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Facing reality: Who was William Napoleon Norris?

... Hollywood couldn't write a better script ...

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.
Why, I had a beautiful cousin just a year older than me --
but a generation ahead.

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 four 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 brusquely, obviously upset that
I should have this photo. "That's your father's father." 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 guy 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 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) operation. Which
was only a few scant miles from the young girls' school
where Grandma Norris (16 years old) lived and studied.
Other than that, I found absolutely nothing on William
Napoleon Norris -- 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 water -- 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. 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 speculate that
his family, sometime in the past, came from England and
was part of that great migration from New York to the
south.

Meanwhile Ruthie was working in school in Pensacola, and
was visited by a young man named William Davenport. He
and Ruthie, then 16, ran away to Mobile and got married in
a Catholic Church. The picture on the wall was Little Bill,
son of William and Ruth Davenport. But nobody would let
on that Ruth and Davenport had been married -- in a
Catholic church, no less -- and she had had a baby in
1921.

Ruthie had always been close to her father, Frederick Blum.
He adored her -- the sixth of his ten kids. He wrote to her
in J'ville in 1922 to come home, and when Ruthie found her
husband carousing, she ditched him and took the next
train to Pensacola. Grandpa Blum was ecstatic, especially
with his new grandson, Billie. One day, when he and his
grandson were out in the pecan orchard, Billie swallowed a
pecan husk. He choked, was rushed to the hospital, where
he died.

Everybody was devastated.

Ruthie returned to J'ville, and soon, in 1923. Willie
Davenport had become a fireman, got drunk 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 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 Willie Davenport and
Ruth Davenport Norris. Mystery 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 by Ruthie's
first baby, Billy Davenport.
But the question that remains unanswered is, who was little
Billie's father? Was it a carousing Will Davenport, who, for
the ten years of marriage could not produce a child -- or
was it Ruthie's new suitor, Doug Norris? Is little Billie my
half-brother or the first of three children by Ruth and Doug
Norris.

We'll probably never know.

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


June 5, 2015


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