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.
I just noticed something irritating in the 1855 New York State census entry for my Connor great-great-grandparents of Watervliet.
New York State’s 1855 census form is really detailed in contrast to the federal returns of this era. For instance, it specified the relationships of each person to the head of household – something the federal census would not do until 1880. It also directed enumerators to list the number of years each person had lived in that particular city or town, an obvious advantage to those of us trying to establish when a person might have emigrated to the U.S.
I returned to the 1855 census form in double-checking events on a timeline for my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connor (Conners/Conner/Connors). I had already noted that the enumerator had simply drawn a dash across the space asking how many years the family had lived in the town of Watervliet. It didn’t jump out that much, as I recall. Erratic compliance with the forms is pretty common.
But this time I looked harder at how the enumerator handled this question for the other families on the page. And, wow. In every other case he meticulously listed the number of years resident in the town, for every person. Not just every adult, every person. So a child of two was listed as having resided in the town for two years.
Some examples: Bridget Corbett, age 35, and her three children, all born in Ireland, had all lived in Watervliet four years. Lawrence Hart and his wife, Phoebe, born in Germany, had settled in Watervliet 14 years previously with their oldest child, Catharina. The couple’s four younger children were all born in Albany County, and had lived in the town for 14, 11, 9 and 5 years respectively, meaning that the Harts had a baby promptly after arriving in town.
Scottish immigrants Donald and Elizabeth Kay and their seven children had arrived in Watervliet en masse ten months before the enumeration date. And the enumerator wrote down “10/12” for every single one in the space asking for length of residency.
Not for the Connors family. For the question of how long they were residents of Watervliet, they got dashes. Zip. For every one of them.
So, Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence Jr., Census Marshal: What gives, buddy?
I want to be noble and assume he encountered an unavoidable enumeration difficulty. They weren’t home. Or maybe no one in the household could remember how long they had lived in Watervliet, despite Mr. Edward Lawrence Jr.’s valiant attempts to jog their memories, and he sadly drew a line across the space, pained at abandoning his usual detailed standards with this poor, benighted family.
No, forget it.
I do not feel charitable toward Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence, Jr. I think he had it in for my ancestors.
I think maybe Patrick told a joke Mr. Edward Lawrence, Jr. didn’t like, or one of the kids accidentally spilled something on his best enumeration suit. And I think Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence Jr. spitefully decided to leave out how long this Connors family lived in the town of Watervliet. Just to show them.
Mr. Enumerator: You, sir, are a scoundrel.
In looking for background on my recent Subway Song post, I was surprised to discover just how many abandoned subway dreams left their mark upon the landscape — and not just New York City’s landscape, either.
A lot of these cases originated in enthusiastic plans for expanding subways after the end of World War I. Then the transit dreams evaporated for varying reasons — changes in political leadership, economic woes during the Depression, the automobile boom of the post-World War II era.
But many remnants of the dreams linger in unfinished lines or never-opened stations. And they’re catnip to a new generation of urban explorers who love chasing “ghost subways” wherever they may be found. Some examples: Cincinnati, or Rochester, or Toronto, or Berlin.
For those of us in the metro-NYC area, here are some additional ghostly subway links:
- A post from WNYC’s blog about New York’s Ghost Subway system.
- Stunning pictures of the abandoned station underneath City Hall. Wow!
- From Mental Floss, 5 Unseen Parts of NYC’s Subway System.
He was also a composer of songs about subways. Having read this and even recited it (to myself, softly, when nobody else is home), I can definitely say that it is … heartfelt. I leave further artistic judgments up to you, dear readers.
Long Island Daily Press, Jamaica, N.Y., April 1940:
“Ex-Beer Champion Pens ‘Van Wyck Subway Song’ ”
A father in Yorkville said on Sunday morn,
“Come Mother and children, get ready for the shore,
“I’ll show you something new that never you did see
“The Eighth Avenue Subway to Rockaway.”
The father smiles, the mother laughs, the children too,
And little Freddy swings his flag, red, white and blue.
But father starts to sighing, the big express was flying
And stopped on Van Wyck Avenue.
Three times in, four times out, we don’t care,
The whole trip to Rockaway is only five cents fare.
And little Freddy with his flag, was first to leave the train,
He cried: “That trip to Rockaway was nothing but a dream.”
And the mother, Fred, and Annie said, “Papa will you say,
“Papa will you say which is the shortest way.”
And the mother, Fred, and Annie said: “Papa will you say,
“There is no Eighth avenue subway down to Rockaway.”
And father said: “I know, myself, there is no such train,
“We’ll have to wait till Jimmy Walker is mayor once again,
“He and President Joe Coyle, they tried, and very hard,
“But when Mayor LaGuardia came, the subway was forgot.”
And little Freddy raised his flag, with colors red white and blue
He looks his father in the eye, “God help your wish come true,
“The best intention of two good men, should never be so spoiled,
“Three cheers for Jimmy Walker and hurrah for Joe Coyle.”
The article: The upcoming debut of George’s song rated two columns at the top of the local news page. Here is the accompanying story:
The Van Wyck Subway Song, with words and music by George Rudroff, former beer tester for a brewery, will have its premiere at a meeting of the Dunton Civic League Thursday night in Masonic Hall. The song was dedicated by the 70-year-old composer to the league and its president, Joseph A. Coyle, fiery veteran of half a hundred South Side civic battles.
Rudroff, who lives in Richmond Hill, became famous in his salad days for his beer-drinking capacity, and recently was the subject of a Believe-It-Or-Not cartoon.
Every day for eight years, Rudroff drank 90 glasses of beer a day. That was before prohibition. It was just about this time, too, that Rudroff composed a war song, “The Pride of Uncle Sam.”
His latest effort is inspired by the civic league’s campaign to win an extension of the 8th Avenue subway from Queens boulevard southward under Van Wyck boulevard to the Rockaways.
Rudroff also courts the Muse on behalf of ex-Mayor Jimmy Walker, who, he believes, could get the new subway built with a minimum of delay if he were back in City Hall.
The subway issue: Uncle George and the Dunton Civic Association were referring to a proposed expansion of the IND Queens Boulevard Line under Van Wyck Boulevard. I’m working my way through accounts of the subway system’s development in this area and era, and it is complicated.
George appears to have been waxing eloquent about an expansion that was under discussion (and a big political football) in one form or another between 1929 and 1940. There is a lot of information here, at the nycsubway.org site. But please feel free to chime in with any additional insights!
George, who died in November 1940, did not live to see many changes to come on the IND line, including an expansion to Rockaway in the 1950s. The song, however, endures.
The clipping: Digital image, Old New York Newspapers (http://www.fultonhistory.com : accessed 17 June 2013). The scan did not include the page number or edition date. Judging from references in other articles on the page, it seems likely this article ran in early April 1940. A calendar of events in the Brooklyn Eagle for 11 April 1940 (page 24, col. 3) mentions a meeting of the Dunton Civic League as taking place that night, and 11 April was on a Thursday.
This NewsClip has nothing to do with my ancestors; it just happened to be at the top of a page that did. But the headline was an eyecatcher:
BELIEVE MICE CAUSED $3,000 WHITESTONE FIRE
[Aside: Don’t you love that old-school use of a verb with an implied subject? I used to be a copyeditor. I notice this stuff.]
Anyway: I laughed out loud. Fortunately I had already swallowed my mouthful of coffee.
“What is it?”asked Mr. Archaeologist from behind his smartphone. I read him the headline.
“Oh, they mean the mice chewed through a wire and caused an electrical fire. Happens all the time.” Mr. Archaeologist is a casualty actuary. He makes it his business to know how disasters happen, whether caused by mice or men.
But he was wrong this time!
Fire which gutted the kitchen of John W. Clancy, Twelfth avenue and 150th street, Whitestone, while Mrs. Clancy and her three children were asleep upstairs, was caused by mice igniting matches.
You don’t believe me? Check this out. (And no, it was not even April Fools’ Day.)
Whitestone mice. They’re tough.
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.
From the Albany Evening Journal, Watervliet news section, Saturday, May 3, 1902:
A meeting will be held this evening by the old members of the Oswald Hose Company. The meeting will be held for the purpose of placing in the company’s quarters the head of “Nell,” who was the first horse ever owned by the company. “Nell” for over twenty years hauled apparatus to fires and became greatly attached to every member of the company, and it was with the greatest sorrow when she was obliged to quit the service.
The members fearing that she would be sold by the commissioner, raised a sufficient sum for her purchase, and placed her upon a farm in Colonie about three years ago. She then became sick, and it was thought best to end her suffering by chloroform, which was done.
The members decided to have the head mounted in a suitable manner, and the members will meet this evening, when the head will be dedicated, after which a spread will be enjoyed.
1. The Oswald Hose Company was, of course, in Watervliet. I was looking at volunteer fire companies in West Troy/Watervliet because my great-grandfather Joseph Haigney served in Watervliet’s Gleason Hook and Ladder company.
2. I’m continually struck by how 19th-century ancestors could be so much more sentimental and, at the same time, so much less squeamish than we are today.
3. First the head, then the spread. I prefer a simple tailgate, myself.