Rough & Tumble Times for Ralph & Sherman Foutz
Research in the last month has shed new light on the mysteries surrounding the family and descendants of my great-great uncle Sherman Foutz.
As intriguing as new leads in genealogy are, though, they only manage to stitch together the roughest weave of a life.
There are still plenty of gaps you can poke fingers through.
But that’s the kind of discourse we’re left with as we examine lives of 70, 80… 100 and more years ago. Absent an audience with our actual ancestors, we collect clues, consider them. And end up, perhaps, with a closer understanding of who they were, and what life was like.
We can see, for instance, well enough to realize that by the time of his father Sherman’s death, Oscar Foutz was living far away from his family, and divorce in 1917 only seemed to cement that.
We can see that Oscar certainly doesn’t show up with family members, or even in and around Harrisburg, from 1920 on. And that widowed mom, Lizzie, though she has the care, for a time, of grandson Ralph and foster daughter Catherine, seems occupied enough with continued existence in Harrisburg, albeit an increasingly solitary one.
What happened to grandsons Ralph and (Harry) Sherman Foutz? Newspaper accounts from their boyhood through their 20s reveal repeated run-ins with local and state authorities. They are listed as “homeless,” “old offenders.” They’re responsible for robberies, thefts, the odd assault.
We know that life eventually settles down for Ralph. He meets and marries Virginia Henson. Finds steadier work as a truck driver. Has seven kids — and countless more grandkids, through which his story lives on, and new ones among his descendants are written.
I’d like to know more about the Virginia and Ralph Foutz who became “gram” and “pap” to my distant Foutz cousins. And of his younger brother who shared their grandfather Sherman’s name.
Their youth, and what became of Oscar and Florence and Lizzie, is only part of the story. The way my own Grandpa Ley’s losing his mother as an infant, and half-brother as a young teenager, shaped his early life, but he wrote his own story the rest of his 70+ years. Or how my Grandma Erma Johnson Foutz lost three brothers within three years to separate water-related accidents. Tragic at the time. And certainly echoed through stories I heard growing up. But the next 61 years for her were filled with family — six other siblings and countless memories.
So, a youth with a rap sheet doesn’t define the shape of the mature man.
But it can underline and even explain much of what we’ve discovered about life after Sherman’s death in 1915.
Foutz Rapsheet: 1920s
I thought it might be useful to view the newspaper accounts I’ve collected in decade-long snapshots.
The beginning of the 1920s find 11-year-old Ralph in the care of grandmother Lizzie Foutz and 14-year-old (adopted) aunt Catherine. This is about the time Lizzie works as a cook for the Elks Home.
Eight-year-old brother Sherman, on the other hand, is probably living in Harrisburg with mother Florence, stepfather William Frank Orner, and half-brother Raymond Carroll Orner.
If Lizzie’s life didn’t seem clearly hard-scrabble when considering the census record (and Oscar’s and Grace’s absence), consider that 11-year-old Sherman is already “on parole” and considered “an old offender” by the courts, and that when the brothers reunite for a theft in 1922 they are identified as “two homeless children.”
- October 15, 1920: Ralph Foutz, “an old offender”, already on parole (at 11), admitted to running away from home and is sent to Mont Alto hospital for treatment in lieu of being sent to Glen Mills school for troubled youth, according to the Harrisburg Evening News.
- Jan. 6, 1922: Ralph and Sherman Foutz, “two homeless children,” are sent to Glen Mills troubled juveniles school after “figuring” in a bicycle theft, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph.
- May 15, 1928: Ralph Foutz, 19, and two other Harrisburg teens stole a car at Bedford and abandoned it at Fort Loudon when they ran out of gas, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph.
- Aug. 29, 1928: Sherman Foutz, 18, suffers cuts and bruises when he is thrown from a bicycle after colliding with an automobile, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph.
Foutz Rap Sheet: 1930s
As Ralph and Sherman reach their 20s, their involvement in thefts continues, and their estrangement from family seems complete.
Youthful, but no longer considered children, their crimes no longer land them in hospitals for treatment or schools for troubled youths. The major crime both are involved in at the beginning of the decade puts them in county prison for more than a year.
Their victims? When not random, they include family. Ralph and Sherman break into and rob the farmhouses of their grandpa Francis Hartman and Aunt Hannah Gable, Florence’s father and sister. Ralph faces additional time for stealing a necklace and cash from a girlfriend’s house in Harrisburg.
Some context: according to my latest research, Florence’s second marriage didn’t last long. In a genealogy boards discussion from 2006, a daughter of Raymond Carroll Orner reported that William Frank Orner moved away and remarried, and that her father was told as a boy that his mother had died (in reality, she wouldn’t die until 1938, when “Carroll” was 20). By 1930, there is a Florence Orner listed in the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Asylum in Harrisburg. I haven’t cemented the connections yet, but if this holds together, it would seem the fracturing of Oscar and Florence Foutz’s family was complete.
- Oct. 25, 1930: Ralph, 21, and Sherman, 20, are arrested and charged with robbery after breaking into two farmhouses near Reading, Pa., and stealing men’s clothing and a wristwatch, according to the Reading Times. The homes’ owners? Grandpa Francis Hartman and aunt Hannah (Hartman) Gable. They are sentenced to 1 to 3 years in Berks County prison two weeks later.
- Dec. 28, 1931: Ralph, 23, is charged with felonious entry and larceny for entering a Harrisburg home and stealing $2.62 and a necklace, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph.
- July 1932: Sherman, 22, is shot in the right leg by police after he and an unknown companion stole a car from North Third Street in Harrisburg then stole several quarts of milk from the steps of a home on North Cameron, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph. He is sentenced to Huntingdon Reformatory.
- Nov. 27. 1933: Transported back to Harrisburg after serving 22 months in Berks County prison for breaking into his relatives’ farmhouses, Ralph, now 25, is made to answer for the stolen cash and necklace from 1931. He pleads guilty, but asks for leniency, telling the judge, “I’ve learned my lesson. All I ask is a chance to prove it.” The judge sentences Ralph to a reduced 60 days in Dauphin County prison, but tells Ralph if he is arrested again, he’ll serve three years, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph.
- January 1936: Sherman, 25, and now living in Hagerstown, Md., is questioned by police after he traveled to Harrisburg for a one-day drinking bout. He is not charged with anything, according to the Daily Mail.
- April 1936: Sherman, 26, is sentenced to 60 days in Washington County (Maryland) jail for stealing instruments from a parked car in Hagerstown and likely selling them to a second-hand store, according to the Daily Mail.
- December 1936: A nine-year-old boy reports seeing Sherman, 26, drunkenly steal a car battery from a parked car in Hagerstown. Sherman is sentenced to another 60-day term in Washington County jail, according to the Daily Mail.
- April 1937: Sherman, 27, and another man are caught by police in the act of stealing a sack of potatoes from a wholesale truck parked in Hagerstown. Sherman is sentenced to 30 days in jail, according to the Daily Mail.
- August 1937: Sherman, 27, is arrested in Harrisburg and charged with larceny after stealing a .22-caliber rifle and a shirt valued at $5 from a pawn shop, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph.
Foutz Rap Sheet: 1940s
Although I haven’t tried to assemble an exhaustive account of the Foutz brothers’ run-ins with the law, by their late 20s and 30s, life appears to settle down for Ralph and Sherman.
Ralph successfully pleads for leniency in the early 1930s, and stays out of trouble before getting involved in a hold-up and robbery. He is granted parole, however, returns to his wife, Virginia, and young son.
- Feb. 8, 1938: Ralph, 29, is held on $2,000 bail after he and three 18-year-old youths attempt to hold up and rob residents of a Harrisburg house. He pleads guilty to assault with intent to rob, unlawfully carrying firearms and a statutory offense, and is sentenced to 9 to 18 month in Dauphin County prison. Five months later, a judge grants Ralph’s plea for parole, which cites his wife and 2-year-old son being on relief, according to the Telegraph.
During the course of the 1940s, Ralph finds steady work as a truck driver, and celebrates the births of Charles Harry, in 1939, and Catherine in 1941. Like his father, Ralph appears to enjoy boxing, as articles in local papers in the late 1930s indicate.
A truck accident in 1944 is the final off-kilter news item for Ralph and family in the 1940s.
Brother Sherman, meanwhile, faces serious time in 1946 after being involved in stealing from a refrigerator car. Although I’ve found a couple traces of him marrying (a woman named Mary) and moving back and forth between Harrisburg and Hagerstown in the 1930s and 1940s, that’s where the story of Oscar’s younger son goes dark for me.
Just as these articles have helped shine a little more light on Sherman Foutz’s descendants in the early part of the 20th century, I’m hoping getting to know Ralph and Oscar through their family will illuminate what happened next.
- September 1946: Sherman, 36, is sentenced to 2-4 years in the state penitentiary for stealing, along with three other men, 10 cases of evaporated milk from a refrigerator car at the railroad yards in Harrisburg, according to the Telegraph.