Several years ago, after the death of a cousin, who left no will, it was necessary to compile the family’s genealogy to determine who the surviving heirs were. It was a long and protracted process that ultimately hinged on identifying the heirs of her uncle (my great uncle/grand uncle) Percy Walter Phillips. I have written about his WWI service previously. This blog post will focus more on his personal life.
My mother, his niece, grew up with her grandmother, Louise (who was also Percy’s mother), primarily in Elizabeth, New Jersey, after her own mother (his sister, Elinora) died in the Flu epidemic of 1918. Percy lived most of those years in the house with them. Thus, my mother thought she knew him and his life pretty well. Research indicates otherwise.
When research for this case began, two pieces of information indicated that Percy had been married and had a child, but after 1920 he was listed in records as single until he married again in 1943 in Greensboro, NC to Agnes Kepler Hunter, a widow. He was married to Agnes at the time of his death in 1949, at the VA hospital in Columbia, SC. Thus, it seemed fairly straight forward that he had no children that were descendants when he died. My mother knew of a child that she surmised was possibly the child referenced in his WWI draft record, but a child that to her knowledge did not live to become an adult. The court involved in New York requested additional research to assure them that there were no living descendants. With the help of another professional genealogist friend, we set about trying to confirm there were no heirs of Percy’s. This genealogist, Vern Skinner, decided that we should try to go back to square one to determine all information about his spouse and any possible children.
Because Percy and other members of our family, including his mother, Louise, his siblings (including my grandmother, Elinora), my mother and her sister were born in North Carolina, having lived for a long time in Greensboro, NC, Vern. decided to revisit the North Carolina marriage records by way of being thorough. I had not found anything in previous searches, but new records are released all the time and others are updated. So it was that in short order I got a phone call. Vern had found a marriage in Greensboro, NC, but not to the Mary who was listed as his wife in 1920 and assumed to be the person referenced on his WWI draft, which listed a wife and child but did not provide a name. No, the person Vern found was Florence Bright. Florence? Who was Florence? Never heard of her, and neither had my mother. In fact, there was no reason to look there, because Mary had said in the 1920 census that she was from Pennsylvania! He hadn’t expected to find anything specific, he was just trying to be thorough and possibly find a lead to who knows what.
According to the record, Percy and Florence married in 1911. They were very young. In fact, they were children. Although Percy was a very seasoned 16, Florence was a mere 14. However, her grandfather, Rev. Robert Bright, who actually married them, falsified the information on the marriage license and said she was also 16 and confirmed that she had his permission to marry, claiming that he was her father, not her grandfather. It leads one to believe this was a shot gun wedding.
Having found the marriage to Florence we turned our attention to the census. Could she be found in the census? Would there be any children? We now looked for her in Greensboro in the 1920 census. There she was, with a daughter, Louise, in Robert Bright’s home. Florence was not Mary simply using a possible middle name. No, Florence and her grandparents claimed they were all born in South Carolina, not even North Carolina, and definitely not Pennsylvania. It was looking like the wife and child referenced in the WWI draft record were Florence and Louise (probably named for Percy’s mother, Louise), not the Mary of the 1920 census. So, if Florence and Louise (whom my mother had described as having very red hair based on the one time she had seen her) were living in Greensboro with Florence’s grandparents in 1920, while Percy was living in Elizabeth, NJ with a wife, Mary, then clearly, Percy’s and Florence’s marriage was over. However, no divorce record has been identified.
Well, not so fast. In the summer of 1920, Percy’s grandmother, Ellen (Dunson) Mayo had a stroke in Asheboro, NC. With that, his mother Louise, my mother and her baby sister, Vern, and Percy went to Asheboro, North Carolina (their hometown) to help Ellen’s husband, Charles, care for her. Shortly after arriving in Asheboro, Ellen died. Louise decided to stay in North Carolina to be supportive of Charles, but they didn’t really get along that well. Since Louise had a home in Asheboro that she had rented out previously, she decided to move back in there. It seems Percy also stayed in North Carolina, but if Mary went with him in the beginning, the relationship was soon over. By 1921, Percy had had some sort of reconciliation with Florence resulting in a son, James Edward Phillips. Later documents claimed that James was born in Greensboro, but again, no birth record has been identified.
James’ and Florence’s reconciliation was short-lived. By 1923, Percy, his mother, Louise, my mother and her sister had all returned to New Jersey, having been encouraged to do so by some of Percy’s siblings who felt they could help Louise rear my mother and aunt. So it was until Louise died in 1936. By that time my mother had married and moved to Jersey City. Her sister, Vern, had gone to live with their aunt, Percy’s sister Maude, in Flushing, Queens, NY. Percy’s sister Moselle and her husband, Charles, were now living in their own home, leaving Percy with no home. So, Percy returned to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he met Agnes Kepler Hunter (although he may have known her since she was also originally from Asheboro) and in 1943 married her. Percy died on 29 December 1949 in VA hospital, Columbia, SC and was buried in the Oddfellows Cemetery in Asheboro, NC. That was it, the end of his story, or so we thought.
The other night I was looking for some information on another relative in New York. Imagine my surprise when suddenly I found myself looking at a marriage record for none other than Percy and a woman named Pearl Timberlake! How did I know it was my Percy? The same way I confirmed it was my Percy when he married Florence, the names of his parents were listed. You see, Louise had a somewhat unusual maiden name, Smitherman, and it was listed on the marriage record. There was no reason to look there either (!) at least not for Percy, but there he was.
So, who was Pearl Timberlake? She was from Crozet, Albemarle County, Virginia according to the marriage record. I managed to trace her back to her family in Albemarle, identifying a sister, Ella, who with her husband, Arthur Thomas, had moved to Elizabeth, NJ. Was that how Percy met Pearl? Hard to say, because so far, no other documents have been found that identify what happened to Pearl. A search of city directories did not indicate she was living in the household with Percy and his mother. In fact, in the 1930 census, just four years later, Percy said he was single! So, did his mother ever know that he had married Pearl? Did they ever meet, or was it like the Carrie Underwood song?
It started out “hey cutie, where you from?”Then it turned into “oh no! What have I done?”And I don’t even know [her] last name…
So did he wake up the next day and ask “What have I done?” Who knows?! My mother is dead now, but from anything she has ever said, I have no reason to believe she ever heard of Pearl Timberlake.
So, what was going on here? It’s hard to say without actually speaking with these individuals, but, of course, all of them are dead now. Are there any insights? Possibly. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that Percy suffered from what they called shell-shock and battle fatigue from his service in France in WWI, which we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. The stress created by a traumatic event such as being in combat in a war is known to lead to difficult and/or unstable personal relationships. This instability is frequently marked by multiple short-lived and sometimes volatile relationships. Percy’s behavior seems to fit that criterion. Although my mother did not indicate that Percy was prone to violence, she did speak about his depression and job instability, both also symptoms of PTSD. Did he drink too much in an effort to self-medicate? She didn’t say. Was he trying to escape his disappointments and failures in those moments of exhilaration experienced at the beginning of a relationship, only to dive into depression once again as it fails to deliver its promise of everlasting joy? We’ll never know, but it does seem that his life held secrets. Secrets that hint of great sadness and disappointment.
Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [database on-line]. James Edward Phillips. Birth date, 23 Mar 1921. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
Kologe, L. & Williams, M. L. (2011, September/October) So you think you might have a claim for PTSD? The VVA Veteran (Digital Edition). Retrieved (8 June 2017) from: http://digitaledition.qwinc.com/display_article.php?id=835314
“New York, New York City Marriage Records, 1829-1940,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2472-G8K : 20 March 2015), Percy Phillips and Pearl Timberlake, 01 Feb 1926; citing Marriage, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York City Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,643,643.
“North Carolina, County Marriages, 1762-1979 ,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F88G-91B : 22 December 2016), Percy Phillips and Florence Bright, 25 Dec 1911; citing Greensboro Gilmer, Guilford, North Carolina, United States, Office of Archives and History, Division of Archives and Records. State Archive of North Carolina and various county Register of Deeds; FHL microfilm 502,363.
“North Carolina, County Marriages, 1762-1979 ,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F88L-PCT : 22 December 2016), Percy Phillips and Agnes Hunter, 08 Nov 1943; citing Morehead, Guilford, North Carolina, United States, p. cn 21061, Office of Archives and History, Division of Archives and Records. State Archive of North Carolina and various county Register of Deeds; FHL microfilm 502,363.
“North Carolina Deaths, 1906-1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F3D2-X4Z : 8 December 2014), Ellen Mayo, 12 Jun 1920; citing Randolph Co., North Carolina, reference 404, State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh; FHL microfilm 1,892,710.
“South Carolina Deaths, 1915-1965,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FPMH-871 : 18 April 2016), Percy W. Phillips, 07 Dec 1949; citing, Phillips, Percy W., 1949, Department of Archives and History, State Records Center, Columbia; FHL microfilm 2,399,065.
Underwood, C. (2012). Last Name. Retrieved (8 June 2017) from: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/carrieunderwood/lastname.html
“United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MPGB-3TG : accessed 8 June 2017), Pearl Timberlake and Ella Timberlake in household of Wm Timberlake, White Hall, Albemarle, Virginia, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 16, sheet 4A, family 56, NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), roll 1620; FHL microfilm 1,375,633.
“United States Census, 1920,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MZVD-QBV : accessed 8 June 2017), Florence and Louise Phillips in household of Robert Bright, Greensboro Ward 6, Guilford, North Carolina, United States; citing ED 141, sheet 3A, line 37, family 49, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992), roll 1302; FHL microfilm 1,821,302.
“United States Census, 1920,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M4YL-7M3 : accessed 8 June 2017), Percy and Mary Phillips, Elizabeth City Ward 8, Union, New Jersey, United States; citing ED 88, sheet 10A, line 3, family 212, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992), roll 1070; FHL microfilm 1,821,070.
“United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X4ND-8B9 : accessed 8 June 2017), Ella Thomas in household of Arthur Thomas, Elizabeth, Union, New Jersey, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 58, sheet 9B, line 69, family 209, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 1385; FHL microfilm 2,341,120
“United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KZJ6-DQS : 12 December 2014), Percy Walter Phillips, 1917-1918; citing Elizabeth City no 3, New Jersey, United States, NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,712,099.