Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A Moon River Mercer

Like a meandering river, the route of family history research can sometimes feature swirling eddies and beguiling detours. Discovering, in the process of sorting out the many George Mercers in my family's history, that one of them might have been related to someone famous named Johnny Mercer was a clue I couldn't resist following.

Granted, I shouldn't have followed that research bait. The chance of anyone being related to the line I was researching, merely by possessing the same surname, is slim. After all, Mercer is among the top one thousand surnames in the United States, and is a family name which has been here for a couple centuries. Of the more than forty five thousand Americans bearing that surname, quite a few of them became known well enough to, at least, merit their own Wikipedia entry.

It was to that very online resource I went when I stumbled upon that newspaper clipping I mentioned yesterday. Never mind the fact that it concerned a ransom demand on behalf of someone with the same name as a man on my ancestral Tison line. What I really wanted to know now was just who that "songwriter Johnny Mercer" was.

Don't we always perk up when there's a possibility our family history may brush tangentially with the rich or famous? So excuse me while I scurry down this rabbit trail. Today, we'll take a peek at what can be found about that Johnny Mercer.

As you may have suspected, Johnny Mercer was a man known for his musical talent. If his heyday was before your time, as it was for mine, it may not help to learn that he was a shining star of the Tin Pan Alley era. His, however, was a musical influence which reached far beyond the lyrics he wrote for the music which grew out of that collective of music publishing houses.

Fortunately, Wikipedia is not only a great resource for a quick rundown on biographies, but it often provides a brief genealogical sketch, as well. Thankfully, the Wikipedia entry for Johnny Mercer went far beyond the litany of all the songs he was famous for—and yes, "Moon River" lyrics go to his credit—and gave a brief sketch of his early years and family life.

Whether that sketch helps me connect this well-known musician with the several men named George Mercer in my Tison line may be another issue, but I did learn that Johnny Mercer was born in Savannah—a promising start—and that his father was a well-known attorney and real estate developer. Intriguingly, that father's name happened to be George Mercer.

I didn't have enough time to light on that fact in the Wikipedia article before succumbing to another beguiling rabbit trail: juxtaposed with the "Early Years" portion of the Mercer article was a photograph of a stately Georgia manor with the caption, "The historic Mercer House in Savannah Georgia."

With that, I was off to see whether there were any connection between this home and my multiple George Mercers—any of them.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Expect the Unexpected

Forget reserving that warning—"expect the unexpected"—only for those about to submit to a DNA test. Yes, anyone who decides to follow the trail laid out in their own genetic genealogy does need to understand that path may lead to unexpected discoveries. But anyone researching her family history may be in for a surprise. The unexpected lurks in all of our family histories.

All families have stories. Of all people, I should have remembered that when I got back to work on my fourth great-grandfather Job Tison's descendants. When dealing with an ancestor born in 1770, though, the antiquity persuades us to gloss over such a stern warning. After all, what could be buried in the genes of folks gone for nearly two hundred years?

My research routine is to follow all lines of descent for each of my ancestors. Job Tison's oldest daughter, Sidnah, was the one who married George Edmund McClellan, of whom I've written so much over the years. But Sidnah had many siblings, so I had much work still to complete on Job's family.

Last week, I was working on the line of Sidnah's younger brother, William H. Tison. Born in 1812 in Glynn County, Georgia, William was eventually married twice. While that was not particularly difficult to document, it was the next generation which brought me problems.

It was William's eldest daughter's oldest child—his granddaughter named Mary Ellis Walter—who had stumped me in my research, and I was digging deeper to untangle a mess of names.

You see, this particular granddaughter of William H. Tison had married a man by the name of George Mercer. To complicate matters, Mary Ellis Walter had a father whose name was also George. Mary died young, right before Christmas of 1900. I suspected it was after giving birth, a common cause of premature death for so many women, so I was looking at the census enumeration immediately following her death to confirm my hunch.

Sure enough, the 1910 census did show her husband George's household. By that time, George Mercer had remarried and I could see from the census that George had a son by this second marriage, as well—but it contained a detail which puzzled me. It took a while to sort out the sons, as Hugh Mercer—the one who did indeed arrive just a week preceding his mother's death back in 1900—was listed as being only eight years of age in 1910. But there was another puzzle to sort out.

George Mercer must have really loved his own name, for in his 1910 household, along with his second wife Lillian and their infant son John plus the motherless son Hugh, there were two other sons, both named George. There was seventeen year old son George A. And there was second son George W., four years younger than his brother with the same given name. Two sons named George. What was up with that?

It took some additional digging through records to discover that son number one had the full name George Anderson Mercer—like his father and his father before him. The second son, apparently, was named after his mother's father's full name: George Walter Mercer.

I tried to find some explanation for such an odd choice for naming two brothers. I thought perhaps Mary had named her second son this because his birth coincided with her father's passing. But nope, the original George Walter died in 1888, while Mary's son George Walter Mercer was born nearly ten years later.

Determined to strike out in the wild nether regions of the Internet to find an answer to this puzzle, I turned first to the newspaper archival services I use. I started with a general search and looked for the name George Mercer. I left the parameters wide open—after all, I wasn't just looking for a birth announcement or obituary—and set the only delimiters as the state where they lived (Georgia).

Imagine my surprise when one of the first results that turned up in my search was an article headlined, "Ransom Delivered for Mercer Kin."

The 1980 article was about someone named George Mercer IV. Datelined Savannah, Georgia, the report continued,
A ransom has been paid for the missing 22-year-old grand-nephew of songwriter Johnny Mercer, a family member revealed Wednesday. Chris Hammond, uncle of George Mercer IV who has been missing since Jan. 29, said a demand for a ransom was received about a week after Mercer disappeared.

Who was George Mercer IV? And did he have anything to do with the multiple Tison descendants by that same name?

There was more than that, though. In finding that newspaper clipping, I discovered it was already too late: I had already fallen down the rabbit hole. Forget all those confusing George Mercers. Now what I wanted most to know was: who was songwriter Johnny Mercer?

Above: 1910 census for the Savannah, Georgia, household of George Mercer; courtesy

Monday, May 25, 2020

Still Remembering

Though our family has had several young members who served in the military in our country, they have almost all outlived their years of service by decades. This past weekend, giving thought to the upcoming holiday today and its annual designation as a memorial to those who had died while in military service, my husband and I began discussing the one family member we know had given his life in service to his country.

Joseph Edward McGonagle was a cousin to my father-in-law. Five years older than his Chicago cousin, Frank Stevens, Joe had registered to serve on October 16 of 1940. Unlike Frank, who was barely seventeen when news of Pearl Harbor rocked the nation, Joe was already twenty one. By the time each of them was in the service, Joe was assigned to the European arena while Frank eventually headed to the Pacific in the Navy.

Young McGonagle went off to war a newlywed, but from the point in Oklahoma where they married, he never got to see his bride again. Assigned to the 388th Bombardment Group, he was stationed out of RAF Knettishall in the region of Suffolk, England.

Joseph McGonagle served as a radio operator and flew three missions with the team under 2nd Lieutenant Allan Olavi Amann, the pilot. The first two missions were completed in early March of 1944. The third, on March 8, ended in a crash near Magdeburg, Germany. All but one of the ten crew members died; the remaining man, waist gunner T/Sergeant Harold Quick, was taken as a prisoner of war.

Now, besides the military headstone marking his grave at the Ardennes American Cemetery at Liège in Belgium and the family's own memorial to their son in his hometown in New Lexington, Ohio, various groups have sought to memorialize those who served during the second World War through online remembrances, as well. Like many other such groups, the 388th formed their own association, which is now celebrated online with a website of general information, as well as an online database detailing the many operations of the 388th.

It was from that last website that I found the details about my father-in-law's cousin Joseph McGonagle and those he served with when he saw his last moments before the mission's abrupt end. It was on that website that I realized how much of our memorials are crowdsourced, with opportunities for families to help memorialize their fallen relatives by contributing photographs and other resources on the pages of websites such as this.

Each of the personnel has a page in the listings—though sadly, as in Joseph McGonagle's case, where a photograph could be placed, the listing includes the note, "No photo available."

If I had one, of course I'd love to contribute a digitized copy to a memorial such as this. I'm sure many other family history researchers would be happy to assist in gathering such resources, as well. Connecting with the right source for making such a contribution can be as simple as finding the specific assignment of the military member of your family, then searching online for that term—such as "388th Bombardment Group" in this case— and following the links not only for the story of their history, but for any related associations formed after the war which are still in existence now.

It's a small challenge to surmount, but what a potent way to acknowledge those in our own families who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Though so many of that generation are now gone, we still would do well to remember their service.         

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Mirror Trees:
Now we Like Them, Now we Don't

Mirror trees have always seemed like a viable yet last-ditch effort for me. It's not that I'm an adoptee in search of my birth parents, but I am in search of the birthright of my heritage. Thanks to some likely-excusable but now-bemoaned reasons, my paternal grandfather never felt the freedom to share his ethnic roots. Now, two generations after the fact, I and my cousins can understand what he was up against, but still we wish he would have felt freer to share that story.

Still, we have a recourse. DNA testing has opened up possibilities for many people who never knew the true story about their roots—yes, including adoptees. Because I'm almost in the same boat, I keep a close eye on what people in that situation do to untangle the mystery of their past. I've since moved from that tentative position of finding two, maybe three, matches who likely belong to my paternal grandfather's side of my family tree to finding nearly a dozen matches. And though my matches families' trajectory didn't include a stop in New York City, as mine did, they all came from that same tiny village in the northern reaches of Poland. It's time to see how our trees collide.

And collide it might be. Last time I mulled over possible research approaches, the favored advice for adoptees was to build what is called a mirror tree. Plenty of researchers were plugging the technique, from the experts to the motivated-yet-avocational to those marketing to the avocational.

Then, suddenly, the word on the street was that mirror trees were no longer in favor. There were other tools which some thought might be more helpful. Among them is the AutoCluster tool from Genetic Affairs, which, when coupled with their addition of an automated tree building service, can target specific potential connections for an adoptee. And although itself—boasting the largest database of DNA test participants—once suggested adoptees visualize their family connections using a chart-generating program like Lucidchart, it turns out one of their own recent product developments, which they dubbed ThruLines, may have been the very tool which saved adoptees from computer-assisted contortions.

Of course, the downside to ThruLines is that I need to add in my mystery grandfather's suspected parents to my tree—and then a match needs to have that in his or her tree, as well.  After all, ThruLines™  is based on connections traced from information provided on Ancestry subscribers' trees. No correct information, no correct match intel. Simple as that.

Right now, the only match connected to my mystery grandfather who shows up in my DNA results is my brother's daughter, who likely grabbed that information on our grandfather from my tree. Not a very helpful hint. And, face it, if I put my hypothesis about my connection to those many Wisconsin Michalski cousins on my tree, if everyone else copied it as confirmed truth, guess what would likely show up on our ThruLines results? In a way, the results from this new tool lead us back to that same dilemma, creating a new kind of "mirror" in the feedback loop of everyone copying everyone else's tree.

The surest way to overcome such dilemmas is to bite the research bullet, brush up on my Polish language skills, and dig into those Pomeranian records online to see how those Michalski cousins actually do connect with my Puchalski forebears.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


There is a family tree swirling around in the genealogical ether at that somehow belongs to me, but for which I can't find a handle to grab it and plug it into the rest of my ancestral existence.

For that, you can blame my paternal grandfather. He was the one who refused to level with his kids and grandkids about his true origin. Even if I had had the chance to meet him—he died before I was even born—I don't suppose I'd have any greater success at getting him to change his mind than did my older siblings and cousins. He took the family secret of his origin with him to the grave.

Eventually, there became a way to sneak around this research roadblock, of course. Thanks to DNA testing, I now have several genetic matches who are apparently connected to this very line of my paternal grandfather—but how, I can't yet say. The clues have amassed enough detail to demonstrate just how each of these DNA matches connect with each other, if not exactly to me.

Not that those clues arrived instantly or all in a clump. It took several years before the first of those matches even showed up. It was as if a dam broke loose at that point, and though not flooding me with information, the many subsequent matches have confirmed the connections within a large extended family.

I've taken to building a tree for all of these connections, something which can easily be accomplished on I started this project almost a year ago—at the end of June 2019, to be precise—and have slowly (and sporadically) built up this private, unsearchable tree to 341 names. Of course, being the "quick and dirty" type of tree like those built by adoptees seeking their birth parents, my tree still needs a lot of documentation. But for now, it was the diagram of relationships that I needed to sort out all those DNA matches. If I couldn't connect them with me, at least I could visualize how they connect with each other.

Now, though, I—the woman with umpteen different family trees posted at—really want to just find a way to connect that giant hairball of a mess to my own family tree. Perhaps I'm being unduly influenced by a comment Crista Cowan made in the chat dialog running concurrently with her NGS Virtual Conference presentation last Thursday. Apparently, according to her report, I am in the rare two percent of Ancestry subscribers who have more than one tree posted on that service. It's not the first time I've been an outlier, but this multi-tree thing is beginning to wear on me. I want to plug in those 341 mystery ancestors to my real family tree and call it good. But how?

Notwithstanding all that fearmongering among longstanding researchers who talk as if posting just one mistake on a tree—even if inadvertently—will ricochet into multiplied thousands of cloned copies of inaccurate information, at some point, I'll need to take a stand. State a hypothesis to test. And see what happens. Perhaps I'll need to flag the guess with bold print or red letters or skulls and crossbones. Warning! Copy at your own risk! Hypothesis being posted here!

Being unattached can be such a lonely feeling. My mystery family tree wants to come in for a safe landing and reconnect with its roots. There has got to be some sort of way to test the approach before making the perfect connection.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Finding Eloise

She was a fourth cousin of mine, so I never really would have known her, myself. I would not even have encountered her name, if it hadn't been for this strange hobby of pursuing ancestors and their kin. Eloise Marie Lyon was a second great-granddaughter of the brother of my own second great-grandmother—a distant trail of relationships only a genealogist could follow. It was because I was having challenges researching William F. Riley that led me to her story.

I've already recounted what I learned about Eloise and her family—their early years in rural Indiana and subsequent move, before the start of the Great Depression, to Detroit, Michigan. Although I could trace what became of her three siblings and her parents, the trail went cold for Eloise after she obtained her Social Security card in 1951—until, that is, I stumbled upon a possible indication of her death.

It was a stark entry in Find A Grave which filled in the sparse details. None of the customary photographs or other volunteer-provided records accompanied Eloise's memorial. In fact, the entry did not even provide a date of birth—just the word, "unknown." Date of death was simply "Jul 1982."

The only thing that kept me from bypassing this doubtful match was the detail filled in below that date of death. According to the memorial, this Eloise—whether she was mine or not—was buried at a place listed as "Potters Field." Below that entry, someone had provided the location as "Hart Island, Bronx County, New York."

Having grown up in the New York metropolitan area, one thing I knew was that if New York was anything, it was a place made up of islands. Manhattan is an island. So is Staten Island. Some of the famous places all Americans recall are islands in and around New York City—think everything from Ellis Island to Liberty Island, the ground upon which the Statue of Liberty is perched. So where was Hart Island? I had never heard of it.

As it turns out, the island could possibly be seen by anyone driving northward over the Throgs Neck Bridge—at least on a clear day, if the bridge's barriers did not block a driver's view. And yet, I had never noticed this island with such a strange history. Over time, Hart Island had served as a military training ground, a prisoner-of-war camp, a quarantine station during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic, a psychiatric hospital, and a tubercularium. It later also housed a workhouse for the indigent and, eventually, a prison.

Hart Island became New York City's catch-all for all sorts of unpleasant duties of government, and, not surprisingly in the face of various epidemics, it became the site chosen for mass burials. It could, indeed, be considered a "potters field." Over its long history, not all records were carefully kept—indeed, in some cases, that would be impossible for the remains of those not even identified at the point of their death—but adding to that lack was the incidence of arson, occurring in 1977, which destroyed many burial records there.

Somehow, someone found a record detailing the 1982 burial of a woman in New York City named Eloise Lyon. Whether that was thanks to the nearly single-handed campaign by artist Melinda Hunt and the Hart Island Project, I can't say. But the effort to bring the Hart Island tragedy to light has been shared by a number of others publicizing its plight. A 2016 photojournalism piece in Medium gave the world a glimpse of Hart Island's current abandoned situation and the history that led to this point. A more recent account, appearing last month in National Geographic, gained additional attention upon the news that, in the course of composing the piece, the journalist's drone was seized by New York City police, just as New Yorkers were waking up to the fact that the city was again using Hart Island for burials—this time, to dispose of victims of the current coronavirus epidemic.

Far from any limelight—even if of a notorious cast—was the burial of Eloise Lyon. Could she have been my family's Eloise? It is hard to say. The Social Security account gives this woman a birth date of March 11, 1920—matching the record issued in Indiana at the time of Eloise Marie Lyon's birth. It further mentions that this woman obtained her Social Security account in Michigan, which would have been correct for our Eloise, as well. But it is not outside the realm of possibility that there would have been two women by the same name and similar story.

Given the sad history of Hart Island, it is entirely likely that this Eloise found herself an unfortunate indigent who, at the end of life, would have been buried in such a desolate location. Trying to find any record of her life's story in New York through newspapers would be a challenge, if she were one of the near-anonymous homeless of the area. I've tried, of course, to find any mention of her—and will keep trying. It's hard not to know—but near impossible to know.

So often, we pass people living on the streets who are down on their "luck"—but never imagine one of them could be our own kin. And yet, there we find an example of how, yes, this could indeed happen. I suppose only a genealogist would know anything about someone as distantly related as a fourth cousin. But for this fourth cousin—wherever she was abandoned under the rocky turf at Hart Island—I can't help but mourn her forgotten end.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Isle of the Dead

Both mythology and the arts are rife with fascination over the idea of an isle or island of the dead. The concept may have originated with Celtic mythology, but has been a motif echoed in stories passed down in many European ethnicities.

Thus, it is no surprise to learn of the many times the concept has been borrowed in the arts, even in modern times. Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin created a series of paintings which eventually became known by that very title, "Isle of the Dead," beginning with a somber first version in 1880, now held at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland. From that first painting, the idea evolved with the input of a patron, who requested a copy with some significant additions, resulting in the second version. A third version, though much brighter in aspect, was eventually obtained, infamously, by one Adolf Hitler. A fourth version, created by commission, ended up hanging at a subsidiary of the Berliner Bank. All that remains of that version—destroyed by a World War II bombing attack—is a previously-snapped black and white photograph.

It was that photograph which, while on display in Paris in 1907, became the inspiration for Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff's symphonic poem by the same name, Isle of the Dead. The black and white of the photographic treatment evoked an even more somber mood for the composer, who later noted, upon discovery of the original oil painting, that "If I had seen first the original, I, probably, would have not written my Isle of the Dead."

There were, as it turns out, various islands which some have assumed served as the inspiration for Böcklin's creation. Some speculate that the model was a Greek island near Corfu, or the Island of Saint George in Montenegro.

There have been other islands which have actually been given that name, Isle of the Dead. Most of them have a history to go along with the dreary moniker. The Isle of the Dead, off the coast of Tasmania, was the destination for those who died in the prison camps during Great Britain's Australian convict era. Though some early eyewitnesses have romanticized the location, describing it as "picturesquely sorrowful...soothing in its melancholy," there is no escaping the brutality of its reality. Of the estimated thousand graves there, only those of prison staff or military personnel had been marked; the rest of those interred were granted insignificance by those who withheld their identity.

Likewise, in France, a set of twin island served through history, before their use for military purposes, as a quarantine island for lepers and a cemetery for the island's burials. The cemetery island was appropriately dubbed Île des Morts—Isle of the Dead.

That same combination of uses—to confine prisoners, to isolate the morbidly ill and, eventually, bury them—was a pattern in yet another island of the dead. This one, however, was not worlds away from me, but one which, within my own lifetime, I had driven past many times, yet not even knowing of its existence or purpose. You see, New York City—not far from my childhood home—has its own "Isle of the Dead." I wouldn't have known that, though, if it hadn't been for my search for a missing cousin. The path to finding Eloise Marie Lyon led me to this place of the forgotten dead, nearly at my own back door.

Above: "Isle of the Dead," 1880 oil on canvas by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...