The Mysterious Elmer Condon

The Mysterious Elmer Condon

No one knows why Earl Conway left his wife and children, changed his name, and headed to California. Some family members believe Grandma Thacker (as she was known by) must have been a difficult woman to get along with. Or maybe Earl inherited his father’s wayward behavior. The facts leading Earl to his decision may not be clear, but the story of how Uncle Earl ran off and changed his name so his wife Ella would not find him is still a family favorite.


Earl Conway was the only child of Ella Ritter and Samuel Conway. His father hailed from Indiana and moved to Coffeyville, Kansas in the 1880’s. Sam was a barber by trade and well-liked throughout the county. Newspaper ads colorfully described Sam as a “Tonsorial Artist” and he was known throughout the county as a “Knight of the Razor”.

One would think that Sam’s talent as a barber guaranteed him happiness and prosperity but the events of Sam’s life told a different story. In his early years as a barber, Sam moved from one shop to another. Sam seemed unsettled, a characteristic he would struggle with his entire life. Socially, Sam was a likeable fellow with many friends. He attended parties and gatherings and acquainted himself with the young women of Coffeyville. One young woman caught his eye, however and would soon be his new wife. That woman was Ella Ritter.

Ella the daughter Benjamin Ritter and Mary Pettijohn, was born in Allen County, Indiana in the year 1864. Benjamin was a Civil War veteran who fought for the Indiana Infantry on the side of the Union. Ella and her family relocated to Dearing Kansas sometime in the 1880s. Unlike his future son-in-law, Benjamin took root in the Montgomery County and amassed quite a bit of land. He lived there for more than a quarter century before he died in 1915.

In late 1889, Sam and Ella were secretly wed and swore the magistrate to not tell anyone for thirty days. The secret was exposed, however, and a congratulatory article was printed in the Coffeyville weekly newspaper. The reason for the secrecy may have been to allow the couple to time to leave town as they soon left for Indiana.  Oddly enough, Ella gave birth to Earl seven months later. Their hiatus from Kansas was short-lived and the family returned to Coffeyville in 1891. Sam opened a new barber shop and resumed his career as if nothing had changed. For awhile, the couple seems happy but Sam soon tires of Ella and returns to Indiana.  He begins a relationship with a woman named Nellie, and they live as man and wife.

An attempt at reconciliation is made in 1894 when Ella and Earl move to Monticello, Indiana to be with Sam. The family returns to Coffeyville in 1901, but the marriage is  not working. Nellie follows the family back to Coffeyville and Sam asks Ella for a divorce. Ella initially refuses and Sam stops supporting her and Earl. In 1906, Ella relents and files for divorce on grounds of non-support. The divorce is granted in October, 1908.

Clipped from The Coffeyville Weekly Journal, 16 Feb 1906, Fri, Page 7

During the divorce proceedings, sixteen-year old Earl quits school to pursue work. He moves to northern Oklahoma where he meets Eva Frisbie, daughter of Eugene Frisbie and Annie Dillbeck. Earl and Eva are married in 1910 and have two children: a daughter born in 1911 and a son born in 1913. But much like that of his parents, the marriage of Earl and Eva is doomed to failure. It can be argued that Ella and Sam’s relationship was a poor example of married life. Sam was hardly a good role model for his son. Whatever the reason, Earl leaves his family and his identity behind. Earl Conway became Elmer Condon.

Linking Earl Conway and Elmer Condon is shaky business but there are suggestions that the two are the same person. The family knows that Earl assumed the name “Condon” when he left Eva and headed west. The name “Condon” is not meaningless to Earl. Earl spent much of his childhood in Coffeyville, the town where the Dalton Gang attempted to rob two banks in one day in 1892. The Dalton Brothers were killed and are buried in the local cemetery. One of the banks robbed was Condon Bank, owned by C.M. Condon. Family lore says that Earl believed he was related to the Condon family although there is no evidence to support this. Whether Earl’s belief is fact or fantasy, sometime between 1915 and 1918, Earl Conway ceased to exist and Elmer Condon was born.

Elmer’s story begins around the time the United States enters World War I. He joins the Colorado National Guard and later moves to Los Angeles, California.  Elmer is living in Los Angeles when he registers for the draft but claims exemption because of an unknown physical disability.  In the early 1920, Elmer becomes a deputy with the Los Angeles Police Department and is involved in two serious incidents involving jail breaks. In the first one, Elmer shoots and kills an inmate who breaks out of his cell and attacks another officer.  A year later, Elmer is overpowered by three convicts who take his gun. The three convicts escape and are later captured. But Elmer is suspended, which seems to end his career in law enforcement.

Earl’s trail is picked up on the 1930 Arizona Federal census. Elmer is living in Prescott, Arizona with this wife Edith. Elmer is now a private investigator.  In 1939, Elmer and Edith divorce. The census trail goes cold in 1940. There is no sign of either an Elmer Condon or Earl Conway born 1890 in Indiana.

Although Earl wanted to disappear from his wife, he maintained connection with the rest of his family. In his mother’s will, dated 1948, Ella lists her beloved son, Earl Conway, presently living in Payson, Arizona, and gives him a third share of her estate. And when his daughter dies in 1972, her obituary listed her father, Earl Condon as a survivor, living in Oceana California. One of his grandchildren lives in central California and it is believed Earl had a relationship with him and his children.

Elmer Condon died in January 24, 1976 at Pismo Beach California. What may be the final clue to his true identity is found in an USGenWeb transcription of the Arroyo Grande Cemetery, located in San Luis Obispo, California. Buried in Section J, Block 3, Plot 39 is Carnice Elmer Condon, 1890 – 1976. Carnice just happens to be the name of the daughter born to Earl Conway and Ella Frisbie. Arroyo Grande Cemetery Entrance


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