by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been discussed here before, an artifact can have a surface meaning or meanings and can reveal hidden stories that bring surprises. It is no different with today’s “Wo/men at Work” entry, a photograph with great composition and clarity of nurse Jessie Ray Story, taken about 1920.
When the image was recently acquired, the assumption was that there may be some information in the digital domain about Story and her work. That turned out not to be true, other than finding that, in the 1920 federal census, Story was listed as a nurse. Nothing was located as to how she got into the field, where she was trained or educated, or where she worked.
Instead, a little searching found something completely different and unexpected. The larger context of this is about marriage. Today, the so-called “culture wars” include a lot of debate about the nature of marriage and, to some minds, the sanctity of the institution. It is commonly known that the divorce rate has hovered around 50% for many years now, though there are reports that there is a significant decline especially among millennials. Much of this is because fewer people are getting married, but those that do tend to stay in a stable relationship.
A century ago or so, divorce was far less common that it became in later decades, but the assumption that marriages were more stable should be rethought. Social attitudes against divorce were probably as or more likely to head off divorce than the belief that people were happier in their marriages than they were later. Studies suggest that divorce rates climbed because it became more acceptable to end a union than it was before.
This leads to Jessie Ray Story, who was born in March 1884 in Kentucky and lived in Portland, Oregon before moving to Los Angeles in the first decade of the 20th century. In early January 1909, Jessie married Andrew Williamson, a native of Canada with Scottish ancestry who was nearly twice her age and on his second marriage. Almost exactly two years later, the couple had a daughter Dorothy, born in the first days of 1911.
Within a couple of years, however, the situation turned badly. In June 1913, the Los Angeles Times reported that Jessie and Andrew were headed to divorce and a judge issued a decree granting Jessie the ruling based on her allegations of extreme cruelty by her husband.
Yet, the article noted “the Williamsons have patched up their differences” and returned to court “asking that the former order and judgment be vacated and that the divorce petition be dismissed.” Judge Cabanis was quoted at length stating, “Mrs. Williamson told a sorrowful tale of persecution by her husband, and her testimony was in part strengthened by other evidence.” The jurist continued that she returned to ask that it all be called off and he referred to “an old saying about ‘marrying in haste and repenting at leisure'” and hoped that this decision of reversal wasn’t in the former and leading to the latter.
A little over a year later, repentance was at hand. The Williamsons were back in court with Jessie again filing for divorce before a new judge. During the hearing, Williamson, represented by Will D. Gould (who’s been mentioned here before and maintained an office at the Temple Block in Los Angeles for over a half century) stated that he’d returned home and found a note reading “Dear daddy, I am sick and I am going home to mamma. She can take better care of me. I have take some things along.” The reference to the much-older Andrew as “daddy” is striking.
When Williamson went to his in-laws’ home to see his daughter, he found another note there informing him that Jessie took Dorothy out for the day which, he said, meant that “I cooled my heels on the front porch” for five hours waiting. It was then alleged that, once his wife and child returned, Williamson “carried the child away when he left, ostensibly to treat her for ice cream.” With this, Jessie “had him cited into court.”
Andrew’s complaint was a time-honored one, as he informed Judge Works “I can get along with my wife, but it’s a case of too much mother-in-law. She is a very religious woman, and butts into our affairs.” Pending the divorce action, Works granted custody to Jessie and allowed Andrew to visit Dorothy, described as “the ray of sunshine in the divided home,” three days a week.
For some reason, the divorce action was delayed for several months with the Williamsons back before another judge in December 1914. The Times recycled its reference to 3-year old Dorothy as that “ray of sunshine” among “dark clouds of domestic infelicity.” It also repeated Andrew’s claim that Mrs. Story was the root of the problem, while Jessie once again stated “her husband is cruel.”
What was new in the latest report was that Andrew gave his property, consisting of a home in Hollywood, to Jessie. Yet, Judge Monroe declined to grant Jessie a divorce, instead affirming her custody of the child, while ordering Andrew to pay $30 a month to support his alienated spouse.
Monroe was dissatisfied with the testimony offered in his court and it was explained by the Times that Andrew “had given her his property and also his bank book and his salary” prior to her vacating their home and going back to her mother. Stating that he did not know she was leaving him permanently, Andrew “frequently called upon her and the daughter and gave her his money.”
At the end of January 1915, there was another hearing before yet another judge and the focus for the Times was on Dorothy, who’d just turned four. The article began
Dorothy May [Ray] Williamson, the 4-year-old daughter of Andrew and Jessie Ray Williamson, called softly “Mamma” in Judge Hewitt’s court yesterday. She did not understand why mamma should be sitting at a long table with strange men while her father sat in a chair and answered questions. Besides they would not let her play and she was tired.
Poor little Dorothy, red-cheeked and pensive, wondered why mamma and papa did not speak to each other; why she could not run to papa and sit on his lap. Something was wrong and she puzzled her small head to find out, but everyone said “Shhh” when she asked.
Noting that there had been two previous court actions in the matter, with reference to the alleged kidnapping by Andrew, the paper observed that, this time, there was a question of quieting title to the property which Jessie claimed was deeded to her, but which Andrew claimed she took by fraud.
The note referred to the prior summer was quoted differently this time, however: “Dear daddy: I am sick, sick, sick and I am going home to see mamma. Don’t blame this on any one but me. I am doing this of my own free will, because daddy, I just got to get well.”
The revision certainly made it look like Jessie was somehow at fault for abandoning her husband, who retold his tale of a meddling mother-in-law and religious fanatic. Meanwhile, Jessie reiterated that the real cause was Andrew’s cruel behavior. Moreover, she claimed that it was Andrew who begged for a reconciliation nearly two years prior, despite the quote from Judge Cabanis that indicated it was Jessie who begged for the reprieve.
In this version, Jessie stated that Andrew promised to “treat her with the greatest kindness” and as a pledge of his intention, gave her the Hollywood house, valued at $10,000 (a sum of some significance.) According to her, her husband told her, “I will give you the property to atone for the past and for reinstating me in your affections and to guarantee my good conduct in the future.”
With this promise (and the property) in hand, the couple went to Judge Cabanis, who vacated his decree of divorce. It was reported that little Dorothy “danced with glee because now she would have both mamma and papa instead of being only with one.” As noted above, Judge Monroe denied a new divorce order because there was not enough evidence of any cruel actions on Andrew’s part.
Yet, when Andrew visited his daughter under the terms of custody laid out by the jurist, Jessie came home to find Dorothy gone. A private detective was contracted for and he found the little girl and returned her to her mother. The article ended with “since then she has watched little pink cheeks like a mother hawk.” This time, the piece included a photo of mother and daughter “who is the real bone of contention in a remarkable series of litigations between husband and wife.”
In early February, an article titled “Triple Entente” returned to the question of the Hollywood residence and Andrew’s claim that the gift to his wife was because “he was looking out for the baby.” With that, the Times responded, “Mrs. Williamson got a chance and came back hard.”
According to Jessie, Andrew told her “he was going to take my baby to Africa or Asia and there was to be no shenanigans about it.” Moreover, she claimed “when I told him I was dying, he said for me to stick a pin in myself and I would come back to life” and that he cussed at her. Strangely, she reported that when Dorothy was returned after a visit, “she was disguised as a Russian.” Why this was went unexplained in the article.
Yet, on 10 February 1915, Jessie won a judgment on the property, now said to be worth a handsome $20,000 and a deed from June 1913 was presented as evidence of the legal transfer. Judge Hewitt ruled “that the deed had been given for a consideration,” though it is unclear if Jessie’s assertions of continuing “cruel and inhuman treatment” entered into the decision.
Andrew was obviously obsessed over the loss of the property, because four years later, in October 1919, he sued Jessie to allow him to live in the home as long as he remained her husband. He claimed the $10 consideration (a straw deed) was to ensure the family would live together in the residence “and with no intention of abandoning the property as their dwelling-house.”
Notably, Andrew “was forcibly ejected from the house by deputy sheriffs a few days ago and warned that if he returned he would be in contempt of court.” He sought damages of $25 “for every month he is dispossessed” as well as $1,000 for pain and suffering. There is no known record of what transpired, but, in the 1920 federal census taken just a few months later, Jessie, listed as “Ray S. Williamson” with her status as married and Dorothy were living with her parents in South Los Angeles. Jessie’s occupation: “private nurse.”
Presumably, Jessie took to working as a nurse because of her separation from Andrew and need for income. She may have worked in that avocation for just a few years, because, in August 1923, she married Harry M. Kinch, a widower with a young daughter. Unlike the fiasco with Williamson, whose last known whereabouts were in the 1930 federal census when he was inmate at the Norwalk state hospital, the relationship appears to have gone smoothly and Dorothy was adopted by her step-father and took his surname.
Jessie, commonly called Ray in documents, died in 1968 at age 84 in Grants Pass, Oregon, where she was laid to rest. Dorothy, who, like her mother, worked as a registered nurse, lived on the east coast where she died about fifteen years later.
The photograph of Jessie Ray Story (nee Williamson and Kinch), ostensibly leading to something about a woman’s employment in the common profession for females as a nurse, led to quite a different “story” than was expected. But, that’s one of the more interesting elements of the role of artifacts in hi”story”.