The Washerwoman’s Genes

March 10, 2006

The Census: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:41 am

You think you’re done with the census. You can move on. You have the outlines, decade by decade. It’s time to write away for certificates, read the church records in the Family Research Center, do something else.

But you know what? The census keeps on giving. You look back over it, and something jumps out, something thing you didn’t think was important. Suddenly, one detail glows neon. It screams a piece of the story you were missing, a piece that fits in perfectly. Or—the detail impels you around a vicious sharp turn to a new view of scenery that you’d seen a dozen times before.

Take Jannette. Finding her in the census was a challenge all the way through. Her name is never the same, and then there are the transcription errors in the index. But I did find her, decade after decade, and the narrative was: Married young, nine children, widowed with eight of the brood at home in 1860. By the next census, all but two are launched; in 1880, the youngest boy has stayed with her. I soon find her grave, showing her death came shortly after that census.

A sad tale, a rough life. The 1880 census was the first to include marital status, and eventually, returning to the page to check details, I saw it: in the box it said, not “W,” but “D”. A flowing, elegant, curlicued, “D” for “divorced.”

I hadn’t even tried to find Cornelius after 1860. He was dead. I looked for his name in the cemetery. I figured eventually he’d turn up.

And now he had: as a scoundrel. Leaving his wife with a huge brood, a woman impoverished: a washerwoman, damn it, in her fifties. Leaving a great-great-granddaughter with a sour taste in her mouth, 150 years later, and with a bitter task: to dig him out of the census from 1860 on.

On the other hand, the case of William R.’s missing wife was the kind of puzzle you solve with a piece that’s been sitting right in front of you.

I could trace William (b. 1856) pretty well: although recorded in Esopus with his mom Jannette in 1880, he was also listed in Brooklyn that year, and he and his two kids, William R., Jr., and Catherine, turned up in the 1900 census living with his sister Josie. In 1910 he’s widowed, and I’d assumed he lost his wife during that blank twenty years. I despaired of finding out anything about her. Eventually, I realized I’d been too hasty; the 1900 census had William R. listed as “M” not “W.” If she was alive in 1900, where was she?

Just last night I was looking at the census records of the other sibling who moved to Brooklyn—that would be (Elisha) James—and I realized that in 1900, in his three-generation household (James and his wife and their son Alvah and his wife and children) were two other women, tagged on at the end. One, Louisa Cunningham, listed as “grandmother,” seems likely to be the mother of Alvah’s wife and hence “grandmother” to those children. The other was Catherine Burger, sister-in-law, born in 1861.

Hello, Mrs. William R. Burger.

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