Thursday, August 13, 2015

Chapter 18: Man of some Mystery: Robert Grant Fawkner

Finally, we take up the first-born child of James and Julia Fawkner. Robert Grant Fawkner was born 10 August 1863 in Boone County, Missouri; might his middle name have honored Ulysses S. Grant?

Like his surviving brothers and sisters, he passed through the Duluth-Superior nexus. And, like his siblings, his life journey hit a few bumps along the way.  In 1889, when he was 26, he was a railroad conductor in Indianapolis -- about 20 miles east of his father's hometown of Danville. Indeed, living at the same address was his father, James C. Fawkner, who would die within the year. Nearby in Indianapolis was James' brother (Robert Grant's uncle), John E. Fawkner.

Robert Grant Fawkner of Arcola married Nellie B. (Marion) Brown of Upper Alton 23 October 1895 in Madison County, Illinois. Things had happened quickly. A one-paragraph story in the Alton (Ill.) Evening Telegraph (26 October 1895, p. 5)  reported that Nellie had within the week received a divorce from Richard Brown and had on Thursday married Robert Grant Fawkner of Arcola. Nellie brought to the marriage a son, Garnett, from her marriage to Richard Brown. The family made its home in East St. Louis.

The family seems to have escaped the census-taker in 1900. Grant, as he was known in the family, still worked for the railroads. A 1908 directory of East St. Louis, Illinois, listed Robert G. Fawkner as a railroad switchman. The 1910 census listed R. G. Faulkner, 46, a railroad switchman, Nellie, 40, and a son Garnett, 17, at the same address. The census incorrectly reported Grant’s birth place as Illinois. Robert Fawkner, a 42-year old conductor from East St. Louis, was injured in a January 1910 accident on the Indiana Harbor Bell Railroad.

Genealogists sometimes get tripped up by the "same name, different man" problem. What follows could  be such a case.  On 5 September 1908, Mary E. Fawkner filed a petition for divorce from Robert Fawkner; the couple had lived together three years. Four months later, it was reported: "In the circuit court Thursday morning Mary E. Fawkner was granted a divorce from Robert G. Fawkner" (Decatur Herald, 6 September 1908, p. 7 and Decatur Daily Review, 21 January 1909, p. 11). The Fawkner name is unusual; might this have been Robert Grant Fawkner? If so, his life story just got more confusing. Remember, he had married Nellie Brown in 1895. While not found in the 1900 census, the family appeared intact in East St. Louis in 1910. Did something go wrong with the marriage between 1895 and 1910 -- something wrong enough to make room for a second Robert Grant Fawkner marriage?

In 1910, the divorced woman, Mary E. Fawkner, was head of household in Macon County, Illinois; Also in the household was a son, Lester, 24, and a sister, Lena combs, 42. Lester was probably actually Mary's brother. Lester and Mary were son and daughter of N. C. Combs in 1900 in Macon County. Already, in 1900, Mary E. Fawkner was listed as divorced -- remember, the divorce was apparently not official until 1909. No Combs-Fawkner marriage record has been found (an online Illinois marriage index only goes forward to 1900). Nothing can be concluded until a marriage record or court divorce file is found and examined, but because no other Robert Fawkner can be found in the vicinity, the man Mary divorced might be our man.

Whatever had happened earlier, something might have gone awry with the Fawkner-Brown marriage by 1920 when Nellie was living with her son in Leyden, Cook County, Illinois. Several hundred miles away, Robert G. Fawkner was living with his sister and brother-in-law (George Watson) in Carlton County, Minnesota. He was a "checker" for the railroad. Now a farmer, he lived next door to the Watsons in 1930; Nellie and Garnett still lived in Leyden. Grant continued to live in Carlton County in 1940.  His stepson, now married, lived in Leyden. Garnett's mother, Nellie, had died in 1935.

Robert Grant Fawkner's life remains mostly mystery. As best is known, he had no children -- no descendants with stories to tell. Like his siblings, he seems to have encountered marital problems. He apparently remained close to his sister, Julia. As always, more research might yield a clearer picture of his life.

LESSONS: First, this post reminds me of one of the benefits of writing a narrative account of what I know. It made me aware that there are some unsolved riddles in Robert Grant's life that beg for more research. Second, after writing about each of James and Julia Fawkner's children, I recognize the need to step back and look at the big-picture story of the family. I will try to do that next week.

Newspaper image: Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, Illinois), 26 October 1895, p. 5; digital image,, accessed 12 August 2015.

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