Tag Archives: Spotlight

The Jeffers Engine

The Jeffers Engine sits in the basement of Station 2 of the Woonsocket Fire Department, covered in dust and surrounded by workout equipment. Built by William Jeffers of Pawtucket, pulled first by hand, then by horse, and now missing its pump, the first steam fire engine the department purchased in 1872 is a far cry from the massive engines in the garage above.[1] Something in the large red wheels and the big dull water drum shares their spirit, though. It too once raced through the streets of Woonsocket towards scenes of danger, carrying fire fighters just as determined to save lives and livelihoods as those who serve today. Continue reading The Jeffers Engine

Title trouble

Punch cartoon from 1917. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The birth of Queen Elizabeth II’s eighth great-grandchild – the first child of HRH Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex,[1] and the former Meghan Markle – offers a 2019 gloss on names and titles in the British royal family.

During the First World War, the rulers of Germany and Great Britain were first cousins – and King George V of Great Britain had no agreed-upon surname. Whatever the family name was, it was German. This situation led to a wholesale renaming of the royal family (as the House of Windsor) and the ceding of assorted German titles for equivalents in the British peerage system. Continue reading Title trouble

The census taker missed

How many times have we pored over a census sheet desperately seeking our ancestors only to reluctantly conclude that the census enumerator must have missed a house? Or how often have we tried variant spellings, first name searches, and wild cards with a search engine attempting to wring a census record out of cyberspace? Well, sometimes the census enumerator really did miss dwellings and occasionally a whole block of dwellings. Continue reading The census taker missed

The Lord Cluster

Time to break out the ginger ale. Four new Early New England Families Study Project sketches are ready to be posted. This is the “Lord Cluster” that I have talked about before. They are the first sketches in my “new” system of working on more than one family at a time, and I promised to report back about how this clustering thing is working out.

The Lord Cluster proved to be exceptionally challenging considering that it involved one woman, three of her four husbands, their other four wives and a combined total of 25 children.  The advantage of working on extended families, as expected, is being able to use common sources. Continue reading The Lord Cluster

My genealogical “coming of age”

The Rhodes children, summer 1915. In front: Cousin Edna Sylvia, Marion, Jack, Lois [Nana], Harry, and Walter Rhodes. in back: Amos Chase [partially concealed], Aunt Belle (Sylvia) Chase, and Grandmother Mary (Paine) (Delano) Sylvia.
Long before the shock and bewilderment of DNA evidence, some of us can pinpoint moments when we found family secrets profoundly disturbing. In April 1980, at the wake of my Nana’s brother Harry Rhodes of Wareham, Massachusetts, I overheard this aside: “Harry’s mother died having a back-room abortion.” These words stunned me because I thought I knew all the elements of the turbulent childhood of Harry and his siblings: Following the death of their mother Marion (Sylvia) Rhodes from “influenza,” her oldest child, Walter, age 9, went to live with grandparents and the other four children were placed in a New Bedford orphanage. When their father remarried in 1917, his new wife Mae created a home for the Rhodes children, except for Walter who chose to remain with his grandparents. Mae also erased all ties to the Sylvia family. On the marriage records of her step-children, including Nana, they gave Mae’s name – not Marion’s – as their mother. Continue reading My genealogical “coming of age”

An immigration obstacle course

One example of the 1941 letter informing people that they would need to start their visa application process over again. Click on image to expand it.

On the train from Washington D.C. to Boston this past summer, I sat next to an immigration lawyer by chance. Thanks to reading immigration case files all the time, I was proud that I could at least identify a few documents and steps in the immigration process he mentioned. I remember remarking how difficult it must be to understand the immigration process and navigate it successfully. Thinking about the encounter in hindsight, and after interning at the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center for a year, I realized that the immigration process being difficult, tedious, and full of unexpected challenges isn’t exactly new.

During the Second World War, the U.S. State Department was notorious for its role in impeding the immigration of refugees, particularly Jews. Reflecting fears about German spies, the Department issued a so-called “relatives rule,” which instructed U.S. consuls abroad to deny visas to any applicant with close relatives in Nazi-occupied territory. Continue reading An immigration obstacle course

Facing death

Deathbed portrait of Elizabeth Royall, attributed to Joseph Badger, ca. 1747. NEHGS Fine Art Collection, photograph by Gavin Ashworth

Unfortunately, over the last month I had to visit a few different funeral homes. On one visit, my husband asked why funeral homes always resembled a house. Knowing a bit about the evolution of how we handle death in America, I explained that it is because a wake or viewing used to take place within the person’s home. Funeral “parlors” or “homes” are intentionally designed to resemble the parlors in homes where we once laid out our dead for visitation.

This question led me to revisit some of my old studies about death in America and how handling the dead went from being a very personal and hands-on experience for the survivors to something that is handled by professionals outside of the home. Continue reading Facing death

Error fatigue

You have undoubtedly seen online exchanges that go something like:

“That genealogical claim is wrong/unproved.”

Reply: “Prove that it is wrong/unproved!”

I first experienced this back in the early days of the Internet when I posted a caution that the royal ancestry attributed to Mayflower passenger Richard Warren was not proved. I was immediately challenged to prove my claim. Continue reading Error fatigue

Curiouser and curiouser

The interior side of the Hancock Mansion’s front door, preserved in the Massachusetts Old Statehouse. This is the side that Cato Hancock would have known well.

I truly went down a rabbit hole recently, and all the credit goes to NEHGS’s Chief Genealogist, David Allen Lambert. He recently reported in Vita Brevis that his second academic sabbatical was spent transcribing the 1800 “Taking Books” (tax records) for Suffolk County, Massachusetts. I commented then that I looked forward to checking out this new database, and recently I got around to doing so.

I’d already discovered my ancestor, George Athearn, in Boston city directories for 1798, 1800, 1803, 1805, 1806, and 1807, but it was still fun to check out his entry in the Taking Books. I noted wryly that his surname and that of his business partner, Stephen Fales, were both misspelled; additional notes were “Merch[an]t: ½ Store on Spears W[harf], partners w[ith] Fails, Large Ho[use]” with real estate valued at $3,000. Continue reading Curiouser and curiouser

A madman and his family

Eastman Strong Minor monument at Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven.

I recently revisited one of my all-time favorite books, The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. Years ago, when I first discovered the book, I raved about it to anyone who would listen. “You HAVE to read this book,” I’d implore. “What’s it about?” they’d ask. “It’s about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary,” would be my enthusiastic reply, whereupon I could immediately sense a kind of let-down, as if they were saying You’re kidding, right? A story about a dictionary? Why not a telephone book? My reply was “Trust me, there’s more to it than just the dictionary and you won’t be able to put it down… You’ll wish it would never end.” My would-be converts assured me that they would check it out and off they scampered, every bit of their body language saying, Not a chance. Continue reading A madman and his family