Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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The Love Pirate – Podcast #194

When the first United States census was completed back in 1790, the young country’s population stood at 3,929,214.  Virginia was the most populous state and Delaware the least.  In the most recent census, the population had grown to 331,449,281. California currently has the largest population, while Wyoming has the least.

For people like myself who do a lot of historical research, the data collected by each census can be quite useful.  One can easily determine where someone was living and with whom, their age, marital status, occupation, and more.

The records for each census are released 72 years after the data is collected. Just last year, I received notification on Ancestry of the first match for my family from the 1950 census.  It was of a great-aunt, who has been deceased for many years. While I had met her many times when I was younger, I never really knew a whole heck of a lot about her other than that she never married or had children, lived in New York City, and worked for the Viking Press. What I always found most interesting about my aunt was that she supposedly traveled the world.  It was many years later that I learned that many of these adventures were not to distant lands, but to mental institutions instead.  And there it was in the 1950 census: at the time she was a resident at the Pinewood Mental Sanitarium in Somers, New York.  Not exactly what I was expecting to find, but it does fill in another piece of my family’s puzzle.

But, the census is only as accurate as the information that individuals provide to it. 

For example, take the case of Chicago resident John Curtin. The 1910 census indicates that the 39-year-old Curtin was a wholesale coal salesman, and lived with his wife of 10 years, Margaret, 33, and the son John Dorian, age 9. Ten years later, he is still in the coal business, is now 48 years old, while Margaret is 43, and Dorian is 19. 

But there was another John Curtin living in Chicago.  He is 45 years old—3 years younger than the first John Curtin—and lives with his 29-year-old wife Kathleen and their four children: Kathleen, 7; Stanley, 5; Janet, 3; and Alice, 1.

The accuracy of the census is solely dependent on the information provided, as I previously mentioned. It was later discovered that the two John Curtins recorded were actually one and the same person. This guy was leading a double life, having married Margaret on July 19, 1899, while also living with another woman, Kathleen Morrell. Kathleen was born in Washington, DC in 1889, and although they were never wed, the couple had five children together, with the last one, Rosemary/Rose, being born after the completion of the 1920 census.

What’s most amazing is that John Curtin was able to juggle both of these households for more than twelve years. He lived with his legal wife and son at 207 N. Pine Avenue, while he also maintained a residence with his mistress and their five children at 5524 South Wentworth Avenue.  A quick check of Google Maps shows that these two homes were not near one another, so there was no way that he could simply hop from one bed to the other. As the crow flies, they are about 9.3 miles (approximately 15 km) apart.

Supporting two households doesn’t come cheap, but John Curtin had done well for himself. He had worked his way up from coal salesman to owning his own business, the New Erie Coal Co. Then in December 1922, he informed Margaret that their sham of a marriage was over and that he was leaving.  He had already turned the coal business over to their son Dorian, opted to retire, moved out of their house, and requested a divorce.

Despite having been aware of her husband’s affair for eleven years, Mrs. Curtin chose to ignore it. However, she now found herself on the verge of a divorce, which could mean the loss of the comfortable lifestyle that her husband had provided for her. Filled with rage and a sense of betrayal, Margaret Curtin was about to get even.

On the evening of Friday, January 5, 1923, Margaret swore out a complaint against both her husband and Kathleen Morrell, accusing both of contributing to the delinquency of the five children.

Kathleen later described what happened next: “Then they came one night while I was preparing dinner. They took me to jail and took my finger prints — like a criminal — all because I loved and had 5 beautiful, bright babies, without a little ceremony!”

She was taken by the police to the Harrison Street Station, where she admitted that Curtin was the father of her children.  Today, something like this would be unlikely to occur, but back in 1923, the charges against Miss Morrell were quite serious.  If found guilty, she would lose custody of all her children.

Kathleen Morrell.
Kathleen Morrell. Image appeared on page 7 of the January 7, 1923 edition of the Chicago Tribune.

It’s unclear where she got the money from, but she was released on a $1,000 bond (over $17,500 today), with a hearing in the Court of Domestic Relations set for January 16th.  In the meantime, her children were taken to the city’s juvenile detention home.

The story now becomes a case of she said vs she said.  That’s mainly because John Curtin had disappeared off of the face of the Earth, leaving the two women to fight it out in the press.

Let’s first start with Margaret Curtin, his legal wife. Through her lawyer Samuel Friedman, she asserted that the charges had been filed solely to safeguard the children from the disgrace of knowing that they were born out of wedlock.

And while her husband had requested a divorce because he desired to dedicate his life to building a home with Miss Morrell and their children, she made it clear that was never going to happen. “I will never consent to a divorce,” she said. “He is my husband and I am his wife. That other woman can’t change this.”

In another interview, she added, “He’s mine because I gave him my youth and beauty, because I fought and struggled away my young years that he might rise to prosperity.”

She continued, “It is not true I condoned for 11 years my husband’s relationship with Miss Morrell and sat by content to let the affair go along, so long as he would support me and our boy, now 21.

“I learned my husband’s philanderings in 1913. The second child of their illicit union was then about to be born. I paid the Morrell woman $500 (a little over $15,000 today), if she would break off the affair and leave town.

“She took the money, which I can prove, but failed to live up to her promises.

“The state should look after Miss Morrell’s children and give them the care that they need. Surely it is too much to ask that I do it.

She concludes, “With tears in his eyes, my husband has frequently promised to give this woman up.

“I pressed the charges which brought about her arrest in good faith for the children’s sake. I did not act through revenge.”

In the opposing corner, we have girlfriend Kathleen Morrell: “He’s mine because I love him and he loves me. And love is greater than any man-made law.”

She told of the early days of their relationship: “When I met him I was 19 — he was 37. His son was 10.

“He told me he was not in love with his wife—and that she had never loved him. He felt that the boy’s education was something for which he was responsible.

“His wife refused to give him a divorce, and he said that while the boy needed his home and his father he would remain. But he told her that he loved me, and I him, and that I did not ask anything in return.

“When the baby was born almost 11 years ago, she came to my home. She stormed and raged, but I reminded her that we had spoken to her before there was anything between us and that I had made my bargain and would stand by it.

“Oh, if she had only had me arrested then, if she intended to do it!

“I was young, and I only had one baby. I could have supported her. Now I have 5, and I don’t think I can support them all.”

She added, “She wouldn’t divorce him because she loved the luxuries he could give her. He gave her everything he had—every penny—when he left her to come to me for good.

“He educated her boy, sent him through college, and gave him his business. He came to me, a man of 50, without a penny. He was going to start all over again and educate my children.

“I loved him, and money or name doesn’t mean anything when you have love. I had a right to have these babies.”

Kathleen also explained how they were able to get away with living together, even though they were unmarried: “Everybody will pump you when you first come into a neighborhood, but if you mind your own business without trying to, they forget all about you; they have their own troubles or perhaps they turned to watch the next newcomer in the block.”

Kathleen Morrell and her children.  From left to right: Kathleen, Alice, Rosemary, Miss Morrell, Janet, and Stanley.
Kathleen Morrell and her children. From left to right: Kathleen, Alice, Rosemary, Miss Morrell, Janet, and Stanley. Image originally appeared on page 34 of the January 11, 1923 edition of the Chicago Tribune.

After their first baby was born, they moved out of Chicago to a small house on Linnwood Avenue in Milwaukee. There, they lived quietly as Mr. and Mrs. George Curtin, and she admitted that “babies give an air of respectability.” It’s unclear when they moved back to Chicago.

Basically, the couple lived a very simple life. Curtin would visit Kathleen and the children on Saturdays and Sundays, spending weekdays living with his wife and son while running the coal business.  To explain away his long absences, Miss Morrell told nosey neighbors and her children and that their father was a traveling slot machine salesman, which forced him to be away from home quite a bit.

One thing that John Curtin was certain never to do was to tell his wife where his new family was living.  He knew that if Margaret ever found out, she would make a big stink about it. In particular, he feared that she would inform both the church and the children’s school that they were illegitimate.

Kathleen told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, “If they’d read my story in a magazine or had seen it in the movies, they would call it a tale of perfect love.”

She added, “But because I am a real person, they call me a ‘love pirate.’

“Love pirate! That sounds as if I had fine clothes, went cabareting, enjoyed booze parties, and had jewels showered upon me. How different my life has been!

“When you have five children you haven’t much time to go out.”

As the two sides battled it out in the press, the police continued their hunt for John Curtin. He was nowhere to be found.

Yet, there was one person who did know where he was: his mistress, Kathleen Morrell.  Her attorney convinced her that it was in her best interest to file a complaint and lead the police to him.  While it caused her great distress to do so, that was exactly what she did. On Tuesday, January 9, she called John and scheduled a time and place for the two to meet.  What he didn’t know was that a trap had been set.  The authorities nabbed him as soon as he arrived. While in hiding, Curtin had been working to get Kathleen and the children out of the city, to a place where no one would bother them.

He told the press, “I love my children and want to do what is best for them. But I do not agree with Mrs. Curtin that they should be taken from their mother and brought up by the state.” Yet, it was his wife who bailed him out and he then went home with her.

By the next day, Kathleen was expressing her disillusionment with her beau.  “Wives always win. I am through with him. He will go back to his wife. She signed his bond. I will get all I want in this world, and that’s my babies.”

But she had no means of support and there was no guarantee that Mrs. Curtin would ever let her husband send even a single penny her way.

Yet, there were people who were sympathetic to her predicament and a fund was set up to collect money to help Kathleen.  In addition, friends that she made when they were living in Milwaukee were also raising money there.

Before I reveal the outcome of the various court proceedings, let me share a few quotations from two of their children.  Oldest daughter, 11-year-old Kathleen, stated, “Papa and mamma never went out together. They just stayed home.” According to son Stanley, “He always brought us presents and sometimes he’d take us to a show, while mamma stayed home and minded Baby Rose. And he gave us a Christmas tree this year and everything.” On another occasion, Stanley described his mother as being “some cook, O boy.”

Katherine Morrell's children photographed while they were being held at the Chicago Police House of Detention.
Katherine Morrell’s children were photographed while they were being held at the Chicago Police House of Detention. Image originally appeared on page 11 of the January 28, 1923 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Just one day after John Curtin was arrested, Kathleen was in Juvenile Court in an attempt to regain custody of her children. Should she lose, the children would have been transferred from the juvenile detention home to the Home for the Friendless, which was a charitable organization set up to both educate and care for orphaned children.

It was Judge Victor P. Arnold who heard the case and then handed down his decision. First, he pointed out that, “Nothing could be more definite than the Illinois law on these cases. It reads: ‘The reputed father of an illegitimate child shall not have the right to the custody or control of the child if the mother is living and wishes to retain custody.’”  In other words, John Curtin could not gain custody of his children.

As for mom Kathleen, Judge Arnold stated, “The woman is not unfit to have the care and custody of these five children just because they are illegitimate. The fact that she brought them into the world without a legal father does not give the state the right to take them away from her.”

He continued, “If it could be definitely proved that this woman did not have enough money to support these children, they could not be taken from her. It is not illegal to be poor.”

Kathleen Morrell may have gotten her children back, but she still faced one additional hurdle.  Both John and she were facing the charges of contributing to the delinquency of the children based on the complaint filed by Mrs. Curtin.  Should she end up in jail, the children could once again be taken away from her.

Unlike today where cases are scheduled months or years into the future, eleven days after the initial complaint had been filed, both John and Kathleen were standing in the Court of Domestic Relations. Judge William L. Morgan asked Curtin, “You admit you are the father of these 5 children?” He replied, “I do admit it.”

Judge Morgan showed no mercy for either partner in the illicit affair. “Neither Curtin nor Miss Morrell is to be considered. One might forgive a woman who through love brought one illegitimate child into the world, but a woman who through a period of thirteen years knowingly had 5 born to her out of wedlock, cannot expect sympathy of a court. Neither should the law show mercy with Curtin. The children are the only ones to be considered.”

As a result, the judge concluded that John Curtin was guilty of contributing to the delinquency of all five of his children. He received a one-year probation sentence that included an order prohibiting any contact with Kathleen throughout that period.

In addition, Curtin was ordered to pay $5,500 for the support of his children, although Judge Morgan allowed him to deduct $2,400 for money that had already been spent on the children. This left poor old dad with a balance of $3,100 (nearly $55,000 today), to be paid in equal sums split over ten years. The press reported shortly after the decision was handed down that John Curtin was actively seeking a job. One has to wonder if his son Dorian hired him back at the coal company…

Mrs. Curtin’s attorney, Samuel Friedlander, informed the judge that she had been too ill to appear in court and wished to have all of the charges against Kathleen Morrell dropped. But it was made clear that if John Curtin ever attempted to rekindle his love affair with Kathleen, she would reopen the case and have Miss Morrell once again prosecuted.

Kathleen’s plan was to leave Chicago and restart her life somewhere else.  “I am through with John Curtin, the father of my children. All I want now is my babies. I don’t know what I’m going to do—what I can do—but we will get along some way if the world will only leave us alone.”

After this, the story fell out of the news cycle and was forgotten.  Once again, we can use the census in an attempt to piece together what happened next, although details are sketchy, at best.

According to the 1930 census, seven years after the arrests, Kathleen and her children had relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, which lies approximately 320 miles (512 km) to the east of Chicago. She was working as a saleslady in a department store there. What’s most interesting is that she changed her name from Kathleen Morrell to Katherine Curtin.  Did the couple possibly marry?  Most likely not.  She is listed as being a widow and most likely adopted the last name of Curtin, the last name of all of her children, to give the appearance that they weren’t illegitimate.

Katharine was still there in 1940, living with her daughters Janet (23) and Rosemary (19). In 1950, only her 32-year-old daughter Janet was still at home.

The 1930 census also shows that Margaret Curtin was living with her son Dorian in a rented Chicago apartment.  She is listed as having been a widow.  Margaret would later follow her son to  Oklahoma.  She passed away on Tuesday, October 18, 1960.  In her obituary, it states, “Mrs. Curtin was the widow of John S. Curtin, a coal dealer who died in 1920.” Well, we know that can’t be true because the court case was three years later, in 1923.

So, what happened to John Stanislaus Curtin afterward? I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure. The newspapers reported that he was fifty years old at the time of his arrest in early January 1923. That implies that he was probably born in 1872 or 1873.  A search through Ancestry comes up with only one John Curtin who was born around that time in Chicago that could be a match.  He was born on May 24, 1873, and died on April 20, 1944. Yet, I can’t say with any certainty that is the correct John Curtin. So, we’ll put that in the maybe yes, maybe not category.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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