Finding Peter (my search for The Living Skeleton)

PeterRobinson

I had hoped when I began researching Peter that it would actually be a couple, namely Peter and Helen “Baby Bunny” Smith. Alas, it was not to be for reasons explained later. Although he was easier in some respects compared to my other research blogs, he was also more difficult than the others. 

After visiting numerous sites about him to learn what I could I was surprised by the conflicts in the information provided. This could pose a problem. At least they mostly agreed on his birth info of 8 April 1874 in Massachusetts (though some disagreed on the town). One site listed his parents as Abraham and Victoria (Hebert) Robinson, but like any information online, it must be taken skeptically.

He supposedly developed the weight problem after childhood and performed under the stage names of The Cigarette Fiend, The Thin Man and The Living Skeleton. He’d married a Fat Lady named Helen Smith in 1924, but one site said that they’d actually gotten married in 1916 and that the 1924 wedding was staged. A couple of sites said he had also married another Fat Lady named Adeline La France in 1914. Another “fact” was that he and Helen had a couple of kids and that she had died in 1952 and him in 1947 (some sites gave a death date in the 1950s). One site even said that when she died in 1952 that they had been married for 27 years. Add 27 to 1924 and you get the 1951 to 1952 time-frame. These are some of the conflicts I mentioned earlier. So, with this I created his tree and got started. 

The first thing I went for was his birth. Found two documents, both birth registration pages, and they both showed his birth as 8 April 1874 in Chicoppe, Hampden County, Masschusetts. And his parents are exactly as stated earlier, Abraham and Victoria. One of these documents was probably used to write the other so if the first one was wrong then the second would be, too. I’ve said in my other blogs that any time something is copied your chance of a mistake is greatly increased. My guess on Peter’s later use of 6 April is that the registry entries are incorrect and he always used the correct date of 6 April. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen this.  Birth 1   Birth 2

The next thing to do was locate the family in the first census after the birth, in this case the 1880 Census. Assuming they still lived in Hampden County, I did the search and they were still there. His father Abraham is a 28 year old painter and he states his birth place as Vermont. Later exploring revealed he used Vermont, New York and Canada interchangeably. In the end, he most definitely was born in Canada (the English part). Peter’s mother Victoria is a 24 year old housewife from Canada (the French part). Later research on her revealed her name to be Vitalene Hebert. Vitalene is a French version of the English name Victoria. I found her name used both ways throughout her life. Besides Peter, there were two more brothers listed; Louis, born in 1876 and Alfred, born in 1879. Alfred turned out to actually be named Fredrick F. Robinson. Not sure where the Alfred came from, but I’ve seen census enumerators make crazier mistakes. Like Ella Harper in my first blog, the Health section in the 1880 Census is important. In Peter’s case it says he is disabled and it’s paralysis. Could this be tied in to his later size issue? If so, then his problem started much earlier than previously believed. Also, how could this particular medical condition actually lead to his being underweight the rest of his life?   1880 Census

I next found Peter in the 1900 Census in Springfield. He is listed as a 25 year old single male and has no occupation. I had seen something in a newspaper where he stated how long he had been in the business and it would have placed him starting in the 1890s. So was he just out of work or his story wasn’t true? Over time I have decided that much of what he said and what has been accepted is probably overblown or faked. 

Also in the 1900 census are both his parents. They show being married for 26 years. Abraham says he was born in November 1849 in New York and both his parents were French Canadian. He is also still a painter. Victoria’s birth is now August 1853. She is French Canadian as are her parents. She also says she had eight children and seven of them are still living. The one not living turned out to be Frank, who was born in October of 1882 and died in April 1883 from pneumonia. He was born and died in between the censuses so he would have remained hidden if not for a birth and death record. The other children listed are Louis, 24 and a farm laborer; Fredrick, 21 and a paster at a paper company; Josephine, 13; Delia, 12; Ida, 9; and Gertrude, who is 5. This means that Victoria had her last child at about age 41. Also, there is an eight year gap between Fredrick and Josephine.  1900 Census

Peter pops up again in the 1910 Census, still in Springfield and still with his parents. Now he is 36, single and still has no occupation. His parents are both still living. This time Abraham is claiming his Canadian roots, both for himself and his parents. Also, he gives an arrival year of 1871 and that he is still an alien. He appears to have retired. He and his wife state they’ve been married for 37 years and it was the first marriage for both (M1 in the marriage column). This means they married about 1873, which makes sense with Peter being born in 1874. This time the enumerator screwed up and listed her and her parents’ birth as taking place in Massachusetts. 

The rest of the children still living there are Josephine, 23 and who does stitching at a corset factory; Delia, 22, who works sewing gloves at a sporting goods company (she passed away two years later from TB); Gertrude, 15 and a milliner at a department store; and lastly is Grace, 18, who is actually Ida from the previous census. I think that the enumerator got the ages reversed between Ida and Gertrude. Grace (Ida) is newly married and her husband is there also. He is Felix Messier, born in Massachusetts in 1892 and is an order clerk at a grocery store.  1910 Census

Peter’s father ended up passing away from pneumonia at home on 5 May 1914 at 26 Hickory Street in Springfield. Victoria was the informant on the death certificate and it says Abraham was a house painter, born in Canada on 5 November 1850. His parents were Timothy Robinson and Mary Beschand, both from Canada. He was buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Springfield two days later.  Death Record

After Abraham died I found Victoria bouncing around at different addresses in Springfield, almost every year and most of them sounding like boarding rooms and such. Some years she just disappears and then reappears a year or two later. The last year I found her listed was in 1925. I’d imagine that since this was pre-social security days that her budget was less than ideal and the reason she moved a lot. She finally passes away in Springfield in 1927 but I couldn’t find anything else about her death since it came from an index, not a death record.

Back to Abraham for a moment. I tracked him back to his family and they were living in Burlington, Vermont. The earliest I found them was the 1860 Census there. His father, Timothy James Robinson was born in Canada about 1823. His mother, Mary Beschand (could be Beschard) was also born about the same time in Canada. Abraham was one of nine children I could find. The oldest child was a brother named Peter, born about 1843 in Canada. In fact, the first four children were born in Canada, the last being Abraham. His sister Ellen was the first child born in America. The rest of them, like Ellen, were also born in Vermont. So Abraham’s family came to America sometime between 1850 and 1854.

Now back to our main star, Peter. The next document I found on him stopped me in my tracks. He showed up on a passenger list arriving in New Orleans on 17 August 1923 coming from Havana, Cuba. The first thing I noticed as I scanned across the page on his line, besides his middle initial now being “C”, is that his birth day is now 8 April 1876. So much for theory about 6 April being the real date. He even used a different year, which really isn’t that unusual in genealogy. But the day should be the same that he had been using as an adult. Keep in mind this isn’t what stopped me in my tracks. It was just a mild irritant.

What stopped me was when I went over to the right to his current address it showed 46 Houghton Street, Worcester, Massachusetts. That is when I noticed that the person below him had the exact same address. I scanned back left to the names and found a Corinne Valley, who was a 25 year old single female. Since he possibly got married the following year to Helen Smith (which I assumed was a stage name) I thought I had just found Helen’s real name. Needless to say I was pretty tickled with myself. 1923 Trip

I quickly began my search for the life of Corinne Valley and found her passport. In it she states that she was born in Spencer, Massachusetts on 28 Feb 1894 and that her father Philip Valley was also born there and is currently deceased. Her current town of residence is Worcester, Massachusetts and that her occupation is performer. She is wanting the passport to go abroad for six months to perform in Cuba at a circus. 

Corinne Valley (passport photo)
Corinne Valley (passport photo)

I was going to put her passport application here but it is four pages and nothing else is really pertinent except where she asks for an extension to do a performing tour of South America. This tour had been mentioned in a couple of the bios of Peter online so I assume they toured together.

I continued researching her and found her in the 1900 Census with grandparents and in 1910 with her mother and her new step-father. Then the fun began. A marriage in Maine in 1911 to an Edward C Walker. Then again in Massachusetts in 1913 to Thomas E Simmoneau. This one lasted longer but on his WW1 draft card he is living in Norfolk, Massachusetts and she is at the 46 Houghton address in Worcester that she used on the 1923 passenger arrival. I discovered after doing all the work on her that the address was for an apartment building, so it had all been for nothing. I had assumed that she and Peter were “together”.

Next she marries in Manhattan in 1921 to an Adolph Halvorsen. This marriage was in December of 1921 yet on 4 January 1922 she asks for that passport extension I mentioned earlier. Try as I might I never found any marriage between her and Peter. I also never saw her even once use any married name. It was always Valley. So I had to let her go with the final determination that she was not Helen “Baby Bunny” Smith. I’ve left her in the tree for now though because you never know…..

And back to Peter we go. I found his passport from 4 January 1922, the same date as when Corinne applied for the extension for the South American tour. He is applying for a passport for the first time. He states that he once lived in Canada back around 1900 for just one season, so apparently other than this he never really left the country prior to applying for this passport. He gives the 6 April 1874 birthday this time and is residing currently in New York City. Passport 1   Passport 2

Peter's passport photo.
Peter’s passport photo.

Now, if you take a look at his passport application part two you’ll notice that the person attesting to his info is an Adeline Bertha Mitchell. She and her family have known him and his family a very long time. Remember at the beginning of the blog where he supposedly was married in 1914 to an Adeline La France? This got me to wondering if this was possibly her. I dug up her passport application, for the exact same South American tour, and had a look. Here is her passport photo:

Adeline Bertha Mitchell's passport photo.
Adeline Bertha Mitchell’s passport photo.

There is no real need to post the pictures of her 4 January 1922 passport here but she states that she was born 4 April 1883 in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She is the widow of a John W Mitchell, who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. First of all, I found absolutely no Adeline Bertha born that date in Holyoke and I even went through the book looking. Secondly, I found her and John living in Springfield in the 1920 Census. He owns or operates some kind of small-time eatery there and she is his waitress, but they are married.  He was not born in Massachusetts, but in Scotland. So you see the difficulty in tracking some of these circus performers. They can’t seem to give the truth. I believe she said her husband was from Massachusetts to offset any problems with the passport.

I found John and his restaurant in the 1920 and 1921 Springfield city directories but it’s gone after that. And the following year she is living in New York applying for a passport and claiming to be his widow. I found no solid proof he died but John Mitchell is too common of a name so anything is possible. Most likely they divorced though. 

The person attesting to her passport information is none other than our very own Peter. He states almost verbatim for her what she had stated for his. Further searching on her didn’t really yield anything useful so she is another dead end for now. The Adeline La France that Peter had “married” in 1914 stated that she was 21. This makes her born in 1893, 10 years later than this Adeline. However, I revert back to my earlier statement about not trusting any information these people give out sometimes. 

Although there was quite a bit of coverage of the 1914 marriage in some papers I did some fairly deep digging and never found a shred of documented proof it was ever a real marriage.  Here is a typical story about the wedding: 1914 Story

 This brings us once again back to Peter. I’ve yet to be able to find him in the 1930 Census but decided to try again on his much-ballyhooed marriage to Helen “Baby Bunny” Smith in 1924 or in 1916 according to the one source I’d seen. I never was able to find any proof of a 1916 wedding but here is a typical news story about the 1924 one: 1924 Story   And here is another, more extensive oneDec 1924 Story

This time I got lucky and found an actual marriage record transcription and it was up on FamilySearch:  Peter’s Real MarriageWe know it’s our Peter because he gives the correct parents. His birth year is off a few years though. Helen’s name is Winifred (Fox) Gorman and she is a 36 year old widow. She lists her birth place as New York City and her parents as Patrick Fox and Annie Burk. When I did some digging into her parents I did find a couple by that name in several birth records in Manhattan from 1883 to 1899. Winifred’s birth year is estimated at 1888 so she fits that couple, however after their child Kate is born in 1883 there is a gap until young Patrick is born in 1891. So is she telling the truth?  Who knows. I never found a marriage between her and any Gorman and I never even found the family in the census records. It is entirely possible that they moved of course. 

Further searches on her were negative or inconclusive. She does mention in one of the marriage news stories that she had been married once before in her youth so that fits at least but I was unable to find a single bit of documented proof that she and Peter ever had any children like the “accepted” stories talk about. I was also unable to find any concrete death information on her in 1952 or any other year. My guess is that she remarried, which would have likely rendered my searches useless. So once again we reach another dead end.

And now we’re back to Peter once more. I had seen references to Peter on the 1940 Census on another site and that he was living with his sister, Josephine. I had seen it earlier in my searches but set it aside because if it was her then it was a different husband for her.

Josephine was born 1 July 1886 in Chicopee, Massachusetts, the same location as all but the youngest of the Robinson children. On 21 September 1910 she married George H McCarthy in Springfield. In 1917 when George filled out his WW1 draft card they were living in Chicago. By 1920 they were back in Springfield. After not finding them in the 1930 Census I went back to the 1940 Census with this Josephine that was married to a Charles Slight and that had Charles’ brother-in-law living with them named Peter Robinson. Although it showed Josephine as four years younger than she would really be, this could still be her.

I wanted more proof however. So I found them in the 1930 Census. This time she is listed as eight years younger than our Josephine. Also, her father is listed as born in Vermont and her mother as born in Paris, France. I had about written her off when I noticed that the marriage info put her and Charles marrying around 1924. This would fit her and first husband George not showing up in the 1930 Census so I decided to dig further.

Eventually I found where Charles had died in 1970 in Florida but nothing on her. I was about to give up when I found where this Josephine had died in Springfield on 18 May 1972. The kicker was that her birth date was 1 Jul 1886, the exact same as our Josephine. Based on the death locations and dates I would have to assume that they had divorced quite some time before. 

Now this takes us back to Peter on the 1940 Census with her. They are living in Agawam, Hampden County, Massachusetts. He is 65 and single as always with no occupation. So where is his wife of that “27 year marriage to Helen”? Another fable crashed and burned. 1940 Census

As far as the death date of Peter, in the Massachusetts Death Index there is a Peter Robinson that died in 1947 in Springfield. Unfortunately it gives no other information. There are several of them in different counties in different years, and this is assuming he died in Massachusetts. In the end it probably is him. The name, age, and location fit his profile but as always, I’d like something a little more solid. So if any reader out there in the Springfield area could check this out we would all be extremely grateful and you’d be internationally famous to boot!

For my other research blogs:  HOME

Thanks for stopping by! -Ray

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