Monday, February 13, 2012

The Mysterious Drifter – James William Elwood

B. (probably) 18 Sep 1869 in Memphis, Tennessee
M. 18 Feb 1898 in Los Angeles, California
Wife: Eleanor Mabel Hewes
D. 5 Nov 1925 in Los Angeles, California

There is no certainty of James William Elwood’s whereabouts until February 1898; he told many stories of his early life to several people, and there's no documentation of any of it. His death record states he was born on September 18, 1866 to William and Valetta Elwood in Memphis, Tennessee, but no people by those names have been found in records. His marriage certificate and the 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses gave his birth as 1869 in Tennessee. He claimed several times that his paternal grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. His mother was described as being French and it's possible that she was actually a Cajun.

Most likely James Elwood wasn't the name he was born with. One family story said that his name was really Jacques Adeline. Other stories say that he was raised by nuns in Vincennes, Indiana, and that his real name was written on a tattoo on his arm, something pronounced like “Babikackoff.” He had another tattoo with the name “Rose.” He was also said to have abandoned a wife and children in Indiana to move to California. He once claimed that he had lived in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and paid only $1.00 to travel by train from St. Louis to Los Angeles.

James' arrival in Los Angeles was probably during the 1890s. In late 1897, he was approached by a man in a bar. The man, George Hewes, wanted to help men like James who were “down and out,” and invited him to visit his settlement house called "The Church of the Neighborhood," located just south of downtown. James showed up there and was said to have "wooed" Hewes' 17 year-old daughter Eleanor by playing his banjo for her. She became pregnant and they were married on February 18, 1898, with Eleanor's father performing the service.

James Elwood, date unknown

George Hewes helped his son-in-law get settled, and may have been the one to get him a job painting carriages since he himself was a carpenter who built carriages. James and Eleanor had five children born between 1898 and 1905, one of whom died as an infant. The family lived in a different house almost every year, in the neighborhood near Hewes' church. One time, they lived in the only house on their block, and when city planners needed to name the road it became Elwood Street. The road still has that name today, a three-block street bisected by the Santa Monica Freeway.

Elwood Street in Los Angeles

In 1906, James and Eleanor separated. He moved a few miles away and lived in a rented room of a house for the next 15 years or so. He continued to visit his wife and children every week, bringing them food. He worked during those years as a car painter.

James Elwood in about 1915

James may have had some musical talent; in addition to playing the banjo, he also played violin, guitar and  he sang. His banjo and guitar have been passed down in the family. It was said that he played his small "parlor" guitar as it rested on his lap. He sung "beautifully" in a "high tenor voice," and was once described as being similar to a country and western singer from the 1950s called Tex Carmen.

James Elwood's guitar

When James couldn’t support himself any more, he moved in with various relations, one of which was his daughter Hazel and her husband, Thomas Mitchell. In early 1925, they took him into their home, but he left after two weeks complaining that he didn’t like being served oatmeal every day for breakfast. Later that year, the Los Angeles County General Hospital became his home. When he died there on November 5th, it was said that he asked for the last rites of the Catholic Church, something maybe consistent with the story that he was raised by nuns.

James was cremated and the urn of his ashes was displayed on the mantle in wife Eleanor’s home. Hazel’s children would later dare each other to open the urn and “sneak a peek at Grandpa.” Later, the ashes would be interred in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

Children:
1. Sophia Mabelle Elwood – B. 6 Sep 1898, Los Angeles, California; D. 3 Jun 1987, San Leandro, California; M. Walter Geraldson Griffiths (1897-1970), 30 Dec 1921, Calcutta, India

2. George Henry Elwood – B. 13 Dec 1899, Los Angeles, California; D. 1 Feb 1977, Los Angeles, California; M. Eileen Edythe Kelterer (1899-1989), 1 Apr 1934, Los Angeles, California

3. Hazel Laura Elwood – B. 10 Apr 1901, Los Angeles, California; D. 11 Jul 1964, Encino, California; M. (1) Thomas Michael Mitchell (1893-1980), 11 Feb 1921, Los Angeles, California; (2) Juan Marte (1901-1973), 19 Aug 1943, Lordsburg, New Mexico

4. John Edward Elwood – B. 22 Nov 1902, Los Angeles, California; D. 17 Apr 1904, Los Angeles, California

5. Maude Louise Elwood – B. 15 Jul 1905, Los Angeles, California; D. Nov 1983, Douglas, Alaska; M. Samuel Robert Graham (1903-1968), 31 Jan 1925

Sources:
Marriage certificate of James Elwood and Eleanor Hewes, Los Angeles, 18 Feb 1898
1900, 1910 and 1920 U.S. Census, California
City directories of Los Angeles, 1899-1920
Death certificate of James Elwood, Los Angeles, 5 Nov 1925
Family stories of Thomas Milton Mitchell, Thomas Michael Mitchell, Maude Graham and Nancy Elwood, 1976-1999
California Death Records, 1940-1997
Birth Certificate of Hazel Laura Elwood, 10 Apr 1901
Death Certificate of Thomas Michael Mitchell, 14 Mar 1980
Marriage record of Hazel Mitchell and Juan Marte, 19 Aug 1943
California County Marriages, 1850-1952
Family Bible of Maude L. Graham

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