‘Of police court fame’

My grandfather, born in 1931.

The benefits of newspaper databases when conducting family research can be remarkable. One usually hopes to find valuable birth, marriage, and death notices, or, if you’re lucky, an interesting detail you may not be able to glean from the usual genealogical record. It is not so often that you discover your ancestors (and their exploits) were a favorite subject of the local newspaper, or how public family turmoil can sometimes be.

As someone with a close relationship with my maternal grandparents, it was interesting to learn that my grandfather does not know much about his own maternal grandparents – just that his grandfather, William Hatin, was such a small man that he supposedly wore children’s shoes.

Searching for records on William, I learned he was born in 1887 in Winooski, Vermont. When I typed his name into a popular newspaper database I got dozens of hits from The Burlington Free Press spanning nearly his entire life.

A month later, the newspaper reported that warrants had been issued for the Hatin brothers…

They began seemingly harmlessly in December 1905, when William, his brother Arthur, and a friend, Alma Bernard, were involved in a runaway carriage incident; no one was hurt but the rented carriage was damaged. A month later, the newspaper reported that warrants had been issued for the Hatin brothers, as they had failed to pay for the damage done to the carriage during their “pleasure ride.”

A short time later the paper reported that William “quietly married” Alma Bernard in February 1906. Their daughter Yvonne (my great-grandmother) was born six months later.

By July 1911 the Hatin brothers appeared in the paper again, reportedly under arrest for the theft of a neighbor’s chickens and their eggs. In October, William – now “of police court fame” – was arrested for “breach of the peace” and “annoying a woman neighbor.” A month later the newspaper reported that William and Alma had “given up on housekeeping,” moved from their home, and sent their four young children to the convent. The family had apparently reunited by June 1916, when was it was reported that 29-year-old William was sentenced to 6 months in jail for a second charge of the theft of 12 chickens.

After the dawn of prohibition, William and Alma Hatin’s names appear in The Burlington Free Press on a staggering 28 occasions. They were both arrested multiple times for the possession and sale of liquor, and their home was raided three times by the police. In 1924, William was brought to court for violating his probation by drinking and selling liquor, “putting his wife out of house,” and failing to keep steadily employed.

In July 1925, the paper reported William’s suicide attempt in garish detail. In 1930, he was arrested again for public intoxication.

William and Alma eventually separated. Alma was arrested a final time in 1938 and put on probation due to illness; she moved to Albany, New York, and died there in 1956.

William was arrested twice more in 1941. He plead guilty and was sentenced to two years in the state prison. He broke out of the jail, turned himself in, and was given 90 more days. He died on 9 June 1950 in Burlington.

It is conceivable that my great-grandmother, a deeply religious woman, kept her children shielded from the exploits of her parents, and so my grandfather did not have much of a relationship with them. The articles about William and Alma Hatin in their local paper tell a story of two people on the wrong side of the law, but it is important to look past the sensationalism of the headlines to the harsh realities of mental illness and alcoholism. It is only then that we might glean some truth from the gossip.

Danielle Cournoyer

About Danielle Cournoyer

Prior to NEHGS, Danielle worked as an Interpretation and Programming Fellow for The Church of the Presidents, where she led guided tours of the historic church and the Adams crypt. Additionally, Danielle has worked as an Historic District Research Aid for the Arlington Historical Commission. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston with a Master of Arts degree in History in May 2016. Her interests include urban development and history, focusing on Boston and New York.

16 thoughts on “‘Of police court fame’

  1. Yes, that was a troubled family, one of so many that were/are deeply affected by alcoholism. My own 4th great-grandmother suffered severe beatings during the 1830s at the hand of her alcoholic husband, finally divorcing him and seeking shelter with her brother in another state. She left Ohio with their 7 kids and just the clothes on their backs.

    There were reasons for prohibition. Good ones.

  2. Danielle, I commend you for your compassion towards your ancestors. Many people would judge them without acknowledging that their problems are the result of poorly understood and treated medical conditions.

  3. I agree that your ancestors’ serious problems while adults were augmented by alcoholism. There was probably no treatment — and a lot of chastising, at that time. In addition, I see that his misbehavior began in his youth. There may be more to his story. Was there neglect at home? Later, he stole chickens, was his family hungry? On the other hand, he may have come from a very loving and caring family, and his actions were a great worry and sorrow to them. All our research cannot tell all the truths about what lies behind closed doors. We can’t make judgments.

  4. Thank you for sharing how much information you were able to find through newspaper researches and, oh yes, we all have some shady characters in our lines.

  5. Just left my research in NYC and turned to another line in Luzerne County PA. The records in PA can be spotty, so I tried the local nrespapers. Apart from finding lots of vitals, I found amazing, everyday details about their lives … small town papers are the best !! And fun .. I recommend them !!

  6. Amazing what you can find in newspapers and that is quite the story! I have an ancestor who was charged with stealing a horse and buggy. He was alleged to be an alcoholic but I doubt that he was. He wrote to one of the newspapers after his arrest and said his problems were due to a long term illness and not alcohol. Nonetheless convicted, he was pardoned after serving a year and a half in prison. One of his multiple causes of death (a number of years later) did reflect an illness that could cause slurring of speech and symptoms similar to those of someone with alcohol issues. There was no illness cited on his death record that would be associated with alcoholism. Anyway, newspaper stories about his arrest, trial, and such brought forth a lot of information as to where he had been from 1885 to 1889 (he had disappeared in 1885). As he was also a journalist at various times, I found articles he wrote about his adventures in the Cavalry on the Texas frontier in the late 1860s. Fascinating stuff!

  7. Newspaper stories can indeed fill in some of the gaps in our ancestors’ backgrounds. In one case, I learned a great grandfather had led a lynch mob in rural Wisconsin in 1889–the only instance in US history of Norwegian Americans lynching a fellow Norwegian Americans. The man they lynched was, in our terms, criminally mentally ill, and an alcoholic. My g grandfather was an upstanding citizen before this dreadful incident, and after. He and 3 others were given life sentences, but 5 years later were given unconditional pardons. There were multiple newspaper articles about the case, and the pardon. Their 5 children didn’t pass on this story and without the newspaper articles, none of the descendants would ever have known about the incident. In another, more modern case, a first cousin I remember had a bike accident just before his 10th birthday, while on his own near home. He told his parents; they checked him out and he seemed OK. The next night, he had a slight fever. The morning after, the fever was very high, so they took him to the nearest hospital. He was admitted, and died the following day. A newspaper article implied the parents were negligent for not taking him to the hospital the day of the accident; the coroner was legally required to do an autopsy. Two days later, another article said the accident didn’t cause his death; it was meningitis. The parents’ actions had nothing to do with it. But imagine their pain at not just losing their son, but being “exposed” before the community for “parental neglect.”

  8. Great story, Danielle! I too found lots of entertaining detail about my Telluride lawman great-grandfather in local newspapers.

  9. The papers sure are full of interesting info! I had a real hard time pinning down my Bavarian 2nd great-grandfather who came to Minnesota in the 1860s. Typed his name into chroniclingamerica.com and found out he owned a saloon in St. Paul.

    Prohibition was just ramping up, and in 1894 the city council outlawed liquor sales in certain areas of town; one boundary was his street and he was on the wrong side of it. Large protests broke out in front of his place. About half of the neighborhood hated the place and drinking in general, and the other half wanted the place to stay in business.

    The city council had been planning to take some action on the situation but because of the protests, they chose not to take a side. Motions were tabled, and my ancestor went out of business. We had always wondered why he was found in the next year’s census halfway across the state living with adult children. That was our answer. The family had lived above the saloon and may not have had an easy transition into other work or living space.

    In addition to the name, I find that it helps a lot to find the ancestor’s address in the city directory and search that in the papers too. There are a lot of misspellings and text recognition issues, and this helps pick up all the stories I’m looking for, especially when I’m searching a common name. A lot of articles include the person’s street address, at least in the city papers I’ve been searching.

  10. I was amused to discover through a Los Angeles newspaper that my great-great-grandmother’s younger half-brother, Francisco “Frank” Elisalda, had an interesting way of making money: he and his friends stole dogs from the pound and sold them! What makes the story even more interesting is that his father, Vicente Elizalde, was one of the first four police constables for the newly-organized (American) Los Angeles police force in the 1850s. Frank had a legitimate opportunity to take on the Police, as well as German, Irish, and French teams, in an “International Tug-of-War” contest in December 1891. He later was arrested multiple time for fighting…once for stabbing a bartender in San Francisco…and his son, Frank Jr. AKA Joe Stanley, ended up in San Quentin in 1920. Yes, it is amazing what you can find in newspapers!

  11. Sometimes people ask me if I can help them “get started” on their family history. I always tell them that before they start they had better prepare themselves for the possibility they might find something unpleasant in it and if they aren’t ready for that risk, they should not start the research. In my case, for instance, I was looking through the 1930 census for my father in law, and found him — with a different wife none of us knew about. (Both he and my mother in law had passed by that time.). I called the only member of that generation still living and asked if she knew anything about another wife. Oh, yes, she said, and filled me in. I then asked if there was “anything else” I should know. “No” was the reply. A little later she called back and said, “well, there is something else…your father in law spent time in Leavenworth.” Oh. I see. After checking all three prisons in Leavenworth, Kansas, I found him. He was serving 3+ years for burglary. I was later able to get the police report, and found the newspaper articles detailing his arrest and his plea of guilty (no lawyer in those days). Funny thing is my own father used to claim there were “horsethieves” on my mother’s side of the family. Haven’t found any yet, but am still looking.

  12. I, too, discovered from Lincoln, Nebraska newspapers that the family of my paternal grandmother lived a very troubled life. The dirty details splashed on the front pages nearly once a week and sometimes daily. My father and I had no idea. Convinced their actions were committed, on a whole, out of their sheer dire financial circumstances it was nothing short of heartbreaking to read of all their antics. Luckily, my great-grandmother was able to escape all of it and move to a neighboring state. My dad and I decided to keep these tales to ourselves. It’s amazing what you can find in an old newspaper!

  13. Danielle, I would read anything you write. You have a most wonderful way of putting just the right words together to tell a compelling story. I know the world was different then. I was fascinated to read a bit more about the mystery of my grandmother and your great grandmother. No matter how she started out, she was one of the best grandmothers on the planet! Diane

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