Uncle Willie’s blank tombstone, whereupon my immediate thoughts, “Saying nothing, says a lot” and “I know that feeling”. Namely the erasure of identity that 20th century queers sought to rectify.

 INTRODUCTION

Of the important realizations to come during my independent studies this year, is that history is continually rewriting itself. This as new knowledge and greater perspectives come to the fore. Meaning our past, be it collective or individual, is up for reinterpretation at any point along the future. So creating new tales to tell and take forward. For some, the past seems lost forever, if not for the coded stories our ancestors bequeath us. These writ upon our DNA passing through the generations that follow. This epigenetic coding exists as an internalized narrative, one of resonant frequency within our being. By choosing to tune ourselves to these messages, there exists great promise of not only newly imagined stories but of futures yet to be lived.

It’s for this reason I feel so incredibly grateful to my greatx2 Uncle J.W. McGrath (aka Willie) and his  inspiring this journey. A wonderful tale in that it is both the detour and destination. A 100 year old yarn reaching from beyond the grave to take my hand and guide me through the last many decades. During that time we queers find our voice, identity, unity among one another and subsequently, well being. To know Uncle Willie is to better know myself. Our remarkable collective legacy as both family and “friends of Dorothy”. His tale being one for queer visibility as evolving throughout the 20th Century and ready now to inspire others along their way.

The narrative identity that follows is not one to be set in stone. Rather, Uncle Willie’s final message, “remember me as one who loves his fellow-men” carved upon his Brookhaven monument, serves that purpose poetically. This is the “story-so-far-as-we-know” and so subject to change with each that feels the call to know it. In this way, I am writing more mythology than biography. In this moment, Uncle Willie is now a case study for my thesis production, The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Reconstructing Narrative Identity. As an instructor, Uncle Willie demonstrates the subject matter of Narrative Identity with grace, humor and dignity. In this way, his story is not my own for it belongs to the many who may see themselves within it. Like him, their adapting in the best ways they know how in order to create lives of meaning, love and happiness.

WHEN ELLEN MET JOHN

John William McGrath (1861-1922) aka J.W. aka Willie, is one of eight children born to Irish immigrants, mother Ellen Flood (1831-1909) and father/namesake John McGrath (1822-1902). His parents both migrating to the US from nearby regions in Ireland shortly before the Civil War. The story of their meeting is a favorite of family lore due to Ellen being engaged to marry another man. A friend of John McGrath’s who died before her arrival at the seaport in Savannah, Georgia. Ellen’s ship being delayed for sometime due to storming weather upon the Atlantic passage. Her father feared her dead, a cause for grief that contributed to his own demise before her arrival. A culmination of events which inspired John to meet Ellen at the port in order to deliver the harsh news. Over time they fell in love, married and made their way to New Orleans, where an engineering job on the impending railroad to Memphis awaited him.

As work on the railroad moved northward, families of the workers went with, camping along the way. During this time Ellen began having babies with life in continual transit presenting unique challenges to child rearing. By the time they reached the budding township of Brookhaven, Mississippi it is said that Ellen “put her foot down” and declared no more life on the road. She wished to set down roots and both were known to be adept in cultivating land. So they built a house, started farming and Ellen began taking in boarders to save money. Here begins the well known hospitality of the McGrath’s, opening their home to a great variety of guests both travelers and migrant.

HOME SEEKERS PARADISE

In traditional Irish matriarchal fashion, Ellen was the financially resourceful one. It was her idea that John and the children start a family business. They decided upon a merchantile venture, calling it McGrath & Sons. With this they would extend lines of credit to local farmers for all manner of supplies. Becoming a “one-stop-shop” in support of local agribusinesses and over time timber and cotton industries. The store proved very successful under the initial guidance of eldest son Thomas McGrath (1855-88). After marrying however he moved north to Illinois and died in his early 30’s. So it was the second oldest son J.W. aka Willie who rose in the rank and responsibility to the family business.

With papa John’s ties to the railroad, McGrath & Sons grew their business over time and opened another store up north. Along with railroad expansion came new offerings for the family trade. For example, tailoring and fine clothes as inspired by New York and Chicago made their way to into Brookhaven local culture. Unlike anything seen elsewhere in Mississippi. The store also hosted many a number of community events with music and dancing that promoted not only their growing product lines but neighborly exchange between local families and businesses. The McGrath’s prominence extended later to banking and other emerging industries of that time such as dairy. These in response to to changes in the economy or due to calamities wrought by mother nature.

LILI IN BLOOM

Along with the McGrath’s growing wealth and influence came great interest in those wishing to marry one of the four sisters. My great grandpa John Harvey Johnson (1866-1929), son of the Reverend Harvey Fletcher Johnson (1831-86), being one of them. Willie however remained single during the boom years of the family business. With his many ties to local farms and businesses, it’s speculated he first met Daniel Webster Benson (1875-1919) raised in nearby Simpson, County. Encounters between queer men of that era were common enough according to local research. With one’s mobility and social station playing a huge part in the ability to meet other queer men and maintain relationships. (Men Like That) Two things Uncle Willie had to his great advantage in the seeking of sex, love and companionship. Such behaviors during that time and nearly a century to follow, were not publicly acknowledged, their existence often ignored or refused despite overwhelming evidence.

Upon reaching his early 30’s however the social pressure to marry and produce offspring no doubt grew with intensity. He being raised Catholic after all and the church’s growing influence at that time both social and politically, made marriage favorable for life he led. So it was in 1893, Willie married Lili Thurber (1873-1944), a native of New Orleans. Her family origins remain a mystery at this writing. Talk of Lili continues even to today among the oldest of relatives, now in their 80’s and 90’s. For example, despite Lili having a grand house built for her  and their only son, one befitting her marriage to a successful businessman, family lore says she preferred residing in her New Orleans apartment. It’s location being in the French Quarter.

UPTOWN MARRIAGE

By the time of their marriage, Uncle Willie’s four sister’s had established families of their own and built houses along the same block. The growing family connections living side by side, along with their numerous offspring made for a village of relatives within Brookhaven. Growth that continued until World War II and measurable by my grandfather Jere Becker Johnson (1908-1987) telling of his growing alongside some 30 cousins.  And all of them living on Cherokee Lane, a street famous not only as one of Willie’s growing family of relatives but also it’s stretch into the central township. There with many a family business side by side. At it’s entrance to the center Brookhaven’s motto of Home Seeker’s Paradise was constructed to the township.

Using Lili’s refusal to abandon her French Quarter apartment, Willie made regular weekend visits. As mother Ellen also called the shots in their immediate family, such a thing was not too entirely odd. Still, New Orleans’ reputation for being a town of vice must have provided fodder for many a family rumor mills. Family lore says Willie boarded the train from Brookhaven to New Orleans at the end of each Friday, taking with him one of mother Ellen’s fresh baked pie. Over the years, Willie joined a number of men’s clubs in New Orleans such as the Pickwick and Boston. Each being super secretive organizations of the “prominent, powerful and elite” in society at that time. He was also a lifetime member of the Elks Lodge in Brookhaven and later New Orleans.

STORYVILLE

To this day there is still talk of Lili’s party in Brookhaven that provides some clue as to her personality. All of the family cousins and relatives were invited of course and it was a debut of sorts for the home and their married life. At the entrance there were two Greek statues across from one another, one male and another female, both nude. It is said that during the home tour Lili remarked of the two statues, “This is my Venus and this is my Penis”. No doubt very scandalous humor for it’s time in the late 1800’s as evident by the story still being told today.

Lili and Willie had only one child and during their first year of marriage. They named him John William McGrath Jr and everyone called him Jay (1894-1960). Jay was raised in New Orleans and spent time in Brookhaven too, his only son grew up there. Jay was drafted into WW1 where served as an apprentice Navy Seaman receiving a Victory Medal. The local directory in New Orleans recorded his occupation as “musician” and there is record of him in society papers as playing the violin at parties.

Lili’s residing in the French Quarter during the late 1800’s is an oddity worthy of greater research. At that time the Quarter was considered a slum and occupied by a mix of immigrant Jews and Italians, Blacks and Creoles. Not necessarily a neighborhood where single women are to be found living at that time. However there is history of prominent married men keeping apartments in the area for their spending weekends with their same sex lovers. What is known by local queer historians as “Uptown Marriages”, a subject of ongoing study currently however without many resources at this writing for supportive evidence. Adding to the oddity of Lili’s French Quarter apartment at that time is it’s close proximity to the the red light district Storyville (1897-1917).

FREE AT LAST

In 1909 Willie’s mother Ellen dies, his father having passed seven years before. According to Ellen’s will the McGrath children petitioned that the estate not be accessed for it’s value. Rumors to this day exist that Willie had a fondness for gambling at horse races to the ire of relatives concerned that he was spending too much money on this hobby. During the years when he would have been making frequent visits to New Orleans there would have been plenty of opportunity for him to do so. As evidenced in the Storyville video above.

Also in 1909, Lili and Willie take a European vacation and Daniel Benson is recorded in local directories as being employed as Draughtsman for the Orleans Levee Board, and living at 1433 Louisiana Ave. By 1910 Willie and Lili had purchased a house near to the Irish neighborhood at 2253-55 Cardonolet Street. Not far from Webster’s home address on Louisiana Ave and a short street car ride to downtown, French Quarter and Storyville. By 1914 Webster and McGrath are neighbors in the same duplex then in 1918 they are listed as living at the same address in 2255 Carondolet.

 

By the end of 1918 the Influenza Pandemic impacts New Orleans to such a degree that local hospitals are overrun. The local Elks Lodge, in which both Willie and Daniel have membership, open their doors to provide needed space to care for the sick. Daniel’s death in early 1919 is attributed to the flu in an obituary that lists him as a New Orleans native. At this writing there is no documentation to support his being local however there is evidence of his hailing from Simpson county in Mississippi near to Brookhaven. He is also listed as having been drafted but not serving in WW1. At that time New Orleans was home to more draft resisters than any other US city.

The burial plot for both Willie and Daniel by Metairie cemetery records is said to have been purchased by Benson. However, the plots there are the most expensive in New Orleans and less likely affordable on a government employee’s salary. When Willie dies in 1922, his obituary states that his “entire family” was with him during an a prolonged illness and at the burial. Meaning family would be aware of Willie’s placement with Daniel at Metairie. At this writing, Willie’s obituary in the Times-Picayune is copied again and again across most records to found concerning his life. Few photos exist either save for those denoting the elite business people of Brookhaven.

Willie is pictured on the bottom row third from the left.

 

The gravesite in Metairie only features the name Benson however cemetery staff confirm Willie’s burial there.

 

The oft repeated obituary on the volunteer website Find A Grave dot com. This photo led me to investigate the truth of his burial there.

 

Willie’s Brookhaven monument is listed with the Smithsonian. It is said the townspeople paid for it’s erection.

With the exception of legal documents, at this writing there has yet to surface writing in Willie’s own words. One method for better understanding his life and legacy is through interpretation of the poem that marks his Brookhaven monument. Below are two videos, one the full reading and enactment of the poem and a second that attempts to analyze the text. I find both illuminating and inspiring for attempting to perceive Willie’s life in greater context:

The statue’s design is very similar to one in New Orleans though no artist is listed. The quote is from the poem Abu Ben Adhem.

 

LEGACY AND MEANING

For me, the above interpretation speaks to Adhem’s rejection of leading a religious life in favor of loving “God’s creation” in that of “his fellow men”. The poem’s reference to the flower “lily” may be read as pertaining to Willie’s wife and even complimentary to her being “fully blossomed”. Perhaps speaking to beyond that of her womanhood and more to her spiritual nature. The moonlight here that awakens Adhem may also speak to feminine qualities such as intuition or in this case the divine and/or angelic mother. The poem’s selection may be seen as an epithet in which Willie honors the life he and Lili shared and his reverence for her. Considering that she buried her husband with another man, Willie’s “housemate” Daniel, that alone speaks volumes about her character.

As there are two characters in the poem the exchanges may also represent the development of Willie and Lili’s relationship over time. One in which the figure of the male figure finds redemption. Investigation into the identity of Abou Ben Adhem likens him to the Sufi saint and mystic Ibrahim and even Buddha. As Willie was raised Catholic, the parallel is St Francis, as their mythologies are similar. Specifically, well to-do men who give up worldly wealth for spiritual rather than material rewards. This may reference Willie’s later years after his move to New Orleans in order to live life on his own terms rather than of the society’s in which he was born.

A contemporary and symbolic adaptation of the beloved poem is notable here in this scene from Angels In America

DUALITY

Another view may be taken to read both characters in the poem as Willie with their representing nature both human and divine. This being acknowledgement of us all being both masculine and feminine. In this interpretation Willie finds redemption through self-forgiveness and by embracing his inherently divine nature. Queers are after all thought to be more in touch with both aspects of our human duality in the expression of identity. In an homage to Willie’s influence and this powerful meeting with the divine for my thesis production of Home Seeker’s Paradise, I include a similar scene at the play’s opening.

Lastly, it occurs to me that Willie has two memorials, one the unmarked grave in New Orleans and another being the Brookhaven monument. The blank tombstone representing the fact of  his name not being in the angels golden book upon first inquiry. Fitting too, that it’s blankness is surrounded by the opulence that is the Metairie cemetery.  Meaning that his Brookhaven monument is indeed his final wish for memorializing with the quote’s humble phrasing granting him “first in line” access to heaven. Add to this his monument is the only of its kind in the town or even nearby region. So too the text that lies behind him, written in large letters the town’s motto of “Home Seeker’s Paradise”. (photo below) This being an extra measure of reassurance for Willie’s heavenly ascension by virtue of his love for humankind.

In closing, the sheer poetry of Willie’s legacy is one that continues to fascinate me. Learning more of his story serving to only increase my curiosity. I only first became of it’s existence while a teen attending my grandfather’s wake back in 1987. I was astonished by the site of it and amazed that someone in my family had such a thing to honor their memory. It’s my hope to one day find writing in his own words, more photographs or anything that would allow me to know more of his story. I consider what I am discovering to be the true “family treasure” as his narrative beguiles me with wonder. He does not and cannot stand alone however, the weaving of his narrative among so many others being like a rich tapestry. One that now gives me great comfort by both the knowing and wrapping of it around me.

2 Comments

  1. Kathleen McGrath Hill-Graves says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story of our shared ancestor. My brother, Jackson Hill, forwarded your blog to all of us siblings. The Becker- McGrath (and Johnson!) story is such a powerful, nuance ancestry for us to honor and carry forth. Thank you for your research and revealing story. You share much of my mother (Mary Adine Becker Hill -primary author of the Becker book and one of the narrators – along with Jane Heidelberg- of the Becker’s videos). My brother, Jackson, worked on compiling the photos and layout of the book- He also lives in New Orleans. I look forward to reading more of your blog. I’m glad Uncle Willie’s life brought you solace. Thank you, distant cousin.

  2. Greg Heimsoth says:

    Interesting story. I happened across your blog while researching our home in New Orleans. It seems that I own the home on Louisiana Avenue where Daniel Webster Benson resided in 1909.I haven’t found much information on the time period between 1899 and 1911 when the property was sold and moved approximately 30 feet to the left changing the address. I’m excited to have a new name to research. I’m sure Willie and Mr. Benson would be happy to know two men now own the property and are carefully restoring it to its’ former glory.
    If you are ever in New Orleans look me up and I’ll give you a tour of the place.

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