A genealogical mystery -- who is the man in the photo?

... sort of, kind of, a Mothers' Day story

from Don Norris

Nobody ever told me about our family. I grew up in reasonable comfort in Bloomfield, New Jersey, the second (actually the third) son of Ruth and Douglas Norris, both from Florida.

All my life our family traveled by car in the summer to Georgia and Florida, to see Grandma and some zillion cousins.

It seems that my Mom was number six of ten kids, all of whom obviously enjoyed begetting ten more children, each. Why, I had a beautiful cousin just a year older than me -- but a generation younger.

In the thirties, our car was (I remember) a boxy flivver, big, bumpy, noisy, heavy, certainly not wind-swept. The motels we stopped at while driving to Florida were a little above shacks, and the roads we travelled on were two-lane, bumpy, ill-patched, full of detours -- this was the 1930s, remember. There were no interstate highways. We went from town to town, down narrow roads, through village after village.

Ma always had this rather ornate, colored photo in a large, golden frame with curved glass -- of a small baby boy, maybe two years old. But she never would tell us (me and my older brother) who that baby was. Some relative from Florida, we guessed.

Sixty years later, when I got interested in genealogy -- along with a cousin Elsie -- I came across a photo in Mom's desk drawer, a picture of three adults. One was obviously Ruthie, there was my grandmother -- and a strange handsomely dressed man, straight, tall, rugged. No one could identify this fellow -- none of the cousins, aunts, uncles, no one.

A few years later, I asked Aunt Gladys (my father's baby sister) who she thought that fellow in the snapshot might be. "That's our father," she said bruskly, obviously upset that I should have this photo.

"That's your father's father", she said. "His name was William Napoleon Norris, and he was the chief engineer of Jacksonville Traction company, which ran all the horse-drawn trolleys in 'J-ville'". It turns out that he was the engineer who electrified the trolley system, and made electricity available to the general public in J'ville.

"He was a drinker," Aunt Gladys said in her stern, teacher's voice. "He deserted us in 1923," she said, "and we don't have any idea where he went or where he is."

That means that William Napoleon Norris, chief engineer of Jacksonville Traction Company, was my grandfather. Funny, growing up, nobody ever talked about grandfathers. I know Mom's father was a farmer in Pensacola, but I had no idea who Dad's father was. He was, we discovered, William Napoleon Norris.

At 65 years old I began a search for WNN. I found his name in a Georgia record -- he had been employed by the railroad and worked at the West Point (GA) switching operation. Which was only a few scant miles from the young girls' school where Grandma Norris studied. Other than that, I found absolutely nothing on William Napoleon Norris. After a brief affair, he had married my grandma when she was 16 (he was 23), and they moved to Tampa. But nothing else.

No one in the family would talk about him, nor could cousin Elsie and I find nary a trace of where he went after abandoning his family in J'ville in 1923. My father and my aunt would not offer a word about him -- other than WNN had hired his 17-year-old son Douglas to be the night cashier at 'Jackson Traction'.

My dad, like his father, was smart and ambitious. The company was taken over by Stone and Webster of New York, then Dad rapidly climbed the ladder to become a secretary of that corporation. The only thing he told me about his father was that one day, as a boy, WNN took him fishing in a rowboat, and hooked onto a hot wire connected to the trolley line.

He then (my dad said) dipped the wire into the saltwater -- and electrocuted every fish around the boat. They floated to the surface and Dad's dad picked the best of the lot for supper.

In 1923 he abandoned his wife and two grown kids. He simply disappeared. Gladys had become a school teacher, and Douglas was climbing the ladder within Stone and Webster. He soon was transferred to New York City, then to Boston. He retired at 65 and died four years later. Mom lived at their home in Melrose to age 93.

Now, after some 20 years of searching, we at least know that WNN was my grandfather -- but that's all. Somebody said he went to Texas, but Texas had no such record. Nor have we found where WNN came from; we spectulate that his family, sometime in the past, came from England and was part of that great migration from New York to the south.

Meanwhile, about 1910, Ruthie (my mom) was growing up in Pensacola, involved with a theatre group while "seeing" a young man named William Herman Davenport, and at age 16, she and he ran away to Mobile where they were married by a Catholic Priest. Her father disowned her for this radical move, and the pair ended up in Jacksonville where Herman got a job as the assistant to the chief engineer, William Napoleon Norris.

Ruthie wanted a baby so badly, but for ten years nothing happened -- except that Herman began wandering, and Ruth got disgusted. They were living in an apartment house at that time -- the same home where Doug Norris, son of WNN, had a room.

In 1921 Ruthie finally got pregnant and had an adorable little boy, named Billy -- just what she wanted. Meanwhile Herman was drifting away, and Ruth sued for a divorce.

In 1923, she was reconciled with her father and took Billie on the train 350 miles west to Pensacola, to meet his grandfather. The two became almost inseparable, until one day that summer when Billy put a pecan shell in his mouth -- and choked. They rushed him to the hospital, but little Billy died from complications.

Everybody was devastated.

Ruthie returned to J'ville; in 1923 Herman Davenport had become a fireman, got drunk (we heard) and died while swimming off J'ville beach. Two years later, his boss's son, Doug Norris, and Ruthie Blum Davenport, were married
in New York City -- in the Little Church Around the Corner on 33rd Street.

Lorry (my wife) and I went there - to New York -- one Saturday, and were escorted to the chapel where Douglas and Ruth were married. He died in 1969, aged 69; she died in 1987 at age 93.

And so,the evidence says that the framed picture of a baby is that of "Little Billy" -- the son of William Herman Davenport and Ruth Blum. The mystery was about solved, except we can't trace WNN. He remains a mystery. But the little baby in the colored photo on the wall, all those years, turns out to be Ruthie's first baby, Billy Davenport.

Billy, had he grown up, would have been my oldest brother.

But the mystery is solved. Douglas Norris Sr. and his wife Ruth moved to Melrose in 1947, both boys went to Tufts University; Doug Jr (Dr. Norris) died in 2012, while the other son, at aged 83, is writing this story.

May 2, 2014

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