Rose Etta Allan’s Fight for Her Children

In early 1909, Rose Etta (Stringham) Allan was down on her luck in St. Louis after the breakup of her eight-year marriage to James Wilburt Allan, Jr., a farmer from the Illinois hamlet of Lynnville, near Jacksonville, where she was born on March 26, 1883. The daughter of working-class parents claimed her husband deserted her and their two children in Granite City after selling all their livestock. Unemployed at age 26, she rented a room in a St. Louis lodging house with Etta, age 7, and Lucille, who was not yet 4 years old. To complicate Rose’s predicament, she soon was stricken by an illness and hospitalized as she struggled to find a job and care for her children in the city.

William Alex Abar, a chemist, owner of a commercial extermination business, and “scion of a wealthy family” from Detroit befriended Rose at the lodging house. He was ten or eleven years older than she. For a young single mother with limited resources and options, a wealthy man who waltzed into her life seemed a dream come true. They soon entered into a romantic relationship. Expressing a loving parental concern for Etta and Lucille, he proposed engagement and she accepted “because he seemed to think so much of my fatherless babies” (Quoted in Tacoma Times, April 23, 1913, p. 1).

Abar asked to take Lucille to spend time with his mother in Chicago. Trusting his benevolence, Rose consented, not suspecting he had a wife, Maud, aboard their gasoline yacht moored at the foot of Fillmore Street in the far southeastern reaches of St. Louis. It’s not clear what Abar’s wife knew about his relationship or arrangement with Rose. The Abars, who had no children of their own at the time, used St. Louis as their headquarters, but they cruised widely around the country on the Mississippi, its tributaries, and northern lakes in a well-appointed, five-room yacht. One of the rooms housed a lab where William mixed chemicals for his commercial pest control business. He also owned an automobile used to market and sell his chemical preparations. When in St. Louis, he operated out of the Frisco Building on Olive Street.

As Abar remained evasive about when he would return Lucille, Rose grew suspicious. She discovered that he was married, that he renamed his houseboat, “Lucille,” and that he and Maud were trying to turn Lucille against her “old mamma” and to teach her that her name was Abar. Unbeknown to Rose, the couple drew up phony adoption papers in April 1909. When Rose learned that the Abars had gone downriver with Lucille aboard, she tracked them to the riverfront in Paducah, Kentucky. They refused to hand over Lucille, for whom they professed affection, emphasizing they were in a far superior financial position to raise her.

Photo in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 28, 1912.

Angered, Rose returned from Paducah, determined to get her toddler back. Later, upon hearing that the Abars were back in St. Louis again, she took matters into her own hands. Frightened to search alone among poor shantyboat settlements known to be suspicious of outsiders, Rose enlisted the help of a Black woman on the levee to learn the yacht’s whereabouts. Rose even darkened her own face as they searched together near the Fillmore Street riverfront. “Blacking up. . . was the most trying thing I ever did in my whole life,” she later remembered. “Under my coat of black, I must have been as white as snow, so scared was I.” Rose praised the Black woman who helped her learn the whereabouts of the houseboat: “She talked to the men along the river for me. I was too frightened to speak at all” (Quoted in Detroit Times, April 24, 1913, p. 7).

Once Rose found the yacht, she managed to snatch away Lucille and to take her back to the lodging house at 1827 Olive Street. Behind the scenes, Abar lobbied for custody of both of Rose’s daughters. He convinced Hugh Mitchell Fullerton, the young chief probation officer of the Juvenile Court, that she was an unfit mother. A court order placed Lucille and Etta in the Mission Free School of St. Louis briefly, pending arrangements to place them in temporary custody of their grandparents, James W. and Christine O. Allan, in Jacksonville. Rose didn’t object to the temporary arrangement with her former husband’s parents, but behind her back on November 29, 1911, the court, upon Fullerton’s recommendation, removed Etta and Lucille from their grandparents’ home and placed them with the Abars.

Probation officer Hugh M. Fullerton as a student at Washington University. Photo in U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999.

By the time Rose found out about the new custody arrangement in June 1912, she was employed as a manicurist. In addition, she earned money as “a writer of sentimental verse” for songs. Some of the sheet lyrics had been published but without music. Kept away from her children for more than a year, she now searched desperately in Carondolet schools near where the Abars moored their yacht at the foot of Krauss Street. In August, Rose filed a habeas corpus custody suit in circuit court. Maud Abar promised to “fight to our last dollar to keep the children with us. We feel that we can care for them much better than their mother” (Quoted in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 28, 1912, p. 11).

The lengthy separation from Rose and the seductive lure of a luxurious, exciting lifestyle on the waterways with the Abars already had left a mark on the children. When Rose spotted Etta and Lucille for the first time in more than a year, she rushed across the courtroom with a mother’s joy and bent to kiss them, but the Abars stepped between them to block her. A court deputy admonished the girls when they drew back their fists at their mother as she approached. The judge ruled that the circuit court had no jurisdiction in the matter, referring the case back to juvenile court.

In January 1913, Rose followed with a custody suit in Juvenile Court, accusing Fullerton of conspiring with the Abars to turn the children against her. Fullerton, she charged, made false allegations to defame her reputation. She had worked as a manicurist in a number of hotels, but now she was proprietor of a boarding house at 2728 Washington Ave. In a reversal of its earlier decision, the court ruled that Rose was now in a better financial position to raise her children. The court granted custody to her on March 8, but the Abars failed to appear in court with the children. They already had fled St. Louis with eleven-year-old Etta and seven-year-old Lucille aboard the yacht. Rose lacked funds to pursue them, but her attorney, August Walz, Jr., was determined not to let the Abars steal her children. He hired agents from the Burns Detective Agency to track them down across more than a half-dozen states and into Canada. The Black woman who earlier helped Rose locate the Abars on the St. Louis riverfront provided an important piece of information that they spent summers on northern lakes.

The Abars fled on water but at some point, they shipped their yacht to Chatham, Ontario, via freight train. They repainted the boat and removed the name of “Lucille” to evade detection. Walz, Rose, and a Burns detective pursued them across the border into southwest Ontario before returning to Detroit, where Abar’s father was a large hotel proprietor. After plying a friend of Abar’s with several drinks, Walz learned that Etta and Lucille were aboard the yacht on Lake St. Clair’s Strawberry Island, near Algonac, Michigan.

In Port Huron, Walz showed authorities copies of the St. Louis juvenile court’s custody order. Then, he sent a detective posing as a game warden to pinpoint the exact whereabouts of the Abars on the island. The Burns agent, a local sheriff and deputies, Walz, and Rose boarded a large speedboat for Strawberry Island. Abar was away hunting when they pulled alongside his yacht. As officers quickly grabbed Etta and Lucille, Maud Abar tried to yank a whistle cord on the yacht to alert her husband, but the sheriff cut the cord as the children screamed. Both daughters begged to stay with the Abars, but when Rose placed around Lucille’s neck a locket keepsake she took from her two years ago, Lucille threw her arms around her mother in recognition. The evidence, though sketchy, suggests that Etta remained aloof and perhaps resentful for a brief period of time. Enraged by the seizure of the children, William Abar later waved the phony adoption papers in the face of a Michigan circuit judge, who dismissed them as worthless because they lacked the signature of a court officer or the children’s biological mother or father.

Reunited at last with her children, Rose reflected on the four-year ordeal with William Abar: “He and his wife said they loved the children as if they were their own, but I wanted them, they were mine, all I have in this world.” Besides, she continued, “He was married all the time he was going with me, and I never suspected it. I also found out that while he had the children, he had taken out legal adoption papers and made my babies belong to him and his wife.” She noted that every time her lawyers prepared papers, the Abars floated away, outside the court’s jurisdiction. “Talking about finding a needle in a haystack being hard work,” she sighed, “that is an easy job compared to keeping on the track of a houseboat when there are miles and miles of rivers and creeks and big lakes to hide in.” (Quoted in Detroit Times, April 24, 1913, p. 7 and Paducah Sun Democrat, April 22, 1913, p. 7)

Rose Allan and her daughters reunited, Photo in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 12, 1913.

Rose Etta Allan’s determined struggle for custody of her children makes clear the vulnerable position of a single, working-class mother trying to make a living and to rebuild her life after divorce in the early 1900s. The argument made by the Abars to justify why they should raise her children was based on nothing more than a sense of entitlement based on wealth. It was pure and simple. They were wealthy; she wasn’t. Newspaper accounts offered conflicting, confusing versions of the relationship between William Abar and Rose. Earlier accounts did not mention that they were romantically involved, emphasizing instead that the Abars offered to care for her children at a time when she could not. Rose possibly concealed that piece of information in the beginning for fear it would be used against a young woman like her in the courts. William, too, had his own reasons to hide their intimate relationship. But, come time for a sworn legal statement when Rose filed her custody suit in January 1913, she revealed their earlier romantic relationship. Her attorney welcomed full scrutiny of her sworn statement. There’s no evidence that the Abars did not have a genuine affection for Etta and Lucille, but just imagine if a poor shantyboat couple under similar circumstances defied a court order and fled on the waterways with phony adoption papers and the stolen children of a rich couple aboard!

Soon after regaining custody, Rose filed a suit to remove Fullerton from his appointed position as Chief Probation Officer. He denied any impropriety, including allegations that he accepted bribes from Abar and gifts of personal items from Etta. He insisted that his recommendations and actions in the case were based on what he felt was in the best interests of the children. The circuit judges who heard the case refused to remove Fullerton from the position he had held for three years. Rose remained in St. Louis for the rest of her life. For twenty years or more, she owned and operated a restaurant at North Broadway and Salisbury streets on the north riverfront near the McKinley Bridge. On October 10, 1954, she died of cancer in the home of her daughter, Lucille Kean, in East St. Louis, and was buried near her parents, Franklin and Martha Stringham, in Jacksonville East Cemetery in Jacksonville, Illinois.

(Selected sources helpful in piecing together and analyzing the details of the case: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 31, 1911, p. 11, August 6, 1911, p. 13, August 28, 1912, p. 11, January 23, 1913, p. 13, April 12, 1913, p. 5, October 25, 1913, p. 3, October 11, 1954, p. 25; St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 12, 1913, p. 1, April 13, 1913, p. 15, June 3, 1913, p. 4; St. Louis Star and Times, August 28, 1912, p. 2, August 30, 1912, p. 5 ; Quincy Daily Journal, August 7, 1911, p. 7; Detroit Free Press, April 13, 1913, p. 13; Detroit Times, April 24, 1913, p. 7; Tacoma Times, April 23, 1913, p. 1; Paducah Sun-Democrat, April 22, 1913, p. 7; Jacksonville (Illinois) Daily Journal, January 22, 1903, p. 4; United States Federal Censuses, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950; U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s to Current).

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