Think you know me? Think again.
The combination of my surname and my given name is surprisingly common—one reason I use the middle initial P.
Including derivations, different or missing middle initials, and sobriquets, my moniker has graced tens of thousands of individuals and even institutions going back centuries. Rarely a week passes without a birth or death of someone bearing this omnipresent name.
More than 50 million Web pages contain the phrase “William Barrett” or “Bill Barrett.” You can review them all by clicking here—if you have no life. There are countless so-named individuals right now on sites like Facebook. Google can cough up pictures of hundreds of William Barrett’s—virtually none of them me. LinkedIn lists more than 1,400 William Barrett’s or Bill Barrett’s (one of them me).
Many of the world’s William Barretts have been forces for good; a few, sadly, for evil. Below are some others upon whom the weighty tradition has fallen:
The commander of the Alamo was William Barret Travis, who died at that ill-fated San Antonio garrison in 1836. His middle name is spelled with just one T. However, his status as a famous Texas hero hasn’t stopped countless Web sites from mistakenly adding a second T. More embarrassingly, this error has crept into copy appearing in places that should know better like Texas Monthly, Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, Austin American-Statesman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and even (repeatedly) the Alamo’s hometown San Antonio Express-News. For the record—and I used to get asked this a fair amount the two times I lived in Texas—I am not kin.
The famous first American flag that Betsy Ross fashioned in Philadelphia in 1776 was based on a drawing by artist William Barrett, who lived a few blocks away. Nearly a century later, one of Ross’s children swore under oath to his role.
Also in the City of Brotherly Love, U.S. Rep. William Barrett proved his consummate skill as a politician in 1976 when voters re-renominated him for re-election even though he was dead. His untimely demise also insured he would not get confused easily with a later Nebraska Congressman of the same name.
In the world of sports, “Whispering Bill” Barrett—he really was anything but—played nine seasons in the American League and spoke loudly at the plate. For his career he batted a decent .288 and in 1925 hit .363 for the Chicago White Sox.
Since 1933 the Social Security Death Index has noted the passing of about 21,000 William Barretts, a rate upwards of five a week. Of course, they have been dropping a lot earlier than that. For example, Needham Cemetery, in Fenner, N.Y. contains a William P. Barrett who was planted there in 1868 at the age of 73. The Old Bean Cemetery in Itawamba County, Miss., has the William Barrett who died in 1853 at age 89; you can even see a photo of his grave by clicking here. Both men were born in the 1700s.
The swing-span Barrett’s Ferry Bridge, which since 1938 has carried Virginia Route 5 over the Chickahominy River near Williamsburg, is named after William Barrett, a boatmaker who operated the paid water crossing for much of the 1700s. In California Barrett Junction is a dot a few miles from the Mexican border east of San Diego, but a history of the place doesn’t even mention his first name.
Nor are we limited to the United States. In 1882 British scientist Sir William Barrett founded the Society for Psychical Research and investigated the topic of death-bed visions. Much earlier, in 1789, British historian William Barrett wrote the seminal The History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol, although the local university’s history department now judges it “useful” but “not entirely reliable”. In 1617, entrepreneur William Barrett acquired the copyright to William Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis. And way back in 1595 a different William Barrett was tossed out of a Church of England facility in Cambridge for attacking religious reform efforts.
Down Under, William Barrett and Sons has been putting people six feet under from its funeral home in Western Australia since 1897.
As a philosophy professor at New York University, William Barrett was author of the 1958 classic, The Irrational Man.
A 16-year-old juvenile delinquent named William Barrett was one of the last murder victims attributed to Wayne Williams during his alleged 1979-to-1981 serial killing spree around Atlanta.
On the wrong side of the law, teenager William Barrett Foster resolved criminal charge he took guns into a North Carolina high school and held hostage a teacher and fellow student. In earthquake-ravaged Christchurch, New Zealand—a city I have visited, but a long time ago—H. William Barrett was sentenced to 15 months for theft. Way back in 1906, known safecracker William Barrett stood trial for blowing open the lockbox at the post office in Dalton, Ky.
However, if you try any of this stuff in Ross, Pa., police Sgt. William Barrett may make the pinch. Until recently, in Salt Lake City, you could be hauled before William Barrett, a criminal court judge. On a more somber note, William Barrett is among the two dozen Kentucky state troopers who have died over the years in the line of duty. His 1971 shooting remains unsolved. In 1918, New York City Police Department patrolman William Barrett died after attempting to stop a runaway horse near the Williamsburg Bridge.
In Denver there’s a publicly traded mineral exploration company that until 2018 was called Bill Barrett Corp. In Massachusetts you used to be able to buy a new residence from William Barrett Homes. Until recently, the head of Wisconsin’s giant Neenah Foundry Co. was William Barrett. More than a century ago, William P. Barrett was a wagon-maker in Madison County, N.Y.
In the world of academe, William Barrett has been a professor of computer science at Utah’s Brigham Young University, a senior lecturer in business-economics at the University of Wisconsin Waukesha, and a teacher of trumpet and flugel horn at California Lutheran University. Also in the world of arts is the sculptor Bill Barrett of New York, where I used to live, and Santa Fe, near where I used to live.
Around Puget Sound, where I also used to live, Dr. William P. Barrett will be happy to consider fitting you for a new hip or knee.
We also are well represented in the law.
For some years Service Corp. International, the big funeral home chain based in Houston, had a P.R. man named Bill Barrett. His secretary and I had a “Who’s on First” moment a while back when I telephoned, asked for him and identified myself.
The domain name billbarrett.com used to belong to a management consultant in Orlando, Fla., but just seems out there now. billbarrett.net used to tout a harmonica player in Los Angeles, but also seems dormant, as are williambarrett.com, willbarrett.com and even artbywilliambarrett.com, which used to display skills I have never had. In case you were wondering, williampbarrett.net and williampbarrett.org both bring you back to this site.
I have not written a letter to the editor for publication in a long time. But this hasn’t stopped numerous missives over my name from appearing during the past few years in, among other places, the Orlando Sentinel, the Arizona Republic, the Idaho Statesman and the Sunday Independent in Dublin, Ireland.
For those of you who question my sanity, beware: William Barrett was once president of the board of visitors at Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center in Dix Hills, N.Y.
Fortunately for my professional identity, I know of only other journalist who has shared the conceit of my name, a staff writer on the student newspaper at Loyola University in Chicago.