for most of us to imagine what kind of baggage someone like Margaret would have had: she lived through this very difficult historical context, as you point out, on top of dealing with addiction in the family and probably all sorts of erratic behaviors to go along with it. She seems like she was trying to help by continuously giving money to relatives who couldn’t cope. She might have had a hard time coping herself…

      Anyone would have issues as a result, I think, and we all react differently.

  9. (Edited) Wow, Roberta–we’ve got ancestors who were apparently reading off the same script (well, different scripts, but the same film genre, “Trying to Survive in Impoverished Appalachia.” Too bad they weren’t really scripts–that the situation was real). Although all this sort of sounds and reads sort of like fiction, as some folks say, you can’t make this stuff up. And I admire all you’ve done to determine what was true in those family stories, and to work to gradually get all that information all straightened out and verified. I sort of wish I had an Aunt Margaret. Sort of–I know she must have been glad to have gotten out of all that dysfunction to the point she could, but it appears she didn’t consciously realize how much it had affected her. And, she found she couldn’t leave for good. It does seem like a big part of her was interested in telling the truth, but you know she had to have still felt the pain. And maybe without fully realizing it, she was determined to share the hurt with others including you! You were very wise to distance yourself from her when you realized what was going on.

    • Appalachia was very difficult for a number of reasons. It’s still difficult. I had absolutely no idea what my family had gone through before this letter arrived. I am so grateful to Virgie’s daughter for sending it. There is so much pain buried in that letter.

  10. Roberta, I am a distant kin of yours with family that called Tazewell home. Some are from Ky. Your family’s dad story breaks my heart, especially for the women & children. I always wondered why my family never talked about the past. Although I haven’t as much family history as you have gathered, I suspect there are secrets i really wouldn’t want to know.
    I find your blog about your family riveting. I am so sorry you had to pay for so many other’s mistakes.

  11. Thanks for sharing. And, I thought I had some strange stories in my family — an aunt who married the same guy three times, and then two other men, but never two at the same time, and a g2aunt who was raped by her bother-in-law and then gave the resulting kid to her brother and his wife to raise until she herself got married and then took the kid back. This latter story remained hidden in this family until a member of the present generation was told about it on a grandmother’s death bed. We’ve been using DNA evidence to try to piece things together, but we need a few more volunteers in certain lines to get the complete picture. For the record, this is also in Appalachia, but most of the family members led pretty conventional lives with only one spouse at a time and very few out-of-wedlock births. The two exceptions are a great uncle, who was a big ladies man and got a divorce, and g3uncle (a civil war vet) who was an alcoholic, got divorced, apparently had a second family across the river in West Virginia, and whose alcoholism was carried on by his son and grandson right down the line, which the grandson’s daughter detailed in three separate genealogy stories she wrote. It was my first introduction, years ago, to “warts and all” genealogy. It took a lot of courage for her to document how alcoholism had ruined her g2grandfather, her grandfather and her father, who somehow managed a successful career as dentist. I admired her for telling the story, and I admire you for telling your — much more complicated — story. God Bless!

  12. Pingback: William Sterling Estes’ Court Martial and Escape; 3 Wives and 4 Aliases – 52 Ancestors #217 | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  13. Hello, I’m still on a search for my dad’s family. My grandma’s name was Ethel Hinton. She lived in Chicago. My dad George was born November 19, 1944, exactly a year after your dad married someone named Ethel. Ethel had gotten with a man who raised my dad. But it was very clear that this man wasn’t my dad’s father he was fully black. They were both dark skinned people. My dad was a mixed kid black and white. His skin was more white with big curls. Grandma Ethel never married this man. Could it be because she was still legally married to someone else? Im saddened to say my grandma died when he was 2 or 3 and left him with the man who raised him, Grandpa Gus. My dad was always told that his real father was a white man with an Italian sounding last name. Could this all just be a coincidence?

    • Hi Jahmilya. I finally fount the Ethel Hinton married to my Dad through their divorce papers. They moved to Muncie, Indiana where they lived for a few years. I found Ethel later in newspapers there too when her daughter married. They had no children themselves. I hope you find more information about your Ethel. I was sad to discover that it’s not the same person. ☹️

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