Tuesday, July 17, 2012

You Never Know What You'll Find Out About Your Family

Wars have been fought protecting family honor. Stories of valor and tales of adventure have been passed from generation to generation. But many times there is an unknown or unpublicized aspect to these family histories and there is something magical about those moments when you find out, for good or bad, that the true narrative isn't always the way you were told they were.

     In my family, we never really knew why my father's parents moved from the small mining town of Bishop, Pennsylvania (which has long since been absorbed by metropolitan Pittsburgh) to Oklahoma City in the late 1920's. The accepted story was that my paternal grandfather had relatives in California and that was the real destination. My paternal grandmother had family in Oklahoma City and we were told that the reason they stopped in the center of the Dust Bowl was because my grandmother tired of the drive and told my grandpa "No further." A plausible explanation, but no one bothered to explain why they were leaving Pennsylvania in the first place.

     The revelation came at my Uncle's birthday party in St. Louis (75th, I believe). My uncle (8 years my father's senior), Aunt (4 years older) and my Dad were sitting around in the living room and I was videotaping them talking about their lives. Matter-of-factly, my Uncle mentioned that a cross had been burned on my grandfather's front lawn. He had been a successful grocer in the years since he had fled Lithuania, but this was a clear message to leave town. My Dad, who was two at the time never knew the story. My Aunt had vague memories. Whether they had been suppressed or she had been too young to remember, we're not sure. But a new chapter in the Alpern family history had been written.

     So, what does that have to do with Trenton and the Jews of Trenton?  It's a jumping off point for a story that passed through my in-box about a couple of months ago. In the age of the Internet, no skeletons are safe in family closets. We live in an age where the methods of discovery, as well as the depth that you can research these kind of things is almost limitless.

     At the beginning of June, I got an e-mail from Mark London. It was in response to the Memorial Day video of the cemeteries on Cedar Lane.  

"I've been researching my Barker relatives from Trenton the last couple of years, and would be interested in knowing if any of the very old gravestones in the Har Sinai cemetery are still readable.  I.e., there was Wolf Lapinsky who died in 1878 who might be buried there.  There's also an infant Charlie Barker, died in Aug 1884, who definitely was buried there, according to the death certificate.  Just curious."

     I sent Mark back an e-mail letting him know that I had seen a number of old graves that were still readable, but was not sure if any were his relatives. In his follow-up, Mark filled me in on a little family background. He had been researching his Trenton relatives on genealogybank.com, which lets you research 320 years of newspapers. What he found was fascinating and scandalous. It turns out that Wolf Lapinsky, whose grave he was looking for, was the brother of a character named James Barker, who was also his grandmother's uncle. He was the President of the South Jersey Crockery Company and he disappeared from his home in November of 1914.

Mark sent the Trenton Times write ups that detail his disappearance and subsequent return to Trenton. One of the articles mentions claims made by Morris Rudner, a liquor dealer who loaned Barker $3500 and held a second mortgage on the Barker Home at 311 Bellevue Avenue. The same article mentions that Rudner and Barker had an interest, along with Jonas Fuld of Fuld Brothers, a shoe dealer, in the Crockery Company.

 Also weighing in on the police report was Israel Kohn of the firm Urken & Kohn, who apparently had been owed $400 and the day before he disappeared, Barker borrowed another $100 for a new suit. He allegedly also took $300 cash from a widow and had obtained a watch and chain from a jeweler and court interpreter, Bernard Cohen before skipping town.

Barker was arrested in Chicago and he returned to Trenton to face the charges of embezzlement and false pretense.

Before his trial in March of 1915, the company that put up his bond decided he wasn't worth the risk and delivered him back to jail, but by that afternoon had secured another bondsman.

 After the whole mess, he wound up being fined $200 and $61 in court costs and was placed on probation.

The outcome of the case was reported in the Times right along with a pair of horse thieves and two men convicted of stealing copper wire from the telephone company. Mark's research showed that he wound up selling the business and he fled the city, but wound up being buried in Trenton. But even more interesting was what happened to his daughter Clara Eunice Barker.  

"More tragic, is his daughter's story, Clara Eunice Barker.  She was a "party girl", and while her father's business was failing, she lured a millionaire away from his wife and family, to live with her in California.  The wife eventually sued my relative for "stealing the love" of her husband, and it became a sensational court case in LA (and of course was heavily written about in the Trenton Times).  Clara had acting lessons, and lied her way through several trials, both of which she won, and she came away with lots of money that the millionaire had given to her as gifts.  I'm sure the details of the actual trial are more lurid than what the newspapers could print back then.  But what they were able to print, is still grand fun to read.

Agreed Mark. Thanks for sharing.

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