Shirley Bemis: My First Genealogy Mystery

Shirley Yolanda Bemis

Shirley Yolanda Bemis


The above picture hung on my grandfather’s wall next to one of his father, whom he looked just like, for many years.  I always thought the woman was so beautiful.  I finally came to ask about her and learned she was Poppy’s mom, Shirley Yolanda Bemis, who died when he was quite young.

Herein lies the mystery.  Her daughter, my great-aunt Betty, originally only remembered her last name to be Thomas.  However, she knew she was adopted.  Was Thomas her birth name or her adopted name? Was she formally adopted or was this just some type of arrangement between family and friends?  As a child and teen trying to do genealogy research, I found Shirley both fascinating and frustrating.  She was my first big challenge.  I found her marriage certificate which gives her last name as Thomas as well and lists her parents as Thomas and Mary Thomas.  However, Aunt Betty recalled her birth name was Bemis and that her mother was Ida Mae.  My Gran took me to the Cleveland Historical Society where I scoured over microfilm censuses.  I found nothing.  I finally found a Henry L Bemis married to an Ida Mae in a Cleveland City Directory.  I felt this was probably them but was unable to confirm it for sure.  Now with the emergence of technology and I have finally been able to piece together Shirley’s short life.

Shirley was born 5 August 1901 in Cleveland, Ohio to Henry L Bemis and Ida Mae Osgood.  She was the last of three children.  Her brother, Walter Sidney Bemis, was twelve when she was born; her sister, Sibyl Gladys, ten.  Shirley’s mother passed away when she was eight years old.

I first find Shirley in the 1910 census living with a Charles and Fannie Merton.  She is listed as Shirley Bemis, niece of the head of household.  This was another mystery until I did more research on her mother and found she had a sister named Fannie.  So for a short time after her mother died, at least, Shirley was living with family on E 18th St, where Cleveland State University is now situated.  How long this lasts or why the arrangement ends will probably remain a mystery.  Unable to gain access to adoption records, there is no way to know for sure when Shirley was adopted.  It is possible it was around the time Fannie’s husband passed away 5 July 1914.

I was absolutely amazed last month to finally see Shirley in a census with her adoptive family.  In the 1920 census, at the age of 18, she is listed as Shirley Thomas, daughter to William and Mary Thomas.  Also living with them are daughter Elsie, 24, and daughter Margaret, 14.  William, Mary, and Elsie are all listed as born in Wales with parents born in Wales.  All three arrived in the US in 1900, naturalizing in 1918.  Shirley and Margaret were both born in Ohio and have no listing for where their parents were born.  Therefore, it seems a logical guess that Elsie was the Thomas’s biological daughter while Shirley and Margaret were both adopted.

In this 1920 census Shirley is listed as an office clerk, like her adoptive father.  She is living at 734 E. 127th St in Cleveland, 12 minutes from her future husband’s home in a boarding house.

734 E 127th St, Cleveland

734 E 127th St, Cleveland

Two years later, on 31 August 1922, Shirley and Everett marry.  Their marriage certificate lists her as a “typist.”  They then have Betty Jane, Harry Lincoln, and Sybil Gladys.  Harry appears to be named after Shirley’s father; Sybil, after Shirley’s sister who ended up raising the girls after Shirley.  I just found her death certificate this year. It states her husband as Everett, her father as Henry Bemis, and her mother as Ida Osgood, and that she was born in Cleveland.  It also states she had suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis for about eleven months before passing away on 7 Dec 1927 at the age of 26.

Shirley Yolanda Bemis

Shirley Yolanda Bemis


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