Some New Information on Clarice Vance
by Patrick Feaster, posted Feb. 3, 2009
#1: Clarice Vance was born not on March 14, 1871 in Louisville, Kentucky, but on March 14, 1870 in rural southwestern Ohio.
Every secondary source, going back to the early twentieth century, will tell you that Clarice Vance was a native of Louisville, Kentucky, and the more recent and detailed ones will note that she was born "Clara Ella Black" on March 14, 1871. But census records tell a different story. The 1870 census for Pike Township, Brown County, Ohio, lists a farm laborer named Smily Black and his wife Mary with a daughter "Clara E.," two months old at the time of enumeration on July 8, 1870 -- and born in that state (the final column below).
Records at www.familysearch.org confirm that James Smiley Black had married Mary Malvina Vance in Brown County, Ohio, on July 25, 1867, and that their daughter Clara E. Black was born there on March 14, 1870. Given that (a) the birthday is the same, but a year earlier; and (b) the later stage name "Vance" matches Clara's mother's maiden name, there can be little doubt that this is the Clara Ella Black of later vaudeville fame. Her grandparents, for good measure, were Gabriel and Jane (Frazier) Black and Lewis and Matilda (Dey) Vance. The 1880 census shows that the family was then in Springfield, Clark County, Ohio, along with Clara's uncle Lewis P. Vance. Once again, Clara E. (now ten years old) is listed as born in Ohio.
The 1900 census for Grand Rapids, Michigan, lists the actress "Clarice Vance" born in Ohio in March 1872--fudging her age one year further than usual. A record at www.familysearch.org for the marriage of Mose Gumble and Clara "Etta" Black on December 7, 1904, likewise lists the bride's birthplace as Ohio. Clarice, wife of Mose Gumble, is yet again listed as born in Ohio in the 1910 census for the Borough of Manhattan. Louisville may have been the nearest big city to Clarice Vance's birthplace, but it seems she was not, after all, a native of that city, or even of the state of Kentucky.
#2: Clarice Vance had (at least) three husbands, of whom Mose Gumble was the second.
It is generally known that Clarice Vance was married in 1904 to the composer Mose Gumble, and that they divorced in 1914. This is the only marriage I have ever seen mentioned in secondary sources. But the 1900 census mentioned above lists her as already having been married for two years, four years before that marriage. The entry right after hers is for another person married for two years, a salesman. Both were boarders, so their family relationship was not listed, but this could have been her husband. His name is hard to read, maybe "Wm. A. Simons":
Later sources (see below) show Clarice married after her divorce from Mose Gumble to another husband, Phelps Decker, who seems to have been over a decade and a half younger than she was. Clarice Vance and Phelps Decker are both listed in the cast of the film Daughters of the Night (1924), he as Doc Long, she as Mrs. Dodd. They were both also involved in Down to the Sea in Ships (1926), neither credited.
#3: The third husband, Phelps Decker, appears to have committed suicide in 1928, and some sources claim that Clarice Vance found his body.
Left: New York Times, Feb. 26, 1928, p. 24; above: Los Angeles Times, Feb. 6, 1928, p. 15; widely reported elsewhere too. The Washington Post (Feb. 6, 1928, p. 16) adds that Decker "began his motion picture career seven years ago with D. W. Griffith. He assisted Elmer Clifton in producing 'Down to the Sea in Ships.'"
There have been many efforts to penetrate the "mystery" of Clarice's life after the 1910s, and to account for her withdrawal from the public eye. The episode reported here may well be the key missing piece of the puzzle.
Sound Recordings (alphabetical by title)