Part 1: Myrtle, Blanche and Walter, a genealogical case study

I mentioned in my last post that Tracy and I have been busy lately, each with new projects. Mine, very happily, has me visiting many of the same resources we used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish — but the new story is set here in Toronto, and is not family-related. Still, I find I am coming up against many of the same conundrums and genealogical brick walls, and I thought I would write about one of them, partly to sort it out in my own mind, and partly because it will probably be of interest to anyone engaged in similar research, whether they are curious about family or general history.

This new book in the works, also non-fiction, explores patients and staff at a military hospital just after WW1. One day I was scouring the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive available through our public library system. I was searching specifically for the term “lost an arm,” for reasons I won’t go into now, and I came upon a tragic 1920 article about a veteran who had indeed lost an arm during the war, and whose young daughter was killed accidentally by a boy playing with a gun.

The Dominion Bank Building, circa 1914, at the corner of Yonge and King. Courtesy Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection.

I was intrigued to find out the back story of this family. The little girl’s name was Elsie Dunn, and her father was Walter, a returned soldier who had just taken a job as an elevator operator in the Dominion Bank Building at Yonge and King. The mother/wife (as so often happens) was mentioned in the article, but not by name. Still, I had dates and details, and the article even included photographs of Walter, Elsie, and Elsie’s “mother.” (Read on to see why I use quotes here!)

I quickly found Walter’s service record at Library and Archives Canada, and was able to corroborate details in the article: the wound matched, the home address matched, and he had one child named Elsie. So now I also knew that Walter had been born in Liverpool in 1888, that he’d enlisted in Montreal in 1916, that he’d been wounded in the Battle of Arras, and that his wife’s name was Blanche. Some time during the war, or slightly after, the family moved from Montreal to Toronto.

When I looked for the death record of Elsie Dunn, however, nothing came up. Since I knew her age, and figured it was fairly unusual to die at eight years old, I removed her first name from the search field, and searched instead for a girl named Dunn who’d died in Toronto in March 1920. The record turned up, with her name recorded as Juanita Odesse Dunn. Almost everything else fit: her age; her father’s name, address, and birthplace; the cause of her death. Her mother, however, was listed as Mirtle B. Bishop, born Nova Scotia. I assumed the “B” stood for Blanche, and carried on gathering information.

I found the now childless Walter and Blanche still living on Gamble Avenue, in an area called Todmorden, just south of the Don River in Toronto in 1921. That particular census included a column for the year a person arrived in Canada, and told me that Walter had come in 1898, and Blanche, also born in England, in 1908. I immediately wondered if Walter had been a home child, having arrived here at age 10, and I quickly found his name, along with a sister Maria’s, in the Home Children Records at Library and Archives Canada. The back story to this is rather fascinating, but I will save it for a subsequent post, and stick with my investigations about Blanche and Myrtle for now.

Patagonian-Welsh home children on board the Numidian in 1902, the same ship Walter and Maria Dunn traveled on when they left England for Canada. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-037613

Now I knew that Blanche, married name Dunn, was born in England in 1888 and had come to Canada in 1908. That went against the details in Elsie’s death record, which said the Myrtle/Mirtle had been born in Nova Scotia. I searched for a marriage record and found one for Walter James Dunn marrying Myrtle Pearl Bishop in Montreal in 1912. Immediately preceding that record was a Catholic baptism for Myrtle. The discovery also revealed Myrtle’s and Walter’s parents’ names — but again I’ll stick with Myrtle for now.

Myrtle’s parents were Allen Bishop and Amy Hindon — clear, not-too-ordinary and not-too-odd names that I knew would be easy to find. And indeed, there they were with baby Myrtle on the 1891 census living in Nova Scotia. A later census showed the parents without Myrtle, but with a sister named Juanita Maxime. Hunting further back, the name Odessa also turned up in Amy’s ancestry. It was obvious I’d found the right family, and that Myrtle had named her baby after her own relatives.

And yet — the 1891 information challenged the idea that Myrtle, if she was Blanche, had come to Canada in 1908, and that she’d been born in England. It corroborated the information in Elsie’s death record: that mother Myrtle had been born in Nova Scotia. So all the records thus far very clearly showed two different names, two different birth dates, and two different birth places. If Elsie could be Juanita, then surely Myrtle could be Blanche, and I knew from the work Tracy and I had done on The Cowkeeper’s Wish that Eleanors could be Margarets, Olives could be Isabels, and so on. But now I had too many details that didn’t add up, and I knew there had to be a different story.

Next I searched for a birth record for Juanita Odesse Dunn, aka Elsie, and found that she had been baptized Juanita Maxime, like Myrtle’s sister, in Montreal in May 1913, a year after her parents had married. Once again the parents’ names were Walter James Dunn and Myrtle Pearl Bishop, with no mention of a Blanche. I began to wonder if Myrtle had died and Walter had remarried, but I could find no death record for Myrtle, and no remarriage for Walter. I wasn’t sure how to proceed to determine who Blanche was, but the little 1908 notation from the census kept niggling.

Finally I did a broad search of passenger lists for all Blanches, without a surname, born in England in 1888, who came to Canada in 1908. There was a handful of possibilities, but I was especially drawn to one record that showed a French surname: Poidevin. This Blanche was the daughter of an egg sorter born in France. The family lived in London, and Blanche’s siblings had working-class occupations like feather curler and perfumer’s assistant — not as glamorous as it sounds, and familiar territory from when Tracy and I researched our own ancestors in the poor areas of London. Like so many young English women of her era, Blanche Poidevin came to Canada with a party of domestic workers, and found employment in Montreal. Her English baptism record also gives her birth date — February 11, 1888 — and it was this detail that eventually linked her with more certainty to Walter Dunn.

Domestic workers arriving in Quebec, 1911, courtesy Library and Archives Canada

In 1935, 15 years after Elsie/Juanita’s awful death, Blanche and Walter Dunn traveled across the US border, heading to London, England, via New York. The cards filled out confirm various details: Walter’s sister Maria is given as a contact; the couple’s address is still Gamble Avenue, Toronto; and finally Blanche’s birthdate, February 11, 1888, matches the baptism record for Blanche Poidevin, daughter of the egg sorter.

Sometimes less is more with this type of research — the best way to find Elsie Dunn was to remove her first name; and the best way to find Blanche was to remove her surname. So now we know that Walter and Myrtle had a baby named Juanita; that something happened to Myrtle, or to her relationship with Walter, between the time Juanita was baptized in 1913 and the time Walter enlisted in 1916; that Walter married or took up with Blanche Poidevin; and that Blanche and Walter were living as husband and wife when Juanita died. Was it Blanche who decided to call Juanita Elsie, once Myrtle was longer around?

The mystery as to what happened to Myrtle is far from solved, but there is plenty to say about Walter, home child turned war veteran, in the next post; and about Elsie and the boy who caused her death.