My grandmother never liked to talk about her father, Charles Comp. When I became interested in our family history when I was 15 years old, I would ask about him when we visited her in Beavercreek, Ohio. She would simply say that when she was 13 he disappeared.
And then she would change the subject.
The story we were told
Various family members DID want to speak about it. They wanted answers, even if my grandmother and her sisters didn’t. It was a mystery that left my great-grandmother, grandmother and her sisters deeply affected for the rest of their lives.
Charles Albert Comp, born in 1868, left Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania to find work in Philadelphia. He was a mechanical engineer. The year was 1909. Before he left, he moved his wife, Ethel, and four young daughters to live back with Ethel’s parents in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania. He worked in Philadelphia for a while, sending money home to his family and writing letters. He visited a few times. One day in 1911 he wrote to his wife to say his job had ended and he was going to New York City to find work. He was never heard from again.
What the family thought happened to Charles
Everyone I had interviewed said the family thought he had met an untimely death. It wasn’t in his character to leave his daughters, whom he was very loving to. My father would go further to speculate someone must have robbed him, taken his identification and he died somewhere where no one knew him and he was probably in an unmarked grave. This story grew and grew with each family member who retold it. Charles was becoming a bit of martyr.
The 2008 Discovery
On a hunch, I wrote to the Leigheigh County Courthouse to see if there were any records on Charles. Maybe he had gotten in trouble with the law, was my thought. Everything up to that point had been a dead end. It couldn’t hurt to start here. To my surprise there were 45 pages of divorce records for Charles and my great-grandmother, Ethel. My grandmother had never mentioned that her mother filed for divorce from Charles in 1913 on terms of abandonment. Either my grandmother didn’t know about it, or she was too ashamed to talk about it. Knowing my grandmother…the second option was more plausible.
The divorce records are chock full of information. In them, the sad demise of Ethel and Charles’ marriage is played out from my great-grandmother’s lips.
In these records, she said from 1909-1911 she traveled several times to Philadelphia to see her husband and tried to convince him to come back to Catasauqua with her so that they could be a family again. She told him she was willing to do whatever it took to help financially, such as get a job, or take in borders. Charles replied no to all of her suggestions and explained he didn’t want his wife to work. He promised her he would be home when he had made enough money.
She went on to state that in 1911 he wrote to Ethel telling her his job had ended in Philadelphia and he had heard there was work in New York City. He told her he would write when he found something. There would be no more letters home. After two months of not hearing from him, Ethel hired a private detective to find him. Ads appeared in local papers from Philadelphia to New York City. After a year of searching, she filed for divorce on terms of abandonment in 1913.
The 2009 Discovery
We’ve all had those 3am discoveries in genealogy, haven’t we? In 2009, I stumbled upon a doozie. There on my computer one night I did a random search for Charles. Up popped a listing in the California death index for a Charles Albert Comp who died in San Gabriel, California in 1942. Same birthday. Same parents. I nearly fell off my chair. Almost 100 years after he had gone missing. There he was.
So What Happened to Charles?
Even though I had found him…he still wasn’t easy to find, if that makes sense. He kept his birth date, but kept changing his birth year. What I discovered through several more years of research was that Charles had run away with a young woman named Madeline Scureman of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. In 1910, she was a 20 year old servant for the Ricketts family of Wilkes Barre. Charles Comp was 42. I have no idea how they came to meet.
What I do know is that by 1912 Madeline gave birth to their child, Doris Grace Comp in Canada. Ironically, Grace was also my grandmother’s middle name. I later learned Charles and Madeline had been vacationing in Canada from their home in Detroit, Michigan when she went into labor. No marriage record has been found yet for them. Even if they did marry during this time in 1912, Charles was still married to Ethel until their divorce was final in 1913. Can you say bigamy?
Charles and his new family left Detroit in 1929 and made their way west. Charles worked in Vancouver, Canada on his way to California. It was there in Vancouver, in 1930, that Madeline died from a ruptured appendix. She is buried in Canada. Charles and daughter Grace moved to Los Angeles in 1930. Charles died in Glendale, California in 1942. He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale.
I found Doris’ son, Kent Dudley a few years ago living in Florida. He was stunned to hear from me. He was only 5 years old when Charles died but he had many memories of him living with them.
I would say Charles would fit my interpretation of “longevity” as a family member who stayed hidden the longest from us all. Even his grave is unmarked. I found that a remarkable irony.