Finding Mimi (my search for The Sword Swallower)

Mimi5

 After being contacted recently by four members of Mimi’s family tree I did some more digging. Between this digging and these family members sharing some information with me, I felt that a partial re-write was in order instead of adding a ton of updates at the end.  – Ray

After doing a few of these blogs I searched high and low to see if anyone else appealed to me. I even considered doing someone not in the sideshow business, something I’m seriously wanting to do anyway. Then I ran across Mimi. She reminded me a little of Martin Laurello, a guy that was normal but had learned a particular skill.

I had personally only ever seen one sword-swallower perform before and that was at a Colonial reenactment festival in Nashville many years ago. Oddly enough, he contacted me a while back because of this blog. His name is Dan Meyer and he’s been fun getting to know. For an idea of how good he is, watch him when he performed in 2008 on America’s Got Talent:  Dan 1.  He made multiple appearances on the show and here’s the latest from 2016: Dan 2.  This is a great TED talk he did back in 2013:  Dan 3. I also posted a link to his website on my blog homepage. Just look for the link called Dan Meyer.

So anyway, I began this blog the same way as the others, by first reading what was available on other websites. She was supposedly born in 1890 or 1894 near Philipsburg, Pennsylvania as Hazel Jude Thomas. This name was disputed later by family that said Jude was not her real name, but that she was born Hazel Kirk Thomas. As a young woman she started learning sword-swallowing and performed under the name of Jude. She was known to be the first woman to swallow a neon tube. 

She met and married her husband, Fred Garneau, in the 1930s and later adopted the stage name of Mimi. She performed with numerous groups, most notably Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Ringling Brothers, and Al G Barnes. In the 1920s she lost a son to the Spanish flu and in the 1940s she lost a son from an earlier relationship who was drafted and was killed in Sicily. About the same time she also lost her husband Fred. Later in life she performed on the Steve Allen Show. After retiring she operated a flea circus until retiring to Tampa, Florida in the 1970s. She then went on to pass away there on 22 February 1986.

Another reason I almost didn’t research her is that it involves Pennsylvania, not the best state for online records. This is especially true for marriages, unless the marriage was in Philadelphia. I had done some extensive Pennsylvania research a few years ago on my son-in-law’s family and had a rough time of it.

As always, I began by creating her family tree up on Ancestry. Since I her knew her death date the first thing to find would be her death record. Since she died fairly recently, I wouldn’t be able to find the actual death certificate but I could find her in a death index. Hopefully this would at least give me her birthday.

I ended up with two indexes, the one from Social Security and the one from the state of Florida. The Social Security Death Index gave the birth as 27 January 1893. The Florida Death Index said that the birth was 27 January 1894. Both had the correct death date. This is not unusual. The Social Security index is notorious for being a year off or the wrong month. However, it could still be that the Florida index was the incorrect one. Now it was time for some census-finding.

I restricted the search to Centre County and the surrounding counties in Pennsylvania. Centre County is where her birth town of Philipsburg is located.  Considering that it was only a few years after her birth, the odds were that she still lived there or nearby. Two censuses showed up with a Hazel Thomas. One was in a neighboring county and born in February 1896. The other was in the town of Rush in Centre County. This one was born in January 1893. Keep in mind that in the 1900 Census her birth year can vary a year or two so this still doesn’t confirm the birth information from either of the death indexes. It was fairly obvious though that this was probably her. 

Her mother is named Jennie, born in July of 1861 in Wales. This is incorrect because she was actually born in Union County, Pennsylvania. In this census Jennie is a widow and has all six of her children living with her. Her youngest is Daniel, born in December of 1899. This means her husband must have died in 1899 or 1900. Besides Hazel and Daniel, the other children listed are: Ruth (b.1885), John (b.1887), Elizabeth Belle (b.1890), and Harmon Peter (b.1895).  1900 Census.  From here on I will call Hazel by her stage name of Mimi.

First though, let’s cover Mimi’s parents’ family history a little. Mimi’s father was Moses Thomas. He was born in Wales about 1861 to Owen and Mary (Laugharne) Thomas. I wasn’t positive about the spelling of Mary’s surname until I found out it is also the name of a town in Carmarthenshire, Wales. As a favor to the family members who contacted me and their desire for more family info, I’ll cover this portion of the family for a bit.  

I had to track them backwards to find them. First off, we already knew that Moses had to have died in 1899 or 1900. I found his death in a newspaper from 10 May 1899 and it says he died on the 7th. Keep in mind however that it says he was living in Eleanora at the time. This isn’t that far from Philipsburg, where Mimi and her family were living during the 1900 census. He was apparently living there while working at the big mine nearby but taking occasional trips back home. Moses News

I’ll explain this commuting thing shortly but first let’s cover Moses in the 1880 Census. I discovered him living with his family in Decatur. This is in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. In this census, taken on June 8th, we first find his mother Mary who is a 47 year old widow from Wales. Then comes 19 year old Moses, from Wales and now working in the mines. Then comes John, also from Wales. He is 14 and working in the mines (no child labor laws back then). Lastly is Thomas. Yes, his name was Thomas Thomas. He’s 11 and from Wales. 1880 CensusThey begin on line 47.

Now for the commuting thing. To understand all of this better you really need to see a map of the area.

map

These counties are in the middle of Pennsylvania. Start near the right in Union County. This is where Mimi’s mother was from. Now go west three counties to Jefferson. This is where Moses died. Come back east one to Clearfield. This is where Mimi’s older sisters and brother were born, so at some point between the birth of Hazel’s sister Elizabeth Belle in July of 1890 and Mimi’s birth in January of 1894, the family had moved east one county to Centre county. Mimi was the first child born there.

For me, it’s easy to believe that Moses was commuting to Clearfield county. Clearfield is where Moses was living in the 1880 Census we discussed earlier. My guess is that after Moses married Jennie in 1884 they probably lived with his mother. When Mary died a few years later they moved to Centre county. Jennie’s parents were also living in Clearfield County at the time but after her father died in 1886 her mother had moved to Centre county. 

Later research on Moses’ siblings showed that they had come over from Wales during the 1870s. Although I’ve yet to find the trip in the records (not unusual given the time-frame and their very common surname) I was able to find them in the Wales 1871 Census. In this one they are living in a boarding house in Cilybebyll, Glamorgan, Wales. Mary is now a dressmaker, says she is married, and shows her place of birth as Llangyfelach, Glamorganshire, Wales. Moses is now 10 and working. It also says he was born in Kellybebill, Glamorganshire, Wales. John and Thomas follow and both also born in Kellybebill. 1871 Census. Since their father is not there I have to assume that he has probably already gone to America or they have separated. 

The only child of Mary’s that I had any luck pursuing was Thomas. He went on to marry Sarah Ann Evans in 1890 and they raised three sons and a daughter, the last of which passed away in 1985. Thomas went on to die in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1944. His name turned out to be Thomas Henry Thomas.

Now let’s cover Mimi’s mother’s side briefly. I say briefly because they will be much easier for anyone to track down than the Thomas family. First off, John Adams and Delilah Huff married sometime around 1851. They then proceeded to start the baby-making thing for the next 18 years in various places in Pennsylvania until finally ending up in Clearfield and Centre Counties.  They raised 10 children and all but two of them were girls. The last one to pass away was the youngest, who died in 1963.

Now let’s get back to Mimi and her immediate family. In the 1910 Census they have moved into Philipsburg. Jennie and all but the oldest child, Rhoda, are living in the household. John is now a coal miner and the youngest, Daniel, is in school. Next door to them is Rhoda, who married Walter Gardner in about 1903 and now has two children of her own. 1910 Census

This brings us to the 1920 Census. In this one, Mimi is now married to William Hartshorne and has three sons; William, Edward and Thomas. In reality, William is Billee Lavergne Hamilton, the son from that previous relationship. Her husband is from Pennsylvania and is an engineer at a steam plant. Based on the age of the two younger boys, Mimi and Walter probably married around 1916. 1920 Census Page 1  1920 Census Page 2

It was here that I found young Edward’s death certificate. He is the one that supposedly died from the Spanish Flu in the 1920s. He died at the Cottage State Hospital in Rush just three days after Christmas, on 28 December 1922, from acute dilation of the heart with the contributory cause of empyema. The most likely candidate for this is pneumonia, like the Spanish Flu that had been going around for a few years. Death Certificate

Mimi’s 1930 Census shows a few changes in her life. She is living in Detroit and she has divorced Walter Hartshone (according to family, she did this because of his drinking). I found him in the same census back in Philipsburg. He had remarried and went on to pass away there on 18 August 1941. Mimi is now married to the last husband she’ll have, a Frederick Napoleon Garneau. Fred was from a French Canadian father and a Pennsylvanian mother. He was born 23 May 1891 in Philipsburg. 

Both of Mimi’s remaining sons, Billee Lavergne and Harmon Thomas, are with them. Fred is working at an automobile factory. Mimi, whether she started learning the sword-swallowing in the 1920s or not, is a sales lady at a candy store. Apparently she hasn’t started performing full-time yet. 1930 Census

Let’s cover a couple of other things. First, let’s go back to Billee. I did find his social security application and he names his father in it, a George J. Hamilton. It was too common of a name to get anywhere when I looked for him, especially with no other information. I also feel it’s possible that George and Mimi were actually married, not just in a relationship. In the 1930 Census, Mimi had stated that her first marriage was when she was 16, just the right time-frame for Billee’s father.

The social security application provided online is just a transcript, not the actual document, so often times there are mistakes. I feel that George J Hamilton was actually George L. The best and most likely candidate in the area was a George Lindsley Hamilton, born 14 March 1892 in Bodines, Pennsylvania. He was the son of James L and Jennie (Reed) Hamilton and went on to get married 4 years after Billee was born. He passed away at age 37 in 1929 from heart-related issues.

Next, let’s cover Fred Garneau. In general, I don’t get too deep into spouses’ family trees. It’s usually not pertinent to the blog subject’s story. When I first wrote this blog I had gone to his 1900 census and discovered the family’s surname as Gardner. Knowing the father was from French Canada, I assumed this had been an enumerator mistake and I ignored it. What I found out later from the family was that he actually was a Gardner and was the brother of the husband of Mimi’s oldest sister, Rhoda. 

At this point I assumed that his father had changed his last name when he came to America, which turned out to be correct. Fred’s parents were Nepoléon Bonaparte and Theresa (Shontz) Garneau. His father was from Lac-MéganticQuebec and his mother was from Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Together they raised seven children, and all were boys (the poor woman!).

Prior to Mimi, Fred had previously been married to Grace Sylvan Lumadue. Grace had been born in 1893 in Clearfield County and they got married there on 11 September 1913. They had two sons together before they divorced, Herman and Frederick. Young Frederick ended up a career military man and died in Massachusetts in 1997 but his older brother apparently had some law problems and ended up in prison. It was there in 1954 that he hung himself from the window bars in his cell. Now lets get back to Mimi.

Every picture I could find of her, and there are many, seem to point to her starting in the 1930s. I’m basing this mostly on the fashions she wears in them. By 1935 she is performing in San Diego, California. 

The 1930s were very busy for her and at this point I’ll refer you to a great sword-swallowing website, SwordSwallow.Com  They wrote this about her  during that time-frame:  “She performed with Ripley’s Believe It or Not in the 1933 Chicago World’s FairCentury of Progress”, and with Ripley’s Believe It or Not in the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego in 1935-36. Later in 1936 she was the featured sword swallower with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1937 Mimi performed with Ripley’s Believe It or Not in Cleveland, Ohio at the “Great Lakes Exposition” from May 29 to Sept 6, 1937. She worked with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1930s and with Cole Brothers Circus in 1938, and spent winters working in Hawaii in the late 1930’s”.

This takes us up to the 1940 Census for her. For some reason she and Fred are living in Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky. They are both now listed as performers. It also verifies they were living in San Diego in 1935. She has earned $840 the past year and Fred has earned $700.  1940 Census.  When I first wrote the blog I hadn’t seen anything that told what kind of performer he was. Later I found out about Fred from the family was that he performed as a tattooed man for the circus. He even gave Mimi tattoos. Unlike women today though, she kept hers able to be hidden. 

Her son Billee enlisted in the army as a Private on 8 March 1940. I  am not sure if he was drafted though. The draft had been enacted in 1940 but did not start until October that year. He had also been a circus performer (escape artist) for the past four years. 

I was unable to find Billee in the 1940 Census and then found out why. After enlisting he had departed Charleston, South Carolina on 29 March 1940 bound for Puerto Rico for training. Billee ArrivalSometime between the April 1940 Census and his death in 1943 Billee married a young lady from Detroit named Nancy Christine Bauer (she was single in the 1940 Census). She was the daughter of Charles V and Babe Ruth (Summers) Bauer. Christine was born 16 Feb 1920 in Detroit and passed away  6 June 1995 in Taylor, Wayne County, Michigan. I never found a marriage for them and only found out about her because of an article in Billboard magazine a few months after his death. As a side note, Billee had gone from Private to 2nd Lieutenant before he died.

Death announcement from Billboard Magazine 20 November 1943.
Death announcement from Billboard Magazine 20 November 1943.

Christine didn’t remarry until November of 1951. This was to Anthony Vincent Lamareto. This character is a story in his own right. Briefly, he married a young lady in November of 1940. They divorced sometime before he married the next one in August of 1944. This one divorced him three months later only to remarry him the following month. They divorced again sometime before he married another one in August of 1945, who divorced him in 1949. Then he marries our Christine in 1951. She divorced him at some point and took the Hamilton name back until the day she died. Lamareto went on to marry at least one or two more times. I also found a possible earlier marriage on him in Nevada. The reason I feel it’s him is that the divorce took place in Detroit, the same place the other marriages happened. If so, then he was a bigamist while in Michigan. He died in 1995 in Arizona.

We need to go back in time slightly to Fred Garneau for a bit. The word on the internet was that he died in 1941, possibly on 15 April. It took a little searching but I first found a spreadsheet for Rosemont Cemetery in Wichita County, Texas. Fred is listed on it. It says he died in Philipsburg on 15 Apr 1941. This made no sense. If he died in Philipsburg why was he buried in Wichita? Searches in the Philipsburg area revealed nothing so I assumed the spreadsheet mixed up birth place with death place. 

Screenshot of the spreadsheet about Fred.
Screenshot of the spreadsheet about Fred.

So now I aimed my guns for Wichita County. His death record showed up. He had died in Wichita Falls, Wichita, Texas on 11 April 1941 from a subdural hemorrhage. It had apparently happened 16 days prior.  Death Certificate. Oddly enough, Mimi lost her husband and her ex-husband the same year. 

In 1949 Billee’s body was shipped back for reburial in the Arlington National Cemetery. Mimi is back living in Philipsburg at this time, or at least has a permanent address there. 1949 ReburialWhen the family contacted me I was told how he died. Billee was killed in Sicily in WW2 while he was visiting a friend on a ship there and German bombers happened to attack it. With this information I found the only ships sunk that day and they were both small submarine chasers and both near Palermo, Sicily. Next I had to find out which one he was on when he died. After some digging I came across the action report for it. It shows the casualties of both sinkings and only one of them had an officer that died. The ship was the USS SC696. The German aircraft that did the bombing was a Junkers JU-88.

Mimi stayed busy during the 1950s and I’ll refer again to the SwordSwallow.Com website:  “According to the Sept 22, 1951 Billboard: “Mimi Garneau was a sword swallower with Conklin’s Canadian National Exhibition while Woody Dutton worked the front. On March 5, 1952, Mimi worked with the Gran Circo de Variedades in Cuidad Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. In January 1955 she was living and performing in Hawaii. Later she was in Kauai, Hawaii from October 27, 1955 to November 10, 1955 with the EK Fernandez Hippodrome Show, and she lived in Honolulu up to at least November 1956. Sometime in the 1950s, she taught sword swallowing to Toni Del Rio and gave her some of her swords. In 1958, Mimi Garneau was featured as sword swallower with the Dufour and Alexander Side Show, along with Woody Dutton performing magic. According to the Aug 10, 1959 Billboard Magazine: Mimi Garneau was featured as sword swallower with the Dufour and Alexander Side Show, with W. F. Dutton as manager.”

Found a newspaper article about her appearance on 16 March 1951 on the TV show You Asked For It. Here is the article: 14 Mar 1951. It is mentioned in several websites that she appeared in 1961 on the Steve Allen Show. I found it from 1963 in a newspaper TV guide.

Hazel's appearance on Steve Allen
Hazel’s appearance on Steve Allen

Mimi pretty much retired from the sword business in the 1960s and concentrated on her flea circus. In the 70s she retired totally to her home in Tampa, Florida and passed away there 22 February 1986. She was 92 years old. Her youngest son, Harmon, passed away in Florida in November of 2009. Per her request (and I love her for it!), and because her reasoning was that she had always been on the road, her ashes were spread where Highway 301 meets Fowler Avenue in Tampa. Ashes

For my other research blogs:  HOME

Thanks for stopping by! -Ray

Comments are welcome and encouraged. You’ll find them here near the bottom or a link to them near the top. Also feel free to share, like or follow this or any of my blogs.