Orphan. I was an “orphan” in Lansing, Michigan for many years. Don’t get me wrong—my parents were alive and pretty perky—but lived in Arizona. Not knowing a soul, I moved to Lansing in 1996. I started my legal career based in Lansing, practicing in Ingham, Clinton, and the surrounding counties. I was lucky enough to appear in many of the area’s old courthouses.
Making Roots. In time, I worked my way to partner with a historic downtown Lansing law firm, Foster Swift, founded in 1902. From time to time, I visited old area cemeteries. Twice each day on my way to work, I passed the beautiful Mount Hope Cemetery, opened in 1874. Michigan was home. I always felt that I had roots there. I had no idea just how deep those roots ran, taking hold long before I arrived.
Finding Roots. Until genealogist Sue McNelly got in touch with me, I had no idea that I had a family connection not just to Lansing, but to the area’s legal profession as far back as the mid-1800s. Turns out, “Lansing’s oldest resident,” Daniel Case, is my fourth great grand-uncle. He and some of his family members are buried right in the Mt. Hope cemetery!
A “Pioneer Resident” of Lansing, Daniel L. Case. Sue had come across (what do I call him, “Uncle Case?”) Daniel Case’s obituary while doing genealogy research. I was fascinated to learn that my ancestor not only was one of Lansing’s pioneer residents, but he was a lawyer who practiced law in the very same counties as me. For three years, he was Mason, Michigan’s prosecuting attorney.
McNelly discovered that along with practicing law, by 1847 Daniel Case worked as a farmer and owned one of two general stores in “Lower Town,” located where Grand River and Center Street intersect today.
Case’s Legacy. My great-great-great-great uncle was an anti-slavery activist, and even, for a time, worked as trustee and resident manager at the Michigan School for the Blind (which stands today). I try to imagine where he may have delivered the passionate anti-slavery address documented in his obituary, and wish there were a surviving transcript:
Mr. Case had always been an active Democrat until the bitter and bloody contest in Kansas between pro slavery and free state parties. The conduct of President pierce toward the slave power forced Mr. Case to sever his relations with his party, and in 1856 he fully identified himself with the [anti-slavery] Republican party and canvassed the state for Fremont and Dayton. During that exciting campaign, Mr. Case delivered an address to the democracy of Ingham County, giving the reason for his political change, which was considered one of its most powerful and convincing political arguments of the time.
I can’t express how much I would like to sit down and talk with Daniel L. Case. Putting aside modern conveniences, I can’t imagine his life was all that different than mine. I am proud to be descended from this man, and now better understand why I have always felt at home in Lansing.
Kirsten McNelly Bibbes is a litigation attorney who practiced in Lansing, Michigan from 1997-2011. She now practices in San Francisco and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ancestry’s new collection U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939, consists of passenger lists detailing all those departing from or arriving at U.S. ports on Army Transport ships. World War 1 Draft registrations show who registered for the draft but that does not mean they served. The Army Transport Services Lists show the men enlisted at the time of the war. It is important to note that these are not military service records. They include the ship name, arrival and departure date and place and the service member’s name, rank, service number, age, residence, next of kin with relationship and the regiment that they were attached to.
Private Henry Edwin Zimmerman departed Brooklyn, New York on 15 August 1918 on board the Briton sailing for Bordeaux, France. Further U.S. Army Transport Service Lists in which Henry Edwin Zimmerman appears show him departing Bordeaux, France on 7 June 1919, arriving back at the port of Hoboken, New Jersey on 18 June 1919. If we previously did not have the regiment Henry Zimmerman served with, these Army Transport Service lists provide that information. Further research can then be done on that regiment to learn more about their role in the war.
Comparing Draft Registrations with U.S. Army Transport Service Passenger Lists
An interesting comparison can be made between a Draft Registration and the Army Transport Service Lists to determine if someone who registered for the Draft ultimately ended up serving.
Henry Edwin Zimmerman was one of five Zimmerman brothers eligible for service during World War 1. All five registered for the Draft. Two of the brothers claimed exemption, one on medical grounds and one based on his employment in the farming industry. Of the three who did not claim any exemption, one was aged 32, married with an infant and was a farmer. He was temporarily exempted under Draft Category III: ‘Temporarily exempted but available for military service. Registrants employed in agricultural labor or industrial enterprises essential to the war effort’. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_Service_Act_of_1917)
Youngest brother, Charles Stephen Zimmerman, aged 21, was drafted under the second Draft registration, on June 5, 1918, for those men who attained age 21 after June 5, 1917. Charles S. Zimmerman was training with the Merchant Marines which exempted him from military duty. The third brother who did not claim an exemption was 22-year-old Otto Emil Zimmerman. He registered for the draft on 5 June 1917. As of this post, military service records for him have not been found. Otto Emil Zimmerman was single with no dependents and would have been eligible and liable for military service.
It is interesting to note that the two brothers, Henry Edwin Zimmerman and Louis William Zimmerman who both claimed an exemption, were called up for service.
 Third Draft Registration for men aged 18 to 35. George had married in 1917 and had a 4-month-old child in September 1918. Perhaps exempted Class III: ‘Temporarily exempted, but available for military service. Registrants employed in agricultural labor or industrial enterprises essential to the war effort’.
 First Draft Registration, on June 5, 1917, was for all men between the ages of 21 and 31. Henry was unmarried with no dependents therefore was eligible and liable for military service.
 First Draft Registration, on June 5, 1917. Louis was unmarried with no dependents, therefore was eligible and liable for military service.
 Second Draft Registration, on June 5, 1918, registered those who attained age 21 after June 5, 1917. Charles was in training with the Merchant Marines in June 1918 and therefore exempt from military service.
Army Transport Service Passenger Lists are another great resource for research into World War 1. In addition to troop information, this collection also contains information on non-military passengers traveling on these ships, including any family members traveling with their military spouses.
Family stories, lore, myths or legends. It doesn’t matter what you call them. Every family has one, or many. Don’t we all want to know if they are true or not? Use a family story as a beginning point in your research and locate additional records to determine just how true (or false!) it may be.
A family story, passed down through the years, paints Lyman Perry Fuller in a good light, as a hero, trying to save his sister’s cattle from thieves. There was a gunfight and a bystander was shot. Lyman Perry Fuller was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 18 years in prison. That’s how the story goes but is it really what happened? Eighteen years in prison seems a particularly harsh sentence if Lyman were simply defending the cattle from being stolen. Could there be more to this story? There usually is. Using the family story as a starting point, can we determine whether the events leading up to Lyman’s incarceration are a tall tale or whether they may have a kernel of truth in them?
Through further research there appears to be 3 versions of the events that led up to Lyman Perry Fuller’s imprisonment:
Version 1: The Family Story
In 1870 Lyman Perry Fuller’s sister, Lisania Fuller Judd and her husband Hyrum Judd, were living in Eagle Valley, Nevada where they had established a dairy business. Lyman travelled to Eagle Valley around 1872 to visit his sister and stopped at a bar in town to ask directions to the ranch. He overheard men talking about stealing cattle from the Mormons (Lisania and Hyrum Judd were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had been sent to settle the area of Eagle Valley). When Lyman got to Lisania’s home he repeated what he had heard, and the sheriff was notified. Upon returning to town, Lyman was met by the cattle thieves and a gun fight ensued. A spectator was killed and Lyman was arrested. He spent the next 18 years in the Nevada State Prison accused of murder in the second degree.
Version 2: The Newspaper accounts
In 1872, just a few weeks after the crime, the Ely Record wrote a short article stating that Lyman P. Fuller was indicted for murder ‘of a woman of the town’. No mention is made of cattle thieves just the intriguing reference to a woman being the one murdered.
On October 24, 1872, the New Daily Appeal of Carson City had the following article.
The woman was named as Fanny Peterson. Lyman pled guilty to the crime and was sentenced to 15 years in the State Prison. It would appear that there was more to the story than cattle thieves, at least in what was reported by the newspapers of the day.
In early 1881 Lyman Perry Fuller had served almost 10 years in prison. He began to seek a full pardon based on the grounds that he had served almost two-thirds of his sentence and had shown exemplary conduct during imprisonment. Lyman also noted that there were extenuating circumstances connected with the case, that his attorney had not done a good job and that his health was poor.
Newspapers carried the story on 26 February 1881 and were not favorable towards Lyman Fuller. They called the murder ‘a cruel and wanton act’ and gave an account of the crime as follows:
“Fuller had been living with a Spanish courtesan knows as ‘Panama Jack’, alias Fannie Paterson, and several months previous to the killing they had quarreled and separated. At 9 o’clock on the morning of July 11, 1872, Fuller issued from his lodging-house, having seen the woman passing to her residence and, without warning, fired upon her, the ball taking effect in the right forearm, badly shattering the radius. The woman attempted to run, but fell, whereupon he deliberately walked to where she was lying, and standing almost over her prostrate form, fired two more shots at her, one of which took effect in the left hip and passed through the ilium into the abdominal cavity. The other shot passed through her clothing without harming her. … The woman died from the effects of her wounds four days after the shooting. Fuller, sometime previous to the murder, set fire to and attempted to burn the building occupied by this woman. Perry Fuller, in Pioche, was one of the lowest characters of men, gaining a livelihood by following the profession of what is called a “check guerilla’, and compelling this poor, fallen wretch of a woman to give him what little money she could gather, beating and abusing her if she refused to obey him.” 
Again, no mention of the cattle thieves as described in the family story. The newspaper article further stated that Mr. Fuller did not deserve to be pardoned and that he should have hung for his crime instead of being imprisoned. His pardon was denied.
Two years later, in July 1883, Lyman Fuller again appealed to the Board of Pardons and this time his parole was approved.
Version 3: Lyman Perry Fuller’s own words
In a statement given in 1881 Lyman Fuller describes in his own words what happened:
“On the 25th of Nov 1875 I arrived in Pioche. One of the first men I met was Jack Harris, and during our conversation informed him of the intention to proceed to Eagle Valley the following day to visit a sister I had not seen for twenty years. Harris said he would introduce me to a friend of his, a butcher, who went to Eagle Valley every day with his wagon, and I could ride out with him, that the butcher went there to see one of the boys. I asked him what he meant by ‘one of the boys’ and he replied that he meant of the Spanish George’s pale. Harris gave me the name of the man as Woods, with the information he (Woods) was acting as agent for George and his gang; that Woods disposed of stolen cattle to the Pioche butchers, and that George and Woods were the leaders of the d_____dest gang of cattle thieves ever known on the coast; that they were furnishing all the butchers in Pioche with stolen cattle at a very low figure.
I had not been two hours in my sisters company before she informed me they (her and her husband) had settled in Eagle Valley six years previous with a number of head of stock but since the mining excitement broke out at Pioche they had lost all their stock. I asked my sister if there was a man named Woods living in the valley, and she told me he was their nearest neighbor. I there and then informed her that Woods and his gang were stealing their cattle, etc. My brother-in-law immediately took steps to ascertain the truth of my statements and in so doing told some neighbors what he had learned from me.Woods hearing of the investigation being made left the country. On the next visit paid my sister, I turned a fine horse into the pasture and he was stolen the first night. A few nights after one of George’s gang, a Mexican, rode up to a house I was visiting on a horse resembling the one I lost and I detained him over night, when daylight came I seen my mistake and allowed him to leave. This of course made George my bitter and active enemy and then my troubles commenced, for George was not alone in persecuting me for doing my duty, but was aided by several men and one woman doing business in Pioche. The house of the Negro woman, Lize Lawson was the rendezvous of the worst gang of thieves in the country’ she was running two butcher-shops in the town and doubtless interested in others elsewhere; there the plot was concocted to put me out of the way in some manner the least liable to excite public suspicion, and if matters had not taken a turn to afford them the opportunity to prosecute me under the cloak of the law I would have met death in some form at their hands, for at this time I was privately visiting a Spanish woman and the game was theirs whenever wanted. I left the woman and then George and Lize influenced her to circulate the story that I had threatened to burn the town, Lize, of course, being most industrious to its circulation. Some of the gang went so far as to place sharings saturated in oil under several houses and claiming that I did it, creating such a feeling that my life was in danger. Had it not been for a night-watchman named Hickey, who came to me one night and (after stating he had been watching my actions for sometime and became convinced of the falseness of the stories) warned me to be on my guard, that these women for some reason unknown to him wanted me killed and if I was not very careful they would accomplish their object, I would have fallen a victim to their revenge. Hickey gave me the names of several men who were laying for me, but they have escaped my memory; one of them killed John Monahan in Pioche.
A moderate drinker for twenty years previous to this time, the traps laid to prejudice the community and compass my assassination, conscious of never committing any crime against person or property, so harassed and preyed upon my mind that I foolishly sought relief where it got the better of me and my mind gave completely away under the pressure of worriment and drink. No thought ever entered my mind to injure any one of enemies, for I concluded everyone would, sooner or later, become satisfied that I was the victim and not the criminal, if I was not killed. My intellect at last gave way under the constant pressure and the taking of human life the result, an act I deeply deplore and have suffered for mentally and physically for the last eight and a half years”.
Lyman Perry Fuller’s version of events includes the cattle thieves and his attempt to do a good deed in stopping them. Here lie the seeds for the origin of the family story. The truth of what really happened that day is unclear. Lyman Perry Fuller never denies that he did take a human life but attributes it to a mental breakdown. The events leading up to the crime differ depending on whether you believe the family story, the newspaper accounts or Lyman’s own words.
These stories are part of our family history, they aren’t always true but many times may contain a kernel of truth. Use a family story as a beginning point in your research. Find other information to corroborate or disprove it, but never ignore it. Research will help determine which family stories are true, somewhat true or completely false. Whatever the outcome they give our factual research great color.
 Judd Family Traditions. Hilga Judd Frier, compiler. Pleasant Grove, Utah.
 “Criminal Matters”, The Ely Record, Pioche City, Lincoln, Nevada, 6 Sep 1872; digital images, Genealogybank.com (www.genealogybank.com : accessed Feb 2017).
 “Prisoners and Insane”, The New Daily Appeal, Carson City, Nevada, 24 Oct 1872, digital images, Genealogybank.com (www.genealogybank.com : accessed Feb 2017).
 Nevada State Prison, Carson City, Nevada, Inmate file for Lyman Perry Fuller, Nevada State Archives; photocopy, (http://nsla.nv.gov/Archives/Archival_Records/).
 “Local Intelligence”, Pioche Weekly Record, Pioche, Nevada, 26 Feb 1881, digital images, Chroniclingamerica.loc.gov (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ : accessed Feb 2017).
 Nevada State Prison, Carson City, Nevada, Inmate file for Lyman Perry Fuller, Nevada State Archives; photocopy, (http://nsla.nv.gov/Archives/Archival_Records/).
Arizona Territorial Census records are unique in that they fall in the interim years between federal censuses. Arizona became a U.S. territory on February 24, 1863. By February 1864 Milton B. Duffield, U.S. Marshall for Arizona, provided instructions for the first census to be taken. The information collected on the census varies from year to year but may include name, place of residence, age, nativity and occupation. A territorial census was taken in 1864, 1866, 1867, 1869, 1874, 1876, and 1882. Instructions were given that no settlement, mining district or ranch was to be excluded. A daunting proposition considering the size of the territory.
Good news for Arizona researchers, especially those who do not have paid Ancestry subscriptions is the partnership between Arizona State Archives and Ancestry.com which makes these Territorial Censuses freely available online to residents of the State of Arizona. You do need to set up a free Ancestry.com Arizona account which is easily done by going to https://www.azlibrary.gov/arm/research-archives/archives-resources/ancestry-arizona. The State Archives of Arizona has much more available than only the Territorial censuses so it is well worth a look.
Many Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) families heeded the call to settle parts of Arizona Territory, including the Judd family. Called by Brigham Young to settle the Little Colorado river area, the first families arrived in Sunset in Apache county, Arizona Territory in March 1876. Hyrum Jerome Judd, a herdsman by occupation, and his family were living in Sunset, Apache, Arizona Territory when the 1880 U.S. Federal Census was taken.
Hyrum Jerome Judd’s brother, Don Carlos Judd and family had arrived from Utah Territory about 1879 and settled in Smithville (Graham County) on the Gila river. Smithville would later become the Town of Pima. Hyrum Jerome Judd and Don Carlos Judd lived about 300 miles from each other in 1880.
These early pioneers faced many obstacles including flash floods, crop failures due to poor soil, long cold winters and summer droughts and by 1881 many had moved on to other areas. By 1881 the Sunset settlement had failed and the pioneers looked to the settlements in the southern part of the territory as a better option. The 1882 Arizona Territorial census indicates that by 1882 Hyrum Jerome Judd and his family had moved south to join his brother Don Carlos Judd in Pima. Their father and mother, Hyrum and Lisania Fuller Judd had also moved to Pima with 4 of their younger children: Lucius Hubbard Judd (24), Daniel Judd (17), Lyman Perry Judd (13), Lafeyette Judd (12).
The Judd’s were only one of many stalwart pioneer families who took on the challenge to settle parts of Arizona Territory. The Arizona Territorial censuses are unique records that help to find those pioneer settlers in the years between U.S. Federal censuses.
Probate documents are created by a court after an individual’s death. They relate to the distribution of the deceased’s estate and often contain information of great genealogical value. One of the records created at probate is often a list of creditors and accounts of debts owed. At first glance these may not seem of as much value as a will for example. However, a closer look at the debts incurred by Experience Case Fuller and her husband Lucius Hubbard Fuller allow us to create a more in-depth picture of the last year or so of their lives.
Experience Case Fuller was 39 years old when she died in Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois in 1846. She had lost her husband, Lucius Hubbard Fuller in April 1845 and had been left a widow with 4 children still at home. Her probate record contains 18 pages, consisting mostly of accounts and administration paperwork. Together with Lucius Hubbard Fuller’s probate records we are able to put together a timeline of the family from 1844 to Experience’s death in 1846.
One of the first creditors owed money by Lucius and Experience Fuller is a Dr. Jonathan Berry. In September 1844 the account states that Experience was sick and had been treated with quinine.
Quinine was used to treat malaria, so rife in the swampy land of Warsaw, IL. Malaria is the probable diagnosis although the actual cause of death is not given in the probate record. Malaria was the most common cause of death in this time period in Illinois.
In the probate records of Experience Case Fuller we see continued doctor visits, this time for Lucius Hubbard Fuller. The last entry is on 27 April 1845, the day Lucius died.
A few pages later there is another account for visits to treat Experience, a daughter and a child. The first account is dated two days after Lucius died. It would appear that many in the family were sick in 1845 including Experience. The accounts show the doctor continued to care for Experience and one of the children in August.
Hancock County, Illinois probate records, ca. 1831-1942; Author: Hancock County (Illinois). Illinois, Wills and Probate Records, 1772-1999; http://www.Ancestry.com, citing Experience Case Fuller.
The final account payable tells the story of the last few months of Experience’s life. On Christmas Day 1845 Experience is bled by the doctor and attended to for a few more days. Nothing is noted until March 2, 1846 where the Doctor’s account states that she was attended to in her ‘last illness’. Experience was 39 years old. Her youngest child Josephus was 2 years old. The account in the probate record indicates that Josephus and older brother Lucius were also sick and the doctor continued to attend to them until November 1846.
In thoroughly exploring a probate record we can discover information that may not be found anywhere else. In this case, that the Fuller family experienced sickness, most likely malaria, which undoubtedly contributed to the deaths of Lucius Hubbard Fuller at age 43 and his wife Experience Case Fuller at age 39. Not only do we have an idea of the cause of death based on the accounts in the probate record but we can see history reflected in the individual lives of our ancestors: “Epidemics of cholera, malaria and typhoid took their toll on the struggling Mormons until the swamp was drained” Brooks, Juanita (1962), John Doyle Lee, Zealot, Pioneer, Builder, Scapegoat, Glendale, California: Arthur H. Clark Co.
Lucius Hubbard Fuller and Experience Case Fuller are my husband’s fourth great grandparents. Their eldest daughter, Lisania Fuller married Hyrum Judd in 1844 and set off across the plains in 1849, reaching the Salt Lake Valley between 22 – 24 September 1849.
I have always been fascinated by the life of my great-grandfather John Bellas. Born into a coal mining family originally from Flintshire, Wales, he spent his entire life working down the mines. John was born in 1859 in St Giles, County Durham, England. He was the third child and first son for David Bellis and his wife, Margaret Williams. There would eventually be 9 children in the family. David Bellis and Margaret Williams were both of Welsh birth but by 1851 the family had left Wales and moved to the coal fields of County Durham, England. [At some stage John changed the spelling of his surname from Bellis to Bellas].
The 1871 England Census for Thornley, County Durham shows David Bellis and sons John Bellas (age 12) and Thomas Bellas (age 10) working as miners in the Thornley Colliery.
John Bellas’ life was marred at times by tragedy beginning with his first wife Elizabeth Jane Robson. They married in 1880 and had 4 children together. Tragically all four children died in infancy or early childhood. Elizabeth herself died in 1886 at age 24, only one month after her 3rd child died. She left behind her husband John and 2-year-old son, also named John. A year later, in June 1887, John married Anne Wilson. John and Elizabeth’s surviving child (John) passed away in June of 1889. John and his second wife, Anne Wilson went on to have 11 children, five of which also died in infancy.
In 1893 John Bellas left on his first trip to South Africa. This was the beginning of numerous trips back and forth between England and South Africa between 1893 and 1911. It’s not clear what precipitated the trip to South Africa but perhaps prospects there were better than in the coal fields of County Durham. For many years newspapers had reported on the ease with which diamonds could be found in South Africa and implied a man could get rich very quickly.
The discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and 1870s caused a great influx of men, particularly experienced miners, seeking their fortunes in the diamond fields of South Africa. Because the labor needs of the diamond fields were so great, the British encouraged labor migration to Kimberley.
In 1893 John Bellas was hired by the De Beers Diamond Mines in Kimberley, South Africa. Through correspondence with the De Beers Archivist and the Africana Research Library in Kimberley, and using employment records and passenger lists, I was able to track John Bellas’ movements in South Africa. Between 1893 and 1898 John traveled back and forth between County Durham and Kimberley, South Africa four times. Approximate travel time was 17 days via one of the Union Castle steam ships which traveled weekly between Southampton, London and ports in South and East Africa.
Throughout these years of back and forth travel, Anne Bellas and their 4 young children remained behind in County Durham. In 1899 newspapers in County Durham began to report on the developing tensions in South Africa, especially around the town of Kimberley. This must have caused great anxiety for Ann Bellas.
“The Siege of Kimberley. Boers Building Forts. (Reuter’s Telegram) CapeTown, Monday. It is reported from Barkly West that the Boers are building forts around Kimberley for the purpose of shelling the town.”
Ultimately the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand, and the influx of foreigners as a result of that discovery, led to increased tensions between the Boers (Afrikaans speaking settlers) and the ‘Uitlanders’ (foreigners). The Boers feared that the Uitlanders would seize all political power and therefore passed laws that made Uitlanders in effect, second class citizens. Tensions escalated between these two groups. Britain was in control of the Cape Colony and wanted to incorporate the Boer Republics and keep them under British control. Failed negotiations between Britain and the Boer Republics in 1899 and the failure to remove British troops congregating on the borders of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State led to the declaration of war.
John Bellas began serving with the Kimberley Town Guard ‘D’ Company Division II. The town guard had been raised in October 1899 to defend the town of Kimberley from Boer attack. The Boers besieged the town for 124 days but ultimately failed to take Kimberley, which had finally been relieved by the advancing British forces.
Transcription: “The Siege of Kimberley: Town Guard Defending Carter’s Ridge.
The Kimberley town Guard lost twenty-one killed and forty-one wounded in defending this position.”
In March 1900 the Kimberley Town Guard was officially dismissed. There was no work to be had at the mines which had shut down during the Siege of Kimberley and John Bellas returned to England in July 1900.
It was not long before John Bellas returned again to Kimberley and employment with De Beers Mines. This time his family traveled with him. John and Anne Bellas and their 4 young children made the journey to Kimberley about 1902/1903. Five more children were born in Kimberley between 1902/1903 and 1909. Unfortunately 3 of the children died in infancy, two from influenza and one from meningitis. My grandmother, Elizabeth Bellas, was about 7 years old when she moved to Kimberley and 15 years old when the family returned to England permanently in 1911. In her older years she could still remember a word or two of Afrikaans which she had learned as a young child in South Africa.
Although Anne Bellas and children never returned to South Africa again, John Bellas traveled back again in early 1912. He only stayed a few months, returning for the final time to County Durham in December 1912.
John Bellas seems to have been a man who didn’t mind adventure and many years spent going back and forth across the ocean between countries. He was the first in the family to set foot in South Africa but certainly not the last. His daughter, Elizabeth Bellas, would have a son, my father, who would eventually immigrate from County Durham to South Africa and raise John Bellas’ great grandchildren there.
The headlines rang out with the news: “Queen Mary Cut Cruiser in Two. Disaster that was Kept Secret.”(Dundee Courier) and “Queen Mary Sank a British Cruiser. Disaster While Evading U-Boat” (Daily Record). It was Friday 18 May 1945. Joseph and Mary Thomas had been wondering for 3 years exactly how and where their youngest child, Stanley Mather Thomas had died. They had received the news in 1942 that their 22-year-old son was missing ‘at sea’ presumed dead. The story of what happened to Joseph and the other 338 British sailors who died in October 1942 was one of World War Two’s best kept secrets.
Stanley Mather Thomas was born on June 1, 1920 in New Silksworth, Sunderland, County Durham. He was the youngest of four children born to Joseph and Mary (Mather) Thomas. Stanley joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Force, a reserve force of the Navy called up during war time operations. At the time of his death in 1942 his rank was ‘Able Seaman’ indicating he had at least 2 years’ experience at sea.
On October 2, 1942 Stanley was on board the HMS Curacao in the coastal waters north of Ireland. The ship had been ordered to provide an escort service to the 81,000 ton ocean liner, the Queen Mary. The Queen Mary, sailing from New York across the Atlantic, was carrying some 10,000 U.S. troops. Converted from a luxury ocean liner and painted battleship grey she was one of the fastest and largest troop ships in the world.
In order to deter U-boats and German aircraft the Queen Mary undertook a zig-zag pattern moving across the ocean. The HMS Curacao was to provide anti-aircraft cover for the other ship and in order to do so sailed to within 200 yards of the larger, faster ship. Historical newspaper accounts differ somewhat to witness accounts of what exactly happened next. In 1945 newspaper accounts reported that a U-boat had been spotted which caused the HMS Curacao to change course in pursuit and in doing so put themselves in the path of the Queen Mary.
Witnesses to the accident reported that the HMS Curacao was traveling far too close to the Queen Mary but do not mention the sighting of a U-boat.
“We could see our escort zig-zagging in front of us – it was common for the ships and cruisers to zig-zag to confuse the U-boats. In this particular case however the escort was very, very close to us. I said to my mate “You know she’s zig-zigging all over the place in front of us, I’m sure we’re going to hit her.” And sure enough, the Queen Mary sliced the cruiser in two like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch armoured plating.” — Alfred Johnson, eye-witness, BBC: “HMS Curacao Tragedy” (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/13/a2733013.shtml
“It all happened during the watch changes, the “Curacao” was doing a zig jag course in the fare of Q.M: and naturally losing her distance and it was during one of her sweeps across the bows of Q.M that she was cut in two halves. The Q.M: went throu her like a knife throu butter, to this day I wonder what the bridge personnel and lookouts of both ships were doing not to notice the nearness of each other.” – Able Seaman on watch Enoch Foster aboard HMS Bramham. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/28/a4146428.shtml)
The HMS Bramham was assigned to escort convoys from the North sea into home port in Ireland. As described above several sailors witnessed the accident from the bow of the HMS Bramham. The Bramham arrived at the spot it had last seen the Caracao only to find a tragic scene.
Able Seaman on Watch Enoch Foster, on board the Bramham:
“I immediately contacted the bridge and reported “Curacao” had disappeared, from then on it was panic, our ship turned about, asdis lamps flashing messages, we past the Queen Mary she was still making for homeport like a bad horse, we arrived at the last position where I had seen “Curacao” what a terrible sight it was, the sea was covered in oil, dirty and black with hundreds of heads with oily faces and panicky white eyes, mouths opening and closing like fish, some shouting for their mothers and help, others just chocking with fuel oil in their lungs and dying from drowning, all good British lads, bobbing up and down. We picked as many as we could 97 out of 650 the rest perished. On our way back to Ireland 5 out of the 97 we had saved from the sea died on board due to the fuel in their guts, all that destruction in the time it takes to light a cigarette” (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/28/a4146428.shtml)
Captain Charles Illingworth of the Queen Mary was under strict orders to not stop for anything and the Queen Mary continued on to Ireland, sustaining a damaged bow. The Curacao sank in about five minutes. Approximately 101 survivors were rescued some hours later by HMS Bramham. Witnesses to the event were sworn to secrecy and details were kept very quiet. The loss of any ship due to war time activity was not reported publicly so as to keep the Germans unaware. Three years after the accident, in 1945, newspapers began to publish the first accounts of the collision.
Immortalized on the Chatham Naval Memorial in Kent, England are the names of the 338 men who lost their lives that day on the HMS Curacao, among them is that of Stanley Mather Thomas, my first cousin twice-removed. The wording on the memorial is particularly poignant:
“The names of over 18,500 men and women are recorded on this memorial; of these some 8,500 died during the First World War and 10,000 during the Second World War. All were buried or lost at sea or were otherwise denied, by the fortunes of war, a known and honoured grave”
The wreck of the HMS Curacao is today designated a “protected place”. In 2015 a Scottish documentary team, working with the National Geographic Channel produced a series titled ‘Deep Wreck Mysteries’. One of the episodes explores the story of the collision of the Queen Mary and the Curacao. A portion of that episode, along with witness interviews from those on board both the Queen Mary and HMS Curacao, can be seen here.