In 1870 Hardy married for the second time, the bride being Cornelia Magruder. The Magruder family was the most important plantation dynasty in the area, a Columbia County family worth $25,000 a year – a fortune in those days. Cornelia was born on January 18 1846 and died on May 18 1888. The three children of the marriage – Lillian, Mamie and George – were domiciled with adoptive parents, probably a branch of the Magruder family, on Cornelia‘s death. Some authorities refer to four children, but the records show only three, and there are burial records of only two.
Oliver’s third marriage was on March 12 1890 to Mary Emma Norvell, always known as Emmie. Her family, described as wealthy and distinguished, originated in Normandy, and became established in Berwickshire, Scotland. The American immigrant family started with Edward Normansell, in Virginia in 1623, and was settled around Williamsburg, many family members being in the teaching profession. The family name became simplified to Norvell over the years, and the branches spread throughout the south east. By 1800, the family home was in Grovetown, Columbia County, Georgia.
Emmie’s father was Thomas Benjamin Norvell, a teacher. He was born on July 30 1816, and married Sarah Harwood on September 29 1835. He was married again in 1853, to Mary Freeman, who was born in 1835 in South Carolina. Their daughter, Mary Emma (Emmie) was born in 1860, the fifth of nine children. (Appendix 1a)
Emmie grew into a fine, studious and hard-working young lady and followed the family tradition by teaching. Her first marriage was to railroad labourer Sam Tant, thought to have been a sign painter, but it was cut short by the man’s death in 1887. Four children had resulted from the union, two boys and two girls – Sam, Henry, Elizabeth and Emily. The only indications of ages are that of Sam, who was born in 1879, and Henry, who was born in 1888.
Concurrent with his third marriage, Oliver Hardy sold off what remained of the plantation. After the abolition of slavery in America in 1867, when Oliver was aged 26, plantation owners had to rethink their economics, and many went out of business. The sale of the farm enabled Emmie to purchase a house and grounds at 125 South Hicks Street in the city of Harlem, Columbia County. Harlem was founded in 1861 by Newman Hicks as a pious enclave with strict church-going on Sundays and a total ban on alcohol. Today, the site of Emmie’s house is directly behind the current Harlem City Hall, part laundromat and part open space.
The Hardys’ tenure in Harlem was short, ending in 1891, although Emmie retained ownership of the house in South Hicks Street. At the time of their move to Madison, Morgan County, Emmie – now 31 – was pregnant with Norvell. The move was occasioned by Oliver and Emmie being appointed resident managers of the Turnell-Butler Hotel, a prestigious and thriving business.
Thus the Hardy family was living in Madison at the time of the birth of Norvell, on January 18 1892, and into his youth. The fact that they lived on Jefferson Street is uncanny, as Jefferson is Stan Laurel’s real surname.
Norvell Hardy was almost certainly born in Harlem. Emmie still retained her house there in 1892, but one Harlem historian believes the boy was born at his grandmother’s house in nearby Grovetown, where Emmie could be assisted and ministered to by a woman of experience. If this is the case, it is an astonishing parallel with Stan Laurel, who was born in HIS grandmother’s house.
The extraordinary twist of fate could even be true if Norvell was, indeed, born in Harlem. It is possible that Emmie’s mother moved into the empty house, releasing her own house for sale as her pension fund, and that Emmie chose to give birth there to be with her mother. Technically, it was Emmie’s house by ownership, but if her mother was living there as a grace and favour tenant, it could be regarded as her home. Norvell would still have been born in his grandmother’s home, giving the incredible coincidence with Stan Laurel.
Simon Louvish gives this theory credibility in his book Stan and Ollie – The Roots of Comedy. On page 37 he refers to the house in South Hicks Street, Harlem as “the family house”. It was certainly not Oliver and Emmie’s “family house” so the possibility that Emmie’s mother had moved in there is quite strong. It would have made perfect economic and family sense.
Birth and death certificates were non-existent in Georgia until about 1910, so the methods of verification of actual dates and places are limited. We have to use what sources of evidence we can find, and since the Georgia Historical Society has seen fit to place a Historic Marker on the site of 125 South Hicks Street, Norvell’s birthplace can reliably be regarded as Harlem.
From Grovetown or Harlem, either way, Emmie returned to Madison with haste, as a hotel does not run itself. Oliver had proved capable of running it single-handed, but it is easier with two. There is no record of any hired staff in the hotel, much less any suggestion of a black maid given responsibility for Norvell’s upbringing, as some popular traditions assert. There is no historical evidence for such a person, though she could, of course, have been a descendant of a slave owned by Samuel Hardy. Even then, some records would be in existence about her and Emmie could have claimed her pay and upkeep against tax. We do not know her birth date, name, origin, age or date of death, and Georgia historians are in firm agreement that she never existed. In McCabe’s extensive interview (Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, page 54) Norvell was given every chance to mention her, but does not, which is revealing. Instead, he describes his boyhood as “ordinary” and “not very exciting”. He talks of the hotel his mother ran, and his love of “people-watching”, but there is no mention of any mentoring maid, black or otherwise. He talks a lot about his mother.