Handel, With Care

Continuing the blog’s tradition of Easter musical moments, I offer a collection of Fun Handel Facts! Plus, some sheep!

First, the fun facts:

• On Messiah’s opening night (Dublin: 13 April 1742), a nasty divorce was complicating life for contralto Susannah Cibber – quel scandal! But her singing of the aria “He was despised and rejected of men” so moved a clergyman among the listeners that he jumped from his seat, crying, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

• Speaking of jumping up: It is not documented beyond a doubt that George II of England surged to his feet during the first London performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  But still, this is why tradition demands one stand for the “Hallelujah.” (N.B.: There is no related royal tradition that supports checking phones for messages during a performance. Please stop that.)

• George Frideric Handel could be scary. Faced with a soprano who resisted his direction, he threatened to throw her out an open window, yelling: “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” (P.S. Those of us who have labored to tackle Handel’s more florid melismatic runs will agree with this. P.P.S.: Why is it always sopranos in these stories?)

• Handel composed Messiah in an incredible 24 days. I mean, holy cow.

• One possible reason Messiah premiered in Dublin: Handel was playing things safe. He’d gotten some depressingly so-so notices in London the season before for other premieres.

• Back when Messiah was new, clergymen did not entirely approve of it. Biblical texts in a theater? As entertainment?  Oh, well, you know how long those shock-value novelties last, amirite?

Many of these tidbits are from this wonderful history of Messiah by Jonathan Kandell in Smithsonian magazine. Or, for more Handel fun, you can take a very entertaining quiz.

Finally, for your listening pleasure, here is the chorus “All We Like Sheep.” This is also known as “one of the choruses with all those ridiculous melismas” or “All we like sheep! Geddit?”

Please remember that were we to punctuate this text in contemporary fashion, it would read: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Commas: They matter.

Still, I think the sheep pictures add something. For those who celebrate, have a joyous Easter!


Mystery Monday: The Butt-Factory Update

My butt-factory mystery is solved. (“Yay!” cry the readers. “We can all relax now!”)

After posting a cri de coeur about my ancestors in the 1870 census for West Troy, N.Y., I thought some more about their mysterious occupation: “butt factory.”

This called for serious scholarship. Somebody with a solid handle on 19th-century industry in the Albany area. Somebody (hopefully) snicker-proof.

Luckily, there is a terrific organization to contact: The Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway. Since 1972, the Gateway has been dedicated to preserving and teaching about the Capital District’s industrial legacy. Anybody with working-class ancestry in the Albany-Troy area probably knows what a powerhouse it was back in the day. The first iron mill started cranking in 1807; the United States Arsenal in Watervliet was built in 1812. The Erie and Champlain canals added fuel to the engine.  The textile mills, the early ironworks like Burden, the pioneering union activists like Kate Mullany – it’s all pivotal (if underappreciated) history.

Still — what might it have to do with a butt factory? There was only one way to find out. This was not how I pictured introducing myself to the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, but what can you do. I sent the email.

In short order came a response from the Gateway’s executive director, P. Thomas Carroll, PhD: “Sure, I think we can help you.”  Just like that. Professionalism personified.

Tom explained that the term “butt” has two potential meanings in this context:

(1) a cask, i.e., barrel, with a capacity of about 120 U.S. gallons.

(2) the sort of hinge that looks like this:

Image from "The Encyclopedia of Hardware"; Hardwaresource.com

Image from “The Encyclopedia of Hardware”; Hardwaresource.com

Tom wrote: “It’s called [a butt hinge] because, when you mortise the two plates of the hinge into recesses in the door edge and in the door jamb, the door and the jamb can then butt right up against each other when the door is closed, which is of course what you want to properly seal up the door opening.” It’s a basic, basic hinge. You might be looking at one in your house right now.

[The blog will pause for five minutes while everyone goes to inspect the nearest butt-hinge. Reports are due next Wednesday.]

Tom believed my ancestors were working in a place that made hinges, not casks. Why? He enclosed this page from the 1863 city directory for Troy and West Troy. It includes two butt-hinge factories. One was across the river in Troy, but the other, Roy & Co., was right in West Troy:

Photo courtesy of Tom Carroll, Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway

Photo courtesy of Tom Carroll, Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway

It was quite likely that my ancestors, 16-year-old James and 10-year-old Timothy Connors, worked at Roy & Co. in 1870.

In a subsequent email, Tom sent an image from the 1899 city directory that included a Watervliet entry for “Connors, James, buttmaker, house 437 Broadway.” Guess what? 437 Broadway is where my James lived at the time of the 1900 census. Apparently the hinge business agreed with him.

Sometimes we have to move beyond the usual genealogical sources to color in the outlines of our ancestors’ lives. Fortunately, there are dedicated and knowledgeable individuals who can give us that lost background. Like Mr. Carroll, who saved my poor eyeballs another Googling for “butt factory.” You have no idea how grateful I am for that.

Note: In addition to operating the Burden Ironworks Museum, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway hosts terrific activities. Some past examples: tours of historic factory buildings, architectural walking tours and the “Troy’s Tiffany Treasures” tour celebrating the city’s extensive legacy of Tiffany artistry. The 2013 brochure is due next month. Watch this link for more information.


Gentle Readers …

… Does anyone know what a butt factory might be? I am sure there is a very straightforward explanation. I would also be thrilled to learn about any alternative interpretations of the handwriting.

1870Connors1Crop

Just please don’t advise me to Google this.

I am still bleaching my eyeballs from the last attempt.


Tuesday’s Tip: Turn That Page. Seriously.

Modern census database searching is great. Many mis-indexed ancestors have been found by the ability to throw wild card variables into a tricky surname or, when all else fails, to abandon names altogether and search for characteristics like age, occupation and nativity.

But remember: Each page in a search result is just one possible piece of a family mosaic. Case in point:

I was scouring the 1870 index for the family of my great-grandmother Catherine Connors Haigney in Watervliet, Albany County, N.Y. By this point in my search I knew that Catherine’s oldest sister, Mary Ann, was likely to be married to a man named Bernard Connell in 1870. And there they were:

1870_ConnellCrop2jpg

Excellent! (A bonus: They married in the census year, so the enumerator noted the month of their wedding, January. You can’t see it in this crop, but it’s there.)

Now it was time to check on my great-great-grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Connors. There was only one family in Watervliet in 1870 that included a head of household named Patrick, a wife Bridget and siblings whose names matched the known siblings of Catherine and Mary Ann. Up they popped:

1870ConnorsCrop

Wonderful! There they all are, Andrew, Mary Ann, James … Wait.

Mary Ann? Seriously? But how could she be both the eldest daughter in Patrick Connor’s household and the wife of Bernard Connell? One finding had to be the wrong Mary Ann. Right?

I spent the next few minutes whimpering softly about what a rotten, horrible, deceptive world this is, where census indexes make us think we have a handle on a family, only to cruelly snatch our triumph away with the very next hit.

But soon I saw something that I should have noticed right away. See Bernard Connell and Mary Ann up there? See how they’re at the top of their page?

And see how Patrick and Bridget and their gang are at the bottom of their page?

Could these people just possibly be on adjacent pages?

You bet, Sherlock. The Connors and the Connells are, in fact, in the same dwelling, No. 727, but are enumerated as two distinct families, No. 902  and No. 903.

The Connors/Connell family group was visited by a somewhat persnickety enumerator in 1870, a year in which individual names were recorded, but relationships to head of household were not. Faced with the presence of Patrick’s married oldest daughter, the enumerator parsed the situation as precisely as he could. He listed Mary Ann first among Patrick’s children, and a second time as Bernard Connell’s wife. Then the entry happened to break across Pages 110-111.

There are not two 18-year-old Mary Anns in Dwelling 727. They are the same person whose dual identity has been carefully, if confusingly, preserved, a conclusion supported by other sources, including the obituary of one of Mary Ann’s daughters many years later. And, of course, these two Mary Anns appear as two separate census search results on separate pages, each seemingly valid, but contradictory. Only when the pages are read in sequence do they make sense.

It’s an elegant example of some basic census-research advice: Never simply zero in on one key name on a census page. Read up, read down and read adjacent pages. It’s the only way you’re sure you’re getting the whole picture.


Irish Voices

I was telling a friend the other day about my dad, who was a wonderful singer, a real Irish tenor, and who was also kind of terrifying when it came to Irish music. And Irish accents. And Irish everything.

It was all about the authenticity. I wouldn’t say my dad was a stickler for Aran-Islands style authenticity in these matters. But I suspect he knew what he knew — the accents of his Irish-born maternal grandparents, and the kind of Irish immigrant culture you used to find all over Red Hook once upon a time. And he was a merciless critic about Irish music that was not being done right.

Whatever that meant. I mean, we were all Americans, what did we know, really?

I was about to go away to college when I screwed up the courage to ask him for his version of “The Wild Colonial Boy.” He considered for a bit and said he’d see. I expected him to sing it for me, if he were to agree. But at the end of the working day he presented me with a typewritten version of the verses, which is the version I use to this day. (For more thoughts on the “Wild Colonial Boy,” see link below).

Every so often, through the magic of YouTube, I encounter some Irish music I believe even my dad would have loved. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day offering is a crystalline version of a song called “Love is Teasing,” sung in 1967 by a radiant Dolly McMahon.

Past posts on St. Patrick’s Day matters:

The Soda Bread Post (No Raisins!)

How to sing The Wild Colonial Boy (or how not to)

Maura O’Connell: a seasonal appreciation

Danny Boy memories


Hold On To That Thought

Hold on to that thought.

I heard that phrase many a time in my grade-school days, when I could have been a prototype for Hermione Granger, Harry Potter’s perpetually hand-waving buddy.

Well, “hold on to that thought” is useful advice in genealogical research. It can apply to all those funny bits of data we stumble across from time to time, the ones whose significance remains stubbornly unclear.

I don’t have that name in my lines, we might think. Or: I don’t know of anyone who was from that place.

We conclude that these things are flukes – a brief acquaintanceship, perhaps, or just a whistle stop on one of our ancestors’ journeys. This potentially can be a mistake.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about finding a guy in the 1900 census who sure looked like he could be my great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney. His age, birthplace, marital status and occupation were all in line with how other sources described him during the 1890s. Sometime after 1899, Joseph moved from his lifelong home of Watervliet, N.Y. He eventually settled with his wife and children in Brooklyn, where he can be found with boring regularity from 1910 on.

But in 1900, he was quite elusive. And when I finally found a viable candidate, there were, in my mind, three very big snags:

  1. He was in Jersey City, not Brooklyn.
  2. His wife, Catherine (Connors) Haigney, was nowhere in sight, and neither were any of his children, including my grandfather Raymond.
  3. He was boarding in the household of an Edwin and Rose Brant. None of us had ever heard of anybody called Brant.

Assuming this was great-grandfather Joseph, what in the world was going on?

As I previously wrote, I established that Edwin and Rose, like Joseph, were recent arrivals from Watervliet. And about a year after the census find, I came into possession of an address book from the 1930s belonging to Joseph’s daughter, Anna, which strengthened the idea of a close association between the families. Thirty years after Joseph boarded with the Brants, Anna continued to keep track of three Brant daughters, now grown and married.

And that was it – an enigmatic census entry and an old address book, both pointing to a family named Brant in Jersey City. Based on what little I had, it seemed that this was a case of old acquaintances from the Capital District renewing their ties in Hudson County and Brooklyn. Interesting, but nothing to stop the presses about. I busied myself with other things.

Still, I held on to that thought.

And recently this paid off as I worked on the ancestry of great-grandmother Catherine (Connors) Haigney, Joseph’s wife. There are many more Connors families than Haigneys in Watervliet, and up to now it’s been hard to pick out which one might be Catherine’s – especially since I had no information about possible siblings.

Then one of my periodic rummagings through Tom Tryniski’s remarkable New York newspapers database turned up the piece of gold I had long sought: a Troy Times obituary for Catherine’s brother, James Connors, listing Catherine and another sister as survivors. This obituary led to a blizzard of other clippings, which helped crack the case of which Connors census entries were which, and before you could say “Get that in the database,” I had pieced together a preliminary picture of my great-grandmother’s parents, Patrick and Bridget, and their seven children.

Soon enough I had a decent basic idea of what became of five of these children, including my great-grandmother, of course. The two mysteries were a son named Timothy, who is difficult to trace after 1880, and a daughter variously recorded as Rose, Rosannah and Rosa.

It’s all so clear in retrospect, isn’t it?

Not in real time. I was sitting on a train the other day, thinking two things:

  1. I hate how the name Rosannah keeps putting that old Toto song into my brain.
  2. Have I ever seen a Rose anywhere in my travels?

Which was when I blurted out, “Rose BRANT!” thereby drawing some curious stares from across the aisle. (It could have been worse; I could have started singing “Rosanna.”)

The next logical stop was the Jersey City Free Public Library’s lovely New Jersey Room, where some lovely obituaries confirmed the hunch. Rose’s own death notice from 1914 referred to her only as the beloved wife of Edwin, but Edwin’s obituary from 1929 contained the wonderful words: “Edwin O. Brant, beloved husband of the late Rose Brant (nee Connors).”

This is the beginning rather than the end of the story. A lot of blanks still need to be filled in and connections confirmed in what is shaping up to be a typically sprawling Irish Catholic family. But it has been delightful to uncover a more detailed picture of my great-grandmother’s clan just in time for Women’s History Month, not to mention St. Patrick’s Day.

I’m so glad I held on to that thought.


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