As I said in my last blog, the one on actor Ed Brophy, I did the research on both Sam and Ed at the same time. I only decided to write Ed’s first because Sam’s would be shorter due to his short lifespan. Since he didn’t live very long I wanted to give myself more time to research him in hopes of making his blog a little bit meatier. Unfortunately nothing much else turned up, resulting in my shortest blog to date. So here we are.
Sam’s bio online was very brief anywhere I looked. He was born in Swansea, Massachusetts on 12 October 1931 and committed suicide at the age of 28 in Los Angeles on 15 May 1960. Coincidentally, Ed Brophy died just 12 days later. Sam was primarily a supporting TV actor with the occasional foray into movies and even did some radio work (Luke Slaughter of Tombstone). His balding appearance made him appear older and he tended to play roles of older men. He was incredibly busy for his brief career, which was only about 5 years. He was one of the main players in a new Audie Murphy TV show called Whispering Smith which was being filmed at the time of his death. This bio was very sparse, even for one of my blogs, but I decided to pursue him anyway.
Unlike Ed Brophy, I didn’t remember Sam from my youth or even later when I got into watching old black and white movies and TV shows. I was never into western TV shows anyway. When I was young I was more into shows like Combat! and Twilight Zone. Even now I don’t care for the old westerns, whether movies or TV. Regardless, online reviews and comments about Sam always seemed very positive so I decided to give him a try.
After starting his tree on Ancestry I decided to tackle the newspapers first. Normally I would have begun by searching for records but with his short life the total amount of them would be small. I wanted to get a better picture of him or at least a little more information concerning his suicide. Two articles came up, both about his death. The first one, from the day after he died, stated that he had been found dead at home by his wife Patricia. He had apparently killed himself by turning on the gas. So now I had his wife’s name and his cause of death. Here’s the article: News 1
After adding Patricia to the tree I checked the other article. It was from 27 May 1960, 12 days after his death. In it, a reporter has asked Sam’s widow about a report that Sam had written that he was killing himself because he was unable to support his wife. She was disputing it, saying they weren’t in any financial distress. News 2
After this, I started searching for his birth records. Compared to many states, Massachusetts has pretty good birth, marriage, and death records available online. However, this depends on what time -frame we are talking about. Unfortunately, 1931 is not in that time-frame. The only thing available then are the birth indexes. Sadly though, these only give the year and town. Two candidates turned up, both from Bristol County and both named Samuel E Buffington. One was from Swansea and the other from Fall River. I put them aside for now until I got some other confirmation (more on this in updates below). At least I got the birth year confirmed and his middle initial, E. (Later I realized that both indexes were probably for him). Swansea and Fall River are about spitting-distance from each other.
Next I checked the 1940 Census. There was a Samuel E Buffington of the right age living in Swansea, Bristol, Massachusetts. Everyone in the family was born in Massachusetts. Besides Sam, the census shows his father Carl, who is 53 and the manager of a wholesale lumber business. Next is Sam’s mother, Annette , who is 50. Then comes a brother, Carl Jr who is 20 and a bookkeeper at the lumber company. Sam’s sisters are Claire, who is 18 and a waitress at a rest home, and then Doris, aged 16. Although I was fairly certain this was the same Sam, it was still possible that the Sam from the Fall River birth index was the correct one. Maybe they moved out of the area after his birth. This was the only Sam Buffington, though, in Bristol County or the surrounding counties in 1940. So for now I put them in his tree. 1940 Census
Not much else was turning up in the research, other than items about his very prolific career. I wasn’t having any luck with his marriage record either so when this happens you follow in the directions you have available. This meant I needed to work on his family in hopes of something shaking down from the tree.
His father was born in 1886 in Swansea and had died in Bristol County in 1968. When I got to his grave-site on FindAGrave it also gave me the info on Sam’s mother, his brother Carl Jr and Carl Jr’s wife, Irene. Eventually I ran down the whole family. Sam’s mother was Annette Blanche Gendron, whose parents were both Canadian. She was born in Fall River in 1889 and died in Swansea in 1949. Carl Jr was born in 1919 in Fall River and died in 1993 in Vermont. Sam’s sister Claire was born in 1922 in Fall River and died in 1994 in Florida. Lastly, Doris was born in Fall River in 1923 and she died in 1999, though I’ve yet to discover where.
After all the work I did on his family I still had nothing more on Sam so I went back to searching for his marriage to this Patricia. After expanding my searches (and pulling my hair out) I came across a marriage on 15 July 1953 in Henderson, Vance County, North Carolina. I doubted this was him but fortunately this time there was an actual document to see. When I got to it, I knew it was him. His name turned out to be Samuel Elisha Buffington. It listed the correct parents and even the that fact his mother was deceased. Patricia was listed as Patsy Ann Whitehouse. Her parents were Charles and Cecile Whitehouse. The record goes on to show that both Sam and Patsy were living in Henderson. Now I was confused as to why Sam was even in North Carolina. Sam & Patsy Marriage
Going back to the rule of going with what you do know, I started in on Patsy’s family. Maybe something would turn up there. Patsy had been born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1930 to Charles Matt Whitehouse and Cecile Gladys Walker. Her father was working in road construction for the highways in 1930 when she was born and in the 1940 Census he was a steam-shovel operator for a gold mine in South Carolina. Patsy’s father was from Russell County, Kentucky and her mother from Haywood County, North Carolina. Charles died in 1987 and Cecile died in 1972. Both are buried in Arkansas. Patsy’s sisters and brother have all passed away now, too. Patsy got remarried in Las Vegas the year after Sam’s death and lived for a few years in California before moving to Arkansas and passing away there in 2010.
I was getting ready to go ahead and publish this blog online but was bothered by two things about Sam. First, what was he doing in North Carolina when he met Patsy and secondly, what was the story of his suicide? Managing to track down one of Patsy’s sons from her second marriage, I gave him a call to see if he could answer them. He was very nice about it but unable to answer either question. He did however tell me he knew someone who might be able to help me. So he gave me the number to a son of one of his mother’s sisters. I called him immediately and explained what I was doing. He was very open and incredibly fun to talk to. We didn’t get to talk long the first time as he had an appointment but he called me back when he got home.
He explained to me that he knew his uncle Sam during that time and liked him very much. However, Sam didn’t like him, or any children for that matter. I remarked that it wasn’t unusual for young childless adults to not like children so maybe that was why. He went on to explain a little about Sam to me. He said that Sam was very intelligent and talented. Apparently he also played the piano and was into poetry. He then asked me if I knew about the suicide, specifically how and why. I told him what I knew and that’s when he told me what he knew.
Sam had put a bag over his head for the gas, not just turned on the gas. The real reason he killed himself was the fact that he was gay. We talked for a bit about it and other family things and I then told him I wasn’t sure I was going to put this in the blog. Then I thought that maybe I should. If anything, this blog would show how another gay man back then was under extreme pressure due to society’s views at the time and was unable to deal with it. After another day of consideration I decided to include it.
The other thing I asked about was if he knew how Sam and Patsy met and why Sam was living in this small town in North Carolina anyway. He didn’t know the answer so I proposed that maybe it was college. Sam was 21 at the time and Henderson is only 50 miles from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By the way, this is Andy Griffiths’ alma mater. In truth, we’ll never know why he was there. Maybe some reader in that area can check the yearbooks for the 1950-1953 time-frame, although I did find Sam in a 1953 city directory for Providence, Rhode Island where he is a radio announcer at WHIM radio. 1953 Directory.
I ended up liking Sam and wishing he could have lived a longer life. Based on reviews of his work we all missed an actor that probably would have gone on to give some great performances. However, he ended up just another casualty of society’s prejudices.
Update 19 Oct 2017: Found a bunch of newspaper items about Sam. One thing I noticed was that Sam never seemed to know how to get a bad review. They were always positive, reaffirming how much of an actor we all lost. The last one is apparently where the rumor of his suicide being due to his inability to support his wife, which she debunked. Here are the stories in chronological order: 03 Aug 1951 24 Jun 1954 13 Aug 1954 30 Aug 1954 10 Sep 1954 14 Jun 1955 20 Jul 1955 30 Jul 1955 04 Aug 1955 25 Aug 1955 26 May 1957 20 Jan 1958 02 Mar 1958 27 Apr 1958 10 Aug 1958 10 Oct 1958 16 May 1960
Update 21 Sep 2018: I received an email from a niece of Sam’s. This is the closest relationship that has contacted me from any of my blogs. We also talked by phone and she was extremely enjoyable to talk to. Instead of writing my interpretation of her email I am going to post an excerpt of it here.
I found your article very informative. It appears you have done mountains of research on Sam Buffington. Surprisingly, there was more information about his life in your blog than I was ever told by my family.
Sam was my Uncle. I met him only once in 1959 but remember very little of the meeting as I was quite young. I have watched all of his TV and movie appearances.
My mother, talked about Sam when I would ask. I got the feeling she had a soft spot for him and felt that he was treated unfairly by his father. If he was in fact gay, that would have been enough for my Grandfather to disown him, given the social context of the times. I know he did not attend his funeral (no one in the family did) and he passed away in 1963.
The reason you found two birth records for Sam (one in Swansea and one in Fall River) is because his parents lived in Swansea and the hospital was in Fall River. He would have been born in the hospital as my Grandmother would have been in her 40’s when she had him. I can also imagine that that could have been an embarrassment of sorts to my Grandfather who had a very public image in Swansea. One has to take into consideration these people were born in the last part of the 19th century.
His voice was incredible, not unlike my fathers. Somewhere I have a record he made for a radio audition. I used to listen to it when I still had a turntable.
Well, thank you for remembering Sam. I wish I had known him but I do know how extremely talented and conflicted he was, sadly.
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Thanks for stopping by! -Ray
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