This week I’m visiting my great grandfather, Lawrence Edwin “Ed” Petrie, and after a week of digging around, I’m not sure if Ed wants to be visited. I swear, when writing some stories, it’s like nudging ancestors awake from a deep sleep, and they are just brimming to tell me everything they can while I’m paying attention. But with Ed, he seemed a little too eager to just get back to sleep.
Ed was born on Emerson Avenue, Chicago (Evanston), in 1901. Evanston at that time offered an escape from the crowding of Chicago, which, nearly 30 years after the fire, was quickly growing. The community was designed with tree-lined streets, and an electric street railroad was constructed in the years just before Ed was born.
His father, James Petrie, of Scottish lineage, was a boilermaker. This trade – fashioning steel into large containers – was an important occupation of the Industrial Revolution, and for a long time the UK had a monopoly on the profession. Ed’s mother, Bridget Murphy, was of Irish lineage. Ed was born into a full house. His parents were in their early 40s with 6 children living with them between the ages of 5 and 20. A 49-year-old relative, Margaret Murphy (perhaps Bridget’s sister?), also lived with them.
At some point the family moved to Hyde Park, Chicago. In the 1910 census, they still lived in a tremendously full house, with older siblings in their 20s, and even 30 year-old brother Robert and a 26 year-old son-in-law all living in the family home. They were a household of many young adults working various city jobs like stenographer and store clerk. Father James was still a boilermaker. Ed had some teenage brothers still in school, and he was a 9 year-old boy in the midst of this, the only one in single digits.
In April 1917 when Ed had just turned 16, the US entered WWI. Ed was used to a lifetime of his older brothers doing things before he was old enough to join. But on this occasion, all the brothers would enter into the war together. Each would be carried on his own path. In Ed’s case, he was a seaman with the Navy, participating in transport convoys to France. WWI transport convoys provided escort to merchant ships carrying all manner of things to and from various countries.
The best insight I got into what my great grandfather’s experiences must have been like during his service during WWI was from the fascinating journal entries of 24 year-old sailor Guy Burrell Connor. From the introduction to his published journal, “During World War I the US Navy’s primary role was the safe transport of troops and supplies to the war in Europe rather than classic engagements with enemy ships on the high seas. This vital mission guaranteed the arrival of over two million American troops to the front lines, along with tons of supplies to support them. Some 503,000 enlisted men and 32,000 officers were serving in the American Navy at the time of the November 1918 armistice. One of these enlisted sailors who helped protect the flow of American troops and supplies to the Allies was Guy Burrell Connor, a resident of Cromwell Indiana. His diary, written during the last year of the war, reflects the daily life, concerns, and observations of an average battleship sailor risking his life escorting ships in these Atlantic crossings.”
I share a handful of diary entries in order to give a taste of what Ed’ experiences must have been like. Though he wasn’t the sailor who wrote these accounts, he was living very much the same life, and doubtless would share many similar thoughts and experiences had he left a diary of his own for me to find. Once again, at 17, he was probably around a bunch of older boys. These entries really transport the reader, but for the sake of a read-in-one sitting account, I share just a selection. I have transcribed them as written. For those interested, the entire collection is available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27791701
Got back to the Pennsylvania at the Brooklyn Navy Yard July 17th after having the best leave and I certainly did hate to get back. Everything is in terrible shape and things are being rushed so as to get through before time is up. Have been trying to get transferred to a landwire job but guess it won’t go through. There’s too many men in the radio force on the Pennsy and I want to get where I can have more of an opportunity to do something. Left Navy Yard July 15th and landed at Base Two the next day. All we do is stay at this place and I wish I could get somewhere. We passed a ship on the trip down that was torpedoed shortly after.
Sept 21st, 1918
…A submarine stood back a couple miles one day and took a shot at the convoy in hopes of getting at least one ship. We saw the wake of the torpedo headed for the Henderson in time to save them. The Stingham came alongside us three days ago and received sealed orders from the Captain. They left at once and returned last night about nine o’clock.
Sept 22nd, 1918
…Have the 4 to 8am watch this morning.
Sept 25th, 1918
Heard stations in Morocco, Spain, England and Germany working last night and also heard British warships working. We are very near the coast of Europe. Last night instead of copying Washington press, I went on arc and copied English press from Horses and Carnarvon. They send it about twenty eight or thirty per minute and I got four pages in less than forty five minutes. We have been having abandon ship drills today and I also went aloft to fix the antenna. I heard that in the entire convoy there was only seven or eight deaths since we started. One Marine Captain on the Henderson died. Most of the sickness and death is due to Spanish Influenza which is spreading some now… Reports come down from foretop just now of firing heard off port bow. Four distinct shots heard. I just sent a message to Sigourney and rec’d one from him. He used commercial procedure, I used U.S.N. procedure. Covered 600 on black receiver all during 12-4 pm watch. Heard Cape Finisterre Spain, Alfonso XII and Reina Maria Cristina working all afternoon. About six o’clock p.m. a bunch of destroyers met us and the Pueblo and Stribling started back. We remain with the convoy until we reach longitude 15. There’s about a dozen destroyers with us now.
Sept 29, 1918
Arrived at Ponta Del Gada this morning about ten o’clock and the Islands are the most beautiful sight I ever saw. They are like mountains, or rather they are mountains sticking up out of the the ocean and far into the clouds. They are green at this time of year and the fields are laid off in even plots that seem plastered on the side of the mountain. Here and there white houses with red roofs dot the country, and the towns are built more compact than ours. The houses are similar to those of the Mesicans and the people are mostly Portugese. Ponta Del Gada has about 25,000 population. I imagine I would like to live here for a while at least and if I did it would be up on the mountain where everything is green and nice. The fields are all fenced off with hedges. In some places there’s also a stone wall along the roads with broken glass on top to keep out trespassers. Admiral Dunn is our naval officer here and he is also the power over the people of the city. The “Tonahpaw” an old monitor flys his flag and there’s three subs of K Type here, a couple of our gun boats and a few French sub chasers. The “Marietta” and “Arethusa” are also here. When we moored here there was big Portuguese troop ship in which had been chased in here by subs. It sailed from Africa for Portugal and there’s all kinds of people aboard with every kind of a uniform on also a few women. We area a curiosity here for the people hire bum boats and row around the ship to look us over. Some of the natives come out and dive for money in the water. One fellow threw five pennies in and one of the divers got them all before he came up again. I can’t say how long we will be here but I can’t see why we should stay here for there’s no place to get fixed up. All we can do is overhaul our engines. It’s wonderful to know that we were about three days in the submarine zone with crippled engines and then got through without hitting a submarine. We copied one SOS today and one Allo. The “Henry George” was gunned and wanted immediate assistance.
Sept 30th, 1918
Still at Ponta Del Gada eating lots of pineapples. Natives come alongside with bumboats full of pineapples and other kinds of fruit to sell. Only one tenth of the crew gets liberty here each day and it’s only for six hours. There’s plenty to drink here. Every other store has wines and liquor to sell and things are very cheap. They all advertize their wines, private rooms, and women. The women of the older families of the island where a peculiar cape and hood or bonnet. Both are black, the cape reaching their shoe tops and the hood is narrow, long and high, standing up like the comb on a chicken. ‘Tis said that in years past the Spaniards used to come over here and pick all the pretty girls and take them back to Spain so they got the idea of disguising the girls to make them appear older. Some of the older men where these costumes also.
Oct 1, 1918
Still at Ponta Delgada. We coal ship tomorrow and will no doubt leave in a day or so. All the fellows are getting money to keep for souvenirs. Would like to take some things back but there’s nothing but cheap novelties to be had. The sidewalks here are very narrow and inlaid with fancy stones. When a person gets on one street here you have to go to the end for there’s no cross streets or alleys. Wish I could get some mail from home. Will be glad when I can hear from Alice again for it’s been almost a month since I had a letter from her.
Oct 2, 1918
Still at Ponta Delgada. We have four corpses from the Chicago to take back to the U.S. We are coaling ship today and will leave tomorrow for the U.S. I worked all day putting jumpers on the antennas and it was some job.
Oct 12, 1918
Had general quarters at 2am this morn acct three torpedoes fired at us. We started zig zagging and made about 20 knots getting away from them. Had the 4 to 8am watch and sighted land at 6am. First time we have seen U.S. in month. Arrived in Yorktown about ten thirty am. I got read for the recreation grounds but they were delayed so I went and scrubbed clothes and took a bath. No mail today but one hundred bags tomorrow.
Oct 20, 1918
Have the 8am to 12 noon watch this morning. I certainly had a bad night last night. A new regulation on the water-tight doors keeps them closed only when the watches are being changed. I had the six to eight watch and when I went up to get my hammock it was too dark to see. I couldn’t find it so I slept in the tailor shop on deck, in the 4th div’n passageway, on a mess table and finally in the Interfleet. Hughes came in to get a bucket about 6 30 and dropped a big heavy angle iron on my head. I have a nice big bump and gash in my head now. We should reach New York this afternoon sometime and I hope we get some liberty so I can write some letters and send a telegram. We dropped anchor opposite Tompkinsville at 6:30pm during a drizzling rain. Have been looking at the “Statue of Liberty” and wondering if I will get any liberty. So far things look very doubtful. Word from the Pueblo says they have had no liberty account Influenza.
Oct 25, 1918
Very rough today. At daybreak the convoy was about 20 miles ahead but now we have caught up with them. This trip has been enough to get on a person’s nerves so far and before we get back I suppose it will be worse. I’ve aged about five years in the last week.
Oct 28, 1918
The weather is very rough yet and both the main and gun decks are flooded. We have been in this rough weather a week now.
Oct 30, 1918
Last night while I was washing clothes torpedo defense sounded and we fired two shots at a submarine and put on all speed getting away from torpedoes. We were at our stations about an hour… I was busy all day doing lots of little personal details and am not through yet. We meet the destroyers about tomorrow some time and will turn back soon after that. We will no doubt go back alone and if we have good luck it will be about the 10th of November when we get back. Hope I get leave soon as we get back so I can get to see Alice once more. I’ll bet she thinks I’m gone.
November 2, 1918
Still encountering heavy seas and not making such good time. Nearly half the crew has Spanish Influenza and its a surprise to me that they haven’t something else the way were are crowded up and the things we have had to contend with this trip.
November 3, 1918
About 40 go into the sick bay each day with the “flu” and only four or five coming out. We have 7 or 8 from the radio bunch in there now. We are proceeding very slowly and wont be in the U.S. for about ten days.
November 6, 1918
We headed into a hurricane this morning and have been bucking it all day. At least a week yet before we reach the states and more if we continue to run into these storms. We have had only about one day of good weather during the entire trip.
November 9, 1918
We were turned out for torpedo defence about two am this morning. Its getting cold and very rough also raining. Three men have died with influenza. We are making very slow time. Too slow for me.
November 10, 1918
Last night I copied the USNavy press telling of the Kaisers abdication and now everyone is talking peace and a chance to get back home. Theres where I want to be right away. The sea is smooth today and I passed a very lonesome Sunday. Sure wish I was home where I belong.
November 11, 1918
Hostilities ceased at 11am today and everyone on the ship is highly elated. The band marched around the gun deck with about half the ships company behind in single file singing and playing different pieces. Everyone is talking of going home but there will be some that wont gt home until the full enlistment is served. If peace is declared I will sure make every effort to get out for I only came in on account of the war. It will be at least six months before any one gets home though and it will take time to get settled.
The collection closes stating that little is known of this sailor’s later life. I tried searching for descendants, because I wanted to make sure they were aware of this collection of diary entries out there and available to the public. Although I couldn’t find evidence of any children, I was heartened to see he went on to marry Alice.
In Ed’s case, I’m not sure how many transport convoys he was a part of, and it is only through the news clipping that I believe they were transatlantic to France. I included Guy’s experiences in Portugal despite the fact that my great grandfather’s land experiences must have been somewhat different in France. First, because I think it highlights the simple curiosities and pleasures of young men leaving home that must’ve been occurring in many different shapes and forms all around the world. And second, because it’s fun to remember Guy from Indiana even if he’s not my great grandfather. Indiana’s right there next to Chicago.
When Ed returned from the war, he was still a teenager, and would move into a smaller household than the one he left. His father James would die in early 1919. In fact, when my research skills have improved, I will have to explore whether or not Ed made it back in time to say good bye to his father, as Guy’s diary indicates that it might have been some time after the war ended before sailors could return home.
Ed began working as a clerk in the post office. He lived with his mother and older sisters. One of his sisters had learned tragedy with the death of a six year old son and then subsequent suicide of her husband. During that time in the post-war years, Ed met young (very young! 14 or 15 year-old) Mary King from nearby in the neighborhood. She became pregnant at 15 and a few months before the arrival of their son, my grandfather, they crossed into Indiana to get married.
Research questions: I know Indiana isn’t far, but what was the practical reason for wedding here? Did it have to do with her age? Did she have relatives there? Was it really the closest location (seems doubtful)?
They were married on January 11th and baby William, my grandfather, was born May 13th. The year was 1921.
It is most likely that they moved immediately in with Bridget Murphy, Ed’s mother, and his older sisters. I believe many of his older brothers were also living nearby.
Ten years would pass before I could get another snapshot of them. By 1930 Ed and Mary were estranged. I have no idea how long they lasted. They were each listed as married in 1930 census records, but they were living apart. Mary was a waitress and apparently living alone. Ed was 29 years old, a fire extinguisher salesman listed as the head of house, living with another apparently estranged married 28 year-old man (chauffeur), a single 28 year-old man (salesman in a cigar shop), and an estranged 29 year-old married woman (waitress). William, their son, was left to the care of Ed’s mother Bridget and older aunts living at the home of their mother. I believe that was the case from as early as my grandfather remembered. He had a lonely childhood.
Back to Ed’s household in 1930. Three single/married-but-estranged men and a married-but-estranged woman. The woman, Harriet Bracht, was listed as Ed’s sister-in-law, but that didn’t add up. The name didn’t match with any of his sibling’s families as far as I could tell. I figured there must be an interesting – potentially scandalous – story there, and suspected she might be having an affair with one of the men. I started to dig into Harriet’s life. She had married a man six years before, and it turns out stalking that estranged husband did not disappoint.
Ray Elfgen from Alton Illinois. He’d already married and divorced the same woman FOUR TIMES BEFORE he married Harriet. If that’s not a red flag, ladies, I don’t know what is. He married 26 year-old Harriet in 1924, but two years later, he’d be marrying a 15 year-old. (He was the grand old age of 35 by then.) By the way, census records show that he lived for a time in the same household as his 15 year-old wife and her parents (who were his age) and her siblings. Awkward. I’d say Harriet made the wrong call, but that it didn’t last more than a couple years means I guess she dodged a bullet.
There is actually a treasure trove out there about Ray Elfgen. For example, a police officer was shot in pursuit of a “negro man” whom Ray Elfgen had chased out of his store for shoplifting. I have a theory that the real source of Ray Elfgen’s life history of drama could be a car accident that he barely survived as a young man. It seems like there was some damage to the frontal lobe with this guy.
So I’m not sure how Harriet came about living in a household of married-but-not-married adults which included my great grandfather, when even his own son didn’t get face-time around there. Whether there was anything romantic happening, it doesn’t appear to have led to a marriage.
Ed’s later life remains very much a mystery to me. I think he married a woman eventually, perhaps her name was Florence Bretz, but that is something to confirm down the road. I can’t seem to find him anywhere in the 1940s census records and so that would be an interesting place to pick up research. Lawrence? Edwin? Ed? I can’t find him.
He died in 1956 at the relatively young age of 55. His occupation was bartender. Was his death smoking or drinking related as so many were in that era? What kind of relationship did he have with his son, my grandfather, by the end of his life? My grandfather was just beginning his family life with my mother and her siblings. Was his death a shock to him?
That concludes my time with Ed for this week. I’ll let him get back to sleep. For next week, I visit my German line: Christine Schleppenbach. How great is that name?