The Mysterious Story of Uncle Henry
I’m not sure the labor of others should be called a “tool,” but this is how I’ve set up the posts, and now I guess I’m stuck with suggesting that it is. But it’s impossible to overstate the value of the work family members have already done in preserving family history. I have this article due to the hard work of my cousin Ronald Polan, who put together an invaluable family history for a reunion in 1997. All of the genealogical data I have is the result of countless hours of diligent searching by my cousin Joanie Ward Smith. Many family members have sat, or have agreed to sit, for hours of interviews to help me piece together the fragments of what we know, and what collectively we wish we knew. I am deeply indebted to everyone who has done this work, and who has preserved what would otherwise have been lost.
Optician’s Address on Eye Glass Case Helps Find ‘Lost’ Brother Find Kin
By Wiatt Smith for the Huntington Herald Dispatch in November, 1921
When he went away he swore he would never write home until he had made his fortune.
He was seventeen, then, and he left home because one of his brothers had angered him.
His mother and father and their other sons waited for a time thinking he would write or return. But months passed and there was no word. His family searched for him far and wide. They heard of him in on the Carolinas and again in the west, but never heard from him. They learned of his enlistment in the Spanish-American war, and sought to trace him through the the war department but failed. There-after they mourned him for dead.
Twenty-seven years after his going away, a younger brother, Dr. Lake Polan, of this city, received a letter from Henry Polan, written from Edmonton, Alberta. Mr. Polan had come as far north as Edmonton from his home in the Yukon country, far beyond the last railway terminal.
The letter bore Dr. Polan’s business address, just as it appears on the eye glass cases which he supplies his patrons. It is believed that one of those cases had found its way into the northwest.
As the result there is in prospect a family re-union which is likely to draw the attention of a continent.
Frank Polan, 600 West 115 street, New York City, stopped in the city Friday for a visit to his brother, Dr. Polan. The prospect of a re-union with their long absent brother was one of the chief themes. The wandered is back on the Yukon again, but is due in Edmonton now. It is quite possible that he will spend Christmas with his other, Mrs. S.B. Polan, 214 Oney avenue, Charleston, W. Va. If so, there will be present also I.A. Plan and Harry Polan of Charleston, Frank Polan of New York, and Dr. Lake Polan of Huntington, and Jesse Polan of Balthemes [sic]. The wanderer is back on act caused Henry to leave home. The father of the family is long since dead.
“I can’t describe the feeling that came over me when I found that letter in my mail one morning,” said Dr. Polan, speaking to a Herald-Dispatch man of the prospective return of his brother.
“At first I didn’t believe it was possible,” he continued. “I thought, as did my brothers, that the letter was from an imposter, trading on my brother’s strange story to get money from the rest of us. But we were able by an exchange of letters to make certain that it was really Henry who had written. And now we are looking forward to seeing him again.”
The Polans are a stick-together family. The brothers, with one exception, have always kept in close touch with each other. They were very closely united as boys and the rift in the circle left by the going away of Henry was the occasion of great regret to them and to their mother, who through the years has wept for her missing son. Now, at eighty-one, she is said to be planning to give him a scolding for running away.
Fortune in Old [sic] Field
Henry Polan’s letters have not said whether or not he had fulfilled his vow, but the brothers have learned from other sources that he has amassed a great fortune in the new oil fields of the far northwest. But regardless of the state of his fortune he will be welcome home.
“We would have been willing to send him money after we found it was indeed our brother,” said Mr. Polan of New York. “I would have sent it or my brothers, any of them.”
“Next to wanting to see him again and have our mother see him, I am anxious to get his point of view, and find what strange thing it was which made it possible for him to go away and stay so long without ever writing to mother.”
The lost brother told in his letter of his marriage and members of the family in the United States have exchanged letters with his wife.
The Polan home at the time of Henry’s disappearance was in Baltimore. Afterwards the family moved to Anderson, W. Va.
I love this article, though I’m not sure it’s entirely truthful. (I’ve been told there is a picture of Henry with at least one of his brothers that would have been taken during the time he was supposedly missing. Hopefully, more research will turn up an answer to that question.) But aside from the question of its truthfulness, I’m interested in several other questions it raises:
The article mentions how close the brothers were, but there is no mention at all of the three sisters: Rose, Bessie, and Lilly. Why?
What was the sentence “The wanderer is back on act caused Henry to leave home” supposed to have meant? Clearly the issue is with a misprinting, but I can’t figure out what the intended phrasing was. Do you have guesses? If so, please share them with me below!
The article mentions a Christmas reunion, but I’m certain that Sheva Baila didn’t celebrate Christmas. Was this a deliberate move on the part of the Polan brothers to obscure their Jewishness, or was it just that the reunion was expected around that time of year and the reporter invoked Christmas to make it a more sentimental story?
I love the hyperbole of the phrase “likely to draw the attention of a continent.” Is that the reporter’s assessment, or one of the Polan’s? (Being a Polan myself, I’m guessing the latter. We aren’t averse to hyperbole, especially if it makes a good story even better. Which, of course, presents a challenge as I try to write a book that captures the truth of things.)
So, what was Henry’s story? We don’t seem to know much about him, except from this article and his death “under suspicious circumstances” in Texas in 1930. (I think I’ve been told the rumor is that he was murdered over a gambling debt, but not only might the rumor not be true, I also might be misremembering what I’ve been told. This is the real work of this project; sifting through not only my own faulty memories, but the faulty memories of everyone trying to recall a past that, until Ronald began his work, nobody seems to have been much interested in preserving.)
I’m lucky, in coming to this work, to come from a family of colorful people. I imagine if I were an investigative reporter instead of an essayist, I could get a whole “true crime” podcast series trying to trace Henry’s life. But, alas, I’m not a particularly good gumshoe and the story itself is really tangential to the main work of the book, which is to look at family history as a way to ask “what does it mean to be an Appalachian Jew?” Still, it’s both fun and fascinating to dig into these histories. I hope you’re enjoying it half as much as I am. Please subscribe to follow along!