Friday, September 21, 2012

Sepia Saturday: A Jollett by any other name


Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.




The obvious topic for this week’s Sepia Saturday should be the movie theater, but since I’ve done that already, I have no choice but to look for inspiration in the movie being shown in the prompt, “The Ex-Convict.”

The world of the family historian is usually rather dull and pedestrian.  It means sifting through census records, studying handwriting and fiddling with magnifying glasses to discern the name of a missing ancestor. It means posting inquiries on surname boards and county forums in hopes of connecting with a distant cousin who wants to share information.  It means creating a family chart with 7 generations only to have your husband/daughter/cousin/BFF say, “Wow that’s a lot of work. What time does the game come on?”

If it weren’t for the few criminals in my family tree, I’d have nothing to look forward to as a family historian. 

Actually, most of my ancestors' crimes are not THAT shocking:  a couple of guys perpetrating fraud and some Confederate deserters.  I have a wife abuser and one murderer – maybe it was manslaughter. 

But my favorite criminal actually served some serious time.  Yes, in jail.  The joint.  The clink.  The pokey.  The slammer.  The hoosegow.  The Big House. 

And the crime?  He was a horse thief.

In the nineteenth century, a horse was more than just transportation; it was a means to making a living.  Even more than that, it was essential to survival when one needed to escape from harm.  Horse theft was a serious crime that led to the hanging tree out west.  But here in Virginia, William H. Jollett (my great-grandfather’s nephew, my first cousin three times removed) got to spend about four years of a five-year sentence in Richmond’s “Greybar Hotel.”  

1870 Richmond Census
Click to enlarge


Horse thieves were considered to be no good, dirty, rotten scoundrels. And by all accounts, William H. Jollett was just that.  He reportedly ate soap in order to get sick enough for ol’ Doc Shuller to approve his early release from prison so that he could recuperate at the home of his father’s half-brother in Rockingham County, Virginia.

From there William Jollett’s life really went to hell. He got a young girl “in a family way” and then took off on his sister’s black mare.  From that moment William H. Jollett ceased to exist.  He is nowhere to be found in census records, death records, or land dealings.  

But a year later in 1876 a Giles County, Virginia, girl named Hattie Echols married one William P. Boyd, a man who did not exist before then.


William and Hattie Echols Boyd
photo courtesy of Tim Rugenstein via Dexter Boyd

Boyd researchers have some strong evidence that their ancestor William Preston Boyd was the notorious William Henry Jollett, a man on the run for committing some unknown act more horrific than stealing a horse and getting a girl pregnant, a man whose questionable and shameful past was revealed only to two who succeeded in taking the truth to their graves.


It would be absolutely criminal to miss what’s showing over at Sepia Saturday.  




©2014, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.

56 comments:

  1. Who said family history is dull? Great story. Wish I had a horse thief in the family. Even four times removed would do :) Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Maybe it's the research process that is dull. Sometimes you find a little surprise like this one.

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  2. Whoa, boy! What a post. Loved your lingo, Wendy. You always make me laugh. It sounds as if there was no chance for a normal life until he did put himself into the underground witness program. I wonder if he straightened up after the name change?

    This is great. I haven't run across any criminals in my line yet ... just some folks they knew (wandering naked and drunk through the streets of Yoncalla).

    Have a super weekend!

    Kathy M.

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    1. According to William's descendants, it sounds like he lived a normal life. (I remember your naked guy story -- that was a good one!)

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    2. Since Wendy expect this kind of humor on my part, let me intercede here (and you being the other party, that's alright, me thinks: I changed my name this year [legally] and I still have NOT "straightened" out...
      (pun intended...)
      I've been drunk, I'm been naked (and then some), but never wandering the streets (well, not quite...). Possibly why I don't have a record... I might be more conservative than what people figure me for... As if!!
      There you go Wendy!! Now you can act all flustered!!
      Again, as if!!...
      (I think I'd like to do coffee with you some day...)
      ;)~
      HUGZ

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    3. Your legal name is "Ticklebear"? ;-)
      Next time I'm in Montreal....

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    4. Now,
      wouldn't that be something
      to be called Ticklebear for real!?!
      I have a sense of humor,
      but that would be stretching it a bit...
      ;D~

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  3. It sounds like maybe he got away with murder.

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    1. That's what we think. What else could be so horrible?

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  4. The whole Boyd Jollett thing makes me crazy and it makes me feel bad for Wm Jollett/Boyd to have gone to these measures to stay hidden, and then his family never really know the truth. I am glad we connected with them and learned of William.

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  5. Wow, what a story. great post. How did you find out all that information? Amazing.
    Nancy

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    1. My sister and I were contacted by Boyd researchers back in the 90s (when I had a website on Geocities), but we couldn't come up with any proof about the mysterious crime. Then just a few weeks ago, I heard from another Boyd researcher, so our interest has been renewed.

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  6. Great story! Not all of us have a soap-eatin' scoundrel in our family closet.....

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  7. All I can say, that he is lucky that he did not live in England at that time, otherwise he would have been transported to the colony. Wendy you would have to search here as well. He just changed his name; here in Australia it was a common occurrence, or they just disappeared into the bush. It is a great story and it makes the family sort of more interesting!

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  8. Now that's a story! I suppose today's equivalent of a horse thief would be an auto thief? Ya, that's pretty serious.

    So, it looks like he didn't learn his lesson from his time in the slammer since he stole his sister's black mare to get out of town.

    And eating soap? Really? Sounds like he was pretty desperate to get out of jail. Guess he didn't have his "Get Out of Jail Free" card with him. :)

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    1. HA - no he didn't! I wonder what his desperation was since he had only a year to go.

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  9. He sounds like a pretty lucky guy, starting with not being hanged when he stole his first horse.

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    1. I wish I could find news reports or something to explain why he stole a horse in the first place.

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  10. I love it. Who hasn't been tempted at some point in their lives to disappear, change names and invent a new life. Every person who has ever done any family history research will identify with what you say.

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    1. Today we can just invent that new life online!

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  11. wow what a great story. A real black sheep of the family. I have found an ancestor in prison on the census but dont know what his crime was

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    1. Yep, he definitely qualifies. I want to find court records for William Jollett/Boyd, but so far I've been unsuccessful.

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  12. What a colourful family history - and a great source of fascinating blog posts like this one.

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    1. Colorful - that is true. I have a plan for expanding this story into several posts.

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  13. I'm glad I'm not the only one to find a black sheep with the family name even if I haven't linked him to us yet. Horse stealing in the Uk would have meant him being tansported to Australia/Tasmania for sure.
    Great story.

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    1. I was glad to read your story and to have the company!

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  14. At the time I'm sure the family wanted to separate themselves from him, now he adds color to you family history.

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    1. Good point -- I wonder what his Jollett family thought about him at the time of his crime and then his disappearance.

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  15. An ancestor like that keeps things interesting - but also frustrating, I imagine, with the name change and disappearances. Although he didn't share his most terrible crime, did he at least tell someone in the family that he was a Jollett? Really interesting post, Wendy!

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    1. He shared enough with a son (and subsequently a grandson) to lead them to the truth of his identity. Apparently Hattie Echols knew the truth. But no one seems to know what the next big crime was, if indeed there was one.

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  16. Oh, the intrigue. That scoundrel! But isn't it great to have at least one in the family?

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    1. It is fun to have this mystery to mull over.

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  17. What a colourful character Wendy, I'm so glad you fetched this particular skeleton from the closet. He wasn't unusual in re-inventing himself to escape the hangman's noose either I think. Great post!

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  18. A fine post on searching for the truth in family stories. Sometimes the twists in those stories lead us into a real maze.

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    1. You said it! This one has several twists which I hope to work into a short series of posts.

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  19. Fascinating post. Was the story of William Henry Jollette passed down through your family? Since you know so many details about his life, I wondered if you already had the information or learned more through research. I like the "Greybar Hotel" name for the jail!

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    1. Actually, this story did not come through my family but from the Boyd researchers who contacted my sister and me through our old Geocities website. However, our side of the family has another story that presented a different puzzle but in light of the Boyd story seems to intersect. More to come on that later (I have a short series planned elaborating on the Jollett/Boyd mystery).

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  20. Well, well, never a boring moment!!
    Do you know what happened to the girl in the family way?...
    :/~
    HUGZ

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    1. Got a good theory but no actual proof.

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    2. Yes and No. That'll be part of my Jollett/Boyd series I'm working on. I don't want to show all my cards right now.

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    3. Oh, as long as you don't pull a "Dallas" on us,
      saying it was just a dream....
      ;)~
      HUGZ

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    4. Oh, wasn't that the biggest disappointment ever? I hated that episode. I would never do that to you!

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  21. Love it. This was a great post. I found a few skallywags in my family tree too. As you wrote horse stealing was very serious. My grandfather was not allowed to drive a car due to his alcoholism but he was allowed a truck as he needed it for his farm work. Love the old stories.
    QMM

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    1. Was your grandfather allowed to drive the truck into town or just on the farm? Interesting that he could drive a truck but not a car.

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  22. My father and uncle used to joke with me when we'd discuss our Scottish ancestors that we descended from horse thieves. That was the only answer I ever got. Of course, they just made it up because they knew nothing. To actually discover one in the branches of the tree is quite fascinating.

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    1. We probably made that same joke - only to find out it's true.

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  23. Wow what a story, my attempt this week is very pathetic in comparison. This 'sepia saturday' prompt sure is an excellent idea, wish I'd come across it much earlier.

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    1. I enjoy Sepia Saturday -- it's my favorite blog activity.

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  24. Wow, such detailed information. I've found a black sheep ancestor, too - my great-grandfather who was arrested for assaulting his own son :-(

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    1. Oh, now that's not good. Stealing a horse doesn't seem so personal as assaulting a member of the family, especially one's own child (even if an adult).

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