Considering how many people are actually in a family, encompassing all the generations back through recorded history, it seems fairly obvious that, in researching the lives of these thousands of people, eventually you’re going to encounter a little bit of everything.
However, somehow it still came as a bit of a surprise to me to hear that my grandmother’s uncle was in prison. This was the strict, straight-as-an-arrow part of our family. The part with the older folks of strong, silent, upright characters. Those who scared the grandchildren, even when they weren’t doing anything but copying down recipes from talk radio.
Several years ago, I did a little half-hearted research into our black sheep, Stanley Robert Smith, and learned about some of the tragic events that followed his arrest and imprisonment in 1938. It wasn’t until just recently, when I decided to really start fleshing out his story, that I was struck by how deep an impact his early choices had.
Stanley Robert Smith, also known as Bob (Yeah, I know. Bob Smith. Fun to find in records, right?), was born in Hancock County, Ohio, around 1910 to George Henry Smith and Mary Lucinda Rauch.
Later in life, he would list himself as 10th of 11 children. In truth, he was the 11th of 12. His oldest sister, Victoria Emelina “Dora” Smith, had died just before 3 months of age. Family stories hold that the Smiths displayed a photo of little Dora in their home for the rest of their lives, but maybe Bob never asked who the baby was, or maybe he preferred to speak only of his living siblings. Dora did, after all, die 21 years before his birth.
According to Stanley’s sister, Hulda, the family lived in Arlington, Ohio, from 1909 to 1921. George Henry Smith was a carpenter–alternately listed in censuses as a laborer–and no doubt money was tight, raising eleven children on his income. Regardless, by 1920, with seven children still at home, G. H. Smith and his wife owned their home outright.
A Fresh Start?
Ultimately, I am not sure why the Smiths moved to Findlay. All I can do is speculate. Maybe one of you out there will be able to provide me with some insight!
Perhaps 1921’s relocation was motivated by a desire to improve the family’s prospects. Following the end of WWI, the U.S. entered an eighteen month long recession. Large numbers of returning soldiers competed over very few available jobs. Findlay, with its higher population and larger economic base, would likely have offered a carpenter like G. H. Smith with more opportunities for steady work.
This theory appears to be supported by newspaper articles from the time, such as the one below, from the Findlay Morning Republican of 13 Oct 1921 (the print is a bit spotty, so I’ve transcribed the article in the caption for your convenience):
Certainly, for a time, things were looking up. By April 1928, G. H. Smith was able to hire other carpenters to work under him.
Little could he have imagined the challenge that lay around the corner, in the form of the Great Depression.
By the time the 1930 Census was taken, the Smith family consisted of G. H. Smith, an out-of work house carpenter, running his own business, his wife Mary, and their youngest daughter, Alma. Unfortunately, the unemployment schedules have been destroyed, so I can’t determine exactly how long George had been out of work.
While the Smith family and so many others like them struggled to make ends meet, another situation developed that may have had a significant impact on Stanley’s future.
An Unexpected Result
The 18th Amendment, which instituted a complete ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States, came into effect in January 1920. Though the motives behind it were honorable, prohibition created far more problems than it solved. Now that citizens could no longer obtain alcohol by legal means, the criminal element was more than happy to step in to fill that need.
Organized crime syndicates in major cities across the country ran massive bootlegging operations. As time went on and prohibition became more and more unpopular, leaders of these groups were sometimes portrayed as a sort of folk hero, a trend that would continue and intensify through the years of the Great Depression. Many of these individuals are still recognizable to us today, including Al Capone, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde.
Perhaps Stanley was impressed by these stories and dreamed of the sort of lifestyle he thought he might lead as a gangster.
The impact of this glorification of the criminal world on the younger generation was such that, in 1934, a reformed criminal was brought in to Findlay High School to speak to the students about the perils of following such a path.
What’s Your Problem, Stanley?
The rest of the Smith offspring went on to be hardworking, productive members of society. Stanley, however, chose a vastly different life for himself. Did growing up with economic uncertainty lead him to decide he would do anything he deemed necessary to keep money flowing in? Did he get some kind of pleasure from breaking the law? Did he idolize Public-Enemy-era gangsters like Al Capone? His motivation remains a mystery. His actions, however, left a trail that has followed him beyond the grave.
Next Time: The Bad Seed Sprouts