For me the search for family history began as a search for medical history — as it probably does for a lot of people. So I was fascinated by this ABC News story about a medical condition that has stalked a family for four generations.
Reading about Lisa Salberg’s struggles for answers about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy reawakens my respect for what family history can reveal about our health — as well as the limitations of those revelations. Her family’s terrible dance with the condition goes back at least a century to a great-great uncle, an Irish immigrant who died suddenly in a New Jersey mine at the age of 19. As the story points out, there is a strong genetic component in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which affects the muscles of the heart and, left undetected, can result in sudden cardiac arrest in otherwise healthy young people.
But there’s no simple, smoking-gun clue to who is most vulnerable — there are over 1,000 genes associated with cardiomyopathy. For this reason, many experts do not consider genetic testing an effective screening tactic. Apparently it yields false positives as well as negatives.
Although this condition isn’t in my own family, as far as I know, it was my father’s fatal heart attack at age 59 that eventually got me going seriously about my genealogy. Looking back, I began with a pretty simplistic assumption. I knew my father, and both his parents, had died before age 60 of heart attacks. (My grandfather was 49 when he died.) When I began going back further than that, I thought I would find a string of similar deaths. But instead, I found a cluster of ancestors, including my great-great-grandfather, who lived into their eighties and beyond. Unsurprisingly, I also found a lot of people who died from things we can treat today — tuberculosis, pneumonia and the like. The picture, in short, was a lot muddier than I’d imagined.
So reading today’s story reawakened my respect for the mysteries we can encounter at the intersection of genealogy and genetics. The connections are a lot more intricate than I naively assumed when I began studying my family years ago.
My sister hates the signature whine her GPS makes when she deviates from the agreed-upon route:
For a piece of electronic engineering, it sounds remarkably petulant. However, sometimes redirECTing is unavoidable, as we could tell the GPS if it were in the mood to listen.
Particularly in genealogical research. Particularly when your original route is leading into a swamp.
For example: One of my great-great-aunts, Mary Ann Haigney (1872-1956), inconsiderately married a person surnamed Walker. Sorting through Walkers in directories, documents and federal censuses is not nearly as efficient as sorting through Haigneys, and I just don’t know as much as I’d like about them. I did have a bunch of newspaper clippings about Mary Ann, including her obituary and several society items about family parties mentioning visits from her son Edward and his wife, a grandson, and “Mrs. Geis.” I really wanted to confirm the names of Edward’s wife and son, and find out who the mysterious Mrs. Geis was.
But this year, I had a couple of super-strengths to put into the Walker search.
The first was the 1940 census. The second was the address book kept in the late 1930s and early 1940s by my great-aunt Anna. When I got this address book last fall and realized its value as a 1940 search tool, I felt like holding it aloft, superhero-style, and waiting for thunderbolts to explode out of it.
In the address book was a Brooklyn address for an “E. Walker,” whom I devoutly hoped would turn out to be Mary Ann’s son Edward. Using another awesome thunderbolt of genealogical power, the Unified 1940 Census E.D. Finder, I located:
Walker, Edward, head, 38
Walker, Frances, wife, 43
[redacted], son, 11
Geis, Caspar, brother-in-law, 58
Geis, Henrietta, sister-in-law, 49
[redacted], niece by marriage, 23
Identities for Edward’s wife and son! Plus, an explanation for Mrs. Geis!
Clearly, Caspar was Frances’ brother, and Frances’ maiden name was Geis. Fantastic. I decided to take a lunch break.
Astute readers will know that any time the word “clearly” appears in my text, things are actually not clear at all. Over a sandwich and tea, I recalled that phrase “by marriage.”
Wait a minute. Whose marriage? Was Edward linked to the Geis family through Caspar, or through Henrietta? I read through the entry again. Sure enough, it was a classic case of stopping too soon for a lunch break. There was a seventh name in the household:
Schemank, Mary, mother-in-law, 77
With that, I had the complete picture. As the full household list implies (and other documents eventually confirmed), Edward had married the former Miss Frances Schemank, not Geis. Henrietta (Schemank) Geis is one of Frances’ sisters (she had two, plus a brother). Caspar Geis, of course, is Frances’ brother-in-law, not her brother.
And I’m just glad my genealogy GPS redirECTed before I drove the car into a swamp.
I never knew my paternal grandfather Raymond Haigney (1891-1940), as I mentioned recently when describing his final census appearance in 1940. But I knew that at the time he died, he worked for the New York City Department of Health as a food inspector. I’d always supposed that my knowledge of his work was destined to begin and end there.
But, thanks to the magic of indexed, digital newspaper archives, I have three news clips showing my grandpa on the milk-dealer beat, keeping an eye out for questionable practices and doing his bit to keep New York’s dairy supply pure. You go, Grandpa Haigney!
The newspaper is the long-ago Daily Star, published in the borough of Queens (my grandfather was detailed to the health department’s Queens bureau). Punctuation, grammar and capitalization are reproduced faithfully from the original, alas.
First, here are two fairly routine situations:
Daily Star, Queens Borough, N.Y. City, Tuesday January 17, 1928, page 1: Milk Dealer Fined Total of $250 On Two Counts in Ridgewood Court
A man described as Meyer Krout, a milk dealer, of Seventy-ninth street (Furman avenue), Middle Village, was fined $100 by Magistrate Benjamin Marvin yesterday on complaint of Health Inspector Raymond Haigney, who swore that the defendant had fifteen quarts of milk for sale which was unwholesome.
Daily Star, Queens Borough, N.Y. City, Thursday Evening, October 11, 1928, page 7: Milk Dealer Fined $25 For Unrecorded Sales
Morris Cohen, a milk dealer of Cooper avenue and Eighty-eighth street, Glendale, was fined $25 by Magistrate Peter M. Daly in Ridgewood Court yesterday on complaint of Inspector Raymond Haigney attached to the Queens office of the Department of Health, who alleged that Cohen failed to keep a record of milk sales as required by regulations of the Department of Health.
This last one contains a bit of drama.
Daily Star, Queens Borough, N.Y. City, Tuesday evening May 28, 1928, page 1: Milk Dealer Pays $50 Fine For Violation
Muzzio Saladino, a milk dealer, of 2243 Flushing avenue, Maspeth, charged with violating the Sanitary Code was found guilty in Ridgewood court yesterday and fined $50 by Magistrate Peter M. Daly.
The defendant was accused by Inspector Raymond Haigney, attached to the Queens bureau of the Department of Health, with having eighty quarts of mlk in unlabeled and untagged containers. Saladino told the court that he informed the inspector that the milk was to be used for making cheese and was not for sale.
Haigney read Saladino’s record, which purported to show that he has been fined on no less than ten occasions for various infractions of the Sanitary Code relating to milk. In answer to the plea of Francis D. Saitta, counsel for the defendant, Magistrate Daly said:
“This defendant seems to have no regard for the law. I am going to fine him $50, and I don’t want a repetition of the offense.”
Compiler note: I will admit to a sneaking bit of sympathy for Mr. Saladino. I mean, freshly made cheese – what’s not to like? But the law is the law.
Research note: I found these clips (along with many other valuable items) in Tom Tryniski’s amazing Old New York Newspapers database – well worth a look for those of us tracking Empire State ancestors.
Even without a Great Mystery to solve in the 1940 census, everyone has things they’re curious about. How does what we find stack up against what we were wondering? Over the next few days I’ll share some of my own comparisons.
As a starting point, I made a list of New York City relatives whose addresses were as close to sure bets as anything gets in genealogy. I then used Steve Morse and Joel Weintraub’s Unified 1940 Census E.D. Finder to find them in the 1940 census. The Unified Finder proved to be a thing of beauty, in my case. In under an hour I found E.D.s for all my candidates. (Only one false start, and it was my own fault – I transposed two digits on the street number.)
Enough of the preliminaries. Here’s case study No. 1.
Names: Raymond and Margaret Haigney
Relationship: Paternal grandparents
Background: This was to be my grandfather Raymond’s last census appearance. Raymond (born 1891) died of a heart attack seven months later at age 49, on 26 November 1940. This sad fact carries a genealogical benefit – the address on Raymond’s death certificate would almost certainly be where he lived when the census was taken. Raymond and Margaret both died before my parents met, and my father never talked much to us about his childhood. So anything in this census is potentially interesting.
• What did my father’s family look like in this last snapshot with both parents alive?
• What was my father’s first name going to be in this census? (I know; it’s a long story.)
Results: Here are Raymond and Margaret, right where I supposed they’d be. Listed with them are eight of their ten surviving children, including my father. (Two of his older brothers were married and living in their own households by this time. Oh, and there is one person in that list who is still with us, which is why you can’t read that name.)
Names: Great news! My father has regained his baptismal name, Peter. In 1930, he was listed as Jerome, which happens to be his middle name, apparently because his mother had a serious issue with his first name. I told the story here. I am glad Dad got his first name back. I wonder what discussions were involved.
Money: Raymond worked as a health inspector for the city of New York, not bad for a guy who never was able to attend high school (see below). His salary was $2,100 a year. Still, adjusted for inflation (using this nifty tool here), that would be $32,609.42 – not a ton of salary to raise eight kids on. I’m sure the money his two oldest daughters brought home came in handy.
Education: Raymond had completed school through the seventh grade; his wife the sixth. Their oldest daughter, Catherine, completed eight grades and was working as a packer at “Beech-Nut”, probably the Beech-Nut factory at 148 39th Street in Brooklyn. Maybe she’d answered a Brooklyn Eagle ad like this one from January 1945:
The next sister, Dorothy, had graduated high school and was a clerk at a wholesale grocery. Most of the other kids, including my dad, were still in school. Dad’s older brother Joseph had completed two years of college (I think he was the first college student in the family), and was working as a “gov’t.” messenger. I’m assuming that Dad was in his junior year of high school, since the census said he had already completed two years.
After Dad’s father died, the family considered the obvious choice of having Dad leave high school and go to work like his older sisters. (As you can see from this census, there were a lot of younger kids still at home.) My mother said one of Dad’s teachers persuaded my grandmother to let Dad finish high school. But it must have been hard.
Takeaway: As I’ve said, I don’t have a lot to go on with my dad’s family. Dad himself died of a heart attack at age 59, before I really got serious about genealogy, so what he himself would have had to say about this period in his life, I can only guess.
I first heard the story of his almost dropping out of school from my mom, and my reaction was resentful: How could they? He was smart, he was hardworking. How unfair! If it hadn’t been for Dad’s teacher, a shortsighted decision might have put his life on a very different path.
But looking at the names and numbers from 1940, and knowing the event that’s about to hit them all in a few months, puts this story in a different perspective. Life can really deal out some tough choices sometimes. I don’t envy my grandmother the situation she faced.
Next time: The maternal grandparents!
Ephemera: Items designed to be useful or important for only a short time, especially pamphlets, notices, tickets, etc.
In the genealogy world “ephemera” can include everything from school attendance certificates to Edwardian hotel menus — anything at all, which I suppose is the point. Here is a nice essay about that, from the Independent Online Booksellers Association.
Recently, my cousin Carol Ann generously shared a nifty bit of ephemera — a book of addresses kept by our great-aunt Anna Haigney. Anna (1904-79) was my great-grandfather Joseph’s adopted daughter. A dedicated nurse, she volunteered her skills to aid victims of the tragic 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Conn.
The book is not an actual address book with alphabetized sections, but a plain leatherette-bound notebook with lined pages, seven inches long, four inches wide. It doesn’t include great-grandpa Joseph, which might mean Anna began keeping it after he died in 1938. Or it might not. It doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive list of addresses. It looks more like a quick reference book where Anna jotted down addresses she thought would come in handy.
Well, this unassuming little book is going to keep me busy for a while. It contains some promising entries that might untangle a lot of nagging questions. But for now let’s just take a look at an entry that fit so neatly into some previous detective work, I got a little misty-eyed, I really did.
See that first name, Cerelia? Very pretty, and unusual. It was also the name of the oldest daughter in the Brant family of Jersey City, with whom was boarding a man named “Joseph Hagney” listed in the 1900 census.
whined about wrote in a previous post, the 1900 census has long been the Mystery Zone as far as my Haigney great-grandparents are concerned. Documentation places them with boring regularity in Watervliet, N.Y. up to 1899, and with equally boring regularity in Brooklyn after 1901. But 1900 appears to have been The Year They Were Moving.
So far the one decent census possibility has been the entry in Jersey City for Joseph Hagney, a house painter (which happens to have been my great-grandfather’s occupation according to the Watervliet city directory the year before). A little bit of digging revealed that his landlords, the Brants, also had ties to the Watervliet area. And I know from the death certificate of Joseph’s son, Leo, that by February 1901, the family had only been living in Brooklyn for five months.
All this added up to a reasonable hypothesis that Joseph was living apart from his family in June 1900, boarding with a family he knew from the Capital District. While it would have been nice to get another piece of information to prop this up, it seemed unlikely. Until Great-Aunt Anna’s notebook, that is.
Now, it’s possible that Anna just happened to know some random person named Cerelia. But Anna’s notebook also contains entries on adjacent pages for “Ursula Cameron,” also in Elizabeth, N.J., and “Rose Filoramo,” of Jersey City. And here are the six children of Edwin and Rose Brant, with whom Joseph Hagney stayed in 1900: Cerlia [sic], Harry, Rose, Urslia [sic], Edwin and Margaret.
The hunch seems a lot more solid now. This family is very likely to have hosted my great-grandfather for a while in 1900, and moreover, Anna was still in touch with them decades later.
This is why I wish we all had cousins like Carol Ann, Righteous Friend to Genealogy Wonks™, who know how interested we are in family ephemera, however ephemeral. How many times does stuff like this get pitched, or put away in a drawer and forgotten? Yet viewed with the right context, ephemera can be a total gold mine.
A while back I got to fiddling with organizational charts in PowerPoint, wondering how they’d look with family names and dates instead of department heads and junior assistants. The chart includes the early Haigney family members I have been researching — my great-great grandfather Martin, his children and grandchildren. I did like the look, which is represented below, sort of. You can view a much bigger size chart here, where I stashed it on a separate page for posterity.
Speaking of posterity (well, not really, but anything for a cheap transition), yesterday was the second anniversary of the blog. Goodness, time flies.
It has been a tough fall for the blog. Hurricanes and unseasonal snow storms cut off its power source for two extended stretches. And it has been neglected while its owner (cravenly hiding behind passive voice as usual) has busied herself with a genealogy course.
Well, whose fault is that, blog? You’re the one who made me realize how much I still have to learn.
Anyway, as I step out from behind the grammatical shield, I’ve been thinking about why I keep writing the blog, and honestly, that’s the main thing: It’s keeping me thinking about what I’m doing with my genealogy, and how I can do more of it better. The kind people who have commented on posts with encouragement and suggestions are central to that, and I thank you with all my heart. You’ve helped my thinking and my technique grow, and enlarged my sense of what is sound work and what is not.
So despite this rather spotty blogging fall, I don’t think I’ll be stopping anytime soon. In fact I am acquiring a backlog of thoughts, rants and book reviews I just can’t get to yet, but are clamoring to be let out. If you like that sort of thing, consider yourself reassured; otherwise, consider yourself warned. And as always, thanks for stopping by.