M. 18 Feb 1898 in Los Angeles, California
Wife: Eleanor Mabel Hewes
D. 5 Nov 1925 in Los Angeles, California
For almost 120 years, the true identity of James William Elwood was unknown. He had kept it hidden from his wife and children, seeming as if he had a past that he couldn’t share with them. But there were a few clues he left behind in family stories and records, and in June 2017, a DNA test led to the discovery of who he really was: a man named John Edeline.
John Edeline was born on September 18, 1869 in Vincennes, Indiana to William Edeline and Mary Louise Ravellette, their first child. William and Mary Edeline had three more children, and around the time the youngest was born in 1876, William died, leaving an estate valued at just $226. Mary remarried in 1880, having one more child. By 1892, Mary had separated from her husband and was suing for divorce.
John likely attended a Catholic boys’ school in Vincennes. At age 18, he was listed in the city directory as a laborer under the name “John Adline”; no one else in his family was listed that year. By the early 1890s, he drove a delivery cart for a furniture maker. He likely worked several jobs like that during those years. There is evidence in newspapers that he attended parties with family and friends; they were lively events with music and singing.
Illustration of John Edeline drawn from a photo
Then John did something that changed his life forever. It was said that he was part of a “gang of ruffians” who liked to harass anyone they felt didn’t belong in their neighborhood. Specifically, John and his friends didn’t allow young men who were outsiders to court the young ladies who lived there. Most suitors were chased off by their threats, but a young man named Moses Latta defied them, becoming engaged to a girl in the neighborhood. On the afternoon of May 18, 1895, John had a confrontation with Latta that so enraged him, he gathered several of his friends and they staked Latta out that night. As soon as he left his girlfriend’s house, the gang attacked him. John shot Latta four times, killing him.
All of the attackers then fled. John made it to his mother’s house, and he told her he was leaving, explaining, “I’ve killed a fellow out here, and if they find me, they will lynch me.” He gave his gun to her and left, never to be seen by his family again.
For the following year, the Moses Latta murder was a big story in Vincennes and the surrounding area; the story was also picked up by syndicated news services, appearing in papers all over the country. One of the attackers was soon caught, and later, five others were arrested, but John eluded everyone. Major searches were carried out and a reward of several hundred dollars was offered for his capture. People claimed to have seen him in towns nearby, but the authorities could never find him. In January of 1896, three of the accomplices were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison.
A newspaper article about a week after the murder
While on the run, John Edeline changed his name to James Elwood. It may have been an effort to keep the same initials that he had tattooed on his wrist. Stories suggested he moved south, likely escaping down the river. He may have spent time in Memphis, Tennessee because he later claimed that’s where he was born. There was also a story that he spent time in Poplar Bluff, Missouri before taking a train from St. Louis to Los Angeles.
James' arrival in Los Angeles was probably during 1896 or 1897. In late 1897, he was approached in a bar by a man named George Hewes, who wanted to help men who were “down and out.” Hewes 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 1911
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, he was a patient at Los Angeles County General Hospital. Before he died there on November 5th, it was said that he asked for the last rites of the Catholic Church, something that surprised the family who didn’t know he was Catholic.
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.
The evidence used to prove James Elwood was John Edeline
James Elwood’s daughter Maudie told her niece Nancy Elwood in two letters that her father changed his name and his real name was “something that sounds like Adeline.” Maudie also told this to me in person.
Maudie told Nancy in several letters, and me in person, that her father was “raised by nuns in Vincennes, Indiana.”
The death certificate of James Elwood gave his father’s first name as William and his mother’s name as Valetta. The hospital was cited as the source of the information, meaning that Elwood himself gave it to the hospital before he died. William matches the first name of John Edeline’s father, and Valetta is similar to John Edeline’s mother’s maiden name. The death record suggests Valetta was her first name, but Maudie’s letters to Nancy revealed that Elwood’s speech was “garbled” and he was hard to understand when he was near the end of his life in the hospital.
James Elwood gave his birthdate as September 18, 1869 (his death record is the only place that has the year as 1866). John Edeline was listed in the 1870 census as having been born in September 1869.
James Elwood’s son George told his daughter Nancy that his father had a sister named Bell. John Edeline’s oldest sister was named Susan Isabelle and often went by the name Bell when she was young.
James Elwood claimed to be of French heritage, at least through his mother. Most of Mary Louise Ravellette’s pedigree traces back to Quebec, and William Edeline had Quebec roots as well.
In one of Maudie’s letters to Nancy, she said her father had done something in his past that he couldn’t talk about, and she even speculated he might have killed someone.
James Elwood first appeared in Los Angeles in 1896 or 1897. John Edeline disappeared from his family in May 1895.
A physical description of John Edeline in the newspapers said that he had “prominent front teeth,” and James Elwood did as well.
An illustration of Edeline that appeared in a newspaper bears a strong resemblance to James Elwood.
James Elwood was known to have at least two tattoos. John Edeline had a tattoo.
And most importantly, several of James Elwood’s descendants have Ancestry DNA matches with people related to John Edeline, the closest being descendants of his sister.
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
1870 and 1880 U.S. Census, Indiana
Vincennes, Indiana newspapers, 1893-1897
Indianapolis News, 10 Jun 1895
City Directory of Vincennes, Indiana, 1888
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