Some of the most satisfying genealogy teaching moments I’ve shared with my kids involve the deaths of ancestral children.
I feel bad admitting this. It makes us sound like the Addams Family, which is way off base because:
(1) My girls are (mostly) cheerful kids.
(2) Our house is nowhere near as quiet as the Addams manse. (Perhaps because we don’t have Lurch to keep order.)
And yet: My kids are hooked by genealogy stories of the deaths of other kids. A few examples: My father’s sister Virginia, who died aged six months of the measles; my great-uncle Leo, who died of meningitis at age 3; and a great-uncle on their father’s side who died at age 2.
Recently, my 8-year-old peered over my shoulder at a U.S. census image I was re-reading: the 1900 entry for my great-grandparents, Peter Kelleher and Kate Carney McKenna Kelleher. Together we scanned across the line bearing my great-grandmother’s name. “What do those numbers mean?” my daughter asked, pointing.
“Those? Well, the first one is ‘Mother of how many children.’ ”
“What’s the other number?”
“Um … that’s ‘Number of those children living.’ ” I braced myself.
“Mom! She had 13 children and only four were alive?! What happened?”
Sigh. There is no quick fix for explaining infant mortality to a vaccinated, Presidential-Fitness-Program-obsessed grade schooler of the 21st century.
Plus, she has already outstripped me at doing math in her head. “Mom! This means nine children died!”
Well, yes, I said, this was true. And then we did something else: We followed those two columns vertically, down and down the census page. Of the nine mothers on the page, only two were able to tell the census taker that the number of births they’d experienced equaled the number of their living children.
Which explained better than I could the challenges of raising a child to adulthood in a poor city neighborhood circa 1900.
No way around it: My kids are fascinated by sad stories of children dying young. I’d worry, but then I remember it was hearing about my young aunt Virginia that got me curious about family history in the first place. I guess as kids we inevitably connect with stories of other kids, even — especially? — the sad ones.
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.”
Thanks to the ever-illuminating collection of links at Megan’s Roots World, I read How to Lose A Legacy, an insightful column by Ellen Lupton, who is a curator, a professor of graphic arts and, on the side, an incurably honest observer of human behavior.
Her essay is a humorous and wistful examination of the fine line between inheritance and junk. My cherished heirloom is someone else’s dust-gatherer.
And we all know that somewhere, someday that precious object might slip from our grasp and slide into the uncaring world of strangers. I love to poke around secondhand shops, but sometimes I find them depressing, too. So does Lupton. “That musty smell in your favorite antique store? It’s death warmed over, served with a splash of vintage vinegar,” she writes.
Of course, holding onto objects can turn a house into a prison — just look at any episode of Clean House or, heaven forbid, Hoarders. As Lupton puts it, there’s an “emotional bill” attached to our objects. Part of life is deciding how high a bill you want to pay, and for how long. Some people reach a point where jettisoning those old objects is liberation. Some never do.
Still others hold on to their heirlooms while accepting the possibility that their children might not. That’s a powerful argument for sorting it all out before you go, lest an impatient relative throws out your wheat with your chaff. Still, the best we can do is try to find our heirlooms a good home and cross our fingers. What happens next is up to the heirs.
Well, quote of my week, anyway …
On the Troy Irish Genealogy Society email list, a post from David O’Brien laments the evil fate that made him the descendant of ancestors with names like John O’Brien and Michael O’Neil:
“They shouldn’t have let people with two of most common names in Ireland
marry. And if it were permitted, they should have at least barred them
from naming their kids John and Michael. I don’t see how our ancestors
could have been so inconsiderate to future genealogists.”
As a person who married a Lynch — I feel your pain!
Recently, the New York Times ran this vivid collection of memories of the black YMCA in Evanston (IL). It prompts an interesting set of adjectives: touching, bittersweet, shaming.
Touching, because of the affectionate nostalgia that shone in every recollection. Bittersweet, since the world of these memories is gone forever. Shame at the segregation that made a separate Y necessary for Evanston’s black citizens.
Evanston was not alone in this. The black citizens of my hometown of Montclair, N.J., also had to create their own YMCA. By the time I moved to town a decade ago, the segregation was gone but the building remained, a branch of the main YMCA a mile north. It housed programs for toddlers and preschoolers and was called the “Little Y.” (A few years ago, it was demolished to make way for a new elementary school.)
A lot of the folks who took their kids there for Mommy and Me swimming were ignorant of the history. I remember the reaction that greeted me when I gave a factual answer to someone who wondered aloud about how the building came to be. First there was a look of shock. Then – “Are you sure? That seems really unlikely.”
Yet many, many towns have old segregation fault lines. Some are rather close to the surface, and in places where we think they aren’t supposed to be in the first place. (Relevant point: New Jersey schools were integrated by law in 1947, a lot later than I had supposed.)
It’s good that people are looking at these old buildings and institutions and asking about what they were and how they came to be. The Times story, as well as the stories told about my hometown Y, teach us that out of an insane situation came a heritage of achievement and treasured memories. I’m glad the history isn’t getting lost, even while I hope the circumstances that created it never happen again.