Monday, February 13, 2012

A Love Letter Mystery from Capitol Hill - Solved

The mystery love letters found at 515 3rd Street, SE
A few years ago, I was given a love letter mystery to unravel by a client who had found love letters tucked into the wall of a house on Capitol Hill.  Provided with two letters authored only with the names ‘Dottie’ and ‘Jack’ and the dates 1914 and in 1918, I went about researching the lives and background of the two individuals, provided only with their initial addresses on Capitol Hill and one in Columbia Heights.  

Using a complicated combination of the 1910, 1920 and 1930 census, Washington City Directories, and historical maps, much was learned about the identity of the two individuals that authored the letters, their long courtship, eventual marriage, and even relationships with family members that apparently kept the love interest at bay until a death in the family allowed them to marry – but not until they were in their late 20s.    I'll post the transcripts of the letters at the end of the blog that I sugest you read first (and see how little we had to go on).      

Revealing “Dottie”
The first letter examined was authored on April 23, 1914 by a woman nicknamed ‘Dottie,’ a resident of 1215 Clifton Street in Columbia Heights, located directly across from where Central High School was built a decade later.   It was written to ‘Jack’ at 515 3rd Street, S.E., on Capitol Hill.  She seemed to be restricted by an ‘Aunt Annie’ from seeing much of Jack (who wrote in 1918 that he did not know how they could marry while “A.A.” was still alive, referring to her by code). 
Portion of the 1914 love letter

The first document examined was the 1920 census for 1215 Clifton Street, which was recorded on the 15th of January that year.  It listed George C. Pumphrey as the head of the household, along with his wife Annie.  He was a 52 year old native Washingtonian who worked as a contractor with his own building business.  Annie was then age 54, and was a native of Maryland; both of her parents had been born in Ireland.  They had living with them that year two adopted children; Myrtle, then age 24, and Robert L. Schmidt, age 20.  It was later confirmed (with separate documents) that Myrtle was apparently nicknamed “Dottie,” and was the author of the 1914 love letter penned earlier, when she was just 18 years old, and when Jack was age 19. 

        Myrtle had been born about 1896 in Maryland, which was also the birthplace of both of her parents.   In 1920, she indicated that she was employed as a typist at a Real Estate Company.  Her biological brother, Robert Schmidt, was also a native of Maryland, and worked as an electrician at an automobile company.  Myrtle likely had changed her last name from Schmidt to that of her adopted aunt and uncle – Pumphrey - as society pressure may have dictated.  In any event, a “lodger” with the name of Ava M. Schmidt was also listed at 1215 Clifton Street in the 1920 census, then age 17.     

            The Washington City Directory of 1914 listed 1215 Clifton Street as vacant, but it was published with information gathered in 1913; the 1915 edition listed contractor George Pumphrey at the 1215 Clifton Street address.  He later revealed, in 1920, that he owned the house free and clear of a mortgage.

Before residing at the address, however, George lived with his family at 311 E Street, S.E., as indicated in the 1913 City Directory, where they had begun living as early as 1910.  He was
then employed at the A. T. McGuiggan Company, a creator or carrier of fireplace mantles located at 917 9th Street, N.W.  Their house, however, at 311 E Street, was just three blocks from 515 3rd Street, S.E., where “Jack” lived when the 1914 letter was written.  (Square 794, Lot 47)   “Dottie” and “Jack” likely met as neighbors, perhaps at Eastern Market, at church, or another popular gathering spot for young lovers.  The 1914 letter was authored the same year that “Dottie” moved with her aunt and uncle to Columbia Heights.  It fondly remembered seeing Jack walk by her back window and hearing him “whistling down 3rd Street.”      

 The 1910 census taken at 311 3rd Street lists George and Annie Pumphrey living at the address only with Myrtle, who was then just age 14.  They had married in 1892.  Curiously, Myrtle was not listed as an adopted daughter, as she had been in 1920, suggesting that at the time, she may not have known that fact herself.  That year, Robert Schmidt, later identified as her brother, was listed simply as a lodger. 

Revealing “Jack”
Jack was known to have authored a 1918 letter to “Dottie” when he was presumably a resident of 515 3rd Street, S.E.   Investigation into the 1920 census for that address reveals that his real name was John P. Robey, Jr., and he was then age 25.  He had born about 1895 in Washington, D.C.  He listed his occupation as an automobile mechanic. (It is interesting to note that same year “Dottie’s” brother listed his occupation as an electrician at an automobile company…) 

Jack’s father, John F. Robey was then age 58, and a native of Maryland.  He listed his occupation as a foreman (or fireman) at a steam railroad.  His mother Jonnah was then age 46, and was a native of Washington, D.C.  John shared the house that year with a brother named Joseph, then age 8, and his sister and brother-in-law; Charles and Ethel Fischer.  A clerk at a railroad, he was age 23, and she was age 22 when the census was enumerated in 1920, and they indicated that they had a child named Dorothy that was just a month old.  So, John “Jack” Robey Jr. was an uncle shortly after he had met “Dottie.”

The Robey family had moved to 515 3rd Street sometime between 1912 and 1913, the first year they were listed at that address in the City Directory.  At that time, John F. Robey, Sr., had listed his occupation as a fireman.  They had moved to that house from a home at 416 South Capitol Street, where they were enumerated in the 1910 census.  At that time, John and Jonnah indicated that they had nine children together, but only five of whom were alive when the census was taken, all living at 416 South Capitol.  They included; Ralph, a printer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and then age 20, Malvina, age 19, and a telephone operator; Paul, age 17 and a clerk for a stock broker; John P. and Ethel, both of whom were unemployed that year, and assumingly attending school.   John F. Robey, Sr., even found room in the home for his brother-in-law Cornelius Bradshaw, a 31 year old native of Washington, who was employed as a plate printer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. 

Mr. and Mrs. John and Myrtle Robey

“Dottie” and “Jack”

            Using a combination of the 1930 census and various city directories, it is learned that John P. “Jack” Robey and Myrtle “Dottie” (Schmidt) Pumphrey were finally able to marry, sometime in 1923.   That was likely after the death of her Aunt, Annie Pumphrey, who had apparently did not approve of their relationship.  Her Will is not listed in the city’s index, likely because she died before her husband George C. Pumphrey (who died in 1941, Box 1578), and a will was not necessary or filed in the District of Columbia.

            John P. Robey is listed as the head of the household, along with his wife Myrtle, in the 1925 City Directory in apartment numbered 64 at the Home Apartment Building, then located at 640 K Street, N.W.

Additional information about the new couple was revealed with the 1930 census, which both confirmed the birth place and birth dates of the individuals, as well as the year they had married.  John was then age 35, and Myrtle age 34.  They informed the census enumerator that they had married when he was 28, and she age 26, or about 1923.  They also revealed that they had no radio in the apartment, for which they paid $55.00 per month in rent.  At the time, rents in the building ranged from $52.00 to $72.50. 

John Robey revealed that he was employed as a proprietor at Diamond Cab Company that year, and Myrtle was employed as a clerk in a Real Estate Office.  They found room in their apparently small apartment for a lodger that year named John M. Daley.  He was a 37 year old native of Massachusetts who indicated that he was an “injured retired veteran.”   (The 1930 census is the last available in detail to researchers)

The 1935 City Directory listed John’s occupation as a driver at the J. A. Beall & Son’s, an automotive painting business then located at 2321 Nichols Avenue, S.E.  In 1937, he listed his occupation as a clerk, and what was the certainty the fact that this was the correct John “Jack” and Myrtle “Dottie” Robey; they began residing at 1215 Clifton Street that year!  Her Uncle George died in 1941, and the couple likely relocated to his house to aid the elderly gentleman a few years before his death.    

The 1948 City Directory reveals that John returned to the Diamond Cab Company, and was working that year as an office supervisor.  They had also relocated from 1215 Clifton Street by that year, to a rented house at 3987 Alabama Avenue, S.E.  In 1954, John revealed that he was then an instructor at the company, and that they had relocated and owned a house at 4023 Alabama Avenue, S.E., by that year. 

The 1960 CD listed John’s job as a clerk at the Hartford Accident Indemnity Company.   They were listed in the 1970 Haines Directory living in an apartment numbered 13 at 3810 Southern Avenue, S.E.  By 1974, John was listed at the apartment alone, suggesting Myrtle had died sometime in the previous three years.  He was last listed at that address in 1980.   

Copyright Paul K. Williams


muckraker said...

Fantastic history detective work! And a charming story to boot. Thanks for sharing, and congrats!

Keri said...

The love letter mystery fascinated me! I did a little more digging into Jack and Myrtle's lives:

John P. Robey married G. Myrtle Pumphrey on September 23rd 1923.

Gertrude Myrtle Robey was born 25 Mar 1896 in Maryland. She died 8 Feb 1992 in a long-term care facility in Kettering, Ohio. Her death certificate lists her father's surname as Schmidt and her mother's surname as Keenan. She likely moved to Ohio at some point after Jack's death to join her last living sibling, Ave Maria Krueger, who died in Kettering in 1995.

The 1900 US Census lists Myrtle as the daughter of John W Schmidt and Mary J Schmidt. They were living at 212 S. Vincent St., Baltimore, MD. They had been wed 20 years, indicating that they married around 1880--when Mary was only 15. Mary had birthed 12 children in that time, 7 of whom were living at the time of the census. All 7 of those children were living in the home.

In 1910, Mary Schmidt (Myrtle's mother) was living at 313 S. Gilmore St. in Baltimore. Her marital status was left blank. She had birthed 15 children, 9 of whom were living at the time of the census. Six children were living with her at that time. John W Schmidt was not living with the family.

Myrtle's biological mother, Mary Jane Keenan Schmidt, died "suddenly" on 2 Aug 1910, according to her obituary in the Baltimore Sun. It's not clear where her children lived after her death, although her obituary indicates that she was still married to John W Schmidt. John lived until 23 Nov 1926, and died in Catonsville, MD.

Aunt Annie had been married twice by the 1910 census. She was Myrtle's maternal aunt, the sister of Mary Keenan Schmidt (indicated by census and marriage records, as well as George C Pumphrey's obituary). "Aunt" Annie did not die prior to Dottie and Jack's nuptials, as she was listed in the 1930 census. George C and Annie Pumphrey were living at 1215 Clifton St. in 1930, with Annie's widowed sister Katie (Catherine Celeste) Smith, and nephew Robert L Schmidt.

Annie's first husband's surname was Miller. She married George Cline Pumphrey on 17 Jun 1894.

The 1940 Census shows George C Pumphrey, widowed, living with his sister-in-law Kate Smith, as well as Myrtle & John Robey. They were all living at 1215 Clifton St. George owned the home, and its value was listed as $12,000. George's highest level of education completed was college (four years). Myrtle had completed high school (4 years), while John had completed 2 years of high school. John was the only employed person in the household, and his income as a cab driver in 1939 was $800.

George Cline Pumphrey was born 11 Jan 1868 and died 24 Jul 1941 at Garfield Hospital. George had been a contractor in DC for many years. According to an April 1909 Washington Post article, George had 41 residences under construction at that time, and had recently purchased 260 feet frontage in Woodley Park on which he planned to erect "a number of attractive dwellings."

According to his World War I draft registration card, "Jack"'s full name was John Patrick Robey, and he was born 8 Apr 1894 in Washington, DC. The draft card describes him as tall and slender, with light blue eyes and light brown hair.

Jack's parents were John F Robey and Johanna A Bradshaw, according to John F Robey's obituary. They were wed 1 Aug 1889 in the Baltimore Cathedral. John F Robey worked for the RF&P railroad, and among his career highlights was his role as engine-wiper for President Garfield's funeral train in 1881, at just eighteen years old. He died in Feb 1953, and Johanna died in Dec 1962.

John Patrick Robey died in 12 Aug 1965 in Washington. His obituary lists his wife, Myrtle Pumphrey Robey, and siblings.

Although Jack and Dottie never had children, I'm sure there are many family historians in their lines who will appreciate that you've reunited the letters with their owners, in a sense, and preserved this history.

gws51 said...

True, Jack and Dottie never had children, but they did take an interest in my dad who had no father, around 1930. To the point of being his guardian. My dad referred to them as Uncle John and Aunt Myrtle. My older sister and I referred to them as Poppy and Grandma Robey. I still remember when I was little spending many a Saturday at there home on Alabama Ave, across from Sams car wash. I still have many pictures of them.

HouseHistoryMan said...

GWS! Thanks for the comment and connection. Would love to update this popular post with their picture! Email me at