Week 26: #52 Ancestors – Black Sheep
By Eilene Lyon
A Model Citizen
If there’s a blacker sheep on my family tree than William Clark Ransom, I’ve not come across him/her.
William Clark Ransom (1828 – 1917) was born into humble circumstances in Ohio, and grew up on a modest farm in eastern Indiana. He had a talent with horses and other livestock, but once he became nursemaid to his friend, Elias D. Pierce, he discovered a latent talent.1 In 1870 he completed a medical degree at the Indiana College of Medicine in Indianapolis.2
Dr. Ransom was the father of eight (four surviving childhood). He also took on responsibility for a mentally disabled orphan girl from the county poorhouse in Blackford County, Indiana.3
By 1894, he and his family were well established in South Haven, Michigan. He had a thriving medical practice, assisted by his son, Thomas Harvey. He dealt in real estate and was partner in a men’s clothing store. He was active in civic organizations and well-liked in the community.
Certainly Dr. W. C. Ransom should be considered a model citizen.
What They Said
Here are some excerpts from his biography in one of the Van Buren County history books4:
“William Clark Ransom, M. D. located at South Haven in April, 1881, and has since become one of the leading businessmen of the place, as well as a popular physician.”
“In 1850, he was seized with the gold fever and started for California via New Orleans, Cuba, Mexico and the Sandwich Islands and thus after a journey of nine months arrived in San Francisco without any money. He worked one year on a ranch at $l25 per month.”
“In 1864, Dr. Ransom purchased $400 worth of drugs and sailed for the Island of Otaheite [Tahiti] in the southern Pacific Ocean…The voyage to China and Africa was made prior to this on a man-of-war. He stopped at the capital, Papeiti, of the island and cared for some whale fishers who were there sick. He next went to the Feejee Islands, New Zealand, and Australia, where he shipped for Valparaiso, Chili, landing on the 6th of March, 1865, and remained until July 16, 1865, there hearing for the first time of the capture of Richmond and the assassination of President Lincoln.”
“Dr. Ransom was married January 1, 1866, to Emily Hodson [sic]…They are the parents of one son, Thomas Harvey, who was born in Hartford, Ind., August 5, 1870, and was graduated from the Indiana College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1891, a few days before he was twenty-one years of age. He is now associated with his father in practice.”
“He became a member of the Odd Fellows in 1855, has passed all the chairs in both the subordinate and the encampment lodges and served as Deputy Grand Master in Oregon and in Indiana. He is a member of the Scientific, Medical, and Business Societies of South Haven.”
Some additional interesting quotes about Dr. Ransom:
“Dr. Ransom was related to both Lewis and Clark, the explorers.”5
“He was a student at the medical college in Indianapolis, and later a traveler, student and physician. In 1853 he practiced in California, and from 1861 to 1862 was acting surgeon at old Fort Klamath. In 1862 he became an army surgeon, and served in the rebellion to the end of the war.”6
“After this he spent two and a half years in Alaska and a few years in Chili, South America, where he had charge as physician of the king and queen. He practiced in Panama, in the cannibal islands of the South Pacific Ocean, Washington and Portland, coming here for his health six years ago.”7
“Dr. Ransom has been to nearly all the above mentioned places [extensive list of places all over the globe], having spent while a young man fifteen years in traveling over the world.”8
“Dr. Ransom has traveled the world over and back again during fifteen years of continual wandering. In 1849 he went to California, and from there he sailed to many a foreign port.”9
The problem with all these reports, many coming from South Haven, is that Dr. Ransom only lived there from 1881 to 1894. What the people knew of his past life was what he told them. Some bits are true. A few claims are unverifiable, but improbable. Most are easily disproved. Important are the glaring omissions in his life story.
“William was…a doctor but not a very good man. He collected money from people to take them to Alaska & skipped with the money.”
This cryptic comment by my great-grandmother, Clara Ransom Davis, intrigued me for years. I knew her uncle had been in Skagway, Alaska, in 1900, so I imagined the story had something to do with the Klondike gold rush.
The real story, which I discovered recently, was so incredible that Michigan History Magazine bought and published my article about the Trip Around the World Company in their May/June 2018 issue. The audacious stunt Dr. W. C. Ransom perpetrated on the people of Michigan and Chicago in 1894 was national news and just the most public episode in a life of deceit and duplicity.
Here are some facts about Dr. W. C. Ransom’s life:
This bad photocopy is the only photo I have of Ann Jenkins Ransom, with William C. Ransom and their daughter, Cordelia (1854, California)
William, his brother Robert, and about 18 other young men from eastern Indiana, headed to California in February 1852 (not 1849 or 1850). Their ill-fated journey left them stranded for two months in Mexico, and the entire trip to San Francisco took eight months.
Ann and Cordelia joined William in Santa Clara, California, in January 1854. William was teaching himself from medical texts, but there is no indication he was ever working as a doctor during the twelve years he lived in California and Oregon. There is evidence he mostly farmed and ranched and sometimes worked in mining camps. He and Ann had five more children during this time. He was not sailing around the world doctoring the Hawaiian and Chilean royalty!!
Ann died of tuberculosis on January 2, 1863.12 Their youngest son died five months later.13 The following year, the third of William and Ann’s sons died, somewhat mysteriously, leaving William the father of three young girls.14
William married Edith Nickel of Crescent City, California, on June 11, 1864.15 The girls lived with the couple for a time, reportedly ill-treated by their stepmother.
William returned to Indiana sometime in 1865, presumably after the war, and possibly after learning of the death of his father, with whom he did not get along. He abandoned Edith and his three daughters. The girls (ages 9 – 14) ended up with the Rackleff family in Umpqua County (later part of Douglas County), Oregon. Cordelia married 31-year-old William Rackleff at the age of 14, reportedly because he agreed to raise her younger sisters as his own.16
In 1894, the doctor introduced his scheme to purchase a schooner and form a research company to sail around the world over the span of three years. The Trip Around The World Company was incorporated in Chicago that spring. The company purchased and refitted the George L. Wrenn for the purpose. Twenty-four shareholder/crew members were recruited, most quite young, from across the midwest. The cruise was reported across the country.
The Trip Around the World was officially launched on July 4, 1894, in South Haven. Two weeks later, Dr. Ransom mysteriously vanished and his disappearance became national news. The young crew eventually had to abandon their dreams of seeing the world.19
It was many months before the truth emerged: Dr. Ransom had cashed a company check for $500 and run off with a Kentucky widow, whose late husband had been one of the doctor’s patients. He sent his attorney a couple letters from Orlando, Oklahoma Territory, before finally turning up in Oregon with his grown, married daughters (very likely the first time they’d seen their father in nearly 30 years).
About 1899 or 1900, he entered his second bigamist marriage, with his fourth wife, named Georgia (maiden name unknown), who later abandoned him in Skagway, Alaska.20 Emily obtained a divorce during the time of his brief marriage to Georgia. William obtained a divorce from Georgia.21
William’s son, Thomas Harvey, a real chip off the old block, followed his father to Oregon, abandoning his wife and son, Litt. He entered a bigamist marriage in Portland, Oregon.22 Both women later divorced him. Eventually he settled down with his third wife, back in Michigan, and had three more children. They divorced and he married for a fourth time.
William returned to Oregon about 1905 and lived there the rest of his life with his fifth (known) wife, Angie Slover, who cared for him as he slowly succumbed to dementia and died in 1917, age 88.23,24
The last known photo of Dr. William C. Ransom, taken in Skagway, Alaska, sometime between 1900 and 1905.
How did William C. Ransom manage to deceive so many people? According to Ann Jenkins Ransom, during their time in California and southern Oregon in the 1850s and 1860s, he transformed himself from a backwoods-speaking hick to a polished, mannered and educated man, through shear willpower and dedication to study.
William Ransom clearly had a high energy level. He seems to have had a strong desire to be seen as worldly and sophisticated, thus all the embellishments to his personal history.
He was also uncommonly empathetic, at least on the surface. He may have genuinely cared about people, but he had a huge blind spot for the pain he inflicted on others. I’ve found evidence that mental illness may be a genetic predisposition in the Ransom line. I suspect he suffered some mental disorder, but his charming manner and success in business led people to like and trust him. His charisma was equally effective with men and women.
When William abandoned the Trip Around the World Company, until the truth became known, everyone, even Emily, seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt. They thought he must have been murdered, or suffering from amnesia, wandering the streets of Chicago somewhere.
Though his ex-wives seem to have had nothing further to do with him, the three women closest to him, his daughters, seem to have forgiven his abandonment and maintained ties with him in later years. There’s no evidence anyone else in the Ransom family did the same.
Cordelia Ransom Rackleff (right) with her husband, William E. Rackleff and their first three children. Cordelia’s sister, Indiana (“Nannie”) standing behind William. Sister Marietta was living as a domestic in the Stearns household, where she was treated as a daughter.
(Apologies for the length; this man is worth an entire book!)
Feature image: Dr. William C. Ransom in Portland, Oregon circa 1896.
- Pierce, E. D. 1975. The Pierce Chronicle: Personal Reminiscenses [sic] of E. D. Pierce as transcribed by Lou A. Larrick. Edited by J. Gary Williams and Ronald W. Stark. Idaho Research Foundation, Inc. Moscow, ID. pp. vii, 11. ↩
- Medical license issued to Dr. William C. Ransom by the State of Oregon, Multnomah County on August 26, 1896, No. 799A. ↩
- “Apprenticeship Catherine Licklider to Wm C. Ransom.” Blackford County, Indiana, Deed Record Book U, pages 467 – 468. ↩
- Portrait and Biographical Record of Kalamazoo, Allegen, and Van Buren Counties, Michigan, Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens…1892. Chapman Bros., Chicago, pp. 802 – 803. ↩
- Rackleff, Edward. A Copy of My Father’s Diary. Douglas County Historical Society, Roseburg, Oregon, p. 44. (Publication date unknown). He was not related to either explorer. ↩
- “Funeral of Aged Physician Held.” The Evening Herald (Klamath Falls) March 12, 1917, p. 4. Fort Klamath was not built until 1864. There are no records that William ever served during the war in any capacity. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- “Plans for a Novel Cruise.” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Mon, Feb 19, 1894 · Page 3 at Newspapers.com, downloaded November 28, 2017. ↩
- “To Visit the Ports of the World.” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Sun, Mar 18, 1894 · Page 34 at Newspapers.com, downloaded November 28, 2017. ↩
- Jay County, Indiana; Index to Marriage Records 1850 – 1920 Inclusive Vo, W. P. A Original Record Located County Clerk’s Off; Book: C-B; Page: 85. Family Search and Ancestry.com. ↩
- Cordelia Emma Rackleff. Oregon State Board of Health, Certificate of Death, Coos County, Oregon, No. 70. ↩
- Obituary for Ann Jane Ransom. Oregon Semi-Weekly Sentinel (Jacksonville) 3 Jan 1863. ↩
- Family Bible record. ↩
- Obituary for Lewis Ransom. Oregon Sentinel (Jacksonville) February 13, 1864, p. 2. ↩
- Marriage of Mr. W. C. Ransom and E. M. Nickel. Oregon Sentinel (Jacksonville) June 18, 1864. ↩
- Certification that Cordelia was over the age of 15, given by her guardian James E. Clark. State of Oregon, County of Douglas. Family Search. Statements regarding Cordelia’s life were provided to me by one of her descendants. ↩
- Marriage of William C. Ransom and Emily Hodgson. Web: Indiana, Marion Public Library Marriage Index, 1831-2008 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. ↩
- Divorces: Edith Ransom from Wm. C Ransom. Oregon Sentinel (Jacksonville) May 25, 1867. ↩
- I have collected over 100 articles from across the country regarding the Trip Around the World incident. Downloaded from Newspapers.com in November 2017. ↩
- Wm C. Ransom and Georgia (wife). U. S. Census. Year: 1900; Census Place: Skagway, Southern Supervisors District, Alaska; Page: 95; Enumeration District: 0007, Ancestry.com. ↩
- Daily Alaskan (Skagway) September 13, 1940; November 11, 1904; and July 25, 1905. ↩
- Marriage of T H Ransom and Florence Smith. Ancestry.com. Web: Multnomah County, Oregon Marriage Index, 1855-1919 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. ↩
- Marriage of William C. Ransom and Angie Slover. 1907. Ancestry.com. Web: Multnomah County, Oregon Marriage Index, 1855-1919 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. ↩
- Obituary. See Note 6. ↩