I remember my grandparent’s house well. It is one of those memories that conjures up both sight and smells. I can see it as if I had visited just yesterday instead of the 30 plus years it has been. It was a long, narrow, white clapboard building, wedged between two others, situated just outside of what once was a bustling downtown. When my dad was growing up, it was on the wrong side of town.
There was a big front porch that spanned the entire front and sagged this way and that. The front door was planted in the middle and a window flagged each side. We never went in the front door, we were family and that meant you used the back door that opened into a warm kitchen full of grandma’s cooking smells. Getting to the door could be an experience to be remembered. Reaching out I could touch grandma’s house on one side and the neighboring building on the other, which was good because in the winter time, the drainage from the roof would create a dangerous ice slick from the front to the back of the house.
Once safely inside the back door, you walked directly into the kitchen. The stove was to your left and a pantry area with the fridge and mobile electric ringer washer was to your right. A small kitchen table was directly in front and the houses only bathroom door just the other side of it. The floor and walls seemed to pitch and roll throughout the house and dad and the uncles had been known to crawl under the foundation and prop it back up on more than one occasion.
The dining room was the next stop on your way back through the house to the front, the stairway to the bedrooms was back against the wall we used to keep from sliding when making our way down the walk outside. Under normal circumstances, the room was full of furniture, a table and 6 chairs sat in the middle, a desk for paying bills to the right of the door and a large buffet across the wall adjoining. As if that wasn’t enough, a china cabinet sat wedged in against the far wall that you had to squeeze past to get into the closet under the stairs. At holidays the dining room was impassible, the aunts and uncles all sitting at the table, the noise at a level I haven’t heard in years. For a young person to get from the kitchen to the living room on the far side meant, squishing, squeezing and dodging past chairs and legs of relatives in the way.
The living room was small, a couch and a couple of chairs, one of them grandpa’s rocker that he use to sit and smoke his pipe in, along with the TV. Somehow they found space to stuff a Christmas tree in the corner for the holidays and there was always a table full of Easter or Mother’s day flowers positioned in front of the window during those holidays. Upstairs there were two bedrooms in the front, barely big enough for the double beds pushed in them, one bedroom in the hall that was Uncle George’s and always had a stack of unopened Christmas boxes full of new shirts. Farther down the hall was another bedroom, a curtain hung in the doorway keeping the heat out and the floor took another drastic dip heading to the back of the house.
What I would learn as an adult was that the house had been owned by my great grandmother, Clemence Mary Defruytier Van Houtte. She purchased the house some time before 1930 and lived there until her death. She willed it to Uncle George with the stipulation that it be sold once he married and the money split between her four children. Uncle George would never marry, and my grandparents would live in the house until after Uncle George died and the money was divided among the living siblings. The house is gone now, and an ice cream store sits on its memory.
I went looking for what happened to the house in 1940, the year after my great grandmother died. I knew my grandparents would live there eventually, but in 1942 they were living in Olean, New York in a new home that they had built. I went looking for Uncle George and couldn’t find him either.
After digging through the census records by hand I found that in 1940 Uncle George had rented the house out for $22.00 a month to Marion Miller Toles and her son Robert Toles. My curiosity got to me and I went looking to see what I could find on them. Marion was listed as married in the census and had lived in rural Cattaraugus County in 1935. Her 18 year old son was listed as having lived in my great grandmother’s house in 1935. I found this curious, why would the son and mother not live together and where was the father.
What started out as curious got even more bizarre when I did a search for Robert Toles and brought up his death certificate. Robert died at 20 of a gunshot wound to the chest in a homicide in Erie, Pennsylvania. The reports that were in the paper claimed that Robert had been shot by his mother’s fiancé, who had shot his mother, twice, non-fatally and then fatally shot himself. If that wasn’t enough, Marion and Robert went by Bonnie and Robert Devere in the 1930 Census in Erie.
Bradford Era, April 23, 1942
FBI to Decide 2 Erie Deaths
Toles and Ziegler Deaths Are Probed; Shirt Examined
Erie, April 22 – (Special) Investigation into the deaths of Robert C. Toles, 21, of Bradford, and Albert J. Ziegler, 60 of Eris has been reopened, it was revealed in an announcement by Burton R. Laub, district attorney.
Toles and Ziegler were found shot to death in the latter’s home, 2650 Poplar street, early the morning of April 12. Laub reporte he is awaiting a report from the Federal Bureau of Investigations as to whether powder burns were found on a shirt worn by Ziegler.
Laub said: “If powder burns are found on the shirt, Ziegler shot himself after he killed Toles and wounded Toles’ mother. Mrs. Marian Toles, 58, during an argument about setting a wedding date.”
Laub pointed out that if powder burns were not found on the clothing the Robert Tolse shot Ziegler, then killed himself.
Paraffin test failed to reveal who fired the .44 caliber revolver used in the double killing. Zieglers hands, Laub said, naturally had been washed preliminary to burial, thus spoiling the test.
Laub also said Mrs. Toles, who was shot twice, has been exonerated of the shooting. She is Robert’s mother.
An autopsy shows that Ziegler may not have shot himself, according to Laub. The district attorney pointed out that the course of the bullet in Ziegler’s body was not consistent with a left-handed man shooting himself.
Damian McLaughlin, assistant district attorney, conferred with Mrs. Toles who is confined to St. Vincent’s hospital, and reported that her statements did not vary with the that she gave police the day of the shooting.
New Castle News, Monday, April 13, 1942, New Castle, Pennsylvania
Two Are Slain in Erie Home
Woman Is Also Badly Wounded in Tragedy of Sunday over Wedding Plans.
Erie Pa, April 13 _ Mrs. Marion Toles, 56 of Bradford, lay seriously wounded, while her son and the man she planned to marry in June were dead today, victims of the husband-to-be’s anger over wedding plans.
Robert Toles, 21, the son, was shot through the heart as he tried to interfere after Robert J. Ziegler, 60 twice shot his mother at the Ziegler home in Erie early Sunday.
Ziegler then shot himself above the heart, authorities reported. Deputy Coroner Frank St. George issued a verdict of murder and suicide.
Toles had been living with Ziegler for three weeks. Last Tuesday Mrs. Toles came to Erie. Ziegler and Mrs. Toles had planned to marry in June but became involved in an argument over the former’s insistence that they wed immediately. The shooting followed.
Police said Ziegler fired two shots at Mrs. Toles, one fracturing her shoulder, the other wounding her in the abdomen.
The Bradford Evening Star, Tuesday, November 23, 1943
Mrs. Marion Toles Seeks Damage on Death of Her Son
Erie – (Special) – Seeking to recover damages totaling $35,000 for the murder of her 20-year-old son, Mrs. Marion toles of 108 West 16th street, Erie, formerly of Bradford, Pa., has filed suit in Erie County courts against Charles W. Gorton, administrator of the estate of Albert J. Ziegler, who killed himself after firing a fatal shot into the youth’s body during an argument in the Ziegler home on April 12, 1942.
Mrs. Toles served Ziegler as his housekeeper, and with her son Robert Devere Toles, also formerly of Bradford, lived at Ziegler’s home according to her statement.
Ziegler was said to have wielded a revolver when he and Mrs. Toles allegedly became embroiled in an argument over their proposed marriage. When he allegedly threatened the woman, her son intervened and was shot to death. Mrs. Toles also suffered two bullet wounds before Ziegler finally turned the weapon on himself.
In her claim against Ziegler’s estate, Mrs. Toles asks $10,000 punitive damages and $25,000, to recover for pain and suffering by her son and loss of his earnings.
The Toles lived in Bradford for a period of five years, from 1937 to April 1942. Here they were known as Mrs. Bonnie Devere and Robert Devere. They left for Erie on April 5, 1942, a week prior to the shooting where Mrs. Toles was to accept a job as a housekeeper.