Ch 1: Chasing Charlie Cain

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

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

Chapter One

in which we question the wisdom of naming our company after our grandfather the felon.

One day last week, Maureen comes up with the bright idea of following the advice we’d just given a client, which he’d loved, about telling the story behind the name of his company.

After the client meeting we sister-Skype.

“Hey,” she says, “we need to do this for ourselves. Tell our company's story.”

“You’re a freaking genius,” I reply. “But wait, what's our story?”

We named our new firm, The Cain Agency, after our paternal grandfather’s insurance company. I like the name mostly for its nifty retro vibe. As far as we can tell, the original Cain Agency was founded in Portland Oregon around 1959.

Shannon's right -- I'm totally a genius. Or at least I was feeling pretty smart until I started playing amateur investigative journalist. They make it sound so easy on the Serial podcast! I start my research in the 1959 Portland Yellow Pages and right next to Carbon Paper and Card Rooms, I find my grandfather's Cain Agency ad.

An aside: There were a lot of "nifty retro" insurance agents in Portland in 1959. I find ads like this on almost every page.

Grandpa Cain was an old-school Irish storyteller, a charmer, sharp witted, famous for his personal letters. A character, a big personality, a hard working Christian man, a world-class insurance salesman who spent a lot of time on the road, making a living to support his wife and four kids back in Denver.

My paternal grandfather, Charles P. Cain, is on the left, giving my maternal grandfather a salesman's handshake at my parents' wedding in 1963.

Charlie Cain also spent time in the late 1950s in a federal penitentiary for securities fraud, and was reportedly in and out of jail on DUIs over the years.

The Securities and Exchange Commission Historical Society has a copy of the SEC's 1957 Annual Report. In the section on court cases from that year, I learn that my grandfather was a defendant in the case "United States v. James O. Jenson. et al" and was sentenced to several months in prison and years of probation. I call the US District Court in Seattle to request the court records. They tell me they don't keep records that old, but I might be able to find them at the National Archives, so I call them next. (More on my research at the National Archives in an upcoming chapter.)

“We have no idea who he was,” I say. Maureen is in Seattle, the poor dear, and I am calling from the south of France, where, unbelievably, I have ended up residing.

“We were just kids,” she says. Behind her is a steely gray morning. Behind me: sunset on the Cote d'Azur.

“I felt uncomfortable around him,” I tell her. “The drinking.”

“That vacation in Ireland.”

“Geez, yes that. He was always the center of attention.”

Even as kids, we knew about Grandpa’s time in prison but we were vaguely aware, too, that there existed another secret about Charlie Cain, a story not to be repeated in front of the children.

Over the years, our parents long divorced and our father long deceased, bits of Grandpa Cain’s story began to trickle back to us. Now we compare notes, rumors, facts and memories and what we end up with is this: multiple drunk driving arrests, a lot of prescription medication, probably manic depression and/or bipolar disorder. And there was another woman, somewhere in Texas, whom he’d been seeing for decades and tried to visit in the weeks before he died. Riddled with cancer, he left our grandmother in Denver, intending to drive to San Antonio to say goodbye to his Texas flame. Along the way he stopped in Tucson to visit our family, where he grew more ill and died. He never made it to Texas.

“I have so many questions,” I say to Maureen. The swallows have just returned to Saint-Paul de Vence and are diving against the dusk.

“Mom says he was imprisoned at McNeil Island,” she says. “That’s right here in Puget Sound. I can practically see it from my window.”


“Well, it’s about fifty miles from here. But still.”

I can't actually see McNeil Island from my window, but I find pictures of it on the internet. Lots of pictures. And lots of stories of infamous felons. Charles Manson spent time there in 1961 on forgery charges.

There is currently an exhibit at the Washington State History Museum about McNeil Island. At the museum, I learn that there might be inmate index cards, mugshots and ferry log records from the 1950s, but I need an appointment to see them. I will come back next week.

“Have we named our company after an old-school conman?” I ask. “Or just a tragic romantic?”

“A terrible cad or just mentally ill?” says Maureen.

We go on like this for a while, asking ourselves more questions (Is our company doomed, or can we redeem our name? Is the name Cain inherently irredeemable? Do we have cousins in Texas?) until the questions demand answers.

My shitty medieval village wifi connection fails and the screen goes dark. I watch the swallows and wait for the call to reconnect.

“Look out, Charlie...” I say when Maureen is back online.

“ we come,” she replies.

Next, Chapter Two, in which we search for Charlie Cain’s mugshot, court and prison records, and marriage license(s).

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