Finding Ruth (my search for The Penguin Lady)

Probably the most well known of her photos.

I’ve almost taken this blog down several times as I am not satisfied with it because of the lack of information I was able to find. I’ve chosen to keep it up just so the readers can see how not every subject is a success. Believe me, there have been a few I ended up not writing. Regardless, here it is in its original form. -Ray

Back when I first started my searching blogs I had initially been attracted to two people to research. The first was Ella Harper. The other was Ruth, but for different reasons. Where Ella got out of the business as quickly as she could, Ruth performed for most of her life. They were at opposite ends of the spectrum. I think the clincher was when I zoomed in on Ruth’s face and in her eyes I saw a certain sadness. 

Any time you’re doing genealogy on a particular family tree after a while you need a break, so generally I work on a different tree for a while. There were times I did his while working Ella’s, so when I did it was Ruth’s I worked on. While working on Ruth’s and I needed a break I’d work on Martin Laurello. A never ending cycle I suppose.

Although many things were known about Ruth, there were tons of things not known, and most critical of these was her maiden name. Without it, the genealogy involved is difficult to almost impossible. So all you can do is attack it from the directions of the known facts and start shaking the tree to see what fruit falls. 

To start with, what was known and disseminated from the various websites was that she was born about 1910, played the marimba and had appeared at the 1933 Century of Progress fair in Chicago and had also performed at the 1939 World’s Fair. Her condition is something called phocomelia. She supposedly had married a “normal” man named LaArgo and had a “normal” child named Tony and that sometime in the 1950s she had married a fellow performer named Earl Davis. She then continued on performing until sometime in the 1960s. This was pretty much her bio in a nutshell.

Like any other search, it began with starting her family tree up on Ancestry. Unfortunately, not knowing her maiden name pretty much eliminated any idea of searches for her early life. So all you can do then is go with the facts you do have. In this case I decided to start with her son, Tony, and his father, this unnamed LaArgo. 

Quite a bit showed up for Tony (actually John Anthony), like marriages and divorces. There were various newspaper stories from his time as a California State Trooper, and even one story about a trip and other prizes from a game show he and his wife won. The most important thing I wanted to find out about Tony was his birth info that lists his parents (including her maiden name).  Although I did not find this I was able to get his birth date from public records, and later even found out exactly where he was born, but in the end Tony basically turned out to be a dead end. 

Ruth and Tony

I thought about contacting him online but realized that if he had wanted to discuss his mother’s life publicly we would already know more about her. So out of respect for that and his privacy I left him alone for a long time. However, after I had published Ella Harper’s blog online I did reach out to him via email, with a link to Ella’s story to show him how respectfully I wanted to cover his mother’s story. He has never responded. 

This lead me back to his father’s search.  Fortunately with an odd surname like LaArgo I was able to do a general search for that name and there was essentially only one man in the country with that name. The first thing I found for him was the 1940 Census. His name is George and he is in Northport, Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. It shows him as 58 years old, born in Italy, single, and in 1935 was living in Los Angeles. And lo and behold, he is working for a carnival called Frank West’s World Wonder Show. And even better, he works in the area that involves the phocomelia performers, although the enumerator had misspelled the word as philophia. 1940 Census

At this point I knew I needed to go through all the carnival workers in this census and see who the phocomelia “freak” was. Based on their son Tony’s birth date and the date of this census, 9 April 1940, I knew that Tony would had to have been conceived just a few months later.  Just one page back I found her. Her name is Mary Ceder. She is 32, married and born in Massachusetts. In 1935 she had been living in Greensboro, North Carolina. Greensboro, I found out later, was the carnival owner’s home base of operations so she apparently had been with this carnival for quite some time. A man I assume to be her husband is listed right below her and is named Lou. He is a 35 year old truck driver from New York.  1940 Census

What bothered me about this was that when married couples in this carnival were listed the women were listed as wife, or if they were listed as lodgers, the enumerator had penciled in “wife” in the block that listed them as a lodger. This isn’t the case with Mary and Lou. Maybe they considered themselves separated? If she is Ruth maybe she and George were already an item. In the end, it means that this might be Ruth. And it also means it might not. Further searching for Mary and Lou Ceder revealed absolutely nothing and was a dead end. 

Meanwhile I went back to concentrating on good old George. Now that I had him confirmed all sorts of things popped up. George turned out to be worthy of his own book or movie and he was apparently quite a character. Rather than go into when I discovered what about him, I am going to cover him by his actual timeline. 

George was supposedly born about 1882 in Italy and also supposedly came to America about 1897, although I have yet to find any solid proof of either. I say supposedly because I came to the realization during the research on him that you couldn’t believe anything he said. The first documented item I can find of him is his marriage on 29 May 1928 to a Vera Mae Pearce in Denver, Colorado. This is her second marriage. She was first married to a Claude Clarence Cronbaugh in 1914 but he had passed away in 1926. Vera’s 1st Marriage  George & Vera MarriageVera died in a car crash in Colorado only 13 months after marrying George and is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Logan, Colorado. The odd thing is that she is buried with her previous husband’s last name, not George’s. This turned out to be not so odd once you learn more about George.

Less than two months after marrying Vera, George is charged with attempting to kill Vera’s sister, Margaret. He is convicted and is sent to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Fremont County, Colorado. His wife died in the car crash after he had started serving his sentence. 21 Jul 1928

The 9 April 1930 Census in Colorado shows George in prison. 1930 CensusA few months after the census George was again in the news with his claim that he was offered a pardon for money and that he’d basically been ripped off. George PardonNot too long after this, on 5 March 1931, George married a spinster school teacher named Catherine W Charles in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I have to assume he had been released by this time.  George’s Wedding News  George & Catherine Marriage

And George is back in the news again just one month after marrying Catherine, this time involving liquor smuggling on a Greyhound bus. 9 Apr 1931Almost exactly a year later he hits the news again, this time in the form of attempted extortion. Now he is using his middle name and claims to be a cousin to Al Capone, one of his many fanciful claims he makes during his life. 27 Apr 1932.  Again a few months later in San Mateo, California, George makes a kidnapping claim involving a gun battle and gangsters. 18 Oct 1932. Then on the very next day a news story about a plan involving slot machines. Now he is referred to as a “bullet-scarred” Chicago gangster, who is a third cousin to Al Capone.  19 Oct 1932  

Next, he is in the news in Oakland, California in January of 1936 with an interesting story involving his ardent desire for a young lady who did not wish to be ardently desired. My question is, what did his wife Catherine think about all of this? 24 Jan 1936. On 23 October 1937 he is in Santa Ana, California and now he is a chef at the opening of a barbecue restaurant. Suddenly he has also become a “nationally famous” former personal chef to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. I wasn’t aware that they hired chefs who were former gangsters and who are cousins to Al Capone.  I did check though and never found anything at all tying him into either president. George is on the far right in this picture.  Barbecue.  The year 1938 shows George with a Los Angeles address and occupation as a cook.  It also shows him now delving into the mining business in Nevada. 1938 Directory   Mining

After this the only references to George is the 1940 Alabama Census from the beginning of this story and another 1940 Census taken three weeks after the Alabama one, but in Los Angeles. It shows him and his wife Catherine. This doesn’t mean he was actually there at the time. There is an “x” by her name which means she is the one the enumerator talked to and who provided the information. Odds are he was still with the carnival when this was taken. 1940 Census

George disappears after this. I’m sure there is more out there somewhere but just not online. Catherine never remarried and went on to pass away in Los Angeles on 15 April 1954. Maybe someone out there can find her obituary for me. 

I don’t doubt that George married Ruth but I do wonder if he might have been a bigamist at the time. He was sure ready to marry that Hopkins girl he threatened earlier with the hammer. And I do find instances of Ruth referring to herself as Mrs. Ruth LaArgo after 1940 up until 1953.  April 1946   1953 City Directory.  I did get lucky and managed to find a reference to Ruth’s marriage to Earl Davis in 1954 in a Carnival newspaper. They were married in Minden, Douglas County, Nevada, not Minton as shown in the article. Perhaps a Nevada reader could dig up the real certificate?  Marriage.  I was also able to find a news story about a tent fire Ruth had in Pennsylvania on 5 May 1955.  Fire

Aside from a few carnival stories and society page type of articles this is about all there is as far as Ruth’s documentation. I was never able to find her maiden name. Was she Mary Ceder from that 1940 Census? Or was it possible that Mignon was actually her maiden name? Yes, it very well could have been either. Most websites and stories say she used the Mignon name because it was French for “cute”. Personally, I don’t think it was her maiden name or the “cute” story.

Back in 1933 when she performed at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago there was a huge 100-piece marimba orchestra performing there called the Musser Marimba Orchestra Project. Each member of this orchestra had to buy a specific marimba, specially made for this performance. The marimbas all had a plaque attached with the marimba’s serial number and player’s name on it. It was a huge success. Only about a quarter of the people involved are known by name today but I don’t believe Ruth was one of them.  

What I do believe is that Ruth, an accomplished marimba player herself, would more than likely have attended their show. And during the show they performed Ambroise Thomas’ “Mignon”, which we know they did. I am betting this is where she might have gotten the name. Maybe she just really enjoyed this opera tune.

I am hoping that some reader of this blog from the Chicago area can research the exposition there and see what they dig up on Ruth. Also, maybe a reader in the Greensboro, NC area can research Frank West’s World Wonders Show for any information. And anyone in California that might be able to find something on George’s marriages and divorces and also on Ruth or Earl Davis because my gut tells me that is where she and Earl probably retired. They could also have ended up in the Gibsonton, Florida area where a lot of the carnival workers wintered or retired over the years. 

My gut tells me that Mary Ceder from the 1940 Census was Ruth. As time goes on I will look into that. For now Ruth is just one big question mark.

Please feel free to email me with any leads that may help us to re-discover this fascinating lady. 

Thanks for stopping by! -Ray

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