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My Keystone Cop Ancestor

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Working at the Fun Factory

My maternal grandfather’s parents were Frank Elsdon and Elsie Dickinson. I had done a lot of work on the Dickinson family but I hadn’t paid very much attention to Elsie. Had I known then that I would discover someone who had been present at the birth of the film making industry in Hollywood I would have looked sooner!

Frank and Elsie Gertrude appear on the 1911 census, living at 37 Meredith Road, Sheffield, Frank was working as a silversmith. From the census I could see that Elsie was born around 1880 in Sheffield and she and Frank had been married 11 years. A search of found their marriage in the Wortley registration district in the third quarter of 1899.

Elsie’s maiden name was Burrell. Luckily for me, there was only one Elsie G Burrell on the 1891 and 1881 census, living with her parents John William and Sarah on Snig Hill in Sheffield where John William ran a clothing shop. By today’s standards it was a large family, Elsie had eight siblings: William, Eric, Edgar, Maurice, Edith, Ethel, Effie and John. I turned my attention to the brothers, finally hitting genealogical gold with Maurice.

Maurice Edward Burrell born 9 May 1883 appears on the 1891 and 1901 census in Sheffield. In 1901, at the age of 18, he was working as a joiner’s apprentice. There was no sign of him in 1911. My usual strategy when this happens is to investigate possible emigration so I expanded my search to include records outside of the UK and got several results, most of them in California so it looked like he had made a move to warmer climes. At this point, I could not find the passenger list for his initial entry into the US, but later records would clarify this.

On 18 September 1918, Maurice began the process of becoming a naturalised US citizen and from the resultant paperwork I found that he was 5 feet 8 inches, with auburn hair and gray eyes. That at the time he was living at 1112 Elden Street, Los Angeles and that he came to America from Canada, arriving in Seattle on 4 September 1912 on board the Princess Alice. Most interestingly of all, he signed himself as ‘Maurice Edward Burrell known as Ted Edward’. I couldn’t help but smile, his alias was essentially Edward Edward.

On 21st March 1921 he became a US citizen; his petition gives details of his wife, Theresa M, who was born on 22 October 1887 in Romanoff, Russia. It also confirms that they had one son, Maurice R born 11 August 1919. JR Dickerman, a taxi cab driver, and Frank R Hayes, who gave his occupation as an actor, signed his application as referees. It occurred to me, that perhaps Maurice’s alias of Ted Edward was a stage name.

Maurice applied for a US passport in 1923 in order to travel back to England to see his family. Considering that his father died in the first quarter of 1924 and that Maurice did not return to the US until April that year it is likely that his father’s illness was the reason for the trip. On his application, he gave a few more details including confirmation of his father’s name, which is always useful to confirm you are on the right track. He also states that he emigrated from the UK in 1905 and had been in the US ever since. A small white lie on his part as he initially travelled to Canada.

One of the greatest things for a family historian is finding an image of your ancestor so imagine my excitement when I found on the reverse of his passport application a small photograph of a man who bore a definite resemblance to my grandfather.

Now that I knew where he had settled, I turned my attention to the census. It was straightforward to find Maurice in 1930, he and his wife were living at 121 West Emerson Avenue, Monterey Park City, Los Angeles with their son Maurice R. The US censuses contain a lot of varied information so I learned: that they owned their own home that was worth $5,000, that they did not own a radio. He was 26 and she was 25 when they married, meaning they got married around 1909. That Theresa was from Russia, but her parents were Irish (that’s a project for another time). He was a house builder who had worked the day before the census and had not fought in a war.

The entry on the 1920 census had fallen victim to a transcription error. Burrell was transcribed, initially as Burch and then corrected to Burnell. Only by searching by the first name and age did I manage to locate him: working as a carpenter and renting a property in 115 West 4th Street, Monterey Park.

In 1910/11 he should have been in Canada as according to his naturalisation certificate he did not enter the US until 1912. I haven’t been able to locate him on the 1911 Canadian census or the 1910 US census. However, later sources show that he may have been travelling during this time so he could be anywhere in North America or he may have missed the census completely.

Knowing that he travelled to Canada first I was able to track down his initial emigration from the UK, on the SS Lake Manitoba, travelling from Liverpool to Montreal, arriving on 26 May 1905. Again, his name is transcribed incorrectly, this time as Bavill.

Having pinned him down to California, I wondered whether there was anything in the ‘stage name’ theory. One quick google later, I was at where, to my astonishment, I found that Maurice Burrell aka Ted Edwards was a veteran of 36 films and had been a Keystone Kop. He died on 29 September 1945 and was buried in the Rose Hills Memorial Park, Whittier, California.

I found myself searching the Internet Movie Database, the first time I had ever visited the site for genealogical reasons. There a search of Ted Edwards gave me a long list of his films. As I scanned through the titles, I realised that Maurice had worked with the greats: Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and, king of them all, Charlie Chaplin. Keystone Studio is infamous for not having full credits for each film, so it has been up to a great number of enthusiasts to identify each player. Ted is credited in some as ‘Cop outside Bar’, ‘Minister’, ‘Lodge Guest in Ranger Hat’, which helped me pick him out during a lovely afternoon that I spent with a ‘Charlie Chaplin at Keystone’ DVD. In Caught in the Rain (1914) Ted was credited as Cop outside Bar, so I watched with bated breath for him to appear. Then there he was, standing outside a bar in the standard dishevelled Keystone Kop outfit, Chaplin comes staggering out, clearly drunk and leans against Ted, they do a little skit where Charlie lights a match on Ted’s coat, Ted gets his truncheon out and Charlie tips his hat and wanders off. Ted was easily identifiable from his passport photo and now I had seen him once I spotted him again and again. It was amazing seeing him in scenes acting with someone as iconic as Chaplin, in films such as The Rounders and Gentlemen of Nerve, other times he only appears briefly in the background.

I could only speculate how Ted had got involved in movies. He was a carpenter, perhaps, like Harrison Ford, he had been building sets and got called down to play a bit part. Casting was so relaxed in those days that anybody passing by or living in the vicinity of filming could be pulled in.

Online I found details of a magazine called Slapstick; one issue contained an article called Ted Edwards and Charles Lakin: A Tale of Two Forgotten Keystone Players. I sent an email to the editor, explaining that Ted was my great great uncle and asking how I could order a copy. He was soon in touch, almost as excited as I was and very pleased to email me the article. He also put me in touch with the author, Brent Walker, who had been unable to trace Maurice’s family and so was very happy to hear from me. The article was really interesting, not least because it said that he had spent five years in vaudeville before joining Keystone, this is confirmed by his obituary in Billboard magazine. So perhaps his move into filmmaking wasn’t quite as accidental as I had thought. I still have to research the vaudeville angle.

Maurice’s final film, according to the article, was in 1917 in Thirst. According to the Internet Movie Database he also appeared in Maniac (1934), but having watched the trailer on YouTube I agree with Brent Walker that this is not my Ted.

The article credits the birth of Maurice’s son in 1919 with him leaving the film industry. Perhaps, he felt that it was not a stable enough job now that he had a family to support. Brent Walker says that he could have remained in the film industry, milking his past as a former Keystone Kop but he did not. Apart from in 1921 when he gave his occupation as a ‘photoplayer’ in the city directory he appears to have walked away completely. He lived out his life quietly as a carpenter working out of a workshop behind his house in Monterey Park City.

His gravestone reads ‘To our beloved Grandpop’ and I believe there are still descendants of Maurice alive in California today. I hope to make contact with them and see what family stories they have about his time with the little tramp.

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