Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mrs. Stoner's Doubtful Family History

Winifred Sackville Stoner, jr.
How skilled was she at
Winfield Sackville Stoner, Jr. (also known as “Cherie”) was one of the early celebrities of the Esperanto movement, and although the Stoner family seems to have dropped out of Esperanto not longer they entered it, newspaper articles kept linking her to Esperanto. Her mother, Winifred Sackville Stoner was an education theorist, though other than teaching her daughter, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that she based her theories on any evidence. She did state that little Winifred’s accomplishments were not due to genius but to to “natural education” (that is to say, her mother’s doing).

As I’ve noted before, I’m inclined to disbelieve the elder Stoner’s claims, because much that can be checked turns out to be false. The woman had a genius for self-mythologizing. In August 1910, the San Francisco Call reported that Mrs. Stoner was the daughter of Lord Sackville-West, but that claim didn’t stand up to scrutiny. By October, her ancestry had changed.

The Tacoma Times ran an article on October 15, 1910[1] about the younger Stoner that gives another account of her ancestry. It’s also spurious.
At Eight, She Talks 8 Tongues
Evansville, Ind., Oct. 14.[2]—Little Miss Winifred Sackville Stoner, jr., eight years old, converses fluently in seven languages and in others to a limited extent. Little “Cherie,” as she is called, is the product of the system of education advocated by John Stuart Mill and Prof. James of Harvard.

Ever since her birth she has had the association of cultured minds and the classics. At three weeks her instruction began. When less than a year old she could talk, and at two she learned to write. By the time she was three the child could manipulate a typewriter and had begun to study the classics and Greek mythology.

Mrs. Stoner, her mother, is at the head of the Woman’s Esperanto League of America.[3] When four years of age the baby was given a diploma by Dr. Ramenhof Russ[4] as one of the best Esperanto linguists in the country.[5]

Winifred contributes frequently to newspapers and magazines. She won a silver medal from a child’s magazine last fall for her clever verse. Her book of “Jingles” was printed last year.

The prodigy is of English ancestry, being the granddaughter of Thomas Sackville and the grand niece of the late Lord Lionel Sackville West, of whose estate her mother is the heir. Mrs. Stoner is the author of “Castles in Spain.”

The Stoners recently left Evansville for the west, where Col. Stoner is in charge of the United States Marine hospital at Port Townsend, Wash.
The last paragraph clearly shows why the Washington State papers were suddenly interested in the Stoners. It’s even correct. Not so much the paragraph above it.

Back in August, Mrs. Stoner was stated to be the daughter of Lionel Sackville-West, who was the ambassador from Great Britain during the Cleveland administration. Baron Sackville was rejected by the U.S. government (and thus recalled by the British) after he tried to meddle in a Presidential election. As I noted, he had seven children, all of whom were born before the likely birth of Mrs. Stoner. Further, Baron Sackville’s mistress (perhaps we should say “unmarried partner”) had died, with the birth of her last child, in 1871. Both Winifred Stoners seem a bit dodgy on their actual ages, but the elder Winifred clearly wasn’t born in 1864.

In October 1915, she’s claiming descent not from Lionel Sackville-West, but from Thomas Sackville. But that can’t be either. If Lionel Sackville-West is her uncle (which he would have to be to be Cherie’s granduncle), then Thomas Sackville would have to be one of Lionel Sackville-West’s brothers. That easily checked (even then; just look it up in a peerage guide). Let me now do the work of lazy and credulous early twentieth-century newspaper reporters.

Lionel Sackville-West was the son of George-Sackville West and Elizabeth Sackville. George was born George West, presumably taking his wife’s name later.[6] Lionel was their seventh of nine children. In order, they are: George, Charles, Reginald, Elizabeth, Mortimer, Mary Catherine, Lionel, William, Arabella. No Thomas.

Nor was it even remotely likely that her “uncle” Lionel would have left her as an heir, given that he did have five acknowledged children who survived to maturity. It was a news item that the youngest, Henry, claimed that his parents had married before his birth, meaning that he should get everything, title and all. It went to his cousin, Lionel Sackville-West (presumably named after his uncle).

Fortunately, dogged researchers at have figure out who Winifred Stoner really was. I’ve looked at the documents, and they’ve uncovered the link that proves it all. The 1910 Census has the Stoners living in Port Townsend, Washington. At the time of the census, little Cherie was 7 years old. Winifred notes that she 33 years old, was born in England, as was her father, but her mother was born in France. She’s claiming a birthdate of about 1877, a mere six years after the death of Lionel Sackville-West’s mistress. From 1872–1878, Lionel Sackville-West was the minister plenipotentiary to Argentina. Yet, Mrs. Stoner doesn’t claim that she was born in Argentina, but in a country that Lionel Sackville-West spent little time in. We can’t guess about the location of Thomas Sackville during that time, because he didn’t exist.

As we go to the later censuses, time slows down for Mrs. Stoner. In 1910, she’s 33. In 1920, she has aged to 36, which is a really cool trick, although she can’t maintain that and ages to 47 by 1930.
She’s harder to find on the earlier censuses, because her name actually wasn’t Winifred. It was Pauline. Our earliest record for Winifred Sackville seems to be Washington, Pennsylvania city directory from 1897. She is living with one Anna Sackville (widow of John) and John V. Sackville, a brakeman on the O&R Railroad. A year later, she’s living in Erie, Pennsylvania, working as a teacher, still under the name Winifred. But our clue is that Winifred Sackville in Pennsylvania. John and Anna Sackville, their daughter Pauline, and son John do show up on the 1880 census (as do two other children, Mary and Ernest). She’s 6, presumably born in 1874. John is a year younger.

The older John Sackville was a doctor (just like the man Pauline/Winifred) married. He was born in England, just as Winifred would later claim. Her mother, however, was born in Pennsylvania, not in France, and was of Prussian descent. His will names his eldest child as Pauline Winifred Sackville. The mystery is slowly unraveling about the Stoners.

Presumably, Winifred’s siblings were still alive in 1910 when Winifred was spreading tales of being descended from British nobility. After all, in 1910, she was 36 (for the first time), her brother John was 35, Mary 33 (the same age Winifred was claiming on the census), and Ernest 31. I’m sure they were reading the papers and knew exactly who this woman was. What did they think of stories their big sister told to the press?

Update: The thought has occurred to me that as Mrs. Stoner was a native of the Pittsburgh region, if she spoke with a British accent, it would have been a fake one. Could it be that she declined to attend the 1910 Universala Kongreso for fear that her imposture would be found out?

Update 2: For those who scrutinize URLs, yes, I've updated the title.

  1. I’m a little late with this, because as I researched I found that the Spokane Press ran the same article on October 11, 1910.  ↩
  2. Clearly newspapers of the era played fast and loose with datelines. The Spokane Press dates it the 11th, of course. There is possibility a Chicago-area paper that dates it even earlier.  ↩
  3. Actually, the Women’s Auxiliary of the Esperanto Association of North America, on the other hand, the newspaper wrote: Woman’s Ecperant lLeague of America.  ↩
  4. Clearly a garbling of “Dr. Zamenhof of Russia.” The Spokane Press makes the same error.  ↩
  5. Probably nothing of the sort. How might have Zamenhof examined her in 1906? I doubt the two ever met because the Stoners were absent from the 1910 Congress. I have seen no indication that the Stoners ever went to a Universala Kongreso.  ↩
  6. All this cribbed from Wikipedia.  ↩

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