Recommended: ‘The Lost Sister’

Here’s a beautiful, deeply satisfying story to start off the weekend. The topic is familiar to a lot of us genealogists – the unprecedented ability of today’s online searching to reconnect siblings split by adoption. I don’t care how many of these stories I hear, I love them afresh every time. And the story of how Iris Ojeda Burkart (born Iris Guzman) found her true roots brought me to tears, more than once.

In 2003, when the first Burkart grandchild was born, his nursery was decorated with a giant tree painted on the wall, which Iris suggested be made into a family tree. On one side, [her husband’s] family flourished on the many leaves and branches. Iris’ side was naked by comparison.

“I’m a stump,” she often said, jokingly.

The writing, by Nicole Brochu of the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale,  is impressively clear and precise as well as emotional – a major challenge when tackling a complex story with a large cast of characters. It’s well worth a read. (It’s behind a paywall, but with the option of registering for a limited amount of free articles per month.)

Be sure to check out the timeline that accompanies the story. It contains two intervals that say everything about the way genealogy investigations have changed just in this millennium.

One is the 23 years between 1991, the year Iris located her birth certificate and the names of her biological parents, and June 2014, when she was given an Ancestry subscription as a gift. The other is the four months between that June and October 2014, when Iris’ great-niece signed on to Ancestry as well and the puzzle was finally solved. Admittedly, in this sprawling story, many factors complicated the search – older relatives’ reluctance to talk about what happened, for instance. And sure, a bit of luck was involved, as it always is. But a huge fact remains: Back in the day, it was just ridiculously hard to pursue cases like this long-distance.

I don’t look back on genealogy’s pre-Internet era as the good old days. Looking back, I realize I wanted to start my family history explorations about ten years before I actually did. The trouble was, I lived a thousand miles away from where my ancestors once lived, money was short, and there simply was no cheap way to do it. Like Iris and her siblings, I was stuck, hampered by lack of time and resources.

We often say, and it is true, that the online searching is not the entire picture. But it is a start. And it allows more people to get started more easily, with more chance of success, than ever was the case before the advent of the World Wide Web.



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.

Good Reads: ‘Book of Ages’

It is not often that I say this about a book that is 400-plus pages with something like a third of them appendices and notes, but GO READ THIS RIGHT AWAY.

If you want erudite opinions about why, go here and here and here.

08-28bookages_full_380But if you are satisfied with my two cents: In Book of Ages (Knopf, $17.68 hardcover at Amazon), Jill Lepore manages to fascinate you and break your heart simultaneously, in ways you just don’t expect, even from a National Book Award finalist.

It’s not just that she makes you laugh at Ben Franklin’s jokes all over again, although that’s pretty impressive.

It’s not just her imaginative yet meticulous restoration of his sister’s obscure and far less fortunate life.

And it’s not just the way the teasing, life-affirming friendship between “Benny and Jenny” glows brightly throughout.

It’s how, without being heavy-handed or pedantic about her story, by simply taking us along on the quest for it, Lepore imbues this narrative with the quiet courage of ordinary lives that were unremarked, unrecorded, but still, somehow, matter.

Any of us piecing together fragmentary evidence of never-famous people we’ll never truly know must surely understand the pull on the heart exerted by Jane Franklin’s laboriously handmade “Book of Ages,” wherein she recorded the births of 12 children, and eventually, the deaths of 11 of them.

Upon finishing Book of Ages, I was struck by the sentiment that often occurs after absorbing cryptic, incomplete references to ancestors whose full stories will likely never be retrievable — the only thought there sometimes can be, really:

I’m here.

I noticed.

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.

Seen: Dawn of The (Architecturally) Dead

At, preservationist Nancy Semin Lingo weighs in with an engaging  yet alarming reflection about the state of the nation’s architectural heritage.

Her contention: The characterless structures that take over all too many neighborhoods are a zombie threat to the modern spirit. And they’re crowding out the varied, vigorous architecture that binds us to our past — buildings like the ones in Senoia, Ga., the real-life location of the fictional “Woodbury” in AMC’s popular zombiefest The Walking Dead.

“Like zombies, these buildings just keep coming and coming, one after another is built, until there are too many of them, and all of a sudden, we no longer feel a unique sense of place,” she writes.

A clever and disturbing take on the zombie theme.

Via Don Rittner, whose Albany Times-Union blog is here.

History Reconsidered, Via Newsreel

Another modern methodology story:

It was 100 years ago this month that a suffragist named Emily Wilding Davison surged onto the track at Epsom at the Derby, throwing herself under the hooves of the King’s racehorse and sustaining fatal injuries in a suicidal bid to draw attention to the fight for women’s voting rights.

Or did she?

Many historians have argued that Davison was not suicidal — there was a return train ticket in her pocket, and she had made plans to go on holiday with her sister shortly after the Derby. In that case, what was she doing? Some have argued that Davison merely intended to dash across the track waving a suffragist banner, and she misjudged the timing. Others believed she intended to attach a flag to King George V’s horse, Anmer.

But that newfangled development, the newsreel, was very much in place at the 1913 Derby. As Guardian reporter Vanessa Thorpe writes, there were three newsreel cameras rolling. Today’s sophisticated imaging technology, plus fresh, cleaned-up images from the original nitrate stock, literally brought the event into clearer focus, strongly suggesting that Davison, while on a very risky mission, wasn’t intending to kill herself.

One of the wonderful things about new techniques like digital film analysis is the reminder that history can be a rather fluid thing. The new things we learn have the ability to firm up the outlines of established pictures, or shift them into new shapes.

Emily Davison (at left) and jockey Herbert Jones on the ground at the Derby in Epsom, 1913. Hulton Archive photo reproduced on

Emily Davison (at left) and jockey Herbert Jones on the ground at the Derby in Epsom, 1913. Hulton Archive photo reproduced on

Sisterly Advice, Syndicated

Pauline ‘Popo’ Phillips has died at the age of 94.

If that headline doesn’t ring immediate bells, it’s because she is somewhat better known as “Dear Abby.”

Although her column continues to be written by her daughter Jeanne, Phillips’ passing severs a link to a golden era in syndicated advice-giving. Phillips and her twin sister Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, were media superstars, their nationally syndicated columns daily institutions for countless readers. It’s difficult to describe their massive audience, their appeal and authority, to the children of an age in which the answer to just about any problem is “Google it.”

In my childhood, Ann and Abby were a zinger-slinging Greek chorus. They dispensed wisdom to the nation on every imaginable subject and some unimaginable, including love, marriage and the best way to hang the toilet paper. (True fact. Landers, who fielded the toilet-paper question, once said that it generated 15,000 responses, making it one of her most commented-upon letters.)

I can’t be the only voracious reader for whom their work provided an education on many topics — some of which my mother would rather have left alone a while longer. I still remember my nine-year-old self running down to the laundry room, where my mom was folding the latest load, to ask what was the big deal about unwed mothers.

“What?!” Her voice went up several keys. “Where did you hear about THAT?”

“Ann Landers wrote about it,” I said.

“Ann Landers writes about a lot of things,” my mother replied tightly.

So did Abby. Like her twin, she did not shy from the controversial. As the San Francisco Chronicle recalls, Abby “replied to letters about serious social issues such as teen sex, divorce, alcoholism and AIDS, and answered them with a mix of candor, common sense and an occasional wisecrack.”

Personally, I suspect that future family historians seeking context and flavor for describing Americans in the mid-20th century could do a lot worse than Dear Abby and Dear Ann. Yes, the advice column survives today online and in print media, but today’s successors don’t have the breathtaking ease with which the sisters moved between deadly serious issues and day-to-day dilemmas. They could reach out to a domestic-violence victim one minute and the next, weigh in on what to do about a bad case of acne.

Though their styles were very similar, consensus often held that Ann (who died in 2002) tended to be the straight-shooter, while Abby had a matchless flair for witty one-liners. The writing from their heyday still has a startlingly fresh appeal — bright, succinct, with a tough-mindedness behind the humor that lent authenticity to their advice-giving. “The audibly human voice … rising above our collective impersonality, ” was how Cornell University professor David I. Grossvogel described Ann’s appeal, and that could be said of Abby’s as well.

(A compilation of Pauline’s columns, The Best of Dear Abby, appears to still be available, at least in Kindle edition. Grossvogel’s out-of-print study, Dear Ann Landers, is worth seeking out for those interested in the evolution of Eppie’s advice over the years.)

And truly, Abby had a way with a zinger that you just don’t see anymore:

Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions? — M.J.B. in Oakland, Calif.

Dear M.J.B.: Yes. Run for a public office.

RIP, Dear Abby.