Although this blog is meant to tell “stories of my family,” I occasionally tell stories of people who aren’t related to me but whose stories I discovered while researching genealogy. This is the story of Morgal Curry Davis. Since he never married and had no children to share his story, it probably wouldn’t get told if I didn’t tell it.
DNA Detective Work.
Part of my genealogical research involves DNA testing. Last December, a DNA match, who was projected to be a third-to-fourth cousin, contacted me to tell me she was an adoptee trying to find out who her birth parents were. My wife and I jumped in to try to help her solve her mystery. From our DNA results, we could identify which of her matches were in common with me and which were not. Although my research began by looking at our common relatives, my wife and I are also researching the side of her family that is not related to me. That is where I discovered Morgal Curry Davis, and he intrigued me, so I tried to flesh out his story.
Do I Have My Facts Correct?
When publishing a story, my greatest concern is whether or not my facts are correct, because I don’t want to tell a story that might not be factual. Here I will describe how I reached my conclusions.
I know from the 1920 and 1930 United States censuses that Robert Davis and Mabel Elizabeth Branin Davis had a son named Morgal C. Davis who was born about 1911 or 1912 in Dayton, Ohio, living in Dayton. In the 1920 U.S. Census, Morgal is also listed as living in the household of his widowed grandmother, Caroline Yetter Davis, in Columbus, Ohio. It is impossible to tell whether he alternated between living with his grandmother and his parents, or whether he may have lived with his grandmother but was also listed with his parents in that year’s census. Morgal was an 8-year-old polio victim, and his grandmother—who had three adult children at home—may have been better equipped to care for him than his parents—who had three other young children at the time.
Then, I had to determine whether this was the same Morgal C. Davis who was later living in San Diego, California. The California Death Index, transcribed on both ancestry.com and familysearch.org, shows a Morgal C. Davis dying in San Diego on November 23, 1968, having been born in Ohio on December 6, 1911, in Ohio. From this, I decided that the Morgal C. Davis in San Diego was probably the same Morgal C. Davis who was the son of Robert and Mabel Davis in Ohio. Voting registration records and city directories both show Morgal living most of his adult life in San Diego, working as a news seller.
The middle name of Morgal Curry Davis comes from a genealogical web site, cochranfamily.net. Although I have discovered occasional mistakes on this web site, I assume that they must have some legitimate source for this name, so I am going to assume it is correct.
The year that Morgal moved to San Diego from Dayton is questionable, due to some ambiguity in a newspaper article that mentioned him. He was identified as a witness in a murder investigation in San Diego in 1931, in which the newspaper article said he had known the victim “for several years,” but the United State Census showed him living with his parents in Ohio in 1930. My conclusion is that the newspaper reporter probably meant to say several months instead of several years. Those mistakes can happen in newspaper reporting.
Moving Away from Home
Morgal was crippled by polio at the age of six months. At the age of nineteen years, he traveled more than two thousand miles from his parents’ home in Dayton, Ohio, to settle in San Diego, California. At that time, he was able to walk with crutches or braces, but was later confined to a wheelchair. My interpretation of this is that he felt a need to prove he could live his own life independent from his family. Voter registration records show him living at various addresses in San Diego, working as a newspaper seller, and the 1940 United States Census shows him living in the Majestic Hotel in San Diego. It was not a glamorous or well-to-do life, but he was living as he wanted, without any outside interference.
Hitchhiking Across America in a Wheelchair
The inspirational story of Morgal Curry Davis is is his 1955 journey, hitchhiking across America in his wheelchair. Several newspapers across the country carried a photograph taken of him in his wheelchair in Jackson, Mississippi, during the time that he was striving to hitchhike through all 48 states. At the time the photo was taken, he had already been through 28 states, and he said that his only trouble during that time was when he received a speeding ticket in his wheelchair in Saint Louis, Missouri. He was traveling downhill and was clocked at 22 miles per hour. (There is no mention of what the speed limit was.) There was not a follow-up story, but I must assume that he finally made it through all 48 states.
Witness in a Murder Investigation
The other significant event in his life happened shortly after he had moved to San Diego. In a 1931 newspaper article about a murder, he is identified as “Morgal Davis, a crippled newsboy.” It was said that he had known the murder victim, Louise Teuber, and had told police that she had told him she had been on a date with a man name Jerry on the evening before her death. He tried to remember the license number of Jerry’s car, but there was no such license registered in the state, so he must not have remembered it correctly. The police followed various other leads, but the murder was never solved.
The Coast Fiend Killer
There were several other unsolved murders in the area during that time, and the newspapers seemed to believe that they were all committed by an early serial killer they called “the Coast Fiend Killer.” There were dozens of persons of interest investigated, but none of the murders were ever solved.
In the news stories, some of the victims were referred to as “modern girls,” which seemed to have been the 1930’s version of blaming the victims’ behavior for the crimes. We would hope that by now we would no longer have to tolerate this prejudice, but we still need to come a long way to overcome this type of misrepresentation.
The first victim was 10-year-old Virginia Brooks, who disappeared on her way to school on February 11, 1931. Her dismembered body was discovered on March 10 in a burlap bag under a clump of sagebrush. Because of the dismemberment, they couldn’t determine the cause of death, but they believed she died from a blow to the head. There were two strands of blonde hair in one of her hands, which today could have led to a DNA match with a suspect, but that science was not yet being used in forensic police work. There were also tire tracks leading away from the discovery point. They took plaster casts of the tire tracks, but could not match them to a specific vehicle.
The second victim, although the third body found, was that of 43-year-old Mrs. Dolly Bibbens, who had been strangled and beaten in her apartment. Her body was discovered on April 23, but they determined she had been dead for several days. When the police found her, there was a bloody towel wrapped around her neck, and it was later determined that her throat had been slashed. She was known to have loved jewelry, and they originally thought her murder had been part of a burglary, but the only item missing was a diamond ring forcibly taken from her hand. She had been an avid gambler and was frequently seen at the race track, which fact the newspapers used to label her a “modern girl.”
The third victim was 17-year-old Louise Teuber, the woman whom Morgal Davis had known. She was discovered on April 19, 1931, by a family looking for a picnic spot on Black Mountain outside of San Diego. She had been killed the previous night. Her body was dressed only in silk stockings and high-heeled shoes. She was partially hung from an oak tree, her feet still on the ground, partially seated on an Army blanket, her other clothes neatly folded nearby. She was a young lady who enjoyed going out skating and dancing and dating many young men, which led the newspapers to label her as a “modern girl.” She had quit her job at the five-and-dime store that day and had sent a letter to her father telling him she was running away from home: “Dear Dad, I’ve tried for a long time to be satisfied with the way you are running the house and I can stand it no longer. I am leaving home tonight and I am not coming back.” Some of her friends had reported that she was either engaged or already married, but those reports could not be verified. The medical examiner found skin scrapings under her fingernails, but once again this was before DNA testing could be used to help find a suspect. The noose was tied with a nautical knot, so some local sailors were looked at as suspects but later exonerated and released. There was also a local art photographer who was a person of interest, but it was determined that he and his wife were out of town at the time of the murder.
The fourth victim, 20-year-old Hazel Bradshaw, was a switchboard operator for the San Diego and Arizona Railway Company. She was found by two Boy Scouts at Indian Village in Balboa Park, having been stabbed nine times. A boy friend was the initial suspect, but he was acquitted in a jury trial, although there seemed to be some strong evidence against him. She also had other boy friends, which led the newspapers to label her a “modern girl.”
During the next several years, more victims’ death were attributed to the serial killer. On August 18, 1934, 16-year-old Celia Cote, was discovered near her back yard in San Diego, having been raped, mutilated, and strangled. She had gone for a walk after dinner and had never returned. On August 31, 1936, 48-year-old Y.W.C.A. executive Ruth Muir was discovered at a La Jolla Beach, having been bludgeoned with a large slab of concrete. Then, on March 25, 1938, 67-year-old Florilla Lee Crolic was was found in her San Diego beach cottage, wearing only her underwear and stockings, having been bludgeoned to death with a piano stool. It was determined that she had been dead for about three days.
The police and newspaper reporters seemed to think there were enough similarities in the cases for them to believe they may have been perpetrated by the same person. Looking back at the new stories of the time, it is difficult to see the similarities, but I don’t have access to the same investigative information the police may have had.
The Summary of a Well-Lived Life
Morgal Curry Davis was born in Dayton, Ohio, on December 6, 1911, to Robert Davis and Mabel Elizabeth Branin Davis, the third of seven children. He was the brother of Robert Davis Jr. (1908–1923), Sarah Alice Davis Rhyan (1909–1985), Laura Amide Davis (1913–1913), Raymond B. Davis (1914–1978), Charlotte Jasmine Davis White (1916–????), and August Walter Davis (ca. 1921–1964).
Some time around June 1912, Morgal was diagnosed with polio. He spent many years of his life able to walk with braces and crutches, but as an adult he was later confined to a wheelchair. During his childhood, he sometimes lived with his widowed grandmother, Caroline Yetter Davis, who had three adult children living with her, probably to give respite to his parents, who had five other very young children.
In late 1930 or early 1931, Morgal asserted his independence by leaving his home town of Dayton, Ohio, and moving west to San Diego, California. This was his first trip across the country, and he was still walking with braces and crutches at that time. He lived in the Majestic Hotel in San Diego, and made his living selling newspapers.
During his first year in San Diego, a new acquaintance of Morgal’s named Louise Teuber was violently murdered, possibly a victim of a serial killer. Morgal helped in the investigation by giving the police some information about a man Louise had dated the night before her murder, but the lead didn’t pan out. It must have been emotionally difficult losing a friend in this way so soon after moving so far from home, but he remained in San Diego and continued selling his newspapers.
He appears to have moved back to Dayton around 1942 when he appears in a City Directory living with his father and his brother August Walter. The reason for this brief move is not apparent, but he soon returned to San Diego, where he also worked as a doorman.
In 1955, Morgal once again decided to assert his independence by showing that he could hitchhike through all 48 states in his wheelchair. His photo appeared in newspapers all over the country celebrating this accomplishment. Then he returned to San Diego once more.
Morgal died on November 23, 1968. No further information seems to be available about his death or burial. After living an independent life for 56 years, he has faded into relative obscurity until someone can uncover additional records.