Great Moments in Journalism
Splat! That’s all I could think of when I saw the grainy newspaper photo from 75+ years ago. The image accompanied the unfortunate (and somewhat disturbing) story of the death of Roy Pulliam, a distant first cousin (3x removed). Having spent most of his life in and around Fresno, Cousin Roy was in ill health and had recently relocated to the Bay Area. He had come back to Fresno on a brief trip in in March, 1948, to settle up some business affairs. After a dinner with some friends at the Motel Fresno, Roy headed upstairs towards his room. When he reached the top of the stairs, he suffered a stroke, lost consciousness and toppled head first from the balcony to the floor.
The Fresno Bee graphically documented the scene on the front page the following morning, an artist adding dotted lines to ensure readers knew it was a straight fall from top to bottom. Roy died almost immediately. An autopsy later determined it was the fall that surely did him in, prompting his widow, Belle, to sue the motel for damages. It’s unclear if she ever won or how the case may have been settled. Poor Cousin Roy!
I’ll admit to having a tabloid sensibility towards family history. Things my ancestors probably wished had been shoved under the rug that made their way into the public record invariably pique my interest. Being a few generations removed from these unpleasantries provides some license to suspend decorum and empathy, and while it’s wonderful to explore lives full of character and heroism, it’s equally important to balance those with stories of ancestors simply being less than perfect humans or suffering misfortune.
Drennans, Pulliams and Honest Abe
Roy Pulliam’s tragic demise would never have gotten on my radar screen had it not been for an ancient family bible and accompanying stash of news clippings that found their way into my garage several years ago. The artifacts belonged to Roy’s mother, Emily (Drennan) Pulliam, originally from Sangamon, IL, and later a resident of Fresno. The Pulliams and Drennans were two of the earliest families of European descent in Sangamon County, IL, arriving in the late 1810s from Kentucky. Twenty years later, Abraham Lincoln and family would join them as another early settler in Sangamon county.
Emily Jane Drennan (1851-1923) was the youngest sister of of my gr-gr grandfather, Samuel(Sam) Drennan. Sam was born in 1829 in Chatham, Sangamon county, IL. At age 23, he left Sangamon in 1852 to seek his fortune in California, eventually settling in Santa Cruz. There he ran a successful real estate firm and was otherwise a sort of hail-fellow-well-met around town. Sam stayed in Santa Cruz until his death in 1891. Emily was 22 years younger than Sam, and was an infant when he left Sangamon. In 1872 she married Charles Irwin Pulliam (aka C. I.), and in 1895 Emily and C. I. moved to Fresno, CA, with their only surviving child, Roy. Another sibling of Emily’s, John Drennan, also settled in Fresno around that time. The Fresno Drennan-Pulliams built ties with their three teenage nieces and nephew in Santa Cruz (Emily, Dora, Edith and Ryland), and both Dora and Ryland Drennan attended Roy’s second wedding (more on that shortly).
When Emily died in 1923, the bible, news clippings and some notes were given to Mabel (Drennan) Byrne, assumedly by Emily’s widower husband, C. I. After her death, C. I. traveled extensively. When he passed away in September, 1929, his obituary noted he had been present for the Lincoln-Douglass debates, and that Lincoln, whose firm, Lincoln & Herndon, were the Pulliam family attorney, had inspired him to go to law school. Mabel Drennan kept the bible up to date until her death in 1941.
Transcribing the bible and deciphering the press clips had been on my “to-do” list for years, and the time had finally come to check that box as complete, which led me to explore what became of Emily and C.I.’s son, Roy.
If At First You Don’t Succeed
Documenting Roy Pulliam’s family life was an exercise in peeling a matrimonial onion, involving a string of spouses who all seemed to be on their second marriage. Roy’s first marriage to Norma Nees was straightforward enough, though it ended abruptly when she hopped on a boat headed for South America citing an emergency and potentially grave ‘medical condition’. Norma seems to have survived her medical scare, returning to the states and living years after that as a widow in Los Angeles. Roy’s second marriage was to Isabelle (Brackett) Nevers, who mostly went by Belle. Belle was also on her second marriage, her first having been to a gentleman named Edward Nevers, who was on his second marriage when he tied the knot with Belle. A social climber from Chicago, Nevers’ first marriage had ended spectacularly when his wife’s extramarital scandal made headlines in the the Chicago Tribune, and ran in other papers around the country. Divorce wasn’t all that common in the early 20th century, but the Pulliams seemed to run with a more open-minded crowd, pre-dating the Roaring 20s / Flapper era laying just around the corner.
Between two wives and successful career as a bank executive with Bank of America, Roy Pulliam never managed to produce any children with either Norma or Belle, and their branch came to an end with their passing. In this way, Roy was an outlier from the rest of the Drennans, a farming family that for generation upon generation seemed to produce at least 8-12 children from each offspring.
Belle Spends Eternity Elsewhere
Roy Pulliam was buried with the rest of his family near Sugar Creek in Sangamon county, IL, alongside his parents and other early family members. Once regularly featured in society columns, Belle largely disappeared from site, living first in Oakland and later in in San Jose, where she died in 1968. Roy and Belle had a joint monument created for eternity at Sugar Creek, but at some point she may have decided not to join him. The location of her remains aren’t clear, and the headstone (and Roy) still seems to be waiting for her.