William Sterling Estes was my father. He was commonly called Bill, and sometimes Sterl, by family members. He was probably born in either 1902 or 1903, or maybe 1901, records vary, and he died, positively, in 1963. That’s one of the few positive things we know about him. His life was anything but ordinary, and he was missing for many years. And that’s just the beginning…
My father was a study in polar opposites. He was extremely intelligent, helping his step-son with physics in graduate school, yet did incredibly stupid things that landed him in a heap o’ trouble – and I’m not talking just about that Ilo incident where he married under a fictitious name and then went AWOL. There were more. Many more….
Moonshine and Rough Beginnings
My father’s issues began when he was young. This isn’t meant as overtly critical, but my father’s early years were anything but stable. He was born near the turn of the century in Claiborne County, Tennessee. That area, deep in Appalachia was both stunningly beautiful and equally as poverty stricken.
Land there, what was farmable, was already taken and the “next generation” had to find something else to do. But there was nothing else there, so many moved on west. In the case of my grandparents, they tried several avenues, one of which was moonshining.
Moonshining wasn’t anything unusual in the hills, nor among the original settlers. In fact making your own liquor had been a staple on every farm for hundreds of years in the US, until the law made it illegal over taxation. It was never a moral issue until Prohibition. Moonshining or bootlegging has been illegal for awhile, actually a long while, in one form or another, but in Appalachia, mostly everyone ignored that. Moonshining increased during Prohibition and has been a staple of that region ever since. My family shares stories of painting milk jugs white and having the kids deliver moonshine in milk jugs in the coal camps from their red wagon. The family survived and ate together, or didn’t. Everyone was expected to contribute. There wasn’t any other choice.
The Estes family in Halifax County, Virginia, some 4 generations earlier had been known for their fine brandies distilled from their orchards. The difference was, I’m guessing, is that they paid taxes, or they greased the right palm.
In any case, my grandfather, William George Estes was a moonshiner, a photographer and a farmer, among other things. A veritable Appalachian Renaissance man. He married my grandmother, Ollie Bolton, in September of 1892. In July of 1893, their first child, was born, and a year later, in August of 1893, that son, Samuel would pass away and was buried in the family cemetery in Estes Holler behind his grandfather, Lazarus Estes’, house.
Three months later, a second child was born, Estel, who lived. Two years later, another child whose name we don’t even know for sure, and in another 2 years, Robert, who would burn to death.
Life was rough. The 1900 census gives us a glimpse. William George Estes states that he was out of work for 9 months the previous year.
Sometime between 1900 and 1910, the family moved to Springdale. Arkansas where Ollie took care of the children and ran a boarding house and William George fished off the bridge down the street from the boarding house, and drank. By this time, they had several children, and it seemed there were always more on the way. In the 1910 census, Ollie has borne 8 children and only 5 were living.
This picture of Ollie and the children was taken in 1907. The child, Robert, the blond boy on the chair, would perish when their cabin burned, sometime before the 1910 census. Cousin George Estes, in the 1980s, showed me where that cabin stood and told me he planted a willow tree there in honor of the child. Estel, the oldest child, standing in the rear in this photo, age 13 in 1907, had been left in charge and tried to save Robert, who hid under the bed, to no avail. Estle did manage to get my father, standing in front, and Margaret, held by Ollie, out safely. That memory alone could scar a person for life. Robert too is probably buried in the family cemetery just a few feet away, but there is no marker.
By 1913, the family had moved to Fowler, Indiana and become tenant farmers. Ollie and William George’s marriage was coming unraveled too. It seems that Ollie’s young female cousin was visiting from Tennessee, and Ollie came home and caught William George and her cousin “in the act.” She grabbed either a bull whip or a horse whip and proceeded to use it on them, specifically on him, with the full intention of killing him. The family stories are that it took 5 adult men to restrain her long enough for him to escape. The family story, from the Crazy Aunts, of course, also says she was pregnant with twins which she subsequently had prematurely and died. If so, the Benton County, Indiana death records contain no record of this birth/death. They could have been too small, or not born alive.
Divorce followed, but according to Aunt Margaret’s letters which she wrote to my step-mother after my father’s death, Ollie went to Chicago, taking the two girls with her, and William George headed back for Tennessee, but no one wanted the two middle boys, my father and Joseph. Estel by this time, about 20, was old enough to make his own way. My father was about 12 and Joseph, about 10.
Joseph and my father hopped a train in Indiana and found their way back to Tennessee, and when they arrived at their grandparents house in Estes Holler, extremely hungry, dirty and threadbare, having walked a great distance, and with stories to tell…there was hell to pay. When William George Estes, their father, arrived sometime later, he was literally run out of Estes Holler by his father, Lazarus Estes, under threat of death, for what he had done both to Ollie and to those boys. William George crossed over the mountains and settled in Harlan County, Kentucky, known as bloody Harlan, where he very successfully moonshined for decades up in the roughest section of Black Mountain, the roughest area in Kentucky, near the coal camps. My Mom visited once with my father and refused to ever return.
Unfortunately, all of William George’s boys learned to drink, and none of them learned to drink in moderation. I was told that when there was no food to eat, the children were given liquor to drink, to make them feel better, or maybe, to make them go to sleep. I found that hard to believe…until I found the death certificate of a child from William George’s third marriage, William James, who died at the age of 2 years and 6 months, in 1935, and the coroner indicated that the child had died from “improper feeding.” I was sick the day I read that, physically ill, because I knew all the things I had heard about my father’s young life and were too horrible to believe, were probably true.
The reason I mention this at all is because while my father certainly had a huge number of issues, perhaps not all of them were entirely his fault. He was probably an alcoholic while yet still a child. Alcohol both ruled and ruined his life, and certainly affected the lives of all the people around him, including, and maybe especially those who loved him. Alcohol certainly affected the lives of his brothers the same way, and his sisters, well, they became the Crazy Aunts.
William Sterling Estes Joins the Military
My father joined the military in 1917 during WWI, “adjusting” his birthdate to be 1898 instead of 1901, 1902 or 1903. So did his even younger brother Joseph, nicknamed “Dode,” after his grandfather, Joseph “Dode” Bolton. The military was most likely a better option for my father than any of the alternatives.
Sometime about this time, my father met a young gal in Dunkirk, Indiana, named Virgie. My father was extremely handsome, and he certainly understood how to win a young girl’s heart. Look at this picture. He brought Virgie a kitten (see his shoulder) and two baby ducks.
These photos were sent to me after her death in 1989 by her daughter, along with the flag from my father’s coffin.
Now the kitten is on her lap. I wonder who took the photos.
This photo is just heart-wrenching to me. I suspect this is when he married Ilo or maybe my sister’s mother, or at least during that timeframe.
Why did Virgie still have these photos, some 70 year later? Because, she did eventually marry my father, in 1961, some 44 years after these pictures were taken. She was his last wife. They both claimed they were soulmates, and indeed, perhaps they were. She was the only woman I ever met that had something good to say about my father. In fact, she never said one bad thing about him. She was a truly lovely lady.
As a child, I had no concept of my father’s constant woman problems, the betrayal of trust, his problem drinking, or the fact that he had “another family.” I didn’t know I had a brother, Dave, who was only 5 months older than I was. My mother, who was terribly embarrassed about the situation, managed to hide that from me, as did the “other woman,” from her child too.
My Father’s Daughter
I never knew my father as an adult. I knew him as a child and I loved him, wholly and completely, in my childish way. My father would come and visit and I would absolutely adore him, much to my mother’s chagrin. It must have been tough from her perspective. She did all the work and he got all the glory for simply showing up. I remember once when he bought me a rocking chair, which I still have to this day, at Krogers. I was maybe 4 or 5 and it was for my birthday or maybe Christmas. Mother was so angry with him, because that is what she was going to get me and he “scooped” her.
I remember another time too when she was furious with him. I understood that she was angry, very angry, and that it wasn’t directed at me, but I didn’t know why. The phone rang, very late at night. She got me up and we went for a drive. I was excited as this was a great adventure in my pajamas. When we got “there,” my Dad was there, which made me very happy. I got to sit on his lap for a few minutes, but then we had to leave, taking his little dog, Timmy, with us, who I thought was my dog. Turns out, Dave thought Timmy was his dog too, and we both had photos of us with Timmy. Here I am in that coveted rocking chair holding Timmy.
Years later, I asked Mom about this very foggy recollection. Turns out, “there” was the jail in the next county. Why? Because he has been arrested for drunk driving. That’s what we called it then, no politically correct terms like “impaired operation of a motor vehicle.” I asked Mom why she went at all and she said, in a semi-growl, “for the dog.” Yep, she would have done that and she would have been furious with him both for having to go and retrieve the dog that wasn’t even hers, and for doing what he did….again.
My father’s death in 1963 in an automobile accident, like every other event in his life, was filled with contradictions. My step-mother told me he was on the way to the preacher’s house to pick him up to go fishing, stone cold sober. Her daughter told me that my father had been seen at the park earlier in the day, intoxicated. Regardless, he reportedly had an angina attack while driving, missed the brake, stomping instead on the gas, and hit a telephone pole head on.
As an adult, after talking to my mother and his part-time employer at the time, which happened to be the funeral home, I wonder if he committed suicide. On Friday, he backed the hearse into the garage, which in that small town doubled as an ambulance (isn’t that creepy – imaging waking up in the hearse and not knowing if you are dead or alive), and telling the funeral director that he would need it over the weekend. And indeed, he did. My father rode in it as an ambulance to the hospital on Sunday and a few days later rode in it as a hearse to the cemetery.
As I got older, everything I knew about my father seemed to be contradicted by something or someone else. I wanted to love the man, but in some ways, he didn’t seem to be very nice – rather unlovable. I finally came to the conclusion that while my adult woman self would not like him very much at all, it was just fine for my young child self to continue to love him. My mother once said to me in a fit of unbridled honesty that the best thing my father probably ever did for me was to die when I was young before I painfully discovered his betrayals personally. She managed to shield me from most of his drinking.
If I couldn’t know him personally, I wanted to know of him, to understand him. I was insatiably curious about him. He seemed so mysterious. After all, I carried part of him in me. What was that part and what made my Dad tick, aside from alcohol? Sadly, I came to discover that alcohol and the actions he took under its influence truly did rule his life.
I started creating a timeline trying to make sense of my father’s life. There were so many disjoint pieces. I wrote for his military records, but most of them were destroyed in a fire in the St. Louis records center in 1973. The military helped reassemble as much as possible from other sources.
1917 – In a letter from the VA it says that he served in the Army from Aug. 24, 1917 until honorably discharged on May 19, 1919. His last rank was private. He was born Oct. 1, 1898 and died on Aug. 27 1963. He enlisted May 14, 1917 at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, 18 years 24 days of age, born in Tazewell, Tennessee. Subsequent service – enlisted May 20, 1919.
I have a copy of this discharge, Sergeant first class, honorably discharged on May 19, 1919 at Camp Custer, Michigan. His second discharge was honorable as well, even given his time spent in the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, which really surprised me.
1919, May 20 – My father reenlisted in the Army at Camp Custer.
November 1919 – AWOL from the Army.
December 1919 – Married Ilo Bailey in Battle Creek, Michigan, under the name of Don Carlos. Aunt Margaret remembered her name as Laila LaFountaine and said that “she hooked him to the plow and drove him like a horse.”
February 1920 – Son Lee born, eventually to be called Lee Devine, in Battle Creek to Ilo.
April 1920 – Arrested for being AWOL – sent to Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks in Kansas.
May 1920 – My sister, Edna born, also in Battle Creek, Michigan, to Martha Dodderer.
November 28, 1921 – Honorably discharged from the military at Fort Leavenworth.
December 12, 1921 – Married Edna’s mother in Battle Creek, Michigan.
1924 – Martha Estes (Edna’s mother) was paying an attorney for her divorce. His name was Joseph Hooper and he lived in Battle Creek. The divorce appears to have been final Feb. 26, 1924. Edna stated in a 1960 letter than before 1950, no one had heard from him in 29 years. We don’t know where William Sterling Estes was in 1924.
1927 – William Sterling Estes enlisted in the military January 8, 1927 at Fort Sheridan in Chicago. He was AWOL on May 23, 1927.
1924-1930 – William Sterling Estes “married” again during this time, probably in southwestern Michigan, possibly Benton Harbor, having a daughter named Violet, about whom very little is known. Violet married a Golliday or Galliday. Violet later married a Blevins and joined a religious commune in the Ozark Mountains in or near Licking, Missouri. Given this and some additional information provided by my sister Edna, who knew Violet, I decided not to pursue this relationship. Violet was still living in the 1980s, to the best of my knowledge.
The Crazy Aunts told me that Violet’s mother may have been underage, because there was a statutory rape allegation, charge or conviction in western Michigan, possibly in the Benton Harbor area, having to do with the age of the pregnant female. Michigan prison records held in the State Archives don’t reveal any William Estes having been a prisoner during this timeframe.
Apparently, the Crazy Aunts weren’t the only ones who were suspicious, because Ellen, the “other woman” to whom my father was married in the 1950s wrote a letter to the warden at Jackson State Prison in Michigan inquiring about whether or not my father could have been a prisoner there under an alias.
A letter from the warden of Jackson State Prison to Ellen on Feb. 21, 1957 states that inmate number #24884, Paul LeMarr, alias William Estes, sentenced March 2, 1929 to 10-15 years for statutory rape, was discharged on March 20, 1942. He was sentenced in Benton Harbor, Michigan and he was age 29 in 1929. The warden believed that from photos submitted by Ellen that Paul LaMarr could have been William Sterling Estes.
1937 – William Sterling Estes filed for his social security card in Chicago, Illinois. He is working at Printers Finishing Company and gives his birth date as Oct. 1, 1902, which I believe to be correct. The signature is my father’s.
This proves that my father is not Paul LeMarr, because Paul LeMarr was not released from prison until 1942. Was Paul LeMarr using William Estes as an alias? Finally, something in Dad’s favor! But where did that statutory rape rumor come from? Was it Violet’s mother and did the charge “go away” because he married her?
So if he wasn’t in prison in Michigan, where was he from 1927 to 1937?
The Crazy Aunts said he was in prison or jail in Michigan at one time, and that one of them visited him there. But then again, they are the Crazy Aunts and he could have been in “jail” for a few days for who knows what.
There is a rumor about him being in prison in Illinois (Joliet) based on a statement he made to my mother about where he had made someone’s acquaintance. On the way to Florida in the early 1950s, he stopped at the Georgia prison and visited with the prison guards, the very men who had been his guards. He made friends with everyone everyplace he went and the man did not know a stranger. I suspect he could have sold ice cubes to Eskimos.
It’s hard to believe that after being married 3 or 4 times in less than 10 years that he became a monk for the next decade. Maybe he wasn’t as good at getting divorced as he was at getting married. He had to be someplace doing something. And I’m betting that there may be children out there someplace lurking that were conceived between the 1920s when Edna, Lee and Violet were born, and the 1950s when Dave and I were born. I doubt that he discovered how to prevent pregnancy in the late 1920s and suddenly forgot in the 1950s.
The next hint we have about William Sterling Estes is about 1938.
In March 2006, I visited with the daughter of Estel Estes. My cousin said that my father came to stay with their family in Fleming, Kentucky in 1938 or 1939. She was a little girl at the time. They went for walks together and they found a baby duck without a mother, which they rescued and raised. She said that the duck was old when it finally died. My father stayed with their family for a month or 6 weeks. She said that there was talk that he had gotten out of prison. There was diphtheria wherever he had been.
1938, Oct. 31 – Discharged from Service – “Other than honorable.” This is maddeningly brief. Is this the discharge that matches up with the enlistment from 1927? This makes no sense. This also doesn’t tell us where he is, just that this action occurred.
The Unbelievable Story – 2 for 1
Now, let me tell you an unbelievable story. This is one of two, actually, that kind of fit together like two insane puzzle pieces, and you’ll see why I was convinced that my Crazy Aunts were indeed, crazy. As time went on, it wasn’t just the Crazy Aunts though that told this story, but my step-mother and others who lived in Claiborne County at the time this was happening.
I remember, when I was a child, there was an old doctor who had his Norman Rockwellish office in the front part of his home down the street from where we lived in Indiana. I went there one time when I was older, maybe a teen, for something, when the old gentleman said that he remembered my father and that my father was a doctor too. I told him that I was sure he had the wrong man, and he repeated his name and told me, no, that he was not mistaken, that he remembered me, and that my father was indeed a doctor. He dug around in a drawer, pulled out my father’s file, and showed me where it said he was a doctor.
Being raised in a time when one did not contradict your elders, at least not ones that weren’t your mother, I didn’t say anything, but I was sure this man was wrong. However, I never forgot the story. It always nagged at me, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right or that there was something that I didn’t know.
I went to visit my step-mother from the time I was a child. I first went to visit my Dad and Virgie, my step-Mom, when I was young, before Dad passed away. I loved to visit. Virgie’s elderly mother lived there too, Grandma, whom I dearly loved. Grandma would tell me how smart my Dad was. I found this kind of odd. He worked on furnaces and had his own furnace shop at that time in Dunkirk, Indiana. She said not to let that fool me, that he had once been a great man. Oh, the rantings of an old woman. I loved her just the same. We contented ourselves looking at ViewMaster reels and its predecessor, the stereoscope. My favorite was Niagara Falls. Grandma would tell me all about the images while I looked and they came to life. I loved spending time with Grandma.
After my father and Grandma were both gone, I visited Virgie from time to time until her death. They were always such pleasant visits. She told me wonderful stories about the loving man she knew as her husband. Yes, I mean my father.
Before his death, he hid love letters and notes around the house for her to find later. I’m sure he knew his time was limited. My mother told me that based on his health, she thought he might have had cancer. I’m more suspicious of cirrhosis of the liver, but regardless, he was not a healthy man. One time, Virgie shared with me a note she had just found stuck behind a picture frame. It was so sweet and personal and it was nice to know him in this lovely way. She also kept all of his letters he wrote to her when he was in the service. Her daughter sent those to me after Virgie’s death. Even though I felt like I was intruding into a personal vignette, I did read them. They were both sorrowful and beautiful, especially from my perspective, looking backwards in time and knowing what happened.
Virgie told me that my father understood physics and helped her son when he was studying for his PhD. I questioned this, and she said that she didn’t know how he had come upon that knowledge, but that he had worked at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and that at some time, in some way, he was a doctor. Truthfully, I found all of this quite unbelievable. I knew that Virgie was not one of the Crazy Aunts, and that she would never tell me something she didn’t believe. She told me that he had done those things before he “went into the hospital.” What she didn’t add was that the hospital stay was the VA hospital to “dry out.”
Apparently, he “dried out” several times, but never was able to stay dry, although he desperately wanted to. It’s too bad that Alcoholics Anonymous did not exist then. He might have stood a fighting chance. I discounted all of this, figuring that most of it was fanciful stories he had made up – but that didn’t explain how he could ever help a college student studying for an advanced degree that included physics.
When I started my genealogy search, I contacted people in Claiborne County, Tennessee. All I started with was the name of a town, from my mother, Tazewell. I called the telephone operator and told her to connect me to any Estes family there – and she did. I eventually made my way from person to person to the family historian and my relatives. They told me stories about my father and grandparents. They knew them. Of course, all of those old people are gone now.
I went to visit and met many of these lovely people who opened their hearts, shared their photos albums and family stories with me. They told me that my father was a doctor and he treated people locally, for years. In fact, people would find out when he was coming home and line up to see him. He was a favorite. And he performed surgery. Surgery? More than one person told me this. They also told me that he practiced at the VA hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee until a patient bit him and he hit the patient.
They told me that at one time, he worked at Oak Ridge, and that he worked on ‘the bomb,” and that he was never “right” after that. His drinking increased. At that time, he was living in Claiborne County and these people knew him. He was their neighbor. These were family members who had known him their entire life. They were not all making this up – but where was the kernel of truth in these seemingly conflicting, albeit very interesting, stories?
How could he have been a doctor, as in medical doctor, and also a physicist? Furthermore, he had no more than a high school education to the best of my knowledge, if that, except that we really don’t know what he did or where he was for that 10 year period. Was he in the military that entire time doing something “special’ that we don’t know about? Those records for that time are entirely missing.
He could have learned about medicine while serving in a hospital someplace, but I don’t think you can learn physics that way. Physics is extremely difficult under the very best of circumstances.
The requirement for a doctor to practice, legitimately, in Tennessee at that time are foggy, but in general, by 1930, nearly all medical schools required a liberal arts degree for admission and provided a 3- to 4-year graded curriculum in medicine and surgery. Many states also required candidates who wanted to get their medical license to complete a 1-year internship in a hospital setting in addition to holding a degree from a recognized medical school. That presumes that one is doing things legally and by the book. Of course, in Appalachia, healers had been treating their families and those of their neighbors for decades, and local neighborhood healers were probably trusted much more closely that “outsiders.” Joseph, my father’s brother, was also a practitioner, a family herbal healer. Death certificates during that time in Claiborne County are rife with comments like “refused to go to the hospital because did not want to split up the family” and many included reports of people refusing to see a doctor.
My brother, Dave, told me that he thought William Sterling was arrested for performing illegal abortions in or near Chicago in the 1950s or 1960s.
There is obviously some truth in here someplace, because there were too many witnesses….but where…and what was that truth? Back to the timeline.
Many Wives – Too Many
1944 – I reached out to the Tennessee State Archives who provided me with information that William Sterling Estes began working for the Eastern State Mental Hospital on Dec. 29, 1944 and that he was dismissed March 12, 1945. He was an attendant. His legal voting residence was Claiborne Co., Tn. but he lived in Harlan Ky., while he worked at the State Hospital. He was married, no wife’s name given, but he had relatives in state service – Dortha Estes also at Eastern State.
They could provide me no information about Oak Ridge or the VA Hospital.
1940s – Per Aunt Margaret’s (his sister) letter to Virgie, William Sterling was married to a woman in Oak Ridge, Tn., although she knew of no children by her. Margaret also states that he got in trouble in the 1940s by “taking a girl over the state line,” perhaps to Kentucky, and spent some time in jail, but Ethel was apparently faithfully waiting for him. Who was Ethel?
Late 1940s – The next we know of William Sterling was in the (possibly) late1940s when he was married to a woman named Ethel and living with his aunt, Cornie Epperson in Claiborne County, working at Oak Ridge Tennessee, possibly in a hospital there. We know of no children from this marriage. Cornie’s daughter says he was a doctor in the VA hospital. Aunt Dorothy says he operated on her foot. While this was reported as late 1940s, it sounds to me like it may have occurred before 1945.
1945 – March 15 – William Sterling Estes, now about age 42 or 43, married a 17 year old young female in Walker County, Georgia. Note that this is only 3 days after his dismissal from Eastern State Mental Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee, assuming that he was actually present in Knoxville at the time he was dismissed. He could have been dismissed for not showing up at work. Regardless, the Georgia courtship seems very abbreviated.
I am not including the name of the gal he married in Walker County, because I believe she is still living. He gives his age as 34, born Oct. 1, 1911 and residence as Chicago. Shortly after this marriage, her father filed papers against him for bigamy, giving his other wife’s name as Dorothy Kilpatrick. I surely wonder how her father made that discovery. Did Dorothy show up? Maybe right after the wedding, shouting, “I object!”
1945 – 1948 – In the Superior Court of Walker Co. Georgia on June 15, 1945, three months to the day after his marriage, William Sterling Estes was convicted of bigamy and sentenced to 5 years in prison. According to prison records, he was discharged Dec. 13, 1948. His wife on arrival at the prison was listed as Dorothy Estes, also listed as Dorothy Kilpatrick in court papers, Trailer Camp, NW 5th St., Richmond, Indiana. He was in the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville, Georgia. The specific court records no longer exist, nor do the prison records.
A few years ago, I spoke to the Georgia wife. She did not have any children by William Sterling and said the marriage was annulled. She did marry and have one child, about 5 years later. I verified this child’s age and he was not born at a time when he could have been my father’s child.
So what happened to Dorothy? And Ethel? And the young gal he “took over the state line.” Or was that story really the bigamous marriage in Georgia?
Back to Chicago
1949 – Apparently, after William Sterling was released from prison in Georgia, he returned to Chicago where his mother lived. He lost no time marrying again, this time to an Ellen in Cook. Co., Illinois on Feb. 19, 1949. This must be some kind of record. An entire courtship and marriage in less than 2 months. Quick courtships seemed to be his style. Apparently Dorothy divorced him while he was in prison? But then again….um….maybe not.
1950 – William Sterling Estes finds my sister, Edna, in Michigan after a hiatus of almost 30 years. Edna’s mother has passed away and Edna was none too pleased with her prodigal father.
1952 – His delayed birth certificate issued in Tennessee gives his address as 2210 Broadway, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The “Other Woman’
1955 – Both my brother David and I were born within 5 months of each other, to different wives. No, my father was not Mormon.
Mother told me years later that he filed for divorce from Ellen in 1955, in Florida, but somehow the waiting period got “messed up,” as in one day short. Therefore the divorce didn’t happen, but apparently he thought it had. My reaction to this? “Likely story.”
I checked the Florida divorce index and there is nothing for a William, William Sterling or any Estes male involving a woman named Ellen. That’s assuming that he used his correct name to get divorced. I did verify the name on his marriage license to Ellen to be sure it was correct.
1956, April 3 – Mom wrote my sister, Edna a letter that includes information about my father. She says “Bill is working very hard right now and when spring comes his business starts to be pretty heavy. He wasn’t too well this winter but we hope he will be better when the weather gets nice. He was out working through in spite of the way he felt.”
The photo below, I believe, is the only photo of me with my father, taken in 1956. I have no idea who the other child in the photo, beside my father, is. Makes me wonder…
1956 – November 3. My father is a passenger in a head on car accident that nearly kills him. He flies through the windshield. This is before the days of seatbelts or safety tempered glass. I still vividly remember the scar on his forehead and the skin graft they did from his leg to his face and head. This car accident was his undoing in more than one way though. You see, it’s how he got caught with 2 wives, in the worst possible soap opera scenario.
Mom actually heard the sirens that day. She remembers saying something like “I hope that’s not Bill.” But it was. Sometime later, the police came and took us to the hospital. My father was not expected to live. He had lost a great deal of blood and was badly injured.
At the hospital, employees had dug through his billfold and other personal information to figure out who to contact. He was not conscious.
Mother and I were sitting by his bedside. I remember none of this of course.
A few hours later, another woman, also with a baby walks into the room, looking for her husband. Mother motioned to the next bed, but the woman came back and said no, that the man in this bed, my father, was her husband.
Both women stared at each other, and their babies, incredulously, as the awful truth slowly sunk in, and then they began to talk, as he lay comatose. He’s a very lucky man indeed, that they simply did not finish him off. I think they wanted him to regain consciousness so they could beat him senseless. Needless to say, they were both furious.
Yes, they were both his wives. Ellen lived in Chicago (or Fort Wayne) at that time. My father traveled selling and arranging installations of industrial furnaces and he literally had a wife at both ends of the track, so to speak. Can you imagine the stories the doctors and nurses had to tell when they went home that day. “You are not going to believe this…..” My mother couldn’t believe it either, and neither could Ellen.
There is another family story that has something to do with my father, my (Brethren) grandfather and a baseball bat…but I never did get that entire story. I got the general drift though and I’m guessing it might have happened about this time.
Above, my father outside one of the Holland Furnace company offices, from my mother’s photos. Below, my father outside the Holland Furnace company facility from Ellen’s photos.
My mother wasn’t as forgiving as Ellen who stayed married to him…at least for awhile.
1960, Oct. 3 – A letter from the Cook Co., Illinois Adult Probation Dept. to my sister saying that William Estes is under the supervision of that office and his whereabouts are no longer known to them. Unless they are able to locate him, a warrant will be issued for his arrest for probation violation. William D. Meyering is the person who wrote the letter and he is the chief probation officer.
Edna wrote a letter to the Cook Co. Adult Probation Department, replying to their letter of inquiry. She said she had not had contact with him for 4 years and had not seen him in 6. She says in 1956 he was with my mother and working for Holland Furnace Co. She said she did not believe he would come to her house because she did not know him well, had only seen him about 10 times in her life, and all in the past 10 years. Before then it had been 29 years since anyone had heard from him. Doing the math, this means that she corresponded with him from 1950-1956 to some degree, and before that it had been 1921, the year she was born. She asked why he was on probation, but did not receive a reply.
Mother said that about this time, Bill was working in Wisconsin, near Chicago. He showed up in Indiana with a small station wagon that was brand new, an electric skillet, a toaster, clothes and toys. The police arrested him for something to do with fraud. The title for the car he traded was not clear, or something to that effect. She said he served several months in the Chicago jail, which ironically would be the same Cook Co. jail where I installed inmate tracking software some 20 years later.
David thought he might have been sent to jail for performing illegal abortions in Wisconsin.
1960 – There is a dated photo of Bill sitting in the living room at Ellen’s house in Fort Wayne. David remembers him living with them in Fort Wayne. The city directory confirms that as well.
1960-1962 – This is the timeframe when Mom and I went to pick Timmy up from the jail. My mother did not bail him out, much to his dismay, but took Timmy and left. Mom said that when he got out of jail, the time we went to get Timmy, that he came by the house, and then went to Virgie’s in Dunkirk, and was unhappy that no one had come to see him.
Mom said that he spent time in jail in Terre Haute, Indiana, at some time, for repeated drunk driving offences. I am unclear about when that might have been, but I got the idea it was when she knew him and perhaps after she was no longer romantically involved with him.
Married for the Last Time
1961, April 24 – William Sterling Estes married Virgie, his childhood sweetheart, in Rome, Georgia under the name William S. Este’ (no final s). I would think that given what happened to him previously in Georgia when he was married to two women, he would have avoided Georgia entirely and would have been as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers just being in the state. Can you believe he did this again, and in Georgia no less? He was not divorced from Ellen.
According to mother, she is the one who told Virgie that he was not legally divorced from Ellen so Virgie and my father had to go to Florida and “take care of it.”
Virgie’s daughter says he worked in a heating place in Fort Wayne for about a year before they married. He was likely living with Ellen during this time, unbeknownst to Virgie. This man could never pull this off today in the age of cell phones, texting, e-mail and FaceBook.
Despite his “misrepresentation” of things, Virgie loved him dearly. Apparently, among other things, he told Virgie that my mother was his sister. My Mom was hopping mad about that one. Virgie wrote to me after his death “that no matter what people say, there is a lot that goes into human behavior and your father is not ALL bad.”
1961 – There is an envelope from Jopling, Darby and Duncan, Attorneys at Law, People’s Hardware Building, Lake City, (Columbia County) Florida dated October 17, 1961 addressed to William S. Estes at 501 Hickory St., Dunkirk, Indiana. This may have to do with the divorce from Ellen that somehow went awry. Someone said that the lawyers filed it a day late.
This is the last known picture of William Sterling Estes, with Virgie, obviously at Christmas time, in the early 1960s. I would guess this is Christmas 1961 or 1962.
1963, Aug. 27 – William Sterling Estes died. From funeral home information, it says in WWI he was hit ?? in a??. Looks like he was hit in the arm with something. It also says that he had a ruptured right col??. Right side of page is cut off.
His obituary says he is a member of the Ralph Burgess post 227 of the American Legion “here”, the Williamson-Smiley Post 401 of Redkey, and the DAV post in Portland.
After my step-mother died, her daughter sent me items related to my father. In fact, one day, I went to the mailbox to discover the flag from my father’s coffin stuffed in the back of the mailbox in one of those heavy Tyvek mailing envelopes. Thankfully, the envelope held.
Among other things she sent me, unfortunately, attempting to reuse the same envelope some 30 years later, was a condolence card from the White House, to Virgie, “signed” by President Kennedy and postmarked Sept. 10, 1963, just a few weeks before Kennedy’s own untimely death.
My Favorite Memories
Although I don’t have a lot of memories of my father, I do have some and a few that stand out.
There are a couple things that have struck me over the years. Most all of the photos I have ever seen of him show him in either a suit or a dress shirt. There is maybe one or two in a t-shirt and jacket. He did not talk, act or look like a “jailbird,” in any way. He always looked and acted professional and sophisticated, from my perspective and that of many others as well. He either was as he appeared, or he was a supreme con artist – or maybe both.
He loved to fish. Dave and I both share memories of fishing with him. Here he is with his can of worms and his ever-present coffee cup. Wherever he was in his lifetime, he found a place to fish. He was drawn to it like a moth to a flame.
And speaking of coffee, Dad started me drinking coffee. Actually, today they would be called lattes because they consisted mostly of milk and sugar with a little coffee added in. I loved them then and still do.
My Dad also rescued critters, animals in need. Dogs, cats, ducks and even a raccoon. The mother raccoon got killed. He scooped the baby up and rescued it off of the road. It traveled with him for a long time, but I don’t know what ever happened to said raccoon. I believe Timmy was a rescue of some kind too.
You’re going to laugh when I tell you this, but he loved kids. I’m not sure he loved the responsibility that went along with them, but he did love them, and I don’t just mean creating them. Dave and I both have very good memories with him.
I remember going to the VFW post with Virgie and my Dad and he used to let me pull the arm of the slot machine. I thought watching the spinning dials was great fun, and if I ever won anything, I got to keep it. I was a very rich 5 or 6 year old with a jarfull of pennies! My mother was appalled, both about the slots and the coffee drinking!
I remember one Easter when I was maybe 2 or 3 that Mom and Dad hid a little red wagon behind the couch. I was ecstatic, and I found a purple easter egg too. I’ve always loved purple and that egg was so richly colored.
And I remember when Dad brought me a small handmade stuffed doll we named Sleepy because her eyes were simply stitches and she appeared to be asleep all of the time. She was maybe 6 inches long, and we made a bed for her out of a tomato crate that held 3 tomatoes and we made her a blanket for her bed that fit her perfectly. I had Sleepy until I was an adult when she disintegrated.
I remember when Dad took me to my first Indian Powwow. I was about 5. Powwows were illegal then, and mother was utterly furious that he had taken me to something illegal. I, on the other hand, loved it. They had braided my hair. I had danced. For the first time, I felt like I belonged someplace. They gave me a beautiful beaded belt and braid ties. He bought me a fringed leather jacket. But he did more than that, far more than he knew or anyone could have guessed. He introduced me to my people, to my heritage, to a people and heritage I take great pride in. He introduced me to my future, that day, at the illegal powwow, and planted a seed that blossoms today. Thank you Dad.
And then, there is my final memory, and it’s not directly of Dad. Virgie told me that as he lay dieing in the hospital, that gave her a message for me. First, he asked her to be sure I graduated…although I’m not sure from what, although I expect he meant college. Then he told her to tell me that I’m smart and I can do absolutely anything I want to do. His words would be echoed, almost word for word, a decade later from my step-father, almost like an arrow shot through time.
Neither of those men, I’m sure, had any idea of the power or the inspiration of those words, or the comfort they would bring me. My faith in difficult times, in the face of a fearful future was rooted, in part, in the knowledge that I knew they both had total confidence in me, even if I didn’t, that they loved me to the depth of their souls, and neither of them would ever steer me wrong.
Just because our family members can’t overcome their personal demons doesn’t mean they don’t love us.
You might suspect that with all of this chronic uncertainly swirling around in my father’s life that I had some doubt that any or all of his children were actually his, including me. I desperately, and I do mean desperately, wanted his DNA. Initially, I was seeking his Yline, but then I realized he had Ollie’s mtDNA and now of course, I’d love to have his autosomal.
I discovered hairs under his hatband and I attempted to have DNA extracted from them, as well as from an envelope mailed in the 1960s from my grandfather to my father. No luck with any of those, and we tried three times. You can read all about that in the article, “Digging Up Dad, Exhumation and Forensic Testing Alternatives.” And for the record, no, I didn’t. I do, however, still have a couple of hairs and someday when the technology has improved, I’d still love to have his DNA. Maybe by then, I can do a full genome sequence.
Fortunately, I was able to go back upstream a couple of generations and find one male Estes descended from Lazarus Estes, my father’s grandfather, left to test. This gave me the Yline, and it did match the known Estes line, which of course, disproved my brother Dave’s descent from my father. The grown up me thinks that it’s somehow fitting that the ultimate scammer, in terms of women and drama, got scammed himself.
I upgraded that same cousin’s DNA to autosomal when that test became available, and thankfully, I match him. I heaved a huge sigh of relief that day, let me tell you.
Fortunately, several cousins were willing to test, along with my sister’s granddaughter, so we’ve proven the rest of the relationships, at least those available to us. And because my mother tested before she passed over, I in essence have half of my father’s autosomal DNA by subtracting my mother’s half from mine. Not the same, granted, but certainly not bad for a guy who has been dead now for more than half a century.
I think it’s possible that people are still living who were involved with or knew William Sterling Estes. For example, there may be someone out there who knows something about Ethel, last name unknown, but probably Estes at one time, or Dorothy Kilpatrick Estes – the two women he was involved with in the 1940s and probably married to in Tennessee…or maybe Indiana.
I suspect that there may be more wives in the 1930s. I suspect even more strongly that there may be more children. It find it hard to believe that he [supposedly] fathered 3 children in the 1920s, 2 in the 1950s and none inbetween. For all I know, he may have had several more families. He’d certainly get married in the blink of an eye. His haunt seemed to be from Michigan to Florida, but my mother met him on a train from Philadelphia to Chicago.
I nearly had a coronary writing this article when I found on Ancestry that someone had attached a wife and several children to him in Harlan County, KY in the 1920s and 1930s. I don’t think it’s him, mostly because if it was, the Crazy Aunts and the rest of the family would have known about a wife, Addie, and a half dozen kids in that vicinity. And truthfully, I can’t imagine him being with one woman for more than a decade. It didn’t seem to be his style. Plus I know he was in Chicago in 1937, but still…he was a slippery guy. I’ve sent the woman who owns the tree a note asking how she knows that Addie was married to William Sterling Estes….just in case. She hasn’t answered, and I don’t expect she will. I figure she just attached Addie to the closest William Estes and my grandfather, William George Estes, was living nearby and had a son, William Sterling, of about the right age.
If you can fill in any blanks, please let me know. I hope we can complete the missing chapters to his story, one way or another, or at least add some puzzle pieces. I’ve love to figure out where he was for a decade.
And yes, I’m still waiting for that DNA match that one day, I just know is going to happen!