Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Riddle of Jessie Reed

(As anyone who has followed this blog knows, I am obsessed with the story of Jessie Reed, the ill-fated Ziegfeld Follies showgirl who married my grandfather Leonard Minor Reno. Two years ago, I published my account of her mysterious life HERE on this blog. I had to cut portions of it out in the interest of brevity, but I am still keen on finding out definitively when and where she was born and who her parents actually were. For that purpose, I am now posting this sidebar regarding her roots that I initially had left out. My hope is that somehow someone reading this online might hold the key to her origins.)

Perhaps the greatest mystery about Jessie Reed is who she really was. In past articles and books about her (many of them riddled with errors) her maiden name was given as Rogers. As previously mentioned, this was the name Ollie used when describing her during his court appearance in 1917. Or so I thought. It turns out that the source for this quote is a heavily redacted transcript of Ollie’s trial that Dan Caswell had used in his spurious memoirs which were serialized in 1922. Either Caswell had misquoted Ollie or perhaps the court stenographer had heard him wrong. Or maybe “Jessie Rogers” was simply Jessie’s stage name at the time. For there can be no doubt that on her first marriage license her name is clearly given as “Jessie May Richardson.” Likewise in the handwritten church ledger. But then just a year later her name is listed as “Jessie May Richards” on her daughter’s birth certificate. So which is it? Richards or Richardson? Adding to the confusion is the fact that Jessie’s death record gives her maiden name as “Richard.” 

One can easily go mad poring through Census records, as I have done, on microfilm or online, hoping to find Jessie Reed in one of them. Despite countless hours, I have not found one iota of evidence that Jessie in any of her guises appears in the 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930 censuses. I have combed every record, using every possible variation of her name (Reed, Rogers, Richard, Richards, Richardson, and Reno) and followed every possible lead to no avail. This is surprising since almost always there is some record, no matter how off (a botched birth year, or a daughter incorrectly listed as a son, for instance). But in Jessie’s case every possible candidate I have researched has panned out as someone else and been eliminated. It also appears that the name “Jessie May” was the “Jennifer” of its day. Thousands of girls born between 1890 and 1900 had that name, making research all the more frustrating. It wasn’t until 1928 that Jessie Reed started to use the name Jessica. In fact, the name Jessica rarely appears in the 1900 or 1910 censuses anywhere in Texas and I’ve come to the conclusion that Jessie just made it up because it sounded more mature and perhaps in her mind glamorous.

Adding to the confusion of Jessie’s roots is her marriage license with Dan Caswell, the document that was of such interest to reporters back in 1920. That too should be a slam-dunk, at least in a normal, non-theatrical world, since most people rarely lie or misrepresent themselves on official documents during such happy (one assumes) circumstances. But in Jessie’s case, nothing is ever simple, and never cut-and-dried. She had a genius for disinformation. Jessie gives her birth date as July 3, 1898 on that document. And claims her birth name was Reed. She gives her parents’s names as James and Anna Reed. No doubt Jessie was reluctant to give her name as the former Mrs. Debrow (or Durburrow, as it were), and she had already divorced Ollie in 1917. She used the stage name Reed here since it was the name she was best known by and because she didn’t want Caswell to know she had been previously married. She also tweaked the birth year, perhaps because Dan was born in 1899 and she didn’t want him to think she was older than he was. 

But I think it is reasonable to assume that Jessie would not have needed to fabricate the day and month of her birthday. What advantage would there be in that, especially since others in her close-knit circle, the many showgirls Dan and she were traveling with, would have known what her birthday was? Nor would she have felt compelled to invent false first names for her parents. In an interview that occurred shortly after she wed Caswell, Jessie was asked if her maiden name was Reed and she insisted it was. The interviewer, perhaps hoping she’d slip up, asked her if her parents’ name was also Reed. Jessie said of course it was. But when asked about her previous marriage, and daughter, Jessie cut the interview short. 

I decided to try the Houston city directories. In the 1910/1911 edition, which was compiled in July 1910, there is a listing for a “Miss Jessie Richard,” “cash girl at Alkemeyer” living at 1505 Elysian. Alkemeyer was a dry goods store very similar to Levy’s (which Jessie had claimed to have worked at in one of her early Ziegfeld interviews.) Alkemeyer is also the store Ollie had once been caught breaking into. By using the street index that accompanies the directory, I found a woman named “Mrs. Willie McCorquodale” also living at that address. She lists herself as “Widow of Glenn.” A quick glance at the marriage index for Texas reveals a “Willie Richard” who married “G. McCorquodale” in 1907 in Orange, Texas. Richard, as I mentioned, is the maiden name given on Jessie’s death certificate. Could Willie have been this Jessie’s aunt or sister? It seemed unlikely she would be her mother since her marriage was only five years earlier than Jessie’s. 

It took some doing to find Glenn McCorquodale in the 1910 Census. His name was badly mangled. But he is there in Orange, listed as a plumber, but also as “widowed.” This is strange, but telling. Both Willie and Glenn are listed as “widowed” in the same year even though they are both still very much alive. I suspect that means they were separated or divorced and too ashamed to admit it. The Houston directory gave Mrs. Willie McCorquodale’s profession as “operator at the American Laundry.” This jibes nicely with the anecdote that Jessie was working at a laundry when she was younger. She could have been helping Willie at her job. I had no luck, however, finding any sign of Willie Richard in the census from 1900 or 1910 or later. Nor is she in any of the Texas death indexes. She simply vanishes from the records. (Her former husband, Glenn, however, does not. He was apparently killed by his second wife in Orange, Texas in 1942.)

The subsequent Houston Directory, from 1912, shows a “Jessie Richards” living at 2308 Rusk Avenue, working for Nabisco. I thought back to the published anecdote that said Jessie had worked there. But the more I pondered this entry the more it became clear that this has to be a male. All white women in the directory are listed either as Miss or Mrs, unless they were widowed. Strikingly, this was not true if the female was designated as “colored.” So this is probably not our Jessie, but it could be her father. On Jessie Reed’s death certificate, her father’s name is given as Jessie, although the informant —“hospital records” — may not be very reliable. 

That same year there is a “Miss Jessie Richardson” listed in the directory on Hardcastle Street. But that is all it says. There is no information to link it definitively to Jessie May Richardson except that it is the only time a lady with that name appears. There is also, however, a listing for a “James C. Richardson, paving contractor” at 709 Rusk Avenue. What’s interesting about this, besides the fact that Jessie gave her father’s name as James on her marriage license to Caswell, is that Ollie Debrow and his family are listed as living at that exact same address the year before. 

There is another “Miss Jessie Richards” living at 836 Arthur Street, who shows up frequently in these early city directories. But this Jessie killed herself in 1915 by drinking carbolic acid and has no connection to Jessie Reed.

The one fly in the ointment to these directory clues is the fact that Jessie was allegedly 14 when she married Ollie in 1912. She had claimed she was born July 3, 1898 on her marriage license to Caswell, but 1897 is the date most often ascribed to her. It also happens to be the birth year on her Social Security record where she is listed as “Jessie M. Reed.” 

But if we assume that Jessie is one of these people in the Houston directories, then I wonder if she really was born in 1897. Wouldn’t one have to be a few years older to be listed individually in a directory? It doesn’t make sense that a 13 year old girl, in 1910, would be listed in a street directory even if she were working at the time. So either these people are not our Jessie Reed, or Jessie was fudging her age all along. 

And then there’s the issue with her first marriage to Ollie Debrow. Looking at their marriage license poses new questions. According to state law at the time, a 14 year old girl could get married legally but only if she had consent from her parents. Jessie claimed that her parents had died before she got married, and that she was an only child. So without them, if she was in fact telling the truth, who would have been her legal guardian? Was it this fellow W. B. Kyle who acted as her witness? Looking closer, one notices that the section of the license where the spouses swear that they are legally of age is not filled out. It’s left blank. This would seem to indicate she wasn’t of legal age, but where then are the signatures of her legal guardians? 

Another reason I question her official birth year is that during his trial, Ollie had claimed to be roughly the same age as Jessie, meaning 14 or 15, when they got married, but according to the census of 1900 he was born around 1890 which would make him 21 years old at the time he married Jessie in 1912. (His WWI registration card in 1917 says he was born in 1892. His death certificate, with his sister as informant, says 1896, but he's listed as a "messenger" in the 1905 Houston Directory, so it seems unlikely he was younger than 15 at the time.) If Ollie was indeed 21, that was the legal age he would have had to be to get married without parental consent. But it also means he was stretching the truth on the witness stand. He might also have been exaggerating about Jessie being 14. An article published in 1920 when she married Dan Caswell insinuated that Jessie Reed was actually ten years older than she let on. The author gave no proof. But it is intriguing. And it might explain why it has been so difficult to find Jessie in the censuses. 

I did ultimately succeed in finding her in one census, the 1940 one, which was released in 2012. She’s listed in Chicago as “Jessie Reed,” divorced, “nite club hostess” (stated on the wrong line), living at the Metropole. Her age is given as 42. But in the space where she was asked where she was born it says “Alabama” not Texas. Was Jessie trying to throw would-be snoops off the track? Or just having the last laugh? Or was she simply telling the truth? The Texan Cinderella may not have been from Texas after all. Hopefully as other vital records are digitized, more, as they say, shall be revealed.

(If anyone has more information about Jessie Reed’s origins or relatives, please feel free to email me at brooks/underscore/peters@AOL.)