Saturday, 29 November 2014

Tragedy after tragedy

The Radcliffe family are one of my most interesting and charismatic lineages, but among the tales of court battles fought and surprising wealth are stories of devastating tragedy. From reports of road fatalities and spousal assault, to charges of fraud and fratricide, this family has acted as a magnate for misfortune. It is no wonder the bloodline was said to have been cursed.

The most recent tragedy found in relation to the family was discovered only last Sunday morning, when Jacqi Stevens, author of A Family Tapestry, read last week’s post on Peter Radcliffe and kindly drew my attention to the California Digital Newspaper Collection. Jacqi thought I might find some snippets from Peter’s daily life recounted in these old newspapers and she was not wrong.

Inputting the words ‘Radcliffe’ and ‘Melvin’ in the search field, I hoped to find mention of Peter Radcliffe’s marriage to Fannie Melvin in August 1903, but no such announcement was found.  Instead, the first article listed was entitled ‘Maniac shoots wife and child’.  You can imagine my astonishment when it turned out that this disturbing account actually referenced my ‘cousin’ Peter and his wife.

Branch Insane Asylum, Napa, California
Wood engraving by F. Wyatt, published in The Builder, London, 30 August 1873*

Peter’s father-in-law, Nathaniel Melvin, a retired foreman at the Mare Island navy yard, was mentally ill. On the morning of October 6, 1905, he was at home in Vellejo, California, on temporary release from the Napa Insane Asylum, when the unthinkable happened. Fannie Radcliffe, accompanied by her mother, was returning inside, having just waved good-bye to Peter who was heading back to work as a boatswain in the US Navy, when her father, still wearing his night-gown, and wielding a revolver, knife and baseball bat, appeared at the door and without warning shot her mother twice. Fannie pleaded with him for mercy, but he merely turned on her, cursed, and fired his last bullet, hitting her just below the heart. He then returned inside and threatened to kill anyone who followed him. The poor man believed his family were trying to take his life.

Neighbours and police officers were on the scene within minutes. They followed Nathaniel inside and found him barricaded in his room, trying to cut his own throat with a bread knife. Luckily, the knife was blunt and the sight of the blood brought him to his senses. After a three-hour stand-off, Nathaniel was finally arrested, placed in a straight-jacket and brought back to hospital. Only a week before the tragedy, Fannie’s brother had written to the hospital asking for the permanent discharge of their father. This request was still pending at the time of the incident, but I’d say it was later denied.

While initially it was not expected that Mrs. Melvin would survive, both women recovered from their ordeal, physically, at least.  

Sources: San Francisco Call, 7 October 1905, 10 October 1905; Los Angeles Herald, 7 October 1905. * Image credit: Wellcome Library, London  under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

© 2014 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. What an incredible story, Dara. Understandably, you must have been stunned when you first encountered it. And the women survived?

    Interesting engraving of what must have been the original Napa State Hospital. I almost did an internship there. Life is so vastly different now, in many ways...

  2. Thanks Jacqi, The first newspaper report suggested Mrs Melvin was fatally injured, but it seems she recovered and died just months before Fannie, in 1923. I've asked the SF Public Library for their obituaries.

  3. Good grief! Well, you certainly spiced up your family story. What a terrible happening. I'm glad the women survived, but how awful to go through it!

  4. You never know what you might find, Jo! Thanks for commenting.

  5. WOW! Thank goodness they survived.

    1. Ellie, I was astounded when I came across it.

  6. Dara two amazing stories here: the awful incident with Peter and his family & the wonderful way Jacqi led you to the story. Isn't the blogging community great at helping each other?!

  7. Absolutely Colleen, I couldn't agree more.

  8. What a tragic story, Dara. I'm glad to hear that the women survived the ordeal. I have a similar incident in my own family as well. I look forward to reading more of your blog.


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