Pesky middle initials

My recent post on "Retroactive surnames" prompted a few comments on the topic of “retroactive middle names,” something that has happened in my own matrilineal ancestry and that of my father’s, as well as with a great-great-grandmother being given a second middle name after her death. Most often these are guesses that balloon on online trees that copy from one another.

The desire to figure out what a middle initial stands for can be captivating, and I have certainly gone on many wild goose chases trying to find a nineteenth-century person intent on going by just a middle initial, and these chases are occasionally successful. My wife and younger daughter have no middle name, although somehow a middle initial for my wife ended up on one of our monthly bank documents, which has been repeated elsewhere. I chuckle what later generations might think what that initial might stand for, since no middle name exists!

I caution anyone just guessing on what a middle initial might stand for from posting it online, since the caveat that it is just a guess is often omitted by subsequent adopters. In my post last year on writing an article that led to my first and only Mayflower line, something that I had also tried to pursue was the middle initial of my great-great-great-grandmother, Marion P. (Botsford) Severance (1838-1893) of Allegany County, New York. All of the genealogical papers I gathered from my great-aunt gave Marion that middle initial P, and it was included in a 1995 genealogy on the Severance family (although my great-aunt was the source of that information).

I caution anyone just guessing on what a middle initial might stand for from posting it online...

When I figured out Marion’s maternal grandparents, that give me an idea of what the P might stand for, based on a name in her maternal family. I ordered the Kansas death certificates of all three of her sons, which only listed their mother was “Marion Botsford.” Going back to all the New York records I had on my ancestor Marion, I could find no indication she even had a middle name! Before her 1856 marriage, she is simply “Marion Botsford,” and then afterward she is “Marion B. Severance,” the B. clearly referring to her maiden name. The earliest I could find the P written down was on my great-aunt’s family charts, written in the 1980s, nearly one hundred years after Marion’s death. Was this P added on later? and what was it meant to stand for? Or was her married middle name of B misread somewhere as a P? I am not going to tell you what I thought the P stood for so as to not let that cat out of the bag!

My recent post on Mark Wahlberg’s matrilineal ancestry prompted an email exchange with Rich Hall, who had also worked on the actor’s ancestry, and had worked on a couple projects for Wahlberg’s company Unrealistic Ideas. The only middle name I could not determine in the actor’s matrilineage was that of his great-great-grandmother, Alma E. (Taylor) McKittrick (1871-1942) of Wilmington, Massachusetts. I had searched all civil vital records on Alma and her children, as well as a few Catholic church records, in search of her middle name, and came up empty. As her great-granddaughter (Mark’s mother) was born Alma Elaine Donnelly, I had always suspected that Alma E. (Taylor) McKittrick’s middle name was also Elaine, but I could never be sure.

After I shared my suspicion in a private email to Rich, he told me that in his notes (but not on his website), he had her middle name as Elizabeth, citing a transcribed Catholic church record. He had not followed up on looking at the original. Within a few minutes, Rich found the original, which is on our database of Boston Catholic Archdiocese Records (which we had only digitized a few years ago). It was an adult baptism record for Alma in 1871, a year after she married George McKittrick. As this record was not contemporary to Alma’s birth, and was not her own marriage or baptism or birth of any of her children (or their marriages or deaths), it was a record that escaped my notice. Thanks Rich! I am glad I never told anyone else I thought Alma’s middle name was Elaine!

Christopher C. Child

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.View all posts by Christopher C. Child