Alta Journal is pleased to present the fourth installment in a five-part original series by historian and longtime High contributor William Francis Deverell. The twisty and suspenseful story of the disappearance of Deverell’s great-uncle Francis begins in snowy upstate New York before moving to Europe and Los Angeles. As Deverell searches for his missing namesake, he discovers more than he bargained for.
In part three, Deverell’s father asked him to find Francis.
Every week we’ll post the next chapter in this real-life mystery story. Visit altaonline.com/serials keep reading, and register here for email notifications when each new installment is available.
A historian friend of mine, Richard White, says he believes the years before World War II were the last in which Americans could disappear and get away with it. I think Richard is right.
Of course, people can always give up and try to walk away. But it would be almost impossible to pull it off today. It was that early part of the 20th century when the bureaucratic—not to mention technological—surveillance of Americans had not become all-encompassing, all-knowing.
Francis had wanted to disappear, I suppose. And he could. At least for a hundred years.
William Deverell will discuss “Finding Francis” with Alta live Wednesday, September 14 at 1:30 p.m. PT.
Turns out finding Francis wasn’t that hard. Breathtaking, yes, but not that difficult. Several factors helped in particular. His military service during World War I created a paper trail with more details and, possibly, clues to what had happened to Francis.
My dad and I talked to family members, asked for documents and photos (there were very few of them), and I carefully studied the military’s careful tracking as a soldier. As with all the historical research I do in my career, the work was exhilarating, one discovery leading to another, then another.
More importantly, the revolution of digital access to all sorts of historical documents helped Francis come out of where he had been hiding. And the fact that others out there also went looking for answers. We never knew each other (never knew they existed, actually). But then we got together, and we found Francis.
Mysteries remain, but some pieces of the puzzle have been locked, though with each answer inevitably comes another question.
Francis disappeared from sight in the summer of 1919. I once wondered if he had gone to Ireland, where he might have blended into the countryside. Francis must have heard all sorts of stories about Ireland, although the early 1910s and 1920s were a particularly difficult time on the island. Even if he had thought of going there, Francis might have done better, given what he had just experienced in the Argonne forest.
Instead of Ireland, I found traces of him first in Mexico. At least this is the first time we can find him, his presence there suppressed by, of all things, a wedding.
He is there, in 1922, in Mexicali of all places (or Tijuana; the record is unclear on the location). But Francis Daly was no longer John Francis Daly. He was now – for reasons I don’t understand – Harry Wheeler. And Harry was married to Mary Louise Saenz, an 18-year-old Californian of Mexican descent, whose name was Lee.
Who did she think she was marrying? An uprooted, bigamous Irish American who had fled to the other side of the continent? What did he tell her he had escaped? A wedding the church wouldn’t let him leave? A restrictive youngster in a snowy town in upstate New York? A horrible war across the ocean? Something, a sin or a trauma, that Francis, now called Harry, might have shared in a moment of openness? Maybe she didn’t know any of that, didn’t know who Harry had once been. Eventually, she would know at least part of it.
Why did Francis choose to be Harry Wheeler? I have no idea, but census records reveal that there was a young boy in Francis’s neighborhood in Rochester in the 1890s named Harry Wheeler. He was a few years younger than François and he lived a long time. Could a childhood playmate have planted some sort of identity seed? The story is full of evasions and surprising rhymes.
Another surprise: Newly named, newly invented, Harry Wheeler moved to Southern California with Mary Louise Saenz Wheeler. I think that’s probably where he went first, in 1919, because she was from Los Angeles and they probably met there and went to Mexico to get married, to avoid questions about Francis’ marriage to Katherine. For the next 40 years, until his death in 1960, Harry and Lee lived in neighborhoods and towns in the San Gabriel Valley that I know well: Monrovia and El Monte. For a number of years they lived in a house less than eight miles from where I live today. Lee died in 1975.
Harry (who I will always think of as Francis) has held several jobs. He apparently worked for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. This multi-pronged program, which put so many to work in difficult times, built the modern infrastructure of greater Los Angeles. Harry worked at Alhambra, just south of where I live with my family in Pasadena. I can’t imagine how remote the Argonne Forest must have seemed to Harry as he lived and worked in Los Angeles as it grew into the global city it is today. But then again, maybe that never felt far enough for a man to move past his past.
Harry Wheeler and Lee Saenz had a family. They had three children, two of whom quite clearly brought Harry back to the life and family he left behind in Rochester. Her daughter, Louise Lorraine, bore part of her mother’s name. Then there’s Eugene Francis, half-named for, we imagine, the person Harry once was and for that little brother who died as a teenager in New York. And a son, John, a connection to Francis and his own father.
This is where the story gets weirder, more unexpected. At one time, Harry Wheeler also worked as a porter and mail handler for the Pacific Electric Railway, the streetcar and freight system that once traveled near and far throughout Los Angeles County. The PE rose to prominence in mass transit in the early 20th century. He is largely responsible for the decentralized spread of greater Los Angeles. Railroad and real estate titan Henry Huntington shaped the Pacific Electric into a transit colossus, which, in turn, sculpted modern Los Angeles.
The coincidence of the small world of this is beyond me. Harry Wheeler, for whom I am partly named by his old name, owed his job to Henry Huntington, and so did I. I direct a research, teaching, and outreach effort called the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, headquartered in Huntington and the University of Southern California.
For nearly 40 years, I’ve spent half my working life at Huntington, one of the largest research libraries in the world, which is close enough to my home for me to walk there.
My work is time travel. Surrounded by fragile documentary paraphernalia from the past – history and mystery combined – I follow tracks back in time. The course is always indistinct, always fascinating. While my great-uncle was looking to disappear, a lot of what I do is make people like him reappear. Francis tried to leave no trace of himself as he lived his life as Harry. Most people don’t even have to try to fade from history. They just do. My job is to collect all the traces and clues I can find and then put them together in what seems to me to be a meaningful form, a meaningful story.
Although separated by decades and his subterfuge, my namesake and I were actually so close to each other. Soon, thanks to Harry, I found other people who would help me solve the puzzle, people from the Harry side of Francis’ life, parents I didn’t know I had.
TO BE CONTINUED
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