Monday, September 21, 2020

Whatever Became of Mary?


What does a researcher do with the challenge of tracing a name as common as Mary Sullivan? Not much, apparently. But at least I tried.

With the closing chapter of the life of the immigrant ancestor of one of our Sullivan-Falvey DNA matches, the only remaining chance of tracing that line back to Ireland rested upon Timothy Sullivan's widow, Mary. And yet, given a name repeated so much in records from the vicinity of their adopted home, Detroit, it would be hard to track what became of Mary. 

It would have been nice, of course, to locate a death record for Mary—a fully completed death record, mind you, including provision of the names of her parents and their location of birth. Silly me, of course, as the deceased's parents were as likely to be named "unknown" as any more reasonable moniker.

Keeping in mind that Mary's husband was buried at Mount Elliott Cemetery in Detroit—Timothy's will even specified that location—it would seem logical to look for Mary's burial in that same place. However, in a quick search through Find A Grave, no less than thirty seven women with that name were buried there, including one whose husband was named Timothy. Careful cross-checking, however, revealed that even that tempting possibility needed to be ruled out.

It was possible to narrow the date range for the death of our Mary. She was still among the living in time for the 1880 census, which showed her living in a household that included her as-yet-unmarried son Jeremiah and her daughter Mary. Yet, none of the Mary Sullivans who died after that point—within a reasonable age, of course—seemed to match our Mary's details: widow, born in Ireland any time from 1810 to 1815.

There was one aberration that I stumbled upon, in trying to learn a bit more about Mary. It was a notice inserted in the proceedings of her husband's probate. After her son Cornelius had been appointed as executor of his father's will in 1871, and following the process of attempting to sell his father's properties to settle his debts, there was an insertion in the court's records on August 31 of 1872.

Mary Sullivan the widow of said deceased this day appeared in Court presented to the court her written renunciation of the will of her said husband and of her election under the statute which was duly filed


And just like that, widow Mary Sullivan renounced her legal right to benefit from her inheritance—an option also called a disclaimer of interest. Why would a woman of her age in a time like that choose to do so? There had to be a compelling reason, but try as I might, I could find no trail to follow. 

One guess might be that she had chosen to marry again, but being able to insure that we found the record of the right Mary Sullivan in such a situation would be so challenging that we need to remember to go back to our original research goal for tracing this family: the hope that following the line of one DNA match back to Ireland would help us pinpoint the specific location in County Kerry where the whole family originated. 

Though it seems unlikely that we'll achieve our goal with this latest twist and otherwise disappearance of Mary, we do have another recourse in our quest to trace that original Falvey line: another set of DNA matches. This time, though, the matches lead us far from Detroit, to a town in Massachusetts where the roots of two DNA matches immigrated in the late 1800s. Perhaps with this second attempt, we'll find more complete records to lead us back home to Irish soil.


  1. This could be a case of a poorly written legal statement. That clipping could mean that she renounced her husband's plan for her and INSTEAD elected to take from the estate according to her rights under the law.

    1. Very possible, Marian. Thank you for mentioning that. Another possibility could be that the widow, concerned about avoiding probate upon her own death, may have relinquished her share ahead of time to another family member. She was, after all, living in the same household as two of her children in 1880. Another complicating factor was that the executor, son Cornelius, died not long after that disclaimer was filed. There may have been multiple influences on her decision. Of course, that's the type of story I'm always interested in exploring.


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