I’m taking a break from writing about my Mayflower ancestors today to wish my grand-aunt Dorothy a very happy 94th birthday! Happy Birthday Aunt Dot!
Dot is my grandfather’s half-sister, but I just met her for the first time recently. She’s interesting, funny, honest, and a total spitfire! I didn’t know my grandfather—Arthur Davis—he and my grandmother Milly married in 1933 when they were very young and things didn’t work out. He was a handsome young man and my grandmother fell for him instantly. He had a car and a motorcycle and was a competitive swimmer. But soon after they were married and they had my Dad, he drank heavily and was abusive. When her parents came to visit and saw she was bruised and that there was little food was in the house for their grandson, they whisked them off back home.
|Arthur "Art" Davis|
My grandfather died when I was 14 and I regretted never meeting him. I always heard that he wasn’t a good person. Besides drinking and being abusive, he rarely saw my father. He didn’t object when my grandmother’s second husband adopted my Dad. He came around once in a while, making promises he didn’t keep, breaking my father’s heart each time. I had a romantic, pie-in-the-sky notion that even though he wasn’t a good husband or father, perhaps he had changed and would have been a nice grandfather. Plenty of people change, don’t they?
I think it's interesting that even though Art didn't raise his son, Robert (Bob), that my Dad had some of the same interests. My father was a terrific captain of the cabin cruisers he owned. Art was a career Merchant Marine and one of the few things listed in his estate inventory was a boat. My father was an expert marksman, enjoying competitive target shooting, and from the photo I found, Art liked shooting as well.
I had tried researching Art’s ancestry, but couldn’t find anything. My grandmother said he was raised by his paternal Aunt and Uncle, Grace and John Davis, in Falmouth, MA, but I couldn’t find what his birth name was.
|Grace (Ellis) and husband John Davis|
It wasn’t until after my grandmother Milly passed in 1999 that I found old letters from Grace Davis (bless her packrat mentality!). Grace states that she wasn’t Art’s mother, as much as she wished she was. She said his parents were Carrie Washburn and Pete Ellis. Still nothing in the vital records for an Arthur Ellis, but I did find his death record (he died in 1976, age 63, of cardiac arrest) which lists Carrie as his mother, but states that his father couldn’t be learned. Aha! I easily found his birth record as Arthur Washburn, illegitimate son of Carrie, in Plymouth, 25 May 1913.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking for anything I could find about Art. It appears that he was first sent off to live with a Swedish couple in Falmouth. In the 1920 census, there’s a six year old Arthur Ellis living with Knut Rodin, as a boarder. Carrie married Everett (Pete was his nickname, another thing that threw me for a while!) in 1914 and they went on to have 10 children. Aunt Dot was the second child to be born and she and one sister are the last living. She said her family was poor and that her parents had trouble feeding so many children. It is likely that Carrie sent Arthur off in order to marry Everett. They also sent their first child together, Francis, to live with Pete’s mother, Maude Coulter, in Falmouth.
Pete’s sister Grace Davis was unable to have children of her own. She lived on the same street as the Rodin’s in 1920, so she likely knew them. Even though Art wasn’t her blood relative, she may have taken pity on him and taken him in. After her mother’s death, she also took in Francis and then a boy who was abandoned, Merle. My grandmother thought a lot of Grace. She said she was a religious person and very generous to her family. Her husband made a good living in construction and they also had a mushroom farm.
I sent for Art’s Falmouth school records and was sad to see what a hard time he had as a boy. He was thought to be of low intelligence, missed endless amounts of school due to illness resulting in his being held back and recommended for special classes. He at first is listed as Arthur Ellis and later as Arthur Davis.
He likely dropped out of school as soon as he could and joined the Merchant Marine. For many men, that’s probably a place they get their act together, but not Art! I sent for his file and found that he was charged with misconducts for assault on superior officer; failing to obey an order; using abusive and profane language; assault and battery; possession of intoxicating liquor. Despite these issues, he stayed with the Merchant Marine as a career and served during war time.
|Art posing for the camera|
The next marriage I find for him is to Dorothy McGovern, a Plymouth girl, in 1946. In 1955 he married a British woman named Maureen and they had a son Ira together. In 1960 Maureen was living in Greenwich, Connecticut, and wrote to the Merchant Marine in search of her husband, who she and her son hadn’t heard from in a year. At the time of his 1976 death he was married to Clair Ford, living in Wareham (where my grandmother lived and where I spent a tremendous amount of time, not knowing my grandfather was just minutes away). I believe he also had a son Patrick, but I’m not sure by which wife. I’d also guess he had even more wives and children that I haven’t discovered.
I found a cousin, Jane Weston, in Plymouth, who has been incredibly generous in sharing the information she has found on the Washburn and related families. She told me that Art’s half-sister Dorothy still lived in town, but spent winters in Florida. It took me some time to find her phone number, but I called her and she was very nice to me. We’ve exchanged cards and letters and she signs hers “Love, Aunt Dot.” She even sent me a framed floral painting she painted!
|Art swimming at Falmouth|
Dot said Art wasn’t close with the family, except for Francis. He drank heavily throughout his life and lived paycheck to paycheck. He would send his checks to Francis to deposit and when he was on leave, Francis would dole the money out to him a bit at a time, otherwise Art would blow through it all.
|Art Davis Shooting|
Dot feels that Art’s death was suspicious. She said his wife, Clair, was involved in the mafia and that perhaps he was poisoned as there was something foaming in his mouth. She said Clair came home to see the ambulance out front and turned around and left and that there were men at the wake and funeral with guns visible in their jackets. Dot said he was cremated very quickly and when Francis went to pick up the ashes that they were gone. Maybe Art had finally messed with the wrong woman. Maybe he really did die of a heart attack. Or maybe Dot is mistaken. I’ll never know.
When Carrie was getting older, she told her daughter, Dot, that George Brewster Smith was Art’s real father. Even though they were both teenagers, George was already married with a newborn. Dot said that he was killed when delivering furniture in Middleborough and his head made contact with a bridge. Sure enough, I found an article detailing what happened to George on 31 March 1913. He had a load of furniture in a horse drawn cart. He was concerned the load wouldn’t make it under a bridge, so stopped to adjust the load. The horse took off and he was crushed between the load and the bridge. A boy in a school room witnessed the whole thing.
So, my romantic notion of maybe Art wasn’t that bad guy after all is shot, but I have a huge amount of empathy for him. What chance did he have in life? Born illegitimately, given away, and struggling in school. He clearly was an alcoholic, had a low IQ and had trouble with self-control.
I found Art is a descendant of 12 Mayflower passengers through his mother: Brewster, Cooke, Warren, Eaton, Fuller, Chilton, Howland, Billington, Tilley, Allerton, White, Browne, and Soule. He likely has lines through his father as well, but I don’t believe it’s possible to prove that George Brewster Smith was his father. There are many other interesting ancestors as well: two Revolutionary War soldiers, a Civil War soldier, a 49er, and mariners.
But all of those interesting ancestors aren’t the best part of my Arthur Davis research. Finding his half-sister Dot holds that prize!