August 27, 2012
Great-Grandpa Was a Fugitive!
I was happily researching my own family history when I came across a 1910 census that threw me for a loop. It showed my great-grandmother as widowed and living with her daughter and son-in-law in Wichita, Texas. But, but...I knew for a fact she and my great-grandfather grew old together. I have photos of them together in the 1940s. What was going on here?
It didn't take much digging before my great-grandfather's name showed up in a Google book search: How Did They Die? Murders in Northern Texas 1892-1927. In a chapter titled "Stabbing in Downtown Wichita Falls," I find the story of my great-grandfather, Frank Rembert.
In 1910, Wichita Falls is a rough and wild oil town. Frank and his two sons engage Ed Hardwick in a street brawl. Ed Hardwick ends up with his throat cut. Frank's two sons are arrested and are eventually acquitted of the crime, but great-granddad disappears. He's on the lam from 1910 to 1915 when he's finally arrested in Pennsylvania after bragging about killing a man in Texas. Sheriff Hawkins from Wichita Falls heads to Pennsylvania to bring home his prisoner, but my great-grandfather gives him the slip in a St. Louis train station. Frank Rembert outruns the law for the rest of his life. And sure enough, he appears on the 1930 census, living with my great-grandmother in Idaho.
Now this is a colorful story. Of course I'm going to include it in my family history stories! And since this is a man I never knew, it's easier for me to write about. It's almost like he's just a character in a book. But not quite: I have letters, real letters to my grandmother from her sisters that show the pain he caused his family, the debts he incurred, the disappearances that caused my great-grandmother heartache, and the shame that followed the family. I also have letters from him to his family expressing regret. These letters make him real.
So I ask myself—should I really include this cruel man in my stories? My feeling is yes, I should.
I feel that we can write about the disagreeable characters in our families if our motive is not to condemn, but to understand. We should try to use the same measure, motive and sense of fairness that we do when writing about ourselves or other family members. I'm working to create a whole picture of this man—the dark and the light.