Today’s NewsClips are in honor of the August babies of the family. That would include my sister Mary, my brother John and my daughter, Nora, who turns 13 today. (And who will give me a hard time for mentioning her in the blog. But Happy Birthday anyway, sweetie!)
These NewsClips feature another August baby in the Haigney family, my great-great aunt Mary “Mamie” (Haigney) Walker (1872-1956), who celebrated her birthday Aug. 16. As I’ve noted, I’m grouping these little local news snippets by year.
NewsClips is a recurring feature in which I share transcriptions of newspaper stories about my ancestors.
I owe today’s NewsClips to a mostly vanished newspaper institution, the social-happenings column in which all news, however minor, was fit to print. Reading it makes you feel as if you’re channeling Gladys Kravitz, the eternally nosy neighbor from Bewitched. In the Times Record of Troy, N.Y., the local news page carried many column inches of these snippets, headlined only by the name of the town or neighborhood whose business was being chronicled. I have found a couple of dozen of them pertaining to my relatives, and will group items by year.
Years ago someone at a family party mentioned that my great-aunt Anna Haigney had nursed burn victims from “that big fire up in Hartford — you know, the one at the circus.” I didn’t really know, which shows how the passage of time can dull the notoriety even of the most awful events.
More than 6,000 people (some estimates say as many as 8,700) had thronged the big top set up by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Hartford, Conn. on July 6, 1944. How the fire started remains a controversy. Early on, a carelessly discarded cigarette was the theory. In 1950, an Ohio man claimed to be the circus arsonist. He later recanted, and his confession is further clouded by his history of mental illness and officials’ inability to determine with certainty whether he was in Connecticut at the time.
Once the fire started, it spread with terrifying speed due to the construction of the tent — canvas coated with paraffin for waterproofing purposes, a common method at the time but a recipe for an inferno. Two of the regular exits were blocked by chutes that had been brought out for transporting the large felines who had just finished performing when the fire broke out. (They escaped with minor burns.) Many circusgoers were trampled and/or burned to death.
The official death toll is 167. With so many men away fighting overseas, this was largely an audience of women and children, and onlookers never forgot the horror of seeing so many young victims. A news photo of the eminent circus performer Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket by the smoldering ruins led to the disaster being known as “the day the clowns cried.”
Author Stewart O’Nan interviewed many survivors and witnesses for his 2001 account The Circus Fire: A True Story of An American Tragedy. It’s a must-read starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the fire.
One of the young circusgoers that day grew up to become the comic actor and theater director Charles Nelson Reilly. Here is a 1997 interview in which he explains how the memories of the fire affected him for the rest of his life:
Other links of interest:
The Hartford Circus Fire — July 6, 1944 (including an extensive collection of survivor accounts)
Today I kick off NewsClips, an ongoing series of transcriptions of newspaper clippings discovered in my travels. Some of them you’ll love only if you’re as obsessed with Haigneys as I am, which is why I’ll be posting them behind the WordPress Wall.
This first NewsClip, however, might be of interest even if you’re not a Haigney. It’s an interview my great-aunt Ann Haigney gave to the Brooklyn Eagle about volunteering her nursing expertise to help victims of the horrific 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Conn.
I gathered more background on this infamous fire, which I’ll put into another post. (For now I’ll just say that although the young burn victims Ann saw seemed to have put the ordeal behind them, many carried emotional as well as physical scars for decades after.)
Biographical note: Ann Margaret Haigney (1904-1979), known as Aunt Anna to her extended family, was the adopted daughter of my great-grandparents, Joseph and Catherine (Connors) Haigney. She graduated in 1934 from the Nazarene Nurses School in Brooklyn, N.Y. and embarked on a career as an R.N. After she died, one of my aunts was executor of Ann’s estate, and remarked that “as she was independent in life she was also independent in death. A nice human being who gave of herself to humanity.”
This is another one of those posts in which I reveal my basic ignorance for the good of humanity.
You’re welcome, humanity.
See, Ancestry.com’s newspaper database was one of those things that I got all excited about when I first saw it, especially since it included the Troy, NY Times-Record from the ’40s through the ’70s, a very relevant period for me. I remember being all sweaty-palmed when I pulled up the search window:
In the “Name” area, I put in “Haigney” under Last Name, and came up with nothing. I made sure I wasn’t checking exact spellings or anything, since this surname is notorious for creative spellings. I played with those creative spellings.
At that point a child was having a crisis (probably the water pitcher in the fridge was empty) and I had to log out. I never made a note to schedule another playdate with the database, and somehow it got filed in my mind (an occasionally unreliable source) as Something That Didn’t Have Anything I Needed.
So yesterday morning, still blinking awake and sipping my first cup of coffee, I happened to notice an external link pointing to that very same Times-Record database at Ancestry. Probably if I was really awake, I would have remembered it was useless to me and not clicked through. Fortunately, I wasn’t, and I did. Then for some reason I decided to type in “Walker,” the married name of one of my Haigney relatives. A zillion hits popped up, naturally. So it occurred to me to consider this:
And to narrow things down a bit (probably to zero, I snickered to myself), I typed “Haigney” into the keyword box, leaving “Walker” as the main surname search.
People, the heavens opened. I believe we are at 28 clippings and counting, chronicling the comings and goings of Haigneys, Walkers and Roaches/Roches/Roachs in the Capital District in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. (My dad’s in there a couple of times, including a summertime visit from Chicago, where he was attending school.) Birthday parties. Obituaries. And not one, but two personality profiles of my great-great-aunt Maggie, who must have been a really fun interview. I have a lot of reading and crosschecking to do.
What I Learned From This Experience:
1. Avoid getting hung up on the same surname or group of surnames. Think of collateral kin, neighbors’ names, associations your kin belonged to, employers, heck, even the name of a shop or business your kin always talked about. See what happens.
2. Try combining a surname search with another surname in the keyword box.
3. Tell the kid to fill the water pitcher themselves, already.
P.S. Ancestry has a lot of other newspapers for those of you who are not obsessed with Troy, N.Y. From the “Search” area on the main toolbar, select “card catalog” and search there with your locality’s name and keyword “newspaper” — see if they’ve got a newspaper collection you can use!
I hit a gold mine this morning in Ancestry.com’s newspaper image database for the Times-Record of Troy, N.Y. Out of the blue, too!
This database had disappointed me before. However, a chance tweak of the search form this morning turned up so much stuff, and so unexpectedly, that it’s worth another post or two about tweaking search forms and defying expectations. (You’ve been warned.)
For now, I’m having a blast working my way through the treasure trove of clippings. They feature my great-great aunts, Margaret [Haigney] Roache and Mary [Haigney] Walker, and my great-great uncle, Martin T. Haigney.
Many of the clips are from a local-news page that took the terms “local” and “news” to lengths that are unimaginable today. When I studied journalism, we would talk about empathizing with our readership (yes, it was a while ago). Even so, that didn’t mean covering stories like a college sophomore “spending the holiday vacation with his parents,” or Mrs. So-and-so’s hospitalization from a broken hip. The news business hasn’t been that personal for a long, long time.
But back in the 1950s and early 1960s, news was extremely personal in the Troy Times-Record, and what good luck for me. I’ve got a lot of new leads to pursue on those summertime genealogy day trips I was musing about a couple of days ago.
In the meantime, listen to this Very Important News Item from 1961 about my great-great aunt Margaret:
Mrs. Margaret Roach prepared a birthday party yesterday.
She baked a cake and set the table for the party which was for herself. It was her 91st birthday.
The wisp of a woman, who weighs less than 90 pounds, lives alone at 2509 2nd Ave. Many of the friends whom she has been associated with throughout the years were present. She was born in Watervliet … She now lives alone and cooks, sews, shops and does about everything else for herself. She voted at the polls last November because she felt it her duty. In her leisure time, she reads and is up to date on the various news happenings. She wears glasses because of a cataract operation performed one year ago, but her eyesight is still as keen as her hearing.
There is a TON of other terrific stuff in the story, including biographical details about Margaret, her late husband James, her father and her siblings. Above all, it has those wonderful personal details that form a perfect snapshot of Margaret, still truckin’ along and throwing herself birthday parties into her 90s.
The unnamed reporter who covered this nearly 50 years ago couldn’t have known what a big favor his little human-interest story would do for me and my genealogy research. But thanks anyway!