The early life of Joseph Eugene Smith is a complete mystery. Joseph’s son Morton and Morton’s daughter Karen have researched Joseph for over 20 years, yet they still don’t know who he was. Hopefully by reading his story, someone may come forward with new insight into Joseph’s so far impenetrable history.
Over the years, Karen has gathered an impressive collection of information about Joseph starting with his enlistment in the US Army in November 1913, yet she has not been able to discover anything about him before that. Although Joseph Smith claimed he was born on 15 July 1896 in Philadelphia, his birth certificate has never been located. His life prior to WWI is unknown; nothing has been found about his parents and family. Joseph died on 25 Dec 1973 in Los Angeles, taking with him the mystery of his identity.
The few pieces of the puzzle we do have lead us to believe that Joseph’s father’s name was Isaac, and that his mother was Anna Spivac and that she was from New York. These names were on his death certificate in 1973, but Karen’s uncle (her father’s brother Irwin) filled it out. He knew as much as Karen and her father knew, although when Irwin’s last child was born, Joseph did ask that her middle name be Anna after his mother.
Apparently Joseph once mentioned he had a brother Jack who was in the
construction business and who had a son in WWII. That son stayed for one night at Joseph’s home in Los Angeles while passing through from the East coast on his way to fight in the South Pacific. The Smith family never saw him again.
Joseph Smith married Kathryn Barkoff in Los Angeles on June 20, 1926. The couple had been introduced by Kathryn’s cousin, who worked next door to Joseph in downtown LA. As silent as Joseph was, Kathryn was a warm and kind loving woman, upbeat and like an open book. She could not keep a secret.
The Smiths have written several times to the National Records Center in St. Louis to request copies of Joseph’s military records, but they were destroyed in the archives fire in 1973. Fortunately, they have Joseph’s personal copies of his two discharge records, dated 24 September 1926 and 25 September 1926, several years after he left the service. Joseph enlisted on 6 November 1913 at the age of 17 at Fort Slocum, NY for a seven year tour of duty. Sergeant Joseph Smith, No R50892, Company I, 28th Infantry was honorably discharged on 14 October 1919 by reason of reenlistment. He re-upped with a demotion to Private First Class and a cut in pay on 15 October 1919 at Fort Zachary Taylor, KY to serve 1 year. He was honorably discharged on 14 October 1921 at Fort Zachary Taylor, and mustered out at Fort Lewis, Washington State.
Joseph’s First Discharge Certificates dated 24 Sept 1926 (two images to left), and 25 Sept 1926 (right).
Historically there is lot to say about his military career. Joseph shipped out on June 14, 1917. He fought in 4 campaigns and 4 battles. One campaign was the hardest fighting in the Meuse Argonne Forrest. As a Sergeant he would have lead a 12 to to 24 man team, motivating his men time and again to go over the wall to certain death. He was gassed on October 2, 1918 and survived. He fought along side famous people like Sergeant Alvin York, Black Jack Pershing, Future Generals MacArthur and Patton, US Marine Dan Daily, and Major Charles Whittlesey of the Lost Battalion. He was there during the Armistice 11th day, 11th month, at the 11th hour. He was part of the Big Red One, the oldest fighting force in America. His division returned to America September 5, 1919 and demobilized at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, KY where he reenlisted. Upon his second discharge in October 1921, when he mustered out at Fort Lewis, he took a bus down the coast to Los Angeles, where he found a job as a salesman at a shoe store in Huntington Park.
Joseph Smith’s Final Pay Statements
Granddaughter Karen has searched the Family History Library records on FamilySearch.org. She hired an expert from Ancestry.com, but all he could do was to condense and validate what she already had given him. She purchased Joseph’s original wedding certificate, but he only supplied his parents’ first names. She purchased a copy of his original application for his SSN from 1936, but he gave his eldest son’s first name Irwin as his father’s name. According to the 1930 census, his parents are from Germany, on his wedding certificate he says they are from Russia. The 1930 census also indicates his education only went through the 6th grade. Karen has written to every county in Philadelphia for a birth record, but without success.
1930 Census, Los Angeles, CA, ED 19-138, Supervisors District No 13, Sheets 12B & 13A
Joseph never spoke one word of Yiddish, he never went to synagogue and he could not read Hebrew. However he did marry a Jewish woman.
DNA testing has not been much help either. His son Morton, who is in his 80s, has taken the Family Tree DNA Y-DNA test and found his haplogroup to be RM124 (R2a) which apparently represents only 1% of Ashkenazi men. His autosomal tests from 23andMe and Family Tree DNA indicate that he is is 98% Ashkanazi. He has only 2nd-3rd cousin autosomal DNA matches that do not shed light on his family pedigree.
Karen’s father always had a hunch that he could have been an orphan or in foster
care. She has the feeling that he changed his name in 1913 enlisting in the army. Her father Morton has his own theories:
“Entered the Army in 1913 at age 17. Why would he do that as the war in Europe hadn’t even started yet. My guess is that he was in some sort of trouble at the time and had to get away. The Army would be very convenient. But because he was in trouble, possibly had a police record, he enlisted with a name like Smith which would be hard to track down. So he enlisted in November 1913 at Fort Slocum and was discharged October 14, 1919. He then immediately enlisted and stayed another two years and finally discharged in October 1921. He must have had good reason for not wanting to leave the Army in 1919, especially having to take a cut in pay and a reduction in rank. I can only think the police were after him. So he left the Army and wanted to get away from the East Coast as far as possible. Mustering out was offered at Fort Lewis, Washington and served two reasons. First, he was able to collect more travel pay and second got him away from Philadelphia or NY where he may have been wanted. He then took a bus down the coast to LA.
“There is still some ambiguity about his father’s name and place of birth. Some say Russia and some say Germany. Also, some records indicate that his father’s first name was Irwin and others say Isaac. It could have been Irwin because his father had already passed away when my brother was born.
“The initials of my brother and I are correct. My middle name begins with an “A” for Anna and my brother’s begins with an “M” for Miriam on my mother’s side.
“I believe his job in the LA area was Huntington Park before he went to work in downtown LA. ”
Karen and her father would love to solve the mystery of Joseph Smith’s true identity.
Part II: Who Was Joseph Smith? Close Calls and Possible Candidates