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After researching a couple of people that just didn’t work out, I stumbled upon Ralph and his wife, actress Virginia Carroll. Dick Tracy was before my time but who hasn’t heard of him? When I did my preliminary research on him he fit the bill and in the process I discovered that very little was actually known about his actress wife, Virginia. I will discuss her in this blog but I found enough on her to warrant her own blog, which will be the next one I write.
As far as Ralph, what I found at the various websites was that he was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1909. He did some theatrical things before making the move to California. Although he was primarily cast in “B” movies his biggest claim to fame was obviously the role of Dick Tracy. When it later became a TV series he continued with it until he died from a heart attack at age 43. He had married actress Virginia Carroll in 1936 and they had a daughter. There was some other info among the sites but this was the basic gist of them.
Before we start, Ralph was an unusual person to research. I prefer to research someone in chronological order. Most of the time though there will be roadblocks along the way, upsetting what order you find things in. Ralph was different and not very difficult for the most part. The difficulties tended to come from a couple of family members. So, let’s get started.
After beginning his tree up on Ancestry I began searching. The first thing I wanted was his birth info and his immediate family. His birth info from Ohio was from a birth index. Indexes can be notoriously wrong because they are made later by someone collating all the data. This will lead to the occasional error so never take them for gospel. If you look at the birth index it shows two errors. One is that it lists him as Ralph Y Byrd and the other is listing his mother’s maiden name as Shane when it should be Dushane. This doesn’t necessarily mean Ohio screwed it up. Ancestry’s transcription may have added one or more errors. That’s why it is so important to view all documents when they are available.
Regardless, Wikipedia says he was born 22 April 1909 while the birth index shows 29 April 1909. The 22 April date comes from his Find-A-Grave page. His tombstone there only shows 1909. You have to realize that the info on Find-A-Grave is only as good as the person that entered it so never trust it totally either. It will be wrong many times. In fact, never trust any info entirely. I figured, OK, let’s check his WWII draft card and see what he put down because odds are he knew his own birthday. I was disappointed though because he didn’t put it in there! This left his California Death Index record. It confirmed the 29 April 1909 date and his mother’s Dushane maiden name. Also, his middle name of Mounce was the first name of Ralph’s uncle, Mounce Byrd. Now that we have a date, let’s get to his family.
Ralph was born to George Carson Byrd and Edna May Dushane. George was born on 2 May 1886 in Jay County, Indiana and Edna was born on 9 April 1887 in Watertown, Jefferson County, New York. The earliest I found George in Dayton, Ohio was in a 1903 city directory where he is a young clerk at a sewing machine factory and his father, George W, is a machinist. Switching over to Edna, I found them as early as 1900 in Dayton and, like George, her father (Edward) was a machinist also. By November 1905 George and Edna had met and gotten married. In the 1908 city directory George is working for National Cash Register and in the 1909 one he is a foreman at the sewing machine factory.
The next we find them is in the 1910 US Census, where we find them beginning on line 59 living at 419 Hulbert Street. Starting with George, it shows him as 24 years old and on his first marriage. It says that he and Edna have been married about 4 years and that he works in a machine shop. Next is Edna and it also shows this being her first marriage and that she’s borne two children, both of whom are living. Next up is Edward, who is about 3 years old. His full name is George Edward Byrd but he will generally go by Edward G Byrd later. If you looked at his birth record and went all the way over to the right you’d have seen that they were living at 133 Van Lear Street when he was born in 1907. Lastly we have Ralph, who is about 11 months old. Since this census was done on 15 April his age is 100% correct.
As I got into George and Edna it appeared they had a lot of marital discord. For example, let’s look at the city directories for 1911, 1912 and 1913. In the 1911 one George is now a bookkeeper and they are living at 2229 E 5th Street yet for 1912 George isn’t listed at all but Edna is. She is a saleslady and lives at 58 S Logan Drive. The 1913 directory has them back together at some rural address and George is a machinist. This pattern of his job changes and marital separation continued on for most of their married lives, which may explain this news item from June of 1914. This pattern of separation and divorce filings continued on until George passed away and as near as I could tell they never did actually get divorced.
The 1914 and 1915 city directories show George as a machinist and also show he and Edna now living at 212 N Floral Avenue. 1916 has them living at 232 N Wilbe. By 1917 he has become and insurance agent for Metropolitan Life and they have moved to 142 W Holt Street. This is the occupation that he will pretty much stay with for the rest of his life. In fact, Ralph ends up in the same field. For his 1918 and 1919 city directories and his WW1 draft card they will still be living the the Holt Street address. Notice though that he is moving from company to company.
We’re now at their 1920 US Census. They begin at line 63 and are living at 549 W 4th Street. It shows George as 33 and married. Scroll all the way right and you’ll see that he is still an insurance agent. Then comes Edna, 32 and married. Next is Edward, then Ralph and finally a new son, Albert, born in 1911. His full name is Albert Dushane Byrd.
Sometime between the census and 1921 they disappear from the city directories, most likely moving in with family. They reappear the following year though. Here is a breakdown of the next several years:
- 1922: George is a salesman and they are living at 70 S Walnut, which is now a Sherman Williams paint store.
- 1923: They are living at 39 E Babbitt, now an empty lot, and George is back at selling insurance.
- 1924: Same address but George is now a credit manager.
- 1925: They live now at 50 E McPherson but George has become a driver. This news clipping from Feb 1925 is typical of several I found on George about his duties as a scout master. Ralph got involved also and eventually became an Eagle Scout. In fact, he stayed involved with the scouts pretty much for the rest of his life.
- 1926: Although it shows them living at 2500 Stillwater Avenue and George back in insurance, by March that year George was living at 33 Neal Avenue and they had separated again. More problems lay ahead for George a few days later, as you’ll see here.
Unfortunately I was unable to locate any more info on George’s embezzlement problem but by 1928 he was back to being an insurance agent and he and Edna were back together and living at 25 Laura Avenue. Also, note that this is the first directory that Ralph is listed. He’s an insurance agent and also living with George and Edna.
After this George disappears until his death in Dayton on 20 December 1933. Notice in the obit that Edna is listed as his wife and that George is living at 141 Holt Street at the time. However, in 1933 Edna, Ralph and Albert are all listed at 544 W 4th Street. Both of these addresses are empty lots now, but when I checked into the Holt Street address it turned out to be a beauty shop at the time. I assume he was renting a room there.
We need to back up a hair to the 1930 US Census. Edna, Ralph and Albert are living at 223 W Riverview Avenue. At the time, Edna was working at a drugstore, Ralph was an office manager at an insurance company, and Albert was an unemployed 19 year old.
Sometime about 1930 Ralph met a young lady named Vera K Welty. She was a stenographer at a bank and he was an office manager at another bank. Her father, Albert, was from Ohio and his parents from Switzerland. Vera’s mother, Anna, was from Pennsylvania and Anna’s parents from Germany. Vera had been born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania in 1903 so she was a few years older than Ralph. Right about 1913 her family ended up in Dayton and promptly had another daughter who was named Anne. Albert Wetly was a sales manager and director for an ice cream manufacturing company in Dayton called Gem City Ice Cream. Though not in use now, the building still stands today and includes the Wright Brothers’ first bicycle shop within it.
One thing I never saw mentioned anywhere online was that Ralph and Vera got married in Newport, Kentucky on 21 March 1931. Vera promptly got pregnant and gave birth to their son, Conrad Welty Byrd on 29 December 1931 in Dayton. They lived at 319 E Siebenthaler Avenue in 1932 and by 1933 they had separated. Ralph moved back home to 544 W 4th Street and Vera back to her parents’ house at 432 Brookside Drive.
Ralph had been doing local theater for sometime before marrying and by the time Vera filed for divorce in April 1934 he had already moved to Los Angeles, as you’ll see in this news clipping. Vera stayed on in Dayton in 1934. In fact she stayed there for the rest of her life. She remarried in 1953 and became an artist and stockbroker. She passed away in 1977. Her sister, Anne, took her nephew Conrad to his first day of kindergarten in 1936 and she suddenly died there of a pulmonary hemorrhage. She was only 23.
1935 was an important year to Ralph. In February came this story about him winning a film contract with Universal. Then came this one from August about being summoned for some screen tests. Most importantly for 1935 is a news story about a play he’s in at the Bliss-Hayden Theater, which is the Beverly Hills Playhouse now. The news article is in two parts: 1 2. This may very well be where Ralph met Virginia Carroll, his next wife.
December 1936 was the beginning of Ralph’s involvement with Dick Tracy, as you’ll see here and here. 1937 was great for Ralph because Dick Tracy was released in February 1937. Even better, he and Virginia filled out a marriage license on 8 February and they got married in Pasadena on 20 February. If you look at the license you’ll see the witnesses are Albert (Ralph’s brother) and Frances Peet (Virginia’s half-sister). The rest of the year showed Ralph in the news quite a bit: 1 Feb 37 16 Feb 37 22 Mar 37 16 Sep 37. The last news for Ralph in 1937 was from 24 September. It was about the birth of their daughter, Carroll Diane on 23 September. The article also claims that she was two months premature.
Oddly, 1938 was very quiet for them. There was almost nothing on Ralph or Virginia in the news, or records for that matter. They weren’t even listed in the city directories. Fortunately, a news story from early January of 1939 sheds some light. They had been buying and moving into a nice home with a bit over 2 acres at 17251 Sherman Way in Van Nuys. The photo in the link I just gave you is how the address looks now. Not long before Ralph died he sold the property to a church. More on that here and here.
In the process of trying to locate older photos of the place before it was sold I stumbled upon a site for the Museum of the San Fernando Valley. Follow that link and you’ll see a collection of photos donated in 2013 that had the year 1950 written on them. The site doesn’t have any other info on the pictures other than the address of 17251 Sherman Way. I was thrilled to see that it was the house and there were also photos of Ralph and Virginia. There was another that was probably their daughter Carroll but I couldn’t determine that 100%. There are six pictures of the property, two of Virginia and two of Ralph.
Other than 3 or 4 movies coming out for Ralph and one for Virginia, 1939 was another fairly quiet year for the couple. There were a few news items though: Apr 39 Sep 39 Oct 39. 1940 was much more active for them. Virginia had a couple of premiers and Ralph had about 10, half of which were uncredited parts. In May they filled out their 1940 US Census. You’ll find them beginning at line 36. Ralph says he owns the house and that it’s worth $7000. That’s about $130,000 today. He and Virginia both claim to work for film studios, with Ralph working for 40 weeks in 1939 and Virginia for 8. Lastly, Ralph says he earned $5000 ($92,000 today) and Virginia made $600 ($11,000 today). Next up is their daughter, Carroll and then the family maid, Dessie. Following up a bit on Dessie showed that she stayed with them at least until 1952, the year that Ralph died. Here’s a couple of minor news items about them from 1940: Feb 40 Jul 40.
I need to catch you up on his immediate family. Beginning on line 12 in the 1940 US Census, Edna and Albert are living at an apartment complex at 1851 N Normandie Avenue. There are 20 apartments located there. It doesn’t look like it’s big enough but here is a satellite view of it. Back to Edna and Albert, the fourth column shows that they pay $33 a month ($600 today) for rent. Over near the far right you’ll see that together they made about $750 ($14,000 today) the previous year. Following Edna out shows that she is a 51 year old widow born in New York City. Not sure where this came from because she was born in Watertown, New York, over 300 miles (482 km) away from there. It also shows her as living in Dayton, Ohio in 1935 and that she is the manager of an apartment building. As for Albert, he is working retail in a department store. Edna will continue live at this address until she dies.
One person I haven’t mentioned is Ralph’s older brother, George Edward. As stated earlier in the blog, he tended to go by Edward G Byrd. I was able to track him, somewhat, up to the 1940 US Census (at the top of the page) but he pretty much disappeared after this. His history included moving to Cincinnati about 1935, some problems with the law, and at least three marriages and divorces. He is mentioned in his father’s obituary from 1933 but not his mother’s from 1946. He did show up in Ralph’s obit in 1952 though. My guess is that he had a falling out with the family. Later I found him in the news in Cincinnati in October 1943 for some problems with the local draft board. I did find one later thing that may or may not be him. It was a 1962 city directory for San Jose. It shows him as living in a small town by San Jose called Los Gatos. The entry shows him with a wife named Jayle. Hmmm. Jayle Byrd? Considering his penchant for problems with the law, I had to wonder. To play it safe though I checked for records on a Jayle Byrd. Nothing at all showed up, so I tried the newspapers. I got 101 hits, ranging from 1964 to 1970. It was the name of a race horse. My gut tells me it’s the right guy but more digging is needed.
Speaking of brothers, young Albert continued on living in the Los Angeles area. I was able to track him out through 1950 living at the same 1851 N Normandie Avenue address he and his mother had lived at in the 1940 US Census. After this he totally disappeared until he passed away in 1975 in Los Angeles.
Back to Ralph, he worked a lot until joining the US Army in April 1944. This is not to imply that they don’t work in the Army 😉. Here’s a couple of news stories about him during the war years: Sep 44 Jun 45. He didn’t have any more mainstream films released until 1947. Here’s a few stories from the rest of the 1940s: Jul 47 Jul 49 Sep 49. This one from 23 March 1949 is about a serious auto accident he was involved in. The info I read online at the start of the research claimed that the accident resulted in his doing very little work during the 1940s. Considering that it didn’t happen until March 1949, I seriously doubt that it affected Ralph’s film career in the 1940s too much.
Ralph and Virginia both did some Hollywood work during the 1949-1952 time-frame but mostly had settled into family life. By 1950 Ralph had begun filming the Dick Tracy TV series and in March 1950 had also re-enlisted into the Army Reserve. In April 1950 they applied for zoning for a day nursery for young children. This was on their property on Sherman Way. By September they were up and running with Virginia at the helm and a lady named Bozena Rose helping. If I have the right lady, Bozena was a Kansas girl about 10 years younger than Virginia and who just passed away in 2014.
Besides domestic duties, Ralph was very busy filming the new Dick Tracy TV series during 1951 and 1952. They also sold their property to a church, which we discussed earlier, and then moved to 4961 Casa Drive in Tarzana. There was no street view so the link for the address is of the satellite view of the property. Now, here’s the weird thing about that. In the California 1952 Voters List I found Ralph listing his address as Sherman Way and Virginia as Casa Drive. Why? Had they separated? We’ll probably never know.
As for Ralph’s death, it came on 18 August 1952 somewhere in Los Angeles County in California. How he died is questionable. Most sources online claim it was a heart attack due to his work schedule, however others say he was sitting in his car waiting on Virginia while she was shopping. Virginia herself said later in an interview (I’ll put that in Virginia’s blog) that he died at the Veterans Hospital getting treated for cancer. Another question that only someone in the family can clear up. (Update on this below)
I almost forgot to catch you up on Ralph’s son, Conrad. He grew up, became a Naval officer in 1954. In 1956 he married Chloe Harkins on the island of Malta. They had three sons together. Conrad died in 1985 and Chloe passed away in 2011.
To end the story I think I’ll give you a short article someone wrote about Ralph a few days after his death.
Update 18 Nov 2019: About a week after putting this blog online I was getting close to finishing the one his wife, Virginia, I hit the jackpot and found Ralph’s actual death certificate. It confirms Virginia’s story about him dying at the VA in Los Angeles. He had been there for just over a month. Unfortunately this certificate does not say what he died from! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a death certificate like this, but I definitely tend to believe Virginia’s claim now.
Thanks for stopping by! -Ray
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