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When Claire Chennault was caught by the Mann Act

I was mildly puzzled, researching Chennault's life before he went to China in 1937, to find how little anyone seemed to know (or anyhow let on) what he was up to in the nearly six years between marrying Nell Thompson in 1911 and being commissioned as a first lieutenant in the US Army in 1917. In her generally excellent biography, Martha Byrd says only that he taught school, sired three children, "moved restlessly from one city to another," including a stay in New Orleans, and by the spring of 1917 worked in a Goodyear factory, which hardly seems the expected career path for a school teacher. Well, come to find out, he'd managed to start another family, a fact brought to my attention by Andrew Glaess, whose hobby it is to read old newspapers.

Delhi High School A bit of background: when Chennault enrolled at Louisiana State University, he was a year underage, so he pushed back his birth year to 1892. As a result, in the summer of 1914 when he had just completed his year as principal of Delhi High School in northeastern Louisiana, near the west bank of the Mississippi River, he was officially twenty-two years old. That was a remarkably young age, but the state had only recently required towns to offer education beyond the eighth grade, and qualified staff were no doubt hard to find. I had imagined a one-room schoolhouse such as Chennault himself had attended, but Delhi High was more impressive than many of the schools I attended as a boy. That postcard to the left shows the building in 1914, the very year Chennault's adventure began.

Among his students was Anna Mae Griffin, called Annie at the time. The Griffin family lived nearby in the town of Lamar, and Chennault had boarded with them during the school year, while his own family remained at the home place in Gilbert, twenty-odd miles away. In the arch language of the time, Chennault "paid attention" to the girl, with the usual consequence. Since he was not only married but had a child of his own, he couldn't do the honorable thing by the girl -- Annie was seventeen -- so they opted for what someone decided was their next best solution: his brother William would marry her instead. (Bill was also seventeen.) In July, then, the youngsters "eloped," another term of art for early 20th century journalists. Or perhaps they didn't -- I can't find a marriage certificate. However it happened, Annie wound up with the same surname as her beloved, and she again eloped, this time with Claire Chennault himself. They made their way to Chicago, then to Wisconsin, where they lived that summer on a farm as man and wife (or "bride-wife" as the newspapers would phrase it).

White Slavery ChargeChennault was now in a peck of trouble. When his life changed so radically, he had been improving his credentials at the state Normal School in a summer program for teachers, and as newspapers later reported, he had a new job "at a good salary" as assistant principal of the high school in Central Point, Oregon. That opportunity was now gone. He was perhaps a bigamist and, if not, was violating a federal law known variously as the Mann Act or White Slave Act. Under whatever name, it prohibited a man from bringing a woman across a state line for "debauchery," with the penalty doubled if she were under eighteen. (Much watered down, and made gender-neutral, the Mann Act is still on the books.)

The story broke on the front page of the Shreveport Journal on September 10, 1914, when in the normal course of events Chennault should have been heading for Oregon and Annie about to celebrate her birthday. (She turned eighteen on September 26.). The headline -- WHITE SLAVERY CHARGE AGAINST SCHOOL TEACHER -- of course shared the page with the latest war news from Europe, but I suspect was the first story read in most Louisiana households. As reported, a deputy US marshall, a guard, and the matron of the Milwaukee jail had escorted the runaways the thousand miles from Berlin, Wisconsin, to Shreveport. According to the anonymous reporter, "The girl, who has a bright face and is little more than a child in appearance, is treated as a material witness in the case." Lots of luck finding an impartial jury in Shreveport after that!

The two brothers appeared before the Federal grand jury in New Orleans on September 29. "The prosecution is said to hold that William, at his brother Claire's instigation, married the girl, took her to Baton Rouge and turned her over to him," according to the Weekly Town Talk of Alexandria. "It is even alleged that William Chennault, the brother, purchased the tickets upon which the eloping couple traveled to Chicago." Unsurprisingly, Claire Chennault was found guilty, but in January 1915 was granted a re-trial when he argued he had been tried in the wrong jurisdiction. William was acquitted. And there, I'm afraid, the trail ends for now. If anyone out there comes up with further information, please send me an email.

Curiously, Annie named her son William Stanley Chennault when he was born in New Orleans on January 2, 1915, just as his father and uncle were undergoing their ordeal by jury. (Claire's brother was middle-named Stephan or Steven, and both Williams would in turn have a junior William S. Chennault, creating a confusing double line of descent.) Annie and the boy moved to Texas, where she became a hospital and private duty nurse, first under her birth name of Anna, later using her middle name of Mae. She died in December 1990 at the admirable age of ninety-four. William Stanley Chennault lived to the identical age. He was a handsome man, though with Claire Chennault's jutting jaw and deeply lined face. Though Annie's obituary says nothing about a husband, William Stanley's obit does name Claire Chennault as his father.

Though he went through a hard patch after the scandal, Claire Chennault was rescued by the First World War, which put him on the path that led to his fame as the leader of the Flying Tigers. As for his brother William, he married twice, to Norma Cone and Bessie Blankenship, and had two children including William Jr. He died in Sweetwater, Texas, at the age of eighty-two.

Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

Looking Back From Ninety

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