Great-Great Uncle William Gorton Atwell: Enigma

William Gorton Atwell is one of those family members who has just enough information to get me interested, but not enough to get a full picture of who he was.

Most sources say that William was born on July 18, 1888 in Providence, Providence County, RI. His World War I Draft Registration card stated the same date in 1887–but I believe he may have had a reason to state this (more on that later). He was the oldest living son of William Armstrong Atwell and Altie May Williams.

Being just a child, William doesn’t show up in records again until the 1900 Census — and this time it’s twice! On June 9, he is enumerated with his family in Providence; but on June 12, he is enumerated in nearby Cranston, Providence County, RI at Sockanosset School for Boys. I am certain both records are for William — all the census information is identical. Also, June 9 was a Saturday and William could very well have been home from school for the weekend.

My research revealed that Sockanosset was basically a school for juvenile delinquents. The greatest number of admissions were for theft, but there were many other reasons, including truancy and even “incorrigibility”! Why was William there? Did he do something wrong; was he a difficult child? I could find nothing in on-line newspapers about any possible crimes. In any case, Sockanosset was known for its work in rehabilitating these wayward boys, providing them with schooling, a chapel and a gymnasium. The boys were also taught various skills, such as carpentry, masonry, and printing. I highly suspect this is where William developed the skills for his future occupation in working in the printing industry.

William’s 1917 Draft Registration card indicated that he served four years in the Navy. The big question is: when did he serve? I suspect it must be sometime before 1910, when he next shows up in Providence. Maybe he was the one who lied about his age to join the Navy (rather than my great-grandfather), which may be why his birth date on the card isn’t the same as every other record. His time in Sockanosset indicates possible unrest at home and I cannot find him in the 1905 Rhode Island Census.

Despite me not being able to find him on the 1910 Census, William was living at 100 Sheldon Street in the 1910 and 1912 Providence City Directories. On June 28, 1913, he married Mary Cecelia Downey (who was about five months pregnant) in East Providence. After this point, he shows up consistently in various locations in East Providence and Providence, working as a paper cutter or printer. His World War I Draft Registration card gives even more information, saying that he worked as a bookbinder at C.H. Fryer & Co. at 11 Pine Street in Providence.

William and Mary’s children were:

  • Thomas Francis (was he named after my great-grandfather?), born November 7, 1913; married Edith Hill, then Beatrice ____; died Jan 3, 2002; buried at Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Exeter, Washington County, RI.
  • Dorothy Mary, born Feb 10, 1915 in East Providence; married John Michael Cronin; died August 20, 1970 in Oxnard, Ventura County, CA; buried in Santa Clara Cemetery in Oxnard.
  • William J., born April 14, 1916; died March 1992; buried Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Providence.
  • female stillborn, born & died on May 8, 1917.
  • Richard J., born Aug 13, 1918; died Jun 19, 2003 in Bristol, Bristol County, RI; buried Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Exeter, Washington County, RI.
  • Virginia F, born Dec 1, 1920; married ____ Brightman; died November 1978; buried Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Providence.
  • Norma Cecelia, born 1923, died February 3, 1924.

The most mysterious thing to me about William is the fact that he died on July 9, 1923 in Providence at the age of 35. I have no idea why, but only have a feeling that it was very sad. This, coupled with their youngest child’s death only seven months later must have devastated Mary and the other children. Of course, Mary had the support of her mother and siblings who they lived with until Mary’s remarriage to Edward Joseph Berry between April 24, 1925 (where she is still widowed in the RI Census) and April 10, 1930 (where she is remarried).

The final mystery of William is where he is buried. Nor could I find Mary or Edward’s burial information anywhere.

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Great-Great Aunt Winifred Margaret Atwell, aka Margaret Armstrong

Wedded bliss did not last long in the marriage of Arthur Vinton (formerly Arthur Holzel) and Margaret Armstrong (formerly Winifred Margaret Atwell). Later newspaper accounts alluded to Arthur not being very good with money (always a problem when there is a family to support). Perhaps this was Margaret’s incentive to continue to work in theater, for Arthur accused her of refusing “to give up theatricals and make a home for him” and stated that it was difficult for them to find work in the same town.

The Holzels separated in August 1922, with Margaret and Evelyn remaining in Long Island City, NY as Margaret continued acting in New York City. During the separation, Arthur wrote to Margaret that “The way to hold a man is to be his pal. Not to dance and raise hell, but to play the game with him.”

What was Arthur’s game? Margaret soon found out that he was living in Kansas City, Missouri with another woman, Mrs. Marie Pohl, née Marie Eugenia Welch, wife (or ex-wife; I haven’t found out yet) of August Pohl of San Diego, California. Margaret put her foot down during an August 1923 visit from Arthur, confronting him with her findings. Arthur seemed to waffle, asking for time to think things over and decide whether or not he wanted to reconcile or let Margaret pursue a divorce.

Margaret chose to file for divorce and did so in January 1924 (perhaps she gave him until the end of 1923 to make a decision, or perhaps she took the time to get her legal paperwork together). in the filing, she requested $125 per week for alimony toward child support for Evelyn. Meanwhile, Margaret continued her work on stage.

On January 9, 1925, the decree of divorce was granted. Margaret received $200 in legal fees and $40 per week for alimony. By the end of the decade, Arthur married Marie and got his wish for someone “making a home for him” in upstate New York, where he ran a side business of a cattle then a turkey farm. Apparently Arthur got to “play the game” with Marie, as he notoriously had numerous affairs and was often cruel to Marie.

As far as I know, Margaret never re-married. By 1930 she and Evelyn were living in Los Angeles, CA where Margaret launched a movie career as a character actress. Her film career can be found here. It seemed that the financial issues that Margaret experienced with Arthur were far behind her. She was able to provide Evelyn with a college education (Evelyn went to the University of California, Los Angeles) and trips abroad.

Margaret Armstrong in her role as Annie Oakley's mother.  Author's collection.

Margaret Armstrong in her role as Annie Oakley’s mother. Author’s collection.

Eventually Evelyn met and married Clinton A. White sometime before 1950 (I suspect during the late 1940’s). This marriage caused a permanent rift between Evelyn and her father, Arthur, for Clinton was African-American. (Indeed, in some states, such an inter-racial marriage was not even considered legal.) According to my grandmother, Arthur disowned Evelyn; online anecdotes seem to support this. Evelyn was not deterred; the couple raised a family, ran a family business, and spent the rest of their lives together.

Evelyn White in 1961.  Courtesy MyHeritage.com (Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Immigration Cards).

Evelyn White in 1961. Courtesy MyHeritage.com (Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Immigration Cards).

Sometime after Margaret’s movie career ended, it seems that she must have moved in with or close to Evelyn and her family, for she passed away in Alameda County, CA on December 15, 1961. I’m not sure where she is buried; with all the names she had taken on, it’s been difficult to find her final resting place.

Clinton White died on April 6, 1988 in Berkeley, Alameda County, CA, so Evelyn went to live closer to her family in Brookings, Curry County, OR. There she died on September 19, 2000.

Because of the very separate lives and physical distance between my great-grandfather and Margaret, I never personally knew that side of the family. It’s my hope that a curious cousin might see this and reach out!

Great-Great Aunt Winifred Margaret Atwell: Rising Star

Winifred Margaret Atwell was born October 7, 1885 in Providence, Providence County, RI.  She was the oldest daughter of William Atwell and Altie May Williams and the oldest of their children that lived to adulthood.

Winifred completed four years of high school, and it seems that she had a musical education as well. Perhaps William took it upon himself to teach her. I found at least two articles from 1902 and 1904 where Winifred accompanied her father to performances. At both she performed dramatic reading and at one even played a piano solo. Later in 1908 and 1909, she taught music alongside her father at the Atwell Music Studios.

Eventually, music seemed to fade away for Winifred as her performance expanded into acting; in the 1910 Census, she listed her occupation as “actress” in a “theatre”. It was hard to find her in the following years; however, I knew that she had taken a stage name: Margaret Armstrong. Although I think it’s a great sounding name, its so much more common than “Winifred Atwell”! The January 1917 edition of Providence Magazine stated that Margaret Armstrong was “an actress of exceptional ability”. It seems that her career was starting to take off. On January 2, 1917 she was in Manhattan, marrying Arthur Holzel. Perhaps she was beginning some work in New York’s theaters. Regardless, this was the last time that I saw her referred to as “Winifred M. Atwell”. Since she went by “Margaret” for the rest of her life, I will refer to her as such from now on.

Winifred Margaret Atwell on her wedding day, January 2, 1917.  Author's collection.

Winifred Margaret Atwell on her wedding day, January 2, 1917. Author’s collection.

The Holzels seemed to find themselves in Lynn, Essex County, MA, where their daughter Evelyn Atwell Holzel said she was born on March 27, 1918. (Although I have found no primary sources to support this yet.)

Now, if the name Arthur Holzel might sound vaguely familiar, it was because he was later known as Arthur Vinton, an actor on stage (in the 1920s), screen and radio (in the 1930s and 1940s). As Arthur’s and Margaret’s careers began to ramp up, their relationship started to break down. More on all of this in the next post!

The Little-Known Atwell Siblings

Some of my great-grandfather’s siblings have quite a bit of information available, but three have barely anything. Even so, I feel that they deserve their own post.

Richard Williams

According to the book Randall and Allied Families… , Richard was born on May 11, 1883 and died on August 18, 1884. I assume his short life was entirely in Providence. According to his father William’s sister, Victoria Eugenia (who called herself “Genie” in a 1932 letter), Richard was named after William’s father and after the Williams family from whom Altie descended. She also confirmed that Richard was the first-born child; his death must have been so devastating to his parents.

“Little Altie Bernise”

I recently noticed that on the 1900 census, Altie May Atwell is listed as having seven children born, five children living. Prior to writing this post, I could only account for six of the children. As I was re-reading Aunt Genie’s typed account of Richard, she wrote this: “He was the one who died as a baby”, then in her own hand (which I’d totally overlooked!): “as did Little Altie Bernise”. (I have to say, I’m not 100% that this is little Altie’s middle name, but it’s the best that I can tell.) Little Altie, you are found and remembered!

Aunt Genie's notation about little Altie.  Author's collection.

Aunt Genie’s notation about little Altie. Author’s collection.

Augusta Eugenia

Augusta Eugenia was born on January 13, 1894 in Providence. She was the youngest of William and Altie’s children that lived to adulthood. I found her listed as a child in the 1900 Census and the 1905 Rhode Island Census. In the 1910 Census, she was sixteen and working as a clerk at a shoe store. Finally, in the 1912 City Directory, she is listed as “a clerk at B&S” (which I assume is Brown & Sharpe, a large manufacturer in Providence at the time). At that point, she was living at 45 Wilson Street, away from the family. After this record, I have no idea what happened to Augusta. She may have died, gotten married or moved away. (I tried checking her 1912 address in the 1913 City Directory, but the house was listed as vacant – just my luck!) Even my grandmother, who at least knew if one of her relatives was married or not, never said if Augusta married.

Great-Great Grandfather William Armstrong Atwell

This may seem like skipping around a little bit, but I feel the need to write about my great-grandfather’s father before I move on to his siblings. After all, William is what these diverse siblings have in common!

William Armstrong Atwell was the firstborn child and only son of Richard Atwell and Margaret Patterson. He was born at George Street in Lowell, Middlesex County, MA on June 11, 1860. The family moved to various places in Eastern Massachusetts (more on that when I write about his father at a later time), settling for a period in Taunton, Bristol County, MA. There in 1880, twenty-year-old William was working as a machinist at a foundry and machine company. One of the few things I remember my great-grandfather telling me was that his father had three fingers (on which hand, I’m not sure). I have to wonder if that condition may have been a result of this work.

In 1881, the Atwell family moved to Providence, Providence County, RI. Here, William met his future wife, Altie May Williams, daughter of John Williams and Mary Elizabeth Randall. Altie worked as a box-maker, so I’m not sure how the two would have met. Perhaps William was beginning his second career as a musician (specifically, a cornet player) and perhaps Altie saw him perform. In any case, the two were married in Providence on August 24, 1882.

William seemed to retain his job as a machinist in Providence at lease for a short while. In the 1885 Rhode Island census, he listed his occupation as both “machinist & musician”. According to the Providence City Directories that I could find, William was listed as a printer from at least 1895 to 1898 (what kind of printer, I wonder?). After this, he is listed as a musician in all the records I could find.

The city directories and some newspaper articles have given me the most clues about William’s musical career. He play cornet either on his own or with Atwells Orchestra at various local organizations, such as the Central Falls Fire Department and the National Association of Stationary Engineers. From 1907 to the end of his life, William set up the Atwell Entertainment Bureau, which also housed the “Atwell Society Orchestra” and “Atwell Studios” that featured teaching music. In fact, his daughter Winifred was listed as music teacher here from 1908 – 1909.

"Larboard Watch", a song William performed as part of a duet in 1898.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

“Larboard Watch”, a song William performed as part of a duet in 1898. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As I stated in my last post, William and Altie divorced sometime between 1900 (when they are together on the census) and 1905 (when William re-married). I’m not sure of the reason; perhaps William’s career ramping up was a contributing factor. I did find that Altie’s divorced (though listed as widowed) mother Mary had lived with the family throughout the 1890s. Perhaps her moving out was evidence of strain in the household? Their five living children remained in William’s custody and I have no written record of Altie after this time (more on her and her incredible ancestral line in future posts).

Ethel Emma Fane was born around 1879 in England. Her family immigrated to the USA in 1892 and lived in Providence on Pearl Street by 1900. She was the daughter of John and Alice Fane and had a sister Mary, who was only a year younger than Ethel. While Ethel was employed as a “pearl worker”, her sister was a music teacher. I’m sure that although Mary worked at a different location than William, their paths must have crossed in the course of business. Somehow William met Ethel and they were married on June 1, 1905.

Ethel apparently built a relationship with her stepchildren (or at the very least, my great-grandfather Thomas) and became a mother herself on May 14, 1906, when son Wallace John was born. Happiness in the Atwell household did not last a very long time, however. Eventually William’s health deteriorated to a point where he no longer played cornet. Finally, after a week-long illness, William died at home at 197 Longfellow Street on January 24, 1913. He was buried at Oakland Cemetery in nearby Cranston. Ethel made sure his gravestone was inscribed: “In Loving Memory of My Husband, William A. Atwell, 1860 – 1913”.

William and Altie’s children were all grown up and living on their own once William died, so Ethel and Wallace moved back to her parents’ home. Ethel lived with her son at least until he was married to Mildred G. Stubbs in the 1930s, then she appears as a housekeeper and companion to interior designer Ellen Dwinell in 1940. I don’t have any record of Ethel after this point; I’m not even sure where she is buried. In fact, there seems to be so much more to find out about William and his family that once again warrants a research trip to Rhode Island.