Three of my direct ancestors have been murdered under what can only be described as mysterious circumstances, at least to those generations that followed them.
When I received a copy of my grandfather’s obituary, I received a wealth of information I had never expected to receive. I had always known he was adopted, but I knew little about the circumstances, and I didn’t know the names of his natural parents. I learned from the obituary that he had been the natural son of Omar and Gertrude Gearhart and had eleven sisters and four brothers.
His living sisters included Eva Heier, whose name I recognized from annual Christmas cards, Margie Water, Jessie Riddle, Betty Ann Bailey, Ruth Anderson, Carol Babb, Dorcas Tobin, and Helen Marie West. I was able to quickly determine that the last five were his adoptive sisters, Elizabeth Ann Swier, Ruth Swier, Carol Mae Swier, Dorcas Pauline Swier, and Helen Marie Swier. That meant that his natural surviving sisters must have been Eva Heier, Margie Water, and Jessie Riddle. His only living brother was Frank Walker. As the Swier family had no sons aside from my grandfather, I knew Frank, too, must have been a natural brother.
My grandfather also had three sisters and three brothers who preceded him in death: Mary Smith, Ruth Kyker, Alice McReynolds, Junior Gearhart, John Gearhart, and Donald Cannon. All of these siblings were natural siblings.
I posted a message on a genealogy forum, asking for information, and I heard from Dara Rowe, the daughter of Frank Walker. As it turned out, Dara knew what had happened that caused the Gearhart family to be scattered to the winds: my great-grandfather had been murdered.
Omar Alfred Gearhart worked as a garage mechanic. He suffered a head injury in a shooting accident that altered his personality. According to Dara, he became an alcoholic. There was an intimation that he became abusive. These types of injuries have been known to cause personality changes in some people. The circumstances are unclear, but some time later, Omar Alfred Gearhart was murdered. Dara believed it to have been his business partner, but I have found no news stories that report Omar Alfred Gearhart’s murder, so I cannot be certain.
Omar Gearhart’s murder threw his family into chaos. His wife Gertrude was pregnant and unable to support her ten children. Once the baby was born, Gertrude tried to feed the three youngest children at her breast; the older children tried to find work where they could. The family was starving. Gertrude heard that the Washington State authorities planned to take custody of the children. Fearing they would be separated and grow up not knowing each other, she sought advice from her pastor, who brought her situation before the congregation of the church. Congregants adopted the children except for the older children and the baby. I cannot be certain which children were not adopted, but I know for sure that those adopted included Jessie Riddle, Donald Cannon, Frank Walker, and my grandfather, David Swier.
I do not know where Gertrude was in 1930 when the census was taken; I cannot find her. However, my father told me that she remarried and her last name was Lightle. I found her Social Security Death Index record and determined she died in Pasco, Franklin County, Washingon.
Stay tuned for “Murder in the Family, Part 2.”