Last week my ancestors—probably in cahoots with the algorithm at FamilySearch.com—slid another surprise birth certificate in front of my face. “Let her try this one…” I’m sure they snickered.
Well they should, as it didn’t list a name or even indicate the child’s sex. It granted me only a birthdate from 1881, and the names of my great-great grandparents, at their home address. It was just enough information to get my attention, and not enough to exactly match any established relatives. The ancestors know what they’re doing.
But despite their best efforts, I found it, and fast. And then I discovered an array of records. Piecing those together revealed a life unlike anyone else I’ve researched so far, and unlike anyone else in my family.
Brooklyn Baby, Brooklyn Boy
The great-greats on the certificate were Weinpahls from my Brooklyn branch, three generations I’ve pieced together from one initial name. (I also have almost no Weinpahl photos, so all people shown in this post are stand-ins.)
I knew the Weinpahls had a full house of at least eight—but no child born in 1881. So who was this mystery baby?
Searching with just the surname and the date unearthed a WWI draft card. The birthdate on that record matched the mysterious birth certificate, giving me the name I needed: Harry Charles Weinpahl. (By the way: I’d like to thank my great-greats for naming one son Charles Henry, and a later one Henry Charles. Hilarious.)
No longer a mystery baby, this was a grown man with a physical description (brown hair, grey eyes); a job (traveling salesman); and a definite family connection to me. The listed contact on the card, William, is Harry’s younger brother and my great-grandfather. And William was an accountant at Harry’s employer, Pacific Coast Borax Co., so I wonder if he helped him get the sales job.
Also: Traveling salesman? Adore it. I love “Death of a Salesman” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” so this is close to my heart. Maybe the ancestors were giving me a gift, and not just a challenge. I immediately imagined him saying, “The name’s Harry. Harry C. Weinpahl. Pleased to meet you. I’d love to talk to you about the amazing qualities of borax…”
But there was so much more.
1900s-1910s: Panama and Way Points
After the birth certificate, I found Harry next in the 1900 U.S. census. When the census enumerator visited the Weinpahls that June, there was probably still mourning crepe on the door. Less than a month earlier, family patriarch Justus Weinpahl had died of a brain tumor. Left behind at the home in Brooklyn were his three youngest children—Laura (21), Harry (19), and William (11)—along with Justus’ second wife, Charlotte (their stepmother). Harry was already working as a clerk.
That year must have been a real trial. Justus’ will only mentioned four of his eight children, and Harry was not among them. Meanwhile, Charlotte—who had married Justus less than four years before—was granted a full third of his respectable estate. A family fight over the will extended for months.
Harry stayed in Brooklyn until at least 1901, as a mention at his sister’s post-wedding party attests. Not for the last time, he put his singing talents to use.
“Intrepid Men Who Dared to Leave the Old for the New”
The next time Harry appeared in any record, Brooklyn was far behind him. In October 1903, the now 22-year-old “tourist” stepped onto a pier in San Francisco. He had four pieces of luggage, a big clue that he was on a long trip with no return plans.
In the pre-Panama-Canal years, traveling to the West Coast via Panama was an extended journey: You spent a week on a boat from New York to Colon, Panama (possibly stopping in Haiti and Cuba); took a 50-mile train ride to Panama City; and then spent another three weeks on a ship like the San Jose, heading up the coast of Mexico to San Francisco.
Or, he could have taken a train and gotten there in about a week.
Harry, I guess, opted for the scenic route. I couldn’t find any passport application for him, or a record of him leaving the country, so I can’t determine his route to Panama or how long he’d been traveling. He would have been traveling at least a month—more if he came via Mexico or stopped in any ports.
The “tourist” designation is curious. Central America was still rough around the edges, infrastructure-wise. Malaria and yellow fever were everywhere. A true tourist industry wouldn’t arise for another decade. More than that, the region was about to tip into a revolution. It all made a risky and unusual choice for the casual sightseer.
Perhaps Harry wanted to see the world. It was, for sure, not Brooklyn.
Harry’s month-or-more adventure ended in San Francisco, but his road pointed north. By 1905 he was established in Portland, Oregon, where he lived for the next decade. Harry worked for the area’s best department store, Meier & Frank Co., then moved on to the Portland Railway, Light and Power Company.
Harry didn’t have family in the area, but he had friends, and he looks set to stay. He doesn’t seem inclined to head back to New York, where his siblings were getting married and building their own families. Directories show him living in Portland as late as 1915.
But sometime around WWI, Harry uprooted himself. He moved back East. And then he met George.
1918-1934: Life with George
As discussed, Harry ended up in Philadelphia, touting the wonders of… borax. But only briefly, because he gave up that surely exciting lifestyle to move to California and raise chickens.
No, I’m not kidding. By 1920, he was renting a room in the San Gabriel region of Los Angeles, and had a job… as a poultry farmer. It seemed an odd choice for the urbane world traveler and seller of borax that I imagined in my head.
In 1930, Harry was still living with the same family, the Swentzells. But now he was a singer in movies! That sounds more like my Harry.
Then I noticed: He wasn’t listed as a “boarder” in 1930. He was the Swentzells’ “adopted brother.”
Harry still had six living siblings on the East Coast. So why…? What…? Who were these people? I started digging into George Swentzell, and oh, what I found. Again: The ancestors sent a gift that only looked like a challenge.
In 1918 Harry and George Swentzell lived at the same Philadelphia address. They had the same jobs, at the same company. They got their WWI draft cards on the same day, at the same office, filed by the same clerk.
George was a few years older, native to Pennsylvania, and had been married in 1910. His wife not only stayed in Pennsylvania—she was still listed as his wife when she died. And yet: George lived the rest of his life in California with his mother, his sister… and Harry. George told the 1920 census that he was single, but in 1930 said he was married.
As early as May 1919—just months after those draft cards—George and Harry had already moved to the San Gabriel area of Los Angeles, where they bought property and started a poultry business—a popular concept in the area, which had numerous chicken operations.
Some genealogists argue that unless someone has identified as LGBTQ+ in life, you shouldn’t assume it was their truth. I would counter that we don’t apply this standard to determining whether ancestors were heterosexual or cisgender.
Sure, I might feel better if I had more-concrete proof that they were romantic partners. But even without a confirming letter or photo, I can say this: Harry and George lived their lives side by side for almost 20 years. Everything I can find shows that they were truly together. For a long time. In public and in private. They lived in the same homes, shared a business, and went out together. I think they were a couple, in a long-term relationship.
The Los Angeles area had a thriving gay subculture in the 1920s and 1930s, right when they lived nearby. And yet, living as gay men—even in a slightly more affirming area—meant they were subjected to risks I can’t imagine. They could have been fired, arrested, institutionalized, even murdered. And if after weighing the evidence, and all they risked, I decided to hedge and deny them their lived truth? Well shame on me if I did that.
I think Harry and George were gay. They were gay in the face of all obstacles, and they stayed together despite them.
1930-1943: Closing Number
George’s mother died in 1930, so for several years it was just the two Swentzells and Harry. They gave up on chickens, moved a few times—Alhambra, Rosemead, San Gabriel—and got a house. George sold shoes; Harry sold real estate, then began singing in the movies. Anna minded the home. It seems placidly, unremarkably domestic.
My first take on the “adopted brother” notation was that it was coy, like someone was trying too hard to cover up. But after some thought, I see two options.
Could Harry’s family—my family—have ostracized him? Could he have been estranged from his siblings on the East Coast? Given the times, it’s entirely possible. They could have been terrible to him, overtly or silently. I don’t know and there’s no one left to ask.
On the other hand, “adopted brother” might have been the closest the Swentzells could come to publicly embracing Harry as a family member. They would never get to call him brother-in-law, husband, or even partner. Society left them so few options to honor a long-term relationship.
Given one last bit of recorded information, I think it might have been the latter.
In 1934, Harry suffered a heart attack and died at only 53 years old. The singer was silenced. In 1940, George—who only described himself as married when he was living with Harry—told the census he was now single. And then, in 1943, George himself died from cancer. Whoever oversaw their remains (most likely George’s sister Anna) ensured that the two men were placed in the same mausoleum, and side by side.
Together in life, they rest that way in death. ☗
Draft Cards for Harry and George
US Censuses for 1900-1940
Pacific Mail ad
Images of Colon, Panama
1920s gay culture boom
LGBTQ locations in LA history
Sunset Canyon Country Club
1930s LA Map
Mountain View Mausoleum
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