Sunday, 28 June 2009

The death of Joe Southard

On a Sunday night, precisely 78 years ago tonight, we lost the man who should have been my uncle Joe.

Joseph William Frederick Southard, at that time my paternal grandmother’s one and only, was a 21 year old buck with sharp looks, a sharp dress sense and a reasonable chance of making a few quid as a tarmac-layer in the particularly harsh recession of the early 1930s.

But whatever hopes, dreams and ambitions that young Joe might have had, they were all so cruelly snuffed out on this very Sunday in 1931, when Joe was drowned.

Newspaper reports from the time say his body was dredged out of the water and pronounced lifeless by a doctor. A boat had apparently capsized. There were two survivors from the small vessel – a pair of workers from a travelling circus that was in town at the time. Only Joe was unable to make it to the canal bank and safety.

My family, especially my elderly aunt and another aunt who has since passed away, are deeply suspicious. Joe was a very strong swimmer. How could be not have made it to ashore? They’re adamant, in fact, that Joe was murdered by these two circus men in cold blood: smashed across the head with an oar and bundled over the side into the cool water.

Could there have been an argument that got out of hand? Was Joe robbed? Who knows... but I’m trying to find out. And while I try to find dusty coroner’s reports in dusty corners of the National Archive, I can only speculate over what might have happened.

And I can only ask the same questions. Have I been cheated out of an uncle by these men? Was my father cheated out of a brother? Was my grandmother cheated out of her eldest son? Joe would have been 54 when I was born. He would have been 99 if he’d lived up to today.

Who are these circus men and what happened to them? Were they guilty of murder and where they ever brought to trial? Did they evade capture and live long lives? Did the events of June 28, 1931 weigh on their consciences? Or were they able to put the incident behind them and move on, living with a terrible secret into old age?

Yes, it was a very long time ago and nothing can escape the fact that Joe is dead. He won’t be coming back. But I, for one, would like to know what happened. In the complicated story of my father’s family, he has a chapter that’s worth recording. So I’m going to dig around a bit. It’s what the internet was made for.

And if Joe still exists out there somewhere in some kind of magical ghostly form, perhaps as a spirit or spark of universal consciousness or something, I do wonder if he has awareness that the nephew he was doomed never to meet is trying, at least a little, to cover his back.

Thinking of you today, Joseph William Frederick Southard.

December 21, 1909 to June 28, 1931.

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