Lodgers or Relatives? (Part I)

Revere Beach Boulevard, Revere Beach, MA; from a c. 1910 postcard.

We frequently encounter “lodgers” or “boarders” living with our ancestral relations in 20-century U.S. census records. If you’re like me, you probably don’t pay much attention to them. However, as I recently discovered twice while researching the lives and descendants of Irish immigrant Bostonians Edward J. Costello (1866-1926 [?]) and Mary Josephine Maloney (c. 1872-1943), these oft-disregarded “lodgers” or “boarders” can turn out to be your relatives after all. Both cases led to interesting discoveries, but recounting them together would far exceed the average length for posts on this site—so I offer them in two parts.

Our first case of a misidentified relative, 11-year old “lodger” George Stepper, was encountered in the January 1920 census enumeration of the household of Joshua and Mary Harron at 149 Bellingham Ave, in the coastal Beachmont neighborhood of Revere, Massachusetts.

Scan of 1920 census record showing George Stepper

Where do the Harrons and their young “lodger” belong in the context of my research into the Costellos? Edward Costello and Mary Maloney married in 1891 and had nine children, but only six survived childhood. On 16 October 1912, their 18-year old first child Mary J. Costello (1893-1963) married 22-year old Guido De Vito (1890-1950), immigrant son of Vincenzo De Vito (1865-1941) and Philomena Viola (c. 1864-1939). Mary and Guido had five children: Francis, Joseph, Anne, Arthur, and Paul. Their middle child, Anne Marie “Annie” De Vito (1917-1990) married Elbert Joshua/Joseph Harron (1904-1981), son of Boston-born Joshua A. Harron (1872-1953) and Irish immigrant Mary A. Craven (1874-1959), in Beachmont on August 6, 1945.

My curiosity about the Harron and Craven families uncovered a succession of sad stories that will explain how “boarder” George Stepper came to live with the Harrons. Joshua Harron had considerable business acumen, but it got him and his family into serious trouble. Moreover, he and Mary experienced the tragic loss of three of their children. The Harrons had six children during 1897-1906: Mildred, Frances, Thelma, twins Elbert and Madeline, and Reginald. Madeline died of bronchopneumonia on 28 November 1904, aged 3 months and 24 days. About eight years later, on 24 January 1913, 12-year old Thelma died. Meanwhile, Joshua’s business and public profile prospered, and in December 1916 he opened and became president of Revere Trust Co.

In October 1929, the Harrons lost a third daughter, 32-year old Mildred, a music teacher at Revere High School, after an illness of several months. Eighteen months later, in October 1931, their lives and livelihoods were upended when the State Bank Commissioner closed Revere Trust Co. following a run on its cash reserves. Joshua and other prominent business and political figures were held liable for the liquidation of shares for $5 million in bad loans and investments. The Master’s 1935 report on bank closures alleged that Harron acted in “bad faith and deliberate and intentional breach of trust.” Unemployed and under investigation, Joshua took a job as assistant manager of a Revere ballroom dance hall, earning only $15-20 per week. He owed more than $1,500 for family medical expenses, had no assets or bank account, and didn’t pay taxes for the years 1932 and 1933.

Sometime after April 1935, the Harrons moved to unincorporated Hyannis, one of seven villages in the town of Barnstable, Barnstable Co. The April 1940 census shows their 31-year old unmarried nephew George Stepper still living with them. In the April 1950 census, 42-year old George was married, a salesman for a batting company, and living in Lynn, Essex Co., MA, with his Massachusetts-born wife Miriam F. [Kelley] (37) and their 5-year old daughter Susan F.

So who was George Francis Stepper, who lived with Joshua and Mary Harron for more than 20 years, from before 1920 to the early 1940s? Further research revealed that George was the son of Frank I. Stepper and Delia J. Craven, the sister of Joshua’s wife Mary. I also discovered that the Steppers, Cravens, and Harrons had experienced a plague of premature deaths.

Delia was born in Boston on 7 February 1882 to Irish immigrants John Craven and Catherine Francis. She married Boston native Francis Ignatius “Frank” Stepper on 20 August 1902 and had two children, Rose Frances (b. 30 July 1903) and George Francis (b. 24 February 1908). In mid-1909 Frank contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and died several months later, on 23 February 1910, at age 30. Seven years later, on 12 May 1917, Delia also succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis that she contracted a year earlier.

After Delia’s death, her two young orphaned children went to live with relatives. Rose, who was 13 when her mother died, lived with her paternal grandparents Edward and Mary (Hennessey) Stepper. In the January 1920 census she was 16 and residing with them in Dorchester, Boston. She had graduated from William E. Russell Elementary School and was attending high school.

Rose’s brother George Stepper, who was 9 when his mother Delia died, went to live with his maternal aunt Mary Harron’s family, and remained with them until the early 1940s when he married and moved to Lynn—several miles northeast of downtown Boston, just beyond Revere.

This sad family story does not end here. Catherine Craven, mother of Delia Stepper and Mary Harron, died on 14 June 1918, a year after Delia’s death. Mary Stepper died on 13 November 1922, followed by her husband Edward in 1924, leaving their granddaughter Rose on her own. Four years later, Rose herself died just short of her 25th birthday. Finally, on 12 August 1933, John Craven, age 75, husband of the late Catherine Craven and father of Delia Stepper and Mary Harron, died. He had been living with Mary and Joshua at 177 Bellingham Ave., Beachmont.

George Francis Stepper too had a short life. During the 1930s and forties he worked as a salesman for various automobile dealerships. In 1941 he married Miriam Frances Kelley, born on 10 November 1912 to Frederick Clifford Kelley (1893-1937) and Irene Nora Girard (1894-1968). In the April 1950 census George F. (42), wife Miriam F. (37), and their daughter Susan F.[rances] (5) were living at 15 Vine St., Apt. 16, in Lynn, where George was a salesman for a batting company. George died in 1951, in his early forties. Miriam died fifty years later, in 1991, in her late seventies.

As for George’s aunt and uncle, with whom he lived for more than two decades after his parents died in the 1910s: Joshua Harron died in 1953 in Florida, and his wife Mary (Craven) Harron died in Hyannis in 1959. Quite a story that might have been overlooked had not 11-year old “lodger” George Stepper captured my attention!

About Joe Smaldone

Joe Smaldone and his wife Judy Warwick Smaldone have been researching their family’s history for 20 years. Their research has taken them to many national, state, and local libraries, archives, court houses, churches, cemeteries, historical and genealogical societies, and other research sites across the United States, and abroad to Ireland, Italy, and Sweden. They are members of NEHGS, the New Hampshire Historical Society, and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. Joe is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, where he created and taught a course entitled Your Family in History. He is a Genealogy Research Consultant at the Family History Center, Annapolis, Maryland, and has published several genealogical studies, abstracts, and indexes.

21 thoughts on “Lodgers or Relatives? (Part I)

  1. Along with lodger one has to take a bit of time to figure out “native” or “Canadian” in some of the US Census records. One enterprising Canadian enumerator identified the people he was surveying as either “native” apparently referring to everyone who had been born in North America in that locale and then country for the “foreign born”. I ran across a similar thing when one area of I think it was Maine where everyone was listed as being Canadian born — I’m thinking it was because of the discussion over the northern border.

  2. Wonderful history you were able to uncover! Thank you so much for sharing your story.
    Now I have to look back into some lodgers in my family records.

  3. Interesting article.
    Yes sometimes lodgers become lovers and later marry!
    I recently discovered in 1910 in RI my great grandmother’s divorced sister was lodging with her and a man 15 years her junior was a lodger too, then they married in 1911.

  4. Fascinating. I have a couple of incidences where the “lodger” became in time a son-in-law, having married a daughter of the house or in one case the widow and becoming the head.

  5. I can claim multiple generations of lodgers/boarders in one family.

    Very early in my research, I found my great-great-grandfather William Henry Hastings (1870-1947) in the 1910 census living with a “servant”, Ida Thomas, married, and her 2-year-old son Chester. My mother knew Chester as “Uncle Chester”. Sure enough, in 1920, Ida is now Ida Hastings, and Chester also bore the surname Hastings. DNA testing confirms he is William’s son, and not the son of Ida’s then husband.

    William’s roots, however, were long a mystery, though I had 2 possible candidates, infants in in 1870 census, both in families which I could not find in 1880. Then I found my great-grandmother Myrtle (William’s daughter) in the 1910 Census living as a niece with William and Ella Whaley. A little check, and Ella’s maiden name was indeed Hastings. Then I found in the 1880 Census, Willie and Ella “Hasting”, with no relationship given, in the household of Jesse and Mary Clifton (who happened to the maternal grandparents of William’s future first wife, Georgia Rion!), along with Jesse Jr and his wife, also named Mary, both of whom, according to their ages in the census, were too young to be the parents of Willie and Ella. But, since Jesse Jr was my 3rd-great-granduncle, I did seek to document his marriage, and lo and behold, his wife was Mary Hastings, widow. (and indeed the mother of William and Ella, having lied to the census about her age, which was actually about 12 years older than her husband’s). Also, in 1910, Jesse & Mary’s household included a “step-son”, Harlan Hastings, eldest son of William and Georgia, in reality a step grandson.

    Now, on to the 1920 census, where Myrtle’s two young daughters, are in different households, on account of the recent death of Myrtle’s husband. I have yet to find the ties to the families they were living with.

    1. Hello, Jim – many thanks for taking the time and showing the interest to share your own research and findings. It looks like you put a lot of effort into figuring out these relationships … I wish you continued success! Cheers, Joe

  6. Interesting article. The practice of having boarders or lodgers seems to have been more common in the past. I have several widowed women in my family tree who took in lodgers, I suppose to make ends meet.

  7. I found that 2 of my foster sisters were listed as lodgers in the 1950 Census. While I certainly knew who they were it was a surprise to see how they were identified at first.

  8. I recently noticed for the first time that my grandfather’s family had two child boarders in the 1915 NJ Census. Looking into it I eventually discovered that they were the children of my g-grandmother’s first cousin, the son of her father’s sister, who I hadn’t been able to find in 50 years of researching. Further research revealed that my grandfather and his mother were their godparents. I’ll never overlook boarders again.

  9. Great discoveries. The sad deaths of young people due to pneumonia and tuberculosis were also common in the Irish immigrant community of HIngham, MA for which I’ve created a dozen family trees as I researched their neighborhood. Irish began arriving here in the 1830s, with greatest influx from 1850-1870. Most worked in local factories (which HIngham had several of at the time.) There were many boarders as well, and I’ll now take a sharper look at those not readily identified as relatives. Thanks! — Eileen

  10. I have found many relatives listed as lodgers, starting w/ my GGM, who was listed that way while living w/ her M & step F just before she m’d in 1910. On another line, my GGparents were both teachers living in a boarding house full of them just before they m’d as well. I have found connections to boarders more often than not.

  11. My grandfather separated from my grandmother saying he just wanted to live in a hotel as a single man. They had five children! On the 1940 census he is listed as a lodger in Harlan, Kentucky. He had moved his wife and children several counties over so they wouldn’t complicate his single life. Surprisingly, his estranged wife listed him as head of household in London, KY census. Thus he was listed on two census records in 1940.

  12. I’ve run into this several times with some of my ancestors & wondered if these “lodgers”/”boarders” were in fact my ancestors. In most cases, I determined they were ancestors living with extended family members.

  13. Quite a story! Sometimes our ancestors/relatives are the boarders or lodgers in a different-surname household. That can throw off your research, as well.

  14. I was stunned to see this, as I was a ‘Boarder’ in the Chelsea, Ma.1950 census, while in foster care. I was moved to the last foster home I lived in, at 149 Bellingham Ave. Revere, Ma.!! Same house as in this article! I live with the Smith family in 1952 for just under one year at that address. My playmate was the youngest child, Dorothy, now deceased.

  15. I discovered that a few of my relatives had boarders and research showed them as nephews or nieces. I have a couple of indentured documents I believe the parents fell on hard times and members were helping them. I always enjoy reading a case study.

  16. You’ve opened up some new possibilities, thank you! I’ve always been intrigued by the numerous boarders in my family’s census records over the decades. In the 1860s census, two young “Mahlen” children showed up with an ancestor and his new bride. There were no immediately obvious ties for those children to other Mahlens in the area in either the previous or following census years, so I didn’t pursue it. However, much later I discovered that same name “Mahlen” was later given as a middle-name to the great-granchild of that ancestor who briefly took in those two mystery children three generations earlier – clearly that surname has more connection than I initially thought. Now my challenge is to find the time to unravel that mystery!

  17. I searched census records for several months looking for my maternal grandmother. Her mother and father were deceased and the girls were sent to living with other family members. I finally located her listed as a “boarder” living with her Aunt and Uncle in Wilmington NC. Her two younger sisters were listed as nieces living with another Aunt and Uncle in SC.

  18. I have for many years researched not only “up” the family tree but “down,” the tree, noting brothers and sisters and often THEIR offspring at each generation. Amazing the connections I have made. Also handy for finding that “lost” surname or female relatives.

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