The Washerwoman’s Genes

January 29, 2006

Two Josephines

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 1:02 pm

I began this exploration about six months ago. I’d been a subscriber to Ancestry.com for a while, but every time they alerted me to a hit on a name, it was a false alarm. But in August, I followed the links to the federal census to a house in Brooklyn. At the turn of the century, Josephine Davis was a common name, as it is still; Ancestry had found her doppelgangers numerous times. This time, though, Josephine had a daughter, Josephine. Perhaps, I had found my grandmother, living with her widowed mother and a sister, named Rachel.

This girl of 12 would have been sixty-eight in 1956, the year, give or take one, that my grandmother Josephine died. ( I was small—time had few markers for me—but I do know she died near my half-brother’s senior year in high school.) This child Josephine, daughter of a same-named mother, was about the right age.

My father had a sibling he called “Baby Ray,” who died young. My brother had said Ray was a girl and shrugged when I insisted “Ray” was impossible and what could have been her real name? But now I could see it; Baby “Rae,” not Ray, had been named for her Aunt Rachel, grandma’s older sister.

It’s confusing, I know, all these name duplications. I get confused, too. But there are more of them, more and more of them, to come as I track this family. The echoing names are like fingerprints or bread crumbs dropped in the forest. They make trailing back into family history possible. I knew, when I recognized Rachel as Baby Rae’s aunt, that I had found my grandma as a girl.

There were other members of the household on Seventeenth Street: William Burger, age 44, and two children, William, Jr., and Catherine. William is listed as “Brother.” Suddenly I had my great-grandmother’s original name: Burger.

Who ever heard of Burger? It mystified me. But then, my grandmother’s mother’s name had been a blank. Why couldn’t it be Burger, or Biggedydool or McPloop. It could be anything. What kind of a name was Burger, anyway?

My own mom had dropped a few clues about my paternal grandma’s ancestry. The Davis part was Scottish or English. And the other part, well, supposedly there was some Dutch in there. So: Was Burger Dutch? I would find out.

And William? It wasn’t so surprising that great-grandma Josephine had a brother named William. After all, that was my Dad’s name. He had been named, it seemed, after his mother’s Uncle Willie. As I explored, there would be Williams galore. And more Josies, more Rachels, more names richocheting down the decades. It’s gotten so I can sniff out whether a family is tied to mine by the names. David? Naw, no Davids. Peter? Not likely. Susanna? Sophie? Julia? No, definitely no.

After that, I was on the track of finding the two Josephines. I soon learned the 1890 census was largely destroyed in a fire; the remnants are useless for New York research. Going forward, though, I lucked out. 1910: the same address, Josephine Sr., Josephine Jr., who is now married (so recently she is a “0” in the “years married” category), and Uncle Willie listed as Wm. R. Burger. [‘R”! My father’s middle initial was also “R.”] For some reason, my grandma’s new husband isn’t listed. And Rachel, William, Jr., and Catherine are out of the house. Added, though, is Marion H., age 66, a widowed “sister-in-law” to Josephine, Sr. Months later, I will scour the census and discover Marion is the widow of Josiah A. Burger, Josephine’s older brother. And Harold C. Rigby, age 3. I have no idea. Really.

The Josephines continue living together. In 1920, Josephine, Sr., heads the household on Seventeenth Street, with my grandma and grandpa and their kids, William R. and little Josephine. In 1930, they are living in Queens, in the “Richmond Hill” house I would hear about as a child. Now it’s my grandmother Josephine who is head of household. Grandpa isn’t there. Where is he? (Later I find him back in Brooklyn, not on Seventeenth Street, though, but on the other side of Prospect Park. Why? WHY? They were back together by the time I was born.) My dad is 17, his sister Josie is 12. And great-grandma Josie is 78.

The census after 1930 is not public. But through other research I discover that Josephine Burger Davis died in 1932. The era of the two Josephines was over.

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