In comic books it’s always good to start with the origin story so let’s begin at the beginning of Major Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson’s life in Greeneville, Tennessee and his schooling at Manlius Military Academy in upstate New York.
Most of the time I feel like a detective searching for clues and a lot of times it is the boring work of sifting through piles of information to suddenly discover something that clicks with some other piece of information and then a few more pieces of the puzzle come into view. Late last summer in my ongoing search into Grandfather Nick’s life and work I made the journey to Manlius Pebble Hill School on my way to do research at the library at Syracuse University. I had phoned Manlius several times trying to get information but they didn’t seem to have much information from the earlier years after the school merged with Pebble Hill. I decided to give it one more shot since I was going to be in the area at the University. The library at Syracuse for those of you who don’t know has excellent Street and Smith pulp fiction archives. It was fun looking at the files and getting a glimpse of the personalities and the way business was conducted back in the heyday of the pulps. It made the reality of the writers and their work come alive among the minutiae of payment cards and editor’s notes.
MWN attended Manlius Military Academy in 1909-1911 when he was about 19-21 years of age. At that time it was a prestigious military school run by the renowned General William Verbeck whose father had been a Dutch missionary to Japan and ended up as a political advisor to Emperor Meiji during the mid-to late 1800’s. I knew from family lore that MWN had excelled at Manlius graduating in 2 years instead of the usual 4 but it didn’t really hit me until I visited the school how much of an influence Manlius had upon my grandfather.
Manlius is now a coed prep school but it is one of those places where the impression of history seems to hang in the air and General Verbeck’s leadership still resides in the foundation. Walking around the campus I got that feeling you get occasionally that surpasses brick and mortar of a spirit that is able to survive from one generation to the next. My father Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Jr. attended the school just before he went into the army during WWII and uncle Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson attended for about a year as well and has the tales to prove it.
Maureen Anderson, the alumni director welcomed me warmly and went out of her way to help me in my research. She gave me a tour of the school and did find some records encompassing the Major’s time spent at Manlius. It was so poignant to see Grandfather Nick at that point of becoming—before any of life’s events touched him as an adult out in the larger world. Hearing the history of Manlius from Maureen especially that of General Verbeck and his family and in the midst of reading some of MWN’s pulp fiction adventure stories based on his adventures in the military I got a real sense of where the idealism that was so much a part of MWN’s character had been shaped and formed.
Maureen asked me if I would contribute a few words about the Major for the alumni publication coming out in the spring of 2011 and I was more than glad to do so after all her generosity. Since I have been on the Gulf Coast for over 4 months I didn’t see the article until I arrived back home in the Berkshires in mid-July. Maureen and everyone involved did a beautiful job and I was impressed with the professional appearance of the publication. I appreciate the inclusion of this tribute to Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson especially as it was from the school he loved so well.
While I was down south I got an interesting phone call from Bob Hurley, a reporter for The Greeneville Sun, a newspaper in Greeneville, Tennessee where the Major always indicated he was born. I say indicated because although he usually wrote Greeneville, Tennessee on all official documents there is no other documentation such as a birth record. There are no birth records in that part of Tennessee for the early 1890’s, the US census records from 1890 were destroyed in a fire and the local newspapers are missing those dates—a perfect storm of mystery.
Apparently a syndicated insert appearing recently in The Greeneville Sun included a little tidbit about Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson the inventor of the modern comic book stating he was from Greeneville. I later realized that it was taken almost word for word off the website and most of it my own words. This is why one of my cousins who has high standing in the academic world and is wise to the ways of the internet has cautioned me about what I put on the web. After one or two mishaps I realized how right she is so most of my information is general and can be passed on. It’s a good thing that this information got picked up because it helped to get the word out there and that’s the whole point.
In the Greeneville area the item about the Major took everyone by surprise. East Tennessee is small town America where most everyone knows everyone and no one had ever heard of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. MWN’s father died when MWN was very young. With her brother and sister gone from the area and her parents deceased and now losing a husband and a young daughter MWN’s mother took her small children and left the area eventually ending up in Portland, Oregon. After her remarriage and name change the traces of the family seemed to disappear from East Tennessee.
Bob Hurley’s easy-going southern manner hides a very enterprising and astute journalist and he was immediately on the trail. He found one relative who had been in correspondence with a local genealogist but wasn’t able to get much information. Eventually he spoke to Don Miller the librarian at the Elmer Cox Genealogy library in Greeneville. Just to show what a great librarian Don is, Don remembered my visit to the library about 5 or more years ago and even had my email and home phone number tucked away.
I can’t say enough kind things about Don. He was one of the historians who got me started in the right direction in my search. Among other things Don found great-grandmother Antoinette’s marriage record to her first husband. He is professional to the core and passionate about his work. Don is also incredibly intuitive which comes from being grounded in the years of research that he has done about the history of Greeneville and the surrounding area.
When Bob finally tracked me down at the beach we were both excited at the connection. I filled him in on as many details of the Major’s early life and ancestry as I could as well as MWN’s later adventures. Bob let me know that he was planning to do an article and wondered if by any chance I might come back to Greeneville soon. He is very persuasive and managed to talk me into taking a little bit of a jaunt out of my usual route back to the northeast. It seemed to be a good opportunity to let people in the area know about the Major and possibly help add to more information. If you get the sense that Bob is a charming character you would be right. I’m so glad I let him persuade me because I had a fabulous time. Meeting friendly, interested people from the area made it especially nice as other times I’ve been to East Tennessee I’ve wandered around on my own.
I love to drive, especially on the back roads, so I thoroughly enjoyed driving across South Carolina from the lowlands of Charleston where I had been visiting friends and head into the mountains. I believe that until you walk on your ancestors’ bones, as it were, by walking on the land they walked upon, you can’t get a complete sense of your history. After the intense heat of the Gulf Coast and Charleston it was pleasantly cool in Highlands, North Carolina where I spent that night with another of my far-flung southern friends. I headed out the next morning to Greeneville, which is just a few hours away over the next mountain ridge and met Bob. We had a grand time driving around in his huge chariot of a truck to many of the places I had been on several earlier visits. It would be hard not to have a grand time with Bob as your tour guide. We went to Broylesville, a small community settled by some of the ancestors, Urbana Cemetery in Limestone and Washington College Academy, a beautiful setting and the site of an early school. Through an internet search cousin Ian Wheeler-Nicholson discovered our great, great grandmother Sarah Wheeler’s grave near there at the old Salem Cemetery and that was one of the places I went the first time I visited several years ago. As I noted to the family after my initial trip the cemetery is on a rise of a hill with views of fields across the way, apple trees and horses munching on the grass, tails flicking. In the distance are the blue ridges of the higher mountains of the Appalachians. It’s easy to see why my ancestors loved it so much.
Back at the library in Greeneville Don Miller and I enjoyed reconnecting especially as I’ve done much more research and between us we worked out the possibilities of MWN being born in Greeneville, Tennessee for certain. I’ve found records at the National Archives in Washington, DC relating to the whereabouts of great, great grandfather, Christopher Wheeler, MWN’s grandfather, practicing medicine in Greeneville and where he died in 1893. That information along with additional clues and Don’s impeccable knowledge made him confident that MWN was indeed born in Greeneville. I’ll take that as a definite unless something else turns up.
It was also nice to meet Rev. Casey Nicholson who is a big comic book fan and was very excited about MWN being from Greeneville. I know it sounds funny that a Reverend loves his comics but Casey is not your typical Presbyterian minister but then again perhaps he is. He’s young and with the strong ethical values he has it probably relates well to the concept of a Justice League. And of course, he’s knowledgeable about his comics. We aren’t related through the Nicholson side but with his family being in the area for a long time like most southerners we can probably find a connection somewhere.
I just received Bob’s wonderful full page splash on the Major in The Greeneville Sun and it’s a fun read. He did a great job of introducing MWN to his readers and hopefully someone will respond to the request for more information. I’m deeply appreciative of the interest from Manlius and Greeneville, two important places in MWN’s early life. Since cousin Ian and his wife Erin are about to bring forth the newest member of the clan it seems fitting to celebrate our ancestors and look forward to the next generation.
On a personal note I’m happy to say that I finally succeeded in wrassling the blog away from the hosts without the mosts. I confess that I had to resort to professional help. Thank you a thousand times Evan. This is the first post from the new digs. Hopefully we’ll manage to ransom the website out in one or more pieces and be back in top form. There’s a lot to show and tell.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of How I Spent my Summer.