Tell me no lies

Thomas and Shirley: a hint of a complex relationship.

While researching family stories for verification (and, let’s face it, amusement), I began to think that we all face the same questions: “Huh?” turns into “Why did he/she/they do that?,” which morphs into “What?!,” which then becomes “What were they thinking?!?!” We look for the truth but often find muddled facts, conflicting stories, and outright prevarications.

I discovered with the help of a maternal cousin that one of our ancestors, Shadrack Ireland (1718–1780), was something of a rogue/cad/religious nut. Sure enough, when I read about his life, history knows him as a pipe maker, carpenter, and “religious leader” who espoused Perfectionism at the time of The Great Awakening, a Christian revival in the 1730s and ‘40s.

As one who had reached “Perfection,” he left his wife Martha and his family in Charlestown and moved to Harvard, Massachusetts where he took a “spiritual wife” (some accounts say more than one), preached abstinence to everyone who had not reached Perfection, and spouted other assorted controversial moralities and religious ideas. (Giving new meaning to the term “espoused!”) He also claimed that after death he would be resurrected, and that his body should not be buried.  When his followers couldn’t stand the smell any longer, they put the body in a box covered with lime in the cellar until they later buried him in an unmarked grave in a cornfield, replacing the corn to disguise the grave[1].

Some would say it’s a perfect end to a “perfect” man.

A similar family story has developed from my research to help a friend with her “brick wall.” Her grandparents, Fred and Marie Baron, married and had eighteen children. I was puzzled, however, because I frequently found Fred living in one place and Marie in another. Is this possible, I asked? Yes, I was told, they often lived apart, but finally lived together with family in the few years before their deaths. (Funny how age and infirmities bring families together!)

One of Fred and Marie’s sons, Thomas, took a page from his parents’ book.  Tom married Dolores McAlexander and stayed with her at least through 1953, when they are found in Elizabeth, New Jersey and listed in that year’s city directory.

By 1961 (with Dolores still living) he had “married” Shirley. They later had a daughter Amy.  But before Shirley died, Tom “married” Josita. I’ve found no marriage, divorce, or death records yet, but a passenger list does list him with Shirley sailing to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The family says that Tom did travel extensively, and that Shirley was from St. Thomas (she lists herself as “U.S. born” on the passenger list). Apparently these changes were all amicable because Shirley and Amy attended Tom’s funeral when he died in 1980.

I’m sure Tom and Shadrack could explain themselves with or without “untruths,” as could so many other wayward ancestors. But what is wayward to us today might have been a matter of culture or societal mores at the time, not just strong personal convictions or loco weed.

Pamela Athearn Filbert’s post “Hard to Love” and the related comments show how difficult it can be to discover and accept unsavory facts about our ancestors, especially those that show now-questionable morality, ethics, or character. Not all skeletons can or should be made to dance, and while we are not responsible for “paying the piper” for the sins of our ancestors, their actions affect the lives of their descendants generations later. Even traitors may have descendants. We cannot choose our lineage; we can only accept it. If we reject it, we are denying what already is, however we may understand it.

Matthew Fitzsimmons has it right: “The dead have no rights, and rarely rise up to defend themselves.”[2] Because I lack a significant amount of Perfection, I’m rather glad they don’t!

Notes

[1] See, among many others, Francis G. Walett, “Shadrack Ireland and The ‘Immortals’ of Colonial New England,” Publications of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts 59 (1982).

[2] Matthew FitzSimmons, The Short Drop (Seattle: Thomas and Mercer, 2015).

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

5 thoughts on “Tell me no lies

  1. My stuffy aunt’s reaction to the news that her gr-gr-gm (my3X ggm) was illiegitimate was “That’s not possible! Our family doesn’t have bastards!”. Such things just didn’t happen in Auntie’s world! Never mind ggGranny’s baptismal cert (on microfilm at the LDS FamHist Center) clearly stated her parents weren’t married but did state the father’s name, as was common in the early 1800s. Her mother (my gm) was more laid back. Told Auntie if she could figure out a way to change the circumstances of our ancestress’s birth to “go for it”. lol! I’d later learn Auntie was well aware that one of her sisters had had a baby out of wedlock and put up for adoption. Only one of many secrets my mother’s side of the family hoped I wouldn’t discover, which made it all the more fun to ferret them out!

    1. As always a very good piece! Have to take the bad with the good. It helps that in looking back, there’s humor in those ancestors!

  2. Shadrack was quite a guy! I have a friend who always swore that the Great Awakening was a pretty wild time, and probably more in the carnal than spiritual sense. What a fascinating guy to find in your family tree, and a bit like a guy in our neck of the woods. Edmund Creffield, started the Bride of Christ Church over a century ago and ended up getting murdered by the brother of one of the young women who followed him…who then killed her brother in revenge. My husband jokes that he’s going to start a “Creffield Country Tours” business when he retires, and wonders why no one has made a major motion picture about the guy. It has all the best raw material: a sex cult with two murders!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Creffield

  3. Way back when, one of my ancestors apparently was told to change his name ( he chose his mother’s maiden name) because of his playboy ways. There are 3 illegitimate children credited to him. And if there were 3 that history knows about … And then he married a “nice girl” but left her broke to support their children when he went off to England. What a jerk! Even considering the times were different then than they are now, I don’t like him.

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