More clues about Ray Shearer

1908-12-25 postcard backMy paternal great-grandfather Ray Shearer continues to prove a mystery.  I’ve never seen a photo of him, and until today I’ve found only a single artifact associated with him: a letter he wrote to his son on July 2, 1932. Today I found three more objects associated with Ray, as well as an unidentified photo postcard that might be of Ray, his sister, and their mother.

The first postcard was postmarked December (25?), 1908, from ___dyville, Iowa (possibly Braddyville, Iowa), and was from Ray’s aunt Cynthia. Cynthia is Ray’s father’s older sister, Cynthia Anne Shearer Maxwell (1863–1926). Ray’s father died traumatically when Ray was less than 2½ years old, of injuries suffered from a fall off of a roof onto a stump.

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A letter from a lost father

1932-07-02 Ray Shearer letter page 1From what I’ve heard, my grandfather, Vernon Black, didn’t get much from his biological father—not even his surname. Vernon’s mother, Catalina Edel, divorced Vernon’s biological father, Zyonia Ray Shearer, when Vernon was only 5½ years old “on the ground of gross neglect of duty.” On several occasions, my grandfather even denied that Ray Shearer (the name his father went by) was his father. In his later years, my grandfather was somewhat more forthcoming about his biological father, but it was clear that Vernon held onto a lot of resentment for Ray.

I’ve never seen a picture of my great-grandfather Ray Shearer, nor do I know of any items that once belonged to Ray. What little I know of Ray I learned from my grandfather’s sister, Anelia (short for her given name of Anna Cornelia) Shearer. She was just a little over a year old when Ray left the family, but she kept his last name and kept his memory alive.

I’ve been going through a stack of papers and letters from my grandfather’s teenage years, and I found one envelope that was particularly worn out and discolored (as compared to the relatively clean envelopes that contained letters from Vernon’s friends and girlfriends). When I removed the letter contained in the worn envelope, I was surprised to see that it was a letter from Ray to Vernon, dated July 2, 1932, when Vernon was 15½ years old.

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He’s dead, Jim (or, Down a blind alley)

In the last three posts, I laid out the evidence for my hypothesis that my great-great-grandfather’s death shortly before 1900 was a ruse, and that he had instead lived to the ripe old age of 87, dying in 1965 in Denver, CO.

I felt at the time that this was the simplest explanation that accounted for all of the known facts. Over the last two days, I’ve been digging hard and deep into historical documents to fill in the blank spots in the story. The evolving picture was consistent with the posts I wrote about the death being a ruse. As I mentioned in the third and final post, the alternative scenario was that there had been two Gilbert M. Scherers running around at the same time, who just happened to have been born in the same place on the same date, to families which had the same first names, and with only one of these Gilberts at a time being documented in the historical record. To me, that seemed a greater stretch than the faked death story.

But then I stumbled upon this document—an 1870 census return from Smyrna, Iowa—and everything started to fall apart. On this census is a five-year-old boy named Gilbert M. Shearer, a Gilbert M. Shearer who would have been about 13 years older than the Gilbert M. Scherer I had been documenting.
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A Death Greatly Exaggerated, part 3


Warning—the conclusion of this post is 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 explained how my inherited last name should have been “Scherer” or “Shearer,” but my grandfather, Vernon, refused to use that surname because his birth father, Zyonia Ray Shearer, abandoned him and his family when Vernon was only 4 or 5 years old. But then I looked briefly at Zyonia’s (Ray’s) childhood and found that he, too, had lost his father when he was only 4 or 5 years old. Family tradition held that Ray’s father, Gilbert Michael Scherer, died shortly before 1900 due to traumatic injuries he sustained in an accident:

“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.”

In part 2 of this story, I introduced Gilbert Michael Scherer and his wife Mary Belle (Coddington) Scherer, and tried to present everything I know (or thought I knew) about Gilbert, his short life, and his death. At the end of part 2, I presented the first piece of evidence that Gilbert was still alive long after his supposed death.

In this third and final installment, I’ll make the case for Gilbert not having died when, where, or how the family tradition maintains he died.

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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.
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A Death Greatly Exaggerated, part 1


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


My grandfather, Vernon Curtis Black, was named Vernon Cornelius Shearer at birth. I don’t know why he stopped using Cornelius (his maternal grandfather’s name), but I have a fairly clear understanding of why he changed his last name. When Vernon was only five years old, his biological father, Ray Shearer (born Zyonia Ray Shearer), was given an ultimatum by Vernon’s mother Catalina: he could sober up and stay with the family, or he could continue to go out drinking with his friends and flirting with women. Ray chose the latter option, and Vernon never saw his biological father again.

As the ancient proverb states, however, there are always two sides to every story. Ray was apparently a friendly, outgoing man who had his own childhood scars—he also lost his father, Gilbert Michael Scherer, when he was only about five years old. According to Vernon’s younger sister Anna Cornelia (“Anelia”) Hayes,

“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.”

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Haunting mystery girl, part 1

A few years ago, my father drove down from his home in Washington state with several boxes of family memorabilia. In a box with other items that were almost certainly from the house of Frank Black and Catalina (Edel) Black, I found a cased image of a haunting young girl. As I’m currently reading a book about identifying and dating old photographs, I thought I’d use this image of the young girl as a practice case.

Who is this girl? When was the image made? Does her awkward pose hint at this being a post-mortem photograph? I don’t yet know whether I will be able to answer these questions, but this post will record the initial portion of my research on the photo with an aim of providing at least provisional answers to these questions. Continue reading