Finding Walter Oliver

How do you find a man that doesn’t want to be found?

It’s not a quick solution to the problem. I’ve been looking for William Collins for almost 20 years. But wait? Wasn’t I looking for Walter Oliver?

It’s a long story.

It started for me in the last millennium when I met a man online who was looking for information about his grandmother’s family. I’ll call him Cousin Harry. His grandmother was Ivy Collins Coker. It appeared that she was the younger sister of my great-grandmother Henrietta Collins Webb.

Things seemed complicated, relationship-wise. Ivy was born after 1880, and her mother Ruth Gamble Collins was listed on the 1880 census as a widow. Further complications arose because Ivy had reported her father as a Deaderick Collins. Now, to be sure, Ruth and Deaderick were married, but he disappeared off the census after 1870. It didn’t look like he could be Ivy’s father.

More complications regarding this family group. There was a brother of Henrietta’s and Ivy’s named William. Cousin Harry had a story that William had gotten in some sort of trouble with “the law” in East Tennessee and left the area for good. This story was supported by the fact that Harry’s uncle Buster, who was born around 1920, remembered a childhood memory of meeting an Uncle Walter, and remembered hearing the adults whispering they thought it was safe and that no one would recognize or remember him. One family member called Uncle Walt by the name “Uncle Will”.

Prior to receiving this photo from Cousin Harry, I had received a parcel of old letters from Cousin Diana. One of the letters was written by Ruth’s brother Larkin Boling Gamble in Brownsville, Oregon, to his sister in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, most probably Martha “Mattie” Gamble Rhea. He mentions that their sister Ruth is dying and could Mattie send the news to Walter Oliver, and to ask Walter to write back. Larkin mentions all of Ruth’s children by name except for William, so my best guess is that William is Walter. What had William done that he left East Tennessee for good? Why did his family speak in code when referring to him?

I thought I’d never know.


Last year I subscribed to and GenealogyBank.

I find the following for Tuesday, April 21, 1891, Knoxville Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune. Volume VII, Issue 55, Page 5, from GenealogyBank.



Wm. Collins’ Case Illustrates that Misfortunes Never Comes Singly.

A young white man named William Collins was arrested late yesterday evening and put in the city hall prison for being drunk.

Mr. Joe Roehl, who runs a bakery on Grand avenue, appeared about six o’clock last evening and reported that he had been robbed of twenty odd dollars and the indications are that Collins was the man who got his money.

Collins had been in the employ of Roehl and yesterday went out to deliver some bread and returned to the bakery drunk, bringing the bread.

Roehl would not permit him to remain on his premises.

Yesterday afternoon Mr. Roehl went out of his bakery and left his daughter attending it. Collins loafed in and the girl went to the drug store and left Collins in the bakery a few minutes.

When Mr. Roehl returned he found that a twenty dollar bill had been taken out of his safe, which had been left unlocked; also that about a dollar and a half had been abstracted from the cash drawer.

He traced the matter up and found that Collins had gotten liquor at a Market square bar-room, and had gotten change for a twenty dollar bill.

When Collins was put in the calaboose for being drunk, twenty dollars and forty-one cents was found on him in bills and change. He was arrested on a warrant from Square Leahy, and put in jail to await trial for the robber to-day at four o’clock p.m. He stoutly denied having taken the money ffrom Mr. Roehl.


The same paper on the following day…

William Collins Will Serve Out a Work-house Sentence.

Williams Collins, the youth arrested Monday afternoon for drunkenness and who subsequently turned out to be indebted to Mr. Joe Roehl, the baker, to the amount of $21, which he had lifted fom his safe was yesterday tried for his actions.

In ‘Squire Leahy’s court, Mr. Roehl appeared but stated that although Callins was guilty, he hoped the lightest sentence possible would be placed upon him. Collins has been working for Mr. Roehl, but he has a sick mother and a sister dependant upon his earnings. For this reason and the fact that he is himself in very delicate health he was merely fined a total of twenty-tree dollars and committed to the workhouse.

At the city hall, Mr. Roehl recovered all the money which had been stolen from him. Collins pleaded guilty to the charge of drunkenness on the city’s warrant and was let off with a fine of $6.75 by the recorder.

If he works out the two fines, he will be at the workhouse for some time to come.

Collins is not a bad looking young man and the trouble liquor got him into will doubtless prove a lesson to him.

Fast forward to May 18, 1908, the the Arkansas Democrat in

A Railroad Foreman

Killed Wife Insulter.


Bristol, Va., May 91. — A special from Hendricks Creek, in Sullivan county, Tenn., says:

Will Collins, a railroad foreman, yesterday shot and instantly killed Geo. Wright, a middle-aged farmer. Wright accused Collins of having insulted his (Wrights’) wife and threatened to kill Collins. Collins fired first, however, three balls penetrating Wright’s breast.

The tragedy occurred in the Wright home, where Collins has been boarding. Collins escaped and has not yet been captured. His home is in Knoxville.

From The Tennessean, May 20, 1908…




George Wright Killed by Will Collins.,

Former’s Wife Figures.

BRISTOL, Tenn., May 19.–(Special) George Wright, a middle-aged farmer, was shot to death by Will Collins, foreman on the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad, in Sullivan County, yesterday afternoon, as the result of a difficulty in which Wright’s wife figured. Collins escaped and is still at large. His home is in Knoxville.

Wright charged Collins with having made an insulting proposal to his (Wright’s) wife, and demanded an explanation. Failing to get any satisfaction, he declared that he would avenge the alleged wrong and kill Collins, but the latter was too quick, and shot Wright three times in the breast, killing him instantly. The tragedy occurred in Wright’s own home, where Collins was boarding, and created much excitement in that part of the county.

And the Daily Arkansas Gazette, May 20, 1908…



Farmer Dead, Who Had Threatened to

Kill Boarder.


Bristol, Va., May 19.–A special from Hendrick’s Creek, in Sullivan county, Tennessee, says: Will Collins, a railroad foreman, yesterday shot and instantly killed George Wright, a middle-aged farmer. Wright accused Collins of having made an insulting proposal to his (Wright’s) wife and threatened to kill Collins. Collins fired first, however, three balls penetrating Wright’s breast.

The tragedy occurred in the Wright home, where Collins had been boarding. Collins escaped and has not yet been captured. His home is in Knoxville.

Then on August 28, 1908, in The Tennessean, we find this…



BRISTOL, Tenn., Aug. 1.–(Special.) James Clements, 21 years old, and residing near Bristol, who was shot by Will Collins Friday, it is said accidentally, died Monday. Collins has not yet been arrested, though he may be prosecuted This is the second accidental shooting in Bristol that has proven fatal within ten days.

Then silence.


I got a message on facebook a few days ago from a woman is descended from Mattie Gamble Rhea. I asked her if she knew what happened to Will Collins. She hadn’t heard of him. So we chatted and developed a theory. If Larkin Boling Gamble thought his sister Mattie in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, could get in touch with Walter Oliver he must be nearby. I had found a reference to a Walter and Bertha Oliver in Siloam Springs some 20 years ago, and I had requested a death cert, but it could not be located. The theory was that if someone is in trouble, they will pack up and go to a safe place where they know someone and have access to resources and support.

I believed that our Will Collins is Walter Oliver. How to prove it?

I went to consult my friend

I found a 1915 marriage record for Walter Oliver and Bertha Carney in Neosho, Missouri, just over the Arkansas line.

I found that Bertha’s sister was Gertrude Carney who married Clarence Arric. Clarence’s father was John Arric who was born in Blount County, Tennessee, which is where Walter/William’s mother Ruth Gamble Collins and all her siblings were born.

I found a findagrave memorial for him which showed that he and his wife Jane were buried in Davis Cemetery in Siloam.

I found a 1910 census that shows John and Jane are living in Benton County, Arkansas, with their children and Jane’s mother Susan J. Davis.

And who is Susan J. Davis? She is the oldest sister of Ruth Gamble Collins and Mattie Gamble Rhea. Her husband was Caleb Davis, and they are buried in Davis cemetery.

This is certainly a plot twist. Susan’s grandson Clarence married Gertrude Carney, and Susan’s sister Ruth’s son married Gertrude’s sister. I used to wonder if Walter had hidden his past from his wife. I think it is safe to say that she knew his background and why he was in hiding.

In 1929, Walter and Bertha Oliver visit her sister Mrs. Clarence Arric.

Mr. and Mrs. Walter Oliver have returned to their home at Siloam Springs, Ark., after a visit here with the latter’s sister, Mrs. Clarence Arric and family.


Bertha died in 1982. Walter was about 14 years older, and we think he died about 1945. I haven’t located their burial place, but Davis Cemetery seems like a good place to start.

Good night, family. You are a complicated bunch.

4 Responses to “Finding Walter Oliver”

  1. Dawn Stanford Says:


    Liked by 1 person

  2. sharon Says:

    My biological grandfather is Norman Hallenbeck. He left New Jersey (and my grandmother, plus their 3 young children) in 1930. We heard the rumors…then I saw the press clippings. He robbed the Paramount Theatre (he was an usher there) in NYC on December 22 with the help of a cashier named Young. She was never heard from again, he would be arrested 8 years later for forging a check.
    Also, my third cousin did her DNA. Yup, I was right, her grandfather was not the man they thought. Now she has a new culture to claim!

    Liked by 1 person

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