A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma…

A Note to My Readers:

I always have heeded the genealogist’s warning about the devils and angels that populate a family tree…and the family secrets that seem to lurk in the branches through the generations.  Why did Grandpa hate string beans?  Why did Uncle Pete have a limp?  Why doesn’t anyone talk about Cousin Eugene? Why was Eloise’s “premature” baby born after 7 months of marriage…at 10 pounds 3 ounces?

My mother’s selective storytelling about her family often left me wondering about what she didn’t say as much as about what she did.  Her Uncle Wilmot Purdy was one of those family members that was given a casual mention (He’s such a handsome fellow!) with a lightning speed segue onto lighter fare.  My mother was a sunny soul and believed that if you couldn’t say anything nice…say nothing at all.  And that left the family secrets…well… secret… and left my childhood belief that we were descended from a host of angels and heroes neatly intact.  Except I love a mystery and like nature, I abhor a void so the story of Wilmot Elbert Purdy has made its way on to my blog.  I am an honest researcher after all and there is no use looking for a Jonas Salk or Betsey Ross or George Washington or Amelia Earhart in the family tree if you aren’t willing to find a scoundrel or two.

Inside the Family Bible

Marriage Announcement of Burt and Florence Purdy

While carefully going page by page through the Purdy Williams Family Bible, I found the old newspaper clipping announcing the marriage of my grandparents.  When my grandmother Florence Curtis was barely 16, she and 23 year old Burt Purdy eloped to the Jacksonville Methodist Church parsonage in nearby Trumansburg, New York on May 30, 1899.   In all of my years going through the family bible, I never saw that unassuming little piece of paper.  It was snugly tucked into the deep recesses of the New Testament and was not a part of the collection at the heart of the bible where the family births, deaths and marriages were recorded by Elizabeth Williams Purdy Smith.   In fact, Grandma Smith never recorded either of her son’s marriages which seems so out of character as she was known to be exceedingly precise and proper.

So Florence and Burt eloped.  Florence’s father and mother certainly had enough money to afford a modest ceremony for their first born daughter.  But Florence’s parents were married at the Cayuga Methodist parsonage…so perhaps a big church wedding just wasn’t a Curtis tradition.  My mother often told me that Burt’s mother was not thrilled with her son’s marriage to such a young woman and throughout Burt and Florence’s marriage…and my mother’s childhood…there was little warmth between the two women.

I always puzzled why Grandma Smith kept such a tight rein on my mild mannered grandfather and the family monies and I think now I understand why.

Wilmot E. Purdy

Wilmot Elbert Purdy

Initially the only piece of factual information I had regarding my grandfather’s brother Wilmot…Willie or Will as he was called…was the death of his 18 month old daughter, Elberta, in Michigan in 1903.  Her yellowed obit was pasted by Will’s mother into the Purdy Williams family bible.  A creased tintype of  Wilmot as a child and a sepia portrait of him as a grand looking young man (He’s such a handsome fellow!) were among the few family photos that were passed down from my mother’s grandmother.  A search in the 1892 New York State census finds  Willie living with his wife, Hermonie Swarthout Purdy, with his mother Elizabeth Williams Purdy, her mother, Mary Van Dorn Williams and Will’s younger brother, Burt, at Elizabeth’s boarding house in  Ithaca, New York .  Willie’s occupation was stated as “painter”.

Though I easily found my Purdy family members in Ithaca in the 1900 Federal Census…Willie was nowhere to be found.  I tried every genealogical research method I have learned and went back to the family bible…checking the yellowing obits for any mention of Will.  Nothing.  Until today.

I first found an article in the Rochester New York Democrat Chronicle about a William E. Purdy which stated that he was formerly a painter (which was his occupation in the 1892 Ithaca census) and further stated his widowed mother ran a boarding house in Ithaca (which Grandma Smith did).  And he was a forger!  There are no other Purdy women running a boarding house in Ithaca according to the census so that pretty much settled that.

Could this be my grandfather’s brother?  Could this be the son of the grand and proper Mrs. E. A. Smith?   The article goes on to state that he had abandoned his wife shortly after 1892 and in 1894 had forged a check and was sent to Towanda, PA for trial.

In for a penny…in for a pound… I was off to Towanda, Pennsylvania in Sullivan County where I uncovered some extracts from the 1894 Sullivan Review further revealing the criminal investigation of W. E. Purdy.

Sullivan Review

15 Mar 1894

More about W.E. PURDY, – Since our last issue we have learned more about the young fruit tree agent who forged W.B. JENNINGS’ name to a $34.50 check. He has a wife living at Farmer City, N.Y., and during the winter was arrested for drawing a revolver on his mother-in-law. This broke up the family. PURDY’s widowed mother in Ithaca went his bail and he promised to leave the country. He then began canvassing for Hooker, Grover & Co., nurserymen, of Rochester, and loaded them up with bogus orders for goods, and succeeded in getting his commission on some of the orders, and they are anxious to see him themselves. He was a sleek little scoundrel and bit nearly everybody with whom he had any dealings.

Scoundrel?  Oh dear!

Wilmot and Burt’s father, Elbert Purdy and their maternal grandfather, Oliver S. Williams were both successful grain and produce merchants and well known throughout the state of New York.  So Will abandoned the house painting and took up the guise of his father and grandfather’s profession…no doubt trading on their reputations to ingratiate himself in the merchant circles.

5 Apr 1894

W.E. PURDY, the young man who forged W.B. JENNINGS name to a check for $34.50, has been brought to justice through the instrumentality of the article concerning the transaction published in the Review of March 8. The article was extensively copied, and last Thursday, March 29, an agent left a copy at Farmer, NY, where his (PURDY’s) wife lived, and the excitement it occasioned was at its height when the young gentleman himself dropped off the 7 o’clock train, Friday morning. He was promptly arrested and Detective Guy C. HOLLON, of Towanda, notified by telegraph. He reached Farmer at 5 o’clock that afternoon and identified PURDY, who was taken to Ovid to jail, pending a hearing and the arrival of requisition papers. Hugh L. BUSH and R.H. BREWER, of this place, went to Ovid Monday morning to give evidence against the young man, and it is pretty safe to predict that by the time this paper reaches its readers he will be ruminating in the bastille at Towanda and humming to himself that “One leg is longer that it really ought to be”. If the Review had refrained from mentioning the matter, as requested, this young scamp would probably have gone Scott free. Certain it is he was caught sooner than he otherwise would have been.

In the same issue of the Sullivan Review, Wilmot is receiving mail at the post office and indeed has correspondence of some nature awaiting him there.

Following is the list of letters remaining uncalled for at the close of business at Dushore postoffice March 31, 1894:



10 May 1894

W.E. PURDY was last week brought from New York on a requisition and is now in the Towanda jail awaiting trial and an indictment for forgery. The trial is expected to take place this week.

As of this blog I have not found the reports of the trial and hope that the Sullivan County courthouse might have records.

While I don’t have the trial results, the Sullivan Review revealed the fate of Will’s marriage to Hermonie.  In December of 1894, Hermonie Swarthout Purdy divorced Will Purdy.

20 Dec 1894


The several Courts of Sullivan county convened at the court house in Laporte, Pa., on Monday, December 10, 1894, at 2 p.m. Hon. John A. SITTSER, President Judge, and Hons. John YONKIN and M.J. PHILLIPS, Associate Judges on the bench.

Hermonie S. PURDY vs William E. PURDY; Court direct proclamation and C.E. JACKSON appointed commissioner.

Where in the World is Will?

Will’s  Pennsylvania case was settled somehow.  At this point I have no idea what happened in the case of  fraud he committed against Hooker, Grover & Company of Rochester…perhaps he spent time in prison.  Perhaps once again his mother came to his rescue and settled his debt.  His child’s (Elberta) birth on May 14, 1900 noted in her grandmother’s family bible tells us he was a free man by the fall of 1899.

In 1901 Will was in Ontario, Canada…newly wed to Canadian Jennie Gertrude Hilts.  The marriage was short lived because I found her 1902 marriage record in Ontario to a Richard Hy Grose.  Both marriage records show the names of the parents of the bride and groom and are irrefutably the same people.

So who was married to Will in the fall of 1899 and the mother of Elberta? Will was clearly with the mother of his child in Muskegon, Michigan when word came to Grandma Smith that her granddaughter had died of an accidental carbolic acid poisoning.  Little Elberta’s obituary in May of 1903 gives a clue that her mother was well known in Ithaca and indeed visited her mother-in-law on occasion.

The trail ends in Muskegon.  Little Elberta is buried there in St. Mary’s Cemetery and thereafter, her parents are nowhere to be found.

Which leaves me with the ongoing quest for the fate of Wilmot E. Purdy.  Definitely a con man.   Likely a bigamist.

Certainly a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Author’s Note:  I continue to celebrate my ancestors who sailed the seas in search of adventure…a new life.  I hold dear those that brought children into the world that was a wilderness with only the comfort of a hand roughened by hard work.  I take pride in those that loved education and sought knowledge greater than themselves.  And on occasion I embrace the prodigal as a reminder that we are after all…human.

UPDATE  June 4, 2013.Wilmot E Purdy AKA Neilson Death Certificate

On a whim I decided to learn more about Will’s first wife, Hermione Swarthout…perhaps I would find a clue about Wilmot.  A CLUE???   I typed her name into FamilySearch not expecting anything and BOOM…up came Wilmot’s Ohio Death Certificate.   And he had changed his name to NEILSON.  But all of the statistics matched his life including his birth date, his mother’ s maiden name and his wife, Hermione Swarthout.   Except he said he was a widower and Hermione had divorced him 1894 and had been happily married for decades and was alive and well, thank you very much.  The kicker was his “official address’.  307 Eddy Street in Ithaca  is where my great grandmother, Elizabeth Williams Purdy lived.  BOOM again.  CASE CLOSED.

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