Another Year Gone By

Slides of missing-person flyers from the fall of 2001, exhibit at National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Lower Manhattan.

Slides of missing-person flyers from fall 2001, National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Lower Manhattan.

This past May, we toured the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. I won’t lie; I had mixed feelings about being a tourist there. I also won’t lie about the museum; I found it stunning in every sense of that word, including the darker sense. It was almost too good at evoking spiraling sensations of confusion, grief and fear.

Overall, I was glad I went with my children, one of whom was four and the other not yet born on that day in 2001. The event is moving from raw memory into history, which presents its own re-discoveries. I always thought I’d told all my stories to my kids, but the museum knocked a few more pieces loose. I had never told them about our little cache of September 11 items that mean something to us, if nothing much in the large scheme of things. Things like the singed scraps of office memos that my husband grabbed unthinkingly as they flew down from the sky underneath the towers. Or the ticket for the dry cleaning to remove the film of dust that settled on his suit. Even (strangest of all!) a sympathy card addressed to me from an anonymous well-wisher, who mistook my husband for a man of the same name who died.

Powerful as the memorial museum is, I can only recommend it with caution. It can cut far too close to home for some people, like my friend who fled her nearby apartment that day, joining a stream of disoriented humanity who were all wondering what the world had come to, and what might possibly happen next. She told me she probably wouldn’t be visiting the museum for a while.

Made sense to me.

For more memories and thoughts, I still think that the collections at the September 11 Digital Archive are well worth a browse.


Today’s Vocabulary Word Is …

… Peter Thompson.

Which is a dress as well as a guy’s name, as you can see in this picture from a turn-of-the century newspaper ad. peter thompsonI recently encountered it in a novel I was re-reading, in which a 13-year-old girl, circa 1910, waxes philosophical about fashion:

“Clean and neat is all my mother asks, and it’s all I’m willing to give. Time enough to discard my Peter Thompson and get myself up as the queen of the May when there’s a king in sight.”

The kid had a point, and a Peter Thompson was a good way to make it. This was an enormously popular mode of children’s dress that translated either into sailor suits (for boys) or dresses (for girls). I am still trying to find a reference that will tell me who Peter Thompson was, exactly, but if you’re interested in a closer look at how these dresses worked, check out these directions from a turn-of-the-century sewing book on how to make them, including steps  like soaking your material in salt water to set the color.

If you’re interested in fin de siecle New York City in general, you ‘d also enjoy the book I was reading: The Best of Families (1970) by Ellin Mackay Berlin, who was famous to a lot of people for being Mrs. Irving Berlin, but who also was a very good writer.The Best of Families is about New Yorkers who worshipped Episcopal, sent their daughters to Spence and their sons to Groton, and never met a peccadillo they couldn’t ignore, as long as the perpetrator was well-bred and discreet.

In writing it, Ellin Berlin — a millionaire’s debutante daughter whose marriage to a Tin Pan Alley songwriter was a 1920s sensation —  clearly drew upon her own memories of silver-spoon life. The novel is full of the wistfulness that suffuses memories of vanished, specific things: “trolley cars and the ferry to New Jersey and the wonderful, fast, rattling ride on the Elevated; Little Nemo and Buster Brown and his faithful dog, Tige … high-button shoes and white kid gloves so tight that each finger must be laboriously worked into its separate, stiff compartment, and the wooden stick on which even naturally wavy hair was harshly twisted into sausage curls.”

And Peter Thompsons, too. Worth knowing about, if you find an old family letter mentioning one. Your great-great-aunt might have been talking about an old dress, not an old beau.


Stop Snickering In The Bread Aisle, You

Bread and milk before the snowstorm: the ultimate panic-buying cliché. I enjoy the jokes as much as anyone. A short while ago, it looked like we here in New Jersey were going to be smacked with a Weather Event right on top of Thanksgiving. Here’s me on Facebook, yukking it up:

noreasterfacebook

Now I’ve started thinking more about that pre-storm supermarket rush. “Why is everyone so uptight about the bread and milk?” we clever people ask.

But this is also a serious question. Why is everyone so uptight? What chord is being played in our cultural memory?

Dedicated reporter that I am, I flexed my fingers and began Googling. Very quickly, sharp insights piled up, like: “Because we are stupid,” and “LOL.” I was, as ever, impressed by the discourse, but refused to be intimidated. Time to dig deeper, into the snowstorms of the past.

The deep, dark past.

Pre-1990.

Read the rest of this entry »


A Day After Christmas Carol

On this day 128 years ago, “Pat’k Hagany,” occupation, tailor, entered the poorhouse in Rensselaer County, N.Y.

As required by New York State’s Board of Charities, Patrick’s custodians recorded a data snapshot of his life on a standard form. His age was given as 70, although he might have been as much as seven years younger. He had lived in New York State for 32 years, so he said. It was noted that he had no education, just like a twentysomething Patrick Hagney who in 1856 had signed his X to a declaration of intent to take an oath of U.S. citizenship, which duly happened in 1858, and was duly memorialized in a ledger of newly minted citizens which still sits, among many others, on a metal storage shelf in the basement of the county courthouse in Troy, N.Y.

These two Patricks, thirty years apart, are probably the same person, along with Patrick Haganey, or Hegney, or Hagany, a tailor recorded for three decades under various spellings in the Troy city directory and in state and federal censuses, although in 1870 he is called  “Patrick Egan.” The enumerator either gave up trying to get the surname right, or never tried in the first place, seeing as Patrick probably could not have offered what an official would have considered a standard Anglo-Saxon spelling to begin with. From a bureaucratic standpoint, it was a life of impotence rather than importance.

On that day after Christmas 1885, Patrick was in the poorhouse because he was old and he could not work. The questions on the poorhouse form reveal as much about the attitudes of his caregivers as Patrick’s answers tell us about himself. The proper spelling or even the substance of his name had never been worthy of attention, but other things were: his [drinking] habits (moderate) and those of his parents (temperate); the economic condition of himself, his parents and all his ancestors (self-supporting); whether he had ever been on public assistance before (no) or had been resident in a charitable institution (no).

At the end of this 19th-century character test is a final verdict: Probable Destiny. And on the line next to that the county’s version of the Recording Angel wrote: “will recover.”

I hope he did. I am still working to find out what happened next. For now, Patrick and where he spent his day after Christmas in 1885 are a useful reminder in a season of energetic cheerfulness that some seasons are triumphant just by surviving them, and the notation “Will Recover” represents its own small victory. So here’s a sincere wish to anyone reading this for all the best this winter season, whatever you celebrate and however you are happening to celebrate it. And if by any chance this year has given you challenges along with celebrations, I wish you strength, and a nice, clear “Will Recover” on your own dotted line.


Resource Spotlight: Staten Island Maps

If you have a vintage document with a Staten Island address, and Googling it gets you nowhere, you should visit this site:

Mapping Staten Island

This invaluable tool comes courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York and the Richmond County Savings Foundation, and it uses the overlapping-image technique to perfection.

From the home page, click “Explore the Maps.” You’ll open a window whereupon a map of present-day Staten Island is on your left, and a drop-down menu of historic maps is on the right.

Zoom in on the area  of present-day Staten Island that interests you. Then, on the drop-down menu, click on a vintage map. Your map image will change to show you how the present-day area was drawn on the historic map.

One important caveat: Great as the site is, you must do your homework to get the most out of it. For example, I recently used it to gain insight into an address on a 1920 death certificate: 12 Ocean Avenue. There is an Ocean Avenue in present-day Staten Island, not far from Fort Wadsworth and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. That could have been the place I sought, except that the full address on the death certificate was 12 Ocean Avenue, Oakwood Beach. The 1917 and 1922 maps at Mapping Staten Island confirmed that this 1920 death occurred in a different neighborhood altogether from present-day Ocean Avenue.

(Note: Oakwood Beach took a devastating blow from Superstorm Sandy last year, and the road to recovery continues to be a long one. This article is a great look at the courage and resourcefulness of neighborhood residents in the face of the challenge.)

Resource Spotlight is a continuing look at useful resources I’ve bookmarked over the years.


I Can’t Even … No.

The story of a 93-year-old woman who was mugged visiting her childhood home in Manhattan is just … ragemaking.

I was relieved to read that the woman and her daughter suffered only “bumps and bruises” when the accused assailant, who offered to take them up to see the family’s old apartment, promptly proceeded to mug them. But how horrible that an innocent trip to take scrapbook pictures and revisit childhood memories should end in such a violation of trust.

I don’t know what to say about someone who would coolly trap and exploit someone like that, I really don’t.

What makes me even angrier is remembering the many times I’ve benefited from the goodwill of strangers in strange cities. Their kindness is an eloquent rejoinder to this contemptible person’s behavior.


Timeline Traveling

Cleaning the face of Big Ben, 2007. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Cleaning the face of Big Ben, 2007. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve joined an upcoming study group focused on Thomas W. Jones’ instant classic Mastering Genealogical Proof, a book that I sincerely urge you to read, and I am not even Dr. Jones’ agent.

I had the good fortune to take in Dr. Jones’ teaching skills as an online student of the Boston University Genealogical Certification course a couple of years ago. I can tell you he was (is) very big on timelines.  (In fact, I might have scribbled in  my notes: “What is it with this guy and timelines?”)

But truly, if I had to pick a Top Three of things I learned at BU that really charged up my research skills, timelines would be right there. Despite editing many a timeline chart during my newspaper years, I never really used them in my genealogy the way Dr. Jones said they could be used.

And boy, was I missing out.

Here are three vital things timelines can do:

1. They highlight significant details you might have missed the first time you read critical information.

I’ve been tracing the life events of a great-great-uncle, Timothy Connors of West Troy, N.Y. He dropped off the radar screen after the 1880 federal census. A man by that name appeared in the burial index for St. Agnes Cemetery in nearby Menands, date of burial October 1884. The burial card, when it arrived, didn’t conclusively connect this Timothy to the family I was studying. It told me that this Timothy was buried on 8 October 1884 in a plot belonging to a “W. Cuthbert.” It didn’t add anything else.

Except that it did. Once I started putting the timeline together, I looked at the card again, and I noticed that Timothy’s last address was “Albany Street.” And in 1880, my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connors lived with his family, including son Timothy, at 337 Albany Street in the Port Schuyler area of West Troy.

Just like that, the Timothy Connors on the burial card turned from Theoretical Timothy to Really Good Possibility Timothy. Thanks, timeline!

2. They point you quickly to the parts of the chronology needing further investigation.

Armed with a stronger confidence that the man on the burial card was the Timothy I sought, I searched the wonderful Old N.Y. Newspapers database using the keywords “Connors” and “October 1884″. Very quickly I found what I sought in the Albany Evening Journal  edition of  Tuesday,  7 October 1884:

Timothy Connors, who was thrown from a waggon [sic] on the Troy road Saturday, died at his home in Port Schuyler from concussion of the brain. He was 25 years old and was married last July  [emphasis mine]. Liquor caused the accident.

Now I had more details, plus the information that Timothy had been married at the time of his death. Could the “W. Cuthbert” who owned the burial plot be connected to Timothy by marriage? Why, yes, as a matter of fact, he probably was.

A whole new avenue of research opened up, simply because the timeline made me see what was always there in front of me.

3. They put family traditions under a brighter spotlight, pinpointing consistencies and inconsistencies.

In my husband’s Lynch family tree lurks a notorious person named James Madison Lynch (born Grayson County, Kentucky, 1 July 1862-died ?). Tradition has it that he killed a man in a brawl and fled town, rarely to be heard from again. His last reported contact with family came in 1911, when he was said to have visited a brother in Texas. Upon that occasion my husband’s great-grandfather sadly wrote: “Poor Jim, the world will never be better because of his life.”

But arranged on a timeline, Jim Madison’s life looks a little different than the family story. Here is a quick summary of a vital part of the timeline:

1880: Enumerated at age 17 with his parents in Grayson County, Ky.

Dates unknown: He was a schoolteacher and attorney as a young man, according to family tradition.

29 October 1886: Grayson County Gazette includes an advertisement for James M. Lynch, attorney at law, Leitchfield.

Late 1886-early 1887: James M. Lynch reportedly “cowhided” at Christmas by W. B. May, a Leitchfield distiller, and fled town, according to newspaper item published July 1887.

7 July 1887: News item headlined “A Coward’s Shot” details the murder of W.B. May and declares: “Subsequent investigation established that the murderer is James M. Lynch … “ [This item was picked up by newspapers all over the South.]

21 Sept. 1888: News item reports on Grayson County Teacher’s Institute held in Leitchfield from the 17th through the 21st of September. “Jas. M. Lynch” is included in a list of teachers attending, along with one of his brothers, A.T.K. Lynch.

You see what we did there? Simply by arranging the references on a timeline, we notice that a guy sharing the name of a notorious murder suspect turns up at a teacher’s institute a year after the reported crime.

What has happened here? Is this the same James Madison Lynch in 1887 and 1888? If so, why was he teaching school, for heaven’s sake?

I hate to let you all down, but I can’t yet say for sure. The original news item on the distiller’s murder does not actually mention an arrest, and I have not found an account of a trial (yet). But the important takeaway here is that the timeline instantly raised a red flag over the family tradition. There are many good questions to investigate, such as what was the ultimate resolution of the May case, and how/when/where James trained and worked as a teacher and an attorney.

Bottom line: If you haven’t been using timelines and you have an ancestor who puts the brick in the term “brick wall,” do yourself a favor and try it. It can be a marvelous way to take a fresh stroll down well-worn paths.


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