Monday, July 15, 2013

Goldilocks Parameters

The advent of “Story” in the world of genealogy has been particularly touted on the conference scene this year as every event from RootsTech last March through—undoubtedly—the upcoming Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference in August has included speakers urging the inclusion of more than just the dry recital of “BMD.”

While birth, marriage and death dates are certainly pertinent facts to employ when we are reporting on our ancestors, “Story” is hardly a radical departure from what’s been going on around here at A Family Tapestry for well over that same time period.

I promised to introduce the next character in our cast of players in the Stevens story, today. We’ll begin discussing Will Stevens’ father, John Kelly Stevens.

However, unlike the series on Will’s son, Frank—where we had a thick stack of letters to rely upon to gain a better picture of what the man was really like—we are now venturing into territory from which precious few artifacts emerged.

Without letters home, without journals, without even photographs, how can we gain a sense of who such an ancestor was?

For those ancestors who were fortunate to live in a town small enough to include a newspaper which was not above reporting, say, what was served at the Smiths’ Sunday dinner, we are still able to glean a few details about our ancestors’ lives.

If we were about to examine my own paternal grandparents’ lines, however, we would be out of luck, as they swam invisibly in a sea of people in the major metropolitan area of New York City. The names of people such as those would not be showing up in The New York Times (thought they might make the Daily News).

If, on the other hand, we wanted to pursue the details of, say, my husband’s distant Ryan cousins as they set up housekeeping in the Dakota Territory in the early 1880s, we would still be disappointed, as the region at that time had no communities large enough to even support the formation of a newspaper.

I’m sure you are beginning to spot a trend here: finding any details on the lives of our ancestors may require gleaning reports from newspapers. In order to successfully do that, though, it requires residence in a place that is not too big and not too small.

It has to be a place that is just right.

Thankfully, Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the late 1880s through the early 1920s was that kind of place: it was just right.

While John Kelly Stevens was born elsewhere—the small town of Lafayette in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, to be precise—he spent his adult life in Fort Wayne, a town of not one, not two, but three competing newspapers. And though John Kelly was not famous by any stretch of the imagination, nor even “important” by virtue of any role of prominent businessman or politician, he certainly had more than his fair share of mentions within the pages of these three publications.

Serving for many of those years as a patrolman for the city’s police force, John Kelly saw his name appearing often in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. If his name wasn’t in print there, the Fort Wayne Sentinel or the Daily News was sure to pick up the report.

Considering that John Kelly Stevens was born on May 15 of 1856, the journalistic narrative didn’t catch up with him until he was at least forty years of age. He made the switch from private person to public figure upon his appointment to the police force. From that time on, every interesting caper from the center of town to the edge of city limits seemed to include his name in print.

With the resources now available to discover these stories online, I’ve been able to piece together a timeline of John Kelly’s work day from the week of his appointment to the eve of his retirement, twenty six years later.

Of course, you know how I feel about newspaper reports: there’s an edgy, tentative truce between us. I crave the information but deplore the reporting errors. This new journey in discovering John Kelly Stevens will be no different. You’ll see those occasional mistakes as we make our way through his timeline. Thankfully, collateral documentation will help us tiptoe our way through these factual landmines.

Yet, I have to keep in mind, that, if it weren’t for the goldmines of these historical journals, there would be precious little I’d otherwise find on this ancestor. I’d be reduced to relying on that stripped-down model BMD: the un-compelling saga of John Kelly Stevens’ birth, marriage and death.

Instead, I can chuckle over the escapades he endured, all in a day’s work, and savor the outrageous sense of humor that oozed from him, almost as if it were imprinted in his very genes—for in a way, there is a vaguely reminiscent aura about this man.

All told, despite the occasional journalistic errors, I have to remind myself to maintain a sense of gratitude for such a resource—and for the fact that John Kelly Stevens chose to live in a town that was not too big, not too small, but just right.

Just right for getting the story told—and saved long enough for others to discover it.

John Kelly Stevens serving on Fort Wayne Indiana police force circa 1921


  1. You have an old photo too! I wonder what the Historical Society has on file..I know that I have many paper files on people and law enforcement is an area that is asked for often. Of course none of our "stuff" is online :)

    1. I'm so glad you mentioned this, Far Side! Actually, the story behind this photo and how I obtained it--plus the details to respond to your second point--are enough to draw up a separate post.

      In short, it is thanks to an archivist at the Allen County Historical Society that we were able to obtain this and some other photos. Of course, we hadn't thought of that approach at the time, but because of what we know about the keepers of local law enforcement history, we began our search from a different direction--an idea which might be helpful to those asking you the same question.

      I'll explain in a bit more detail next week.

  2. Looks like some of those guys liked their doughnuts.

    :) Which (if any) is John Kelly Stevens?

    1. Oh, Iggy, your question brought up some more questions in my mind, so thank you for asking this.

      First, the answer to your question...

      My husband likes to use this image at the beginning of his presentations when he speaks at conferences related to law enforcement. He always asks his audience to guess which man is his great grandfather.

      No one ever guesses right.

      The answer is: the scrawniest man of the bunch! John Kelly Stevens is standing third from the left in this photo of those serving during his regularly scheduled shift in the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

      The building behind them, by the way, is the former city hall (now transformed into the county's history center). The basement of this building served, at the time, as the city jail. If you look closely, you can see signs of someone peeking out from the window there...

      Now, a concern that arose from your question: it made me realize that this blog may appear in a different form to those using different browsers or viewing devices.

      I've moved away from including captions below photographs, and substituting embedded properties, which can become visible if you hover your cursor over the picture.

      However, after reading your comment today, I checked out the post using my iPad, and unfortunately, it does not reveal the description embedded in the photograph.

      So, perhaps for many readers, my photos have been showing up with absolutely no explanation.

      My apologies!

      I think what I need to do is revamp, from this point forward, by continuing to include captions below photographs, as well as continuing to embed a title for search and tagging purposes.

      Thank you so much for bringing that up!

    2. Ah, I see the caption in FireFox when I mouseover it. I can't see this in the "Android Mobile" viewer.

      That 'splains it!

      And I think I see someone's arm hanging out the Jail window in the center of the photo! :)

    3. Yes! Isn't that crazy! We howled when we realized what we were seeing.

      We've been down there, by the way--the jail is now converted into a part of the museum. In fact, that's where I first spotted the pictures that gave me the idea to ask to look through their archives...

  3. I really need to follow your example and use embedded properties - whatever those are.... I am such a novice! One thing I've noticed with my own blog is that when I embed a video in a post, it does not appear in the email version. So anyone who subscribed by email has no clue what I am talking about if I mention a video.

    1. Kathy, apparently there are a good number of bloggers out there--and I'm even talking bloggers whose sites are set up for income production--who haven't realized what the mobile version of their blog has done to its appearances!

      As for changes in the email versions, I've noticed that, too, with blogs I subscribe to via email.

      Ever since Google's point blank dismissal of Google Reader, I've taken that as a sign that their email subscription utility may not be far behind...and as a nudge to check out other vehicles for email subscriptions. I'm hoping there will be some options open that allow delivery of all the content, instead of stripping out the graphic components.

      Until then, unfortunately, I guess our email subscribers are left only with the option of clicking through to see the web version if they are curious about those photos and videos :(

  4. Hooray for newspapers! I have not mined this resource yet for my ancestors. I've got to get busy and do that! I'm glad you are so adept.

    1. Oh, Mariann, if you are fortunate enough to have ancestors who lived in a town whose newspapers have been archived by an online company, you will find it to be a bonanza!

      Before I write, I glean several sources for all the available mentions of my target ancestor's name, and set up a timeline of the articles. It helps me move through that ancestor's life in the same steps in which he or she had in that lifetime, and introduces the dynamics of then-current events (and relevant perspectives of that day) into the narrative.


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