A couple of weeks ago, I was on a family Zoom call when my dad’s sister asked one of my cousins if she had obtained her birth certificate yet. My cousin said that she had not been able to do so because the online application asked her to list the hospital where she was born, which she was unsure of.
The reason she doesn’t know is that when she was three years old, her parents divorced. For most of my cousin’s entire life, she was told by her mom that she was born in Queens, NY and the reason she didn’t have a birth certificate was that the hospital burned down, and the records were destroyed. Her mom is no longer with us, but my dad’s sister is quite certain that my cousin was born in Brooklyn, most likely at Maimonides Hospital, just like I was. Hence the question about obtaining her birth certificate.
But at least my cousin knows, whether it was Brooklyn or Queens, that she definitely was born in New York City. Not everyone can be that certain. For example, just what city do you list on your birth certificate if one were to be born aboard a ship in the middle of the ocean in international waters? Or how about if the child was born while flying over another country while enroute to its final destination?
Such a problem confronted Harry Monroe Mowrar. His mother, Hattie Mae, just happened to be an actress who traveled from city to city along the old Orpheum vaudeville circuit. As she was boarding a train in Kansas City, Missouri on June 18, 1903, she took a tumble. Down she went. Hattie was unhurt, but as the train moved along its journey eastward, Mrs. Mowrar went into labor and gave birth to Harry.
Years later, Harry would note, “When my mother got off the train in Jefferson City, she put up at the Monroe hotel. That’s how I got my middle name. It’s a funny thing, you know.”
Years later, when Harry went to enlist in the US Navy during World War I, he was unable to answer the very first question that the government clerk asked him. It was a straightforward one: “Where were you born?” Surprisingly, Harry had no idea. That’s because the question had never come up before and his mother had never told him the train story.
It wouldn’t be until the late 1920s that Harry would finally ask his mother where he was born. She told him the story of how he was born on a train somewhere between Kansas City and Jefferson City.
Later, when Harry applied for Social Security, his papers were mailed back because he hadn’t included his place of birth on the application. Harry sent the papers back with an explanation, but he claimed that he never received any further correspondence.
Fast forward to February 3, 1938, and Harry is standing in line while registering to vote in Kansas City. When he handed over his application, the registration official looked puzzled by it. In the blank for place of birth, Harry had written, “On a train in transit between Kansas City and Jefferson City.”
The official asked Harry, “Can you prove it?”
Harry then reached into his pocket and pulled out an old, yellowed newspaper clipping from June 18, 1903, that told of the birth of a son to Mrs. Hattie Mowrar aboard a passenger train that was heading toward Jefferson City.
“That’s me,” he said. “I’m her son, Harry Mowrar.”
And with that proof, Harry was enrolled to vote.
I decided to do some searching and see if I could find that June 18, 1903 article, but I was unsuccessful. But, as I looked through the various articles that mentioned his name, I realized that I had recently told another story about Harry in Retrocast 14, which I recorded this past January. In it, Harry, his wife, and their son were on a fishing trip. He slipped on the dock, spraining his hand, his wife fell in the lake and fractured her hand, and their son dropped a target pistol, firing a bullet through his right arm.
I did a quick check on Ancestry, and I was able to find Harry’s World War II registration card. He was 38 by this time and he listed his place of birth as “Train Between K.C. & Jefferson.”