Monday, June 15, 2015

Mystery Monday: Who's Your Daddy, Louis Shepherd?

One of my friends likes to refer to the genealogy group I belong to as the “Who’s Your Daddy?” group. I know it's tongue in cheek, but it drives me a little crazy! Yet, for my maternal grandfather, Louis Allen Shepherd, it’s right on the money – it’s the biggest question we wish we had an answer to!

A rather mysterious photo of my grandfather Louis Allen Shepherd.

My mom and her four siblings all agree that their father didn’t talk much about his childhood. They know he was born 29 Dec 1922 in Washington, DC and that his mother was named Katherine – one of my uncles even lived with their grandmother for a bit in New York City. They knew their dad had grown up in Washington, DC, and one of them remembered that he had a “play mother” in the city named Mrs. Foy. And finally, they knew he had – and they remembered visiting – cousins (or “cousins”) in New Jersey. Pretty much everything else about their dad's early years has to be taken from governmental records. So, where could we look for information about his father?

You’d think finding out his father – at least his legally recognized one – would be as simple as looking at his birth certificate. Unfortunately Louis’ birth certificate provides no answer - the area for father is left blank! Furthermore, there a space to mark whether the child is “legitimate” or “illegitimate” and it’s the latter that’s left visible for Granddad Louis. No help here.

Let’s go back to his mother, Katherine, for a moment. We know her mother Rose died in New Jersey in 1916 and that by 1920 (and possibly sooner), Katherine had moved to Washington, DC, where she lived with the Petites, to whom she may have been related. (More on this in a later post.) Two years later, she gave birth to my grandfather. Could his father have been someone from Jersey that she visited back home or who visited her in DC? Could it have been someone she met in her new city? Or someone just passing through?

What about other documents that might list his father, or even provide clues? My grandfather filled out three applications for marriage licenses – none of them asks for the names of the prospective bride and groom’s parents.

How about the 1930 Census, which at least would give us a hint as to where Louis’ father was from? We struck out! The census reports that his mother is from Pennsylvania, but his father is from…the United States. Womp.

Louis' mom Katherine is listed here by her married name, Banks, but she got married in 1927, when Louis was already five. It doesn't rule out Mr. Banks as his father, but there's no proof that he is.

The last document we have that might give a clue is literally one of his last documents: his Certificate of Death. But again, we struck out! At the line for Father’s Name: “Unknown”. And had a name been given, we would have had to take it with a grain of salt: my Grandma Doris was the informant, and she was much removed from his childhood life, as they married when he was in his forties. Furthermore, when she listed the name of his mother, she listed it as Alice, which we know to be incorrect. Grief, we’re guessing, clouded her memory. 

So, what’s next for solving this mystery? Realistically, we may never know the answer. If my grandfather ever knew, he may have had good reasons for not sharing. Or maybe he never knew himself. And the circumstances of his conception may not have been ones my great-grandmother Katherine was happy about or comfortable with, reality being what it is. Life is difficult sometimes.

I think one of our next steps will be to ask one of my mom’s brothers to take a DNA test. If we’re lucky, we’ll find someone who shares his paternal DNA and we’ll be able to open a few doors there. If not, it’ll still be an interesting foray into the world of genetic genealogy. My grandfather served in the Civilian Conservation Corps; while his discharge papers have no field for parents, perhaps one of his related papers does? We'll send away for the file. Or perhaps his application for a Social Security Number would say? The catch 22 is that for privacy reasons, the SSA will redact the names of the parents unless 1) the person who was applying for the number is over 100 years old, 2) the parents can be proved to be over 120, or you can prove that the parents are dead! (You can see how that becomes a problematic cycle!)

What do you think? Do you have suggestions for other avenues to explore as we try to solve this mystery? Or might you have a clue to help unlock this door? Let me know below!

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