Sunday, December 31, 2017

Counting the Minutes

This has been a year for keeping track of progress. I've been counting that incremental increase in the four family trees I pursue for more than a year, of course, but the idea right now—on New Year's Eve—is to see just how far that inch-by-inch progress brought me over the course of an entire year.

Before I check the results of a year's worth of work, let's take a look at the usual biweekly count, comparing what I was able to achieve in spite of over this holiday season.

Right away—and this will be no surprise, as it seems to be part of the pattern as well—it is clear that my mother-in-law's tree gains the most from my effort. Those family lines seem to be the easiest to track, and the ancestors who were most likely to have large families. Since my last count, that tree increased by 158 individuals, bringing the total of individuals included in that tree to 13,930.

My own mother's tree fares second best, as usual. In the past two weeks, I was able to add seventy six names to close out the year with 11,967 in her tree.

Also par for the course—though I tried, really, I did!—once again, neither my father's nor my father-in-law's tree budged a single count. My father's line is stuck at 452 names, and my father-in-law's tree at 1,392. I'm hoping for better results next year, now that I've confirmed a DNA match with someone related to me through my paternal grandmother's family; we've promised ourselves to collaborate, once the holiday season and all its family gatherings has passed. And I'm still wishing for a discovery like that on the side of my father-in-law's Irish heritage, so I can have a collaborator on that side, as well.

It's that steady plodding, week after week, that makes a difference in the long run. Granted, some lines will stubbornly resist research progress—witness the family trees of our two fathers—but the steady effort will eventually produce a breakthrough.

Taking the long view helps bolster that resolve to keep at it. When numbers are incremental—and usually small—for each step of the way through a year, it is hard to comprehend what a decent amount that bit-by-bit effort can eventually yield.

In my case, here are the numbers. For my mother-in-law's tree, I started out on January 1, 2017, with 9,523 names—and closed out the year with 13,930. That's an increase of 4,407 for the year. For my own mother's tree, I started out with 9,305 and closed out with 11,967. That tree jumped by 2,662 in the same year. And even though I didn't make much progress on either father's tree, my father's tree increased 106 from the starting tally of 346, and my father-in-law's tree grew by 312 from its January start of 1,080 people.

Seeing how many matches we both had on our DNA tests was also informative. What people may not realize, when starting out in this brave new world of genetic genealogy, is that as the year progresses, matches keep getting added to your tally. Thus, over the course of the year, my matches at Family Tree DNA grew by 1,091 and my husband's by 693. At Ancestry DNA, where we count only those relationships which are at least fourth cousin or closer, my match count grew by 378 and my husband's by 221, over the course of the year.

The strange reverse trend I spotted for our tests at 23andMe would likely never have been noticed if I hadn't kept a tally every two weeks. Though I've only had my test results since May, I lost eighty matches from that first count, come the end of the year. And my husband, who had tested with them in February, saw his match count dive, over the year, by a net result of 175 names. Who knows if those were all "distant cousins" who wouldn't have mattered to me anyhow. I'd like to think that is so—perhaps the genetic genealogist's version of sour grapes—but I doubt that would be the case across the board. There really is no way to know.

For those who may weary of the tedious part of genealogical research, seeing numbers like this year-long panorama can be encouraging. Of course, I don't really need this kind of encouragement (I'm one of those more ecstatic researchers) but I can see how keeping a simple log like this might provide incentives to just keep at it.

Next year—like, in a matter of hours on this New Year's Eve—I'll continue this habit of counting the biweekly progress, but I'll be adding in another detail. With the holiday sales at all the DNA testing companies, my husband and I snatched up the bargain at MyHeritage, so now we'll have a tally for this fourth company. Other than that, my goal will be to continue progress on tracking all the descendants of each family line already laid out in my trees. Don't let those tens of thousands in my count fool you—I have a long way to go before I can say that process is complete.

In the meantime, let's all enjoy a mellow (and safe) New Year's Eve, shall we? 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

For Auld Lang Syne:
Reaching Back a Couple Years

It's not only this year's stories that have been cause for connecting to people around the world. Even after almost two years, I've gotten comments and emails from relatives of the people I've written about.

If you've been a reader here at A Family Tapestry for a while, perhaps you recall what I often refer to as my most outrageous family history discovery ever: the story of John Syme Hogue. Descendant of a longstanding respectable Virginia family with connections to the likes of our nation's first Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall, John Syme Hogue was a distant cousin on my maternal grandmother's line.

It was not under such auspices that I first encountered John Syme Hogue's story, however. In research that chased that early twentieth century man from West Virginia across the midwest and into western Canada before his brother snatched him from the claws noose of death in Ontario, I uncovered a story which kept unfolding unbelievably from one episode to another. This is the stuff movies are made of, not real life. But this really was his life.

After his brother, Andrew O'Beirne Hogue, brought him home from his last escapade, John's life seemed to settle into a surreal normalcy—hard to believe, considering all that had preceded that earlier chapter in his life. And yet, I always wondered whether those who knew John after he returned home had any idea what had transpired before that return to normalcy. I had found a way to contact some of his descendants, but sent an introductory letter devoid of any hints of that wild, earlier life, in case family members weren't aware of what he had been rescued from. I never heard back from them.

Fast forward to this past summer, and a comment which appeared at my concluding post for the John Syme Hogue story. A descendant of John's brother—that sainted sibling who doubled as best friend and sage counselor—reached out to contact me. Sure enough, he seemed to indicate that what I suspected might indeed have been the way things were: that family now may not be aware of John's incredible personal saga.

While it's no secret that what intrigues me about family history is not just the names and dates of these ancestors but their stories, I'm not simply content to hear the part of the story I've been able to uncover through document research. I want to know the rest of the story—the impact it had on others in the family, the repercussions it had in the person's life from that point onward. That's what I still hope to discover about John Syme Hogue and his descendants and relatives. I still wonder whether, when John arrived back home for good, his past history was swallowed up in a rehabilitating silence—meant all for the good, of course—but never again referred to, despite its being part of his legacy.

Some day, I hope to revisit this story from a different slant: the repercussions it had on others, both in West Virginia and in Canada. Did whatever emotional energy that originally drove him to do what he did just evaporate when he returned home? Or did he find a more productive direction in which to channel his energies? What was life like for him, once he returned home?

And, most important question in my mind, did anyone in the next generation have any awareness of what went on before John Syme Hogue returned home and took up his humble position in the family's mining operations once again?

The only ones who can reflect adequately on these answers would be the ones who actually knew him. Which is why it was such a welcome, yet out-of-the-blue, moment when a descendant of John's brother got in touch.

With blogging and the ability to connect via comments, you never know who you will find yourself connecting with. After all these years since the story actually happened, hopefully, it will become a more welcome time to reflect and recollect what family remembered of those days long ago.   

Friday, December 29, 2017

For Auld Lang Syne:
"A Little Tea Party" Redux

It's such a rewarding feeling to reap the fruit of these blog-posting labors, especially when a descendant finds a family photo here on A Family Tapestry. As I mentioned yesterday, I want to take the time in the next few days to update you on some of the emails I received, subsequent to sharing pictures from other people's family history.

You may remember the little lost photo album I began writing about almost exactly a year ago. Of course, the tiny treasure has since found its way back home, hand-delivered by a distant cousin to the granddaughter of Harry and Alice Reid, the couple who had originally mailed it off from Cork, Ireland, as an extended Christmas greeting.

That little photo album continues to reach out and call family members who, as it turns out, are also interested in their family history.

One of the photos in this album which connected me with current-day relatives of its 1936 subjects was the one labeled "A Little Tea Party." If you remember, the summertime setting included a photograph of sixteen individuals, all named in the album by Alice Hawkes Reid. Some of those people identified in the picture were young children at the time: besides the two Reid children, Ruby and Iris, there was a young girl named Daireen Foott and a young boy labeled as "Alfy" Allen.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to exchange emails with Daireen, who still lives in Ireland and now takes an interest in her family history. In one letter, she mentioned,
It is really interesting what things crop up when we are able to make contact so easily, and with the common interest of genealogy research.... I spend large parts of my days trying to sort and transcribe letters and research notes left by my ancestors over several hundred years, and storing my efforts on computer and with hard copies.

It was because of her avid interest in her family history that I had originally been able to contact her—owing to a connection she had with another family researcher who lives in Canada, and thanks to some search engine magic by a reader here at A Family Tapestry for leading me to that connection.

Yet another connection was just recently made through another person listed in that Tea Party photograph. The newlywed husband of a granddaughter of Alfie Allen got in touch with me, having discovered the photograph. Wishing to spruce it up with the digital wizardry now available for graphic design, this man wanted to obtain a scan of the original photograph to see if it could be enlarged and transformed into a Christmas gift for his bride, who also keeps many photographs of family members over the generations. So close and yet so far away, this Cork contact hadn't realized that the original is now resident in a place in his own county. This is a project that will need some additional networking to fulfill, but it is nice to hear from the people who radiate out from the list in that Little Tea Party entry.

Perhaps because there were so many people mentioned in that photo album, I've enjoyed receiving other such contacts, not just from folks connected to the names listed in the Tea Party portrait, but regarding other names mentioned in the album's pages. It is encouraging to see people coupling their interest in their family's history with the powerful connecting capabilities of this awesome digital age. We've finally come to a point where we really can reach out and touch somebody, no matter where in the world that someone might be.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Warming up to Auld Lang Syne

While I'm still having difficulty prying Christmas from my own clenched fingers, I have to face up to the fact that there is another holiday rapidly drawing near: New Year's Eve. Yes, that's the reason I've got Auld Lang Syne in mind. Only I'm remembering it in the old fashioned sense of the season: a time to remember old acquaintances and bring them to mind for all of us. As we warm up to the new year, I'd like to revisit a few of our old "friends" from past posts and share some updates.

There have been a few interesting connections made this past year at A Family Tapestry. Of course, I'm always delighted when someone contacts me out of the blue, on account of a post I wrote months (or even years) ago. The Internet is a fascinating tool for worldwide connection, and while we understand its capabilities, it is always a surprise to be part of a reader's effort to reach out and actually touch that someone in that other part of the world. Though every post made for this blog is designed as cousin bait, I'm always surprised when someone does take the initiative to connect with me.

Since the translation of the old Scottish phrase "for auld lang syne" may roughly be translated as "for the sake of old times," it seems this should become an appropriate theme song for family historians. If the song's introductory question basically asks, "Is it right that old times be forgotten?" our answer, of course, is a resounding "No!" We're doing everything we can to insure that our family's treasured relationships of past decades and centuries will be preserved. Auld Lang Syne, in effect, becomes our theme song—not just for a jovial gathering on December 31, or the theme song we warble at the stroke of midnight, but a musical directive for every day of the year. We are the embodiment of that rhetorical question, providing its answer every day we delve into our research.

In the next few days, I'll take some time to revisit a few projects of the last year—and beyond—and share some news on what has happened since I first shared the story. It's always good to remember—and to bring those memories forward into the upcoming year.

Above: "Skating," chromolithographic print, circa 1885, by Montreal native Henry Sandham; courtesy United States Library of Congress via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Favorite Week of the Year

Yes, it's the third day of Christmas, but you didn't expect me to continue counting all the way to Three Kings Day, did you?

To count or not to count?—regardless, this is still my favorite week of the year. With the frenzy of holiday shopping past, the saner sort among us may now sit in peace and enjoy the fruit of our labors. Though we Americans will never quite stack up to our book-loving Icelandic neighbors, nor we Californians-so-done-with-Christmas to the descendants of the Christmastide-loving Irish ancestors nearly one out of every thirteen of us claim, at least this one family (ours) enjoys the peace that comes with the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

This is the week I enjoy getting everything in order to close out one year and invite in the next. That is a tradition I began years ago, while still working for a local agency. No meetings were scheduled for that quiet week—after all, most folks preferred to take the week off work—and top of my list became pulling out the new calendar and filling in the must-do categories. I'd block out the hours for regular meetings, classes, other group events. Then came notations for repeated tasks—monthly reports due, for instance—and plans for new projects to attempt in the upcoming year.

Things are so different now. I don't even use a paper calendar (though I still prefer color coding my activities); my schedule is kept—and shared—online. I'm just as likely to find myself in a meeting this week as any other time of the year. But I still appreciate the relative hush of the week. Sometimes, we just need to stop rushing and take some time to enjoy what we do have.

Recapping the year is also the best vantage point for looking forward. I'm hoping to tackle some exciting new goals and explore some new possibilities. Now is the best time to map out a reasonable route to successfully completing those plans. In the quiet of year's end, almost anything in that bright future seems possible.

Or is this just that magical afterglow of the holiday season?

Above: "Winter Landscape," oil on panel (before 1634) by Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

On the Second Day of Christmas

On a day when most Americans are ready to box it up and put it all away for another year—some people going so far as to kick their worn out Christmas tree to the curb for trash pickup the next morning—our family is thinking of heading the other way. We are, after all, expecting "Christmas" visitors in the next week—not to mention, one member of our family just spent three weeks of the Christmas season halfway around the world in a place where Christmas is rarely, if ever, mentioned. We are not yet ready to call it quits on Christmas.

We are, in fact, considering heading in the opposite direction. The "Twelve Days of Christmas" sound good to us. least the second day.

Borrowing from the mother country of our colonial roots, I'm thinking here of Boxing Day, the traditional "second day of Christmas" when the custom is to remember those beside our extended family with gifts of holiday cheer. While not a custom in the United States, it is still part of the culture in English-speaking countries around the world, including, of course, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, most of Australia, and in form if not name, in Ireland as well as some unexpected, non-English-speaking places like Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.

While the Black-Friday-styled shopping frenzy and the sports extravaganzas of Boxing Day don't particularly attract me, I do like the sentiment behind the origin of the day: the customary thank-you gift for tradespeople and others whose service made an appreciated difference throughout the year. A remembrance on at least this one day seems fitting. And after spending a day gorging on the gifts we give each other in a family with no lack, it oddly brings more joy to go out and find those workers who make life a little brighter in their own small way—the baristas at the coffee hangout, the small business owners at the local shops we frequent. These are the people who go out of their way to add that special little touch to our purchases, or who remember our names and greet us as we come in the door to their establishment. These are the ones who manage to transform this impersonal city living back into the cozy personality of life lived in the villages of bygone years. I like that personal touch.

If you haven't had the tradition of Boxing Day in your family, give it a try to introduce your own personal version of the holiday tradition. Go out and find a way to bestow a small gift of thanks to someone. If nothing else, find a way to bestow a random act of genealogical kindness via your laptop from the comfort of your own home. It adds to the afterglow of Christmas to have just one more day to extend that joy to someone else. 

Above: "Christmas Eve," undated chromolithography by Philadelphia printmaker Joseph C. Hoover & Sons; courtesy of United States Library of Congress via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Merry Christmas

On this day when most of us forsake our perpetual pursuit of ancestors to dedicate a day to being with those still among the living, I would certainly understand it if you hadn't stopped by to say hi and exchange holiday greetings. There is always tomorrow to extend that wonderful holiday feeling, of course.

But if you do pass by this way on the twenty fifth, my hearty wishes for your time with those you love most—or my total understanding and well wishes if you are unable to be with them this year. Either way, may you have a day full of comfort, peace and satisfaction.

Above: A 1910 Christmas card designed by American illustrator Frances Brundage; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Season's Sentiments

Christmas always calls to mind memories. It's a holiday I've always loved, and that awed childhood delight over this scintillating time of year spills over into a season of life far removed from those years of innocence. Those memories are still that enduring.

How is it that a simple family holiday could ignite a delight so long-lasting that I can still remember the toys I played with, nestled up against the wall behind the glowing tree at night after all the holiday festivities were over? That is a decades-old wonder.

Whatever it is that yielded such exquisite, yet indelible memories, I can't say. Something complex, woven by family, neighborhood, community, culture? It couldn't be, simply, the fact that a child was happy to receive her heart's content on one day of the year. Because we can't seem to place our finger on it, we may think it seems like magic. But if we look, we can identify the elements that go into such holiday bliss. Yet, taken individually, the components that become interwoven into the holiday can rarely stand on their own as sterling representatives of what makes a great Christmas.

Then there are those who don't even lay claim to some of those components—some, in fact, who can't even afford to replicate all the trappings of the holiday. It's in living life like that—and some of us have been there at times, ourselves—that we realize what makes the holiday isn't the gifts. Nor the food. Not place, not time, not festivities. There must be something far deeper, far more incisive, lying deep behind the magic of Christmas, calling it out from within our own hearts.

Perhaps it's the ability to connect. The ability to touch, inter-personally, that something inside that needs encouragement, support, validation, assurance. To speak to that reality inside and draw it to a more confident place.

It's not the toys we get for the holiday—dolls or footballs for the little kids, technology's grownup toys for the kid within the rest of us—but it's the message those props send us when we receive the package that may make the difference. We speak that message to each other, every time we exchange gifts. Whether what lies under the fancy wrapping is a present humble or expensive, it conveys a message from the giver to the receiver. That tacit message, itself, may become the real gift of the season.

Above: "Wintry but seasonable; A Merrie Xmas to you all," 1870s Christmas card now among the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books at the Toronto (Canada) Public Library; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Syncing With the Season

Was it my luck that I accidentally ended up syncing my Family Tree Maker program with my Ancestry family tree last night—the eve of an extended holiday weekend? "This will fly through," was my first thought when I accidentally discovered I had uncorked the bottle and the syncing genie had already flown out; it was, after all, the time for all sane folks to be celebrating the season, not syncing their files.

I shouldn't have thought that so soon.

Somehow, the mixed emotions I felt about this were not unfounded fears. I have, after all, two different trees which each sporting more than ten thousand individual listings, at the least. Passing that ten thousand mark qualifies these as "big" trees.

To my surprise, my mother-in-law's 13,772 entries—at last count—went through the syncing process with no problem. The entire process gave me just enough time to have a leisurely dinner with family—and do all the dishes afterwards.

With an opening act like that, you'd think the second-biggest tree—my own mom's tree—would make it through in a snap. You know, maybe in less time than it takes to run a load of laundry. Or wrap thirty stocking stuffers. (Well, maybe fifteen...)

Doing anything right before Christmas is never a quick gimme. I happened to drive into town yesterday—hey, it wasn't even the last, Christmas Eve kind of shopping rush—and noticed the parking lot at one shopping center was so full that people had to park out on the street and walk two or three blocks, just to enter the back end of the parking lot. Cha-ching for all those lucky merchants. But what about the shoppers, still worried about finishing up that shopping list? Glad all I stopped by for was a cup of coffee.

And that was in beautiful sixty degree weather—under sunny blue skies, I might add. We Californians have a hard time getting used to the idea that it is now winter. The weather around here won't wake up to the fact that we've passed the winter solstice until maybe another couple weeks or so.

I pinch myself often around this time of year, mostly to remind myself that, if I don't wake up to the facts of the December calendar rushing by, I'll miss Christmas entirely. And we all know it is (at least according to Johnny Mathis) "the most wonderful time of the year." Who would want to miss that?

Meanwhile, I'm spending those valuable holiday hours pouting at my computer as the syncing process meter fails to budge. How do these things happen to me? I am not much for New Year's resolutions, but I believe this year, I am going to make one—and start it early. Resolved: to never get entangled in non-holiday endeavors during the last three days before the Big Event. If ever I needed a holiday version of the Cone of Silence, now is the time. I need a device I can step into which vacuums out all the interference with holiday cheer and good will. No Bah Humbug allowed!

Above: Undated Victorian Christmas card printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons of London; courtesy Nova Scotia Archives Flickr photostream via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Blog Caroling 2017:
The Genealogist's Christmas Carol

Every year, in ample time to be enjoyed before Christmas, a genealogy blogger of note puts out a call for fellow genea-bloggers to share in a festive digital event: Blog Caroling. Once again, "the footnoteMaven" has issued her announcement, and this time, I want to be sure to be part of the festivities.

Though I had posted the following story back in 2015, I don't believe it had made the cut for the blog roll of merry carolers, but the song—and the story behind how I chose it—has come to take on a meaning so special to me since then, that I want to share it once again. It's a song that's likely not on the top of most people's lists of carol favorites, but once I learned to slow down and savor the lyrics, it has become one of my favorites for the Christmas season. Here's what I shared, back in 2015:

What to share of all the many holiday favorites? Something, I decided, that would match the year now passing. Unlike other years, which at their close brought sadness, this year was one of celebration. I thought of our daughter's now-finished marathon through her college education, complete with its highlight—study abroad in Ireland—and immediately wanted to feature a traditional Irish tune.

"But what about the Amy Grant song," my daughter asked. She was thinking of Heirlooms, featured on an old Christmas album—conveniently entitled A Christmas Album—which our family has listened to every December since before our daughter was even born.

I didn't remember the piece—until she played it for me. Then, I recalled the melody—and Amy Grant's hallmark performance of it—quite well. But the lyrics...they never had registered, I guess. Sometimes, we hear things so many times, their meaning becomes dulled to us.

"It talks about the very things you do—sifting through the old letters, photographs, family memories," she explained.

And sure enough, once I took a look at those lyrics, I could see her point. It's just that I had never noticed it before. Never thought about it in the context of the very things that mean so much to me. Apparently, they meant just as much to the lyricist who wrote those words to this Christmas tune—a melody I'll now never hear without dubbing it, "The Genealogist's Christmas Carol."


Up in the attic
Down on my knees
Lifetimes of boxes
Timeless to me
Letters and photographs
Yellowed with years
Some bringing laughter
Some bringing tears

Time never changes
The memories, the faces Of loved ones, who bring to me
All that I come from
And all that I live for
And all that I'm going to be
My precious family
Is more than an heirloom to me

Wise men and shepherds
Down on their knees
Bringing their treasures
To lay at his feet
Who was this wonder baby yet king
Living and dying
He gave life to me

Time never changes
The memory, the moment His love first pierced through me
Telling all that I come from
And all that I live for
And all that I'm going to be
My precious savior
Is more than an heirloom to me

 My precious Jesus is more than an heirloom to me

Perhaps you've heard that tune so many times, you've lost track of the lyrics, too. Sometimes we are so much into our projects, are so deeply infused with the process, that we forget to take a step back and take it all in afresh. May this Christmas respite permit you the fresh ears and fresh eyes that bring you a fresh joy and renewed vigor for a new year.

From the cut, "Heirloom," written by Amy Grant, Brown Bannister and Bob Farrell, first appearing in the 1983 album, "The Christmas Album."

Blog caroling image above courtesy Thank you once again, footnoteMaven, for hosting such a splendid caroling festival!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Wish There Was a Way

It is no secret that one way to easily obtain the look of old fashioned family photographs is to head to a local antique shop and buy a few hundred-year-old pictures of strangers. Instant heritage. Only...not yours. Just imported.

And yet, how many of us mourn the fact that we are left with relatively little in the way of photographs of our ancestors? There might have been plenty of pictures of our great-grandparents or second greats at the time they were still alive, but where are those photographs now? Surely someone received a copy of those reprints.

The catch is: just as the old family photographs which can be found in the antique shop near me might contain the faces of ancestors who belong to you, you can find similar old photos in a store near you which might have originated in a town near me. Wouldn't it be great if someone could come up with a system to help people reunite with their long-lost family photographs?

Granted, not all photographs were duly labeled with correct—not to mention, complete—names, dates and locations. But even some of the information, if provided, may be enough to bring a photograph back home; witness the puzzle of the mystery photo album I wrote about last year in "A Lost Christmas Greeting." With only a few first names—admittedly, including one as unusual as Penrose—I was able to send that photo collection home, all the way to Ireland.

How many such photographs are languishing in an antique store near you? Are you game to try your hand at reuniting such a treasure with the family who would so thoroughly appreciate receiving it after all these years?

While taking on such a project involves both time and money—not to mention, perseverance and the ability to convincingly play the role of detective—it certainly can be a rewarding effort. Just ask "Far Side," blogger at Forgotten Old Photos, or any one of the bloggers on her blog roll of other researchers with the same goal, such as Emily Ericson of Find Your Family.

I'll certainly be taking up similar projects throughout the upcoming year here on A Family Tapestry, especially after that productive antiquing trip to the California foothills with my good friend Sheri Fenley a couple weeks ago. Those newly-rescued photographs deserve to find their way back home, and I'd love to hasten that process by applying some of the skills I've learned through genealogical research. I know you would, too, whether through your own blog, or through your local genealogical society, or even by getting the word out on your social media site of choice.

If you do decide to try your hand at reuniting old photographs with family members, please share your information with me here. It would be wonderful if we could develop an informal network of such projects, getting the word out so even more people can help us in our labor of love. Those old photographs deserve so much more than just becoming a quaint collectible framed and hung on a stranger's wall.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

On its Way Home

Now that we've learned the story behind the photograph of Kansas resident John Blain and how it likely came to be found in an antique store in Lodi, California, you might assume that it would be a simple matter to find family still living in the same city where his widow, Harriet, took up residence in Stockton, California.

That, in fact, was the next step in my process of discovery: to locate a direct descendant who might be interested in receiving that old photograph back into the family.

There were four possible trails to pursue in seeking living descendants: I could look for the children of Emma, Rozella, Vera or Vida, the four daughters of Harriet and John Blain. And this very task I certainly began to tackle.

But just like the trail of the photograph itself bringing me to a place that was right under my own nose, the paper trail of the family's genealogy did almost the same thing.

It's no secret that the best place to find others who are researching a particular family's history is on a website featuring genealogical resources, like It turns out that not only am I one of their subscribers, but so were several others who happened to have a keen interest in John and Harriet Blain. Among them was one woman whose tree consistently included several reliable resources to back up each genealogical assertion. It was this researcher, in fact, whose work alerted me to the fact of Harriet's lawsuit against the Missouri Pacific Railway, including her link to The Southwestern Reporter summary on the state Supreme Court decision on her appeal.

On her Ancestry Profile page, this particular member noted for "Family History Experience" that she considered herself a beginner, even though she has been researching for several years. Not only was she modest in that assessment, but it turns out—thankfully!—that she was understated in her commentary, for under the section asking "how often" she did genealogical research, she answered, "Twice a year."

Keeping that rare occurrence in mind, I decided that, rather than wait until I was good and ready to return John Blain's photograph, I better start up that first volley of contacts early. After all, with a profile like that, I might end up waiting six months before this researcher had time to check in once again. I wasn't sure I wanted to wait another half year before I could close out this chapter on reuniting lost photographs with their family, so using the Ancestry messaging system, I sent her a note.

Within hours, her almost instantaneous reply relieved me of such trepidation. "As I read your message I got chills down my spine," the message began, and concluded with profound thanks for my having gotten in touch with her. "All the monthly fees to Ancestry have been worth it to have had you find us."

I am now, yet again, happy to report that a once-forsaken family photograph from a past century is now reunited with descendants of that family who are delighted to reclaim it. Having gone through this experience again, I can certainly understand why people like "Far Side," my mentor, could be devoted to such an unusual service.

Even in this relatively straightforward recounting of the photo's return, though, there may be yet another twist. For that episode of the rest of the story, however, I'll have to wait to receive word from the recipient. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Reading Between the Lines

Even predictable family histories can have surprising twists. In following the path that brought John Blain's photograph from Walnut, Kansas, to Lodi, California, where I found it in an antique shop, it turns out that John's widow Harriet had likely carried it to California herself when she moved here.

What wasn't so apparent, however, was what brought her to California in the first place—and why her 1920 census entry showed her as a divorced woman instead of the widow we know she was. In order to ferret out a possible explanation, we need to take a closer look at some documents.

First, let's review what we saw in the previous census records. In 1910, she was listed as a widow living in her own home with her four daughters and two men who were boarding at her place. Interestingly enough, by the time of the 1915 Kansas state census, we find Harriet's four daughters—Emma, Rozella, and the twins Vida and Vera—with their surname mistakenly entered as "Brain" instead of Blain. The girls' mom Harriet is in the same household as well, only now her name is listed as Johnson, not Blain. The head of household is one Benjamin Johnson.

Perhaps you remember from yesterday—or saw it for yourself when you clicked over to check out the 1915 census reference—that that name Benjamin Johnson seems familiar. It is. While Johnson is a common surname in America, the chance, in the same town of three thousand inhabitants, that there were two immigrants from England named Benjamin Johnson who worked as a "gatherer" in a glass factory would be rather slim. Harriet likely married the same Benjamin Johnson who was formerly boarding at her home.

But what, five years later, landed Harriet halfway across the continent in the city of Stockton in the middle of California? Reading between the lines—or at least inspecting those census line entries closely—can give us hints about what might have happened.

On that same 1915 state census, the state of Kansas had a continuation page in which the enumerator was required to answer a few more questions about each resident. One question involved naming the place of birth, state or country, of each resident. Another question inquired, "Where from to Kansas?"—in other words, what was the place immediately preceding the person's residence in Kansas for this 1915 census.

For Benjamin Johnson, we discover that, though he was born in England, the place where he lived before coming to Kansas was in the state of California. Could he, wishing to return to California after his marriage to Harriet, have talked her into moving there with him? And then subsequently divorced her after their arrival in California? Or had Harriet decided to leave Kansas entirely after her divorce?

Although I have not been able to locate the marriage record for Benjamin and Harriet, nor any sign of their divorce record, I turned to the city directories in Stockton to see if anything could be found.

Unfortunately for my brilliant idea, the 1920 city directory—in the same year that the census reported Harriet to be divorced and returned to her surname Blain—showed a listing for Benjamin Johnson as residing at 1436 South San Joaquin Street. That, if you remember from yesterday, is the same place where Harriet was listed in the 1920 census.

I have had some widowed friends who, even in our current day, chose to keep their listings as under the name of their husband, so perhaps that was Harriet's thinking back in 1920. Or perhaps, that was the same year that the divorce proceedings were finalized. While I subsequently learned that there were two Benjamin Johnsons in Stockton at that time, I did find a separate census entry for one Bennie Johnson, boarding at a home on East Jackson Street, only a few blocks from Harriet's home. In that 1920 census entry, "Bennie" showed as a resident alien from England whose employment was as a glass "gathrer"—almost certainly Harriet's divorced husband Benjamin.

What likely happened, in the course of the decade from the last time we had found the widowed Harriet still in Kansas, was that she married the man who was boarding at her residence. He, having already lived and worked in California, may have liked it there or heard of a promising job opening there and wished to return, this time with Harriet and her four daughters in tow. Perhaps the decision to move was arrived at, once the Missouri Supreme Court decision was handed down on Harriet's lawsuit against the railroad company whose locomotive had precipitated her first husband's death. No sense sticking around in Kansas after that.

After their marriage broke up, with Harriet so far from home and having possibly had financial setbacks not only from the sudden loss of John Blain, but possibly also from her broken marriage to Benjamin Johnson, she likely didn't have the resources to bundle up her four nearly-grown daughters to move back to Kansas.

In the end, and not much after that 1920 census and divorce, Harriet Isabel Beeman Blain Johnson—the gal born in Nebraska, married in Missouri, widowed in Kansas, and divorced in California—passed away on 22 May, 1921, at the age of fifty three years. She died of a ruptured gall bladder at the local hospital, Saint Joseph's, perhaps indicating a lingering health problem for which she didn't have the money to treat properly.

Her death certificate, posted online at on a family member's tree, included names of familiar local establishments, longstanding in Stockton's history: the undertaker at B. C. Wallace, the burial at Park View Cemetery, established by Benjamin Wallace only a few years earlier and taking their first burials by 1917.

In the end, Harriet hadn't stayed in Stockton for many years at all—six years at the most, if she and Benjamin Johnson had moved here right after that 1915 Kansas state census. Predictably, her daughters, still quite young at her passing, eventually married and moved on, some of them nearby to the Bay area, some staying closer to Stockton.

When we think about the personal micro-history of each resident of a city, we sometimes assume those people have had a longstanding relationship with the city in which they live. That is not always true. Cities are sometimes more like living, breathing entities than rigid, cemented monoliths, with the residents flowing in and out, stopping to stay sometimes for years, sometimes for only a season. Some circulate among nearby locales, others come from far away, then leave for even greater distances. If we could envision a city's story through the people who call it home, we'd see a thriving network of movement and connection with places near and far. For some, the story of that connection may be joyous, but for others who are passing through, the history they carry with them can be quite sad. Whichever the case, the tokens they leave behind can sometimes tell that unspoken story to us for them, even if they haven't left more of a clue than their name and the logo of the photography studio which captured their likeness.

Images, above, from the 1915 Kansas state census and the 1920 Stockton, California, city directory, courtesy

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Problem with Predictable Projects

One of the most fascinating parts about researching these orphaned photographs I find in antique shops is that, though the pictures are practically picked at random, they are most certain to deliver the unexpected twists and turns that I've learned are just part of life. I've become quite convinced that even the most boring people have at least something about their life story which is unexpected, and thus interesting. And that is a good thing; a predictable project would turn out to be a boring one.

We've certainly experienced that when I picked up that 1936 photo album in a northern California shop; far from being a collection assembled by a long-gone local resident, the album ended up belonging to a family nearly halfway around the world. I certainly didn't expect that outcome.

The photo I found of John Blain was one I purchased in that same shop at the same time. Because the photographer's imprint indicated a studio halfway across the country from me, I assumed we'd witness the same pattern, discovering a life story which unfolded far from the location of that Lodi antique store.

Partially, that assumption proved true; John Blain may never have stepped foot in California, as we learned his last days were spent at home in Centerville, Kansas, after being injured while changing trains in nearby Paola. The last place we see him turns out to be the same city where we first "found" him: the tiny city of Walnut in Kansas, where he was buried in 1908.

That, however, doesn't explain how his photograph ended up in California. To find the answer to that involves researching the rest of story after his passing. Fortunately, though it requires a bit of skill in reading between the lines, we can figure out a plausible explanation through the use of easily accessible documentation. It's just that, seeing the photo end up in the very city in which I live makes this story seem quite predictable, after all. You'll see why, when you learn what I found simply by following the census trail for widow Harriet Blain and her daughters.

As you can imagine, John's wife must have had a rough go of it after John's untimely death at the age of forty four. That one episode instantly transformed Harriet, at the age of forty herself, into a position of being sole provider for her four young daughters.

For one thing, following the tragic death, Harriet decided to pursue whatever legal recourse was available to her, presumably with the hope of securing some means of support for her family in John's absence. That hoped-for remedy, however, was not to materialize, though it was a process tied up in the court system until eight years after John's death.

Meanwhile, by the time of the 1910 census, Harriet had moved from the family home in Centerville to a different house in a different town—not quite to California, yet, of course, but a move, nonetheless. As far north as Centerville was from the original Blain home in Walnut, Kansas, Harriet's new home was to the west of Walnut. Her new residence in Fredonia, however, was listed as owned free and clear; somehow, she was able to obtain the place without a mortgage.

Not that there weren't financial difficulties ahead for the young widow. Like many women in her situation during that time period, Harriet apparently eased the financial squeeze by taking in boarders. We can see two of them listed in that 1910 census—Benjamin Johnson, an immigrant from England, and George VanCamp, originally from the state of New York. Both were employees of a nearby glass factory.

It is with the next federal census that you can see what I mean by a predictable project: unlike the photo album I found, which ended up originating with a family from Ireland, the photo I found of John Blain may have made its journey from somewhere much closer than Kansas. It was a distance close enough to be a drive I make on a regular basis: a trip between the antique shop's location in Lodi to the nearby city of Stockton, California.

What makes me think the photo may have come from Stockton? My clue comes from the 1920 census, in which Harriet was no longer listed as a resident in the state of Kansas, but owner—with mortgage this time, incidentally—of a home in California. There she was, at 1436 South San Joaquin Street, fourteen blocks south of Main Street in downtown Stockton. With her were her four daughter: Emma, Rozella, Vida and Vera.

To make ends meet, Harriet was listed as a "practical" nurse employed in a private home, and oldest daughter Emma was a long distance operator for the phone company. The other three girls, all teenagers, were still students in school.

Discovering that Harriet had actually come to Stockton, herself, makes it easy to see how the photo would end up in an antique store so close by. Harriet likely kept that picture close, as a sentimental reminder of her deceased husband. She likely showed it to her daughters in hopes of keeping John's memory alive in his children's minds. Perhaps one of them inherited it after Harriet's passing and, eventually, left it in her own estate. A quite predictable outcome.

There was one puzzling detail about that 1920 census entry, though—well, besides whatever prompted Harriet to move her family from Kansas to California, and then to, of all places, Stockton. That puzzle can be found in one single letter entry on her line in that 1920 enumeration. While Harriet had been listed as a widow in the 1910 census, of course, by the time of the 1920 census, there was a big, bold "D" entered in the slot for marital status.

What had happened in the ten years between those two census enumerations? Even "predictable" can turn out to throw some curves into the story line.

Above: Photograph of John Blain, taken in the 1880s in the small town of Walnut, Kansas; found in an antique shop in Lodi, California.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Counting the Days as Well as the Data

It's time for my bi-weekly tally of genealogical research progress, but it's also nearly the end of the year. It will be interesting to aggregate all these tallies and get the bigger picture, not of just biweekly progress, but to see how far I've come in the past year's work. We'll see what the count next time will show—and the conclusion of the matter, since it will be the last day of both the year and the fortnight.

Once again, my mother-in-law's tree got the most attention. It's fascinating to see how easy it is to make progress on certain family line. Everything seems straightforward in following the generations for these large, Catholic families in her line—not convoluted, mysterious family histories like my own father's heritage, or the smaller, twisting lines of my mother's tree.

Today, my mother-in-law's tree contains 13,772 individuals, each of which has as much documentation as I can find, whether census reports for each decade of their life, or vital records, or newspaper and obituary reports providing additional information on their family. These people may have had a sixth sense about how to keep themselves find-able. In just these past two weeks, I was able to add 186 additional people to this tree, and it really was no effort at all.

My own mother's tree would be the next easiest, out of all the lines I'm researching. Some of the relations sharing mutual colonial ancestors with my mother may have harbored a deep need to become invisible, and I find myself struggling to pinpoint whatever became of some family members, but I otherwise have been able to duly document most of the members of the typically smaller families in her lines. This past two weeks, I was able to add 71 individuals to her tree, which now stands at a total of 11,891 people.

Sadly, for my father-in-law's family (which I'd rate as my third most challenging tree to work on), I made absolutely no progress in the past two weeks. Nor was I able to add anything to my own father's tree, though that is not surprising, considering the frustrating brick wall I've encountered, just two generations back. These clearly need to receive a high priority rank on my New Year's resolutions list.

As for progress with our DNA tests, the counts keep going up (well, all except for one company's results), and that's even before the holiday sales rush hits. For instance, my husband's matches over the last two weeks leapt up by twenty eight at Family Tree DNA (totalling 1,653) and ten at AncestryDNA (totalling 398 first through fourth cousins). On the flip side, he lost fifteen matches at 23andMe, so now he only has 1,166 there.

On my side of the equation, FTDNA increased by twenty eight—coincidentally the same as my husband's count there, though I top him with a total of 2,590. At AncestryDNA, I have 776 matches at the level of fourth cousin or closer, with a mere five new ones added in the past two weeks—hurry up, holiday sales! And, well, I lost five at 23andMe, so now the match count there is down to 1,129.

Not that we're greedy for more matches or anything, but I did happen to notice, a few weeks ago, that MyHeritage had an enticing sale. It just so happens that my husband has a niece who chose to test there, so I thought it would be interesting to go through the process with that company, as well. So, for next year, we'll add yet another company to the tally. With MyHeritage's smaller database, it will be interesting to see what we will find with this new addition, but as many people have noted, you never know where the significant relative may test—and I definitely would love to connect with some mystery relatives via DNA test results.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Off the Shelf:
Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins

To be precise, this book isn't exactly off my shelf; in his absence, I made an arbitrary decision to borrow the book off my husband's bookshelf. Since he's lately been my only reader in Saudi Arabia—until this morning, when he joined my readership from Germany—I figured he wouldn't mind if I lifted a title from his reading stack back here at home.

If you know me, you know I have a strong affinity for the use of story. For whatever reason, for the last several days, every time I pass that to-read stack of books, the one with the term "story" stands out; it's almost as if it is shouting at me. And since I haven't mentioned much around here about reading since last September, I figured it was about time to pull up a comfy chair and open another book.

So this month, it will be Annette Simmons' Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. I have the updated second edition, published in 2015.

There's no doubt story has a power to draw people's attention. We are naturally wired to wonder, "and then what?" We want to know whodunit, and why.

The drawback is that we associate stories with fiction—something to pull out in our spare time, for entertainment or to decompress from real world struggles. We forget that it is we who represent stories with our own lives, as well—we just haven't discovered the means for uncovering those stories, for harvesting their message.

For those of us in genealogy, we are aware of the stories resident in the family history facts we uncover. Those birth, marriage, and death dots connect us with the life stories of our ancestors. It is when we glean those details and let that family history narrative include the stories that we gain an audience with our fellow family members who otherwise might not be even slightly interested in knowing about their ancestors. The story becomes the hook.

As I step into the role of heading up our local genealogical society, I see the potential in the aggregate of all the stories represented by each of our members. Some of those stories belong in the locales where our families once lived, far from our current west coast location, but some stories happened right here in our own jurisdiction—stories so fascinating that they will draw in others and convert them into believers who want to know the rest of the stories of our county.

Those stories represent micro-histories woven into the larger fabric of our communities' heritage, of course, but while we may shy away from the "boring history" we remember from our school days, to know about the dramas that unfolded in the lives of the friends and neighbors of our grandparents contains an entirely different motivating factor.

To represent our genealogical societies is to represent the stories of our members and the stories of the people in our communities—present and past. To tell the story, then, becomes a means for encouraging others to join us, to weave their own family histories into our joint community story. Annette Simmons' book, as a workbook and inspiration for employing this storytelling modality, offers a blueprint to help us as a society to share those compelling elements of our research. Our audience—potential members and future supporters of our society's work—will find it is the stories that will resonate with them. We need to find the best way to bring those stories to life so they can work their magic.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Deciphering the Details

It's inevitable, when researching information on family history from past centuries, that we'll encounter terms and descriptions that seem so foreign that they are of no help at all in allowing us to better understand the world in which our ancestors lived. Face it, the world back in 1880 or even 1908 was a vastly different place than the one in which we now live. Activities of daily life became a collection of terms and tasks far different than ones we use today. Sometimes, the difference is so huge, we end up walking away without having the slightest idea about things that, to our ancestors, were so commonplace.

In researching my family's history, that's when I start asking questions.

Reading the reports on the untimely death of John Blain in Paola, Kansas, in 1908 had that same effect on me. Take, for instance, the court description of the main train track curving "round that cobhouse to the eastward." Cobhouse? I had to look that one up. (Apparently, the term either refers to a "flimsy unstable structure" or a small building "constructed of mud, clay, and straw."

Granted, I could have inferred a similar meaning from the context of the article, but I just wanted to know specifically what the term might have meant at the time it was used.

But it was another phrase that really pushed me to look it up instead of settling for an educated guess. Remember the part which mentioned that John Blain, in turning to see who was calling to him, was then "struck by the pilot beam of the engine."

What's a pilot beam?

I realize there are those who are so taken with the history of railroads that their enthusiasm for the subject has led them to either spend thousands of dollars on collectibles or spend countless hours consuming every last detail about the topic. I am not one of those people, so please forgive my ignorance. I had to go look up what a pilot beam might have been.

Going in search of this information was not an easy process, given my complete lack of understanding about locomotives. The handy-dandy drawing of the "Commonwealth Locomotive Pilot Beam with Flexible Buffing Gear" in the 1922 Locomotive Cyclopedia of American Practice, for instance, told me nothing. There was no scale to the drawing, nor any diagram with a red arrow and the directions, "insert pilot beam here."

I need that kind of guidance when attempting to understand my ancestors' world.

Nor did the entry I was directed to in the 1906 Locomotive Dictionary, despite its being billed as "An Illustrated Vocabulary of Terms which Designate American Railroad Locomotives." When I googled the term "pilot beam," I was directed to the page fourteen definition for "bumper beam." As a subheading to that term, the dictionary described pilot beams as "the term applied to the same part [bumper beam] when the locomotive is fitted with a pilot."


Eventually, on page fifty nine, I found an explanation which made a bit more sense—but only after wading through more verbiage. Here's how the book defined "pilot":
An inclined pointed structure of wood or iron bars fastened to the front bumper of a locomotive to remove obstructions from the track.

Oh. And then the dictionary provided the part that translated to our era:
Formerly called cow catcher.

Formerly called cow catcher? I've never heard of a pilot on a locomotive, but at least I've heard of a cow catcher. So the pilot beam must be something which affixed to the cow catcher. Great. So now I can disabuse myself of any visuals of the man being gored to death by a literal beam somehow protruding from the front of a locomotive like a gladiator's spear.

Taking the time to ascertain the exactness of terms we're not currently familiar with can help paint a clearer picture of the specific episodes in our ancestors' lives. While a 1908 term like pilot beam might not be that outdated, the terms of centuries past sometimes yield us curves which we're not sure how to field. Learning how to talk the lingo of our ancestors' contemporaries can sometimes open our eyes to the impact of those everyday realities in the lives of the people we are researching.

Above: Undated photograph of the Missouri Pacific Railway locomotive engine number 152; image number RG005_77_27_0714 courtesy the Missouri State Archives via Wikipedia; in the public domain—with a mighty fine specimen of a pilot included, if I say so myself.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

How it Happened: Version Two

In trying to piece together a cogent history of the life of the man whose picture I rescued from a local antique store, it turns out that, once again, we find that life stories seem always to include the unexpected. When we started, all we knew was that the subject's name was John Blain, and that he sat for his likeness at a photography studio in the small town of Walnut, Kansas, sometime during the 1880s.

More to the point, once we discovered the tragedy that had befallen this man in the prime of his life, we've been presented with two versions of just what happened to lead to his demise. You already know my bias against trusting, wholesale, contemporary newspaper reports. In John Blain's case, due to the nature of what befell him in 1908, we have the opportunity to examine two different versions of what actually happened.

From a summary of the appeals process, published in volume 184 of The Southwestern Reporter, we learn that John Blain's widow, serving as administratrix of his estate, had filed suit for $10,000 against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company for the death of her husband. While the summary, on page 1142 through 1143, mentioned that the suit was brought according to provisions under Kansas state statutes, the case was actually heard in the state of Missouri. No reason was given for this, though it appeared that, based on Missouri law, the outcome was not to be what the widow might have hoped.

Through the summary, we once again see details we've already learned through the newspaper report we discussed yesterday: that John Blain was a man of forty four years of age, that he was engaged in the lumber and furniture business in Centerville, Kansas, and that he received his fatal injuries in the city of Paola, Kansas.

That's pretty much where the similarities stop. The court cases, presumably extracting their evidence from witnesses on the stand, provided more detail about the incident—but also details that may or may not have lined up exactly with what we've learned from the Wichita newspaper account.

The summary in The Southwestern Reporter first included some background information, setting the scene:
Peoria street, in Paola, runs east and west across the tracks of three railroad systems all parallel and lying within a strip of about 200 feet. About 24 passenger trains on those roads cross that street within that many hours, and many more freights. As those tracks are approached from the east the first is a switch of the defendant [Missouri Pacific] running to an elevator standing just west of Peoria street and just east of the switch. Next comes the main track of defendant. Between it and said switch on the north side of the street is a cobhouse used in connection with the elevator. The main track spoken of above curves round that cobhouse to the eastward. About four blocks north of Peoria street is the defendant's station. The regular passenger train was due there at 11:40 a.m.

Now that the description has set the stage, the narrative went on to introduce the main player, our unfortunate John Blain.
Just at noon Blain was proceeding west on the sidewalk on the south side of that street. When he had crossed the switch track and got within 8 or 10 feet of defendant's main track, had he looked westward, he could have seen a train on that main track a distance of 400 or 500 feet. The regular passenger train south bound left the station just at noon, gave two long and two short whistles when about 400 feet from Peoria street, and continued ringing the engine bell from that point until it crossed the street....

This is where the description seemed incredible, making me wonder why it happened the way it did.
Blain proceeded straight ahead without looking for the approach of any train. He was in about two feet of the defendant's main track when someone called to him. He looked back, and, while doing so, was struck by the pilot beam of the engine and knocked about twenty feet.

Right there, at that point in the narrative, I find so many issues that prompt questions. Why, for instance, did he not look before crossing the tracks? Was he not responsive to all the din around him? Was it precisely for such a reason that his ears became deaf to the very signal that was supposed to warn him away? And why was someone calling to him at such a precarious point? Was it, ironically, to warn him to "Look out"?

As a sad postscript to the blow-by-blow, the case summary added,
For about two years there had been an electric bell at that crossing, but for a great portion of the time it had been out of repair, and was out of repair and not working on the day in question.

Although an oversight such as that, on the part of a defendant, would surely now have played a significant role in determining the outcome of the case, that was not so for Mrs. Blain's appeal. The $10,000 she was seeking—depending on which inflation calculator used, representing in today's economy anywhere from $239,000 to $261,000—was not to be awarded to her. The prime determining factor:
When a person, capable of seeing and hearing, in broad daylight, attempts to cross a railroad track in front of a rapidly moving train, without looking or listening for such train, and is struck by it and injured, his own negligence is the proximate cause of his injury....

Despite conceding, in the court's report, that "it was negligence in the defendant to allow the electric bell to be out of repair," that was not enough of a contributing factor to sway the court's decision. Apparently, the indiscretion of the victim of the injury trumped any negligence on the part of the corporation, according to the laws at that time in the state of Missouri, and the widow's appeal was unsuccessful.

That result, of course, put the mother of four young children in a precarious position of her own.   

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How it Happened: Version One

Determining just what occurred to cause the tragic death of John Blain seems a straightforward process, if you rely on only one version of the story. There were, however, at least two different accounts of what happened, back in 1908 in Paola, Kansas. While it is possible that the truth is closer to an amalgamation of the two versions, let's take a look at each one separately.

First, we'll look at the document which was published closest to the time of John's death. It's an article from The Wichita Beacon, appearing on page seven of the Tuesday edition on June 23, 1908. If you are a subscriber, you can view a digitized version of the original here.

We've already reviewed the report's opening paragraph yesterday. Under a headline blaring, "Lived Three Days," the article explained, beginning with the second paragraph, that
At Paola, Mr. Blain was compelled to change cars. After he left the train, he was struck by the engine of an outgoing train and received fatal injuries on his head, back and chest. He was immediately removed to the office of a physician where his injuries were given proper attention. As soon as Mr. Blain was able to be moved he was taken to his home. Upon his removal to his home he steadily grew worse, suffering both from external and internal injuries. Word was received in the city yesterday by his sister that after suffering intensely from his injuries for three days that he had died.

That was the complete report on the actual episode, according to The Wichita Beacon. The article continued with a note about his survivors—his wife and four young daughters, as well as the "sister" in Wichita and her daughter. It concluded with a note that "the body will be taken to Walnut, Kans., for interment."

After learning that the man spent the last few days of his life in such agony, you will not be surprised to learn that John Blain's widow found reason to bring suit against the railroad company operating the locomotive which had struck her husband. Perhaps her legal counsel was convinced there was a basis for a wrongful death case.

That case against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company wound its way through an appeals process up to the Missouri Supreme Court and was not resolved until nearly eight years after the June day in 1908 when John Blain was struck down by one of the company's locomotives.

Above: From the 1903 edition of Poor's Manual of the Railroads of the United States, showing the lines of the Missouri Pacific Railway Company. Among the tangled lines, the one dropping southwest from Kansas City heads first to Paola. The city name is written sideways, making it harder to locate on the map. Image courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Did the Newspaper get it Wrong?

While returning to his home in Centerville, Kans., after visiting relatives in this city, John Blain was struck by a locomotive. He received injuries which resulted in his death. Mr. Blain spent the last few weeks the guest of his sister, Mrs. G. W. McFeeters of South Dodge avenue, and left the latter part of last week for his home.

That was, in part, how the newspaper reported the tragedy that befell John Blain in 1908. "This city" referred to Wichita, Kansas, home of the McFeeters family, where The Wichita Beacon carried the report on Tuesday, June 23 of that year.

But was that the way it all really happened? If you have been following A Family Tapestry for any amount of time, you already know my unceasing doubt of journalism's reporting prowess. More than harboring an unforgiving stance on errors in print, though, I find that the discovery of one error in a report causes me to doubt the veracity of the rest of the article.

I'll show you what I mean. See that reference to John Blain's sister, Mrs. G. W. McFeeters? As I muddled through the genealogical process to determine just who this man was whose photo I had discovered in a local antique store, I set up a family tree to assist me in this pursuit.

One thing I learned in the process of building that tree was that while John Blain had many sisters, none of them had married anyone with the surname McFeeters. It turned out, however, that his wife had a sister who did.

John Blain had married Harriet Isabel Beeman, that nearly thirty year old woman with whom he tied the knot in the neighboring state of Missouri in the fall of 1897. While Harriet may have reported that she was living in Missouri at the time, she was part of a large family whose residence had ranged, over the years, from Indiana to Nebraska before their arrival in the Show-Me state. Even after that point, Harriet's parents, Green Yarnel and Martha Johnson Beeman, appeared in records in Wichita, Kansas, before her father's passing in 1902.

Harriet's next-oldest sister, Sarah Ellen Beeman, who like Harriet was born in Nebraska, eventually also settled down in Kansas. She was the one who married George W. McFeeters on October 20, 1885. (Interestingly, though both reported they were residents of Kansas, they traveled to Vernon County, Missouri, for their wedding, as Sarah's sister Harriet did for her own marriage over ten years later, making me wonder whether Vernon County served as a sort of "Gretna Green" city for the region, though I've found no mention of such a custom for the area.)

It was this Sarah Ellen and George McFeeters who were the ones John Blain had been visiting in Wichita, before returning home to Centerville by way of Paola, Kansas, on the day in which he was struck by the Missouri Pacific locomotive. While it may be a small detail for a reporter to confuse a sister for a sister-in-law, just that one mistake makes me wonder how many other details in the article might also have been inaccurate. When time comes to review the version reported in the court proceedings regarding the suit brought by John's widow, the different account rendered there only augments my doubts. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

"In the Prime of Life"

It never ceases to amaze me how much can be learned about an "average" life, just by picking up a photograph of a stranger and researching his life's story. We've already seen that when I found an entire photo album in an local antique shop—discovering enough information to send the photo collection home to family in County Cork, Ireland—and we will certainly have the same type of experience while exploring the details in another found photo, this time of a man with a moustache from Walnut, Kansas, known as John Blain.

By the time the man with the moustache was forty four—what some would consider the prime of his life—he and his family had moved from Walnut, Kansas, to a smaller town to the north, known as Centerville. John was in the lumber and furniture business, which had apparently brought him to Centerville in the first place. He had been there since a year or two after the 1900 census. At the point of the 1905 state census, he and his wife Harriet were living in a Centerville home with their two daughters, Emma and Rozella. Within a year, the family was joined by twin daughters Vera and Vida.

By June of 1908, whether for business reasons or for visits to family in other parts of the state, John Blain would pass through the little town of Paola, a stop where he needed to change trains on his way to or from Centerville, about once a month.

On one particular day, arriving at Paola about noontime, John stepped off his train and headed down the sidewalk to cross the tracks to make his train change. When he was barely two feet from the tracks, for whatever reason, someone hollered to him, and he turned to see who it was. Just at that moment, a passing train on the parallel line for the Missouri Pacific Railway struck him and knocked him twenty feet.

Such a trajectory from the sudden blow caused injuries to John's head, back and chest, all of which were treated by a local physician in the doctor's own office.

When he was deemed able to be moved—and one can only imagine in what shape that might have been—John was transported home to Centerville to recuperate from his injuries. His recovery period, however, was cut short: within three days, and after considerable agony, John Blain succumbed to both internal and external injuries sustained from the incident in Paola. Following his unfortunate death on June 20, 1908, his body was returned to his childhood home in Walnut, where he was buried in the same cemetery where his mother had been laid to rest only four years before.

Left with four daughters under the age of ten, John's widow, undoubtedly with the encouragement of legal counsel, filed suit against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company, a process which did not finally get resolved for another eight years.  
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