Finding William Hamilton: A Transatlantic Detective Story

  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 2315
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Michael Atkins relays the story of William Hamilton, an Irishman who came to Seattle in 1909. One of Hamilton's grand nieces in Ireland posted a query on a usenet group on the internet. Intrigued, Atkins began his investigation, and unearthed troves of material, and answers to generations-old questions.

Finding William Hamilton

On January 1, 1999, I was surfing through the (seattle.general) usenet group on the internet when I saw the following question:

“I am trying to locate premises built by my great uncle in 1906, which I have reason to believe are in Seattle. Can anyone help me by confirming the street name or location of any of these properties?

Dixie Dye Works

Schanno’s Ice Cream Factory

Westland Apartments

Skinner & Co gas fitting.

Thanks a million
Ray in Ireland”

Since I have an interest in local history, this message piqued my curiosity. I responded to the message. I said I would give a cursory look through my picture books of old Seattle and ask around as well. Rachel (Ray) King responded with her appreciation and gave me a little bit more background.

She said that her great uncle, William Hamilton, had traveled from Ireland to America and had built a store and building that was depicted in an old photograph that she had hanging in “pride of place” in her dining room. This photo and two others were all she had to go on, plus some sketchy notes in the family Bible and word-of-mouth stories handed down through the last two generations.

Rachel and her husband, Maurice, bought themselves a new computer in November of 1998 and Ray decided to pursue looking for her long lost great uncle, something she had discussed doing for three years. She started doing her genealogical research by posting her query in the (seattle.general) news group.

Several people responded with similar ideas of getting someone on this side of the “big pond” to do a little bit of library research for her. I decided to take that responsibility on myself because it seemed like it might be interesting and fun. We began corresponding via e-mail over the Internet.

I asked Ray if she would scan in her photograph and send it to me electronically so that I could use it in my research over here. Maurice had just ordered a scanner and it had not yet arrived. She promised she would do this as soon as the scanner arrived.

In the meantime, she told me a bit about the photograph and her great uncle. “The photograph is a picture of a row of shops I mentioned before. The interesting thing for me is that at the top of the building built into the roof is a sign (underneath the American flag pole ) saying 'Hamilton 1906.' My great uncle was called William Hamilton. My relatives say that he built these shops and opened his own grocery shop in Seattle (we think). The sad thing is that he was tragically killed by a gang of robbers who came into his shop and hit him over the head with the weights from the weighing machine. He died on 29 August 1913, as recorded in our family Bible.”

With this bit of information, I went to the Seattle Library and began looking in the directories. I found the shelf with the old directories on them and began with the year 1909. I figured this would be close enough for a start. I I looked for the name "William Hamilton" and found at least a half dozen of them listed. I did not know what his middle initial or name was. So I decided to look for Dixie Dye Works, Schanno’s Ice Cream, and the other businesses listed in Ray’s original post.

I was only able to find Dixie Dye Works. It was listed in both the 1909 and 1910 directories with the address of “100 Western Av N.”

In the 1911 directory and on, Dixie Dye Works moved to a different location. After finding this listing, I assumed that 100 Western Avenue must have been the location of Hamilton’s building.

It wasn’t long before Ray e-mailed the image of her great uncle’s building via the internet. I could see a hill going up behind the building which I assumed was Queen Anne Hill. Diana (my wife) and I took a trip to the address of 100 Western Avenue and I took several “now” photographs.

I scanned a couple of these “now” pictures and e-mailed them to Ray along with the information I found in the old directories. I took a guess at a Wm. Hamilton listing and Ray informed me that her great uncle did not have a middle name or initial.

Ray & Maurice’s scanner finally arrived near the end of January and they began e-mailing the photo’s of William Hamilton and his building. Plus a very nice picture of the King Family.

Ray kept very busy doing research on her uncle from her end, checking with family memories and whatever records were available. She learned that he was born on April 10, 1863, and was therefore about 20+ years older than she realized. I began calling a few cemeteries in Seattle that I knew were old enough to have been here in the early 1900s. I was not able to find a Wm. Hamilton with no middle initial that died on or about August 29, 1913.

The historian at Lake View Cemetery informed me that if someone died and there was no one here to take care of the arrangements, Bonney-Watson funeral services would have the remains cremated. They would then be distributed to several different cemeteries in the area to put in their general vault. Lake View had a Wm. A. Hamilton in their general vault but we were certain that it couldn’t have been him. In the early 1909-1917 directories there was a Wm. A. Hamilton listed as a teacher at Queen Anne High School. It may be that he is the one left to lie in the general vault at Lake View Cemetery.

Ray sent another photograph of her great uncle that was taken while he was working his way across America after arriving here. The exact place and date of the photo is unknown. She wrote in an e-mail:

“When my father was living, he always took great pride in explaining how William Hamilton crossed America. He apparently worked for a mail wagon and that's how he crossed the continent. The photo is very, very faded, and looks like it is in the middle of a desert.”

On February 19, Ray sent an e-mail informing me of a mistake regarding Wm. Hamilton’s date of death. The record in the family Bible for 29 August 1913 was for the birth of yet another William Hamilton in the family. Therefore, the date of death for the Wm. Hamilton whom we are researching was yet unknown.

At first this bit of information seemed a bit defeating but actually ended up helping us out. Since we were getting nowhere with the information we had, this allowed us to expand the dates of our research. I began calling a couple of the old cemeteries again, this time without an exact date or year of death.

On March 23, 1999, I got a call back from Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill that they had a William Hamilton, (no middle initial) buried on March 16th, 1917; Located at: North 4 feet, NW ¼, Lot 7A, Section 3.

Loretta of Mt. Pleasant Cemetery told me that “the estate” of Wm. Hamilton paid for his burial. Again, there was no middle initial for his name. After my first call, Loretta went out and looked at the stone for Wm. Hamilton. She took my address and promised to send me a map of the cemetery with his location marked. He is not far from the entrance and office. His stone said that he was “aged 55 years.” So I felt that this might very well be the William Hamilton we have been searching for. At last he had been found!

I informed Ray King via e-mail and the next day I contacted Olympia to have them adjust the search dates for the death certificate so as to cover 1917.

Since I now had a date (March 11, 1917, on the stone) I decided to head back to the Seattle Library and do some more research. I looked in The Seattle Times first for anything on the robbery. It didn’t take long as it was on the front page of March 12, 1917. I knew for certain now, that we had the right William Hamilton.

I made a trip out to Mt. Pleasant Cemetery and found the grave of William Hamilton. I took a few pictures so that I could scan them in and send them to Ray King in Ireland. Loretta asked me if I wanted to take an etching as well. She gave me some paper and an etching crayon and showed me how to do it.

I took the etching and several photos of the stone and Mt. Pleasant Cemetery for the benefit of William Hamilton’s family in Ireland since none of them have ever been here to visit the gravesite. I e-mailed the images to Ray and her family in Ireland and they were able to see for the first time, the grave of their lost uncle.

On March 27, 1999, the death certificate for William Hamilton arrived from Olympia. They had sent it here to my address so I scanned in the important center part of it and e-mailed that to "Ray & Family as well." They replied:

"Thank-you Mike for sending the death certificate over the net. It certainly confirms everything. Yes, we are more or less complete now. We have come a long way in such a short period of time. The whole family is very much indebted to you for helping us solve a piece of our family history.

"I managed to give a copy of his death certificate to my cousin Jackie Hamilton at church this morning -- he was in shock for a moment or two, and then like ourselves amazed at the information. We will be talking about this for weeks and weeks to come.

"As I said before, Jackie's wife Olive has relations in Vancouver, so he has already said that Seattle is not very far from there, so no doubt the next visit out there will have a scheduled stop in Seattle. It will be a while before we will get out there, but I hope that sometime I will be able to make it out there and have a look at everything."

With the death certificate in hand plus the newspaper article, we learned that the directory had been wrong about the address. It was not 100 Western Ave. N. but instead, 100 Westlake Ave. N. After taking “now” photos of 100 Westlake Avenue N, I sent everything to Ray in a mailing tube.

Ray also sent a poem that William Hamilton wrote before leaving Ireland. She found it in the family Bible along with a picture of him. It seems an incredible story. He must have left Ireland when he was in his early twenties. He applied for citizenship in the U.S. in November, 1888. He was born in 1863 so he was 25 when he applied. The news article about his murder said that he “completed his final papers April 29, 1914.” So he was a citizen of the U.S. when he was murdered on March 12, 1917.

One interesting note is that it appeared Hamilton was considering moving back to Ireland and taking up farming. Since he was still a single man in his fifties, he might have been desiring to be with his family again. In one of her e-mail messages, Ray King wrote about some clues her Aunt Sally gave her:

“She also relayed the story about how her father had bought a farm for William, and then subsequently sold it again. He bought some land close to here, which in fact, is just down the road, and is now farmed by my uncle.”

This makes it doubly sad about his death and also makes it a bit more clear how the family lost all contact. Hamilton’s brother John became so depressed from the sad news that he burned all correspondence and hence all knowledge about him became very sketchy.

Thanks to the Internet, we were able to communicate across the vast miles between us very quickly and with clues passed back and forth, William Hamilton has at last been found.

Ray King found a photo of her Great Uncle in a Bible along with a poem she believes he wrote before departing Ireland for America. I’ve put the two together here. In view of all that he was capable of doing and actually accomplished, William Hamilton obviously was a very talented, sensitive, ambitious, and adventuresome man. It has been a gratifying honor to play a part in finding him.

In July of 1999, Ray’s cousin, Jackie Hamilton and his wife Olive came to Seattle to see their long lost great uncle’s grave site and where his store had once been. They also wanted to meet my wife Diana and I and pass along their gratitude for the help we provided in finding William Hamilton.

It was just a coincidence that they made reservations and stayed in Seattle Downtown Travelodge, 2213 8th Avenue, Seattle which is only a couple blocks from where William Hamilton’s store at 100 Westlake used to be located. My wife and I arrived at the hotel and introduced ourselves. We had very little trouble understanding each other despite our accents. Jackie and Olive are delightful people. Jackie is a dairy farmer in Armagh.

We took a quick trip to the former site of the store at 100 Westlake and took a few photos. Jackie was a bit nervous standing on the grounds where his uncle had been murdered a little over 82 years before. Once the young salesman in the car lot snapped the picture, we moved to “safer ground” across the street to shoot a couple more.

We then went up to Mt. Pleasant cemetery and visited the grave of William Hamilton. This was the first time any of his descendants visited his grave. Jackie shot a few photographs as well as video footage. We met Loretta in the office and she helped us make another etching for the family.

It was enchanting to meet some of William Hamilton’s family and my wife and I look forward to meeting more of them. It’s a big world still but the Internet has made it much more connected and friendly.


Submitted by Mike Atkins, September 1999

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