The Washerwoman’s Genes

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.


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