Disapproving Dad from a story
called 'Shot in the Back'
by Denise Noe
we was born in Carlow, Ireland. Much about
his life and death is in dispute including the
year of his birth, which has variously been given
as 1866, 1872 and 1877. Sources are more in
agreement about the month and day: April 26. He
was the second of four children. His father,
Kearns Deane-Tanner, was a major in the British
Army. The family was affluent. Major Deane-Tanner
was a strict disciplinarian with a hot temper and
frequently clashed with young William.
William left home in his teens after
quarrelling with his father. Precisely what
sparked the row that led to their estrangement is
unclear. Some accounts say that Major Deane-Tanner
was upset because of the adolescent’s
relationships with women.
Other versions of the story say that the
major was so disappointed that his son failed the
eye examinations for the Army that he threw the
lad out of his home. This is a perplexing story
since William did have poor eyesight. However, it
is not impossible that the elder Deane-Tanner
incorrectly believed that William had faked an
eye condition to get out of the service and was
outraged at what he perceived as cowardice.
After leaving the family home, William
found work on the stage. It was 1890 when he
managed to get a bit part in a production of Sir
Charles Hawtrey’s The Private Secretary.
Word got back to Kearns Deane-Tanner that
his son was appearing in plays and he was furious
because, like many of the day, he viewed the
theatre as a low occupation. He decided that his
son would no longer besmirch the family name and
Major Deane-Tanner enrolled the budding actor in
a place called Runnymede, across the ocean in
Kansas. Runnymede was dedicated to turning young
miscreants into gentlemen farmers.
William remained at Runnymede for a year
and a half. There he picked up a strong interest
in horses that would continue long after his stay
at Runnymede became a distant memory.
Without a clear career goal in mind,
William held a variety of jobs. He worked on a
railroad, waited tables and did manual labor. For
a while, he trudged door-to-door soliciting
subscriptions for magazines.
Eventually he found his way to New York
City and the theater there. On December 7, 1901,
he married the well-to-do Ethel May Harrison, a
pretty blonde who acted under the name “Effie
Unable to support his family as an actor,
William left the stage to manage an antique
store, which was financed by his father-in-law.
After Ethel became pregnant, she abandoned paid
work for full-time homemaking. William did well
in the antique business. He was urbane and
sophisticated, and had a reliable knowledge of
However, as the years went on, he was
increasingly bothered by minor health problems
and seemed uneasy and bored. He apparently tried
to spice up his life with a series of casual
affairs. That must not have worked because he
began to drink heavily.
It was on September 26, 1908, that William
took the coward’s way out of an unhappy marriage.
He asked underlings at his antique store to bring
him $600 in cash. They did and he put $500 of it
in an envelope and told them to give it to his
With the remaining $100 in his pocket, he
walked out of his wife and daughter’s lives
without an explanation or apology.
Source: County Crime Library: