Raised in the House of Refuge

The Request*

My maternal grandpa was Thomas Cliff born in 1891 in Kentucky and died in 1959 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His mother was Minnie Coop born in 1874 Allen, Kentucky and died in 1924 in Cincinnati. I found a newspaper article that said Thomas lived at an orphanage called the Cincinnati House of Refuge because his parents divorced. Minnie remarried to a man named Joseph Bech.

Thomas was 35 years older than his wife, my grandma Betty. I know Thomas was a bootlegger, what I can’t figure out is his father. A marriage certificate lists his dad as William Cliff but I don’t know which William Cliff. I’d like information on him.

Cincinnati House of Refuge, image from 1856 Annual Report

Nitty Gritty

Normally, I don’t include last names in my posts because family is personal, but we’re all going to get very confused if I don’t use them in this one. I’ve modified the last names so that they don’t match the family of the requestor. I need the last names because this is a more technical genealogy question. We have a few members of a family and want to use them to positively identify another family member. Here is the information we have from the request.

Thomas Cliff was the son of Minnie and William Cliff. Minnie remarried with the last name Bech.

Because we know Minnie’s remarried name, we can look for records that include both the Cliff and Bech last name. This will help us to know we are looking at the right family. It’s good to keep in mind that even a name that doesn’t seem overly common can be used by multiple unrelated people.

The 1920 U.S. Census gives us what we’re looking for. It shows married couple Joseph and Minnie Bechtel living with Minnie’s children Thomas, Fronie, and Hallie Cliff. We can be confident in this match because to find a combination of the Bech/Cliff names would be unlikely. For our next search, instead of looking for a combination of three people: William, Minnie, and Thomas. We can look for a combination of five by including Thomas’s siblings. If we find an approximate record match where they are not included it let’s us know that we may have something that seems like a match but isn’t.

The 1920 census helps us, but didn’t give us what we really wanted. What we really want is information on William so we search backward. The 1900 census shows a couple by the name of William and Minnie Cliff living in West Stamping Ground, Scott, Kentucky with their six children. Two of the children, Thomas and Euphronia, have birth years matching the Thomas and Fronie found on the 1920 census. Additional children Annie, Lillie, William, and Allie are also listed.

The 1900 census had a few juicy details that give us some insight on the family. William was 48 in 1900 and Minnie was 26. They’d married in 1886. If you math that out, Minnie was married at the age of 12 to a 34 year old man. Her oldest daughter Annie was born in 1888 when Minnie was 14. William was a farm laborer.

Ideally, the next thing to do would be to look up the 1890 census. Trouble there is, most of it caught fire in 1921 along with the rest of the Commerce Department Building. So instead, we go forward. By 1910, Thomas was living in the House of Refuge as the requester suggested. This is according to an article in May of 1915 in the Cincinnati Enquirer. The article summarizes the events of a sentencing hearing that Thomas had after being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a fourteen year old girl. His mother Minnie, who had been sick and in the hospital attended the sentence to ask for leniency for her son.

Investigation in the case developed the fact that Clifton, when 7 years of age, had been sent to the House of Refuge, where he remained until he was 17. The commitment was made at the request of his parents…Mrs. Minnie Cliff, mother of the prisoner, dressed in black and tottering with illness, came into the courtroom. “I never gave my boy a chance she confessed to the judge.

Cincinnati Enquirer 04 May 1915
This photo is from the Cincinnati House of Refuge Annual Report in 1896, very near the time Thomas would have lived there. It shows three boys on their first day

It sounds like no one ever gave Minnie a chance either. I hope for her sake that she realized that. The article also tell us that Minnie was staying at Bethesda Hospital. It’s unclear if William made the trip to Cincinnati, or if he did, who he might be living with.

For me, that’s where the trail ends for William Cliff. He was a farmer who took a child bride and fathered six children. By the time his family split apart he was in his fifties so it’s pretty equally possibly that he lived another thirty years or died around that time. Unfortunately, his name did pop up across the states of Ohio and Kentucky but not in a way that allowed for confirming if it was the right guy. The one other lead I have is that Thomas’s death information lists his place of birth as Owenton, Owen, Kentucky. There are many Cliffs living in Owenton around that time so it’s likely that William is from that area.

I Found Something Else Though

Thomas lived an interesting life. It sounds like our requester had already done quite a bit of research on their own, but you never know what people don’t know. Here is what else I found.

Records show Thomas married in 1920 to a woman named Bessie. The marriage certificate gives Thomas’s address as 1206 Budd Street which is also the address given for the family on the 1920 census. His parents are listed as William Cliff and Minnie. The 1930 census shows Thomas living with Bessie and their four kids on Clark Street in Cincinnati. Jump ahead to the 1940 census and it shows that Bessie was living with four of the couples five children. Thomas did not live in the home and Bessie is listed as a Widow. Based on Newspaper articles this wasn’t the case though.

A newspaper article from February of 1938 titled, “Shot Wounds Woman” tells us that Mrs Bessie Cliff, 39 years old, was taken to the hospital for treatment after being shot by her estranged husband. According to Bessie, the two had been fighting over “family affairs” when Thomas pointed a gun at her. When she hit the gun to shove it away a shot was fired and struck her in the leg. The next month Thomas was sentence to “one to 20 years in the penitentiary”.

A year later a story was run that Thomas was still in prison and based on that Bessie was filing for divorce. From a research perspective this is the article that told me that the couple talked about here matched the couple we’re researching. Bessie’s address is given as 844 Clark Street. This is the same address that is given on the 1940 census which lists Bessie and her children. With only Bessie and Thomas’s names you could doubt if there was a positive match, but with being able to cross reference between two documents and five people I am confident. Bessie filed for divorce in January 1939 asking for alimony and custody of the children.

As the requester mentioned, Thomas had quite a few arrests related to illegal alcohol during prohibition. He died in November of 1959 and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery. His place of death is listed as “D.O.A. General Hospital, Cincinnati, Ohio”.

*Edited for length and clarity

If you have a question about someone from the past, hop over to the contacts page and submit a request. I’d love to hear from you.

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