Criminals in the Family

Every family has a skeleton in the closet. In our family, Willard Smith Norvell and Bayard Boyd Norvell fit the bill. They were the sons of my great uncle Edwin Forrest Norvell, who had served in the Civil War, as an aide to General George Armstrong Custer, and Margretta Smith Norvell.

Margretta S. Norvell

Margretta S. Norvell

Edwin had survived the war only to die in 1876 in a carriage accident in Cleveland.   This left his widow with three small children to raise.   Willard Smith Norvell born in 1868,  Bayard Boyd Norvell, 1869, and  Emily Walker Norvell, 1871.  It was Emily, whom I have previously written about, who lost two of her sons and husband in a train crash in Washington DC in 1906 (see below for details).

Sadly, Edwin’s widow Margretta would have her hands full with the two boys.   By young adulthood, it seems, they had become involved in all kinds of petty crimes.  By 1891, the family was living in Washington DC where Margretta was a clerk at the Treasury Department.  It was at that time, that Willard, who also worked in the Treasury Dept was arrested for theft of government funds.    While his brother was engaged in this manner, Bayard was arrested for passing a forged check.  By 1893, both men had enlisted in the Marine Corps.    They then disappear for a while, until 1897 when Bayard next appears in an article in the Detroit paper which details how he had conned a woman in Chicago out of money and faked his own death.   She sent men to look for his body and the paper reports “they found it in a gambling den where he was betting on the horses.”

Baby Willard S. Norvell, long before his life of crime.

Baby Willard S. Norvell, long before his life of crime.

About the same time Bayard was engaged in forgery as reported in the Washington Press.   The last record of him, it seems appears in the 1900 census when he is listed as a resident of Joliet Prison in Illinois.  No other records can be found which leads to the feeling that he may have changed his name when he was released.  It is something we will never know.

Willard Smith Norvell, however, does not appear until his death in Ohio in 1926.  His activities after leaving he Marine Corps remain a mystery.   He was listed on the Marine Corps rolls in 1902 and no other records exist until his death.  One can assume given his past activities he was not up to something good.


How these two brothers might have turned out if their father had not died young we will never know.   It is clear, however, they were too much for their poor mother Margretta.  She survived them both, dying in 1931, living with her widowed daughter Emily Norvell Belt near Washington, DC.    There she remained, a sad figure having lost her husband, two sons to a life of crime, her son-in-law and two grandchildren in a train wreck.

The two boys, Bayard and Willard, never seemed to marry.

Which given their track records is probably a good thing for society.


For more details on the death of Dr. Edward O. Belt and his sons, see “A Family Torn Asunder.”

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, Detroit, Detroit History, Genealogy, Norvell Family History, Washington DC and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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