22 February 2017

Everything was not just as it should be

When my grandfather, Wallace B. Dixon, was nineteen years old his mother filed for divorce from his father. The year was 1923, and, according to the divorce documents, William A. Dixon had deserted the family in September 1912. (1)

The divorce documents are decidedly one-sided, as William chose not to respond to the suit in any official manner. We only get his wife's side, but affidavits given by Mary Elizabeth (Klein) Dixon and others tell a story of an abusive husband who drank away the rent money, forcing the family to move frequently — often several times in a year. Mary Elizabeth says "My husband made so much disturbance and did not give me money to pay the rent, so I had to move."

Mary Elizabeth testifies "For two years before the desertion, I lived on Livingston Street, between First and Second Streets; Second Street, between Jersey Street and Fulton Street, from there to Marshall Street, between Second and Third Streets, and then to South Second Street, and from there to Elizabeth Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets."

In May of 1912 William deserted the family for the first time, out of fear that Mary Elizabeth would have him arrested again for abusing her. He was gone for three months. Returning to the family, he "promised faithful to do what was right."

At the end of September 1912 William was drinking again. The family had been living on Elizabeth Avenue for a little over a month when a visit from the landlady prompted Mary Elizabeth to ask her husband for the rent money. According to her, William became abusive and told her to get the money herself, he did not care how she did it. Fearing further abuse, Mary Elizabeth went to her daughter Clara Viola (Dixon) O'Hare's house on Marshall Street and stayed the night. At that time she would have had three children aged eighteen and under – George Thomas, eighteen; Wallace, seven; and Hazel, three years old. Presumably she took them with her. My grandfather states in his testimony that he went to his sister Viola's house with his mother.

Q. Why did you go to your sister's.
A. I don't recollect now. Everything was not just as it should be.
Q. There was some trouble between your father and mother?
A. That had happened quite a few times.

Mary Elizabeth and her children stayed away from home until the following afternoon. "I then went back home and everything was gone, it was an empty house. The people downstairs said that he had sold some, and took some with him." Wallace adds "...there was a few odd pieces of furniture left; the house had practically been stripped."

According to Wallace, they went back to his sister's house for a few days, then moved to West Orange for a while before returning to Elizabeth. Mary Elizabeth petitioned the Overseer of the Poor, Mr. Sattler, to help her find her husband. The authorities did find him. They "ordered him to pay" and when he did not he was arrested and sent to jail for six months for failing to support his family. When he got out of jail he made a few meager payments to his wife, and then quit. Eventually the family learned that William had moved to Staten Island. Mary Elizabeth had to support herself and her children, going out to work and taking in boarders. Her son George Thomas was probably working by that time, and likely contributed to the family's support, as did my grandfather when he became old enough to work.

William A. Dixon with his two youngest children; Wallace Bernard Dixon and Hazel Dorothy Dixon. Circa 1920. Collection of E. Ackermann, 2017.
William A. Dixon with his two youngest children,
Wallace Bernard and Hazel Dorothy.
I believe this was taken around 1920.
Held by E. Ackemann, 2017.
At the time of the divorce William was living at 124 Grand View Avenue in Staten Island. He was employed as a carpenter at the Brewer Ship Yard, also in Staten Island. My grandfather testifies that he and his sister, Hazel, had made several visits to their father at his home there. So, presumably they maintained some sort of relationship with him.

On 29 May 1924 Mary Elizabeth was granted a divorce from her husband. She was given custody of Wallace and Hazel, and was granted permission to resume her maiden name.

On 20 April 1927 she married Thomas Payne(2), a long-time acquaintance and boarder with the Dixon family. Thomas had been a boarder with the family in 1900, prior to his first marriage.(3) By 1918 he was again living at the same address as Mary Elizabeth, 159 West Grand Street (4), and he and his youngest son were listed among several boarders in her household at that same address on the 1920 U.S. Census.(5) After their marriage the couple moved into a house that they owned, 125 West Grand Street, and for the first time in her life Mary Elizabeth had a home that she could truly call her own.(6) I would like to believe that they lived together happily until her death on 3 October 1938.(7)

William A. Dixon was living back in Elizabeth and was employed as a carpenter when he died on 23 May 1927, at the age of 64. I don't know who the informant was for his death certificate. That document records that at the time of death he was married to "Mary Kline".(8)


(1) Dixon, Mary E. vs. Dixon, William A., 25 July 1923, Chancery Court Records; Superior Court Records Management Center, Trenton, New Jersey; NJSA microfilm 2-23, file number C64-517, New Jersey State Archives, Trenton, New Jersey.

(2) Marriage record for Thomas Payne and Mary Eliz. Klein. No. 11913, 20 April 1927. The second marriage for both bride and groom, took place at the Municipal Building in Manhattan. New York City Department of Records and Information Services, Municipal Archives, 31 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007. Certified copy held by Elizabeth Ackermann, 2016.

(3) 1900 Federal Census, Union County, New Jersey, population schedule, , ; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed ); FHL microfilm: 1240996.

(4)"United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KZJ6-D9V : 12 December 2014), Thomas Payne, 1917-1918; citing Elizabeth City no 3, New Jersey, United States, NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,712,099.  

(5)"United States Census, 1920," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M4YG-CQK : accessed 15 February 2016), Mary E Dickson, Elizabeth City Ward 10, Union, New Jersey, United States; citing sheet 10A, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,821,070. 

(6)"United States Census, 1930", database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X4F1-D1T : accessed 15 February 2016), Thomas Payne, 1930. ED 61, sheet 7B; household 166. Citing The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. GS Film Number 2341121, digital folder 004951973, image number 00896.

(7) Mary E. Payne, death certificate. New Jersey Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Records, Trenton. NJSA microfilm roll 827 (Death Certificates 1938: Nason – Poz), organized alphabetically by surname. New Jersey State Archives, Trenton.

(8) William Dixon, death certificate No. 611 (23 May 1927), New Jersey Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Trenton, New Jersey. 

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