Sometimes it starts with that picture in the attic. It falls out of its black corners and yellow cellophane as if to say, look at me, I’m here for a reason—challenging you to rediscover its past, to make the voice of its subject heard.
I think it must have happened this way for my sister, as she explored the small attic of our mother’s house a few months ago. Here among the musty bric-a-brac and old pictures, a single photograph shook itself free. Mrs. Grace Dixon: a woman none of us in the family had laid eyes on before, waiting buried deep within our archives for one of us to uncover her story.
Sis called me right away, and indeed, I was impressed with her find. I’d first heard of Mrs. Grace Dixon1 years ago, not through any family member, but rather via a brief biographical sketch in Phillip Judd and his descendants.2 At that time, I’d attempted to explore some of the facets of Grace’s life, and I admit that I’d given into genealogy’s worst enemy: assumption. Seeing her there in that old photo with her children, I winced at some of my previous speculations. My sister’s discovery became my opportunity to revisit Grace, and reevaluate what I thought I knew. Continue reading Saving Grace→
Anyone who lived in Fall River, Massachusetts more than fifty years ago would recognize the Brayton name as a power family from the city’s glory days. A block away from my childhood home, the boundary of the baronial John Summerfield Brayton estate was marked by a substantial granite wall with a pointed cap, stretching along Highland Avenue and bending the curve to New Boston Road. What a great place for kids to play, imagining we were behind a medieval fortification. Not even in my flights of fantasy would I have contemplated kinship with this wealthy family. Continue reading A Tale of Two Brayton Descents→
Scott Steward, founder and editor of Vita Brevis, retired last month. This blog has been a wonderful creative outlet for all of us at American Ancestors/NEHGS, allowing me space to vent about research projects, share what I’ve learned about certain record collections, and manipulate a genealogical theme just enough to warrant another post about Harry Potter.
But the most satisfying, miraculous, and fulfilling posts that I’ve written were about the first winner of the Boston Marathon, John J. McDermott—and we still don’t have an answer to our mystery yet. But you could help!
On April 20, 2015, I wrote the first of my posts ( Where did the first Boston Marathon winner go? ) in which I lamented the difficulty of locating a person with a very common name in a very large place. According to period newspapers, John J. McDermott, the winner of the first Boston Marathon in 1897, was an avid long-distance runner from the Pastime Athletic Club of New York City. John was born about 1880, immigrated from Ireland, and worked as a lithographer in New York. While McDermott should have been a celebrity of his time, newspapers and marathon histories neglected to report any information about his personal life: no date of birth, date of death, or names of his wife, children, or other family members. Continue reading Continuing the search for the first Boston Marathon winner: we want your help!→
Groucho Marx:”Well, whaddya say girls? Are we all gonna get married?”
Woman: “All of us? But that’s bigamy!”
Groucho: “Yes, and it’s big-a-me, too.“
Researching the collateral relatives of my great-great-grandfather John Henry O. Record has brought a host of complicated characters. From “liars, whores, and thieves” and murdering wives, to throat-slashing cousins and snake oil salesmen alongside lawyers for the KKK, to the accompanying tragedies of kidnapping and allegations of rape, it’s no wonder that some of them ran off to join a traveling theater, or, oddly enough (and contrary to all other indications), the police force. Yes, my folks from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the Del Marva peninsula were a colorful bunch to say the least. Continue reading An alter-ego’s tale→
In early July I was given the opportunity to attend an online educational event, “Women in the Gilded Age,” with guest speakers Laura Thompson and Betsy Prioleau, part of the American Inspiration series at NEHGS. The draw was my interest in women’s history, and this event sparked my interest further and provided me with a newfound love of the history of the Gilded Age of New York (1870–1910), a captivating era of growth, greed, and deep cultural changes.
I became truly fascinated by one woman in particular, Miriam Leslie, known in her day as Mrs. Frank Leslie. What intrigued me about Mrs. Leslie was the way in which she challenged the societal norms of the time; in a time that expected women to be homemakers, she stepped up, challenged misogyny, and worked her way to success as a professional businesswoman, taking over the publication business of her late husband, Frank Leslie, and inspiring women who sought more than domesticity. Continue reading Mrs. Frank Leslie→
Every time when I look in the mirror/All these lines on my face getting clearer. ~ Aerosmith, 1973
Like a thief in the night, old age has claimed me. I’m not sure when that ignoble laird decided to vandalize me, but it’s certain I wasn’t paying very close attention. I expect it happened in the usual way, though I never expected to be harpooned by fishy-sounding Beta-blockers or riddled with Star Wars-like statins. And while I can’t see “the sunset” just yet, I can tell you that some of those evening stars have indeed arrived. Continue reading All these lines→
On 24 July 2022, the National Baseball Hall of Fame celebrated the induction of the newest class headlined by Boston Red Sox great David Ortiz. In honor of one of baseball’s more cherished events, we will be looking back at the family history of one of the sport’s greatest players, who broke ground and paved the way for so many who came after him, Jackie Robinson.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in the small town of Cairo in Grady County, Georgia on 31 January 1919 to Jerry and Mallie (McGriff) Robinson; he was the youngest of the couple’s five children. Continue reading Hall of Famer→
“The thing that interests me most about family history is the gap between the things we think we know about our families and the realities.” – Jeremy Hardy
Remember that children’s game of Telephone (or Gossip) in which a message is passed on in a whisper to each of several people, so that the end version is often distorted from the original? Family stories are like that old game and can be even more distorted depending on how many narrators related the story to how many listeners. I recently found one example in Husband’s maternal family history concerning (ahem) One Child Left Behind.
The story was that Husband’s maternal grandmother, Catherine (Hrabal) Samson (1906-1987), had emigrated in 1910 as a child with her family from Czechoslovakia (or Czechia, Bohemia, Austria, or Moravia, depending on which U.S. Census you want to believe and what the international politics were at the time). Continue reading Bessie’s story→
I have posted a few times about going back to the original records after looking at transcriptions. Sometimes you may have multiple versions of later transcriptions, or an uncited genealogy may have read the records more correctly than the published transcription, or the original record had a small smudge that has confused later transcribers. While there is certainly value to looking at the original records as they are written, it is good to keep in mind that the original records themselves may also be wrong. Continue reading This can’t work→
My father, Frank Dwyer, spent three happy years as a fellow in cardiology at the Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. It was a special treat when my mother brought me there for a visit. I remember being fascinated by the ashtray behind Dad—press a button and the cigarette butts disappeared! Continue reading Inside the cap→