Monday, November 15, 2010

Lester C. Mills aka L.C. Owens


The youngest son of Orville and Talitha McKay Mills was Lester C. Mills, born in December 1894.  He would be the little boy on the right in the above picture with his older brother Oscar.   Up until today, the last record I had for Lester was his World War I draft registration which showed his residence and place of birth as Marietta in Prentiss County (formerly Itawamba).  The registration card showed that he was single and employed as a railroad laborer out of Corinth, Miss.

The family story handed down about Lester is that he ran with a wild gang that was involved with bootlegging and counterfeiting, possibly even murder.    The story goes that Lester had to leave town to avoid being arrested and that he escaped by hiding in a wooden barrel full  of molasses.   The unusual part of the story has Lester taking his wife's surname of Owens. Supposedly, his wife was Ruth Caver Owens, and after their marriage, Lester and Ruth settled in the Mississippi Delta where they raised their family.  Legend also has it that Lester had a friend named Kenny Wagner who was in prison, and Lester would take supplies to Kenny at the prison.  This story about Lester came from his nieces, Marie and Midge, daughters of Lester's brother, Henry Edward Mills.   Mike's aunt Vera Mae has also talked about "one of those boys" who "got in trouble" and "ran off and changed his name."

Fast forward.   I've been looking for records of Lester for the past several years, unable to find him in the 1920 or 1930 census.   Last night I gave it another try, and bingo, there he was.... in 1930, living in Washington County (where Greenville is located) in the Mississippi Delta.   He was indeed listed as an Owens, and I'm pretty sure it is Lester because of (1) his initials were L.C. (2) his wife was Ruth (3) his brother-in-law living with him was Bill Caver (4) his age was consistent with his known year of birth.  

I had missed him in previous attempts because the Owens surname was incorrectly transcribed as Owers.   It seems that ancestry.com (my subscription search engine for censuses) may have employed foreigners in their transcription process.  Surnames that are obvious and familiar to us - such as Owens - become incorrectly transcribed as Owers.   Frustrating for sure, and the only way I found Lester was by performing a search for all men living in Mississippi in the 1930 census with a birth year of 1894 and with a last name of Owe*.   The asterisk was used as a wildcard and thus returned Owers as well as Owens.

Back to Lester.  I think I found him in the 1920 census too, living in Grenada County, precinct of Holcomb, with wife Georgia Ruth.    He was listed as L.C. Owens, 23, and she was  Georgia Ruth, 14. The next census in 1930 shows him also as L.C. Owens, 34, and she was Ruthie, 24.   Children in 1930 were W. L. (son, 8), Lonnie (daughter, 6), Willie L. (son, 4), and Ruby (daughter, 2).  His occupation in 1920 was farmer and in 1930 he was an overseer.

What is really interesting about Lester's story, aside from taking his wife's name, is his connection to Kenny Wagner (found also Kennie or Kinnie Wagner).  Kenny was born in Scott County, Virginia and called Kingsport, Tennessee home while Lester's father, Orville Mills, was born just below Scott County, only a few miles away in Hancock County, Tennessee.  Coincidence?  Probably. 

Kenny was a notorious criminal, well-known throughout the South for his skill with a gun.    It is said that by the time he was 24 years old, he had killed at least five men, including law enforcement officials in Tennessee and Mississippi.  He was imprisoned several times and escaped several times, becoming somewhat of a cult hero with songs, ballads and even a book written about him.

Kenny Wagner spent several years in the penitentiary at Parchman in the Mississippi Delta, about sixty miles from Greenville in Washington County.  Perhaps the story is true about Lester taking supplies to his friend there.  Kenny was made trustee at the prison and given great liberties.  According to the book "Kinnie Wagner Story", Kenny was allowed to leave the prison on weekends to round up escaped convicts, as long as he reported back on Mondays.

Kenny lived for a while in Corinth which is where he and Lester Mills possibly hooked up. Corinth, in its location just under the Tennessee state line in northern Mississippi, was a magnet for criminals involved in bootlegging, gambling, robbery along with prostitution and murder.  Some of this criminal element later become known as the Dixie Mafia, or the State Line Mob, and the infamous sheriff Buford Pusser lost his life fighting these gangsters.

I can't wait to see where Lester C. Mills/Owens is living in 1940 when that census comes out. Interesting story, don't you think?

1 comment:

Astrid said...

Wow. Very interesting story and congrats on finding him finally. I have also been frustrated with ancestry transcription of names. In any case, you have a great black sheep story worthy of a novel.

Astrid