A Sketch on The Strange Life of Charles Dengate of Arizona by Charles Dengate's great grandson Patrick Dengate
Charles Dengate was born on 19 July 1890, in London, Ontario, Canada. His parents were Alfred Dengate who emigrated from Northiam, East Sussex, England as a young man, and Sarah Walmsley who was born in London, Ontario. He had one younger sister, named Clareva. Alfred, called Fred, was a baker in London, like his family back in Northiam, but ran into trouble with creditors and moved to Michigan around the year 1900. They settled in Ionia, where Fred worked as a cook at the local state prison.
Charles had, it seems, an unremarkable childhood. In 1910 he surprised everyone by unexpectedly joining the United States Navy, and trained as an electrician. He served on the U.S.S. Dixie, and was discharged in 1914. In 1915 he married Alice Greenhoe, whom he had probably first known as a child; both their parents knew each other and their mothers were both members of the Ladies Aid Society.
Charles and Alice had their first child, Robert, in 1916. Their second son, Maurice, was born in 1917. Around this time they purchased a small, wood frame house in Ionia. Charles was fired from his job in Ionia for, as he put it in a letter to his son Maurice dated 9 December 1938, “neglect.” After finding temporary work in various places in the area, he and Alice sold the house in Ionia and moved to Detroit, where he found work as an electrician at the Packard Motor Car Company and they bought a house on Trumbull Street. At some point around this time Charles’ parents, Fred and Sarah, also moved to Detroit, and lived on Euclid Avenue. Fred worked as a cook/steward at one of the car companies.
Eventually, he and Alice sold the house on Trumbull and Alice’s father, Frank Greenhoe, urged them to return to Ionia and purchase some promising land south of that town near his own farm. They had, between savings and profit on the sale of the house, enough to do this. Instead they bought another house further out near Grand River Avenue. It was around this time that Charles was gripped by what he referred to in the December 1938 letter a “driving power” which led him to quit the Packard Co. and seek more income by going “in business with a Jew.” He may or may not have informed his wife about this.
In October of 1919, Charles failed to come home one evening. That morning, he had given Alice $50 with which to pay the winter coal bill. In his pocket was $150 he had taken out of the bank. In some versions of this story he had told her he was going to buy a washing machine. Alice’s younger sister, Lena, often visited them in Detroit from Ionia, helping to care for her young nephews. In a conversation some 70 years later, Lena said that he simply made as if he were going off to work, and then never returned. With him still missing the next day, Alice approached his employer to find out if they knew what might have happened to him. She was shocked to be told that he had not worked there for some time. He disappeared without a trace and for the next 15 years no one in the family had any idea where he was, or whether he was alive or dead. After the police failed to learn anything of his where- abouts, a bewildered Alice moved back to Ionia with her two little boys to be closer to her parents.
Detroit, in this period, was rife with organized crime. A variety of gangsters virtually ruled various areas of the city, paying off the police and judges, and murdering elected officials if need be. They coalesced into the ruthless Purple Gang, comprised mostly of Jews, the sons of eastern European immigrants. They began in what was then Detroit’s Jewish ghetto, the area around Hastings Street from Jefferson Avenue near the river north to East Grand Boulevard. A State of Michigan referendum banning the sale of alcohol went into effect on May 1, 1917, providing further opportunities for illicit income to Detroit’s gangsters. Given Charles’ erratic behaviour up to this point in his life, and his apparent tendency to get-rich-quick thinking, it is not unreasonable to think that he may have become involved with one of Detroit’s gangsters. Perhaps finding himself entangled in something illegal and dangerous precipitated his need to leave town. Or maybe it wasn’t criminal activity, but rather that Charles suffered from some mental illness that kept him off balance and prone to irrational, impulsive behaviour. Maybe it was both. We will probably never know for sure. In letters he tries to explain what he’d done was a result of a “driving power” and being “hounded by the devil.”
After leaving Detroit, Charles began to wander about the American West. The sketchy details of these travels we know only from his 1938 letter to his son Maurice. For several years he went from place to place, worked briefly, then moved on. Travels through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada were occasionally punctuated by feelings of guilt and remorse, and a determination to return home. But always “pursued by my tormentor,” he failed again and again, and eventually gave up the idea. In between jobs, he hit bottom on numerous occasions. In Phoenix, he has to sleep in a park and go without food for two days. At least twice he crosses the border into Mexico and loses everything to gambling, alcohol, and prostitutes. Between Los Angeles and Fresno, California, he sneaks onto trains until ordered off at gunpoint by a railroad bull. Walking along a road outside of San Jose, he is handcuffed by the police and thrown into jail, mistaken for some other drifter. In Los Angeles he marries a “grass widow” (divorced woman) using the name George P. Brown, but after two years abandons her as well. Without money for transportation, he finds himself walking in the desert outside Las Vegas, Nevada without water and almost dies. He considers smuggling drugs from Mexico.
Around 1928 he found himself in Prescott, Arizona, under the name Roy A. Stewart. At this point he met Beulah, a girl who was a “real Christian,” a member of the Pentecostal Church, and, as Charles puts it in his letter, “finally I was really saved & had become a Christian myself.” The Pentecostals are a biblical fundamentalist, evangelical branch of Protestantism. They emphasize the working of the “Holy Spirit,” and take the speaking in tongues (spontaneous, nonsensical utterances) as indication that it is present. With his new found faith, Charles quit smoking, quit drinking, quit stealing. He married Beulah and immersed himself in Bible studies. They bought some property in Whipple, near Prescott, and made a home there for the next 40 years. They had six children: Joseph, 1931; Mary, 1932; Charles, 1933; Anna and William (twins), 1936; and Donald, 1939.
In June 1933, Charles finally made contact with his family back in Michigan, first with his sister, Clareva, then with Alice. A sermon on marriage and adultery brought him to believe that Alice was his only true wife, and his letters eventually suggested that as soon as he could disentangle himself from his situation in Arizona, he would return to his place as her husband and father to the boys. The folks in Michigan undoubtedly found this absurd. Al- ice suggests divorce in one of her letters, and Clareva suggested to her sister-in-law prosecuting Charles for bigamy. In a pathetic attempt to put things right, Charles went so far as to separate from his wife, Beulah, and even to make a brief visit to Ionia and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Times were difficult in the 1930s, and Alice and her sons had to move in with her sister Lena, her husband, and their two girls. In some of his letters Charles offers to send money, but never did. One day around 1938 Alice answered a knock at the door, and found Charles standing there. She fainted on the spot, and Lena’s husband harshly told him to get out. At this time Robert, the oldest son, was already married with a son of his own. But the younger Maurice was there, and when he understood who had been at the door, he chased after him down the street. Charles and his son, whom he had last seen as an infant, walked to the room Charles had rented and talked for an hour or two. Charles returned to Arizona, and although he at times made promises to Maurice to return, he never did. They carried an intermittent correspondence for a few years, but that, too, eventually ceased. The older son, Robert, had no interest in meeting or writing to his father. Charles reunited with his Arizona wife Beulah, and stayed with her until his death in 1971. Alice never filed for divorce. He was never charged with bigamy. His death certificate names him as Roy A. Stewart, a name he never legally adopted. His place of birth is listed as “Unknown, Canada.” He had never even told his family where exactly he had been born.
In the 1990s, Charles’ grandson Richard Dengate located his Arizona cousins and met with some of them twice, once in Arizona and once in Michigan. In Michigan, four of Charles and Beulah’s children visited Ionia, and saw the house where their father and Alice lived when they were first married. They saw pictures of their father as a boy and young man that they’d never seen before. They visited Alice’s grave (she died in 1975) and with Maurice, their half-brother. Maurice was delighted. He said he’d “never had a sister before!” Their other half-brother Robert had died in 1991. Alice’s sister Lena, who was still alive, could not bring herself to meet them. She held them blameless, of course, but even seventy years later, her sister’s pain and confusion remained a vivid memory.
The story Charles’ Arizona children told of him was a portrait of a man who was, perhaps, so consumed with guilt over his early life that he was unable to be a full father to his second family. Cold and distant, he was a harsh and unforgiving disciplinarian. One daughter in particular felt the sting of his rebukes. Another daughter had somehow gotten an inkling of his early life, and he took her aside and explained, somewhat cryptically, that he had once had another family in Michigan and another name. None of the children ever knew any more of the details, including what his name had once been. Learning more about their father late in their own lives was a remarkable revelation for them all.