This blog reports events and interesting tidbits from Rensselaer, Indiana and the surrounding area.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The movie star in Weston Cemetery

The website findagrave.com is a useful resource for people doing genealogical research. The findagrave pages for Weston Cemetery say that 89% of its graves have been photographed. Some graves do not have photographs because they lack markers, some of the graves listed may not actually be there, and others are duplicate entries. 

Looking at the situation, I decided that there could not be more than a few hundred graves left to photograph so set out systematically to find them. Along the way, something unusual happened. I found a grave that was not listed on findagrave or in the publicly available directory. It has a tiny marker, not at all impressive. Doing a little research, I found that this unexpected grave belongs to one of the oddest and most interesting people to come out of Jasper County.

Jay Dwiggins was the son of Robert Dwiggins, who was mentioned in a recent post because he was a leader of the temperance movement in Indiana. As a state senator he was a key player in giving counties the local option to ban liquor. He also ran for governor on the Prohibition Party ticket. One of Jay's uncles died while in the Union Army during the Civil War and another achieved notoriety when his large Chicago bank went bankrupt during the Panic of 1893. Jay grew up in one of Milroy Avenue's most impressive residences, 821 Milroy. (It is one of the few buildings labeled "Outstanding" in the Jasper County Interim Report of 2002.) So even if he had done nothing much in his life, he still would be of some interest for the being part of an unusual and prominent family.
Jay did not stick around Rensselaer after he grew up. When he married in 1887, his occupation on the marriage register is listed as a bank clerk in Chicago. Almost certainly he was a clerk in his uncle's bank, a large bank that went bust in 1893 and took down dozens of small country banks in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and maybe a few more states. He rebounded, and with his brother Elmer, bought the land that is now Griffith, Indiana, platted it, and then sold the lots, promising that with its three railroads it was destined to become a site for many factories. (It did not, at least not as quickly as the Dwiggins brothers promised.) Today all that is left to remember their contribution to Griffith's history are three parallel streets named Dwiggins, Jay, and Elmer.  (Does this make Griffith Rensselaer's daughter city?)
Apparently the lights of Chicago were not bright enough, because the next time I can find him is in 1897 when he and his brother are two of the three partners in the brokerage firm J.R. Willard and Company with offices in New York and a number of other cities. The firm was in the news because it got caught selling short when the market went up, and as a result it declared bankruptcy. 


I have not found him in the 1900 Census, but in the 1910 Census he is living in Berkeley, California and his occupation was listed as a real estate salesman. His only child, Jay Jr., was captain of the University of California football team in 1909.

By 1914 Jay was an actor and writer for movies and had parts in about four dozen films, playing the roles of older or mature males. The only movie I found on-line was one of his last but the first film of United Artists, His Majesty, The AmericanAccording the what I found on the Internet, his character was Emile Metz. I suffered though the whole thing and never saw a character named Metz. I think he might have been the character named Grotz.
Jay Dwiggins died unexpectedly in California on Sept 8, 1919. Calling him a movie star is probably an exaggeration, but he was important enough to get his name in the credits of most the movies he was in. Perhaps if he had lived to the end of the silent movie era, he would be recognized as an important actor. As it is, he seems to fall into the "almost famous" category.

When he died, there was a short piece in the Evening Republican but I could not find anything in the Jasper County Democrat. Why not more? Perhaps the Dwiggins had been gone long enough so that few people remembered much about them. Or perhaps the community was more embarrassed by the Dwiggins than proud of their achievements. Members of the family had been involved in a lot of lawsuits and financial defaults.
(Frank Dwiggins was a cousin of Jay, not an uncle. The paper's account of his life is sketchy and incomplete.)

(In researching this family, the site chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers/ is very helpful. Jay's brother Elmer, who is not buried in Weston Cemetery, had an equally odd and interesting life story. It will be the subject of another post. )

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