This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary. Kenneth Frederick Thomas, the subject of this week’s post, was either a bigamist or a decorated World War I hero. Thomas’ version of his military service and his The Hangover-like courtship and wedding, stand in stark contrast to the evidence gathered by two Virginia governors.
Kenneth Thomas arrived in Norfolk in early March 1918. On Saturday, 9 March, Thomas, dressed in the uniform of an aviator of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), attended a dance at the Fairfax Hotel where he met 20-year-old Rose Eugene Swindell. Thomas wooed Swindell with tales of air battles with the Germans on the Western Front as a Canadian pilot. Thomas’ stories, reported the Virginian-Pilot, “blinded the young girl and she married her romantic suitor” on 12 March. The newlyweds lived at the Lorraine Hotel until the bridegroom was arrested 16 March by agents of the United States Department of Justice at the request of Canadian authorities. Thomas was wanted for desertion and bigamy.
Upon his arrest, Thomas told a very different story than the one he told his bride. He claimed he was an American citizen, had never served in the Royal Flying Corps, and was a victim of mistaken identity. According to Thomas, he had a twin brother, William W. Thomas, who was a member of the Royal Flying Corps. After they visited their sister in New York, Thomas claimed the brothers took each other’s suitcases by mistake. He wore the uniform at the urging of his wife who thought he looked more handsome in it. Thomas also denied that he was a bigamist. He said William was the person wanted by the Canadians.
Thomas told an even more elaborate tale in his 1923 clemency petition to Governor E. Lee Trinkle and to the press. In this version, Captain Kenneth Thomas joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914, enlisted as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, and was already married. In early 1918, on a lark, he traveled with several other officers to Norfolk. On 12 March they attended a dance at Hotel Lorraine and later went for a drive with some girls they met there, stopping to buy two quarts of whisky. Thomas became ill after drinking and passed out, only to wake up three days later in a strange room and married to another woman. After his new wife showed him their marriage license, Thomas began a quest to learn what had happened to him. He located Dr. S.W. Melton, the minister who married them. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch Thomas claimed that Melton “told him that the woman (Swindell), at the time of the marriage, said they had been engaged since 1917, that the man had enlisted in the English service, had been seriously wounded and shell shocked, had returned and that they wanted to be married that she might attend to him while he was recovering from injuries on the field of battle in France.” None of these stories were true. A guilty plea to the charge of bigamy and two clemency investigations by Governors Westmoreland Davis and E. Lee Trinkle established the true facts about Thomas.
Kenneth Frederick Thomas was born on 25 December 1888 in Brighton, New York, the youngest of ten children. Thomas did have a brother named William; he was not his twin and was in fact six years older. Thomas’ military record is sketchy and contradictory. He did enlist in the Royal Flying Corps on 23 August 1914. On 5 June 1917, Thomas registered for the draft in Rochester, New York, and listed his occupation as an auto mechanic. Captain A.C. Tweedie, commander of the British and Canadian Recruiting Mission in Buffalo, New York, wrote Governor Davis in 1918 that he “was under the unfortunate necessity of making a complete investigation into the record of Thomas and found that he was a deserter from the Royal Flying Corps (British) camp in Texas, that he had never been near the front, much less in the French Army” and had been married at least four times. “In my opinion,” Tweedie wrote, “Thomas deserves a brick wall and the business end of a firing party.”
Captain Tweedie traveled to Norfolk for Thomas’ 8 May 1918 trial for bigamy. Two young women from New York also came to Norfolk to testify for the prosecution: Thomas’ other wives, Eldred Brennan of Rochester and a Miss Williams of Buffalo. Confronted by his brides, Thomas pled guilty to bigamy and was sentenced to five years in the Virginia Penitentiary. So what did happen in March 1918? Did Thomas serve in the military during World War I? Thomas’ guilty plea precluded any sworn testimony on these issues. An investigation ordered by Governor Trinkle in 1923, triggered by a clemency petition for Thomas, provided some answers to these questions.
Frank Bane, commissioner of the State Board of Public Welfare, interviewed Rose Swindell and Dr. S.W. Melton in the spring of 1923. Neither mentions any drinking, illness or blackouts. Swindell stated that she:
“[m]et Kenneth Thomas at a dance at the Fairfax Hotel the later part of February. Was with him constantly, married him March 12, 1918, Dr. S.W. Melton performing the ceremony. Being a mere child, I was somewhat frightened on the evening of the 12th and returned to my home, spending the night there. Met Kenneth Thomas the next day, went to the movies with him in the afternoon and afterward registered with him at the Lorraine Hotel on March 13, 1918.”
Dr. Melton believed Thomas was “in possession of all his faculties at the time I married him. My secretary and son were in my office at the time and were very favorably impressed with the man. In fact, he made such an impression that I gave him a little Marriage Booklet, containing the certificate. He did not come to me at any time during the ceremony and protest that I married him while he was not in possession of all of his faculties.”
After his conviction, Thomas was assigned to the State Lime Plant in Staunton. While Governor Davis reviewed his clemency petition, Thomas escaped on 13 September 1918. Using the alias “Dewitt Ogden” Thomas re-enlisted in the British armed forces in Philadelphia on 16 September 1918. He probably injured his spine during the last two months of the war. He was discharged from the National Paralytic and Epileptic Hospital of England and the military on 14 February 1919. Still using the name Ogden, Thomas was convicted of bigamy and theft in London in 1920. From November 1921 to May 1922, Thomas worked as a chauffeur in Winnipeg, Canada. He was finally recaptured in Montreal and returned to the Virginia Penitentiary in September 1922.
Thomas was a model prisoner. His only transgression was communicating through unauthorized channels with several women of “very low character.” He applied for clemency again in 1925 due to ill health. On 20 July 1925, he wrote Miss V.E. McDougall, executive secretary to the governor, that “for the past six months my health has continued to grow worse, due to the injury of my spine received while in the army.
Last month I was again X-rayed for my lungs and found to have developed pleurisy on my right side. I have been tapped or aspirated four times since being confined in the hospital and each time the same amount of fluid was taken and sorry to say I cannot see any improvement in my general condition.” Thomas’ condition worsened over the next several months and he was transferred from the Penitentiary Hospital to Memorial Hospital. Due to his serious illness, Governor Trinkle granted him a conditional pardon on 15 September 1925. Trinkle added that a pardon would “greatly ease his [Thomas’] mind and be a satisfaction to him to know that he would not die an inmate of the penitentiary and that his remains would not go to the Anatomical Board” for use by medical students. Thomas died on 21 September 1925 and was buried with full military honors by the American Legion in Riverview Cemetery in Richmond.
-Roger Christman, LVA Senior State Records Archivist