Monday, March 19, 2012

Giving Himself a New Name – Thomas Michael Mitchell

B. 7 Oct 1893 in Oswego, Kansas
M. (1) 11 Nov 1912 in Tacoma, Washington
Wife: Tillie Nack
M. (2) 11 Feb 1921 in Los Angeles, California
Wife: Hazel Laura Elwood
M. (3) 1943 in (probably) Los Angeles, California
Wife: Lillian Johnson
D. 10 Mar 1980 in Monterey Park, California

Thomas Michael Mitchell didn't start out life with the name Mitchell. He was born on October 7, 1893 in Oswego, Kansas to an unmarried 20-year-old woman named Laura Ross. He never knew his own father; his mother told him the man’s name was Thomas Carey and that he refused to marry her when she became pregnant. In 2017, DNA evidence proved that this man was Thomas Michael Carey (1864-1937), who would go on to own a fruit wholesaling business in Coffeyville. Carey married in 1895, and with his wife, he had four more children. None of them was ever told about their older half-brother.

Laura Ross also got married in 1895 — to a man named Howard Sheridan. Sheridan accepted Tom as his own son, and Tom took the name Sheridan. He would have seven younger half-brothers and one half-sister (two of the boys died as a babies). In 1900, the family left Kansas for Tacoma, Washington. During the years 1901-1905, they lived in the remote town of Lake Kapowsin, near Mt. Rainier. Tom's step-father worked for the railroad and their tiny house was next to the tracks that ran through the woods. After 1905, the family moved to several places in the Puget Sound area.

Tom with his half-brothers Forrest and Howard in about 1901

Tom completed his education when he graduated from the sixth grade. Between the years 1907-1915, he worked at various jobs all over the Northwest. He traveled as far north as Alaska, and as far south as Portland. One time he got into trouble at a lumber mill, threatening his boss after he fired him. Later, when the boss turned up murdered, Tom was arrested for it. A girl he was staying with came forward as an alibi and cleared his name. There was also a story that Tom had a brief career as a prizefighter during this time.

On November 11, 1912, Tom married a woman named Tillie Nack. The following summer, Tillie gave birth to a stillborn son, and she died in 1915. In 1916, Tom moved to Los Angeles with the Sheridan family. He found work as an ice cream maker. The following year, Tom's mother died in childbirth at age 43.

In 1918, Tom was drafted into the Army. He was due to be shipped to fight in the war in Europe, then he was delayed when he contracted the Spanish flu. Men died in hospital beds on both sides of him, but Tom recovered, and afterwards, he shipped out to France. The war ended before he got there, and he was sent back to the United States, to be stationed in Newport News, Virginia, where all the returning soldiers were arriving. This was where he spent the bulk of his service.

Tom in about 1918

One evening, Tom went with a friend named Tex Townsend to meet some girls in the restricted zone of town. On the way out, they got into a fight with some MPs. The next day they heard that one of the MPs had wound up dead and they were going to be arrested for it, so Tom and Tex left. They traveled first to Richmond, then Tex said he knew a lawyer in Washington D.C. When they met with the lawyer, he said they should keep running and change their names. Tom chose the name “Mitchell” more or less at random, although he had known of another serviceman named Mitchell who had been court martialed and given a huge prison sentence. After they went their separate ways, Tom never heard from Tex again.

Tom traveled first to Philadelphia where he took a job at a Woolworth's store, and on a whim stole $600. Then he got on a train to St. Louis. By January 1920, he was in Denver, and next he went to Salt Lake City, where he almost bumped into one of his superiors from the army at a dance. Finally he found himself in Caliente, Nevada. After a short time there, he made a deal with someone to trade his own train ticket to Salt Lake City for one to Los Angeles.

Arriving back in Los Angeles, he found that the Sheridans had left and there was no way of finding them. Tom took a job as a cook at the downtown YMCA. There he met his second wife Hazel Elwood, also working as a cook. After a brief courtship, they married in Los Angeles on February 11, 1921.

Tom and Hazel had a son Tom in 1922 and a daughter Patsy in 1924. Tom had wanted to name his boy "Michael," but Hazel chose Tom instead. Still, Tom liked to call his two children "Pat and Mike." In 1926, the family relocated to Oakland, where Hazel had a baby boy, born in September 1926.

Tom holding son Tom in 1922

In 1928, Tom and his family moved back to Los Angeles after a fire destroyed their Oakland house. They eventually settled in Tujunga where Hazel’s family owned property. In 1930, Tom opened a restaurant in Hollywood, but within a year, had an accident with his car that badly injured his knee. He was unable to drive and closed the restaurant, so Hazel became the breadwinner by taking a job as a cook. As a result, she moved on her own to Hollywood, and he stayed in Tujunga raising the kids. They never lived as a couple again.

During the 1930s, Tom became interested in nutrition. He used what he learned in books to help get his knee better. It was the Depression and hard to make ends meet. He kept chickens in the yard and to help feed the kids, he would kill them. For a time he made brandy from grapes growing wild in the neighborhood. He also made donuts which he had the kids sell door-to-door. In March 1934, Hazel had a fourth child, a baby girl.

By the late 1930s, Tom moved the family to the San Gabriel Valley, the area he would live for the rest of his life. He also settled into a career of cabinet making, a trade he first learned in 1923. In the early 1940s, he bought a storefront property on Garvey Boulevard and opened up a cabinet making shop. Behind the shop, he had a house to live in, and a second house that became used by other family members.

Tom in his cabinet making shop in 1953

In 1943, Tom got a divorce from Hazel and married his third wife, Lillian Johnson, whom he met at a dance. They had a daughter born in 1944 with a defective bile duct; she died at 6 months old. Then in 1946, they had a son named Dennis. He had physical problems that showed up later – dyslexia and epilepsy. Dennis was more or less disabled his entire life.

In about 1962, Tom moved one last time, to a house near his shop. He continued to work until he was 80 years old, when blindness from glaucoma forced him to stop. His free time was often spent reading; he surrounded himself with books in his house. He also continued to learn about eating healthy, taking vitamin supplements during the 1960s, way before it was common to do so. He wasn't a religious man, and didn't believe in God. “I believe in reality,” he told people. He liked watching Lawrence Welk and Liberace on television. He had a negative attitude towards war and the military from his experiences in World War I.

Tom in his backyard in 1974

By 1979, Tom was confined to his house, entertained mainly by books on tape from the Braille Institute. He had a little bronchial trouble, but besides blindness, was fairly healthy. One day Lillian told him she was taking him to the doctor for a routine visit, but when they arrived at their destination, he found he was being checked into a nursing hospital. She refused to let him come home again; his son Dennis and wife Judy moved into his house and disposed of all his things.

For the next four months, his health declined rapidly. He died in the nursing hospital on March 10, 1980, and was buried in Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier.

Children by Hazel Laura Elwood:
1. Thomas Milton Mitchell – B. 1 Jul 1922, Los Angeles, California; D. 10 Nov 2007, Winnetka, California; M. Margaret Elizabeth Bolheres (1922-2016), 2 Jul 1949, Pasadena, California

2. Patsy Eleanor Mitchell – B. 23 Feb 1924, Los Angeles, California; D. 27 Apr 2002, Sitka, Alaska; M. James Lawrence Sarvela (1914-1995), 27 Dec 1947, Glendale, California

3. Forrest Leroy Mitchell – B. 21 Sep 1926, Oakland, California; D. 30 Jun 2016, Desert Hot Springs, California; M. Patricia Ann McKenzie (1930-2010), 21 May 1948

Children by Lillian Myrtle Johnson:
1. Carolyn Lee Mitchell – B. 1 Jul 1944, Los Angeles, California; D. 11 Jan 1945, Los Angeles, California

2. Dennis Clark Mitchell – B. 4 Apr 1946, Los Angeles, California; D. 26 Mar 2005, Cheyenne, Wyoming; M. Judy A. Smith, 21 Jan 1973, Rosemead, California

Sources:
Family Bible of Laura Sheridan
Marriage certificate of Thomas Sheridan and Tillie Nack, Tacoma, Washington, 11 Nov 1912
Marriage certificate of Thomas Mitchell and Hazel Elwood, Los Angeles, California, 11 Feb 1921
Divorce record of Thomas Mitchell and Hazel Mitchell, Los Angeles, 7 Jan 1943
City directories of Tacoma and Los Angeles, 1915-1938
1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 U.S. Censuses in Kansas, Washington, Colorado and California
Interviews of Thomas Michael Mitchell and Thomas Milton Mitchell, 1976-1997
California Birth Index, 1905-1995
Social Security Death Index
California, County Marriages, 1850-1952

1 comment:

  1. I found this extremely moving. Perhaps it is partly because I knew, as a boy, two uncles who had been in WW I -- on opposite sides -- and especially on one of them, the experience had a strong effect. A bit of Tom's story also has some parallels to my father's early life (and Dad liked Lawrence Welk, too!... Liberace, not so much...). But there is also a kind of geographical resonance because I lived for a time near LA and can "see" the scenes of Thomas Mitchell's life there. Thanks for telling his story.

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