The Troubled Life of Stephen J. Olson — Part I

“I know nothing about my family history, except that my grandfather ran out on his wife and family when my mother was a girl,” a client from Baltimore told me on our first meeting. “He started a new family in Salisbury . . .” His voice trailed off. “That’s about all I know.”

So began my search which would eventually lead to a family tree that included, among others, a Civil War soldier, a Pennsylvania Dutch family with American origins dating to the mid-1700s, an Irish immigrant from Kiltyclogher in County Leitrim (the daughter of parents who lived through the Great Famine), a Scots-Irish immigrant to Baltimore around 1800, many early deaths of children and spouses, and a number of underage marriages and divorces when that was not common. And the kicker was the story of the grandfather who had run out on his family, who I discovered had been in jail in two states. His story is told here:

Stephen Joseph Olson, my client’s grandfather, was born in the East End of Boston on the day after Christmas in 1900, the first child of Olaf & Rose (Gallagher) Olson (who will be featured in a future blog post), immigrants from Norway and Ireland. His birth record taken at the time clearly shows that he was born on the 26th, but by the time he was 9, he and his family had already adopted Christmas Day as his birthday — one of the quirky little things that happened frequently in the days before record-keeping became as exact as it is today.

It is clear that Stephen’s early life was challenging, as the family struggled economically and with illness and death. He was the oldest of four sons born to his parents, but two of his brothers died as children — Joseph, in 1908 at the age of 3 from meningitis, when Stephen was 7; and then Andrew, in 1909 at the age of 1 year and 9 months from gastro enteritis, when Stephen was 8. He also lost three of his uncles who were living in his neighborhood in Boston, all before he had reached the age of 7. And then, the ultimate loss, that of his mother Rose (Gallagher) Olson in 1908, when she was 34 and Stephen was almost 8.

Home for Destitute Catholic Children - building

The Home for Destitute Catholic Children

The family clearly struggled even more after his mother’s death. In March of 1910, Stephen, then age 9, and his little brother James, age 6, were put in an orphanage, the Home for Destitute Catholic Children. Located at 788 Harrison Avenue in Boston and staffed by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, the orphanage housed roughly 450 children at the time. Their stay was only a couple of months, but one must wonder about the impact on the two young boys, after already suffering so much tragedy in their young lives.

Their lives likely stabilized somewhat upon their father’s re-marriage to a widow named Frances Nugent. However, given that she brought two children into the marriage, and she and their father Olaf went on to have additional children, one can suspect that there was additional strain on the family.

At any rate, in 1919, at the age of 18, Stephen Olson’s life took another decidedly negative turn. Boston court records reveal that Stephen was arrested on the charge of “getting a woman with child, he not being her husband”. This was a crime in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at the time, as it was in many states. The arrest was likely further prompted by the fact that the mother of the child, Violet Courier, was only 15 years old at the time. While a charge of statutory rape was not made, probably because Stephen was just over the age of maturity himself, authorities during that era often prosecuted such cases to try to ensure the support of the child.

While the exact date of arrest is unknown, Stephen is listed on the 1920 Census, taken on Jan. 8th, as an inmate at the Suffolk County Jail (see sidebar). The child, Paula Courier, was born Jan. 25, 1920. Stephen was brought from the Suffolk County Jail into Superior Court on Feb. 2. He pleaded guilty, and the judge placed him on probation and ordered him to post a bond of $300 to ensure his further appearance before the Court.

Suffolk County Jail

The Suffolk County Jail, located at 215 Charles Street, Boston, near Beacon Hill, where Stephen Olson spent an unknown number of days and nights, has a fascinating history. Opened in 1851, over the course of its life as a jail, it housed many famous felons including James Michael Curley, Malcolm X, and anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Treatment there was notorious, and in 1973, a court ruled that because of overcrowding, the jail violated the constitutional rights of its prisoners. It was not officially closed until 1990. The building has, since then, been converted to a luxury hotel called The Liberty Hotel. They have kept the prison motif, retaining the exposed brick of the original building, and calling their restaurant “Clink”.

Apparently, the bond was not posted at that time, and the Court on April 16, 1920 again ordered him to post the $300 bond. The bond was not posted, and on July 9th, 1920 Stephen was put back in the Suffolk County Jail. This apparently got his attention and he posted the bond four days later.

On October 7th, 1920, Stephen was called into Court and did not appear. In other words, he “jumped bail”. On December 15th, 1920, the Court ordered that he be re-arrested. There are no further records in the Suffolk County Court, as he, undoubtedly, fled the state to avoid arrest. Nine days later, on Christmas Eve, 1920, the child Paula Courier died at the age of 10 months from pneumonia. The mother Violet Courier, went on to marry years later and she had another daughter.

So ended a troubled time for Stephen Olson in Boston, where he likely never returned. His father, Olaf Olson, remained there until his death in 1927, as did his younger brother James, who, by all the evidence, led a very stable life there. Stephen’s life was anything but stable, as he moved from Baltimore to Wilmington to Salisbury, served an additional year in jail, and married and divorced again and again (to be covered in Part 2).


Liberty Hotel

The Liberty Hotel

Sources: Social Security Card Application, Stephen Joseph Olson, #220-10-9825, SSA, Washington, DC.
Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915,, 2013, Provo, UT, USA. Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915,, 2013, Provo, UT, USA.
Orphanage Record,1916, Home for Destitute Catholic Children, Stephen J. Olson & James Olson, Obtained from Catholic Charities, Boston, MA.
1910 United States Federal Census, Boston Ward 12, Suffolk, Massachusetts; Roll: T624_618; Page: 17A; Enumeration District: 1442; FHL microfilm: 1374631,, 2006. Provo, UT, USA.
1920 United States Federal Census, Boston, Ward 2, Suffolk, Massachusetts; Roll: T625_728; Page: 13B; Enumeration District: 27; Image: 742,, Provo, UT, USA. Superior Court, County of Suffolk, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Stephen Olson, Complaint, Feb. 4, 1920, No. 1549.
Superior Court, County of Suffolk, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Stephen Olson, Order of Probation, April 16, 1920, No. 1549.
Superior Court, County of Suffolk, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Stephen Olson, Order for Re-Arrest, Dec. 15, 1920, No. 1549.
Charles Street Jail,
The Liberty Hotel,

3 thoughts on “The Troubled Life of Stephen J. Olson — Part I

  1. Janet,
    I just stumbled across your post, a year and a half after it went online. Just wanted you to know it was a poignant and excellent piece of writing. I’m hoping your “apple,” who was apparently going through a tough time during your case assignment winds up falling far, far from the tree which his grandfather Stephen inhabited. Not judging Stephen J. Olson, just thinking people often times complicate their own lives.
    Donald Thompson


  2. After my mother died, I went through some of her photos. I discovered a photo of a young man in a military uniform standing in front of a backdrop of the Panama Canal. On the back of the photo, in my grandmother’s writing, were the words, “Frére adopté de Leo Fournier” (adopted brother of Leo Fournier). Leo was my grandfather. In my mother`s handwriting under it was the name Tom Nevins. I decided to research this fellow, and found him on the 1900 Census in this very same home with a younger brother Daniel. He eventually joined the army, but I believe my great-grandparents fostered him after he had been in this place. He never changed his name, so I don`t believe they officially adopted him. I learned his parents were Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. through Boston. So far I`ve discovered they had 6 children. One female child died before birth, and two of the boys died as babies due to malnutrition. It’s heart breaking to know these people came to the U.S. for a better life, but had to deal with just as much hardship than in their native country. It has also shed new light on the kind of people my great-grandparents were.


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