Legacy of a Pickpocket
Essay By Todd Matson
It had been a family mystery for 70 years—what happened to Grandpa’s father, Oren Day. All we knew was that Grandpa had lost his father at a young age.
Now Grandpa was the patriarch of our extended family. After meeting Grandma, he settled down and eventually rose to leadership positions within the church—sitting on the church board, teaching the adult Sunday school class, and earning the respect of everyone who knew him.
While Grandpa told us clear and consistent stories about growing up in tough neighborhoods, getting in lots of fights, taking up boxing and becoming good at it, playing cards “for the house” at a local tavern—all before he met Grandma—the stories he told about his father were shrouded in ambiguity and secrecy, from generation to generation.
Grandpa referred to his father as “Pap.” With a spark in his eyes, he boasted about how strong Pap was, how when “Pap spoke, people listened,” how “nobody dared mess with Pap.” I remember Grandpa describing how the townspeople would scramble out of the way when Pap and his two brothers rode into town on horseback—just like they were characters in old westerns on TV.
At the same time, I always felt a little confused. Every time Grandpa told stories about Pap, he would start by channeling a little boy version of himself looking up to his father, gushing with pride about how strong and respected Pap was—as if everyone idealized and adored pap, as if everyone wanted to be just like Pap, and no one more than Grandpa. Then Grandpa’s smile would be eclipsed by misty eyes and a faraway look of sadness and longing. That’s when Grandpa would bring his stories about Pap to an abrupt end. “People were scared of Pap, too,” he’d say. I always wanted to ask why but sensed some unspoken rule against that question. So, I never understood why.
Fast forward 30 years. While I was in the doctoral training program to become a faith-based Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I was given the assignment of studying my family by creating a genogram—a diagram going back three or four generations that describes family rules, roles, values, traditions, patterns of interaction, celebrations, dysfunctions, tragedies, stories, and mythologies. I was instructed to track down the historians within my extended family and interview them, to gather information about what made my family the way it was, the way it had become. I was also advised to pay special attention to gaps in my genogram, that those empty spaces may be where some of the secrets reside. Then I could unearth those secrets for the stories they tell, the lessons they teach.
When I sat down with Grandpa, our first interview was brief. As we reminisced about family memories, I casually segued to that 70-year-old mystery.
“I’m curious, Grandpa, how old were you when your father died?”
“Fifteen,” he said.
“Where were you living at the time?”
His facial expression and tone morphed from jovial to somber, and the conversation between us became stilted. I decided to leave it right there, and we resumed reminiscing about happier times.
Grandpa was born on October 31, 1915—Halloween, the day before All Saints’ Day. That meant Pap must have died in Delphi, Indiana, between October 31, 1930, and October 31, 1931. Since I lived only 30 minutes from Delphi at the time, I went there to search the Delphi Public Library archives for a newspaper story about the death of Oren Day.
And there it was—on the front page of the April 23, 1931, edition of the Delphi Citizen: “Fugitive is Slain.” My eyes widened as I read how Oren Day had been wanted on “warrants charging burglary and carrying concealing weapons,” had already spent time in prison for shooting and nearly killing a deputy postmaster and was “regarded as a very dangerous man.” The story described how Oren had been hiding at his brother William’s house when the police came through the front door, sending Oren running out the back door.
After three police officers ordered Oren to halt, he was shot in the back while running away. Oren’s death certificate, which I also found in Delphi, stated the cause of death as a “revolver wound in back, piercing heart, resisting arrest by officer.”
Here was the answer to that 70-year-old family mystery, but there was more to the story—changing it completely.
As if he instinctively knew that I had learned what happened to Pap, Grandpa told me the rest of the story, the part not reported in the newspaper. He described how Pap had been a bootlegger during Prohibition, how Pap had turned to a life of crime to provide for his family. As a 15-year-old, Grandpa hadn’t understood any of this; all he knew at the time was that Pap was the one person he most looked up to. Grandpa loved Pap, respected and admired him, still needed him. And, he wanted to be just like him.
Pap had not been the only one at William’s house that day. Grandpa told me he had been there, too, along with Pap’s other brother, Charlie. This was the first time I ever heard about Uncle Charlie.
Grandpa described how startled he was when the police entered through the front door of Uncle William’s house as Pap ran out the back. The next thing he heard was gunshot, and all he could do is watch in horror as Pap fell to the ground.
The only thing in his head at that moment, Grandpa told me, was to shoot the man who shot Pap. He wasn’t really thinking at that moment; he was just reacting to the fact that a stranger had gunned down Pap. He ran to get Pap’s gun from his coat that was hanging on the door, but when he reached into the coat pocket, the gun wasn’t there.
Grandpa paused and tears welled up in his eyes. His voice cracked as he began to speak again.
“Uncle Charlie knew me better than I knew myself. He knew I would go for Pap’s gun, and that I would end up either dead or in prison. Pap always kept his gun in his coat pocket. Always. I knew where it was. Uncle Charlie knew that I knew where it was. When I reached my hand in that pocket and there was no gun, I knew immediately: Pap’s pocket had been picked. Uncle Charlie was older, wiser, faster. He got to Pap’s coat before I could and kept that gun away from me.”
Grandpa looked straight into my eyes and explained: “If there hadn’t been a pickpocket in the house that day, I never would have met and married your grandmother, and four children and ten grandchildren would never have been born.”
Turns out that this is not primarily a story about Grandpa or Pap. This is a story about a seemingly anonymous nobody nearly lost in history who kept his wits in a moment of traumatic loss and desperation. This is a story about Uncle Charlie, an ordinary person who acted with wisdom and restraint on behalf of someone other than himself to save the life of someone he loved, to whom four generations owe their lives. This is a story of mercy and grace brought out of moments of tragedy, desperation, and despair.
This is the legacy of a pickpocket.
Todd Matson is a North Carolina Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. His poems, “All Diagnoses and Degrees Aside,” “When the Sheep Cry Wolf,” “Method to the Madness,” and “Pastor-Parish Relations” have been published in The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling. He has written lyrics for songs recorded by number of contemporary Christian music artists, including “Forever,” by the Gaither Vocal Band; “Seasons of My Soul,” by Brent Lamb; and “Heartsound,” by Connie Scott. He also cowrote the lyrics for “When I Found You,” with contemporary Christian music artist, poet and author Gloria Gaither.