The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 30, 2007

Time Signatures

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:21 am


Josiah A Burger: his actual signature.

I have E. J.’s and William’s, too:


All similar: the names of brothers, written with hands built of the same bones, yet each individual in its way. I remember how an aging family member signed her name—instead of the dashed-off, bumps-and-lumps scrawl of those who charge a dozen times a week, she etched it carefully, slowly, an inscription, clear and even, as if for the ages.

And it was. Almost 125 years have passed. The Burger signatures remain, extant, yet hidden on an obscure document in the Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court Records Room: They authorize the “administration” of the estate of Jennet Burger, dead and “intestate” in 1884.


In death as in life, Jennet remains voiceless: her wishes never conveyed, her selfhood dissolved by time.

I don’t have the actual document, only a poor photocopy. The Records Room is in transition: original documents are undergoing digitization, and I only got a hold of the photocopy because of the kindness of the supervisor. He sent a clerk to the scanning room to find and copy Jennet’s letters of administration for me.

Many original records are accessible, though, either as hand-transcribed wills in the hundreds of moldering ledgers lying in open shelves or as original legal papers folded into packets and stored in the stacks.

I requested a few documents relating to some familiarly named Burgers, none of whom turned out to be my family. Nevertheless, I was astonished to unfold in my hands, for example, the actual guardianship papers of children who lived a century ago. Those children are orphaned again, the documents that determined their fate forgotten and abandoned in a government storage room.

Each quest I go on discovers tidbits of information, and also relics like these: signatures, once ink, then toner, now pixels on a screen. Signatures, wavy lines, once signifying men: they are abstractions now, several names for non-existence.

Note: The crosses after E. J.’s and William’s signatures are not “marks.” The members of this family were literate, according to census records. All the signatures are distinct, and different as well from the hand that filled in the forms. I believe the crosses were placed there by the clerk to indicate where the men should sign, since there were no printed “dotted lines.”


Surviving Jennet

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:08 am

The “Letters of Administration” for Jennet’s estate indicate she died “intestate.”


The proceedings, in a sense, substitute for a will. All of her survivors are named:


“no husband but six children towit Josiah A. Burger your petitioner, E. J. Burger, William R. Burger, Rachel A. Davis and Josephine Davis, all of the City of Brooklyn, and Richard F Burger residing in the State of Penn.”

Cornelius—though he lives—is not among them. The wording is curious: she has “no husband” rather than is “widowed” or “divorced.” But who knows—perhaps this was standard locution rather than a clue that they are trying not to say “abandoned.”

Missing: First-born Benjamin—whose tombstone, next to his mother’s, indicates he died in 1876, “drowned.”

Missing: George, third-born in 1839, seen in the family in the state census of 1855, gone by the federal of 1860, and missing thereafter. No gravestone located.

Missing: Eliza, born about 1843, last seen at home in 1860, age 17, in “service.”

Missing: Jane, 1846, also seen last at home, and in “service,” in 1860. Possibly found a second time in 1860 in household of “engineer” David Jackson and family in Kingston, NY.

Found: Richard, born 1847, seen at home in 1860, a young boy “at school,” resident in Pennsylvania by 1884. No other records of him; searches of NY and PA censuses for 1870 and 1880 do not find him or any similar persons.

The five Brooklyn Burgers I know of are the family entire—except for the renegade Richard, except for any descendents of the deceased siblings who become hidden within stepfamilies or relocations.

This ad hoc census of the family in 1884 gives clues, or half-clues. Between leaving the family and 1884, George, Eliza and Jane are dead, or living. It leaves me searching back from Jennet’s death for graves, certainly, but also for the crumbs left by their brief lives.

Estate Defined

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:56 am

Reading these “Letters of Administration” is a small lesson in NYS estate law. In the absence of a will, someone must be appointed by the Surrogate’s Court to take charge of Jennet’s estate. That someone was Josiah, the oldest living child. He petitions; the two other brothers resident in NY “renounce” their claims; the two daughters, female, and Richard, non-resident, seem not required to do same. (Hence, I don’t find the signature of my direct ancestor Josephine.) Finally, Judge Edward Bergen signs off on the decree.

Leading up to my trip to Brooklyn to acquire this document, I eagerly anticipated learning more about the house in Port Ewen. After all, it was passed down through the E. James side of the family until it was taken for the construction of the “turnpike” across the Rondout Creek from Kingston—I learned this from a descendent in that line. But these documents make no mention of real estate at all.

Rather, Jennet’s holdings seem ridiculously meager to a twenty-first–century descendent:


In 1875, the mean annual earnings of a mason was about $524, according to a chart in Poverty and Progress, a 1964 book attempting to define and interpret the “occupational mobility” of workers in Newburyport MA on the basis, in part, of census data. An unskilled laborer there earned as little as $358 per annum at that time.

This “less than $150” was then way short of a half-year’s worth of income, even of the poorest worker’s income.

If I researched the estate law of the time, would I discover that estates larger than $150 required more involved legal proceedings? Perhaps there was some fudge factor in noting down this amount.

You can see I find it hard to accept that this paltry sum was the final residue of Jennet’s life. Did they split it six ways? Or was it, simply, the money they used to ship her body back to Port Ewen and bury her with a sturdy granite block in the center of Riverview Cemetery?

[Source note:Thernstrom, Stephan. Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth-Century City. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964. Rprt NY: Atheneum, 1969.]

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