Lewis Hine caption: 5 yr. old Willie, one of Washington’s youngest news-boys. He is a kind of free-lance, helps other boys out, and roams around the city on his little velocipede, with all the recklessness of extreme youth. Gets lost occasionally. He was so immature that he couldn’t talk plain, and yet he was pretty keen about striking people for nickels. William Frederick Tear, 490 Louisiana Ave., Washington, D.C. Location: Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia, April 1912.
If someone saw this photo with no caption and nothing to explain why it was taken, that person might assume that the boy is just riding around in his neighborhood, or waiting for his mother to come out of the store. But the caption is there, and it’s apparent why Lewis Hine took it. So whoever sees it might react the way I did when I saw it for the first time. “Where the heck are the parents, and why isn’t this poor boy at home?”
I am guessing that most viewers of this photograph will presume that young Willie has a dismal future ahead of him. My research shows that this presumption apparently turned out to be true. He left behind few recorded details of his 69 years, but I was able to paste together a pretty good picture of what happened.
William Frederick Tear was born in Virginia, on Oct 11, 1906. His father, also William Frederick Tear, was born in England about 1880, and his mother, Mary, was born around 1879, in Virginia. His father emigrated to the US in 1900. Mary gave birth to Douglas Carter around 1901, by another man, possibly a first husband. She would then marry William. None of the family was recorded in the 1910 census.
In the 1920 census, the Tear family is living at 716 H. Street, SW, Washington, DC. His father’s occupation is listed as window cleaner. Other occupants of the home are wife Mary, Douglas Carter, sons William (13), Ralph (9), Albert (7), and Robert (1), and two daughters, Ethel (8) and Alice (4). Douglas, William, Ralph and Ethel were born in Virginia, the others in Washington, DC.
Separately in the 1920 census, William is listed as a student at St. Mary’s Industrial School, in Baltimore, a Catholic training school for delinquents and orphans. It is the same school that Babe Ruth attended from 1902 to 1914. It could not be determined if Tear and Ruth attended at the same time.
William enlisted in the US Marines Corp on May 22, 1925. Military records show that he was cited numerous times for bad conduct, including desertion, and served time in military prison at Parris Island, South Carolina. He received a dishonorable discharge in September of 1926.
In 1928, according to the Washington Post archives, four boys who had run away from their homes were picked up and held by the police, and then turned over to their parents. Among them were William’s brothers, Ralph and Albert, of 15 Riggs Road, NE, Washington. The police said that the boys had left their homes the day before, and were sleeping in a boxcar just north of the city. They were in search of food when taken in custody, and were eager to go home.
On October 8, 1928, the Washington Post reported that Ralph Tear had pleaded guilty to “housebreaking and entering,” and was placed on two years probation.
In the 1930 census, father William is in Santa Cruz, California, living by himself in a rooming house and working as a clerk in a tailor shop. And young William, now 24 years old, is an inmate at the federal prison in Fulton County, Georgia. No other members of the Tear family show up in the 1930 census. William was apparently released from prison not too long after, because on August 26, 1933, he and brother Ralph were arrested in Ohio.
At that point, I lost track of him, until I found his death record. William Frederick Tear died December 28, 1975, in Los Angeles, California. No obituary was available. No relatives were located. But I did obtain his death certificate. He had a heart attack on November 8, 1975, and died 50 days later in the University of Southern California Medical Center. He was cremated on February 2, 1976, after no one claimed the body.
Finally, I was able to locate one of sister Ethel’s sons, Harvey, now 72 years old and living in Maryland. He had never heard of William, who would have been one of his uncles. He told me that his mother seldom mentioned her siblings, but often complained that her father William had deserted the family (apparently after 1920), leaving her mother to raise the children alone. Ethel died in 2003, at the age of 90. She was primarily a housewife, but also worked a while as a clerk at the Hecht Company department store in Washington.
Harvey said that from what he knew, most of the Tear children “drifted around a lot.” He met his Uncle Ralph several times, but knew little about him, other than he never married and died in Washington, DC, in the 1950s. I told him that Albert died in Alameda County in 1967, per Social Security Death Index, and he remembered that.
I told him all I knew about his Uncle William and mailed him a copy of the Lewis Hine photo. At least one family member will now know something about what happened to young Willie.
The amount of information posted on genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com increases exponentially every year, so I occasionally revisit stories I have done that left me wanting to know more. It was almost four years since I had completed William Tear’s story when I uncovered a startling new fact.
Was the father of Roland Frederick Tear the same William Frederick Tear that Hine photographed, and who died in Los Angeles in 1975? I had never seen any records that William married. But I remembered a record in my files that showed the military enlistment in 1940 of William’s youngest brother, Robert, whose address was given as Osceola County, Iowa. It now appeared that as least two of the Tear children from Washington, DC had somehow wound up in the same county in Iowa.
I searched the Iowa birth records and found that Roland had a twin sister, Ila June; and I found one more child, Mary Nancy, born to William and Phyllis in 1938. Several days later, I searched the Washington Post archives, and I found a birth announcement in 1942 for an unnamed boy born in the city to William and Phyllis. William’s mother was still living in Washington then. But this didn’t prove that William and Phyllis were married, only that they had some children together.
I wanted to know more about Phyllis, so I continued searching and found a partial history of the Larsen family (Phyllis’s family) posted on RootsWeb.com. It included a 1973 obituary for Phyllis’s father, Rolland Larsen. Among the survivors were daughter Phyllis (Mrs. Clifford) Josey, of Portland, Oregon; and daughter Lucille (Mrs. Joe) Bishop, of Seattle. So I knew that Phyllis married, but I still didn’t know if she had been married first to William, or whether they had just lived together. And on Legacy.com, I found the obituary for Joe Bishop. Among the survivors was a son, Ernest Tear, of Auburn, Washington. I called him. We talked briefly, and he told me that William Tear was his father. I told him what I knew and emailed him the Hine photo. Several days later, he replied.
“Thank you for the information about my father, William Tear. As disappointing as his life was, I am appreciative of learning about him. I was raised by my grandfather in the early years until my mom, Lucille, got her life straightened out and finally left William. Her sister Phyllis married Cliff Josey, and they had a large family.”
The next day, he emailed me again.
“I looked at my birth certificate, and I now know that my father was not William Tear. It looks like my father was his younger brother Robert, who was born in 1920. The full name on the birth certificate is Albert Robert Tear. I went through all my papers and I found a copy of William Tear’s application for a Social Security number. He listed his birth date as October 11, 1906, in Richmond, Virginia, and his parents as William Frederic Tear and Mary Sue Carter. William’s address was 1025 10th Street, in Sibley.
Ernest Tear told me that the twins born to William and Phyllis, Roland Frederick and Ila June, died at birth. In the Washington Post archives, an article published May 20, 1941, stated that their two-year-old daughter Mary Nancy was “killed by a truck in front of her home yesterday.” So they had lost their first three children. I was not able to determine the name of the boy born to them in Washington in 1942, and Ernest didn’t know either. Then I found Phyllis’s death record (1993) and her obituary. I contacted several of her descendants, but they didn’t have any new information for me.
And then the 1940 census was released, and I found William Tear living in Sibley, Iowa, with his wife Phyllis, and their one-year-old daughter Nancy. William worked as a house painter. The census taker asked where each household member was living on April 1, 1935. Both William and Phyllis said they had been living then in Washington, DC.
I checked one more resource, NewspaperArchive.com, and I found an article in an Iowa newspaper announcing the marriage of William and Phyllis. They married in Rock Rapids, Iowa, on March 4, 1937. But according to an article in the Washington Post on February 16, 1937, William Tear had escaped from a Virginia prison on February 15. He was still missing when the article was written. Somehow he managed to elude the police, get married in Iowa 17 days later, and apply for a Social Security number in June.
A year after I completed the second part of this story, I received an email from a woman who identified herself as Patricia Johnnie Hildahl. The following is an edited excerpt:
“I saw on Google a comment from Ernest Tear about William Tear. It really surprised me because I am Ernie’s biological half-sister. I was born June 25, 1947, in Yakima ,Washington, to William and Lucille Tear. I was given up for adoption when I was just a few days old. I knew that my mother Lucille had remarried, and I was told that my father William died in Montana in 1947.”
I had not known that William Tear had any other children after his fourth child with his wife Phyllis, born in 1942. His first two children (twins) had died at birth, his third had died at the age of two, and I was unable to determine the name or whereabouts of the fourth. So for the first time, I had the chance to talk to a living descendant. I called Ms. Hildahl, and we talked a long time. I asked her what, if anything, she knew about William.
“I don’t know very much. I grew up knowing I was adopted, but when I was about 13, my adoptive parents showed me my adoption papers and my original birth certificate, and William and Lucille were listed as my real parents. They told me that they had been taking care of William and Lucille while she was pregnant. They were getting a divorce, and that is why they gave me up for adoption. They also told me that William was a journalist and died in Montana in a train wreck in 1947. They said that he was 6′ 5″, and Lucille was 5′ 2″, and that she was a redhead. I was also a redhead, until my hair turned gray.”
“At some point, I found out about Ernie. Lucille was his mother, but his father was not William, so that makes him my half-brother (Ernie’s father was William Tear’s younger brother Robert Tear). I contacted Ernie, and he didn’t even know I existed. He filled me in on Lucille and said that she was working for the Seattle Post Office and had remarried, to a man named Joe Bishop. I wrote Lucille a letter and asked her for my medical background. She wrote me back and basically told me not to contact her again. So I didn’t. And then Ernie and I lost touch, and I haven’t talked to him in a long time. Just a short time ago, I looked for him on the Internet and found your story. Of course, what I found out is a big surprise. I wonder if my adoptive parents knew William’s background and decided to make up a different story.”
“Now that I know that William died of a heart attack, I have a little bit of medical information about my parents. I had a heart attack myself recently, and the doctor said it was genetic. And now that I know that my real father had a lot of brothers and sisters, I realize that I have all of these relatives I know nothing about.”
Thanks to Patricia Hildahl, I now know that in 1947, five years after William Tear and wife Phyllis had what appears to be their last child, a daughter was born to William Tear and Lucille Larsen (Phyllis’s sister). Although Patricia was told that William and Lucille were married, that has not yet been verified. And then Patricia was given up for adoption, and Lucille married Joe Bishop. But I still do not know what happened to William from 1947 until he died in Los Angeles in 1975.
*Story published in 2008, and updated several times.