Saturday, September 29, 2018
Don't Diminish the Dash
Sometimes, we get so absorbed with finding the vital details about an ancestor that we forget the little dash in the middle is the key to understanding just who those people were. The date of birth followed by the inevitable date of death become the bookends of a person's life, at least on a pedigree chart. We take great care in documenting each ancestor with those two identifiers—adding to that the date of a wedding and the increases in a family with the dates of each child born—until our pedigree charts look quite complete. What's missing, though, is the very detail that adds color to our family's picture.
I was reminded of that little dash between the vital dates while working on a behind-the-scenes project this week. Right now, I may be blogging about those family photos I've rescued from antique shops in Gold Rush country, but in the meantime, I'm piling on the details as I build my mother's southern family tree. Names, dates, documentation, for one and for all—and then I'm on to the next generation.
Somewhere while slogging through all this minutiae in my own family tree, I ran across an entry that caught my eye. It wasn't something that would fit nicely into a category of birth, marriage, or death, but I wondered about that detail and wanted to follow through.
The item was a simple mention of an occupation, listed in the census record. Admittedly, that is one of those "dash" kinds of details that help us learn more about what our ancestors were actually like, but I often give that entry just a cursory glance—in some cases, simply to make sure I have the right person by that name, instead of a mistaken identity.
In this case, the occupation listed was executor for an estate. In my mind, serving as executor is something we do for those dearly departed who held a significant relationship: a family member or close friend. Not exactly what I'd call an occupation, though all told, the effort can consume a great amount of time.
In this particular example, not only was the occupation listed, but for the column requesting the kind of business this service might have been classified under, this relative reported the actual name of the deceased.
Working back through the years, checking this relative's entries for each decade's enumeration, I realized the estate that consumed his time in the more recent census records was one and the same as the individual for whom he had worked, when the man was still alive. It became apparent that the reporting party expected that the name would be widely recognized—which made me curious to learn just who this man was, myself. He seemed to be involved in the oil industry in Houston, Texas.
Finally, the call of the dash—at least for this relative's story—got the best of me, and I succumbed to that nagging thought that I should at least look up my relative's name in some newspaper archives. Imagine my surprise to learn that at least this one person's dash—that tiny horizontal line separating his date of birth and date of death—filled the headlines in Houston newspapers, where he was being tried for complicity in what was billed as one of Houston's most notorious murder cases in memory.
Who would have known? Nothing in his routine documentation indicated anything of the sort. Other than the fact that he died relatively young, there was no birth, marriage, census or death record to lead me to suspect he was anything other than yet another "normal" American citizen.
After stumbling upon a detail like that, you can be sure I spent a lot of time reading up on the news from 1930s Houston. I wanted to know if he really "did it" and whether he got off free. I wanted to know what happened to his wife, his daughter—and what the rest of his family thought about it. And, barring restrictions of my own schedule, I can find out quite a bit of the proceedings, as the newspaper reporting was continuous and delved into the minute-by-minute details of each court session.
Granted, many of our ancestors led quiet (read: boring) lives, doing what they were supposed to do to raise a family and be a responsible member of their community. Such exemplary conduct seldom merits extensive coverage by the press. But for the occasional relative—and my maternal grandmother's line seemed to have more than their fair share of these black sheep—it is the newspaper records of past decades which can give us the detail we seek to fill in that little blank, that dash between the beginning and ending dates of our ancestors' lives.