Wandering Oscar Foutz Leaves Few Traces
It’s easy to paint great-great uncle Sherman Foutz’s son, Oscar, as the black sheep.
The historical record suggests so, with some mishaps, and maybe a bad marriage, the clear absences. But there are holes. There’s a lot we don’t know. And too much that censuses and official records and newspaper articles fail to reveal.
We can’t know, for instance, the personalities behind the official print. The balance of harmony that makes up a household, of love that sparks a relationship, ambition that fuels a career. We can’t clearly discern, 100 years later, the circumstances and darker impulses that move the players on and off the stage.
In the case of Oscar Foutz, then, I’ve assembled the most complete chronology I can. With the barest trace of analysis. With some lingering questions. Certainly without judgment.
Here’s what we know so far.
Born Dec. 17, 1888 to parents Sherman and Elizabeth Foutz, Oscar lived out his early boyhood in the old Foutz stomping grounds of Harrison County.
Sherman’s appointment, in the mid- to late-1890s, to the U.S. Treasury took the family to Washington D.C., where grandparents Jonathan and Rebecca Foutz would join them about 1899-1900. Their youngest children, John, Charles and Vance (Colt’s great-grandfather), all born within 5-10 years of Oscar and sister Grace, likely were more playmates in the new and strange city than proper uncles.
In 1902, Sherman accepted leadership of the Knights of the Maccabees of eastern Pennsylvania. The family moved to Reading, Pa., where Sherman set about growing the membership from just over 90 to more than 3,500 over the subsequent decade, and grew his fire insurance business as well.
Foutzes Well-Educated, Well-Heeled in Reading
Far from the farming life in eastern Ohio, Oscar and sister Grace enjoyed the privileges of a well-known, well-to-do family.
We know Grace attended private schools, and even college at 15; we assume Oscar was granted the same privilege. Both appear occasionally in social columns in Washington, Reading and Harrisburg, having played host or a part in Maccabees’ youth gatherings. Or, in the case of this 1903 Reading Times item, when Oscar was about 15, acting in a local production, “The Readingites.”
In October 1906, the Reading Times spotlighted 17-year-old Oscar Foutz for his role in alerting firemen to a blaze that broke out after 10 p.m. in a tailor’s business at 15 N. Sixth Street, just a few addresses down from father Sherman Foutz’s fire insurance business at 40 N. Sixth.
By 1909, 20-year-old Oscar is employed as a clerk, according to the Reading city directory. The family moves to Harrisburg that year, and according to the census, Oscar finds work there as a fireman for the railroad.
In contrast to Grace’s intellectual pursuits, Oscar Foutz attracts newspaper ink for various sporting exploits, and his active role in the Pennsylvania National Guard.
An April 1909 article in the Reading Times reports Oscar’s second-prize finish in a pool contest at Penn Parlors.
An August 1910 piece in the Reading Eagle tells of a “a lively and amusing” boxing match between Oscar and another National Guard private to settle a “small dispute.” Oscar won.
In Harrisburg, an October 1911 Telegraph item lists Oscar among the members of the Hassler Athletic Club baseball team, which promised to have a stronger squad the next season.
It’s important to note that these are all the exploits of a newly-married man. Before the Foutzes leave Reading, Oscar marries Florence Hartman.
There may be nothing curious about the timing of their marriage license application, filed Jan. 1 1908 in Berks County. But by the time the two are married nearly 10 months later, Florence is far-along pregnant with their first son, Ralph. The wedding is reported in the Sept. 29, 1908 edition of the Reading Times.
Son Ralph’s birth less than three months later, on Dec. 19, 1908, is recorded by Alsace Lutheran Church.
Sons Ralph, Harry & a Foutz House Divided
Oscar’s troubles seem to begin not long after second son, Harry Sherman, is born March 28, 1910.
The young family appears to live a divided existence. The 1910 census, taken that April in Harrisburg, finds Oscar, listed as married 2 years, and eldest son Ralph in the home of Sherman and Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, 60 miles to the east in Reading, Florence appears in the household of parents Francis and Kate, along with brother Lloyd and sister Hannah. She is listed as single. There is no trace of brand new infant Harry Sherman, though the census taker visited on April 21.
The names of Florence’s parents — and their address — match their wedding announcement of two years prior. And match names listed in Florence’s death announcement (many years later, which we’ll get to). So this is undoubtedly the family. Maybe there’s some fudging going on. Or three-weeks-old Harry Sherman is still in the hospital (though he’s scheduled for his christening the next day).
Curiously, a family of Wunders — Florence’s mother’s maiden name — boards with the Hartmans, and another Wunder family lives next door. In Milton’s house, the youngest child is named Harry (though listed as 4 months old — could they mean weeks?). In Daniel’s, the youngest is named Ralph, age 3 (older by one year than Florence’s son Ralph who is reportedly living in Harrisburg with his father’s parents). Both Milton and Daniel match names listed in Florence’s grandfather William Wunder’s 1902 obituary.
Not yet definitive evidence that the Hartmans passed off 19-year-old Florence as single and passed on her children to siblings. But interesting.
Back to Oscar. Later that year, in August 1910, Oscar would be arrested, tried and sentenced to nine months in prison for his part in clubbing and robbing a man while on leave with three other guardsmen from Reading’s fourth regiment. From the Reading Times, Sept. 16, 1910:
Death of Sherman & Oscar a Gone Daddy
Oscar appears to later gain reinstatement to the National Guard and continue his family life.
A July 1911 article in the Reading Eagle reports a Florence Foutz visiting the guard camp at Mt. Gretna.
A July 1914 report in the Reading News-Times again lists Oscar as getting ready for that year’s camp at Mt. Gretna.
But by father Sherman Foutz’s death in April 1915, Oscar, not listed as a survivor in Sherman’s obituary, but included in the death announcement, reportedly lives in Arizona. Perhaps Oscar is there with the Guard?
The public record next finds Oscar Foutz in 1917, when a series of legal notices early that year summon him to Reading to face divorce from Florence, which is finalized May 19, 1917, according to the Harrisburg Evening News:
Over the next three decades, Oscar drops from sight. I’ve not found him on the censuses of 1920, 1930 or 1940, or in any vital documents. His mother Elizabeth Foutz’s December 1945 obituary mentions him as surviving, and living in Charlotte, N.C. Whereas, a 1969 Times-Reporter article on Grace Foutz’s “wonderful life” contends Oscar died in 1945. The piece probably meant Grace’s mother. But her obituary the following year definitely mentions a brother who “also preceded her in death.”
Census records and numerous newspaper articles indicate the absence of Oscar from the lives of sons Ralph and Harry. More on them in the next installment.
Meanwhile, mother Florence Hartman remarries, to a William F. Orner. Has another child, Raymond Carroll Orner, born Feb. 17, 1918 and baptized where her older sons were, Alsace Lutheran Church in Reading.
The record gets murky from here. The 1920 census shows, curiously, a Florence M. and Frank Orner living in Harrisburg, Dauphin County. In their household is a nearly two-year-old “Carrol L. Orner” — and also an 8-year-old Sherman (who, if it’s Harry Sherman Foutz, should be 10). We know that Ralph is listed in grandmother Lizzie Foutz’s household, so this may explain the whereabouts of both brothers (if not father Oscar).
The 1930 census lists a married Florence M. Orner, age 39 (the right age), living in Dauphin County and in the company of a 68-year-old Adaline Orner, albeit in the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital. Hmmmmmm….
Florence’s obituary appears in the March 12, 1938 edition of the Reading Times, spelled “Oner.” Sherman, Ralph and Carrol are all listed as survivors, as well as “Catherine,” wife of Roy Rutt. Now, I have not found the origins of the adopted Catherine Foutz, later Mrs. John Roy Rutt, but I have also not detected Catherine in the home of Francis and Katie (Wunder) Hartman prior to her living with Elizabeth Foutz in 1920. So I think this is just a nod from Florence to her former sister-in-law. But… I’ll keep following the trail.
Florence is buried in the same Epler’s Church Cemetery as her parents and several siblings. Incidentally, she dies at the same age as Oscar’s father.