The whereabouts of William Read Kirk after the Ohio State Penitentiary fire of 1930 is a fascinating and ongoing mystery for our family.
After the death of my husband’s grandmother Louise Reynolds (nee Froemling) in 1989, family members received numerous documents, photos and pieces of correspondence that were found amongst her effects.
Although Louise had always been open about her adoption as an infant, she never knew much about her adoptive parents beyond information she received by word of mouth from other family members.
Two of the pieces of correspondence she left were a letter to Clerk of the Court of Chicago, Illinois and another to Wilmette, Illinois to request her adoption information. As far as we can tell, she never received so much as an acknowledgement of her request. This is not really surprising as it’s only in recent decades that authorities have enabled adoptive children and birth parents to search for each other.
It does appear, however, by her handwritten notes on one piece of paper in her effects, that she managed to contact the officials in Wilmette. On this tiny piece of paper, she named her birth parents – Emma Mary Froemling and William Kirk. It was through my own research that I was able to identify both Emma and William.
The 1910 US Federal Census shows William as an inmate at Fort Sheridan, Illinois military base, just prior to his desertion of April 15, 1911, as shown in his enlistment record (see right).
I happened upon a news report in Chicago’s “News of the Day” from 1914 regarding a William Kirk of 428 E. 47th Street in Chicago, who was held to grand jury on testimony of Mrs. Alma Herchert for attacking here while showing her flat. I have no proof that this is my William Kirk, but the location and the timing are correct, as this is just a couple of years after he met Emma and fathered Louise in Chicago. I’m still looking for proof – or at least corroborating information.
All of this information so far casts a rather negative light on our William Kirk, especially if the “News of the Day” article proves to be about him. First of all, it appears that he fathered a child by Emma Mary Froemling and most likely deserted her as he did his military post, or worse yet, could it have been a case of rape? His military medical records point to a strong possibility of his “playing the field” during his military service as he was regularly treated for a rather serious sexually transmitted disease.
Later, he appears in the 1930 census as an inmate in Ohio State Penitentiary. Could this possibly be a result of a conviction for assault, as in that of a William Kirk against a woman in Chicago in 1914?
How long would it take for the case to proceed through the US courts of the time and would the sentence have been long enough for him to be in prison at Ohio State Penitentiary in 1930?
Whatever the reasons for his being there, the fact of the matter is that, according to the 1930 US census for Ohio State Penitentiary, our William Read Kirk was an inmate on April 11, 1930, just 10 days prior to a devastating fire that was started by three inmates attempting an escape from the prison on April 21, 1930.
As a result of the fire and the callous actions of several guards who deliberately locked inmates in their cells and left those already locked in, the deaths of inmates totaled 319.
The “Ohio State Penitentiary Fire” website explains the circumstances in great detail.
According to the list of deceased in the disaster as published on this website, William Kirk was not one of the deceased. It is clear, however, that the fire resulted in a close examination of the environment and treatment of inmates at the time since the prison is documented to have been well over maximum capacity. The examination’s result was the parole of a couple of thousand inmates in 1931. Was William Kirk one of the parolees?
I don’t currently have answers to any of these questions as I have been unable to locate William after 1930. At present, there are 1940 census records for 26 states indexed and available for searching, including William’s home state of Ohio, yet I’ve found nothing about him in any of them. I will keep searching as more become searchable.
I would love to hear from anyone who has any information about William Read Kirk. The information I know for sure is:
Birth: June 18, 1888.
Residence: 1888 to 1908 in Stock Township, Noble County, Ohio.
Enlistment in the US Army: November 9, 1908.
Residence: 1910 in Fort Sheridan, Deerfield, Lake County, Illinois.
Residence: 1912 in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for his desertion charges.
Dishonorable Discharge: January 18, 1912
Residence: 1920 on Monroe Street, Center Township, Noble County, Ohio, living with his aunt Martha C. Price (nee Kirk).
Residence: 1930 as an inmate in Ohio State Penitentiary.
- Ohio State Penitentiary, website; http://www.forgottenoh.com/Counties/Franklin/pen.html.
- A List of Victims of the Ohio Penitentiary Fire Along With Their Death Certificates, website; http://www.genealogybug.net/ohio_alhn/crime/ohio_pen_fire.html.