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#52Ancestors – Troublemaker: Uncle Jimmy

Uncle Jimmy never got into any serious trouble, nor was he getting into any “necessary trouble,” to quote the late Congressman John Lewis. No, Uncle Jimmy was mischievous, maybe even a little contrary. He made my father (his younger brother) and my mother shake their heads. I think he might best be described as a “character.”

Uncle Jimmy (Charleton Joshua Williams Sr. aka Charles James Williams) was born 13 May 1897 in Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida.[1] He was my grandparents’ second child, after my aunt, Lute Odette Williams (Aunt Lutie). I am really not sure how he got the nickname “Jimmy.” I remember asking once, but no one seemed to know. It has been lost to the ages.

Uncle Jimmy (standing); my father, Herbie, seated in front. L-R standing behind: (Great) Aunt Babe (Iva Williams); Aunt Lutie, the oldest of my father’s sibling; (Great) Aunt Missy (Jessie Williams); Lela Farnell Williams (my grandmother); (Great) Aunt Trim (Charlotte Williams)

Around 1900, the family moved to New York, then to Jersey City, New Jersey.[2] Aunt Lutie said they played with the children in the area regularly, sometimes that meant a good fight. One of the favorite neighborhood activities was baseball, really more stickball. One story that she told was about a time Uncle jimmy had been forbidden to go out and play. However, Uncle Jimmy could not be trusted to be obedient. So, his mother, put a dress on him. She reasoned that he would not be willing to go out dressed as a girl. Uncle Jimmy would not be deterred. At some point his mother realized that he was too quiet. Every parent knows trouble is not far when a child becomes too quiet. After checking everywhere in the house, but not finding him, she looked out the window. Much to her chagrin, there he was, “running bases and sliding into home,” in the dress! Of course, his joy at sliding into home was short-lived. His mother was striding towards him. He took off for home, but it was too late. He was sitting on pillows for the next few days, not sliding into bases.

Behind where the family lived in Jersey City was Morris Canal.[3] As was wont to happen from time to time, children and others fell into the canal. Once again, Uncle Jimmy had been told not to leave the house and not to go near the canal. However, looking out and seeing his friends out playing was just too much temptation. His friends were not just playing ball, they were playing by the canal. Those who could swim were even jumping in. Presumably, it was summertime and hot; kids wanted to cool off. There were two problems with regard to Uncle Jimmy: he’d been told to stay away from the canal and he couldn’t swim. Somehow Uncle Jimmy ended up falling into the canal. Aunt Lutie was screaming for their mother to come. Hearing the commotion, she came running out of the building. “Oh my God! Please, please save my boy!” “Please,” she pleaded, “Save my son!” Fortunately, someone did help him out of the canal. “Thank God,” my grandmother exclaimed with relief – as she reached for a board and chased Uncle Jimmy back home, scolding him all the way for his disobedience. More pillow time followed.

“Morris Canal From Green’s Bridge,” c. 1895, albumen print (William H. Rau)

I’m not sure Uncle Jimmy ever really ceased being that headstrong boy that he was growing up. My grandfather was known to have to visit the principal to discuss Uncle Jimmy’s behavior from time to time. Although Uncle Jimmy had gone to John Keasbey Brick Agricultural and Normal School, in Enfield, North Carolina, he left before graduating to join his father “on the Road,” working as a waiter on various railroad lines from Florida to New York, eventually working exclusively for the New York and New Haven Railroad.[4] One would think after being on his feet all day on the railroad he would want to do something more sedentary on his days off. Not so.

Uncle Jimmy liked to walk. He would walk long distances. We lived in Queens in New York City, but he thought nothing about walking over the bridge into Manhattan, wandering around “the City” as we called it, sightseeing and people watching. Sometimes he would take his dog with him. One summer day, he decided to walk over to the City with his dog, despite the fact that it was a very hot day. Late in the day Uncle Jimmy came by to see my father. Uncle Jimmy was irritated. While he was out walking, he caught the attention of a policeman. He wasn’t doing anything criminal. He was walking. With his dog. That was the problem. The policeman noticed that the dog, not Uncle Jimmy, was panting hard and clearly exhausted. The policeman asked Uncle Jimmy how far he had been walking. He told him he had walked over the bridge from Queens. The policeman was shocked. He asked “Can’t you see your dog is exhausted?” I’m not sure the policeman had any water, but he called a taxi over and told Uncle Jimmy he was to take the dog home and give him water. He threatened to take him and charge him with animal cruelty if he ever saw the dog suffering again. Truthfully, it’s New York, the chances that they would cross paths again were slim to none. Nevertheless, after my father chastised him, Uncle Jimmy finally agreed he would not walk the dog over the bridge again, no matter the weather.

All that aside, it was Uncle Jimmy’s final years that were most troubling and sometimes troublesome. Uncle Jimmy had been an alcoholic for years. I would say he was primarily a “maintenance” drinker. He drank all the time, but was completely functional (not to worry, he didn’t drive a car). I’m sure he drank more on his days off, but he always held things together. Unfortunately, his body was not in agreement. Uncle Jimmy had a cerebral aneurysm, after which he spent time at the State Hospital at Creedmoor. He recovered and returned home. Now retired, he took shorter walks, but otherwise stayed home most of the time. `Then came the first of several 911 calls.

Elmhurst Hospital Center, Queens, New York

Uncle Jimmy’s wife and son had died several years before, so I’m not sure who made the call the first time Uncle Jimmy went to hospital under curious circumstances. Since my father was Uncle Jimmy’s designated next of kin, the hospital called him. The doctor explained that when the ambulance arrived at the hospital (Elmhurst Hospital),[5] he pronounced Uncle Jimmy dead and had his body in a cubicle to wait for attendants to prepare to move him to the morgue. However, the Emergency Room was busy. They did not attend to Uncle Jimmy right away. When an attendant went to see after his body, they found the bed empty. The attendant began asking if anyone had seen what happened to him. Another patient said they had seen him go down the hall. They found him — very much alive. After checking him over and finding nothing remarkable, the doctor released him. My father took him home. Over the next few months these bizarre events repeated themselves. Eventually, my father became quite matter-of-fact about the calls saying Uncle Jimmy had passed. Now my father would say, “just give it a few minutes.” The doctors usually thought my father was being unkind, unfeeling. Then, the doctor in question would call back, saying he hadn’t believed my father initially, but yes, Uncle Jimmy had come around and was alive. I didn’t know it then, nor do I think my parents knew that this phenomenon had a name: Lazarus Syndrome, after the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus.[6] I have no idea if the doctors ever identified the phenomenon or reported it. However, rather than thinking something divine was happening, we were amused by the various doctors who were rattled by Uncle Jimmy’s dying and rising again, and again.

At some point, Uncle Jimmy’s overall health began to decline. He was hospitalized at Creedmoor again. Finally, early one morning in April 1977 (correction, 1978) a call came saying that Uncle Jimmy had died. Typically, my father responded that the doctor simply needed to wait a few more minutes. This time the doctor said no, he was dead. My father was shocked. He got out of bed, dressed, and headed to the hospital to identify Uncle Jimmy’s body. Sadly, there would be no resurrection that morning.

Mount Olivet Cemetery

Uncle Jimmy was buried in the Williams family plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Maspeth, Queens, New York.[7]

Charleton Joshua Williams Sr., “Uncle Jimmy”

[1] 1900; Census Place: Manhattan, New York, New York; William Williams, head; Charleton, son; NARA Roll: 1108; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0616; FHL microfilm: 1241108 Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7602/images/4114671_00408?pId=38268885

[2]  1910; Census Place: Jersey City Ward 6, Hudson, New Jersey; William G. Williams, head; Charleton Williams, son; NARA Roll: T624-890; Page: 15A; Enumeration District: 0127; FHL microfilm: 1374903. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7884/images/31111_4330912-00928?pId=161538181

[3] Morris Canal, Wikipedia. (4 July 2020).  Retrieved from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morris_Canal

[4] New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroads. (1 August 2020). Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York,_New_Haven_and_Hartford_Railroad

[5] This is the same Elmhurst Hospital featured in many news reports about the Corona virus pandemic in New York City, in March 2020. http://wikimapia.org/1171173/Elmhurst-Hospital

[6] Whiteman, H. (26 May 2017). The Lazarus phenomenon: When the ‘dead’ come back to life. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317645

[7] History of Mount Olivet Cemetery. (n.d.). Mount Olivet Cemetery. Again, no one is sure how or why some records, including his death certificate and thus name in the cemetery, were recorded as Charles James Williams. Retrieved from: http://www.mountolivetcemeterynyc.com/

2 thoughts on “#52Ancestors – Troublemaker: Uncle Jimmy

  1. What a character! A great story, Margo. Thanks so much for sharing.

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