Mary Jane Branson

Mary Jane Branson, the third daughter and seventh child of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 25 July 1862. At the time of her birth, her parents were based at Phillips Flat, a gold mining outpost along the Merced River, CA, and this is probably her precise birthplace. Her obituary however states she was a native of Hornitos. It is slightly possible this is true. Six months before her birth, a tremendous flood had wiped away the encampment at Phillips Flat. Hornitos was the closest real village to Phillips Flat, and it may be the Branson family sought temporary shelter there. If so, Martha -- who would have been motivated to remain in a place where she would have the ready assistance of a midwife -- might still have been in Hornitos in late July, even while John and the other Phillips Flat miners were endeavoring to restore their operation along the river.

Many individuals who have the first name Mary don’t actually use it in its pure form, but in her case, she genuinely was a Mary. She was less often called Mary Jane. On rare occasions, she signed post cards and letters as May. She is not to be confused with her brother Reuben’s daughter Mary Jane Branson. The latter was best known within the family as Mamie.

Mary grew up mostly in Mariposa County, at first at Phillips Flat, a place that now lies submerged beneath Lake McClure reservoir. Just before she reached school age, her parents attempted a relocation to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, but her mother was dissatisfied with the wet weather, so back the family came after just one year. From the age of about six years old until she was an adult, Mary Jane’s home was her parents’ 160-acre cattle ranch just north of Hornitos. This property, formerly owned by Daniel and Margaret McMahon, was sometimes called “Grasshopper Ranch” by members of the Branson family. The place was only a few miles away from Phillips Flat; some of their neighbors were people they had known there.

Grasshopper Ranch adjoined the property of the Washington Mine, one of the most active hardrock mines of the latter part of the Mother Lode era and a major employer in Mariposa County. The site of the mine complex was considered part of Quartzburg, a hamlet founded at the beginning of the Gold Rush. Like Phillips Flat, Quartzburg does not exist anymore, but in Mary’s youth, it was abuzz with activity, with Washington Mine being only one of the on-going excavations. Many men of the overall Branson clan -- whether their last names were Branson, Scott, Peard, Simmons, Guest, Williams, or another surname prevalent among the various cousins and in-laws -- spent an interval employed at Washington Mine. In particular, it and another nearby mine, Mt. Gaines -- both under the supervision of Moses Rodgers -- were counted on for employment by Alvin Thorpe Branson. Of all Mary’s brothers, Alvin was the one closest to her in age, and the one with whom she shared the closest bond. As the late 1870s rolled around, one of Alvin’s new colleagues was Alonzo Diah Johnson.

Alonzo, eldest son of John F. Johnson and Betsey Abigail Richardson, had grown up in Orange County, VT in and near the small communities of Vershire, Ely, and Copper Flat, where his parents had farmed, and where the family home doubled as a boarding house for local miners. Born in late 1853 or the first part of 1854, Alonzo had come of age at a time when the Ely copper mine was the foundation of the local economy, and it was only natural Alonzo had chosen to pursue mining as an occupation. Unfortunately, as the 1870s had progressed, the Ely mine had become increasingly exhausted. So Alonzo had headed west, and by the end of the decade had ended up in Mariposa County.

Mary became acquainted with Alonzo when she was sixteen or seventeen years old, which meant she was nearing the typical age when Mariposa County girls of that era became brides. She seems not to have wanted to be left out, particularly when all of her older siblings except Alvin were already married, and Alvin was courting Mary Eliza Simmons, a friend of Mary. Accordingly, Mary and Alonzo became wife and husband 27 March 1880. The marriage certificate was completed at Washington Mine, with Alvin as one of the signatory witnesses, and Justice of the Peace Samuel Walker Carr making it all official -- Carr having served in such a capacity at a number of Branson-clan weddings. The ceremony itself was held at Grasshopper Ranch.

Mary’s choice of spouse ultimately proved to be unique among her sisters. She was the only one whose first husband was a miner. Given the environment in which the Branson girls had been raised, one would think more of them would have done as Mary did. All of her brothers married daughters of miners, yet all four of her sisters married men of other professions -- a subsequent exception being when Nancy remarried after the death of her first husband.

Old mining claims on file in Mariposa County show that Alonzo partnered up with Alvin Branson and with Samuel Tippett to try to exploit independent diggings. These three men were good buddies and were closely associated with one another throughout the late 1870s and early 1880s. Samuel not only served as best man at Mary and Alonzo’s wedding, but did so again a few months later at Alvin and Mary’s wedding. Unfortunately, the three pals’ prospecting efforts generated little or no income, and the men were forced to depend on their wage-earning jobs at Washington Mine, Mt. Gaines Mine, or similar operations.

Mary and Alonzo became parents of three children, Clarence in 1883, George in 1885, and Bretelle in 1887. The latter was named for Alonzo’s sister, Bretelle C. Johnson. At some point during this series of births, possibly even as early as when Mary was pregnant with Clarence, the Johnson home shifted from Mariposa County to the town of Merced out in the Great Central Valley. Merced lay only fifteen miles southwest of Hornitos, but it was quite a cultural shift, from a place dominated by mining and cattle ranching to a place where commerce and crop-farming played a much larger role. The appeal for Mary Jane was of a more personal nature -- Merced was where her sisters Phoebe and Nancy had settled, and where another sister, Theresa, would come at about the same time as Mary. There were also increased job prospects for Alonzo, though there is no indication he ever took advantage. He seems to have continued to be a miner and nothing but a miner his whole working life. If so, then he was often not at home in the mid-1880s, because Merced did not possess any mines. If he were indeed off at job sites without his family, then Mary’s choice to be near her sisters is all the more understandable. On at least one occasion, she also had the companionship of Alonzo’s mother Betsey. A letter survives from the year 1886 that makes it apparent Betsey was in the midst of an extended visit to Merced, having come all the way across the continent to spend some time with her son’s family. At that point, George was less than a year old and Clarence was three.

And now we come to the first of the events that allows those of us alive today to fully grasp who Mary Jane Branson was, and understand the reasons behind the twists and turns of her life story: Alonzo left her. He may have thereafter occasionally sent child-support money, but he never shared a dwelling nor a bed with Mary again. He left the Merced-Mariposa region entirely. The precise date of his departure is not available. The spouses were getting along well enough at the end of 1886 to conceive their final child, Bretelle, but Alonzo may have been gone even before Bretelle was born in September of 1887. Once gone, he did not come back. As the years went on Mary told her descendants that Alonzo died in a mine. This may have literally been true, but Alonzo died in 1898, long after he had ceased to be a part of Mary’s day-to-day life. Mary also claimed Alonzo went to New Mexico. This may also have been true, but if so, it was a temporary sojourn. Mary obviously preferred not to share the whole story. Some insight is provided by a statement made by Mary’s niece Grace Mildred Branson Warner in the early 1970s, when Grace was asked about Branson-clan family history. Grace said her aunt Mary’s husband had abandoned her. Grace loved gossip. The abandonment was apparently one of the truly scandalous bits of gossip going around among the family when Grace was growing up -- and it was innuendo meant to characterize Mary, not Alonzo, as in, what was it about her that made her husband want to leave?

The answer is that Mary was homosexual. This was always the obvious explanation, but it took a great deal of research before the circumstantial evidence was piled too high to treat the possibility as anything other than a fact. Mary never “came out” in public. Few women of her generation ever did. She lived in an era when a woman’s children might be taken from her if she defied conventional mores in such a way. It still isn’t possible to know at what point her sexual orientation became apparent even to Mary herself. She must have gone into the marriage in 1880 full of romantic aspirations, eager for the joy she had seen her mother and older sisters enjoy, and must have perplexed to have found conjugal relations with Alonzo so unappealing. She kept trying to be a good wife. He waited to see if she would warm to him. For half a dozen years, they did the best they could. They don’t seem to have disliked one another as people. Their lack of compatability boils down to the obstacle Mary Jane had no choice about.

Something happened in 1886 or 1887. Maybe Alonzo became so frustrated by the cold bed that he simply couldn’t stand it anymore, and so he packed his bags. However, it is very possible Mary achieved a revelation of self-awareness, and felt it was only fair to reveal her conclusion to Alonzo. Looking at the way Mary conducted herself over her eighty-plus years of life, she wasn’t the type of person who liked to go around pretending to be someone she wasn’t -- and while she might have no choice about being circumspect in public, she would not have been content to let self-denial rule her private life. It could be the turning point was an encounter with another woman. However, it is just as likely Mary simply looked hard in a mirror and saw herself in focus. Naturally it was a risk to tell Alonzo. Perhaps she thought he would accept it and lend his support. Instead he left. It’s all too easy for us to judge him harshly for his reaction. We are viewing it from the modern perspective. The fact is, by the standards of his era, he brought the marriage to a close in an amicable way. He could have exploded in fury. He could have condemned Mary as an unfit mother. He could have gone to court and would easily have been awarded custody of the children. In short, he could have destroyed Mary’s life. But he didn’t. He just removed himself from the scene. The departure itself may not even have been as abrupt and unfeeling as it seems to us today, the evidence being that he didn’t sue for divorce. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Not only would a court case have brought up potentially damaging revelations -- divorce being something in the 1880s that was granted only “for cause” -- but by keeping the union “on the books” as it were, Alonzo not only preserved Mary’s social status, but provided her with a socially acceptable excuse for rebuffing any male suitors who might come her way. She didn’t have to resort to other avenues of discouragement that might have caused people to suspect she just didn’t like men. She could just tell any fellow who liked the sway of her hips that she could not return his interest because she was married. She did get offers. The men of Merced in the late 1800s included some who were brazen enough to suggest they might be willing to “help out a grass widow.” Her refusals must have only improved her reputation, rather than “causing people to talk.” While Alonzo could have acted more nobly, it wouldn’t be right to cast him as the villain in this play.

(Shown at right with her sister Theresa.) Among the many clues that substantiate the theory that Mary was not heterosexual is a letter written in 1896 by her sister-in-law Bretelle C. Johnson Eastman to inform Mary of the death of Betsey Richardson Johnson. The tone of the letter is warm and sisterly. Alonzo, in other words, had not turned his family against Mary, a sign that the estrangement was not due to the usual sort of enmity one sees when a marriage goes bad. It must have again been Bretelle Eastman who informed Mary of the death of Alonzo. We know from an article in the Merced Express published 13 January 1899 that word of the death had only just reached Mary and the children after the New Year. Alonzo had died 3 September 1898 in British Columbia, Canada. Word must have gradually wended its way to Bretelle in Vermont, who then sent a letter back across the continent to Mary. The four-month delay of course also reveals the degree to which Alonzo and Mary had ceased to keep in direct touch.

In the meantime, though still technically married through the majority of the 1890s, Mary was in effect a single mother. She stayed put in Merced throughout those years, comforted by the continuing presence of her sisters and their families. (Phoebe died in 1887, but her husband and four children lingered.) To support herself and her kids, Mary took a full-time job as a clerk in a Merced drygoods store. She also combined forces with her sister Nancy to run a boarding house. This did not mean she gave up the clerk job. While Nancy remained on-site at the boarding house round the clock as cook and housekeeper, Mary worked at the store on weekdays and did the boarding house laundry during the evenings. This may have been a scheme the sisters developed during the 1880s, or it could be it did not come about until 1890. In January of that year, Nancy’s husband Peter Harrington died in his mid-thirties of some sort of, as his obituary puts it, “throat disease,” and Nancy was left spouseless with six children to care for.

Once the boarding house sprang into being, Mary lived there, and kept her younger two children, George and Bretelle, with her. Eldest son Clarence was taken in as a ward by Theresa and her husband William Osborne Moore, who were otherwise childless. Theresa and Will lived three doors down on the same street, so Clarence was never far away from his mother and siblings. The big building full of people remained Mary’s milieu until the early years of the 20th Century. Eventually, though, Nancy’s brood came of age and headed off to begin their independent lives, most of them doing so northward in Manteca and Stockton in San Joaquin County. Nancy led that migration, settling in Manteca for the final four decades of her life. With the closing of the boarding house, Mary hired herself out at nearby ranches as a cook and laundress.

Clarence and George left Merced in 1904, 1905, or early 1906, beginning to forge their independent lives in Oakland, Alameda County, CA. Bretelle joined one or both of them as soon as she graduated from Merced High School -- doing so in June, 1906 at nearly nineteen years of age because she had not been able to attend at the usual age, apparently for health reasons. Mary was finally “her own woman” again. This seems to have led to complications -- and a somewhat mind-boggling way of dealing with those troubles: She got married again!

It is the manner in which she got married again that provides another of the series of clues that confirm her sexual orientation. Her husband was male, yes. But their union was clearly not a real marriage. In fact it was so hidden that no surviving family member knew of it in 2005 when the first draft of this biography was uploaded to this website. Its existence came to light in early 2010 when the marriage certificate turned up among forgotten papers in the possession of Bretelle’s daughter Esta Jane, who due to her extreme age and mental condition could not contribute any details she may have known about the revelatory piece of paper. A quick check of a county marriage book confirms the marriage did happen. On the 27th of May, 1906, Mary wed Benjamin S. Wilson. The deed was accomplished at the county clerk’s office in Sacramento. The witnesses were the clerk and his wife (Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Watson Branch), an indication that it was a no-frills ceremony out of the view of any family members of either the bride or the groom.

Who was Ben Wilson? Because he was in and out of Mary’s daily life so abruptly, finding the answer required concentrated research and some of the picture is still incomplete, but one aspect should be highlighted: The totality of his life story suggests he, too, was homosexual. Born 24 May 1857 in Woodford County, IL, his full name was Benjamin Steele Wilson. He was a son of William S. Wilson and Matilda Henry Hearne. The former died when Ben was four-and-a-half years old, and Matilda was deceased by the time Ben was eleven. As an orphan, Ben struck out on his own early, landing in Boone County, MO by the mid-1870s. At age eighteen he wed seventeen-year-old Boone County native Annetta Lee Winn, daughter of Willis H. Winn and Elizabeth Skinner. In other words, he married young, as Mary had done. And the marriage collapsed, much as Mary’s had. The main difference being that no children sprang from Ben and Annetta’s union. The couple did try to make it work, staying together at least into the 1880s, but ultimately they divorced. (After the death of her father, Annetta and her widowed mother went to California and shared a home with her brother, Albert Clark Winn, who was a doctor in San Francisco and then in Tomales, Marin County, CA. When Albert died early, Annetta helped her sister-in-law finish raising Albert’s son Albert Lee Winn. Annetta’s last decades were spent in Sonoma County, CA, where she died in 1940. She never did marry again.) Ben attended the University of Missouri at Columbia (in Boone County), graduating in 1888 with a law degree. He turns up in early 1890s voter registers as a lawyer in Porterville, Tulare County, CA. A Hearne genealogy states that he was a lawyer in Stockton, and if true, the 1890s is the most likely time he was there. In the 1900 and 1902 voter registers Ben appears in the town of Merced in the same voting district Mary lived in. It must have been during this turn-of-the-century interval that he and Mary became acquainted. As a lawyer, Ben would surely have had occasion to cross paths with Will Moore, who was a sheriff and city clerk, and that would have brought him into Mary’s network of family and friends. By 1906 he was a resident of Tonopah, Nye County, NV, as listed on the marriage certificate itself. By the end of the decade he was residing and practicing law in Bingham County, ID. The Northwest was also where he spent his old age. He appears in the 1940 census in Spokane, WA at age eighty-two (a few weeks shy of eighty-three), sharing a house with another elderly man. However, it is apparent Ben spent much of the 1910s back in California. He was based in San Francisco in 1915, but soon relocated to the town of Mariposa, Mariposa County, CA, where he argued a number of cases of the next few years. One of those cases connects him back to the Branson clan. In the spring of 1917, Mary’s nephew James Sutton Branson (Alvin’s eldest son), then age thirty, brandished a pistol in the face of the proprietor of the saloon in Hornitos and was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. Ben came on board as his lawyer. He worked out a plea deal with the district attorney. The judge -- Joseph J. Trabucco, a friend of the Branson clan -- gave James a suspended sentence. Unfortunately James violated his probation only a few weeks later and ended up in San Quentin prison for over a year. Ben had done his best, but there was only so much a smart lawyer could do.

As the James Sutton Branson incident shows, Ben was the sort of fellow willing and able to help out a member of the Branson family who might find himself or herself in a compromising situation. Moreover, in 1906, he may have been mutually in need of rescue. Adding up such biographical aspects as the unsuccessful marriage, the lack of children, and the frequent moves, and the picture that emerges is that of a gay man who, perhaps because he became known as more than just a “confirmed bachelor,” found it necessary to “move on down the road” from time to time. Ben Wilson was, therefore, someone who understood the need to reestablish “life in the closet” when a slip-up had occurred. This would absolutely explain why he was willing help Mary -- and possibly help himself -- by going through the motions that provided them each with a legal document that in effect declared, “Pay no attention to those scandalous rumors. I have a spouse. It says so right here on this piece of paper.”

The pair never established a home together. Mary was never known by the moniker “Mrs. Wilson.” Less than five months after the clandestine event in Sacramento, Mary attended the San Francisco wedding of her daughter Bretelle to Gifford Mecklenberg Fowle. She signed the guestbook as Mrs. Mary Johnson. She also appears with the surname Johnson in every record made thereafter, including being so named in her mother’s January, 1908 obituary, on her mother’s death certificate (for which she served as informant), and in the 1910 census. The marriage was not for purposes of sex. It was a form of protection. Mary may have revealed herself -- perhaps having decided that she could take the risk of doing so now that she no longer had children to safeguard. Perhaps she engaged in a liaison, and the secret came out. Perhaps she merely confessed her desire in words and those words reached the wrong ears. Whatever the particulars, she must have found herself needing to “prove” she was not a lesbian. Had she not taken some sort of firm countermeasures to quell the gossip, she might have found herself transformed into a social pariah -- or she could even have been arrested. Ben Wilson’s help was the solution.

It is not entirely clear what Mary did during the period between mid-1906 and the end of 1907, except that she is known to have attended Bretelle and Gifford’s wedding partway through that interval. She may have lingered in Merced, with or without Ben Wilson in tow. She may have stayed with Bretelle and Gifford, or with her son Clarence and his new bride Lillian -- it would have been only natural for her to have helped the latter couple with their baby, Ruth Martha Johnson, born in April, 1907. By late 1907, it becomes possible to track her with greater certainty. Gifford Fowle was sent by his employer, Southern Pacific, to Redlands, San Bernardino County, CA. He and Bretelle moved. Their son Gifford Benjamin Fowle was born in Redlands in November, 1907. Mary was part of their household there -- or at least found lodgings not far from them. She is described as a resident of Redlands in the aforementioned obituary of Martha Jane Ousley Branson, published in January, 1908.

(At right, Mary stands with her daughter Bretelle in Redlands in 1909. This image was scanned from a postcard Mary sent to niece Maude Branson Curtis.) No doubt Mary was helpful as a grandma-nanny. The arrangement was fairly brief, though. Bretelle and Gifford and little Gifford moved to Oakland, arriving by no later than the spring of 1910 as shown by the 1910 census. Mary Jane decided to live on her own. The 1910 census shows her still in Redlands as one of six lodgers in the home of middle-aged widow Hannah Alvaretta Leinbach (1854-1940) and her daughter Bess at 314 Olive Street.

We should dwell upon this juncture. Consider that Mary had known for a quarter century who she was, but had been unable to “be herself” while simultaneously keeping up appearances for the sake of the children. Now she was in a place where no one knew her, hundreds of miles away from family members and their potentially negative judgment. Finally she could “look out for Number One.” As long as she was reasonably discreet, she didn’t have to hold back should she manage to find a woman who would return her affection. She did find such a woman. The result was what was could honestly be described as the great love affair of her life.

Mary’s job by 1910, if not earlier, was at The Fair, a large emporium of drygoods offering merchandise such as clothing, shoes, crockery, toys, stationery, and knick-knacks. Another clerk at that establishment was Blanche A. Cochran. She was from Trumbull County, OH, born 29 August 1879 in Vernon Township to parents William Cochran and Margaret Jane Stewart; she was the youngest of a group of six kids. While she was still a schoolgirl, Blanche and her family moved to Kinsman Township, also in Trumbull County. In her early twenties she underwent a significantly more dramatic change of venue that brought her all the way to San Bernardino County. Her brother Charles Stewart Cochran had come west before the turn of the century. In the early 1900s, Blanche followed suit along with her widowed mother and her brother Herbert. From then on -- as would continue to be the case for her entire life -- Blanche remained closely associated with one brother or the other and shows no sign of ever pursuing an ambition to attach herself to a husband. When she and Mary met as employees at The Fair, it would not have taken them long to realize they were compatible.

Naturally there was no wedding or newspaper announcement to mark the beginning of Mary and Blanche’s sexual relationship. It may have started as early as 1908 and been a factor in Mary deciding not to move back north with her daughter and son-in-law. It deepened into cohabitation. The Redlands city directories of the 1910s trace out the logistics of their story, as do the voter registers from 1912 onward, 1912 being the year when women became eligible to vote in California elections. By 1912, Mary was no longer lodging with Mrs. Leinbach. Blanche was no longer in the house she had been sharing with her mother, her bachelor brother Charles, her married brother Herbert and his wife Laura, and Herbert’s teenaged son from his first marriage, Raymond H. Cochran. Mary and Blanche were sharing quarters at 26 Kendall. Blanche by then was a postal clerk, an occupation she would retain for the rest of her life. By 1914, they were living at 246 Fourth.

That Mary and Blanche lived together -- and that they moved from one address to another together -- is particularly strong evidence of their romantic partnership. It is also a hint of the struggles they may have faced from society at large. Perhaps their landlord at 26 Kendall became aware he had a pair of lesbians living under a roof he owned, and he insisted they move out. It is to be hoped that the actual reason for the move was benign. It may have occurred for no other reason than prosperity. Blanche’s steady job at the post office may have permitted the couple to obtain better accommodations with more square footage.

Mary’s closest family members eventually became aware of the relationship. The degree to which the cohabitation was accepted or not would probably make an absorbing tale, but it is a tale that will never be told as no one survives now to relate it from a first-person viewpoint. One hint of Bretelle’s reaction does linger. In 2006, Bretelle’s surviving daughter-in-law Louise Fowle was part of a conversation in which Redlands was mentioned as the birthplace of Gifford Benjamin Fowle. Louise recalled out loud a time in the 1950s when the subject of Redlands had come up, at which point Bretelle had muttered, “Redlands. That’s where Mother lived with that woman.” Clearly Bretelle was not well-pleased at the memory, but that said, neither she nor her brothers -- nor any other family member who was “in the know” -- actively spurned Mary for her decision to live with Blanche. A fairer assessment of the dynamic would be that Blanche was regarded with the sort of ambivalence any child might have for a late-in-life step-parent. Bretelle may have believed that full-fledged acceptance of Blanche would have been tantamount to disloyalty to the memory of her father.

All in all, though, it could only have been hard for Mary and Blanche to maintain their contentment when they could not be open to everyone about their connected status. Who can say what sort of pressures finally nudged them past the breaking point, but that point was indeed reached. The timing is not perfectly clear, but the date that fits the evidence best is that Mary and Blanche broke up in 1918. Blanche continued to live in Redlands and kept her position at the post office. Both of her brothers and their wives lived quite near her, but not literally at the same address. She was on her own. Mary meanwhile was taken in by Bretelle and Gifford in their home, which in the late 1910s was in Santa Maria, Santa Barbara County, CA.

(At left, Mary in 1930.) The span of Mary and Blanche’s relationship was eight, nine, or perhaps even ten years. That is longer than Mary and Alonzo were together. There was no such thing as legal gay marriage in the 1910s, but if there had been, the pair would surely have formalized their union in that way. Accordingly, Blanche has been added to the family tree as Mary’s spouse.

There is one surviving tangible memento that appears to commemorate Mary and Blanche’s relationship. As an old woman, Mary gave her granddaughter Esta Jane Fowle a bracelet. She said it was one of two bracelets made from a necklace. She said to Esta that she had parted ways with a woman who had been a precious friend, and each of them had kept one of the bracelets as a symbol of their relationship -- once whole, now divided into two halves. We today can’t be absolutely certain the friend Mary referred to was indeed Blanche, but the story is a perfect fit. Esta eventually gave the bracelet to her own granddaughter, who owns it today.

Mary followed her usual pattern when she moved to Santa Maria: She became a drygoods-store clerk. Her financial contribution to the household kitty was welcome. Gifford had found it a struggle to support his wife and three children via the produce-broker job he had accepted upon moving down to Santa Barbara County. He had decided to become an accountant and to get a high-school diploma so that he could apply for an auditor job with Southern Pacific Railroad, his former employer. Mary’s contribution as a wise maternal figure proved to be equally important. The stresses between Bretelle and Gifford as he tried to “make something of himself” -- and as they dealt with the typical challenges any husband and wife endure while having three kids in elementary school -- were straining the marriage. When Gifford went north to Oakland in late 1919 to begin his new S.P. job and scout out a place to live, leaving Bretelle and the kids temporarily behind, Bretelle briefly considered not following him. Mary reminded her daughter how hard it was to raise three kids without the presence and participation of a husband. Her words were heeded. Bretelle and Gifford remained spouses lifelong.

In early 1920, Bretelle and children Gifford B., Esta, and Voyle proceeded to Oakland. Mary judged it best to get out of the way and let them settle into their new situation. Instead she went to stay with with Clarence and Lillian. The latter had been based in Manteca for a full ten years by then. There could not have been a more ideal retreat for Mary in the sense of extended family connections. Not only could she become reacquainted with her eldest son and grandchildren Ruth and Lloyd Johnson, but she would be no more than a brief automobile ride away from such other relatives as her sisters Nancy Napier and Theresa Moore, her nieces Alice Branson Henry, Emily Harrington Cowell, Eunice Harrington Converse, and Irena Harrington Salmon, and their respective households. Another clump of relatives were now based just a bit north in Stockton, including brother Alvin and family. Given this multi-faceted support system, Mary might have been expected to drop anchor and remain in Manteca for good. She was on the verge of turning fifty-eight years old when she arrived. But perhaps so many eyes upon her while she was still in the aftermath of an unconventional love affair was too much scrutiny for her, and as it happened, fate provided her with an alternate place to go. Furthermore, it was a place where she was needed. In late June, 1920, her son George’s wife Elizabeth unexpectedly died. Feeling as though he had no choice, George turned over his newborn son George, Jr. to be raised by Elizabeth’s sister and mother in southern California. This left him all too alone in the house he and Elizabeth had just moved into at 1509 Morton Street in Alameda. So Mary moved in.

That Mary would try to help out her boy is precisely the type of thing she would characteristically do. No one in the family was surprised by her decision. However, she now entered a phase that in retrospect is the most uncharacteristic one of her entire adult life: She didn’t work outside the home. She was George’s cook, housekeeper, and laundress. And mom. That was it. It could only have been George’s idea. And George -- who is famous in family lore for his charm and persuasiveness -- was probably the only person who could have talked Mary into it. Mary cherished her self-reliance. She particularly never wanted to be dependent upon a male. Being a wage-earner was something she had clung to as her means to say what she would do and what she would not have to do. But by that point, as she approached and then swung past age sixty, she deserved a vacation. She had raised three children as a single mother. Now George wanted to take care of her. That isn’t to say Mary kicked back on the sofa with her shoes off and ate cookies all day. She did plenty. But her early 1920s domestic responsibilities in George’s home were so manageable compared to the burden of labor she had endured over the previous four decades that yes, it did amount to a vacation. And it came at just the right time.

Mary didn’t neglect her Manteca relatives while living in Alameda. She often went for visits, and when doing so, probably often stayed for several nights at a time, especially after Clarence and Lillian at long last obtained ownership of a farm, a goal they had been working toward for years. All in all, though, it is quite clear Mary enjoyed her circumstances and enjoyed Alameda during the few years she spent with George. Nor did she have to resort to trips to Manteca to be able to spend time with kinfolk. The East Bay was now home to a number of relatives. Bretelle and Gifford were only a few miles away. Niece Nancy McDonald and her husband Roy Price were even closer. And closest of all was her niece Josephine Harrington McDonald, the eldest of the girls who had grown up in the Merced boarding house. George’s choice of house to rent had undoubtedly been influenced by the fact that in 1919, Josephine and her late husband Charles S. McDonald had bought a home at 1442 Morton. In the years Mary lived in Alameda, Josephine was right there only a block away, now a widow but having retained the house so that it could evolve into the residence of her grown son Robert McDonald and his wife Vera. The comings-and-goings between 1442 Morton and 1509 Morton were a constant, several-times-a-week thing. Together the two women, aunt and niece, were the comforting figures that kept George together during his period of mourning, and it was surely they who instigated the process of matchmaking for him once they determined he was willing to consider acquiring a new life partner. Either Josephine or Mary noticed a young divorcée, Bessie Reisinger Porterfield, a bookkeeper at the local Rug Works. They steered her in George’s direction -- or steered George in her direction. Wedding bells rang 14 March 1923. Appropriately, Mary and Josephine were the witnesses on the marriage certificate.

Mary knew it would be best to find another place to live so that George and Bessie could have the house to themselves as newlyweds. The surprise is the place she chose to go. She returned to San Bernardino County, finding a housekeeper job in rural Rialto. There can be only one reason why she went back to the area. She wanted to be near Blanche. She had probably been exchanging letters with Blanche all along and that correspondence may have caused Mary to know her presence would not be unwelcome. Did she and Blanche reconcile? It seems they must have to some degree. They did not live together again. They may not have resumed a sexual relationship. But they do appear to have entered into a period of keeping one another company on a regular basis, and acknowledging that they had a special connection. During Mary’s absence, Blanche had off-and-on shared her home with her brother Herbert or her brother Charles, but during the mid-1920s, she lived solo. Mary could visit and the pair would have privacy. Mary soon moved from Rialto, which was about a dozen miles from Redlands, to Highland, only four miles away and straight north along the main rail corridor -- meaning Mary had only to hop on a train on her days off and find Blanche standing there at the very next depot to the south, ready to stroll alongside her on the short walk to Blanche’s home at 132 S. Fourth.

This was undoubtedly a portion of her life Mary treasured. Sad to say, the interlude did not last long. Blanche passed away on the night of the 7th/8th of June, 1927. She was only forty-seven years old. Mary had surely expected Blanche would be the one who would survive her, not the other way around. Mary was left adrift. It was once again her boy George who eased her into a situation that would keep things on an even keel. Back in Alameda, George had become a service station owner. His gasoline supplier was John Bruns. George and Bessie became friends with John and his wife Marie. The latter couple had a grown son, William Robert Bruns (27 January 1898 - 4 February 1990), who in the course of driving trucks of gasoline around the state and in the wake of a divorce, had decided to settle in Los Angeles. He needed a housekeeper. George made the appropriate introductions. As a result, Mary became William Bruns’s live-in housekeeper. That way Mary could continue to have her independence, could continue to live in southern California -- which she preferred -- but also be part of a situation that possessed an extra level of job security due to the way it had come into existence. It was such a good arrangement that Mary would go on to work for William Bruns for twenty years, meaning the term of employment eventually set the record for the lengthiest of her entire life, even though she started the job when she was already past the age when most people have already settled into retirement.

The house Mary shared with William Bruns (a rental) was at 4206 S. Brighton Avenue in the city of Los Angeles. This meant she was based quite some distance away from her children and most of her grandchildren. She nevertheless came up to Alameda and Oakland for traditional holiday family get-togethers. At other times she made her way to Manteca -- one of her favorite reasons to do so being to participate in Daughters of the Golden West “Pioneer Day” activities with Nancy and Theresa and some of her nieces as part of Veritas Parlor No. 75, Merced. She was also part of the Neighbors of Woodcraft lodge of Merced. She was proud of the fact that her parents had been pioneers, and that she was a native of California, a claim very few of her neighbors in Los Angeles could make. She even continued to attend after Nancy and Theresa had passed away. (One of the trips up north she made was in 1941 to care for Theresa during the latter’s final two weeks of life.)

One nearby relative was her grandson George Bertrand Johnson, Jr., who despite being raised by Bennett family members had not slipped entirely out of the Branson sphere. The photograph at right was taken in November, 1944 outside at 4206 S. Brighton. Mary is holding her great-granddaughter Leslie Ann Johnson, who was brought over that afternoon by her mother, Ramona Hood Johnson, so that a “four generations” photo could be taken, because those present included not only the baby, but her mother, her maternal grandmother, and Mary. (Other photos were of course taken, including the one shown here of just Mary and Leslie.) The occasion may have been the first time Mary had seen her new descendant, because Leslie had spent the first several months of her life in Kentucky, where George, Jr. was stationed during the war.

From the vantage of the 21st Century, the greater part of what went on in Mary’s mind and soul is occluded now. As she reached her late eighties and looked back at her life, what might she have said if she had written a memoir, and felt free to truly reveal herself in it? A bit of insight comes from a clipping she carried on her person for many years, a stanza written by G.K. Chesterton:

  • The pale leaf falls in pallor
  • But the green leaf turns to gold;
  • We who have found it good to be young
  • Shall find it good to be old
  • That she would favor writings by Chesterton is ironic. He wrote more than once in condemnation of homosexuality -- though he also characterized the prison term at hard labor given to Oscar Wilde as “a monstrous revenge.” That Mary was open-minded enough to appreciate the literary endeavors of a person who would have been revolted by her if he had known her and known of her orientation, tells us what a depth of character she had.

    In extreme old age and in fragile health, Mary was brought up to the Bay Area so that she could be close to George and Bretelle. She was hospitalized in San Lorenzo, Alameda County, CA, where she expired 14 February 1949. Three days later her body was interred at Park View Cemetery in Manteca, the same cemetery where the remains of her son Clarence and her sisters Nancy and Theresa had been laid to rest.

    Mary Jane Branson Johnson circa 1895 with her children (left to right) George, Bretelle, and Clarence.

    Children of Mary Jane Branson with Alonzo Diah Johnson

    John Clarence Diah Johnson (Clarence Johnson)

    George Bertrand Johnson

    Alice Bretelle Johnson (Bretelle Johnson)

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