Grab your popcorn and sit back while I tell you a soap opera worthy story of aliases, German spies, jilted lovers, and insidious gossip from a group of Los Angeles neighbors who make Melrose Place look like amateur hour. This is actually a true story that played out in 1918 with meticulous documentation in, of all things, a Civil War pension file.
Last week I wrote about Civil War pension files (here), and this week I wanted to bring you another story from my own family history that focuses on those rich details just waiting to be discovered in some of these records.
Frank M. Torrey was the brother of my third great-grandmother, Jeanie Torrey Wendell, for whom our genealogy company is named. He enlisted in the 11th New York Cavalry for the Union Army at Buffalo, New York in the late summer of 1862. Through service records we know that Frank spent much of his three years detached to headquarter offices in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, Louisiana. After the war’s end Frank began what he described as “drifting west,” and ended up in San Francisco in 1869 with a new surname: McCoye. He stated in the letter to the right that he enlisted without his parents’ consent, and that his father was “violently opposed” to the war. Through three different handwritten letters that were preserved with his service and pension files, we know that his service to the Union created an irreparable rift between Frank and his parents – in one of the letters Frank said that after leaving Buffalo to move out west he only saw his father once more during his lifetime. Although Frank never directly stated the reason for changing his surname, I strongly suspect that this rift with his father was it.
Now we fast forward our story to Los Angeles in 1918 when Frank’s widow, Kibbie McCoye, filed for the widow’s pension to help support herself. Kibbie probably would not have had any problem collecting her pension had a man named Jack, who claimed to be her ex-lover, not gone to the Special Examiner of the Pension Bureau under “moral obligation” and insisted they had been lovers after Frank’s death, but more importantly the government needed to know that she had a new lover who was a German spy (cue the suspenseful music). Secret lovers during that time were a definite social taboo, but in the middle of World War I, “alien enemies” were even more so. After Jack also reported the “spy” to the Department of Justice, the Examiner’s office was forced to open a case against Kibbie and collect interviews and depositions from all of her apartment building neighbors.
In reading through the 20 pages of depositions and interviews I can’t help but to picture Gladys Kravitz, the nosey neighbor from the television show Bewitched. I get the sense that these neighbors were the type to hold a glass up to the wall and leave a door or window slightly open to listen in for the juicy gossip. I feel like they were all secretly happy to report to the examiner with claims against their neighbor who quarreled with her spy/lover. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:
“I used to speak to her when I would meet her in the halls around the house. I was never in her apartment and she has never been in mine. When I heard that she might be keeping an enemy alien I quit speaking to her. For some time after we first came to this address, she was in the habit of standing around the hall with a kimono on and apparently only half-dressed. I suspicioned her from the very first time I saw her and told my wife I wondered what kind of layout we had gotten ourselves into. Her apartment is across an airspace from our kitchen and we can hear ordinary conversation in her room when we are in our kitchen.. ” – John, aged 62.
“I rapped on the landlady’s door and asked her to come in and listen to the noise over my apartment. From what I learned afterward the landlady called her brother and he threw the German down the stairs… then they were fighting on the front porch. Mrs. McCoye came down later looking for his hat and I had the impression that she had a kimona on..” – Velma, aged 40
There was plenty more hearsay from different neighbors about her relationship with Carl (“The German”) and commentary on her sartorial choice to wear a kimono, but in the end Kibbie set the record straight. Jack was a one-time neighbor who made advances that she never wanted, the women in the building were jealous of her and didn’t like her because she wouldn’t participate in their gossip, she was engaged to Carl, a good man who was just loud and excitable, and she was always dressed to the nines when wearing her kimono! The examiner wrapped it up best, “I made some investigation into the immoral conduct of Mrs. McCoye, and I desire to say that after a thorough and complete investigation of the entire matter, I was unable to obtain any evidence of wrong-doing. I also learned that the informant (Jack) is a discarded suitor and that he is insanely jealous. It has upset his mental balance. I have in my possession a letter that he wrote to Mrs. McCoye after making these charges which expresses and undying love for her, and asks her to give up Carl and live with him… It is my personal conviction, after studying the situation very thoroughly, that Jack is unreliable and mentally unbalanced.”
At the time of this investigation these were serious accusations being thrown around, but reading through it ninety-eight years later I get such a kick out of the drama and wording of it all… especially the hang-up with the kimono! Jack, the jilted would-be lover, planting seeds of doubt and spreading gossip among all the other tenants (his name came up as the source of information in all of the interviews). Carl, the boisterous German who was proud of his heritage despite its unpopularity at the time; and Kibbie, the straight-talker, with her jealous neighbors and beautiful pink silk kimono in the middle of it all! Kibbie did go on to say that Carl was a good and constant friend of Frank’s for many years before his death. The two were married in the 1920s and had nearly thirty years together.
What interesting (and dramatic!) information have you uncovered about your family through unusual documents? I’d love to hear your stories, so please leave a comment below!