Finding Frances (my search for The Living Venus De Milo)

One of numerous publicity photos of her available. Date unknown.
One of numerous publicity photos of her available. Date unknown.

When I publish these “Finding” blogs they are never truly finished. I still research all of them as time goes on because new information is added online and new clues trickle in. However I still like to have a fresh one to be actively working. After recently putting my fourth one online (Josephine Joseph) I needed another one to start. After checking out a few possible performers I settled on Frances because although many things were known about her, including her birth and death info, there was much missing and I also noticed after some basic quick searching that some of what was known was either incorrect or incomplete. 

According to her bios online she was born in Granite Falls, Minnesota on 8 September 1914. She started performing early on, with her mother as manager, in Wyoming with the Al G Barnes Circus. Eventually this lead to her working with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey for some twenty-odd years. She went by the titles Armless Wonder and The Living Venus De Milo. 

She was known for her beauty and personality and she attracted men everywhere she performed, resulting in endless proposals, though she never married or had children.  She was able to use her legs and feet as arms and hands for basically everything and proved to be quite dexterous. She was even known to sew with them. 

Supposedly she lost interest in traveling and the interest in her waned. After her mother died she retired from show business and lived alone in obscurity until she passed away in the Los Angeles area on 30 January 1982. This was essentially her life as told by the various websites I visited. 

The first thing to do was to begin her family tree up on Ancestry. After entering her information I did a general search for her on the 1920 Census in Minnesota since this would be the first census done after her birth. Unfortunately the websites I had read had never divulged her parents’ names and there were numerous Frances O’Connors that fit her all over the country. None in Minnesota seemed to be her either. 

Now, when you put someone in a tree on Ancestry hints will sometimes be provided for the person. These hints are possible documents for that person. In truth they tend to be documents that other people have attached to this person in other trees. If you’ve read my other blogs or are familiar with genealogy then you know that many of these hints will be totally wrong for the person because so many of these “genealogists” don’t pay enough attention to what they are attaching.

They tend to go by the transcriptions instead of looking at the actual document. Part of this is because many of them don’t want to pay for Ancestry so all they get to see is the transcription. I’ve seen some crazy hints before, like attaching a census for a black person to a white person. If they had even glanced at the census they would have seen it was obviously the wrong person. Consequently, you can’t really rely on them but many times they are correct. 

There were some censuses attached but not knowing her family yet and the fact that none were in Minnesota I left them alone. But there was one for her death in the California Death Index that matched and also one for her on the Social Security Death Index.  Unfortunately any kind of index information tends to be the basics but at least in this case it gave her mother’s maiden name, Fredrickson. 

It was time to go with what I knew, which was her birthday and birth place. Doing a search for her birth in Minnesota revealed a Frances Belle O’Connor that was born on the correct date in Renville County, Minnesota. This differed from the Granite Falls that most sites listed as her birth. I discovered though that Granite Falls is located in three different counties. Renville is one of them. It also shows her mother’s maiden name as Fredrickson. So the mother’s maiden name matched the info from Frances’ death index. 

The next step was to find a marriage between an O’Connor and a Fredrickson, probably in Renville County or a surrounding county, and sometime before 1914. Searches for this on both Ancestry and FamilySearch (the LDS site) revealed absolutely nothing. On a lark I did a Google search for Minnesota marriage records and found a Minnesota government site called MOMS, which stands for Minnesota Official Marriage System. It has a nice simple search engine and a marriage popped up for an Emma J Fredrickson marrying a Fred L O’Connor in Renville County on 29 November 1913. There is even a link if you want to order a copy. Kudos to Minnesota for this site! Here is the link for the site:  MOMS Site

Screenshot of Fred and Emma's marriage.
Screenshot of Fred and Emma’s marriage.

With this new information I went back to the 1920 Census and searched again, this time with the parents’ names added. They turned out to be in a coal-mining camp known as Monarch, about 10 miles from Sheridan. Some interesting info and pictures of this place here:  Monarch, Wyoming   

In the census her father shows to be 28 years old and born in Michigan, as were both his parents and he can read and write. He is a laborer in the mines.  Her mother is 31 and was born in Minnesota and can also read and write. Her father was from Denmark and her mother from Sweden. Frances is five years old, born in Minnesota and she has two brothers. Dennis is four and was born in Wyoming, putting the family here in Wyoming right after Frances was born or Emma was back home when Frances was born. The other brother is Wallace, who is one year old and also born in Wyoming. 1920 Census

The 1930 Census reveals them to having moved into the city of Sheridan, Wyoming. They are living in what appears to be some kind of hotel or boarding house at 522 W Burkitt Street. The main person for the place is the caretaker and it is apparently called the County Palisade. No Googling gave me any information on it. If it was a boarding house there were a lot of people staying there. They are also all listed as roomers.

Fred O’Connor is now showing to be a carpenter in the building industry and all his other information matches. Emma and Frances are both listed as circus entertainers in the traveling circus trade so they definitely began sometime between 1920 and 1930.  Both of Frances’ brothers (Dennis and Wallace) are also still there.  1930 Census

I came across Fred’s birth record up on FamilySearch. He was born 6 August 1891 in Orangeville, Barry County, Michigan and his parents were Eddie and Estella O’Connor, both from Michigan.  His birth name was actually Freddie Lee O’Connor. Here is the link to his birth:  Fred’s Birth

The next thing on him that I found was his WW1 draft card. He, Emma, Frances and Dennis are living in Carneyville, Wyoming. This was another coal mining camp north of Sheridan.  It also mentions that he is disabled from service due to a bad ankle. More on Carneyville here:  Carneyville Camp    WW1 Draft Card

I next found his death in the Nevada Death Index and the Social Security Death Index. He died 25 January 1981 in Reno, Nevada. Suddenly I came across the actual church record of Fred and Emma’s wedding. They were married in the Great Falls Lutheran Church in Great Falls on 29 November 1912, not 1913 as stated in the Michigan Marriage Index. I’ve stated before that indexes give bare-bones information. They can also be wrong because it is transcribed from the actual records. Any time a transcription takes place you increase the chance of an error. Here is the actual church record of it: Marriage 

The next thing uncovered was Frances in the 1940 Census. She is living at 533 W Broadway in Long Beach, Los Angeles, California with her mother and her brother Dennis. She had also been living in Los Angeles as early as 1935. Emma has now apparently divorced Fred but she has listed herself as a widow.  We know of course that Fred is alive and well and didn’t die until 1981. I’ve explained in the other blogs that this was done back then quite often to hide the embarrassment of divorce. She also doesn’t have an occupation listed. So had she quit managing Frances by this time? Frances herself is listed as an entertainer at amusement parks and Dennis is in the wholesale produce business. 1940 Census

I wanted to find out more on Frances’ brother Wallace so I started digging into him a little bit. Sometime in the 1930s he had married a Vivian Zeretha Higgins. They were living in the Los Angeles area in 1940 but I was unable to find them in the 1940 Census. He had enlisted in the military in May 1945 but as the war was over in Europe he was discharged the following month. In the early 1950s he’s working for the Folly & Burke and Butler Amusements and had several concession booths. A few years later he was a salesman. They had at least one child, Wallace Wilbur Jr. who was born in 1939 in Los Angeles. Wallace and Vivian lived most of their life in Long Beach and by the 1980s were living in Oakdale, California. Vivian passed away in 1993 and Wallace in 2000. 

As far as her brother Dennis, he has almost nothing on him out there on the web except I did find him in the South Dakota 1935 State Census living in Deadwood. The 1940 Census is the last I find on him and he went on to pass away in 1969 in Los Angeles. There is probably more available out there but I didn’t do any real deep digging. Generally though this is a possible indicator that he had no descendants. If so someone down the line would already have information on him at the different genealogy sites. Childless couples or individuals can be some of the hardest ones to research. (More on his death in updates below)

I finally found Fred in the 1940 Census living in a hotel in Butte, Montana. He is still a carpenter in the building trade. Interestingly, he still lists himself as married though. It also shows he was living in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1935, the same time and place as his son, Dennis. Eventually I did find him in the 1935 South Dakota State Census as he had said in 1940. I can’t find when he moved to Reno but he appears to have lived there for quite some time before he died.

Came across a 10 December 1947 passenger list showing Emma and Frances departing from San Francisco on the SS General M C Miegs and heading to Honolulu. It shows their birth dates and places and that they both currently lived at 277 Nevada Street in Long Beach, California.  1947 Departure

I did find that Frances and her mother moved to Long Beach, California in 1940 and lived at 533 West Broadway. In 1943 they moved to 277 East Nevada Street in Long Beach and both were still living at that address up until at least 1969, the last year the city directory is available online. They disappear from the directory in 1941 and 1942.

Emma went on to pass away 12 March 1979 in Los Angeles. At first I wasn’t positive that this was the correct Emma. The way that it was written about on the online sources had made it seem to me that her mother had died quite some time before Frances, and this Emma had died only three years before Frances. However when I looked at their social security numbers it was obvious that this Emma was the correct one. Emma and Frances had gotten them at the same time. Emma’s SSN was 568-05-2272 and Frances’ was 568-05-2271, only one digit difference.

Also, the name O’Connor and O’Conner consistently changed up during the research. Although Frances’ birth record states O’Conner, her death states O’Connor. Her father’s WW1 draft card shows O’Conner but he signed it as O’Connor. I am going with the O’Connor name as correct, but it really could be either.

So this pretty much ends it for now. Hopefully more will turn up as time goes on. I did do some further work on the family lines, primarily on the O’Connors but it was more out of curiosity than wanting to include it in this blog.

When I did searches in newspapers using Frances’ stage names I never really found much. Mostly I found the names being used by other people. And if you Google her name along with the stage names it just brings up the same sites that had the info I used to get started so I really never found much more. At least we know a little more now and maybe someone else can add to it. They lived long enough into modern times where people who knew them might be able to help us out. Just email me through the Contact Me link at the top of the page.

Update 19 August 2015:  Came across the marriage record up on FamilySearch for Frances’ brother Wallace. He and Vivian married in Los Angeles on 19 November 1937. Marriage

Update 15 Sep 2016:  I was contacted by a family member by email and this prompted me to do some more looking since it’s been so long. I ended up finding the obit for her brother, Dennis. It turned out his middle name was LeRoy. Dennis Obit

Update 18 Oct 2017:  Found her father’s obit today. Freddie Obit

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Thanks for stopping by! -Ray

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