Ch 2: Chasing Charlie Cain

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Words by Shannon Cain. Images & captions by Maureen Cain.


...in which Shannon critiques Grandpa Cain’s truncated memoir and Maureen finds many new documents and we both become overwhelmed by what we’ve started



Nobody in our family knows the whole story on Charlie Cain. Some family members have photos, others have documents. Others ended up with copies of a manuscript he wrote shortly before his death, the first fifty pages of which was to have been a book-length memoir. When a copy of this manuscript found it way to my inbox via a cousin, I think, I was living in Paris in a tiny apartment, working on my novel.


While Shannon reads up on the possibly fictionalized version of Grandpa, I try to piece together his verifiable, official record. My naive objective two weeks ago was to find my grandfather's mugshot. That search has taken me to four departments of corrections, three US courts, two museums, the national archives, state archives, county records offices, city records offices, several newspaper collections and the FBI. I've uncovered a birth certificate, marriage license, death certificate, court records, inmate card, picture of his gravestone, census entries, school records, record of military service, newspaper articles and a social security number, but still no mugshot.

I took a break from my writing to read Grandpa Cain’s manuscript, and thought: too bad he never finished. The first three pages of the book, his Foreward to his grandchildren, laid out what he’d intended to write. He references future chapters that would have covered not only his trial in the US District Court in Spokane and his time at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary but also his bouts with alcoholism and manic depression. This preview was of more interest to me than anything else, especially as he comes tantalizingly close to admitting guilt (“...after 25 years of keeping my nose clean…”). I scanned through the rest of the manuscript, Chapters One through Five, which chronicle his childhood growing up on various farms and his young adulthood, before he married my grandmother.


My grandfather's birth certificate, 1918.

Yearbook picture from Regis University, 1938.

The writing, I had to admit, was pretty good. It was full of bluster and burdened with digressions but engaging and charming, and especially rich in detail and description. But I had my own book to work on--not to mention a pile of other writers’ manuscripts to review--so I closed the file and went on with my life.


Now I’m interested again. I know the document was attached to an email but from whom and when is anyone’s guess. My email inbox is a black hole. I type a number of possible subject lines into the search bar and there it is, under Grandpa Cain’s Memoirs.


With a metric shit tonne of documents in front of me, I unleash my obsession to organize and set up an online notebook to track our research and store information. I recall a picture that Shannon has of the two of us as children with Grandpa I'd hoped to include in this chapter. She says she knows exactly where the picture is: filed away with her other important papers.

Shannon does not share my compulsion to organize, but she promises me that the photograph is around here someplace and will show up for a future chapter.

Charlie's is a dude-heavy narrative, chronicling a white male boyhood and youth growing up on the farm. Its few lines about the women in his life are limited to their general saintliness and feminine superiority. The mothers and grandmothers are treated with fawning and passing respect, given one sentence for every twenty afforded the men, the prose laced with that brand of responsibility-shirking sexism at which the men of his generation excelled: “the secret to raising good kids,” Grandpa opines, “is to pick the right mother for them.”



Digging for evidence of our grandfather's rumored polygamy, another family member gives me this marriage license for a Charles Patrick Cain to a woman who was not my grandmother. The secrets around the story of my grandfather require me to verify everything I learn about him, so I dig more and find that the Charles Patrick Cain on this marriage license is not my grandfather after all. It is a 19 year old boy marrying a 17 year old girl in 1974. Their divorce is recorded two years later, oh well.

His racism, too, is offhanded, casual and benevolent, typical of the era. He tells the story of a slip-and-fall lawsuit filed by his grandmother against the Union Pacific Railroad, which his family won on the grounds that no porter had appeared to help her step down from the train to the icy platform. These were the same porters he’d described earlier with that particular, romantic ignorance of the patriarchy: “We had sleeper cars called Pullmans, where a bed was cleverly stored above your seat daytime and whenever you wished as night fell, a friendly, smiling black man would release the contraption and let the bed down…and the softly clicking rails would lull you to sleep...” In the court battle that ensued against the railroad, he tells us that: ‘...as sharp, devious and crooked as they might have been, those U.P. legal eagles were no match for our little Jewish guy from Chicago.”


Although the first chapter announces itself as covering the history of his grandparents, he lavishes the bulk of its attention on his grandfather and apparent hero, Charles Peter Cain, a Nebraska rancher, businessman and politico. A broad shouldered, barrel chested, man’s man (my editor’s pen itched to scrawl CLICHE in the margin), Charley Cain was born in Cainsville, Missouri circa 1850.


The text informs us that Charles Peter Cain is descended from the founders of Cainsville, who “emigrated with their slaves from Virginia around 1810. They owned a small plantation in northern Missouri.”


Oh My Fucking God, I write in the margin.


Okay: simple math plus American history tells us the chances aren’t bad that your average white person’s ancestors were slaveowners, but rarely are we confronted with the evidence on the page. And the names of the guilty. Which, surreally, is the same name as your own.


I take a picture of the offending sentence and my stricken marginalia and send it to Maureen.


Her reaction isn’t what I’d hoped. First she reminds me of American History Plus Math, And also, she texts, I heard that Great Grandpa Cain had nothing at all to do with the Cainsville Cains. Remember this memoir was written by an unreliable narrator.



I call the National Archives in Seattle to request my grandfather's mugshot, court records and inmate file. While I have the archivist on the phone, I ask her what exactly the National Archives does. She says, "If you think of the Library of Congress as the federal government's bookshelf, then the National Archives is its file cabinet." Ten days later, she calls back to tell me they cannot locate the court records, but they did find his inmate card and that I can come in to their research room to make a copy.

On my drive to National Archives, I imagine a building of Washington DC-style architecture with thick pillars and marble steps, but when I arrive, I find a warehouse design in Seattle gray. The place looks remarkably like an actual file cabinet.

I remember a family vacation one year. All the kids in the station wagon, driving from New York to visit Grandpa and Grandma Cain in Denver, and stopping for the night at a small town in Missouri. My father posing in front of the Welcome to Cainsville sign with a stupid grin on his face, his thumb pointed pridefully toward his own chest.


Could someone call the PR team over at ancestry.com, stet, for a dose of revisionist Pepto Bismol to cure the sick feeling in my stomach?


My grandfather's inmate card from the prison at McNeil Island includes his sentence (8 months in prison and 4 years probation) and his offense ("U.S. Mails to Def. & Consp.") In the upper right corner I find another clue: His FBI number. As soon as I get back to my laptop, I get online and request his FBI file.

Why would Charlie Cain lie about being an ancestor of Cainsville? How reliable is this rumor to which Maureen refers? While history tells us it’s likely at some point over the centuries that our ancestors owned slaves, might the evidence actually exist? If we go looking for it, what will we find? If we find it, what will we do?



Stay tuned for chapter 3, in which we investigate court records marked "secret," examine our grandfather's FBI file, and uncover a 40-year old phone number in Texas.



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