This post is the first in a brand new series called “You Died How?” in which I investigate bizarre and unusual deaths in my family tree. For more about the series, read this.
A poor French-Canadian
The first unfortunate soul in our exploration of unfortunate deaths is my great-great-grandfather Oliver Delphis Dupre.
Oliver usually went by some version of his middle name: “Dolphis” or “Adolphus.” He was baptized May 6, 1881, at St. Genevieve Catholic Church in Centerville, Minnesota. Located about 18 miles north of St. Paul on a chain of small lakes, Centerville is both the name of a township and the small village within it. In 1847, Dolphis’s grandfather Olivier Dupre (1830-1914) had migrated from Sorel, Quebec, to St. Paul—then part of Wisconsin Territory—with his maternal grandparents and aunts and uncles. A few years later Olivier became a pioneer settler in Centerville. By the time Dolphis was born, Centerville had grown into a small but vibrant French-Canadian community. Even though all of his family had been in the U.S. for more than 30 years before his birth—indeed, both of his parents had been born in Minnesota—Dolphis grew up speaking mostly French.
Fast forward. In October 1917, Dolphis was 36 years old and had a wife and eight children to look after. They still spoke French at home. His eldest child, my great-grandmother Alice, was 14. The youngest, a baby girl named Rosella, had just been born in July. The family lived precariously on a small rented farm near Forest Lake, Minnesota.
Dolphis had never been rich. He began his working career as a day laborer in Centerville. He married Mary Emalina “Lena” Marier there on April 15, 1902. Around 1906, he and his young family moved a few miles north from Centerville to Forest Lake, where they lived in an unfinished house by the railroad tracks. My great-grandmother Alice, born in 1903, remembered the house this way in an autobiography she wrote in old age:
This house by the track had one big room downstairs where the cooking and eating were done. One part where we ate was the living room. The bedrooms were upstairs and the only petitions [partitions] were curtains on a wire. The house wasn’t finished—only two-by-fours. I can remember seeing my Dad’s violin hanging on the wall. He played it quite often and we liked that.
The Dupres were poor. Trying to survive Minnesota winters in a house without insulation must have been miserable. But Dolphis apparently kept his family in good spirits with music on his old violin. He probably played old French folk songs; two of his great-grandfathers had been voyageurs, and they would have sung some of the traditional rowing songs to their children and grandchildren.
In Forest Lake, Dolphis worked as a teamster for the American Grass Twine Company, which owned thousands of acres of swampy grassland west of town. Each day, he drove a team of horses and a reaper through mucky fields of razor-sharp wire grass. The cut grass was dried and sent to St. Paul where it was turned into wicker furniture and rugs. Some of Dolphis’s brothers-in-law worked in the fields with him and his father-in-law worked at a nearby stable. For all of them, pay was at most a few dollars a day. (Here’s a great post on another genealogy blog about the wire grass industry near Forest Lake.)
Some time in the early 1910s, Dolphis quit the Twine Company. He and Lena rented a farm near Forest Lake. “It wasn’t modern of course,” recalled Alice, “no electric lights, only lamps, had to bring in water from the pump and for cooling and heating we had wood stoves, so there had to be plenty of wood cut, ahead [of time].”
Farming was hard work.
We led a happy life there on the farm but it was a lot of work for my mother [Lena]. In order to cook she had to get the kitchen range quite hot before she could cook and most of the time it was three meals a day. She had big washings and a lot of ironing. When I was old enough I would help. My father [Dolphis] had help too[.] [H]is Dad stayed with us[,] and now and then his brother (my Uncle Evod & his wife Stella) would come for awhile especially in the summer.
When Alice wrote about her childhood, she was never very clear on the dates. But her uncle Evod, Dolphis’s youngest brother, married Stella Bernard in June 1915, so we have a good idea when these particular memories were from. Evod and Stella probably lived at the farm with Dolphis and Lena for most of the summers of 1916 and 1917.
Was it an accident?
We know Evod was also visiting in October 1917, when the fateful event occurred. I’ll let Alice explain what happened.
In the fall it was potato picking time. After dinner my Dad and his brother Evod went hunting in the woods near by, they would hunt just about every day while my Uncle was with us visiting[.] [W]ell on October 16, 1917, they hunted again at the same place and were gone only a short time when we all heard a loud yell and my mother ran across the plowed field, she felt there was something wrong. She didn’t come back right away, and sure enough my Dad had been shot and she had stayed with him until he died. His brother said his glove hooked the trigger and that’s how my Dad was shot. It was a shock to all of us. My Grandpa hitched up the mules and went for a coroner in Forest Lake. The mules must have sensed what had happened, they surely took off fast, very unusual for mules to go so fast. My Dad was taken away and we were all pretty upset, that night and after that. We didn’t know what we were going to do.
Alice’s narrative continues, “My Uncle was questioned for a few days, trying to figure out if it was an accident. He was questioned right at the house. They must of found out it was an accident because the questioning was over.” Indeed, Dolphis’s death certificate confirms that officials had deemed the shooting an accident. The family story passed down the generations that Evod was leaning his gun against a fence as Dolphis climbed over, and that’s when his glove caught and pulled the trigger.
Alice’s memories of the visitation are even more vivid. The forensic evidence she describes supports Evod’s story of accidentally firing his gun while leaning it against a fence.
Then my Dad was returned to the house, in those days they viewed the body at the house. I was always afraid of the dead. Just before my Dad was to be buried my Mom had me come to the coffin even though I didn’t want to but she begged me and I finally looked at him, he looked so nice but he had a bebe mark on the side of his chin and Mom said he (my Dad) was shot in the stomach but the bebe[—]or I should say a bebe[—]came out there. I was 14 so I remember quite a few things especially when Mom wanted me to touch him she had to take my hand, he felt cold.
Most of the deaths I will write about in this series had serious consequences for the surviving family members. The Dupres were hanging on by a thread as it was. Without Dolphis, they were in trouble.
Though Lena was only 33 when she was widowed, she never remarried. She carried her family through the most difficult times on the strength of her own hard work and the help of her older children. Lena and her eight children moved first into a house they rented on the cheap from her sister and brother-in-law Angeline and Jim Patrin. Then they moved in with Lena’s parents. Finally, they settled into another rental not far from “Uncle Jim’s place.” Alice was 14 and therefore old enough to be responsible for the younger kids. Lena started working for money. As Alice recalls,
My Mom got a job for a while at the hotel in Forest Lake[.] [S]he could walk there. I took care of the kids and when there was extra soup left over the hotel keeper would give it to my mother and she’d take it home and of course with 8 mouths to feed the soup disappeared fast, it was so good. Then she bought a sewing machine on time (sic) and sewed for ourselves also for others.
The 1920 census shows that 16-year-old Alice was earning money as a servant for a family in town while 15-year-old Roy worked odd jobs for petty cash. They had become the family’s breadwinners.
Being the oldest child was hard on Alice. She never said so in her writing, but it is clear she subconsciously sought a way to ease the burden on herself and her family. A nice young man would do the trick. Her uncle Jim was into motorcycles, and “one day he brought a friend along.” The friend was Al LaBelle, 20 years old and proud owner of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. “We went together three months,” she remembers. “Al kept coming to see me and we got married June 14, 1920.” Alice now had her own breadwinner, and her departure meant one less mouth to feed at home.
Alice had found her escape. She had also demonstrated the path each of her younger siblings would follow. As they reached their teens, they went to work for money to support their mother (and eventually their widowed grandfather, too). In 1930, for example, Lena’s 19-year-old son Walter worked as a truck driver in the construction industry, but he still lived at home. 18-year-old son Clarence worked odd jobs like Roy had once done. Everyone in the family sacrificed to get by, but thankfully no one starved or otherwise died as a direct result of Dolphis and Evod’s hunting accident. (The only other noteworthy death was Dolphis and Lena’s daughter Pearl, who died of diphtheria in 1925, age 16 .)
What were they hunting?
I find the whole story fascinating. It’s not just knowing how Dolphis died, but understanding through Alice’s narrative what his life and death meant for the family. The only detail I thought was missing was what animals the two brothers were trying to kill when the stray bullet found Dolphis instead.
I went searching through newspapers in hopes of finding the answer. A death notice or obituary might say more about the circumstances of his death. I came up empty with the first couple papers I searched. I feared his death might not have been printed anywhere since working class foreigners (as French-speaking Dolphis and his family were often considered by the dominant class of Yankees and high-achieving German-Americans) didn’t receive much notice in those days. I did, however, note the high volume of fatal duck hunting accidents recorded in the newspapers that October.
One of the duck hunting accidents stood out to me for several reasons. First, it was national news covered in every paper I checked. Second, it involved someone I knew from my family tree. And third, it was eerily similar to the Dupre death story. On October 21, five days after Evod accidentally shot Dolphis, U.S. Senator Paul O. Husting (D-WI) was killed. He was out duck hunting with his brother on a lake in east central Wisconsin. With ducks in sight he called fire, sat up slightly in the boat, and took the full charge from his brother’s shotgun square in the back. This death was also deemed an accident. I recognized Husting from my genealogy research as the Senator who in December 1915 had nominated my 3x-great-grandfather Henry Pattison to be Postmaster of Durand, Wisconsin.
In any case, I was prepared to accept that Dolphis’s death had not been recorded and move forward with the presumption that he also died hunting ducks. Then I checked the Stillwater Daily Gazette out of Stillwater, Minnesota. There it was. “Dolpha O. Dupre Accidentally Shot by Brother While Hunting Rabbits.” The short news story doesn’t add anything to Alice’s account, except that they were hunting rabbits. It ends with a somber reminder of the accident’s consequences: “the deceased leaves a widow and eight children, the oldest 14 years of age, to mourn the loss of husband and father.”
I shared this latest discovery on Facebook with a bit of humor—I mean, who dies hunting bunny rabbits?—and my friend Courtney chimed in to remind me. “How very Elmer Fudd,” she wrote. Touche. Considering how my research transpired, this clip seems appropriate.