A Death Greatly Exaggerated, part 2


Warning—the conclusions of this post are now known to be incorrect.  See the “He’s dead, Jim (or, Down a blind alley)” post for details.


In part 1 of this story, I introduced my great-great-grandfather Gilbert Michael Scherer. According to family tradition, Gilbert died a traumatic death shortly before 1900, when he was only about 22 years old or younger. According to his granddaughter, Anna Cornelia (“Anelia”) Hayes, who wrote a history of the family,

“Gilbert Shearer was building a home in Missouri.  He was working on the roof when he fell off across a tree stump, bursting his abdomen open.  He fell from his house while shingling his roof.  He was taken to a sanatorium, but died four days later. He was buried in Edmond Cemetery, 4 miles north of Powersville, MO.”

This would indeed be a sad end to a short life, if the story were true. It is not.

I don’t know if Gilbert fell off a house, or if he landed on a tree stump and burst his abdomen, or if he was in a sanatorium as a result. What I do know is what I’ve learned through my research; namely, that Gilbert did not die in 1900 as the family (or at least some of the family) was led to believe. Instead, he appears to have moved away and started a new life. At least two family members—his mother Emma and his sister Ivy—knew about his second life, and it’s very likely that his younger brother Leslie also knew that he hadn’t died.

Much is still missing from the story, but I’d like to let you know what I’ve learned so far.

Gilbert’s childhood

Gilbert Scherer was the son of Wilhelm (“William”) Scherer and Emma B. (Fink) Scherer, both Missouri natives whose parents were German immigrants. Wilhelm, a farmer, was born on February 17, 1847, and came of age in Cinque Hommes township, just south of Perryville, in southeastern Missouri. On December 28, 1873, William married Emma Fink, a native of the central Missouri town of California. Wilhelm was nearly 27 years old when they married, but Emma was only 13½ years old, having been born on April 16, 1860.

The newlyweds settled in Perryville, but didn’t have their first child for four and a half years. On June 7, 1878, Gilbert Michael Scherer was born to an 18-year-old mother and a 31-year-old father. Gilbert was the first of five children born to Wilhelm and Emma Scherer:

  1. Gilbert Michael Scherer (b. June 7, 1878)
  2. Julieke M. Scherer (b. April 1880)
  3. unknown Scherer (b. unknown)
  4. Iva (“Ivy”) L. Scherer (b. December, 1888)
  5. Leslie J. Scherer (b. January 29, 1889)

Curiously, although the 1880 census (pictured below) lists his occupation as “laborer,” William, his wife, and their two children also had a servant named Caroline Mercier (a 12-year-old Missouri-born girl of immigrant French parents) living with them on Spring Street in Perryville.

As all of his younger siblings were born in Perryville (or at least Perry County), it seems Gilbert’s family didn’t move around much while Gilbert was growing up.

When Gilbert was 14½ years old, his sister Julieke died of typhoid fever at 11:00 pm on December 7, 1892, after 21 days of suffering from the illness.

From both Julieke’s death record and Wilhelm and Emma’s marriage record, it is clear that Gilbert’s family was Catholic.

What I’ve written above is pretty much all I’ve been able to learn to date of Gilbert’s first 16 years.

Gilbert’s future bride

Mary Belle Coddington was two and a half years older than Gilbert, having been born on January 1, 1876. Mary was the youngest of the six children (two of whom had already died) of George Harrison Coddington and Jemima (Morris) Coddington. Jemima died on January 11, 1876, of complications arising from giving birth to Mary.

With Mary gone, George was left with four young children:

  • Lewis Schram Coddington (b. November 7, 1867; 8 years old)
  • Daniel Levi Coddinton (b. August 29, 1869; 6½ years old)
  • Sarah Ellen Coddington (b. December 3, 1873; 2 years old)
  • Mary Belle Coddington (b. January 1, 1876; newborn)

In addition to having lost his wife and having four young children to care for, George was suffering from the effects of Civil War injuries—he had been shot in the forehead at Corinth, Mississippi, on October 3, 1862, and had also been wounded at Snake Creek Gap, Georgia, in early May, 1864.

George took the three eldest children and went to live in his father’s household in York, MO. Mary Belle, however, the youngest of the children, was sent to live with a maternal aunt in Howard township, Iowa, just over the state line in Wayne County.

Gilbert and Mary’s marriage

Sometime around 1894, when Gilbert would have been about 15–16 years old, and Mary would have been about 18 years old, Gilbert and Mary got married. On the 1895 Iowa census (pictured below), GIlbert M. and Mary Shearer are enumerated without children. Curiously, while Mary’s age is correctly recorded as “19”, Gilbert’s age is listed as “30” (although he was clearly listed as a 2-year-old on the 1880 federal census taken fifteen years earlier). Was this a mistake on the part of the census taker, or a purposeful deception on the part of either Gilbert or Mary? Given the frequency of the former, I’d ordinarily chalk this up as a simple enumeration mistake, but as you’ll see further below when I discuss his headstone, he appears to have convinced others that he was indeed about 12 years older than he actually was.

Gilbert and Mary’s children

Gilbert and Mary had two children together over the next three years:

  1. Zyonia Ray Shearer (b. January 6, 1895)
  2. Anneta Fern (“Anita”) Shearer (b. November 26, 1898)
Note: The 1895 Iowa census (pictured above) is undated, but in the header of each spread is the following statement: “Statistics of Population, January 1, 1895.” Accordingly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Zyonia Ray wasn’t enumerated on the 1895 census, as either the census was taken between January 1 and January 6, or it was taken after January 6 but the instructions to enumerate the population as it was on January 1 were correctly followed.

Gilbert’s believed death

At some point between when he impregnated Mary (late February, 1898) and when his widow married Milton Burton (“Bert”) Stokes (on April 19, 1900), Gilbert presumably left many people, including his wife, with the impression that he had died. Someone concocted the story that Anelia Hayes preserved and passed down:

“Gilbert Shearer was building a home in Missouri.  He was working on the roof when he fell off across a tree stump, bursting his abdomen open.  He fell from his house while shingling his roof.  He was taken to a sanatorium, but died four days later. He was buried in Edmond Cemetery, 4 miles north of Powersville, MO.”

For a while, I thought that perhaps the simplest answer was just that all the people who have repeated this story first heard it from Anelia or read it in her published family history, and that Anelia had gotten the story wrong. Perhaps someone else died this way and she confused names and deaths? But then I found a record of Gilbert’s headstone:

Gilbert M. Shearer
Birth: unknown
Death: May 23, 1897
Spouse: Marybell Coddington Stokes (1875 – 1922) [calculated relationship]
Inscription:
Ae 32y 4m 1(or 7)d
A light from our household is gone
A voice we loved is stilled
A place is vacant in our hearts
That never can be filled
Burial: Edmond Cemetery
Powersville
Wayne County
Iowa, USA

Now, setting aside the fact that he wasn’t actually dead (the proof of which will be coming at the end of this post and in part 3), two things about this headstone stand out as odd:

  1. He is listed as having died on May 23, 1897 (a full 18 months before his daughter Anneta Fern was born).
  2. He is listed as being 32 years and 4 months old (instead of the 18 years, 11 months, and 17 days old he would have been if he actually died on May 23, 1897).

On the second point, the age discrepancy is consistent with the age discrepancy seen on the 1895 Iowa state census, where he was stated to be 30 years old as of January 1, 1895. Now, two and a half years later, his headstone notes that he was two and a half years older. This could either be a coincidence, or evidence that he was pretending (to others and to his wife) to be about 12 years older than he really was. Perhaps when they met, he thought an 18–19 year old woman wouldn’t be interested in being with a 15–16 year old boy, so instead of saying he was 2–3 years her junior, he pretended to be 10 years her senior and somehow managed to pull that off.

For the sake of argument, let’s consider the possibility that the two later ages (30 and 32½ years old) are correct, and it’s his stated age on the 1880 census that’s in error. Perhaps there was a typo and he wasn’t 2 years old, but 12 years old? Well, first, that would still make him 2–3 years younger than he was stating. Second, and most compelling, that would make his young mother 3 years old at the time of her marriage to Wilhelm, 7 years old at the time of pregnancy, and 8 years old at the time of Gilbert’s birth—an impossibility. So unless there were two Gilbert M. Shearers that were born in Perryville, Missouri, 12 years apart, both living to adulthood, and both having a mother named Emma and a sister named Ivy, Occam’s razor (the principle that maintains that simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones) points us to the conclusion that there was just one Gilbert M. Shearer who, for some reason, pretended for at least the last few years of his life to be 12 years older than he really was.

The other odd point raised by his headstone inscription concerns the premature date of Gilbert’s death. The death date on his headstone is so early that, if correct, Gilbert could not possibly be the father of Ray’s younger sister Anneta Fern. Perhaps this was a typographical error by the headstone carver, or perhaps it was a true record of when he died. I’ll need to find more evidence to be able to have a clearer idea of which is more likely to be the case.

It’s tempting to think that he may have “died” too early to be Anneta’s biological father, as that would set up a plausible explanation for two unanswered questions:

  1. Why did Gilbert pretend to have died? In this case, possibly because he found out his wife was having relations with another man; perhaps the man who was actually Anneta’s biological father. Given that he and (presumably) Mary were Catholic, the Catholic doctrine about the indissolubility of marriage may have contributed to their belief that a death (even faked) would be better route out of a marriage than a divorce.
  2. Who came up with the cover story for Gilbert’s death? It would be one thing if, for instance, he disappeared at sea, allowing a funeral to be held without a body. Gilbert’s story, on the other hand, was a fairly elaborate one that would have involved the burial of an empty grave. If Gilbert left to allow Mary to marry another man, or if he left Mary because of the shame of the situation, then Mary Belle would have been motivated to come up with the cover story to be passed down to her children and to their children.

I need to wrap up today’s post so that I can get to bed, so the proof that Gilbert didn’t die when, where, and how we were told will have to wait until tomorrow. But until then, let me summarize what we know and then leave you with a morsel.

A 15–16-year-old Gilbert met and married an 18–19-year-old Mary while pretending to be 28–29 years old. The Iowa census of 1895 finds them living together in Howard township, Iowa, with ages listed as 30 and 19, respectively. They have a son together less than a week after the 1895 census was enumerated, and name him Zyonia Ray Shearer. Then two and a half years later, Gilbert dies and is buried in Edmond Cemetery. Then, 18 months after Gilbert’s death, Mary Belle gives birth to a daughter, Anneta Fern, and gives her daughter the Shearer surname. Sixteen months later, Gilbert’s widow, Mary Belle, marries Milton Burton Stokes, on April 19, 1900.

This all sounds believable, even if Gilbert did fudge his age a bit. But then look who shows up on the 1900 census, living as a boarder in a house in St. Louis city, Missouri — it’s Gilbert M. Shearer, now back to being 22 years old (see below)!

This is the first piece of evidence we have for Gilbert’s “death” being a ruse. In tomorrow’s post (part 3), I’ll present about a dozen other documents that together will demonstrate that not only did Gilbert not die in the late 1800’s, but that he lived until the ripe old age of 87, dying (for real this time) on August 14, 1965, in Denver, Colorado.

To be continued in part 3…

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