Genealogy

A Tragic Bar Fight, 1884

A terribly true story of my great-great grandfather, Lorenzo, and his brother, Rufus, taken directly from eyewitness
accounts in court records.

On the afternoon of September 16, 1884, Rufus Eldridge and Lorenzo “Ron” Stevens, farmers living on adjoining properties in London, Ontario, drove their horse-drawn wagon to Nilestown, Ontario to purchase “domestic supplies”.

Lorenzo was a 41 year-old bachelor who managed the family farm and cared for his mother. Rufus was his 48 year-old half-brother and close friend who was recently married and had just become a father for the first time. His son Freddie was a little over one year old.

The two journeyed to Nilestown that day, as they had so often in the past, probably to purchase goods like sugar, fabrics, or fencing. As the pleasant afternoon turned to evening, the brothers were apparently in no great rush to get home. They settled in at the Nilestown Hotel with drinks, their wagon and horses stationed nearby. It was there, at the saloon, where they came across strangers John Richards, William Butt, Edward Noulty, and Henry L’Ansette, among others.

The group caroused well into the late evening, when sometime after 10pm an argument broke out between Rufus and Edward Noulty about which man was the better man–especially which man could “draw brick” better. Rufus began to brag that he could “lick” any man in the room, pressing his hand onto Noulty’s shoulder he exclaimed “I can draw more brick than you, or I can lick you either”. 

Noulty turned to L’Ansette and suggested “Here’s a man can ‘lick’ you”, indicating the inebriated Rufus.

Jeremiah McRoberts, proprietor of the hotel came over, grabbed Noulty by the shoulders and took him to the corner of the room to reprimand him not to cause a fight. Noulty relented and agreed, but as soon as he returned a scuffle broke out between him and Rufus. Shoves. Jabs. Maybe even a punch or two.

The dispute, which began at the Nilestown Hotel soon shifted just down the street to the Byers Hotel. Rufus and Lorenzo had left the first hotel, and walked down the street a short way to the Byers, not ready to end the evening, and presumably to lick their figurative wounds and grouse about the troublemakers. 

The two weren’t long at the Byers before Noulty and L’Ansette reappeared. Almost immediately, “Rufe” threw Noulty to the ground and began choking him, prompting the hotel-keeper to pull him off.

At the same time, Ron had started brawling with L’Ansette. The latter hit Ron, knocking him down to the ground. Witnesses differ on whether Ron crawled or ran behind the bar, but all agree that then, with L’Ansette reaching for him over he bartop, Ron grabbed a liquor bottle and broke it over his attacker’s head. As blood ran down the Frenchman’s head, Ron reached for more bottles to start throwing, when he was grabbed by a witness and pulled to a hallway at the back of the bar. Rufus was escorted back there as well.

Noulty and L’Ansette were ejected out the front door.

After much protest by Noulty and L’Ansette, they were shortly allowed back in and L’Ansette was said to be quite worked up, holding his bleeding head and muttering that “a man that would do that would kill his own brother.”

The aggravated Frenchman was about 27 years old, and was said to be stout and powerful in appearance, with a “bulldog”-like head and an aggressive countenance. He was well known around the neighborhood as a fighter with a bad temper–a trait that was on full display as he paced, threatened, and ranted, hoping to get revenge against the older men. He was heard shouting “Rufe, you —–, I can lick you, and I will!”

By that point, Ron and Rufus had moved into the kitchen, where a witness told them to sit tight for a while before leaving. The altercation had already gotten too hot, and the brothers were determined to leave. Rufus pulled out a knife saying that no one was going to prevent him from going home. 

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What Happened to the 1890 Census?

Genealogy nerds like me frequently weep and fan themselves to exhaustion over a gaping hole in America’s historical record:

The 1890 U.S. Census is gone.

The original was destroyed. No copies exist.

It has been erased from history, erased from existence.

That, my friends, is no small deal. Every ten years since 1790, we have records of who lived where, with what family members, how old they were…and assorted other nuggets of personal history. Try to research your family history, and you will quickly understand what a treasure chest each census is–“oh look, my great-great grandfather was a ‘gentleman’ by profession in 1910, while in 1900, he was a fruit peddler.” I can tell you when my great grandparents took in my young, distant cousins (after their mother’s dress caught on fire from the stove, and her instincts to run across a field to a neighboring home while aflame were fatal). I can point to the empty, weed-filled lot in Detroit and say with confidence, “Yep, that was my family’s home for over fifty years.”

I know all of this because of census records. But thanks to a deep and bizarre mystery, I cannot track much of my American ancestors’ history and movement from 1881 to 1899, because the 1890 census has been wiped from history.

What happened to it? According to most stories it burned up in 1921. But that isn’t really the truth. Something far stranger happened, and to this day it isn’t clear at all why it happened.

This is the story of the 1890 U.S. Census and how it went from controversial marvel, to disappearing pile of ash. What you are about to read is a tale of greed, incompetence, and mystery.

1890: The Eleventh Census is Taken

It is June, 1890. Across the country, about 86,000 men had recently been hired for temporary work as census enumerators. Now, in the June heat, each man plods door to door within his assigned district to take down a wide range of personal  and confidential family details about births, residences, parents, occupations, race, ethnicity, education, and impairments. For the first time (and what would later turn out to be the only time for many decades to come), there is a separate schedule (sheet of paper) for each family, allowing for unprecedented details to be recorded–and making it a back-breaking job to shuffle all of that paper. (It is said that there is more paper used in this census taking than in all previous ten censuses combined!)

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When a family cannot be questioned personally, it is within the power of each enumerator to obtain the needed information from neighbors as proxies. It is important to be efficient in the collection, as the job must be done and reported back to Washington by the July deadline.

The untrained enumerators have sworn an oath to be courteous, confidential, and thorough–the last part being nearly guaranteed, as the men are paid according to what each records. According to the 1890 “Instructions to Enumerators” guide, they are each to be compensated to the tune of 2 cents per death reported, 5 cents per person with a mental or physical defect, or for each prisoner, pauper or homeless child. Each also receives 5 cents for each veteran or veteran’s widow from the “war of the rebellion”, and 2 cents for every other living person.

The data collection is likely grueling, tedious work without long-term prospects, but it is in service of their country and history–or, in some cases, it is a wonderful gesture of patronage by powerful friends and muggity-wumps who want well-placed (and untested) enumerators to advance their political or business agendas. Many deals across the nation hinge on the outcome of this census and what it reveals about changing populations, movements, and resources. In short, a lot of money may be made or lost over the results.

Once the work is complete, each man wraps up his work by following these guidelines as described in the August 30, 1890 issue of Scientific American:

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This is a deviation from the practice of enumerators in past decades, who had previously filed their completed census schedules with County Clerks offices before they were forwarded to Washington. But this year, there is so much data (*sigh*) that the hand-copying burden is an easy excuse for the census records to bypass local offices and head straight to Washington, and only Washington. All eggs in one flammable basket.

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