Unearthed: Lady Bledzo (Pt 5)

Catch up with Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4

And just like that, she was gone.

The Windsor Star; Windsor, Ontario; 30 Nov 1927

Lady Bledzo failed to make her two court appearances on Nov. 7, 1927, and seemingly vanished. There were a few casual mentions in newspaper articles reminiscing about her ex-boyfriend, Yellow Kid Weil, but never again was in she in the news for herself, and never again under that name.

It was her curious name that drew me to this story in the first place, and its disappearance convinced me that I could never know her true ending. What I had seen of her life didn’t promise a good finish. I resigned myself to the idea that she probably died somewhere seedy, unknown and alone.

And yet, I kept digging anyway. So often the women behind notorious criminals are only the moll, only the girlfriend, treated as merely well-dressed background witnesses to the acts of men. Their histories never get the rapt exploration granted to their partners.

Lady Bledzo was clearly a genuine person, from some real place. And she was one of many — countless “new women” arrived in cities, sans men, in the 1920s. (In fact, the “new woman” concept gets reinvented about every decade.) They came from their various somewheres, by train or bus, propelled to urban centers by economics and their own determination. They gave up whole lives in favor of an unknown future. There were women like this in my own family. I wanted to know: How do you become Lady Bledzo? What is the path to gangster’s girlfriend? And where did she go when it was over?

I spent months trying to find Lady Bledzo’s real identity. As I’ve complained, her many aliases and their varied spellings didn’t make it easier. Was her surname Bledsoe? Bledso? Greer? Grier or Grear? One early article actually claimed it was Travezo. And her first name — Lenor? Eleanora? Rose? Rosa? Some combination?

Or worse, what if those were ALL fictions?

Lady Bledzo had dropped a few clues in her media appearances: She was born in Texas. Or maybe Mexico City. The Hearst articles mentioned a husband named Harry Atkins. Born in the early 1900s? But as with her many names, it was hard to know what was real and what wasn’t. And frankly, I think she liked it that way.

There was even — suitable for a 1920s mystery — a red herring in the form of Mary La Verne. Tacked on to the end of Chicago Daily News article from Nov. 7, this woman had staked out a spot at the courthouse. She hoped Lady Bledzo was her missing daughter.

Chicago Daily News; 7 Nov 1927

In fact, I found La Verne’s daughter Agnes living elsewhere in Chicago. But her mother’s story stood for so many. All those “new women” on the sidewalks of the big city had left behind families, and they sometimes lost contact. Desperate families who looked endlessly. Mothers and fathers who clipped articles and showed up at courthouses. Did Lady Bledzo leave behind a tale like that?

One Slender Thread

I make no secret of my reliance on websites like FamilySearch.com and Ancestry.com for my research. They are at times aggravating, occasionally helpful… and then sometimes, they really shine.

One day, I was making yet more halfhearted dives into the data pool, trying yet more date/name/place variations, when Ancestry offered a surprising suggestion: Margaret Abbott, in the 1940 census. “Abbott” wasn’t even a name in Lady Bledzo’s story. I clicked, fully expecting another dead end.

In 1940, Margaret Abbott (age 28) lived in Chicago, and she did not live alone. She shared an apartment with her mother: Eleanor Bledsoe.

1940 US Census, showing a Chicago apartment for Margaret M. Abbott and her mother.

Margaret was born in Tennessee, but her mother was from Texas. This “Eleanor Bledsoe” was born around 1892, a decade older than Lady Bledzo had claimed to be. But Texas… Lady Bledzo had referenced Texas and Mexico more than once. That felt like a maybe.  

Much better: Their address was 61 E. Goethe St. It was the same address where Lady Bledzo was sued for back rent in 1927.

Slowly, snip by bit by fragment, I built a family tree.

Little Lenoir

In mid-June of 1891, Lenoir Barnett was born somewhere in Texas. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to pin down exactly where. Her Social Security Death Index entry gives a date, but no place. Based on a few different things, I think it might have been near Texarkana.

Lenoir’s parents, Samuel (S.T.) Barnett and Ella Boon, were both familiar with sadness. Each was widowed before this marriage, and their baby girl had died 4 years earlier. They also had two older children: 12-year-old Blanche (from Samuel’s first marriage) and 4-year-old Guy.

I can’t determine for sure whether this is Lenoir’s father, getting in trouble for stealing in 1892, but I think it might be.

Dallas Morning News; 8 Jan, 1892

Lenoir was the only one of her family born in Texas. The Barnetts and Boons were actually generations rooted in western Tennessee, particularly Gibson, Madison, and Carroll Counties — Davy Crockett country. And just a few years after Lenoir’s birth, they returned to the area around Jackson.

Railroad map of Tennessee counties; 1888

Madison County was where Ella died in 1894, when Lenoir was only three. Her father Sam, now a two-time widower, remarried in 1898. Two years later, there was already a sign that little Lenoir’s life would not be typical or easy.

In 1900, 9-year-old Lenoir appears in two U.S. census entries, both from Jackson, Tenn.

1900 U.S. Census, Barnett Family

1900 U.S. Census, Boon family

In the first record, Lenoir is grouped with her father, stepmother, and siblings. In the second, she’s shown with her step-grandmother Della, uncle John, and aunts Jane and Ida — all Boon relatives of her deceased mother. Was she splitting time between two households? Or was her new stepmother a source of friction that pushed Lenoir to live with the Boons? The record can’t tell us.

I was unable to find any school records for Lenoir, but we can surmise a few things about her life from where she lived. The area was agricultural, producing cotton and corn, and sparsely populated. Of the three counties in her area, only Madison County had more than 30K residents in 1900. There had been slaves there before the war, and lynchings after — some of them happening during Lenoir’s childhood.

Postcard showing Main Street in Milan, Tenn. 1908.

Years later, Lady Bledzo would claim to have attended a ladies’ finishing school in Tennessee. She may have been referencing the esteemed Ward Seminary for Young Ladies in Nashville, but it’s extremely unlikely Lenoir — daughter of a farmer — ever studied there. More likely, its reputation for producing refined and elegant graduates made a lasting impression on her.

Her area did have one thing in particular: A train that ran to and from Chicago. The Illinois Central passed through Milan, Medina, and Jackson, on its way to Birmingham. Chicago was just 11 hours away, leaving daily. I have to wonder if that also caught her imagination.

(Side note: 30 miles from Jackson is a town called Trezevant. One of her early aliases was given as “Travezo.” Hmm.)

As Merry as a Marriage Bell

But first: Marriage.

In 1908, Lenoir Barnett (now 18) married 22-year-old William B. Bledsoe. By 1910 they had decamped to Oklahoma City, where William ran a furniture store. Lenoir, her husband, and their tiny baby Samuel DeVaughn had moved in with Lenoir’s half-sister Blanche and her family.

The stay in Oklahoma was brief. When the Bledsoes’ daughter Margaret was born in 1912, Lenoir was back in Tennessee. The marriage itself does not seem to have lasted much longer. In 1918 William registered for the draft… and listed his mother as his nearest relative.

Postcard showing Louisville in 1920.

As of the 1920 census, Lenoir and little Margaret (who also went by Maxine) had moved to Louisville, Ky. Lenoir seems to have been moving to progressively more cosmopolitan cities, away from the dirt roads of her childhood. She even had a job in a department store. Again close to family, they lived in the same apartment building as Lenoir’s brother Guy.

But it was just the two of them. Sadly, Lenoir’s son Samuel was echoing his mother’s own childhood. He lived with her step-grandmother Della, uncle John, and aunts Jane and Ida — the same people Lenoir had lived with back in 1900, and at the same age.

In-Between Years

And after this… there is a gap. Lenoir doesn’t leave another record until the next census in 1930. It’s those in-between years when Lady Bledzo has her moment.

This origin puts a different gloss on Lady Bledzo’s story, for sure. The “cabaret dancer,” the flapper in a car smash-up with friends, the victim of Darby Day’s violence — she was not the 22-year-old ingenue she portrayed. In fact, she was a divorced mother of two in her mid-30s, separated from her children. Once you realize that was her frame, all her actions take on a new poignancy.

I’ve thought a lot about her choice to move away to Chicago — and I think it was a choice. She doesn’t appear to be a missing person or a victim of amnesia. More likely, she saw better opportunities in a bigger city. Maybe she wanted some adventure as well? She certainly seems to have relished the exciting parts.

But this choice also cost her a lot, in isolation and instability. Those years were a lot of suitcases on a lot of hotel beds. There was frequent scrounging for dollars. She’s only ever mentioned once in the company of a friend.

And she appears to have handled it mostly alone. Even 1926, the year that already was terrible — The Yellow Kid going to jail, the taxi crash, meeting Darby — gets worse when you learn that her father died that January, just two weeks before Weil lost almost everything at a creditors’ auction. I can’t tell whether she was able to attend the funeral.

But I do know she stayed in contact with her family. In 1929, Lenoir’s sister-in-law Nora (Guy’s wife) died. Not only did Lenoir attend the funeral — her son (now also listed as “from Chicago”) went with her. This shows that they were together again, and that Lenoir continued to live in Chicago after 1927.

The Paducah Sun-Democrat; 15 Apr 1929

1930s and After

Post-Weil, post-Darby, Lenoir finally appears to have settled into a quieter life. Her family came back together, this time in a surprising new place: New Orleans. Lenoir, Maxine/Margaret, and Samuel were all living there together as of 1930.

1930 U.S. Census, showing Lenoir, Samuel (DeVaughn), and Maxine renting rooms in New Orleans.

It makes me genuinely happy to see them a unit again. It also concerns me that, according to the record, 18-year-old Maxine worked as a “nightclub entertainer.” Following in her mother’s footsteps? Perhaps. Also like her mother, Maxine would be married for a few years in the 1930s, then divorced by 1940, when she and her mother reappeared as living on Goethe Street in Chicago. Later, she moved back to Tennessee.

Meanwhile, Lenoir’s son Samuel established himself as a salesman in Phoenix. His own life had some bumps worthy of a dramatic background: Within seven years he married, divorced, and remarried the same woman. A few years later, he was involved in a case of assault.

Downtown Phoenix in the 1950s

Lenoir followed him to the sunshine, with her own apartment in Phoenix by 1951. She was in her 60s. A quarter-century had passed since her brief 1920s notoriety. The Yellow Kid continued to get into the news now and then, but it appears that no one went looking for Lady Bledzo.

While there were no grandchildren, there was family: Lenoir’s brother Guy and nephew also moved to Phoenix. She stayed there until the late 1960s, and then, after all that… she moved back home to Tennessee.

Lenoir’s final years were spent in the little town of Milan. She was done with big cities.

The Jackson Sun; 13 April 1971

Lenoir Barnett Bledsoe, almost 80, died in 1971. You can see the marker she shares with Samuel here. ☗


US Census records: 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950

New enlarged scale railroad and county map of Tennessee showing every railroad station and post office in the state, 1888. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3961p.rr003030/?r=0.099,0.109,0.25,0.158,0

Map of Madison County, Tenn.: from actual surveys and official records https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3963m.la000874/?r=0.486,0.995,0.15,0.095,0

Map of Gibson County, Tenn.: from actual surveys and official records https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3963g.la000872/?r=0.642,0.505,0.276,0.175,0

Lynching map: https://plaintalkhistory.com/monroeandflorencework/explore/map2/#7.94/35.811/-88.519

History of Gibson County: https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/gibson-county/

Ward Seminary for Young Ladies, now called Ward-Belmont College: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward%E2%80%93Belmont_College

Postcard from Milan, Tenn. https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/1908-street-scene-postcard-milan-tn-1924804288

IL Central Timetable: http://illinois-central.net/1947TT.pdf

Marriage to William Bledsoe: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L9GZ-S9MW-6?i=167

Possibly Margaret/Maxine’s birth record: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CS97-B9MK-C?i=126&cc=2515873&personaUrl=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AQ2H5-8ZKG

© 2020 Tori Brovet/All rights reserved

Author: Ms. Snoop

ABOUT I was lucky to be born into a family of genealogists, and to be gifted a family tree already bristling with names. Along the way, other names have somehow found me. My job is to listen to their stories.

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