As we reach the end of this extraordinary year – one marked by titanic public stresses and private losses – it is time to review a few of the blog posts that appeared in VitaBrevis in 2020. Most posts, of course, concerned genealogical pointers and results, but some addressed the current moment, when so much of our time was spent solitary and in front of a computer screen.
Of course, at the start of 2020 the blog – and NEHGS – focused on twin anniversaries: the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, in 1620, and the 175th birthday of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, in 1845. Continue reading 2020: the year in review→
One of the features of this anniversary year – the four hundredth since the Mayflower’s landing at Plymouth as well as the 175th anniversary of the Society’s founding in 1845 – has been a focus on early members of the Society, people no one alive today can have known. As a historical society, we are familiar with old records, even ones biographical in nature, but there is still something uncanny about how some early members – even some of the Society’s founders – come to life in the stories of their own time. Continue reading Undimmed luster→
Two weeks after an explosion leveled parts of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in December 1917, a survivor named Walter Hoganson wrote a letter to a friend in Stoughton, Massachusetts. In the letter, Hoganson provides a harrowing first-person narrative of the events that occurred the morning of December 6, from the initial blast to the arrival of the Massachusetts Relief Expedition. At the end of his letter, he extols the virtues of the Expedition’s Commissioner-in-Charge, Abraham Ratshesky; Hoganson’s letter was placed with care in Ratshesky’s scrapbook, part of his papers in the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at NEHGS.
First-person narratives are archives’ most enduring materials – they provide those of us in the present with a keener understanding and empathy for those in the past. Continue reading For the future→
There is a great deal of irony here. Having spent 45 years practicing genealogy, I have just had a very rude shock.
The first official genealogy in our family was collected and typed in the 1950s using a manual typewriter and four carbon copies (one for each of her four grandchildren) by my mother’s mother, Alice Mason Crane Hawes. Alice had inherited all the family “stuff” from both her own ancestors and and those of her husband, so she had a rich trove to use that included Bibles, photographs, letters, and much more. Gram had just about all the information she needed from family sources, plus published works in the New England Historic Genealogical Society to fill in eight or more generations of ancestors on my mother’s fan chart. When Gram died in 1962 my mother gathered the papers with the intention of carrying on and, eventually, dumping (er, passing) them on to me. Continue reading Genealogy chaos→
Some of you may know of Herbert Brutus Ehrmann. A Harvard-educated attorney born in Louisville, Kentucky, he is most known for serving on the defense team for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants convicted of (and later executed for) murdering a paymaster at a shoe company during an armed robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1930. The JHC has a collection of his materials.
His wife Sara Rosenfeld Ehrmann was equally well-known in the Boston community. Also born in Kentucky, she was raised in Rochester, New York, and married her husband in 1917. Partially in response to the injustice she saw in the case against Sacco and Vanzetti, she devoted her life to fight against capital punishment. Continue reading Lost in the mountains→
When I first began to explore my family tree, I asked my mother what she knew about her ancestors. She pulled out some old typewritten papers and documents that contained most of the information the family knew, and I pored over them. One of the family lines that caught my attention was my great-great-grandfather Henry John Dauber. He was born 23 October 1834 in New York City. The family notes even specified he was born on Delancey Street, near the police station. But there was no mention of his parents, either in the notes or on his death certificate. Continue reading An elegant resolution→
Since 1993, I have read countless family records within the pages of old family Bibles for colleagues and patrons at NEHGS. I have been fortunate to share in many moments of discovery. The moment when patrons discover we have their family Bible is priceless.
However, until recently I had never experienced this same moment of discovery for myself. Of course, I always hoped that one day I would walk into an archive, historical society, or a relative’s home and miraculously discover an old family Bible relating to my branch of the family. Most of the time this was simply a lovely ending to a genealogical day dream.
A few years ago, I was reviewing copies of letters between my great-aunt Mary Olive (Lea) Rogers (1899–1995) and her cousin Florence Newton written during the 1960s. In one of those letters her cousin asked: “Do you still have that large family bible that sat on the little table in Toronto your dad owned?” I paused and considered that a family Bible for my great-grandfather John George Lea (1876–1953) might actually exist. Then I realized this is the same man who received a trunk of family papers and photos from his late brother in England, decided they smelt funny, and tossed in a match! And, so, up in smoke went any hope that my family history had survived. I tried not to think of what might have been in the trunk, let alone what became of this old Bible. Continue reading The saga of a family Bible→
The last of grandmother’s first cousins, Alma Rhodes of Westerly, Rhode Island, died on 4 August 2019 at the age of 96. She belonged to that increasingly rare group of individuals who lived in the house where she was born well into her nineties and worked for the same bank (albeit with multiple mergers) for 49 years.
She was a portal to the early world of my grandmother, née Lois Rhodes, and passed along family letters and stories to me, thereby giving me a perspective that never could have come from public records alone. Alma visited her grandfather, William Henry Rhodes (1854–1941), almost every day and listened to his reminiscences, preserving them for another generation.
Alma was a portal to the early world
of my grandmother.
Well, if there is one thing you should know about me, it’s that “I don’t do dishes.” Now don’t get me wrong, I always try to help set or clear the table come suppertime, and I’m never really opposed to that age-old argument of “who will wash and who will dry.” But past this, I’ve never had much, if any, interest in dishes themselves. And while I’ve always known that my adoptive great-grandmother’s Blue Willow plates were to be treasured (and to be regarded as something more than just “plates”), as a kid I never figured them to be much good at all, since you couldn’t ever touch them or use them to serve up a big piece of birthday cake. I mean seriously, what good are dishes that just gaze out at you from a glass cabinet or scowl indifferently from the dining-room wall? Continue reading ‘I don’t do dishes’→
cur·mudg·eon /kərˈməjən/: noun: curmudgeon: a bad-tempered person, especially an old one
Longevity is not uncommon in my old New England family. Charles Otis Cony was born on August 7, 1836 to John and Experience Read Cony, the daughter of Revolutionary War veteran George Read. A carpenter, joiner, and farmer, when he died in 1924, he had spent his entire life in the house his grandfather had built in 1789.
That my great-great grandfather Charles Otis lived to be almost 90 is not highly unusual. It is the perspective of that long life that I find fascinating: as a youngster my father talked to a man who had lived with a Revolutionary War veteran. It shortened almost 200 years to a concept I could mentally grasp. I wanted to know more about a man who had seen so much history, so many wars, and so many advances in industrialization and technology. I had heard some stories from Dad about Charles Otis, some of which my father insisted I couldn’t publish until he was long dead. I wanted to align those stories with items I’d found in my research about Charles. Continue reading The Family Curmudgeon: Charles Otis Cony→