Stories to Tell (And Save)

Army combat helmets (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Today the AP reported on how one long-forgotten casualty of World War II had finally been rediscovered and inscribed upon his hometown’s memorial. I’m glad to read those stories, where neglect ends in recognition.

A couple of years ago I did a pro bono bit of research, looking for a man killed in World War II who’d been “found,” in a sense, at a garage sale. A medal, plus a copy of a citation, had surfaced in a box of miscellaneous items. The seller had no idea where they’d come from. Since the fallen soldier had lived in my hometown, the buyer hoped I could lead him to living descendants who might want the medal.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen. The soldier was an only child, married but childless, and his widow never remarried. This garage-sale mystery ended with a cold trail and a bit of sadness that his story had ended up in a box in a stranger’s garage.

On Memorial Day, it seems especially fitting to think of ways to preserve and protect veterans’ stories. Here are a few examples. I’m sure there are others in other places. Maybe there’s one near you, too.

• The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project is a national initiative to collect and preserve first-hand accounts from veterans.

• The Biography Project of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation collects biographical information on the men and women listed on New Jersey’s memorial. At the link there’s a list of the veterans for whom there are still no photographs; the foundation welcomes any clues from the public.

• And the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop provides opportunities for veterans to tell their own stories.


The Bystanders’ Tale, With Second Thoughts

Kitty Genovese, the Queens bartender whose 1964 murder became a symbol of modern apathy and alienation. Photo: AP

Kitty Genovese, the Queens bartender whose 1964 murder became a symbol of modern apathy and alienation. Photo: AP

Kitty Genovese, rest her soul, would be 80 years old this July. Instead, she ran into a serial rapist-murderer on her way home from work on this day in 1964, and became a symbol. The influential New York Times coverage of her murder, spearheaded by then-metro editor A.M. Rosenthal, framed it indelibly as a crime of apathy as well as violence.

But the famous story of the 38 uncaring witnesses in Queens is not completely true. Yes, two in particular would qualify as villains in this piece. But of all the dozens of potential Good Samaritans, it transpired very few heard the struggles clearly enough to understand their seriousness. As it was, one neighbor shouted from his window at Genovese’s attacker, driving him temporarily away. Two others called the police. And Sophia Farrar, far from cowering behind a closed door, left her apartment to try to help Genovese, who was lying in Farrar’s arms when the ambulance came. A 2014 review of the case by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker is interesting reading, and recommended.

To me what bugs the most about the legend is its vision of city dwellers as a bunch of urban zombies jammed uncaringly together. Why, somebody could be murdered right in front of them and they wouldn’t lift a finger! The uncritical belief that every single one of Genovese’s neighbors turned over on their pillows and went back to sleep always seemed odd to me, given my mother’s account of her Greenpoint girlhood, where a night out meant risking the window thrown open, the nosy neighbor’s pointed query: “Coming in a bit late, aren’t ya?”

So in addition to noting the genuine advances that resulted — the birth of New York’s 911 system is the major example – I’d also like to remember the neighbors whose actions remained unsung for decades. They reflect the outer boroughs of today and of my parents’ day – places where people are simply people, for bad and, yes, for good too.

New Database: Lansingburgh (NY) Marriages

Bill McGrath, project coordinator for the Troy (N.Y.) Irish Genealogy Society, announces another project that digitizes a valuable resource compiled decades ago:

Marriage Notices Appearing in Lansingburgh Newspapers 1787 – 1895

This is an index to 2,712 marriage notices published in ten different Lansingburgh, New York newspapers from 1787 to 1895, including 5,424 names. The original index was created by Troy Public Library staff in 1938-39. The TIGS scan of this book makes these records available online.

Lansingburgh newspapers reflected in the index include American Spy, Federal Herald, Lansingburgh Advertiser, Lansingburgh Chronicle, Lansingburgh Courier, Lansingburgh Democrat, Lansingburgh Gazette, Lansingburgh Daily Gazette, Lansingburgh Times and Northern Centinel. The majority of the notices pre-date New York State’s 1880 law mandating civil registration of vital events, so this index is extremely important for anyone seeking evidence of early-era marriages.

Most entries show:

  • Name of bride and groom;
  • Residence of bride and groom;
  • Date of marriage;
  • Names of newspapers reporting the marriage;
  • Date, newspaper name and column number where notice appeared.

Unsurprisingly, Lansingburgh is most often mentioned, with 1,708 entries. But more than two hundred other cities, towns and villages throughout New York State are represented, along with 33 other U.S. states and five foreign countries. (More than 1200 names gave no indication of residence.) Here are the localities other than Lansingburgh with the highest numbers:

Troy 483
Waterford 150
Schaghticoke 149
Pittstown 144
Albany 117
New York City 93
Brunswick 77
Cohoes 74
Hoosick 43
Cambridge 42
Stillwater 28
Easton 26
Halfmoon 24
West Troy 22

(And if you, like me, have ancestors in West Troy, it’s worth noting that in addition to the 22 West Troy entries in the chart above, there are 12  for Watervliet, the name under which West Troy was known from 1896 on.)

As McGrath notes, Troy ranked fourth among U.S. cities in per-capita wealth at the time of the 1840 federal census, and the breadth of these marriage notices no doubt reflects this area’s role as an economic magnet in the first half of the 19th century.

This latest database joins a constellation of projects on the TIGS website containing nearly 300,000 entries, reflecting people of both Irish and non-Irish descent. Again, if you have ancestry in the Capital District of New York State and you haven’t found the Troy Irish Genealogy site yet, you are missing out!

New: Death Notices from Lansingburgh, NY

UPDATE, 3 March 2015: Looks like my Connors great-great grandmother is in this thing! Seriously, check it out!

Ed. Note: This blog would be missing huge chunks of family stories without the work of the indefatigable Troy Irish Genealogy Society of Troy, Rensselaer County, N.Y.

The project teams of TIGS continue to break new indexing ground each year. It’s only factual, not exaggeration, to say their website is indispensable for anyone with ANY sort of ancestry in Troy and the surrounding towns of New York’s Capital District. (Check out the additional links at the Projects page mentioned below.)

And here comes yet another important compilation from TIGS. Without further ado we yield the floor to the society’s project coordinator, Bill McGrath:

Death Notices Appearing in Lansingburgh Newspapers 1787 – 1895

An index to 9,682 death notices that were published in ten different Lansingburgh, New York, newspapers from 1787 to 1895 was created by staff at the Troy Public Library in 1938 through 1939. The Troy Irish Genealogy Society was allowed by the Troy Library to scan the two books of these important records so they could be made available on-line for genealogy researchers. To see these records:

  1. Go to the TIGS website.
  2. Click on PROJECTS.

Lansingburgh, by the way, for those not in the Capital District Region, was the first chartered village in Rensselaer County and was settled around 1763. In 1900 Lansingburgh became part of the City of Troy, New York.

The ten different Lansingburgh newspapers were:

  • American Spy
  • Federal Herald
  • Lansingburgh Advertiser
  • Lansingburgh Chronicle
  • Lansingburgh Courier
  • Lansingburgh Democrat
  • Lansingburgh Gazette
  • Lansingburgh Daily Gazette
  • Lansingburgh Times
  • Northern Centinel

Under “RESOURCES” on the TIGS website,  you will also find an informative article, “Newspapering in Rensselaer County”, which identifies which of the above newspapers are available, on microfilm or hard copy, at the Troy Library. These historical records are extremely important to genealogy researchers as the bulk of the records predate New York’s 1880 law that required reporting of deaths. Outside of church death and burial records and newspaper accounts, you will not find these records anywhere else.

In addition to the name of the deceased, other entries show the age, date of death, names of newspapers that reported the death along with the newspaper date, page and column number where you will find the death notice in the appropriate newspaper.

It is important to note that the residence for the deceased is not just Lansingburgh, but may cover all areas of New York State, other States and even foreign countries.

Hopefully you will find some of your ancestors in this new data base or in the various other data series of almost 300,000 Irish AND Non-Irish names on the Troy Irish Genealogy website.

Bill McGrath, TIGS Project Coordinator

Clifton Park, NY

Another Year Gone By

Slides of missing-person flyers from the fall of 2001, exhibit at National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Lower Manhattan.

Slides of missing-person flyers from fall 2001, National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Lower Manhattan.

This past May, we toured the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. I won’t lie; I had mixed feelings about being a tourist there. I also won’t lie about the museum; I found it stunning in every sense of that word, including the darker sense. It was almost too good at evoking spiraling sensations of confusion, grief and fear.

Overall, I was glad I went with my children, one of whom was four and the other not yet born on that day in 2001. The event is moving from raw memory into history, which presents its own re-discoveries. I always thought I’d told all my stories to my kids, but the museum knocked a few more pieces loose. I had never told them about our little cache of September 11 items that mean something to us, if nothing much in the large scheme of things. Things like the singed scraps of office memos that my husband grabbed unthinkingly as they flew down from the sky underneath the towers. Or the ticket for the dry cleaning to remove the film of dust that settled on his suit. Even (strangest of all!) a sympathy card addressed to me from an anonymous well-wisher, who mistook my husband for a man of the same name who died.

Powerful as the memorial museum is, I can only recommend it with caution. It can cut far too close to home for some people, like my friend who fled her nearby apartment that day, joining a stream of disoriented humanity who were all wondering what the world had come to, and what might possibly happen next. She told me she probably wouldn’t be visiting the museum for a while.

Made sense to me.

For more memories and thoughts, I still think that the collections at the September 11 Digital Archive are well worth a browse.

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.

Stop Snickering In The Bread Aisle, You

Bread and milk before the snowstorm: the ultimate panic-buying cliché. I enjoy the jokes as much as anyone. A short while ago, it looked like we here in New Jersey were going to be smacked with a Weather Event right on top of Thanksgiving. Here’s me on Facebook, yukking it up:


Now I’ve started thinking more about that pre-storm supermarket rush. “Why is everyone so uptight about the bread and milk?” we clever people ask.

But this is also a serious question. Why is everyone so uptight? What chord is being played in our cultural memory?

Dedicated reporter that I am, I flexed my fingers and began Googling. Very quickly, sharp insights piled up, like: “Because we are stupid,” and “LOL.” I was, as ever, impressed by the discourse, but refused to be intimidated. Time to dig deeper, into the snowstorms of the past.

The deep, dark past.


Read the rest of this entry »


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