Friday, October 18, 2019

James Athya

The 52 Ancestors theme this week is “adventure.”

I don't have a picture of James but this
picture of his parents, Margaret Shaw Athya
and Robert Durie Athya, will give you
and idea of what he looked like.
James Athya, son of Robert Durie Athya and Margaret Shaw, was born in Bellshill, Scotland about 1920. He was the oldest child of three—James Athya, Margaret Shaw Athya, and Robert Durie Athya Jr. James would be my husband’s 1st cousin 1x removed. Their nearest common relatives are James Athya and Jemima Durie, his paternal grandparents and my husband’s maternal great-grandparents.

Following the Scottish naming pattern of the first son being named after his father’s father, James was named for his paternal grandfather, James Athya. Sadly, baby James would never know his grandfather who died in 1913.

James was one year old when his sister Margaret was born in 1921 and four years old when Robert Jr. was born in 1924. When James was just six years old, his mother was stricken with encephalitis lethargica (also known as “sleeping sickness”) and died on August 9, 1926 at Connolly Hospital in Motherwell, a town in Lanarkshire, Scotland. According to Wikipedia, “Between 1915 and 1926, an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica spread around the world. Nearly five million people were affected, a third of whom died in the acute stages. Many of those who survived never returned to their pre-existing ‘aliveness.’” His mother’s burial location is unknown to me, but I would assume she was buried somewhere in Bellshill or perhaps taken to Inverness-shire where she was born. The Dalziel Parish, County of Lanark death registry recorded her age as 37 years. Now James’ father Robert was left to raise three young children alone. Both of his parents were gone so he would get no help there.

Ellis Island in 1905, A. Coeffler [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons;
In 1930, Robert made the decision to travel to America where his brother George Athya and sister Margaret (Maggie) Athya Close were already living. On June 6, the family boarded the S.S. Translyvania in Glasgow, Scotland, and James was off on his first big adventure. They left his aunt Lizzie Athya Anderson behind in Rutherglen. My guess is that aunt Lizzie had been a mother figure to James after the death of his mother. The final destination for the Athya family was West Apollo, Pennsylvania where George Athya lived. The ship manifest contained some of James’ physical characteristics noting that he was of average height, had a fair complexion and hair, and blue eyes. He had no marks of identification on his body. James was in good health, both physically and mentally, which probably helped him on the journey to America. Traveling as third-class passengers would have been anything but an adventure. They arrived in Ellis Island in New York on June 15 as reported in the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York on June 16.

T.S.S. Transylvania.
This file is from flickr. Author is unknown
[CC BY 2.0 (]

Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, June 16, 1930

Their stay in America was to be permanent. Once in New York, they had to travel over 350 miles to Apollo. By 1935, James and his family had moved to Steubenville, Jefferson County, Ohio where James’ aunt Maggie lived with her family. Steubenville is located about 70 miles west of Apollo.

In 1939, James set out on another adventure. While still living in Steubenville, he headed south seeking a good time at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana. He never made it though and his adventure ended up being a 10 day stay in an Alabama jail instead. James and another young man named Jesse Williams were apparently riding the blinds on a west bound Louisville and Nashville (L&N) freight and passenger train in Bay Minette, a city in Mobile County, Alabama. They were caught and arrested as vagrants by deputies Ben Kucera and J. B. Pruitt. J. M. Franklin, the justice of the peace, sentenced them to 10 days in jail. I didn’t know what riding the blinds meant so had to look it up. Debra Devi, author of Language of the Blues: Riding the Blinds, described “riding the blinds” as “the dangerous hobo practice of riding between cars on a moving freight train, so as to be out of sight of the train crew or police. On a passenger train, this spot was the walkway between the cars. ... Hobos also rode in the spaces between the baggage or mail cars near the coal tender.” James would have done better for himself if he had just paid for a ticket to New Orleans. James’ convict record noted that he was charged with the crime of vagrancy for evading railroad fare. His sentence began on February 24, 1939 for a term of 30 days. He was received on March 4 in good condition. His teeth were good and he weighed 117 pounds.

Convict record for James Athya

On April 3, 1940, James was living at the Union Mission in Charleston, Kanawha County, West Virginia. Union Mission, a service organization that ministers to the physical and spiritual needs of the needy that opened in 1911 and is still in operation today. In addition to living at the Mission, James worked as a bailer in the industrial department there for an income of $400 (per year). He was enumerated as Jimmy Athya, born in Ohio, which we know is not true. At 20 years of age, the highest grade he’d completed was his first year in high school.

We don't have proof but the family story is that James died in a car accident in Florida about 1941. Family members heard he went through the roof of the car which makes them think it was a convertible. He was working for a carnival at the time, another adventure I’d love to have more information about. I have yet to find a death record for James and note that the estimated date is based on a letter I received from my husband’s uncle John T. Athya in March 2001. For someone whose life was cut short at the young age of 21, James had more adventures than some people see in a lifetime.


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