The Female Criminals in the Family

The boy, who is somewhat of an expert in tracking down records, sent me a copy of the 1930 Census last night. He included this note: Your Aunt Cil was a jailbird that day.

It is hardly headline news to anyone that our family’s ancestry is riddled with law-breakers. Appalachians by and large are an independent lot, not prone to following the rules, or paying homage to authorities in general. Yes, I realize that’s an over-generalization, but what’s the point of being a writer if you can’t take liberties to over-generalize on occasion?

I have written extensively on my uncle who robbed a bank in those early months after Daddy died, which meant then that the FBI kept showing up at our trailer house in Georgia, looking for my uncle. Wondering, I guess, if he’d given us the money to buy that luxury home on wheels.

Then there was the uncle who robbed the corner market at Christian Bend, and abandoned his wife and kids and headed West, running from the law. A few years ago, Number One Son sent me a copy of the article in the newspaper in TriCities, Washington, about the arrest of that uncle. In one of those poetic turns, I had worked for that very same newspaper, reporting on other criminals.

There had been a rumor when I was growing up that one of my uncle’s wives poisoned him before she was shot and killed by a step-son from her next marriage. The folks loved telling this story, about how Uncle Tub (yes, another nickname) dropped dead after eating a bowl of oatmeal. His brothers delighted in telling how his body was hard as a rock before the lawmen arrived on the scene because of the poison. But far as I knew there were no women criminals in our family, since there was never any proof that Uncle Tub was murdered. Instead, his death was ruled the result of a rare disorder known as scleroderma. (One that another uncle swore to me was passed along only from uncles to nieces. I am surrounded by witty southerners.)

So this news that Aunt Cil was in jail the day the 1930 Census was taken stunned me. All of you who read the Appalachian series – Mother of Rain, Burdy, Christian Bend – know that I fashioned Burdy after my Aunt Cil, who, yes, I admit I idolized a bit.

But there it was in black-and-white print:

Name: Lucile Sopshire
[Lucile Sopchire] 
Birth Year: abt 1902
Gender: Female
Race: White
Birthplace: Tennessee
Marital Status: Divorced
Relation to Head of House: Prisoner
Home in 1930: Rogersville, Hawkins, Tennessee, USA
Map of Home: View Map
Street address: Dapot Street
Institution: Hawkins County Jail 88-100, also 4A Lines 17 to 28 inclusive
House Number: 105
Dwelling Number: 71
Family Number: 79
Attended School: No
Able to Read and Write: Yes
Father’s Birthplace: Tennessee
Mother’s Birthplace: Tennessee
Able to Speak English: Yes
Occupation: Inst
I can’t help but laugh at that last line: Who knew your occupation could be “institualized”. I think “jailbird” is a much more concise way of summing up Cil’s occupation.

Stephan found this photo of Cil with an unidentified woman. Cil is on the left. My cousin told me Cil always terrified her.

You can learn soooo much from a Census. I had no idea that Cil had been married prior to marrying Dock Christian. (Yes, another nickname. See earlier post from this week.) According to the 1930 Census, my aunt Cil was 28 and divorced. And in jail.
I have no idea what she was in jail for, although Stephan suggested maybe it was for public drunkeness. I’d wager it’s because Aunt Cil assaulted someone. Maybe the man she divorced. Or the woman he took up with. Or maybe she poisoned someone.  We are looking for those arrest records now.
It was well-known around the Bend that Cil had a temper. (I am happy to blame DNA for mine). Women at the church told me about the way Cil could be heard all over the holler cussing people. I had heard Cil get after folks a few times myself, so I knew the ladies at the Bend were telling the Gospel truth. Fortunately for me, I never did anything to raise my aunt’s ire, so she never was anything but kindly to me. Still, I’d heard Mama say that Cil could be a mean woman (which sort of begs the question of why Mama felt comfortable leaving her kids with Cil, doesn’t it?)
To me, Cil was a biscuit-making, hog-raising, chicken-feeding, bible-reading kind of woman. The finest storyteller in the oldest mountain tradition. I wish I’d been older when she was around. Maybe she would have told me about the time she was arrested and put in the pokey. Maybe she would have told me about how she fell in love with a man who did her wrong. Maybe she would have taught me to make those lovely quilts she made from scrap. Maybe she would have taught me how to pluck a chicken or butcher a hog.
Really, the primary thing Aunt Cil taught me was to listen and pay attention. When I bought the headstone for her grave, decades after her death, I had it inscribed Words Rise Up Out of the Country. 
I had no idea how those words would continue to rise up, telling me stories still unknown.
It almost makes me want to get arrested so down the road one of my grandkids or their kids can one day discover that tidbit and declare: I didn’t know Mimi was a jailbird! 


Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

1 Comment

AF Roger

about 5 years ago

Usually, we hope, one is arrested for doing the wrong thing. In Trump's America, it seems easier to be arrested for doing the right thing. Last year, a female State Representative was knocking on doors in her district here in the metro area to talk to her constituents about issues important to them. It was in broad daylight. A white resident called the cops. The Representative, who is black, was not arrested. Thank God she did not reach into her handbag for her phone as the officer drove up. It ended well but should never have happened. No, you don't wanna get arrested these days, especially if you are not white. You may not even live long enough to BE arrested after the call goes in. God bless America. We're not doing too good a job of it ourselves.


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