Memories of (yet another) Catholic girlhood.

I know who and where I was – a tired three-year-old, napping – but only because I’ve been told.

My first conscious memory of the events of 22 November 1963 actually dates from November 1964, and is another masterpiece of toddler insularity. I was outraged that my normal fix of cartoons-cum-Romper Room was being preempted by wall-to-wall first-anniversary coverage of an event featuring an odd, wheeled vehicle bearing a large flag-draped box.

My mother’s description – That’s a caisson – added to my vocabulary, but not my understanding. Romper Room was gone, and the box was in its place. Why was this so important? Why did everyone in the wavering black-and-white images look so serious? And why did my mother look like this had just happened, while explaining it had actually happened a year ago?  (Also: Have I gotten it right; could there really have been such a television program in the cartoons time slot?)

No, I can’t really write about witnessing a day when the world shook and changed. It happened when I was napping, and I grew up in its wake. I was a Catholic schoolgirl in a town with a lot of Catholics. Everybody, especially the mothers, had loved Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, revered her, really. At age six I modeled a little round white hat on the crown of my dark pageboy and a friend of my mother’s gasped and said, “Oh! You look just like Jackie!” By that point I knew without being told, without still knowing quite why, that this was a rare honor.

For years my parents kept a box full of memorabilia from that epochal weekend – the issues of Life magazine, the New York Daily News, of our New Jersey paper, the Plainfield Courier-News; shiny supplements filled with photos of the Dallas streets, the swearing-in on Air Force One, the streams of black-clad mourners in Washington. In a box on her bureau, the same box where she kept her collection of funeral cards from all the wakes, my mother kept a little pamphlet printed with an elegy on JFK, written by a student at a Catholic high school. You could tell that while it was a national death, it was somehow also a personal death. He was the first Roman Catholic president and he was killed. The teachers at parochial school told us that, not having to add: he was ours.

I was growing up in an age of assassinations, of which JFK’s was only the first: almost a prelude, felt rather than remembered,  through the photos in the dog-eared magazines and the thoughtful looks on the grownups’ faces.

There are a lot of JFKs one can discuss: the historical JFK and the conspiratorial JFK and the philandering JFK, to name only a few. But here I talk about history that is personal, and in that context I find myself dwelling upon that cultural JFK: the grainy image of the Irish Catholic candidate waving to the crowd, the flashing smiles, the brief moment. The member of the tribe who gained the presidency, only to die cruelly young. The minor-chord leitmotif playing in the background of my childhood.


Census Nerd Heaven! A Cautionary Tale

Right here, from the 1930 U.S. census for Ward 6 of Jersey City, N.J., is one compelling reason to become a Census Nerd™.

Here is what the Ancestry.com index gave me for a gentleman named Philip Teitelbaum:

“Philip Deitelbaum [Teitelbaum]”, born about 1895 in New York, in the household of a father named Edward Holman in Jersey City, N.J. Clicking through to the image set for Ward 6, I found the beginning of the household, at the bottom of Sheet 13B.

Name/Age Relationship Birthplace Parents’ Birthplace
Holman, Edward, 46 Head Ohio Ga./N. Dakota
James, Julia, 46 Boarder Georgia Georgia/Georgia
Livingston, Elijah, 49 Boarder Ohio Tenn./N. Dakota

So there is Edward Holman. Ohhh-kay. Let’s look at the rest of the family, which is continued on the next scanned image, Sheet 14A.

Name/Age Relationship Birthplace Parents’ Birthplace
Guthier, Dorothy, 8 Daughter New Jersey New Jersey
Ruane, Anna, 27 Servant Irish Free State Irish Free State
Schwartz, John, 12 Son New Jersey Poland
Schroder, John, 3 Son New Jersey New Jersey
Deitelbaum, Philip, 35 Son New York Czechoslovakia
Fulton, Joseph, 3 Son New Jersey New Jersey
Williams, Roger, 20 Brother South Carolina South Carolina
Robinson, Eric, 16 Niece Georgia Georgia

What an enigmatic patriarch Edward is – born in Ohio, or New Jersey, or Poland, or Czechoslovakia; running a boardinghouse, and siring children with four different surnames!  (Not to mention siring Philip, only 11 years his junior.)

This is either an early example of a family in the Witness Protection Program, or a terrific cast of characters in an abandoned novel by John Irving. (The World According to Holman? The Ward 6 Rules?)

Beguiling as those possibilities are, of course that is not what is going on here. What is actually happening is signaled by a line written by the enumerator at the bottom of Sheet 13B, right after Edward Holman and his two boarders:

Enumerated by Elizabeth Finkel and Finished On April 9. Here ends District 368 Block District 9-10.”

Ah. If you hadn’t sensed it before (and gosh, I hope you did), now you know that Edward Holman & Co. on Sheet 13B are probably not connected to the group on the following sheet. And in fact, they aren’t.

That final sheet, 14A, with its wildly varying assortment of names and ages and relationships and birthplaces, represents a bunch of people connected only by one circumstance: Elizabeth Finkel somehow missed them on a previous go-round. But she wanted to make sure they were counted. So she carefully noted, next to each name, the sheet number and line number of the household where each of these individuals actually belonged.

Therefore, in the far left-hand column next to Philip “Deitelbaum’s” name, is the notation: “Sheet 10, Line 35.” Backing up to that location in the image set, we find:

Name/Age Relationship Birthplace Parents’ Birthplace
Teitelbaum, William, 60 Head Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia
Teitelbaum, Rose, 57 Wife Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia
Teitelbaum, Harold, 22 Son New Jersey Czechoslovakia

Philip, age 35, born in New York of Czechoslovakian parents, is a much nicer fit for this family, isn’t he? (Also, note how one might have been tempted to erroneously conclude that the people on 14A were boarders in an establishment run by Mr. Holman — unless one stopped to notice stray marginal notations and ill-fitting ages/relationships.)

This is a great example of what makes an index a finding aid, a starting point, not an actual source. Indexes are compilations with varying degrees of accuracy. Mind you, not all indexing issues are as beautifully explicit as this one. But they can stall research just as effectively – unless you take that closer look.

Related: Turn That Page. Seriously.


Seen: Old Psychiatric Hospital, Marlboro

Urban ecologist James O’Brien shares haunting photographs of the old Marlboro (NJ) Psychiatric Hospital, closed in 1998 and slowly being absorbed by local flora and fauna. The hospital operated for six decades, considered a state-of-the-art facility at the start, but by the end of its official life, a troubled echo of the bad old days of psychiatric care.

According to NJ.com, state officials will finally demolish the complex in Monmouth County once they resolve issues related to asbestos remediation and decommissioning an old wastewater treatment plant. (It was supposed to be razed two years ago.) For now, the buildings remain, tangled in vines and scrawled with graffiti. Some of the interiors sport huge fireplaces, beautiful panelling and graceful bay windows — Downton Abbey crossed with Hill House.

A note for the researcher: The records for Marlboro are held by New Jersey’s Department of Human Services, and some contact information can be found here. However, being medical records, they may well prove tricky to access for the genealogical researcher who must work within today’s privacy regulations. A lot can depend upon the time frame and the relationship of the researcher to the patient (also, to be frank, some luck). This thread contains an interesting discussion about Marlboro and ancestor hunting.


Another Aside: The Lost Zones

Being a person with heavily urban ancestry, I find this kind of story is always close to my heart. Here is an Albany Times-Union article (h/t Don Rittner via Facebook) about a documentary project that is using old photos to reconstruct the neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for the massive Empire State Plaza complex. Mary Paley’s team is raising money on Kickstarter for the project. Paley has amazing raw material left by her father, Bob, a former photographer for the (Albany, N.Y.) Knickerbocker News who bore witness to the disappearance of more than 100 acres of a thriving neighborhood:

Derided by some as the city’s “Garlic Core” for its concentration of Italian immigrants and compared by others to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the area bounded roughly by Lincoln Park and State, Eagle and Swan streets was a teeming melting pot of Jews, Germans, Irish, Armenians and French-Canadians.

I’ve thought a lot about what we used to call urban renewal and what a force it was when I was growing up. It put a big hole in the business district of Plainfield, N.J., next door to my hometown. And moving around for newspaper jobs, I heard stories about lost neighborhoods from Stamford, Conn., to Miami, to Chicago. (I also liked the term art critic Robert Hughes used for those massive mid-century plazas: “The International Power Style of the Fifties.”) I actually consider “urban renewal” a bit inadequate as an umbrella term, because it doesn’t cover all the development forces steamrolling the urban world as the 20th century wore on.

For example, the birth of the interstate highway was another knife across the cityscape. In Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” a character laments the evisceration of a beautiful East Orange, N.J. neighborhood, cut into quarters by the Garden State Parkway and Interstate 280. (See also: Miami’s Overtown, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, et cetera.)

I want to be clear that I don’t think dreaming big and planning big are bad things (see: Burnham, Olmstead, etc.) But dreaming and planning arrogantly … it left a lot of heartbreak behind, for those who still remember the lost zones.


The Stories Your Street Could Tell …

I’m working on a history of my house, mostly for my own selfish pleasure but also to practice my skills in this particular research area. When I spot any vintage news items involving my street, I naturally go on alert. Not long ago I was searching local newspaper microfilms for an obituary when I stumbled upon a terribly sad story from 1938 that took place across the street from where I now live. (Preliminary poking around in censuses and directories indicates that some relatives of the people mentioned in the news item may still be living, hence the brackets.)

Child Found Drowned in Goldfish Pool Here / Mother Transfers From Ship and Returns to Montclair

An 18-month-old baby [...] was drowned on Saturday when she fell into a goldfish pool at the rear of [a] home on [...] Place. Deputy County Medical Examiner Olcott said the death was accidental and caused by drowning.

The article went on to say that the toddler was staying with her aunt at a house neighboring the yard with the goldfish pool. Sadly, the scenario in the story could still be written today: The child went out of sight only for a few minutes, but somehow managed to circumvent a high fence around the pool. The toddler’s mother was on a ship en route to South America, but was intercepted off Cape Hatteras and transferred to a liner headed back north, so that she arrived back in New Jersey the following day.

It was strange and sad to read about such a tragedy on a street I know so well — a street that continues to be a favorite of families with young children. I can tell you that there’s no trace remaining of the goldfish pond mentioned in the story, but it was still oddly disturbing to read about something like that happening on our pleasant little street, even though it was so long ago.

Now I’m wondering what news items might be out there about my own property. I suppose  that’s a hidden hazard of doing house history reports — not all the stories are going to be colorful and heartwarming.  And I guess I’ll be mentioning this possibility up front in doing this sort of research for someone else.


Good Reads: ‘William Cooper’s Town’

Mr. Archaeologist has long been urging me to read Alan Taylor’s majestic 1995 William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. He keeps saying it is especially interesting from a genealogical perspective.

Indeed yes. William Cooper’s Town is a biography of the man who fathered one of America’s first popular novelists, James Fenimore Cooper. It is also an eagle-eyed look at how America’s social order turned upside down in the years after the Revolutionary War.

Genealogists will find many moments of recognition  in the story of how Cooper, the son of a poor Quaker farmer, parlayed early connections among wealthy Friends in Philadelphia and New Jersey to become a land magnate in the early frontier of upstate New York. I’m sure many researchers will be familiar with the post-Revolution migration that Cooper helped foster. (Most of his pioneer tenants were displaced New Englanders hungry for plentiful, fertile land.) Students of Loyalist families will be interested to see how Cooper’s early successes were, in part, the product of Loyalist misfortunes and exiles.

All of that is quite awesome, but where Mr. Taylor earns the Wish I’d Thought of That Research Award™ is in his exploration of William Cooper’s early career among the Quakers of Burlington, New Jersey.

Investigating William’s attempts to better himself, Taylor turns to … the library. Not just any present-day library, but Cooper’s library: the records of the Library Company of Burlington, “the town’s preminent social club and cultural institution,” which still exists, as New Jersey’s oldest library.

Taylor mines the Library Company’s circulation records to show how young Cooper embarked upon an energetic course of self-improvement, checking out an average of 46 books a year between 1783-89. “He must have burned a lot of midnight oil,” Taylor comments. He also points out that as Cooper’s reading material grew increasingly ambitious, so did the frequency of joking comments like “Cooper the Learned” scribbled next to his name in the circulation records. It was an early sign of Cooper’s uneasy fit in the social circles to which he aspired.

It is also a textbook example of the rewards that await when research moves beyond the basics of censuses, vitals and church registers. Not all  research efforts will be rewarded with such meticulous and well-preserved records. But this little gem from Taylor’s book is a great example of how the imaginative use of a source can reclaim the lost details of a long-ago life.


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