The “Disappearance” of Arthur Cohen, My Grandfather’s First Cousin

Way back in July, 2014, I wrote about my great-grandfather Emanuel Cohen’s youngest sibling, his brother Abraham, the thirteenth child of my great-great-grandparents Jacob Cohen and Sarah Jacobs. What I reported was that Abraham, born in Philadelphia on March 29, 1866, had married Sallie McGonigal in 1886, and they had five children, but three of those children died in childhood. Only two children survived—their son Leslie, their second child, and their son Arthur, their fifth and youngest child. There were almost twenty years between the two boys: Leslie was born in 1889, Arthur in 1907.  They lost their mother Sallie to the dreadful flu epidemic on March 14, 1919.

Gravestone for Sallie and Abraham Cohen, courtesy of Michael DeVane

Abraham Cohen remarried in 1920, and I was able to trace Abraham and his son Leslie up through their deaths, as described here.

But Arthur’s story was unfinished. The last record I had for him was the 1930 census when he was living with his father Abraham and stepmother Elizabeth in Philadelphia and working in a gas station. He was 23 at the time. After that, he disappeared. I could find other Arthur Cohens who matched in some ways, but not in others. Thus, I was unable to find anything after 1930 that was definitely about my Arthur Cohen.

Abe Cohen and family, 1930 US census, Year: 1930; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Page: 13A; Enumeration District: 0505; FHL microfilm: 2341874
Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Censu

Until, that is, about a month ago when I received a comment on the blog from someone named Michael DeVane, who wrote, “I came across your blog while searching for information on Abraham Cohen, my grandfather. My father was Arthur Cohen. You really helped me fill in some of the missing information on my family. If you want to reach out to me, I will gladly help fill in some missing information to our family tree.” I immediately wrote back to Michael, and we arranged to chat by telephone a few days later.

To prepare for the conversation, I went back to all the research I’d done about Abraham and his family. One thing puzzled me. If Michael’s father was Arthur Cohen, why was his surname DeVane? Well, that clue led me to find more information, and then my conversation with Michael confirmed what I’d uncovered and added more insights. There was a very good reason that I’d not been able to find Arthur Cohen after 1930. By 1931, he’d changed his name to Arthur DeVane.

Once I knew that Arthur had in fact changed his name to DeVane, I located a marriage in the Philadelphia marriage index for Arthur DeVane and Ruth Bussard dated 1931. 1 Michael found in his family records the following document that confirmed that this marriage record was indeed for his father, born Arthur Cohen. It is his father’s baptismal certificate under the name Arthur Cohen with his parents identified.

On the reverse, it notes that Arthur changed his name to DeVane and that he married Ruth Bussard on September 30, 1931, at St. Agnes Church in Philadelphia. Michael thought he might contact the church authorities to see if the record for the name change can be located.

Michael had understood that his father changed his name from Cohen to avoid anti-Semitism, but now we both wonder whether it also had to do with the marriage to Ruth Bussard. Perhaps she didn’t want to take on such an obviously Jewish name. As you can see from the headstone above, both of Arthur’s parents identified as Catholic and are buried in a Catholic cemetery, so Arthur was neither raised Jewish nor identified himself as Jewish.

In any event, the marriage to Ruth did not last. In September 1939, Ruth filed for divorce, and in February 1940, divorce was granted.2 Ruth remarried later that year.3

On the 1940 census, Arthur was living as a lodger with a family, listing his marital status as single and his occupation as a signal man for the railroad.4

On January 8, 1942, Arthur DeVane enlisted in the US armed services and served during World War II until September 5, 1945, including almost two and a half years serving overseas.5 During that time, while stationed in England , he met his second wife, Nellie Keep. Nellie was born April 1, 1917, in Oxford, England to Edward Keep and Nellie Massey. She and Arthur were married in New Hampshire on December 18, 1947. Like Arthur, Nellie had been previously married and divorced.

Marriage record of Arthur Devane and Nellie Keep, New England Historical Genealogical Society; New Hampshire Bureau of Vital Records, Concord, New Hampshire, Ancestry,com. New Hampshire, Marriage and Divorce Records, 1659-1947

The record for their marriage is interesting. Arthur reported that his father’s name was Leslie DeVane, not Abraham Cohen, the true name of his father. He also reported that his father had been a jeweler, when in truth, like so many of my Cohen relatives, Abraham had been a pawnbroker. Michael wasn’t sure whether Arthur did this to hide his background from his new wife or for some other reason, but Nellie did at some point know the truth of Arthur’s family background because she revealed it to Michael.

Part of the family lore is that Arthur had hoped to take over his father’s pawnbroker business, but that his father Abraham lost the business when his second wife Elizabeth died in 1939 and her family acquired it and apparently pushed Abraham out. That is why, as noted in my earlier post, Abraham’s death certificate in 1944 listed his occupation as elevator operator—a job he’d had to take after losing his business.

Abraham Cohen death certificate.

That meant Arthur also lost the business. Instead, Arthur ended up rejoining the military and spent most of his career serving his country in the US Air Force, as has his son Michael. Arthur was stationed over the years in England, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. He retired as a master sergeant in the Air Force after twenty years of service.

Arthur DeVane, born Arthur Cohen, died on April 16, 1976, in Burlington, New Jersey. He was sixty-eight years old.6  He was survived by his wife Nellie, who died in 2005, 7 and their three children and their grandchildren.

Michael kindly shared with me the following photograph of his father as a boy.

Arthur Cohen (later DeVane). Courtesy of Michael DeVane

I saw some similarity between young Arthur and his first cousin, once removed, my grandfather John Nusbaum Cohen, Sr., as a little boy, but it could just be the haircut.

John Cohen Sr as a baby

Michael also shared the following photograph of his father Arthur in 1948:

Arthur DeVane, 1948. Courtesy of Michael DeVane

I don’t see many resemblances here to either my father or my grandfather, except perhaps around the mouth and the large forehead.

John N. Cohen, Sr., 1921

John N. Cohen, Jr. c. 1945

I am so grateful to my cousin Michael, my father’s second cousin, for finding me and sharing his father’s story and photographs with me.

 

 


  1. Arthur J DeVane, Gender: Male, Spouse: Ruth H Bussard, Spouse Gender: Female
    Marriage Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, Marriage Year: 1931
    Marriage License Number: 606549, Digital GSU Number: 4141671, Ancestry.com. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marriage Index, 1885-1951 
  2. The Philadelphia Inquirer – 27 Feb 1940 – Page 11, found at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/59928918/divorce-granted/?xid=637&_ga=2.20757178.305149426.1602707833-2106877110.1599576721 
  3. Ruth Devane, Gender: Female, Spouse: Marturano, Spouse Gender: Male
    Marriage Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, Marriage Year: 1940
    Marriage License Number: 716706, Digital GSU Number: 4141873, Ancestry.com. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marriage Index, 1885-1951 
  4.  Year: 1940; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: m-t0627-03723; Page: 61B; Enumeration District: 51-1118, Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census 
  5. Arthur J DeVane, Birth Date: 9 Dec 1907, Birth Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, Gender: Male, Residence Date: 2 May 1950, Residence Place: Upper Darby, Delaware, Pennsylvania, USA, Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, World War II Veteran Compensation Application Files, 1950-1966 
  6. Arthur Devane, Social Security Number: 182-10-8245, Birth Date: 9 Dec 1907
    Issue Year: Before 1951, Issue State: Pennsylvania, Last Residence: 08016, Burlington, Burlington, New Jersey, USA, Death Date: Apr 1976, Social Security Administration; Washington D.C., USA; Social Security Death Index, Master File, Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 
  7.  Nellie A Devane, Social Security Number: 144-38-3406, Birth Date: 1 Apr 1917
    Issue Year: 1963, Issue State: New Jersey, Death Date: 26 Jun 2005, Social Security Administration; Washington D.C., USA; Social Security Death Index, Master File, Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 

35 thoughts on “The “Disappearance” of Arthur Cohen, My Grandfather’s First Cousin

  1. The true motives for the name change will be forever hidden. But I am sure that it is connected with the prevailing antisemitism in many countries during Arthur’s lifetime and even again in our troubled times. Good detective work, Amy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome post! The story all makes sense now eh?! And what great documentation to have that explanation on the back of the baptismal record! Are there any official name-change records in that state that are extant? Lesson to all of us to look for name changes when someone just disappears – especially in the 20th century. Nice work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael was going to check with the church, since that note says it was listed in their registry. He had not been able to find any record of a name change in civil records. Thanks!

      Like

  3. This was a great breakthrough for your families history. I am so happy for you. I know the feeling of surprise discovery when out blogs our found by long lost family and the blanks get filled in. And pictures too! Thats such a wonderful bonus. I do see a resemblance between Arthur and John. Is it through the shape fo the eyes with the haircut? 🙂 Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great discovery! My husband was one of the first to be born with our current surname. The others changed their name in the early 1950’s as it was spelled Ast yet pronounced Ass(t). The older relatives have name changing certificates so in the event they show their birth certificate, they also show the name changing certificate. I’m sure some genealogist in the future will not be happy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Friday's Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

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