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Long before it became a famous song, "I'm My Own Grandpa" had popularity as an oft-repeated story. For more than a hundred years, newspapers across the U.S. published stories about men who claimed to be their own grandfather.

 

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Almost his own grandpa! Singer Bill Wyman and bride Mandy Smith at their 1989 wedding. After the couple's divorce, Wyman's son married Smith's mother.

 

 

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"I'm My Own Grandpa"
— Where Did the Tale Begin?

By James Pylant

Copyright © 2007—All rights reserved
Posted 27 August 2007. Revised 14 November 2007


"Now, many years ago when I was twenty-three,
I was married to widow who was pretty as can be;
This widow had a grown-up daughter, who had hair of red,
My father fell in love with her and soon they too were wed"

Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe's novelty song, "I'm My Own Grandpa," tells the tale of a man, who through a series of complicated marriages, became his own step-grandfather. Latham found inspiration for the song from a book of Mark Twain's anecdotes, which included a scenario of how a man could become his own grandpa.1 Guy Lombardo is incorrectly credited with writing another version that became a hit in 1948.2 "Lombardo simply made a recording of the Latham and Jaffe tune, " says Moe Jaffe's daughter, Ann Jaffe Pace. "He didn't write any 'new version.'" The original spelling of the song title was "I'm My Own Grandpaw," Ms. Pace tells me.3

Long before it became a famous song, "I'm My Own Grandpa" had popularity as an oft-repeated story. For more than a hundred years, newspapers across the U.S. published stories about men who claimed to be their own grandfather. Though different names, locales, and years are given, all have the same sequence of events: A young man marries a woman with a daughter, who then marries the man's father, and the two men have sons by their new wives. Christopher Dunham discovered the tale in an 1822 American newspaper, republished from the London Literary Gazette. Hood's Magazine reprinted the article, which found its way to a Gettysburg newspaper in 1848:4

A Proof that a Man can be His Own Grandfather.—There was a widow and her daughter-in-law, a man and her daughter-in-law, and man and his son. The widow married the son, and the daughter the old gentleman. The widow was therefore mother to her husband's father, and consequently grandmother to her own husband. They had a son, to which she was a great-grandmother: now, as the son of a great-grandmother must be either a grandfather or great-uncle, this boy was one or the other. He was his own grandfather! This was the case with a boy at school at Norwich.—Hood's Magazine.


Nearly thirty years later, a New England newspaper reported, under the heading "A Man His Own Grandfather," that:5

A man at Titusville, Pa., recently committed suicide in his horror at finding that he was his own grandfather. The way it was thus told in his dying statement: "I married a widow who had a grown-up daughter. My father visited our house very often, fell in love with my step-daughter and married her. So my father became my son-in-law, and my step-daughter my mother, because she was my father's wife. Sometime afterward my wife had a son; he was my father's brother-in-law, and my uncle for he was the brother of my stepmother. My father's wife—i.e., my stepmother—had also a son; he was, of course, my brother, and in the meantime my grandchild, for he was the son of my daughter. My wife was my grandmother, because she was my mother's mother. I was my wife's husband and grandchild at the same time. And as the husband of a person's grandmother is his grandfather, I am my own grandfather."


The Titusville suicide victim who became his own grandfather was identified, in 1893, as William Harmen.6

Wm. Harmen, a resident of Titusville Pa., is reported to have committed suicide a few days ago as the result of a melancholy conviction that he was his own grandfather. He left the following singular letter: —I married a widow who had a grown-up daughter. My father visited our house very often, fell in love with my step-daughter and married her. So my father became my son-in-law, and my step-daughter my mother, because she was my father's wife."


The tale of the "self-grandpa" of Titusville found its way in a Syracuse newspaper in 1908, though by then William Harmen became "William Harris."7

In "Freaks of Cupid," a Wisconsin newspaper told of convoluted intermarriages, including that of a Mr. Miller, in Ohio County, who married a widow with an adult daughter. As the story goes:8

His father fell in love with the stepdaughter. The father became the son's son-in-law, and the step-daughter became his mother. Recently the son's wife had a child. The child was Miller's father's brother-in-law and Miller's own uncle, for he was a brother of his stepdaughter. Miller's father's wife—his stepdaughter—also had a son, who was, of course, Miller's brother and incidentally Miller's grandchild, for he was the son of Miller's daughter. Thus, Miller's own wife was his mother's mother and Miller became his wife's grandchild at the same time. And then to top the whole thing off, as the husband of his grandmother, he was his own grandfather.


In 1900, Albert Schmitz, of Mayence, Germany, married a widow with an adult daughter. Mr. Schmitz's stepdaughter then married his father. Two years later, Mr. Schmitz's father and stepmother had a son.9

Neapolitan sailor named Beppo Bruzoni reportedly married "a widow, and she had by her first husband a handsome girl named Silvietta," whom Beppo's father then married. As expected, Beppo's wife presented him with a son, and his stepmother/stepdaughter gave birth to a son, too.10

In 1910, Richard Connell, visiting friends in Lebanon, Ohio, claimed that he was his own grandfather.11

You see, I met a young widow in Iowa by the name of Sarah Minor and we were married. She had a step-daughter. Then my father met our step-daughter and married her. That made my wife the mother-in-law of her father-in-law, and made my step-daughter my step-mother and my father became my step-son.
Then my step-mother, the step-daughter of my wife, had a son. That boy was the son of my wife's step-daughter and therefore her grandson. That made me grandfather of my step-brother.

Then my wife had a son. My mother-in-law, the step-sister of my son, is also his grandmother, because he is her step-son's child. My father is the brother-in-law of my child, because his step-sister is his wife. I am the brother of my own son, who is also the child of my grandmother. I am my mother's brother-in-law, my wife is her own child's aunt, my son is my father's nephew, and I'm my own grandfather. So there you are.


Twenty-two-year-old Peter E. Linsky, of Fertile, Iowa, became a father with the birth of a son in January of 1923. About eighteen months earlier, Linksy reportedly married a young widow with a grown stepdaughter. "His father, who at that time was a widower, shortly thereafter married his son's wife's step-daughter. . . Then, a few months ago, the younger Linsky's step-mother, that is the step-daughter of his wife, presented her husband, young Linsky's father, with a son."12

A search of federal census records for 1920 and 1930 reveals no Iowa resident named Peter Linsky. This suspicious news story, like others, never involves the father re-marrying first or the new wives presenting their husbands with daughters instead of sons. But similarly convoluted intermarriages have likely occurred.

In 1989, musician Bill Wyman, age fifty-two, made news when he wed eighteen-year-old Mandy Smith. The couple, though, divorced after twenty-three months of marriage. In 1993, Wyman's thirty-one-year-old son reportedly became engaged to Mandy's forty-nine-year-old mother.13 Had Wyman remained married to Smith, he might have been called "his own grandpa."

NOTES AND REFERENCES

  1. I'm My Own Grandpaw, online <http://gean.wwco.com/grandpa/index.html>, downloaded 23 August 2007.
  2. I'm My Own Grandpa, online <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27m_My_Own_Grandpa">>, downloaded 17 August 2007.
  3. Ann Jaffe Pace to James Pylant, 12 November 2007.
  4. The Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg, Pa.), 16 October 1848.
  5. "A Man His Own Grandfather, "The Fitchburg Sentinel (Fitchburg, Mass.), 30 July 1877.
  6. Citing "His Own Grandfather, " The Republican (Danville, Ind.), 18 May 1893, it was reprinted in Kansas Kin, Vol. XXX (August, 1992), No. 3, p. 49.
  7. "Complicated Cases of Tangled Relationships," The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), 11 July 1908.
  8. "Freaks of Cupid, " The Daily Gazette (Janesville, Wis.), 3 June 1899.
  9. "Strange Case of a Man Who Became His Own Grandfather, " The Atlanta Constitution, 20 April 1902.
  10. "His Own Grandfather, " Oakland Tribune, 25 June 1903.
  11. "Is His Own Grandfather, " The Racine Daily Journal, 5 December 1910.
  12. "North Iowa Man, 22 Years Old Finds He's Own Grandfather, "The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 12 January 1923.
  13. Entertainment Weekly, online <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,302463,00.html>, downloaded 23 August 2007.