International Man of Mystery-Pt. 1

I have made yet another discovery about an ancestor of mine. This time I found a photograph and possible evidence of the commission of a felony, but first a little background is in order…

When I was a kid the only tangible ancestral artifacts that we had around the house was a very old flintlock pistol and a set of walking sticks. These were items that had once belonged to my great-grandfather James Monroe Dobbs, Sr. These items came into my mother’s possession shortly after her father died and when I was six months old. In fact, one of the last conversations I had with my mother before she passed was about one of the canes – a black opera cane with the gold handle upon which is engraved to “JM Dobbs from his father.” I told her that I was writing a blog about the cane and I was beginning to think that cane was much older than previously thought. I had always assumed that cane was given to my grandfather JM Dobbs, Jr. by his father JM Dobbs, Sr, but my mother corrected me telling me that opera canes were popular in the 1870s, not the 1920s; and that the cane was given to JM Dobbs, Sr. by his father, my great, great-grandfather David Judson Dobbs.

Having access the pistol and the canes allowed my siblings and I to touch something that was very old. These were antiques but to me the pistol and the walking sticks were props that used to role-play imaginary situations my ancestor might have endured. For a long time, I was obsessed with wondering what he looked like. I knew that I had other ancestors, but this was one that I actually had some evidence of. I had something that I could hold in my hand that he at one time held in his hand. I wondered if he had used the flintlock pistol in a in a duel. I recall that when I was in elementary school, uncertain as to the fashion of the times he lived in, I imagined him fighting a duel wearing knee britches. In my book, Gathering Leaves, I referred to my great-grandfather as an International Man of Mystery and this latest discovery only adds to the fascination.

What I found at was a four-page passport application submitted by my great-grandfather in August 1918. The application consists of an application form including a photograph of the applicant, a letter from the War Department, a letter from his employer, and a sworn affidavit by a friend. The stated purpose of the passport was so that James could travel to Great Britain, France and Italy on behalf of the YMCA. First, I will describe each of the four documents and that I will point out some of the issues with the information provided in the documents.

Page 1 (front)

The first page is the application form and it states that it was completed in the County of Fulton in the state of Georgia and it states: “I, James M Dobbs, a native and loyal citizen of the United States hereby apply to the Department of State at Washington for a passport. I solemnly swear that I was born at Marietta in the state of Georgia on or about the fourth day of July 1865, that my father David J Dobbs was born in Marietta Georgia and is now deceased.

It further goes on to say: I have resided outside the United States of the following places for the following periods and in the only two spaces allotted it says Spain and Italy from 1886 to 1889 and then Chile and Brazil from 1893 to 1899. It says that “I am domiciled in the United States. My permanent resident being at College Park in the state of Georgia where I follow the occupation of farmer and teacher.

There are spaces to describe when and where his last passport was obtained but none of that is filled in. It then lists France, Italy, and Great Britain as destinations. There also fields for listing port of departure, name of vessel, and dates of departure; however, none of that is filled in. There is then an oath of allegiance that he has signed with the date 9 August 1918. It is notarized by a clerk of the Superior Court at Atlanta Georgia.

Page 1 (back)

The backside of the application has a section for description of applicant and it lists the following vitals: age 53 years; stature 5 feet 7 ½ inches; forehead: round; eyes: blue; nose: large; mouth: medium; chin: pointed; hair: light; complexion: fair; face: full; and distinguishing marks: “smallpox marks”

A second section on the back page is titled Identification and it is dated August 9, 1918 and it states “I, J. M. Myers solemnly swear that I am a native citizen of the United States and that I reside in Atlanta Georgia; that I have known the above named James M Dobb personally for 53 years and know him to be a native citizen of the United States and that the facts stated in his affidavit are true to the best of my knowledge and belief” It is signed JM Myers whose occupation is listed as with the Superior Court at Atlanta Georgia. This statement is notarized by clerk of the Superior Court at Atlanta Georgia.

Finally attached to the back of the application is a photograph of the applicant.

J. M. Dobbs, 1918
Page 2

The second document with the application is a letter from the Military Intelligence division of the War Department, office of the Chief of Staff at Washington. It is dated September 19, 1918 and it tersely states “The war department has no objection to Dobbs, James M of College Park, Georgia being sent for duty with the AEF [American Expeditionary Forces] in connection with the YMCA“. The document is signed by a captain in the U.S. Army on behalf of Brig. Gen. Churchill, General Staff director of Military Intelligence.

Page 3

The third document is a letter from the National War Work Council of the Young men’s Christian Associations of the United States (YMCA) headquarters 347 Madison Ave. corner of 45th St., New York. The letter reads:

Sirs: this is to certify that James M Dobbs has been appointed a secretary of the National War Work Council of the YMCA of the United States for service with troops of the American Expeditionary Force in France. We hereby endorse his application for a passport to visit France and Great Britain and Italy. Mr. Dobbs is under contract with us for one year.” It is signed Mervyn G Filler and it is addressed to the Bureau of Citizenship, Department of State Washington DC.

During WWI, the YMCA provided the same services that we have come today to associate with the USO. In fact, the USO was formed in 1941 by combining the services provided by six civilian organizations; one of which was the YMCA. The YMCA had been in Europe long before Pershing and the AEF landed in 1917. They provided services to Federal troops during the American Civil War and had been active with British troops in India since the 1870s. One of the responsibilities of the YMCA in Europe during World War I was providing fresh food procured locally to the Allied troops and even civilians. That partly involved negotiating with neutral Switzerland for buying all available supplies of chocolate.

According to the Wikipedia article on the YMCA:

During World War I, YMCA raised and spent over $155 million on welfare efforts for American soldiers. It deployed over 25,000 staff in military units and bases from Siberia to Egypt to France. They took over the military’s morale and comfort operations worldwide. 

Page 3

The fourth document is a notarized affidavit in regard to Applicant Army YMCA service and it is signed by JM Myers.

The affidavit states: “Affiant JM Myers makes oath and says that his relationship to the applicant James M Dobbs is that of a lifelong friend and that the said James M Dobbs was born July 4, 1865 as my memory serves me at Marietta Georgia in the state of Georgia” It was subscribed and sworn to before the notary on the ninth day of August 1918.

There is however one teensie-weensie little problem with the passport application… My great-grandfather lied about his age. In 1918, he was 59 years old, not 53. He was born July 4, 1859, not 1865. There was a maximum age set for volunteers traveling to Europe during WWI. The cutoff was 55 years of age. In 1919, James would celebrate his 60th birthday. It is important to note that prior to the 20th century, most US states did not register births or issue birth certificates. State-wide registration of births in Georgia did not come about until 1919.

The other thing I noted and this is not really an issue but the dates given for his prior travels outside of the country are interesting not because anything is incorrect but because he did travel outside of the country more times than what is listed. Forty years earlier James ran away from home and joined the merchant marines at age 16. Around 1880, he gave up on the life of a sailor lad and went to work for the railway service in Panama. I was not previously aware of the trip to Spain and Italy listed on the application as having taken place between 1886 and 1889. However, years ago, I did find a record of his returning to the US through NYC in 1889.

Regarding Brazil, I had previously known of him being stationed in Brazil but did not know when. I know that he and his wife Emma and their child that was born in Chile returned home to the States in 1897. Both Emma and the child died in July 1898. Therefore, it appears that his trip to Brazil lasted only one year and that by 1900 he was in New York City. That is where he married my great-grandmother. Other than being in Mexico between 1910 and 1916 I am not aware of any other travels. His obituary from 1922 states that he retired in 1916. I think it is commendable that at his age, he came out of retirement to volunteer his services during a world war and a worldwide influenza pandemic.

As for the flintlock pistol and the walking sticks, over time the pistol disintegrated to the point where there was nothing left but the barrel. When I asked my mother what ever became of the barrel, she informed me that she threw it out. I do not want to repeat what I said in that conversation but let us just say I was not happy that she did not offer that item to me because being the packrat that I am, I would have gladly taken it.

I am happy to report that the walking sticks (minus one) are being well cared for. I am certain that each one of them had a story, each of which is now lost to time, and each one awaits a child’s imagination to fill in the details.

J.M. Dobbs’ collection of walking sticks.

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