Alta Journal is pleased to present the fourth installment of a five-part original series by historian and longtime Alta contributor William Francis Deverell. The twisty, suspenseful story of the disappearance of Deverell’s great-uncle Francis, it begins in snowy upstate New York before moving to Europe and Los Angeles. As Deverell searches for his missing namesake, he discovers more than he bargained for.In Part Three, Deverell’s father asked him to find Francis.
Each week, we’ll publish the next chapter of this real-life mystery story. Visit altaonline.com/serials to keep reading, and sign up here for email notifications when each new installment is available.
A historian friend of mine, Richard White, says that he figures that the years before World War II were the last ones in which Americans could disappear and get away with it. I think Richard is right.
Sure, people can still drop out and try to go away. But it would be almost impossible to pull it off today. It’s that earlier part of the 20th century when the bureaucratic—to say nothing of the technological—surveillance of Americans had not become all-encompassing, omniscient.
Francis had wanted to disappear, I guess. And he could. At least for a hundred years.
Turns out, finding Francis was not all that hard. Mind-blowing, yes, but not that difficult. Several factors especially helped. His World War I military service created a paper trail with more details and, eventually, hints as to what had happened to Francis.
My father and I talked to family members, we asked for documents and photos (there were very few), and I pored through the army's careful tracking of him as a soldier. As with all the historical research I do in my career, the work was exhilarating, one find leading to another, then another.
Even more important, the revolution in digital access to all kinds of historical material helped bring Francis out from where he had hidden himself. And the fact that others out there went looking for answers too. We never knew one another (never knew one another existed, actually). But then we found one another, and we found Francis.
Mysteries remain, but some pieces of the puzzle have been locked down, though each answer inevitably comes with another question.
Francis dropped out of sight in the summer of 1919. I once wondered if he might have gone to Ireland, where he might have been able to fade into the countryside. Francis must have heard many kinds of stories of Ireland, though the early 1910s and 1920s were an especially rough period on the island. Even if he thought about going there, Francis might have thought better of it, given what he’d just lived through in the Argonne Forest.
Instead of Ireland, I found traces of him first in Mexico. At least that’s the first time we can find him, his presence there tacked down by, of all things, a marriage.
There he is, in 1922, in Mexicali of all places (or Tijuana; the record isn’t clear on the location). But Francis Daly was no longer John Francis Daly. He was now—for reasons I cannot fathom—Harry Wheeler. And Harry was getting married to Mary Louise Saenz, an 18-year-old California woman of Mexican heritage, who went by the name of Lee.
Whom did she think she was marrying? Some rootless Irish American, a bigamist, who’d fled to the other end of the continent? What did he tell her he escaped? A marriage the church wouldn’t let him leave? A restrictive youth in a snowbound town in upstate New York? A horrific war across the ocean? Something, some sin or some trauma, that Francis, now called Harry, might have shared in a moment of openness? Maybe she didn’t know any of that, didn’t know who Harry had once been. Eventually, she would know at least some of it.
Why did Francis choose to be Harry Wheeler? I have no idea, but census records reveal that there was a young boy in Francis’s Rochester neighborhood in the 1890s whose name was Harry Wheeler. He was a few years younger than Francis, and he lived a long life. Might a childhood playmate have planted some kind of identity seed? History is full of red herrings and surprising rhymes.
Another surprise: Newly named, newly invented, Harry Wheeler settled in Southern California with Mary Louise Saenz Wheeler. I think that’s probably where he went in the first place, in 1919, as she was from Los Angeles and they probably met there and shot off to Mexico to tie the knot, the better to avoid questions about Francis’s marriage to Katherine. For the next 40 years, until he died in 1960, Harry and Lee lived in San Gabriel Valley neighborhoods and cities I know well: Monrovia and El Monte. For a number of years, they lived in a house less than eight miles from where I live today. Lee died in 1975.
Harry (whom I’ll always think of as Francis) held a number of jobs. He apparently worked for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. That multi-pronged program, which put so many to work in dire times, built the modern infrastructure of greater Los Angeles. Harry worked in Alhambra, just south of where I live with my family in Pasadena. I can’t imagine how far away the Argonne Forest must have seemed to Harry as he lived and worked in Los Angeles while it was growing into the global city it is today. But then again, maybe it never did feel far enough away for a man outrunning his past.
Harry Wheeler and Lee Saenz had a family. They had three children, two of whom pretty clearly drew Harry back to the life and family he’d left behind in Rochester. His daughter, Louise Lorraine, carried some of her mother’s name. Then there is Eugene Francis, half named for, we’d imagine, the person whom Harry once was and for that kid brother who died as a teenager in New York. And a son, John, a tie to Francis and his own father.
Here’s where the story gets stranger, more unexpected. At one point, Harry Wheeler also worked as a baggage and mail handler for the Pacific Electric Railway, the trolley and freight system that once ran near and far across the whole of Los Angeles County. The P.E. grew into transit prominence in the early 20th century. It is largely responsible for the decentralized spread of greater Los Angeles. Rail and real estate titan Henry Huntington shaped the Pacific Electric into a transit colossus, which, in turn, sculpted modern Los Angeles.
The small-world coincidence of this boggles my mind. Harry Wheeler, for whom I am partly named by way of his earlier name, owed his employment to Henry Huntington, and so do I. I direct a research, teaching, and outreach effort called the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, headquartered at the Huntington and the University of Southern California.
For nearly 40 years, I have spent half my professional life at the Huntington, one of the world’s greatest research libraries, which is close enough to my home that I can walk there.
My job is time travel. Surrounded by fragile documentary paraphernalia of the past—history and mystery together—I follow trails backward in time. The route is always indistinct, always fascinating. While my great-uncle sought to disappear, much of what I do is to make people like him reappear. Francis tried to leave no trace of himself as he lived out his life as Harry. Most people don’t even have to try to disappear from history. They just do. My work is to gather all the traces and hints that I can find, then put them together into what feels to me like a meaningful shape, a meaningful story.
Though separated by decades and his subterfuge, my namesake and I were actually so close to each other. Soon, thanks to Harry, I found other people who would help me fill out the puzzle, people from the Harry side of Francis’s life, relatives I never knew I had.
TO BE CONTINUED