The myths and stories in any family history are tenuous things. Often self-serving, they mesmerize us—trapping us in visions of the past filtered through glossy hindsight and half-baked truths. The tales in my own family’s history are certainly no exception. However, even these spurious and specious tales may be lost and forgotten, ravaged by time, and become yet another casualty of Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, or memory loss. I believe that “true or not,” we as family historians are obligated to protect, explore, and secure these stories. It’s what makes our pursuit somehow different from more academic fields: the preservation of the personal.
My step-mother was the source of many family tales of dubious origin, particularly when she was suffering through the early pains of dementia. Her best story will always be the one about her evening with Elvis Presley, and how that famous crooner sang a song for her one night. In light of the cruelties of her dementia (and my skepticism of her other tall tales), I wondered—how I could ever possibly know if it was true? Was there any way to trace back her shadowy tale of Elvis to see if what she said might ever have happened? Continue reading Tracing a tall tale: was Elvis really in the building?→
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→
When Scott Steward told me about his forthcoming departure from NEHGS, he asked if I could send him one more Vita Brevis post “for the road.” The posts I have written have largely been when I need a mental break from whatever genealogy I am working on or go down a rabbit hole on a minor problem within a project; they are sometimes inspired when I am engaged in other forms of entertainment outside of work. While I had one such post “in the cupboard” for Scott to publish, I thought a more appropriate final post under Scott’s editorship would be reminiscing about the many projects we have worked on together for more than fifteen years! Continue reading One more for the road→
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→
My earlier post, featuring my parents and both sets of grandparents, sought photographs of these relatives from early adult life – I am fortunate to have a number of such images for all six from which to choose!
“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→
One of the frustrations of genealogical research can be the absence of images of our forebears and relatives; the dry account offered by (precious) vital and other records may render an ancestor doubly unknowable. Often the images that do survive fall towards the end of a lifetime, when financial resources will stretch to a trip to the photographer — or a portrait by an accomplished painter. I often feel that those artistically valuable images overlay the youthful portrait — the one we all carry inside of us — with a misleading patina: one of age, no doubt, but also one that buries features that may be seen in present-day descendants. Continue reading What they looked like→