My great-grandfather, William Robey, was born in Charles County, Maryland in 1864. His parents died when he was young, and he was left to the guardianship of relatives. The story is that he was treated badly because they felt he had been unfairly singled out to receive an inheritance from his grandfather. That's another story entirely, but serves to explain the sense of resentment his childen felt he carried during his lifetime. It's also why he changed the spelling of his name from Robey to Robie.
A note about Robie vs. Robey.....
The family originated in the area around Castle Donington in Leicestershire, England. One branch settled in New England, and their descendants spelled the name "Robie;" the branch in Maryland spelled the name "Robey." My grandfather thought he was expressing his individuality by changing his name to "Robie," but he didn't reckon on the careless spelling habits of the compilers of directories or newpapers. Robey, Robie, or even Roby -- it was all the same to them!
Known as "Wild Bill," his son remembered him as a "hard" man who was a fighter and a drinker, but who also had a lifelong desire to be a police officer. As my grandfather tells it, police officers in the 1890s had to be veterans of the armed forces, so his father made a deal with his Congressman to serve a short stint in the Navy and go straight to to the police force.
I wanted to separate fact from fiction. My grandfather -- also known as "Wild Bill" -- was famous for his tall tales!
William Robey married Mabel Clyde Rhodes in Washington, DC on 18 November 1891. His occupation was listed as "police officer."
William and Mabel lived in the District of Columbia, so the city directories were an obvious place to look for them. "William" is a common name in the Robey family; in this case, occupation was the only way to distinguish individuals. William Robie the policeman was listed from 1891-1895, and again in 1897. After that, his name no longer appeared in the Washington directories.
Genealogists by nature are diggers. It was not enough to know that he was a policeman. I wanted to know what kind of policeman he was, and to reconcile my concept of a police officer with the stories of an embittered, angry man.
So I looked for newspaper articles.
On 26 December, 1895, the Washington Post carried a story headlined "Officer Robie Makes Merry," describing how Officer William Robie arrived at work in an intoxicated condition, was hauled off to jail to sleep it off, and received an official reprimand. Now this was more like it!
The personnel files of the DC Metropolitan Police are held at the National Archives, so that was my next stop in the search to know my great-grandfather. And here is where it gets interesting.
There was a letter from Lieutenant Dillingham of the USS Dale, commending William Robie as an excellent member of his ship's company.
I noticed right away that there was one document in the file, purportedly written by William, but which was significantly different from the other examples of his handwriting.
The exceptional handwriting appeared in a letter from "William" to the Chief of Police, Col. Moore, dated about 3 months after his original application was submitted. He requests that Col. Moore look into the merits of his application, and directs his attention to letters of support on file, together with those "herewith affixed."
I Googled some of the names "herewith affixed" -- and saw that they included some of the luminaries of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, including its President, Mrs. J. Ellen Foster of Iowa.
I wondered why the "House of Representatives" on the letterhead was crossed out, but Google told me he was voted out of office in 1889, and reinstated in 1890.
William was accepted as a member of the police force on 1 September 1890. On 27 November 1890, he received the first of several citations for being intoxicated and unfit for duty. Does this sound like the poster boy for the Women's Christian Temperance Union?
If William shows up drunk barely two months into his dream job, his drinking problem probably predated his service on the police force. What is the likelihood that Lieutenant Dillingham of the USS Dale would have written a positive recommendation for a man such as that? I started to have suspicions that all was not as it seemed.
The 1930 US census reinforced my suspicions. In response to the question asking whether respondents were veterans, William answered "no."
Now, I am definitely in the realm of speculation here, but one possible explanation of the glaring discrepancy between William Robie's letters of recommendation and his actual conduct as a police officer is that he borrowed the identity of another William Robey.
As it turns out, there were several William Robey/Robies living in Washington, DC in the 1890s, many of them in the South East district of the city where my William lived. One of these was variously identified as a ship's carpenter or boat builder.
Could it be that he was the William Robey who obtained the recommendation from Lt. Dillingham, and the endorsements from the ladies of the Womens Christian Temperance Union? The letter from Congressman Compton, obviously written while he was out of office, could have been the result of the "deal" my grandfather said his father made with the Congressman.
This is ongoing research, but it was just too juicy to keep locked up in my files -- it is much more fun to share! My next steps are to find naval personnel records for that period, if possible, to see exactly which William Robey or Robie served on the USS Dale. Stay tuned!