To the world he was a famed showman but to one Calderdale man he could just possibly have been ‘Grand-dad.’ Virginia Mason reports
LIKE most people, Anthony Mellor has wondered about looking more closely into his family tree. Especially since a “secret” was imparted to him on his mother’s death 33 years ago.
“I’d like to know once and for all whether my grandfather really was Buffalo Bill,” he says.
As revelations go, it’s a bit of a conversation stopper.
So what would make him think he is the grandson of the Wild West hero and showman William Frederick Cody, aka Buffalo Bill?
The urge to investigate has come and gone over the years but then recently, a letter in the Courier set him off on the detective trail once more.
Halifax historian and genealogist David Glover had written to the Courier recalling October 1903 when the American folk hero and his troupe rode into town and set up camp at Savile Park, Halifax where they staged their Wild West show.
“Reading the letter really got me thinking again. It’s a little mystery that’s always been in the background and it has kept rearing its head, as it were,” he laughs.
“I have always been curious and there are little blanks, some of which I have managed to fill in. But I do wonder whether it can be proved - or disproved,” he says.
Anthony, now in his 70s, reveals that his grandmother, Clara Fawcett of Halifax was a chorus girl who performed in the music halls. When Buffalo Bill was touring, Clara was recruited to his troupe, performing in the country and then when the show came to an end in the UK, going back to the States with the rest of the performers.
“I know that she became pregnant and came back home to Halifax to have the baby - a daughter, Ruby Evelyn, who was born on February 16, 1906.
“Ruby was my mother and it was only after she had died that I was told a number of details by a family friend in whom she had confided,” says Anthony, who has a collection of family photographs which had added to the intrigue.
“I have some of my mother where the likeness to Buffalo Bill is uncanny,” he says,
Anthony has discovered that Clara, who was 23 when she gave birth to Ruby, entrusted the care of her daughter to her father William Fawcett and her step-mother Annie Fawcett.
“Clara must have gone back to her stage life and Ruby was brought up by her grandparents - although for a long time I believe she grew up thinking they were her parents. It wasn’t until much later in life she learned the truth.
“In fact I remember as a little boy, coming home from school one day to find my mother crying because Annie had died and she only discovered the people who had brought her up were in fact her grandparents,” says Anthony.
“I believe Clara was a bit of a girl as you might say, and I do know that Buffalo Bill had an eye for the ladies. He would have been nearly 60 when Clara became pregnant.”
The family friend told Anthony that shortly after Ruby was born, Buffalo Bill came over to Halifax with a legal team and made a substantial settlement on Clara and her daughter.
“I believe it was a kind of hush money if you like. There was also a request made, I believe, that the father’s name did not appear on the birth certificate.”
Anthony has recently received a copy of the birth certificate which names the father as Robert Fawcett - a father he believes has probably been invented using family names.
“For years I was looking to disprove it and forget about it but then I went to an exhibition at the Royal Armouries in Leeds where I came across a book about Buffalo Bill which spoke of his indiscretions, for which he was well known, I believe. His wife had been about to divorce him at the time of my mother’s birth. It just seemed to corroborate things.”
Anthony has now enlisted the help of the writer of the letter which essentially rekindled his interest.
As a result, David has been busy looking into Ruby’s family links.
“I managed to track down William Fawcett and his family who lived in Halifax, firstly at Crossley Terrace and then at 12, Wellington Place. They are mentioned in the 1901 census and William then was married to Antoinette - Clara’s mother. Clara is mentioned but by 1911 Clara has ‘vanished’ from the census, she has moved away,” says David.
“What is interesting is that there were boarders staying with the family who were either actors or musical artistes, from Ireland, Italy and New York. Certainly the family seems to have been orientated towards entertainment, so it’s more than likely that Clara went off to join them and begin a life on the stage.”
He adds that William was later to marry a second time, to Annie. By the time Ruby was born and the couple were bringing her up as their own daughter, the family had moved to Linthwaite, Huddersfield. Ruby was to grow up and marry Frank Mellor, Anthony’s father.
David agrees that the father’s name given on Ruby’s birth certificate was invented for the sake of propriety.
“I cannot find a Robert Fawcett and I’m sure it was an imaginary name to disguise an illegitimate birth from the registrar,” he says.
Anthony is determined to continue with his research.
“It’s always been a little family mystery and yes I would like to know the truth - one way or another. But how likely that is I don’t know.
“I was sitting outside a pub in London once and got chatting to some Americans at the next table. They said they were from Colorado so I quipped ‘that’s the resting place of Buffalo Bill, on Lookout Mountain.’ The chap said ‘Yes and would you believe, I am one of his descendants.’
“I thought, well in that case, we could be related,” he laughs.
Anthony’s son, James, a director and producer with his own film company, is now determined to make a documentary about the family mystery.
l Buffalo Bill was born William Frederick Cody. He was a United States soldier, bison hunter and showman, receiving the Medal of Honor for his service to the US Army as a scout. One of the most colourful figures of the American Old West, he became famous for the shows he organised with cowboy themes.