If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development-Aristotle
Who does not know that the first law of historical writing is the truth-Cicero
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Recently, I was hired to do some time sensitive research for the Travel Channel program "The Dead Files". While I can't discu...
Friday, March 3, 2017
Finding connections through history via Red Skelton
Red Skelton’s Heritage
Following my previous post on Robin Williams and my love of
great comedians, I have dug into the lineage of Red Skelton, entertainer,
clown, and mime. The immediate facts are as follows:
Richard Bernard Skelton was born 18 Jul 1913 in
Vincennes, Knox Co.,
IN. He was married 3 times to Edna Stillwell in 1931,
divorced 1943; Georgia Davis in 1945, divorced 1971, two children Richard, Jr.
who died young of leukemia and Valentina Marie; lastly Lothian Toland in 1973
to Red’s death in 1997. Red died 17 Sep 1997 of pneumonia at a hospital
in Palm Springs, CA. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery
in Glendale, CA. He was a Mason and Shriner for over 58 years.
Drafted into the army in 1944, served 3 months and had a nervous breakdown in
Italy, was hospitalized, then discharged. This was the early signs of a
problem that later turned to over use of alcohol, etc. I have always felt
comedians have deep dark troubles that they express through their art.
I’m not sure if the art saves them or adds to their demise. For Red it
seems a dark past filled with poverty and a shady family history may have taken
a toll on the man.
In the biography, Red Skelton: The Man behind the
Mask, by Wes Gehring (available to peruse on google books), thank you
google and the Indiana Historical Press for publishing this book and making it
available on-line, wonderful read!
You find the following story that should be made into a
movie. I must say the first chapter on his childhood broke my
heart. His older brothers let him know he didn’t belong and tortured him
like the worst in cruelty that only other children can induce and get away
with. Although his supposed non-biological brothers tortured him
relentlessly, Red was known throughout his life as caring and giving.
It's interesting that Red and Robin Williams were both Cancers, July 21st
for Robin and the 18th for Red, mine is the 22nd!) Apparently, a neighbor
kid was teased and slow in developmental talk. Red not only befriended
the outcast, but mirrored one of his characters, Klem Kiddlehopper in his
memory (the families name was Hopper). But, wait, let’s not get ahead of
ourselves. Red and Lucille Ball below.
Red’s father, Joseph Elmer (Eheart) Skelton, died shortly
before Red was born of what is reported to be alcoholism. Josephs’ dad,
Newton, also died 9 months after Joseph was born, leaving both families in
difficult economic situations. The plot gets thick here as the name
Eheart is used for the family after Newton’s death which could mean a step
father situation and census takers just gave the Eheart name to the children or
there was another father. Because of Joseph’s birth and christening
records listing “Newton Skelton”1 I would assume a step father. The
mother is listed as Ella Richardville2.
So, according to the papers of Red’s at the Indiana
Historical Society, Newton Skelton was a prominent lawyer in Gibson County, IN
and Ella Richardville was a young maid in his home. They had an affair,
which produced Joseph as a bastard child, documented on the above-mentioned
birth and christening record. According to oral history, the shame of
this all led to Newton’s untimely death and Ella marrying Joseph Eheart shortly
afterward. Joseph Skelton shows up in the census as a Eheart. Are
you confused yet? Just wait!! Now Ella Richardville apparently ran
a brothel (newspapers of the time revel this to be the case) and Red’s birth is
believed to be shrouded in paternity issues. Red did not believe his
mother to be Ida Mae Fields, but a prostitute
named Lillian who had relations with Ella’s son Joseph (Red’s biological
father) and either died in child birth or committed suicide. Ida May
agreed to raise Red as her own as she had a stillborn child very close to the
same day as Red’s birth. Holy moly!! This is the story Red believed
to be true.
This is where historians and genealogist differ. I
went looking for documents to support or defy Red and the author of this
biography’s stories or oral histories. The author sought out great
reference material in other printed sources and family interviews.
However, neither mention birth, marriage, death or census records to much extent. I’m
not discounting anything the author, Wes Gehring writes as I believe this is a
wonderfully researched biography. I just went a bit further with what
Ella Richardville was born about 1862 in Indiana. Ella
is found in the 1880 census of Allison, Lawrence County, IL, age 18, with her
father John Richardville, no mother, sister Lida (age 23), brothers Leon,
Raymond, and Charles. Charles is the key as Ella states she has a brother
Charles in newspaper references. It appears no one on ancestry.com has
the correct parentage for Ella. My knowledge of the Vincennes area
research (from my own lineage) remembered that many families, including my own,
owned or lived on land right over the bridge from Vincennes in Lawrence County,
IL. Hop, skip, and a jump. So very close, yet on paper in two
This is a mess! But, alas, we now have a
possible story line! I found a marriage intention and marriage record for
Newton Skelton and Catherine Richards, intention 4 Dec 1860, marriage 7 Dec
1860 in Gibson County, IN3. Could this be any more difficult!
Richards and Richardville. So similar! At least Newton and Ella had
to acknowledge the birth and christening (they did christen Joseph).
Now…do the math! Ella was born in 1862, Newton married Catherine Richards
in 1860. Newton was obviously very much older than Ella who gave birth at
The last name Richardville immediately caught my attention,
so I decided to veer off track for a moment. When I’m doing genealogical
research that I’m not paid for, I don’t follow usual protocol that will only
keep me on track with just the facts. I let myself wonder a bit.
This is where I find very intriguing history, especially this
time! Knowing Red was from Vincennes, IN (my 5th great grandfather
was the registrar for the IN territory, aiding in its statehood, helping to
keep slavery from the territory, admirer of Tecumseh (owning one of his peace pipes, etc. [see previous posts]), and knowing the deep French Canadian
connection, I began to dig deeper on the Richardville name. Gold
mine of information and misinformation.
I immediately fell into a possible connection to the Miami
Tribe chief Jean Baptiste de Richardville, who was known as Pinsiwa (my
ancestor spelled it Pishoowah below) in the Miami Tribe. There is much history
about Pinsiwa and his signing of the Treaty of Greenville and others which
ceded parts of southern Indiana to the American government in return for
annuities. There was a rift between the Miami and
Tecumseh on this very issue. Chief Jean Baptiste became a very wealthy man.
In The Correspondence of John Badollet and Albert
Gallatin, we find the following: "...that the indians want
nothing but good treatment to become well disposed to the United States and
that there is some mystery in the indian agency. I myself have observed
one Pishoowah or Richardville half blooded indian who speaks french as well as
I do, is with his uncle Pacawn, a grand chief of the Miamis & besides
very much of a gentleman, I have seen that man, for some hidden reason
affectedly thrown in the background and treated with very little ceremony which
usage he has deeply felt."4
This was a letter from my 5th great grandfather, John
Badollet, to his friend Albert Gallatin, then Secretary to the Treasury under
Thomas Jefferson. SERENDIPITY!
Here we go on another journey learning more about native
history and French Canadian! Have I said how much I love what I do?
Like many of my projects this one was not easy to research, but it sent
chills down my spine and connected me to my spiritual genealogical guide!
There is so much information out there linking Red to various family
lines. It’s going to take more than a little research to really find
answers that seem to be shrouded in mystery.
Jean Baptiste was the son of Antoine joseph Drouet de
Richardville and Tacamwa (who was the sister of Miami tribal chief Little
Turtle). In many tribes, including the Miami, heritage is decided through
the female lineage. Thus, Jean Baptiste became the “chief” of the Miami tribe
(Chief) Jean Baptiste de Richardville's (pictured
above) father was Joseph Druet de Richardville, a French-Canadian trader of
“The other Indiana branch of the Drouet de Richerville
family is associated with the history of greater Fort Wayne. From about 1750 to
1770 Joseph Drouet de Richerville traded at what was then the village of
Kekionga, also known as Miamitown.49 His full name was Antoine-Joseph
Drouet de Richerville, born in 1723, the son of Denis Drouet de Richerville,
killed in the Chickasaw campaign of 1736.
English officials in Canada were suspicious of those
Frenchmen still trading in the West after the Treaty of 1763. Sir Guy Carleton
in 1767 listed "Richarville" trading among the Miamis as one who
needed watching, as he was trading without the proper license.
Joseph's relationship with Tecumwah, a sister of Miami Chief
Little Turtle, led to the birth of a son, Jean-Baptiste, probably in
1762. By the late 1780s Joseph seems to have left Indiana permanently to
settle in Three Rivers, Quebec. Tecumwah continued to rear Jean-Baptiste after
marrying Charles Beaubien, a prominent local French trader.”5
For more detailed history check out the link to the article
Well…after my sojourn into the history of the Miami Tribe in
Indiana, it turns out that Red Skelton’s grandmother Helen “Ella” Richardville
was the daughter of John Richardville (there are many Jean Baptiste or John
B.’s on the Chief Jean Baptiste de Richardville line, making things more
difficult) born in July 1830 (per 1900 census info) in Indiana and I cannot yet
link him to this family…yet. Naming patterns are close, Ella named her
son Joseph. Clue…coincidence? Who knows, yet! It is highly probable
there is a connection and an even more sad story. This timing was when
the Miami tribe that was left living in Indiana had to either simulate into
white society or stay with their love of heritage and be removed to the Indiana
territory where you find many Indiana Richardville on the Indian census rolls
living in this territory (usually Oklahoma).
All the same, this is a fascinating French and French
Canadian lineage, the de Richardville family. Probably where Red got his
name of Richard? Could poor Ella’s story be more understood as a madam of
a brothel, if she was a product of the times and just doing the best she could
as a town harlot at 17? Hopefully, in the future I will have time to
update this research and dig deeper. But….for now….
Did I mention, “I LOVE what I do?” I need a nap!
1Indiana Births and Christenings 1773-1933, Indexing Project
Batch No. C53798-3, GS Film No. 1433363, familysearch.org. 2Ibid.
3Ancestry.com. Indiana, Marriages, 1810-2001 [database
on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: Indiana,
Marriages, 1810-2001. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.
4The Correspondence of John Badollet and Albert Gallatin,
1804-1836, edited by Gayle Thornbrough, Indiana Historical Society
Publication, Indianapolis, 1963, Volume 22, p. 168.
5Quote from The Family of Druet de Richerville:
Merchants, Soldiers, and Chiefs of Indiana by Donald Chaput, Indiana
Magazine of History, Volume 74, Issue No. 2, 1978, pp. 103-116, on-line