Alta Journal is pleased to present the final 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.

finding francis logo, part 5, alta serials
In Part Four, Deverell tracked down Harry Wheeler, the man once known as John Francis Daly.

Harry Wheeler’s granddaughter, Kathleen Hoffer, whose father was Eugene (the older boy in the above picture), has helped me immeasurably in my search for the man my family knew as Francis. Across a range of email conversations, Kathleen, my father’s newfound cousin, has provided me with Wheeler family information and essentially told me that she and her kin always wondered why Grandpa Harry did not have much of a “backstory.” Kathleen, her siblings, and Wheeler cousins are kin that my dad never got the chance to meet.

I will go to a meeting of historians of the American West in the fall. It will be held where Kathleen lives, and we are excited to meet for the first time in person. I will thank her for how much she has helped me and my dad get to know Francis as Harry and to realize that they were the same man.

Is there a family that doesn’t have a Francis in its tree?

Of course not. Sifting through the scattered details of Francis’s double life, I’m not sure if this is the story of one family and the son who escaped them or something larger, a story of a brutal world war and one frontline cook’s attempt to put himself as far away from that experience as possible. Was Francis shrugging off the Daly family a selfish act? Maybe, but if he’d stayed in Rochester, there would be no Wheeler family.

Is there a family that doesn’t have a Francis in its tree?

In the end, my thoughts return to that attic on Devon Road. Reflecting on that boyhood marked by loss and sadness, I smile when I think of my dad in that doughboy uniform, charging left and right at unseen wartime enemies up in the eaves of that small house. Of course, he could have done just the same had Francis stayed, he could have played soldier with Francis, but knowing what his namesake experienced, that seems unlikely. (I doubt many World War I veterans played much soldier after coming home.) It made my dad happy to see Francis, even if he had become Harry, put back on the family tree. My father didn’t live long enough to learn as much as I did about Harry, but he knew we’d found his long-lost uncle. I’m sad that I lost Dad before he’d gotten more of Francis—and, honestly, that I’d gotten more of him—but I’m glad that the journey led me to relations I never would have otherwise known about, much less had the chance to meet face-to-face. And it makes me smile to think of my dad asking for my help in that.

I think Francis, before he became Harry, felt caught between the traumatic poles of a horrible war and the strictures of the Catholic Church. That looks to me like desperation. As Harry Wheeler, I think he tried to forget. But we can see even in the names he chose for his children that he could not, that he did not.

My father’s sister Jean once told me something that I cannot shake. When I told her, not long before she died, that we had found Francis, her eyes lit up. “When I was a very little girl,” she said, “my mother took the two of us”—my dad was not yet born—“on a long train ride to California. We were so excited. Mother told us that we were going to meet someone.”

It had to have been Francis.

Or, as he was then known, Harry. And this would explain why the Wheelers had a faded photograph of Jean and Peg as little girls. Oh, to have been there. I imagine Helen and the two girls getting off the train in Pasadena (Union Station was still years off), which would have put them in walking distance to the 1923 home where I live with my wife and our two children, Helen and John. What did Harry show them of California in 1930? What stories did he share with my mother when the girls were out of earshot? More questions; more mysteries.

One of the disappointments of being a historian is that even if you find the right documents, pin down the data, and lock in the dates, you can never truly bring back the past. It’s just educated guesswork with fragments of information, and you learn to make your peace with that. But if I had a time machine, I could go back to Harry Wheeler’s home, the one that is so close to where I live today, and knock on his door. “I’m William Francis, your great-nephew,” I’d say. “Who are you?”

It took 15 minutes to find Francis, give or take 103 years.

As it is, I’ll never know.

Recently, I drove 30 miles east from our home with my son, John. We went to a cemetery we’d never been to in Rowland Heights, to a neighborhood unknown to us. I checked in at the office, asked if there was a directory. The staff was very helpful.

It took 15 minutes to find him, give or take 103 years. Francis Daly had finally stopped running; he now rests in the grave of Harry Wheeler.

A coda:

I also found Katherine, Francis’s first wife. She married again, in the mid-1920s, after her marriage to Francis had been dissolved in court. Francis was listed as having disappeared since 1919, whereabouts unknown. She married an auto mechanic named Myron Russell.

Katherine and Myron lived four blocks from where my father was then in high school. In 1946, Katherine was hit by a jeep driven by a man improbably named Francis in a tiny town outside Rochester. She died two days later, and her husband settled a $6,000 wrongful-death suit with the driver.

Another rhyme: Katherine and Myron had one child. They named him Harry.

This completes our five-part serialization of “Finding Francis.”

Sign up for more Alta Serials.