I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I work on family history I get bored. After all, how long can one be expected to stare at the same old brick walls, or to wonder why researching on Rootsweb these days feels more like your worst blind date ever? I guess you could say that this sort of ennui has gotten me into a bit of trouble, as in the absence of anything interesting in my own family tree I start looking for ways to escape the solitary confinement of (what I like to call) my own little “genealogical slammer.” I know it’s a bit dangerous to go on the lam like this but, hey, I think you’ll agree that, genealogically speaking, you truly can meet a lot of interesting people along the way.
I guess that’s how I met Mr. Jimmie Lefurgey; that is to say, while attempting to tunnel out from under my usual genealogical internment. Jimmie isn’t exactly related to me, and while he and I are in no way kindred spirits, lately I feel like I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. Now, before you all get in an uproar about my errant gumshoe ways, let me just say that “if” this was a family picnic (and we had invited a lot of extended family) and “if” the year was “1947,” that, well, there’d be a good chance Jimmie might have been there too. (It might pose a small problem in that I haven’t been born yet – but as they say, “details, details…”) You see, I’m related to Jimmie by a marriage “along the way,” and at least in this ‘genealogical invention,’ Jimmie agreed to bring bratwurst and beers to the barbecue. (Awe, come on, smile!)
I found Jimmie Lefurgey quite by accident, while I was filling in the blanks for the “third husband of the great-grandmother of…” Yep, there he was in all his law-breaking glory, and definitely a guy you’d call a yardbird by any other name. It really wasn’t all that unusual when Jimmie’s criminal records started to pop up – as I slowed down the get-away car to take a look at his life. Nowadays, such records are readily available, but regrettably we sometimes just “tag” them onto “the perp” without giving the people behind those records too much of a second thought. However this time, something caught my eye about Jimmie and his colorful past. It was one word that (for me) meant Jimmie had won the “chain-gang trifecta” – and that word was Alcatraz.
Now, because I grew up in Northern California, Alcatraz is kind of a big deal. It’s unfortunately been a bit romanticized; an Airbnb version of incarceration and Hell, but nonetheless one with images of Burt Lancaster and Birdman of Alcatraz always playing in one’s head when giving it consideration. It’s a beautiful island, too, sitting ruggedly in San Francisco Bay, having become quite the tourist attraction in its dotage, or, as rumor has it, while it slips into the sea. So, seeing that Jimmie had an association with The Rock, well, that was just too good a genealogical tale to pass up. After all, for me, having an association (however small) to notorious Alcatraz has been much like knowing that one’s third cousin four times removed might have survived the ill-fated Titanic. (Hey, we can’t all be Mayflower descendants!)
Jimmie’s story might not have gone so badly if he’d had a better start in life. Born in what’s now the ghost town of Randsburg, California, his father, a Canadian immigrant gold miner, was well past sixty years old when Jimmie was born. Jimmie’s father looks to have chased after a lot of “gold fever” dreams, too, as shortly after Randsburg “went bust” the family moved north into the Mississippi township (another “gold” ghost area) of Sacramento County, where Jimmie’s dad died leaving the family to fend for itself. I think Jimmie must have tried to help his mother and siblings as best he could, and he appears to have wanted better for himself and his country, too, when he up and enlisted for World War I. Unfortunately for Jimmie, that’s about where the “good intentions” would end…
Let’s suffice it to say that Jimmie’s first sojourn at Chez Penitentiary would begin almost immediately at Alcatraz. However, when I first saw an account of Jimmie’s many incarcerations, the words “escape” along with that of “Alcatraz” just about jumped off the page. Had someone in my very extended family not only been incarcerated in but also actually escaped from Alcatraz? Oh, my, call my booking agent (if I had one), I’ve got to see about those movie rights!
To my particular disappointment, a quick search turned up that Jimmie’s stay on Alcatraz precluded any and all famous escape attempts. (So much for my movie producing career…) Jimmie had actually been placed on the Rock by the military, during the days when Alcatraz was run by the “PB USDB,” a sort of military prison reform school, and before the days when it became a federal penitentiary for more worldly criminals. It appears that Jimmie had deserted; hence the use of the word “escape” in the prison record. Sadly, in Jimmie’s case, while correcting the bad habits of his military career, his lifelong criminal habits found a great place to grow unabated.
Jimmie would go on to serve lots of time for many petty crimes; during his short life, he spent A LOT of time at San Quentin and Folsom Prison – among others. Yet somehow along the way, Jimmie (quite improbably) met and married Mrs. Agnes Marx, a previously widowed divorcée – and, at the time, a single mother with five children. Jimmie was her third husband, and I like to think that just maybe Jimmie was trying to turn over a new leaf when he found love with Agnes Marx. It’s hard to say. In any event, at only 47 years of age, Jimmie’s hard lifestyle caused his health to take a turn for the worse, and he died in 1948, leaving Agnes to start the hunt for husband number four.
It’s been an interesting genealogical “captivity” getting to know a bit about Jimmie. As we add vital records to the folks to whom we are either directly or indirectly related, those like Jimmie, I think we perhaps lose sight of “the bigger picture.” I can’t make any excuses for Jimmie. He made bad choices – choices that might have caused him to consider an “escape from Alcatraz.” However, I will always wonder what brought him to that point or even to his incarcerations after Alcatraz. There surely has to be more to Jimmie’s story. I think in another life, in that other genealogical world, I might have liked the guy, and I surely would have tried to understand him better. In any event, there’s always more to anyone’s story, and certainly more to anyone than just their prison record – or the mistakes they made along the way.
 Per the freedictionary.com: a) an untrained military recruit, b) a soldier confined to a restricted area or assigned menial tasks as punishment, c) a convict; a prisoner.
 Per Wikipedia: Birdman of Alcatraz, a 1962 American biographical drama film by John Frankenheimer starring actor Burt Lancaster and purporting to tell the story of Robert Franklin Stroud, cited in this account as one of the most notorious criminals in the United States.
 Erin N. Thompson, The Rock: A History of Alcatraz Island 1847-1972, a PDF on-line through the National Park Service, Denver Service Center, p. 1, stating that: “‘The Rock’ became a synonym for Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay long before its penitentiary housed the most desperate federal prisoners in the United States for more than 30 years…”
 Randsburg: a census designated place in Kern County, California; per secretmines.com: “Randsburg is a living ghost town. In 1899 it was a home to 3500 residents… Today it is a home to 69 residents.”
 See FindAGrave.com memorial no. 41108253 for Solomon Schurman Lefurgey (1838-1911).
 “Mississippi township:” a now-defunct township area in Sacramento County, California, bordering the American River, and encompassing modern-day Orangevale, California.
 “USDB, Alcatraz [sic] Is: 2 yrs, desertion & escape, rc’d 6-5-20 from Presidio of San Francisco, Calif. Restored to duty 3-17-21.”
 Per alcatrazhistory.com: (the) “Pacific Branch of the United States Disciplinary Barracks.”
 Agnes Helen (Stanhope) (Hamilton) (Marx) (Lefurgey) Mellus (1898-1983).
20 thoughts on “The trouble with Jimmie”
I enjoyed reading this; it was very entertaining. You have a real gift for writing! Whenever I get bored with my own ancestors, I delve into my three grandsons’ family trees, which lead me back to Norway, small European Jewish communities, Spain, and the pre-colonial Indigenous people of Colombia, all ethnicities that are not in my own genetic makeup. What fun to have new avenues to explore!
James is, and I say is instead of was, he is in my blood, and always will be my great great uncle, my great grandma is Anna lefurgey who married my great grand father Samuel Duncan McDonald. My father and uncle have many great memories of sam and Anna and I want to say thank you Jeff for the wonderful article keeping my family alive.
I always enjoy your posts, Jeff!
I have had a few colorful characters in my family. Their stories always add interest to my research, although I expect that, during their lives, the family would have wanted to conceal the truth.
Hmmm…my ggg grandfather was a Lefurgey (not sure how many greats..no coffee) from PEI, do you know who Jimmie’s parents were? May have to go look this one up
Fun story! And a goldmine of info on Ancestry – including the California WW1 service cards – son of Solomon Lefuregy from PEI, and Amanda Stevenson.
Thank you for a delightful story—and for making me laugh out loud !
Those photos don’t look like the same person. The ears are different and the left eye of 1925 droops. The 1940 person’s eyes are fine.
Hi Toni, I see what you mean! Your comment got me thinking that perhaps one of the pictures was the wrong “Jimmie.” However I double checked the inmate numbers found on the pictures against the prison record register shown above …. and at least according to the prison records – it all looks to be the same Jimmie? Yikes! That Jimmie is causin’ trouble again! 🙂 Thanks Toni.
He looks the same to me in all photos, just with a shorter haircut his ears look a little more pointed.
1947 and San Quentin is quite familiar.. When I was 7 years old and visited family, I asked where Aunt Carrie was. My mom bade me quiet, whispering we don’t talk about Carrie’s family. It was more than 40 years later, after I got into genealogy that I found out why. It turns out that my second cousin, Thomas Hilton was executed in San Quentin in 1947 for murdering his wife.
Ah yes, Larry – those family secrets we were all hushed into – So true!
(Somedays it seems like there are too many to tell…) Maybe it’s wrong of me, but that’s part of why people like you and me (and surely most of us here) enjoy doing genealogy – for the chance to blow the dust off the old secrets. Thanks for this!
I recently found that my great-great-grandmother was a convicted felon, and that my great-grandmother’s youngest brother was born in Her Majesty’s Prison, Carmarthen (it was his birth certificate that led me to search for the prison records).
I still haven’t found everything, but I think it was a bit of a Jean Valjean situation — theft to put food on the table for her 5 children, because it was about the time that her husband died or disappeared, and even before then the family had bounced around.
James, thank-you for this – my it sounds like you have a great story to tell sir!
Thanks, Jeff, for an interesting read! My late husband had a distant cousin who was incarcerated at McNeil Island, WA (1929), Folsom Prison, CA, twice (1931 and 1936), San Quentin (1938). He was the great-grandson of my husband’s ancestor, Orrin DuBois who came to California in 1849-1850.
Thanks for sharing Jimmy’s life story. Your riffing with gangster vocab is brilliant. Shame about the misbegotten life of a lad gone wrong.
I agree, Jeff: an “interesting” criminal in the family makes him worth exploring, even if he’s only a 3rd cousin 2x removed — mine did actually escape (walk away from the prison farm) in Rockford, IL. He was a robber and horsethief, shot a sheriff, used aliases … much more interesting than the rest of his siblings and cousins! And most importantly, when he made the papers, the press filled in the details of his parents and sisters.
Nancy, thanks for this – I think you summed it up perfectly when you said: ‘And most importantly, when he made the papers, the press filled in the details of his parents and sisters.” I mean, genealogically speaking, how can we go wrong with that?! 🙂
Jeff, I just love your posts, so entertaining!!! When I saw the picture of Jimmie, it reminded me of when I found had a mug shot from Folsom prison taken in 1941 of my mother’s first cousin Ledger Veazey that led me on a quest to find out his story. He went from an educated, hard working young man to a con man, check forger and more. Always enterprising, even in prison he ran a scam to file income tax returns (which were pretty new then) for prisoners who had worked the previous year and then take half their return money. Problem was, some unhappy prisoner turned him in and it was discovered he didn’t claim that income and after his release from prison the IRS dogged him for years. There are many write ups of his “enterprise” in newspapers of the time. He spent much of his middle age in prison and ended up dying in San Quentin by 1966 at 60 years old. It was a sad tale but one I was glad I discovered. I wrote a blog post about him here https://searchingforjudysfamily.wordpress.com/2020/02/04/ledger-veazey-criminal-entrepeneur-flim-flam-man/ there is another one also on my blog and I need to do another one as I discovered he had 2 children from his 2nd marriage who he never acknowledged and I have been in contact with one of his grandsons!
Hi Judy – your blog post was so great! Ledger Veazey was quite the character. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if he and Jimmie knew of each other back in the day. Like you, I find their lives so interesting for multiple reasons. Thanks for your note and sharing your story and research with me!