The Washerwoman’s Genes

October 30, 2006

Day of the Dead

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:59 am

On the car radio, Chef Jim’s show came on; his guest was discussing memorializing of the dead in Chinese culture. In particular, the Dragon Boat festival celebrates the attempted rescue of an ancient nobleman who threw himself into the river in despair over a dynastic shift. Sticky rice is wrapped in bamboo packages and thrown in the water to feed his spirit, while the boats race futilely to abort his suicide.

I was driving to the craft shop to scare up some preservation aids: acid-free paper, polypropylene photo sleeves, archival quality this and that. The world is yellow and saffron and tangerine as clouds of leaves diffuse from high above us into the middle air where we live and on down to the ground. My part of the county seemingly has millions of trees—-my yard alone has fifty—and therefore some billions of leaves are dancing through our peripheral vision.

I slid into the right lane to leave the bypass for a smaller road, but had to pull in as a cortege of cars, purple stickers on the rear windows, lights blinking, processed in the local lane. Slowed to a majesty, seeming hooded and private, the cars moved as one unit: a ritual as old as the Ford, as old as the horse and wagon, as old as feet, really, I suppose, as old as grief.

Another radio guest, a restauranteur, discussed her months of preparations for the Mexican feast of the Day of the Dead—or days, first one for the angelita, the little angels who have passed on, and the next for adults. Originally an Aztec celebration going back to antiquity, it became linked to All Souls Day by missionaries in the fifteenth century and now is celebrated in the fall. In Mexico, people decorate the cemeteries; candles and marigolds are spread to help light the way so the dead can find their families; picnics of special foods are spread, including “Day of the Dead” bread and sugared treats, even skulls made of candy, and a hot corn-chocolate drink similar to cocoa. Home altars are also stocked with food and flowers as people beckon the spirits and honor their significance. It is a circle of life celebration, not one of mourning.

I turned on to another secondary road and drove past the Catholic cemetery—it’s so big you can hardly see any graves beyond the expanses of lawn at its margins—and the cortege had U-turned and was coming back down to turn into the cemetery gate. Someone’s bones were going in the ground. Chef Jim’s last guest gave instructions on how to make a chocolate spider out of melted chocolate, chow main noodles and rice crispy cakes.

And at Michael’s, I lucked out: there was a 40%-off sale on archival memory books.


October 23, 2006


Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 12:29 pm

I have Josephines, but I also have Rachels. The first Rachel that I know of for sure is Jannette’s daughter, born about two years before my great-great grandmother Josephine. I have a suspicion, however, that Jannette may have had a sister named Rachel, on the basis of some bits and pieces I have seen on the web. Since Rachel is carried on in Josephine’s family going down at least two more generations, I believe my great-grandmother Josie and her sister Rae were close. But I haven’t been able to find out much about Rachel.

She appears in the 1860 census with her parents, age 11, “attends school,” and in the 1865 NY census (“Rachel A 15”). But in 1870, she is not living at home with Jannette: only Josephine 18 (“app. dressmaker”) and William 14 (“cook on boat”) are still at home. Josephine’s apprenticeship is significant: the next reference I can find to Rachel is an entry in the Brooklyn Lain’s Directory for 1878: Burger, R. A. dressmkr h 301 Degraw.

By this time, many of the Burger siblings are in Brooklyn. Josephine is married and living with Walter. Rachel herself marries William, Walter’s brother, in 1878, and in 1880 the couple is living on Court Street. Rachel is still a dressmaker. But she fades from view after this.

Josephine names her first daughter for her sister Rachel in 1884. Her second daughter is my grandmother Josephine, who grows up and has two daughters, also Rachel (“baby Rae”) and Josephine. Baby Rae dies in childhood, but her aunt Rachel marries and has a son and a daughter, whom she names Josephine. Rachel is listed as “Rae” in the 1920 census, so that seems to be the usual nickname for the Rachels. But then, as my information moves toward the middle of the twentieth century and the databases close up, I can’t tell if there were any more Josephines or Rachels.

October 20, 2006

Mary’s Middle Son

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:26 am

One of the mysteries is where my grandpop was in 1910. I have his marriage certificate in March of that year, with a Bay Ridge Avenue address on it. In April, in the census, his new bride is living with her mother (the two Josephines), under her new name, on Seventeenth Street, but grandpop isn’t in the household. They will continue to live in the Seventeenth Street house, so I wonder whether whoever gave the census information was just confused and omitted him.

He doesn’t appear in the census for that year at all—or rather I haven’t been able to scare him up. I decided to search Bay Ridge Avenue for him; even though he doesn’t pop out when I search directly for his name (and variants), I thought perhaps he was recorded at his old address in some indecipherable way but that I would recognize him if I saw the census page.

I figured out from a 1910 Brooklyn ward map on the web that his address would have been in the 30th Ward. Then I massaged Ancestry until it gave me a listing and description of the E.D.s in Wd. 30. I photocopied a map I have of contemporary Brooklyn and sketched in some E.D. boundaries until I figured out his was 1097. Then I called up and read the pages, searching the street names on the left margin until I came to Bay Ridge Avenue. I first found the odd numbers, but I read through the names anyway. Then, a few pages on, I found the even side of the block. Grandpop is not recorded at the address he was married from. I kept on reading, and about thirty numbers on there was a family with his/ our name—a variant, actually more common spelling of—but our name nevertheless. The head, James, is 35; he’s married, with three children. He is reportedly born in NY of a Pennsylvanian father and Irish mother.

So—is James a relative? Did my grandfather live with his family in Bay Ridge before marrying? Or live nearby to them because he was related? James might be a half-brother, the child of his father from a first marriage in PA. Or James might be a cousin, descended from the brother of grandpop’s father. Or is this just a coincidence?

I have been able to follow this other McM family through two more censuses. James’s origin varies: in the other two censuses he is said to be born in PA of a PA father and Irish mother. I would in the past have discounted him as a relative on the assumption that my McM line was rooted in NY. But Mary did live in PA, western PA, and it is possible that she knew McM there and not in Brooklyn. All reports are that my grandpop was born in Brooklyn, but that doesn’t mean his parents were ever there together.

James and his wife were apparently married about 1898. She is a NYer, so I would expect the marriage to be in Brooklyn. But 1898 falls within a gap of the marriage records indexed on-line at IGG; without knowing Emma’s last name, I can’t get the certificate number. I might just have a several-years’ search done to see if I can’t scare up the marriage license: perhaps it will give me a sense of who his parents are. I have not had any luck regressing James and Emma back from 1910. They seemingly were together in 1900—in the 1930 census he indicates he was married at age 22—but I can’t find them before 1910.

And there’s still the matter of Grandpop in 1910: where was he hiding?

Less Than I Knew

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:29 am

Yesterday I received quite the anticlimax: the death certificate of Jeannette. All along, it was exactly where it should have been, in the archives of the City of Brooklyn, now within the NYC archives on Chambers Street. It’s just that I didn’t know where that “should be” place was.

The anticlimax: how minimally informative a death certificate from 1884 can be:

Department of Health of the City of Brooklyn
[Brooklyn was a separate city until 1898]

1. Full name, Jeannette Burger
2. Age, 68 years, –– months, –– days.
3. Sex, Female 4. White
5. Widow
6. Birthplace, New York State 7. Occupation, ______________
8. If of foreign birth, how long in the U.S. —————-
9. How long resident in City, One years. [sic]
10. Father’s birthplace, NY 11. Mother’s birthplace, NY
12. Place of Death, 451 Sackett Street Brooklyn Ward, 10th
13. Number of Families in House, two 14. On what floor, 2nd
14. I HEREBY CERTIFY that I attended the deceased from Nov. 5, 1884,
that I last saw her alive on the 15 day of Nov. 1884; that she died on the
15th day of November 1884 about 3:45 o’clock P.M., and that the following
was the
16. Cause of Death I. Hemiplegia II. Asthema
Time from attack till death About 10 days
Signed by C. Eugene Gunther, M.D. No. 157 Clinton Street
17. Place of Burial, Kingston N.Y. State Cemetery
18. Date of Burial Nov. 17
19. Undertaker A. Lennart Place of Business 277 Columbia

The one detail I care most about––the names of her parents––is absent.

There’s also no indication of who the informant was for this document.

It seems filled with generalizations: her age is rounded off to 68. There is no option to indicate Divorced, so she is listed incorrectly as a Widow. (Sex, race, and marital status are indicated by crossing off what does not apply,i.e., Single, Married, Widower, not by filling in a blank.) The place of birth for everyone is just the state. The place of burial is a city, rather than the name of a cemetery. I already know more than this document tells!

So I can’t really trust that she has been in the city for a year. Obviously, it’s rounded off, or even just a place-filler. She might have been there for a year and a half, or perhaps just a few weeks.

The address is something to check on: 297 Sackett Street was the 1897 residence of Alva, Jeannette’s grandson by James, according to the Lain Directory. And, in 1876, Walter Davis gives 460 Sackett as his address on his marriage license. So, some family members were living at 451 (or 7) in 1884, but who? I’ll make this certificate yield some new information yet!

October 16, 2006

Mary, Mary, What Were You Thinking?

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 12:29 pm

It’s one thing, I suppose, if you find a horse rustler in your genealogy; that’s kind of funny. A thief, a chisler, a dance-hall gal . . . we assume that they at least had some fun, and they did do what suited them. Perhaps dramatic improper behavior signals some gusto, some pride, some chutzpah we can at least appreciate.

But suppose what you find is sly compromise, shifty adjustment of the facts, slipperiness and evasion? How can you get comfortable with that? If you could know the details, you might feel compassion—or you might not. Without details, though, with only an outline sketch of behavior, you wind up a with a kind of caricature.

I recently acquired a marriage certificate that confirms my analysis of the 1870-1900 federal census data for my grandfather McM’s mother. She married young (c.f., 1880 census), had four children with her first husband between 1880 and 1890. In 1890, my grandfather was born. By 1900, Mary was married to George Payn. and had his one-year-old child. Both my grandfather, age 9, and her children by her first husband are in the household.

There are many missing pieces. The first husband died, I presume, but I don’t know it for sure. Also, I don’t know whether Mary actually married my great-grandfather McM—I have some reasons to suspect not. I don’t know what happened to this great-grandfather—whether he died, or was already married to someone else, or drifted off—he’s quite elusive. I have not found him for certain in any census.

Furthermore, in the information that I do have, there are details that are wrong, or that seem unlikely, and these details don’t read as mistakes.

For example: In the 1900 census, Mary is married to George, who is 24. She is 39, born Aug. 1861. According to this census, Mary has had only one child; that would point to their baby Howard H, age one. But the household includes four step-children, surnamed Reed, the same as her first husband and clearly also hers. The nine-year-old “boarder” in the house is my grandfather, another of her children, yet he isn’t even identified as a relative. His parents supposedly are both from Ireland—but I know through family papers that his mother was Mary Strick., born in NY. My grandfather’s last name is also misspelled in a way that seems snide. But, who knows? One can’t ascribe intention to such small mistakes. But unless the information was relayed by someone who didn’t know John was Mary’s son, it appears as if this relationship is being disguised or disowned.

But now I have acquired the marriage certificate for Mary and this George, and it is revealing, for the details can only have come directly from her. She gives her age as 28, although she is 37. She says this is her second marriage. This would be true if my grandfather were born out-of-wedlock, not at all an impossibility. But, conflicting with that, Mary is using, not the surname of her first husband or even her maiden surname, but McM. If she is legitimately McM, then she was married to the elusive Daniel, and she’s going into her third wedding.

It appears to me that my grandpop was a source of embarrassment—humiliatingly renamed, distanced as a “boarder.” His mother seemingly took his last name to cover her lack of marriage to his father. But pressed for information for the wedding license, she admits to only one prior marriage. She lowers her age, to the point that her first four children, ages 13 to 19, wouldn’t fit into her shortened life. Yet I know I am not dealing with two Marys, because all the while her mother, Sarah Strick., is in the household.

Another oddity on the marriage license is that Mary’s father is called “George” when according to the census of 1870 (where the family is indexed on Ancestry with the first letter “W” instead of an “S,” Mary’s father has the first name of “Charles.”

The final conundrum: George Payn. seems to be a relative himself. I haven’t figured it all out yet: he may be a cousin once or twice removed. Mary’s mother Sarah’s maiden name was Payn., and I have followed her family back a bit. I think Sarah’s daughter’s husband George is the son or grandson of her brother, also George.

And, then, there’s this: Mary marries George in April, 1898. According to the 1900 census, their son, Harold, is born September 1898. Mary is pushing forty at that point. You think she would be able to think things through a bit by that time. There I go . . . twenty-first century moralism back-loaded on to the past.

Contemporary views of bluestone industry

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:03 am

In discussing the Kingston Courthouse in his book Picturesque Ulster, Richard L. De Lisser indulges in a bit of a digression and-or diatribe about the bluestone industry in the area. The court house setting is peaceful, he says, except when “the rumbling and lurching of the heavily loaded stone wagons . . . go jolting by, on their way from the quarries in the mountains to the blue stone yards along the Rondout Creek.”

He continues, “In no place but Kingston would such abuse of a city’s principal thoroughfare be tolerated. The roadbed of the streets through which these teams pass is so deeply rutted and broken up as to be almost impassable at times. These wagons carry an enormous weight, often exceeding eighteen tons. ❧ ❧ ❧ ❧ The great flat bluestones comprising the load, sometimes measure over 200 square feet, and project four or five feet from either side of a four horse wagon, to the annoyance of others and a menace to all vehicles. ❧ ❧ ❧ ❧ The right to use the street in this manner is claimed by a company that obtained its charter about the year 1850, and which has been renewed since, by an Act of Legislature. The city by virtue of recent legislation has commenced condemnation proceedings against the private ownership of its main street, as that we may soon hope to see this nuisance abated” (11).

Review: Picturesque Ulster

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 10:49 am

Review: Picturesque Ulster Richard Lionel De Lisser, 1896-1905. © 1968 C.E. Dornbusch. Republished, Saugerties: Hope Farm Press, 1998.

This is both a wonderful and supremely odd book by our current standards. Its history explains its character: the facsimile available today brings together eight smaller books written for the tourists who began flocking to Ulster County in the latter nineteenth century. Part guidebook, part photo-documentary, the compendium covers its subject in great detail, more detail than today’s tourists would appreciate unless the subject was Renaissance Italy or some such. But for a reader willing to work for the privilege of being transported back 110 years, the book is a treasure trove.

Yet, it presents obstacles. The author, or “artist,” is Richard Lionel De Lisser, whose crisp photographs of Ulster County scenes form the heart of the book and the premise for his essayistic “rambles” through the area.

His pictures document Kingston and other towns in great detail. Yet, they are always from a certain distance and most are clinical: passersby are absent, for the most part, and stillness reigns. Yet the coverage of buildings and neighborhoods is priceless; there are places where De Lisser literally goes up one side of a street and down the next, discussing what is known of each property. Every single photo is captioned. Another photographer supplied some photos of buildings no longer extant at De Lisser’s time.

It is the layout that frustrates the most. The pictures are arranged stylishly on the pages but they are not numbered, referenced or coordinated with the text. The picture of a building under discussion might be found numerous but untold pages prior.

Even more head-slapping for a twenty-first century reader is the interweaving of the main text by De Lisser with topical essays he commissioned by contemporary experts. You are reading along about the First Dutch Church of Kingston and turn the page to find a separate in-depth essay on the subject but no indication of where you might pick up the next word of the sentence you have been reading. The Table of Contents does indicate the leaps and bounds of De Lisser’s text through the book, but it is never comfortable navigating your way. And, the text blocks are crowded: sans paragraphs, the text indicates topic changes by strings of dingbats.

At the turn of the century, Ulster County’s tourist region was to the north: Woodstock, Saugerties . . . the mountains and untouched backwoods. This volume covers only northern Ulster County, the parts most appealing to the audience of tourists that De Lisser hoped would buy the eight booklets. As the editor of the first reissued facsimile (1968), Alf Evers, points out, the author ignored “those sides of life in Ulster which might offend the audience he had in mind—that was why he touched lightly on the lives of Ulster’s urban poor who lacked the picturesqueness readers of the 1890s found in backwoods poverty . . . “ Hence, the book skims over the harder part of life and the more common people and occupations are little rendered.

Evers also indicates that a second companion volume was intended for the southern part of the county but it was never done.

This is most unfortunate, of course, for my needs. De Lisser covers Kingston and Rondout in great detail, but he put off the work-a-day towns and hamlets across the river for another, never-to-be-realized, time. Port Ewen, Fly Mountain, Sleightsburg, Rifton, St. Remy . . . so close yet quite forgotten in “Picturesque Ulster.”

When De Lisser recounts the history of churches in Kingston and Rondout, he supplies details I have been craving. As a genealogical researcher, I want a sense of when the various denominations started holding services in Kingston and Esopus. Only with that knowledge can one determine whether any church records are missing or incomplete. Since I have reviewed quite a few microfilms of Esopus area church records, I even recognized some of the information recounted in the narrative part of the text.

Having a go at antique volumes like this is part of being a responsible researcher . . . although not the easiest reading, it helps fill in the background of a crucial family homeland. It also conveys the sense of self and locality held by the people of Kingston in the 1890s. So I’ll be plowing on through the rest of the essays pertinent to Kingston and Rondout.

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