History of the West Park
Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio
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Mystery Man Who Died in WW I
is Remembered on Memorial Day
by Gary Swilik
On September 12, 1918, John Wilson died fighting for his country on a World War I battlefield in St. Mihiel, France. No one knows exactly how he died. John Wilson may not even be his real name. He has been a mystery to one west side family for ninety-years. They still think of him every Memorial Day when we honor those who have fallen in service to our country.
The story began to unfold when I received a collection of old photos which included a shot of a house that once stood at 15514 Puritas Avenue in Cleveland. Here at westparkhistory.com folks often share old photos with us.
I routinely ran the address of the Puritas Avenue house through a database at the Cleveland Public Library and discovered a newspaper death notice about a funeral for Corporal John Wilson which took place at the home in April, 1919, seven months after he was killed in action. Why so long to return his body?
The home on Puritas Avenue was owned by Mrs. Leonard Lucas but no family relationship was given for John Wilson even though the Lucas Family had paid for a death notice. Very strange.
This prompted a trip to our local war memorial which still stands near West 150th and Lorain Avenue, a remnant of West Park's early days as an independent city before it was annexed to Cleveland in 1922. I can remember when Memorial Day parades used to end at this monument. It reads "To Our Boys of West Park Who Served in the World War."
Sure enough, John Wilson was listed among the dead. The common name, so stark and unrevealing, intrigued me. I couldn't leave the matter alone. My research led me to Laverne Schuster, granddaughter of the Lucas Family which had owned the Puritas Avenue home from which John Wilson was buried. In fact, the home is her birthplace. Four of her five siblings were born there as well.
"We heard about John Wilson all our lives," says Laverne, 80, now of Avon, Ohio. "Official records say the news of John Wilson's death was sent to his friend Mrs. Laura Lucas of West Park, Ohio. That's a mistake. It actually refers to my grandmother Rose Lucas."
"She told me John Wilson had come to my grandparent's small farm asking for food," Laverne continues. "As I recall, he'd gotten off a train somewhere nearby and gave no information about his background. He was a nice young man and my grandmother hired him to help on the farm. He was a good worker and she kept him on. They never called him John Wilson. He was always just 'Scotty.' I don't know why."
"He lived with them for some time," explains Laverne. "When he went into the service he named my grandmother as recipient of his military benefits. As it turned out, he never came back alive. I still have the letter from General Pershing notifying my grandparents John Wilson had been killed."
"My grandparents held the funeral for him," Laverne recalls. "My grandfather used to hang the huge American flag that had draped the coffin from the attic window on the 4th of July. My grandmother inquired about John's military benefits but was told she was not eligible because she was not a blood relative."
"My sister and I have often asked ourselves why a young man would dismiss his heritage and name a new family as his beneficiary," puzzles Laverne. "We've wondered if he was running from some crime but my grandmother told us he was a fine man. We've also speculated he might have been adopted."
"I've been fascinated by this mystery all my life, off and on," admits Laverne. "I just couldn’t put this behind me. About seven years ago a local historical society suggested I contact the military. A helpful young woman at a local office went through some records and told me John Wilson must have come from Ironwood, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. I called the Chamber of Commerce up there but was told it would be very costly to go through all the local records."
After talking with Laverne it occurred to me World War I draft registration cards are on the internet! I should have thought of this sooner!
I looked at a lot of John Wilson's but finally found him. John himself had provided the information on the record. He was born October 17th 1889. His birthplace was Ironwood, Michigan, just as Laverne had been told, a small city on the Wisconsin border in the Upper Peninsula. He claimed to have no family dependent on him for support.
The local registrar had described John Wilson as short, of medium build, with black hair and brown eyes.
Not being born until ten years after his death, Laverne had no knowledge of John Wilson's burial place and had never visited his grave. Since he died in France there was no local record to check and his death notice didn't include the cemetery.
I searched the County Recorder's website which lists grave sites of known veterans. There were 24 men named John Wilson in the database! How would I find the right man?
Ah but wait, only one entry didn't include a full date of birth but merely a memo noting the individual was born in 1887 and buried in – May 1922! That would be over 3 ˝ years after John Wilson died in September, 1918. Clearly official sources had confusing or inaccurate information on this man, which made him a prime candidate to be the very individual I was seeking.
This John Wilson was buried in Woodvale Cemetery in Middleburg Heights. I called the cemetery office and learned their records were also confusing, stating this man was buried in Oct, 1918, not April 1919, as stated in the newspaper death notice. His cause of death was unknown but other information seemed to fit.
"Of course, Woodvale Cemetery," exclaimed Laverne Schuster. "That makes sense. My grandmother's parents are buried there."
I stood before John Wilson's gravestone on a cool but sunny spring day. The only sound was the drone of cars passing by on Interstate 71 in the distance. The weathered stone reads "John Wilson, Ohio, Corp 11 Infantry, 5th Division, September 12, 1918."
The death date confirms this is the final resting place of John Wilson who lived with the Lucas Family before he left for the distant battlefields of World War I.
What motivated this man to leave Michigan and travel so far south to find a new home? Did he leave behind parents wondering what had become of their son? Siblings wondering what had become of their brother? Was he fleeing home for some dark reason or simply putting disappointments behind him?
Perhaps it's not too late to solve the mystery surrounding John Wilson and provide some answers for descendents of the Ohio family he became part of. Maybe whatever relatives may still live in Michigan would like to know John Wilson gave his life for his country.
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Charles C. Chaney
21 May 2008