It’s tough to explain the satisfactions of genealogy to nonparticipants. And I completely understand their bewilderment. Why does anyone want to traipse around cemeteries cooing over tombstones? What exactly is so much fun about libraries?
But there’s one thing that everybody seems to get, even the most bored and impatient of listeners:
It’s really, really nice to find the lost babies.
That’s what I call those children who lived and died between census years, the ones who exist perhaps as a question mark on an old family data sheet, or — in the case of my great-great aunt Rose (Connors) Brant — as a statistical squiggle on the census returns.
Rose (1860-1914) had six children, six living, when she and her family were counted in the U.S. federal census in Jersey City in 1900. When 1910 rolled around, she was the mother of eight children, seven living, her youngest child being born in about 1905. On my genealogy program, Rose’s tally was four pink circles for the girls, three for the boys, and one Unknown, which, in Reunion anyway, is a white space.
Those white Unknown spaces sadden me to no end, and the mysteries they contain can stay unresolved for years, sometimes for always. Happily, this particular mystery occurred when civil registration for vitals was well under way in New Jersey.
At the state archives in Trenton, births for earlier years are filed by certificate number.To find one, you need to examine an index reel that is arranged by year and parents’ surnames. Since Rose’s two youngest surviving children were born in 1900 and 1905, that meant she could have had a child in between — or she could have had a child after 1905, but before 1910. I decided to try that earlier time frame first, seeing as Rose was already nearing age 40 in 1900.
And very soon I found her missing child — a little boy, born just before Christmas 1902, and dead of meningitis by September 1903. I was saddened at how brief his life was. But it still felt good to type a name over that “Unknown,” and convert the white tag to blue. It’s strange to think how a life can be reduced to a set of numbers scrawled on a census tally sheet — and satisfying when you can be the person who puts a name where there was once just a statistic.
I never pass a cemetery without a second look, or a third, or even pulling over to take a fourth.
So when a chance came to tour two landmark Catholic cemeteries in Jersey City, I put on my sturdiest, ugliest walking shoes and met up on a lovely June Saturday morning with other members of the Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society. On the agenda: an in-depth look at St. Peter’s Cemetery, on Tonnelle Avenue, and sprawling, gorgeous Holy Name on West Side Avenue, final home to many prominent (and in some cases infamous) figures from Jersey City’s past.
We carpooled to St. Peter’s, a good thing because St. Peter’s has to be one of the trickiest cemeteries to access anywhere. This might sound cheeky to those who must hack their way to ancestors in overgrown rural burying grounds, but there are other hazards in life besides brambles, and Tonnelle Avenue (a k a U.S. Highways 1 and 9) is one of them.
Those are my feet on the left, in the beat-up loafers. I was very hard on shoes, my mother said. That was also the opinion of Manny, the guy who measured us at Martin’s Shoe Store in Plainfield, N.J. He and my mother would mourn the state of my current shoe, and shake their heads, and sigh.
“She’s really hard on shoes, isn’t she?” Manny would say.
“Let’s hope this pair lasts,” my mother would say.
In my defense, I would like to draw your attention to that ripped sole of the Keds sneakers on the right, which belonged to one of my younger sisters, proof that I was not the only kid who was hard on her shoes.
The shoes in the center belong to a littler kid who went easier on them, because he didn’t play as hard as we did. However, being a little kid, he was about to commit the equally heinous sin of Growing Like You Wouldn’t Believe, necessitating a pair of new shoes in an equally indecent amount of time.
Shoe shopping was a definite event back then, partly because shoe stores were fuller-service destinations, as opposed to today, when the only stores that make a big deal of fussing over you are the ones catering to marathoners or people with really bad bunions.
But the other reason was that when seven kids all needed shoes at the same time, it meant major shopping expeditions. These took place in August, when we bought school shoes, and late spring, when we bought summer play shoes. Easter shoes were also important, but because we wore dress shoes so infrequently, we handed them down a lot. This might cause responsible parents to clutch their throats in horror today, but my mother would have thought it irresponsible to waste a set of patent-leather Mary Janes that had only been to Mass once or twice. So every Easter, we’d root around the closets and line everyone up to see which dress shoes fitted whom.
Shoe shopping was always a mixed experience for me. I loved the look, smell and feel of new shoes, but I hated being called to account for the damage I wreaked on them. “You really banged these up, kid,” Manny would say, as Mom nodded in sad agreement.
How did I do it? I was never sure. As far as I knew I was just running and walking in them, not using them to pound fence posts. Every year, I would vow that my shoes would stay smooth and whole until they no longer fit. But every year, I wore out my shoes before I outgrew them. The pleasure of new shoes was always shadowed by my awareness of their fleeting glory.
I never did turn into a person who collects shoes. I still tend to buy a pair I really like and wear it into shreds, despite good-intentioned vows to buy that one great pair in several colors and rotate them. Maybe all that early training in shoe shopping has conditioned me to stick with the tried-and-true, and await its inevitable decline.
Or maybe I’m just really hard on shoes.
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.
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.
|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.
|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:
|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.
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.
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.