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August 29, 2014

Death of a Stranger Solves a Family Mystery 103 Years Later

The stranger checked his pocket watch. Almost 9:15 pm. The train from Milwaukee should pull in to the Missoula train station any minute now. He began to gather his belongings - two large suitcases full of his wallpapering and painting tools. In 1911 it didn't do to leave your luggage out of your sight so he tried to keep it by his feet whenever possible.

When the train stopped, the man picked up his luggage, ignoring the twinge of pain across his chest. He was a short man, only 5' 8" and heavy, weighing almost 215 lbs. At 55 years old he figured he wasn't in as good shape anymore and wasn't surprised that his chest and arm ached.

Carrying these suitcases as he went door to door looking for odd jobs was enough to make anyone have aches and pains! He was a drifter and went from town to town in the Western states, barely making enough to pay for his travel expenses. But that was how he had chosen to live.

He liked being alone and going places where no one knew who he was and the cries of "There goes N****r Joe!" FN no longer rang in his ears. For that was what the townspeople called him in the town where he grew up. His grandfather, a free man of colour from Pennsylvania, married an Irish woman and his father married a German woman so he could, and did, pass for white among those who had not known his family.

It was growing dark and was drizzling a bit, so he picked up his pace. Even though it was a comfortable 67' he was sweating as he hurried towards the stairs to the Higgins Avenue Bridge.  Trudging up the stairs he noticed he was out of breath and his chest was tingling with bursts of sharp pain. He hoped he'd find a room to rent fairly close by once he crossed the bridge into town.

The bridge was crowded with townspeople but he barely noticed as the pain in his chest increased. Halfway across the bridge, he stopped and set down his heavy cases, gasping for breath as a lightning jolt of pain hit. He leaned against the railing and then suddenly fell and lay there, not moving. A woman screamed and a few men rushed to him to see if they could help him up. But the stranger lay dead. One of the men shook his head and told his friend to run and get Doc Walsh or the town police.

The body was taken to the Undertaker where Doc Walsh went through the man's belongings. Letters revealed that his name was Joseph E. Butler and he had relatives in Grafton North Dakota. A telegram was sent to the local police in Grafton and a brother came forward. Jake Butler provided the police with Joseph's wife's name and address in Seaforth Ontario Canada and a telegram was sent to her. While we do not have that telegram we can imagine what it said

Regret to inform you of passing of your husband Joseph E. Butler. Please advise what to do with body.
It must have been a shock to Carrie Butler, his wife. Joseph had deserted the family about 10 years earlier and had not been heard from since.  He left behind his wife and 6 children ages 7 to 20. There was no love lost between Carrie and Joseph and in later years she would not talk about him or his disappearance, only saying "he went out west" when asked by her granddaughter Mary. Nothing more was said and no one had the nerve to ask Carrie for details. Again, while we don't have the telegram Carrie sent back to Missoula, we can imagine her terse words

Bury him in Missoula
And so Joseph E. Butler, my husband's great-great grandfather, was buried alone in the Missoula Cemetery in Missoula Montana. It took me over 15 years to find his death but last night was my genealogy breakthrough. I followed a hunch I had that he had ended up in North Dakota near his brother Jake, and finding a grave online for a J. E. Butler prompted me to look for records of this J. E. Butler. None were found, it was as if he had come out of nowhere. No census, no marriage, no sign that he had ever lived in or near Missoula Montana. So why was he buried there and with an actual marker?

A phone call by my husband's cousin Judy to the Cemetery and to the Funeral Home that handled his autopsy and death provided us with the following information:

Name Joseph E. Butler. Died May 17, 1911. Place of death Missoula Bridge. Coroner said Heart Disease. No name of coroner. Buried May 27, 1911. Paid cash but no name of who paid. 

The Daily Missoulian, May 18, 1911, p12
With that I went on a hunt for a death certificate or newspaper notice, something that would give us a place of birth or spouse's name. I still was not sure this was "our" Joseph at this point. At that is where luck and friends came into play. I found an index entry to a newspaper death notice placed in The Missoulian on May 18th and put out a request on Facebook for anyone with access to this edition to copy and send it to me. 

At the same time I began a search online and found that the Missoulian was available for free at Chronicling America. As I was pulling up that date, a Facebook friend sent me the article.  I eventually found 3 articles about Joseph and his lonely death in Missoula on the Higgins Avenue Bridge. 

Our cousin Judy mentioned how said it was that he died alone, but I don't think it was the saddest part of this story, for he chose the life of a drifter. 

For me the sad part was that his granddaughter Mary (my husband's grandmother) is not with us to learn what happened to her grandfather. It was a mystery she longed to solve and I would have loved to share this with her.

And so the story ends. 103 years later, Joseph has been found. Perhaps one day we may be able to visit his grave in Missoula and pay our respects.

FN This description of the nickname the townspeople had for Joseph came from the grandson of a man who knew Joseph personally. 

The Daily Missoulian., May 19, 1911, Morning, Page 10
The Daily Missoulian., May 23, 1911, Morning, Page 10,


Janet said...

Great story. Wonderful to be able to come to a conclusion. We all wish for that same thing.
Janet Buchanan

Dana L said...

Wow... what a story! And a great piece of sleuthing! I'm glad you finally found the answer to what happened to this ancestor. I'm finding newspapers to be the key more & more often!

Anonymous said...

Touching story, I'm always amazed at how we can now help solve those mysteries. I can imagine how you felt when you found those articles!

Linda said...

Wow! Loved your story, very well written and researched! Great that you finally found him - it's the ending we all hope for!

Amy said...

Amazing story! Great research. SO glad you found closure. One question: why did you think he was buried in N. Dakota? And isn't Missoula in Montana, or is there also one in N. Dakota?

Thanks for sharing this story!

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Hi Amy

I didn't say he was buried in N. Dakota :-) In the story I said he was buried in Missoula which as you noted, is in Montana. Sorry I didn't make that clear, I guess the reference to his brother in N. Dakota caused the confusion.

I would love to visit his grave one day!

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I was so thrilled when I found the answer after all these years of searching.

I honestly wasn't sure I would ever find out!

now hoping to have the same great luck with my own ancestor Joseph McGinnis who disappeared with his family from Ontario Canada after 1871.

I can't find him for the next 20 years and by 1891 I know he was dead because his wife and kids were back in Guelph and said she was a widow.

But where were they for those 20 years? I am pretty sure he went to USA but to find him?

Amy said...

Thanks for the explanation---I see where I got confused. It was this sentence: "I followed a hunch I had that he had ended up in North Dakota near his brother Jake, and finding a grave online for a J. E. Butler prompted me to look for records of this J. E. Butler." For some reason I read that as meaning that you found the grave in North Dakota!

Sometimes our hunches really pay off! Good luck with the rest of your mysteries!! said...

Great and wonderful written story! And what do we learn? Never give up researching! Thanks Lorine for sharing! - Karen

Anonymous said...

This was a great story, which gives us hope that we can find our lost ancestors! So glad that you had a satisfactory conclusion.

Anonymous said...

I found a Joseph McGinnis death record in Vermont in 1886. for the indexed information and for the image of the original record. From the date of death and age it might be your Joseph McGinnis. All the best.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Thanks for the comments everyone! And thanks for the Vermont link lineagehunter.

I will file it and save it in case... maybe I can find more info on this Vermont guy to either disprove him as my Joseph or keep the idea open

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing. What a wonderful story to finally find.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Great story. I love when the puzzle pieces come together. I'm inspired to solve a mystery within my family.