A response to the 3/11 Fearless Females prompt by Lisa Alzo at Accidental Genealogist: Did you have any female ancestors who died young or from tragic or unexpected circumstances? Describe and how did this affect the family?
Anna Held Forster, my maternal great-grandmother, died in childbirth. It’s sad to think how common that phrase is to students of genealogy.
My grandmother Eva, her oldest daughter, was about 18, so by my mother’s reckoning, this happened about 1915.
The baby was perhaps an hour old when it happened. As my mother heard it from Eva, both a doctor and a midwife were on hand – pretty good for that rural corner of Germany. But they could not agree on what to do when the hemorrhage started, and while they debated tactics, my great-grandmother’s time ran out. Her infant daughter survived, along with a widower and eight other children.
Wrenching as it must have been, my great-grandmother’s death was just the first blow. Within the year, my great-grandfather Jakob died and the family dispersed. The oldest son inherited the house and land; the children who could support themselves went their ways. Some of the younger siblings became farm help in exchange for their keep. Two of my great-aunts ended up with the nuns and later took vows themselves. My grandmother eventually met my grandfather, Johann Rudroff, who was intent upon emigrating to America, where, after some hesitation, Eva followed him and married him.
Beyond the details I hope to verify and the dates to double-check are questions I can never imagine the answers to. What was it like when a mother was literally here one moment, gone in another? What did they do with the awful fear of what might come next? Could you convince yourself that eventually everything would be all right?
Decades later, I was in a car meandering the roads near my grandmother’s home village with my mother, my sister and one of my mother’s first cousins, who was driving. We passed a turnoff with a sign pointing to a village whose name I’ve long forgotten. My cousin slowed the car and nodded toward the turnoff.
His father had worked on a farm there once, with one of his sisters, my cousin said.
How old were they, my mother asked.
“Little. Six, seven.” He shook his head. “Not a good time. It was very hard.”
The other day my second grader came home very excited after sharing a family tree chart with her classmates and teachers. The Spanish instructor even complimented my daughter on her grandma’s pretty set of Iberian names: Theresa Mercedes Cecelia.
Which made me giggle a bit, since the grandma in question (my mom) was the daughter of German immigrants.
First names, which you’d think would be basic signposts in figuring out ancestors, can tie you up in knots. They might make you guess at the wrong ethnicity; they might lead you on a wild goose chase to the wrong person. They might not be real first names at all.
Fortunately, first-name stories, while difficult to unravel, can make fantastic anecdotes. Here are some examples from my own tree:
My father-in-law: First came older brothers Floyd, Lloyd, Boyd and Coyd. And then came … Renzo Alton. (Please don’t tell me you saw that coming.) His mother wanted something different, and a local schoolteacher suggested Renzo. On his mail, he was R. A. Lynch. His family called him Al. I am not making any of this up, but I bet some future descendant will swear I must have been.
My dad: He was baptized Peter Jerome, but his mother never used his first name. She referred to him as Jerome, or “Sonny.” In the 1930 census my dad is listed as Jerome. As an adult, he used the name Peter. If you didn’t know the story, or didn’t weigh all the facts, you might assume the census taker missed him in 1930, or that perhaps there were two children, one named Jerome who died young, another named Peter who lived to adulthood.
My grandfather “Francie” Haigney: Well, actually, he’s Raymond Francis, but in the 1910 census, he’s Francie. If you didn’t know better, you might think the census taker got my grandpa’s gender wrong.
My mother’s name changes: She was baptized Therese Mercedes — Therese for St. Therese of Lisieux, and “Mercedes” in honor of the nun at the hospital who cared for my grandmother after the birth. Mom disliked Mercedes, and as an adult used her confirmation name, Cecelia, as her middle name. Also, she tended to spell her first name with an “a” instead of an “e”. So in a few places she’s Therese Mercedes, but more often she is Theresa Cecelia.
Those are some of my quirky naming stories, which are peculiar to the people and the circumstances. But I can think of two other common naming situations that might leave a researcher puzzled:
Nicknames: Some nickname logic has become blurred with the generations. “Liz” for “Elizabeth” is one thing, but what about “Lillie”? And not everyone immediately connects “Daisy” with Margaret, or “Mamie” with Mary. Here’s a chart of common nicknames and their possible equivalents.
Americanizations: Just as with surnames, first names and first-naming conventions can change with immigration. Some translations are obvious, as with my German grandpa (Johann/John). But a trickier case is Grandpa’s sister Anna Kunigunde, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1907. In some records she is simply Kunigunde; she has also been listed as “Kuni.” And I also wouldn’t be surprised to find her in future as Anna, or even “Ann” or “Constance.” Here’s an article about immigrant name-changing.
My own name-changing stories, while amusing, also serve as a caution. Much as I’d like to think I’m on a first-name basis with my ancestors, I know better than to jump to any premature conclusions.
The technical term for the treasured sheets of paper might be “handwritten genealogy.” However, in my neck of the woods it is Aunt Catherine’s List, as in: “You’re working on the family tree? You really ought to get hold of Aunt Catherine’s list.”
Aunt Catherine was my father’s oldest sister, and keeper of the family flame. The List is just that, a list of everyone she remembered in our family, starting with my Haigney great-great grandparents and my Kelleher great-grandparents and continuing down the line. Every time a cousin was born, they were added to The List.
I remain forever regretful that my interest in genealogy didn’t take off until after Aunt Catherine passed away, and that I never got the chance to talk with her in any depth about family history. But The List survives!
The List is a combination of first-hand account and family tradition. My aunt was born in 1914, three years after great-great grandfather Haigney died. But many of the relatives on the sheet, including my paternal great-grandparents, were alive well into her adult years, and of course the running tally of cousins is completely hers.
So far, the information on The List has held up to scrutiny pretty well. Through it, I learned about two siblings of Grandfather Haigney who died young. The death certificate for one of these children has helped me pinpoint where my grandfather and his parents must have been living in 1900, a past source of research frustration. The List also names two children of Great-great-grandfather Haigney who died in infancy, an assertion that likely explains the large age gap between his first and second surviving sons.
Treasure though it is, The List is not the final word. As Elizabeth Shown Mills has observed: “We must mentally appraise the credibility of each detail in each document on a fact-by-fact, circumstance-by-circumstance basis.” With that as a guideline, The List should provide me with hours of interesting appraisals for some time to come.
I’ve been feeling guilty because the majority of my ramblings so far have originated with my research into the Irish side of the family. And as we know, there are two sides to every story. In my case, a German side and an Irish side.
So to balance things out a bit, I added this information about my German ancestry. If any of it rings a bell for you, feel free to get in touch!
On a trip to Kings County Surrogate Court a few weeks ago, I opened up a typical, boring-looking probate folder.
Inside, I discovered that my one of my great-aunts (by marriage) had five aliases.
Now, I was aware that my great-uncle Joseph C. Haigney was married to Catherine Maude, nee Reilly. Given the overstock of Catherines in the family – including Joseph’s mother, a niece and a cousin – it wasn’t surprising that his wife needed an alias. But five?
My great-aunt’s probate file named her as Maude Haigney, a k a Catherine Maude Haigney, a k a Miss M. Reilly, a k a Maude Reilly, a k a Mrs. M. Ridley, a k a Miss (A) Farrell.
Two of these names are variants of Catherine Maude’s married name, and two are variants of her maiden name, which makes some sense.
Reading the file, I learned that my great-aunt had two sisters, Margaret Miller and Mary Ridley. That might explain the reason for the “Mrs. M. Ridley” alias, although the file had nothing to indicate how the sisters’ identities became entwined. As for “Miss A. Farrell,” it’s anyone’s guess how that name came up.
Finding an alias on your family tree does not automatically mean you’re dealing with criminal behavior. There are many historical reasons for aliases, including:
• Changes in marital status (where “alias” indicates “formerly,” as in a woman’s marriage or remarriage).
• To indicate foster children or stepchildren.
• To indicate a nickname. (Well, of course.)
• To indicate illegitimacy. (Under a practice beginning in 17th-century England, a person born out of wedlock might adopt the surnames of both parents; i.e., Green alias White. Either the father’s or the mother’s surname might be first; there was no firm custom.)
• To avoid persecution. A striking example is that of the Sephardic Jews of Portugal, who adopted aliases to conceal their Jewish identities.
So why did my great-aunt end up with five aliases in her probate file? I’m thinking her case is probably one of sloppy forms more than anything else, but only more research will tell for sure.
As I was packing up, I asked the clerk in charge of the records room if aliases crop up often in Kings County probate records.
“Oh, sure. Two, sometimes three, even.”
“What about five?” I asked.
“Five? That’s weird.”
More about aliases:
• Schelly Talalay Dardashti at Tracing the Tribe has an interesting discussion of Sephardic aliases.
• A site maintained by John Palmer of Dorset, England lists many reasons for aliases in English parish registers.
• And here is advice on how to record aliases in your family tree.
I’ve been struggling of late with an old magnetic album – the kind from the 1970s with sticky pages and lethal plastic coverings. The consensus is that their adhesives are damaging to photos.
As if that weren’t enough, my albums have peculiarly awful fluorescent floral covers. They look like something Monet would have painted at Giverny – on acid.
So: Get ‘em out, put them in archivally safe albums, breathe a sigh of relief. Obviously!
But nothing’s every really obvious, is it? Not even with magnetic photo albums. I started reading and Googling and asking around, and the more I learned, the more conflicted I became about two basic questions:
A. Should I dismantle the old albums?
B. If so, how?
Regarding Question A, the bulk of opinion out there favors removal from magnetic albums. (Older, non-sticky albums are another story – most conservators say to leave them alone.)
But a respectable minority points out that sometimes, photos are stuck in magnetic albums so firmly that extracting them poses the risk of other kinds of damage – shredding the backs of the photos so that inscriptions are lost, for example.
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