The Washerwoman’s Genes

July 25, 2007

Subterrean Chambers

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:19 am

The earth collapsed into a sinkhole in Ossining NY recently, and the reason turned out to be an underground warren of tunnels.

These aren’t just any old tunnels, either. They are architecture: workmanlike brick walls, vaulted ceilings, and iron frames for gates. As tall as 15 feet in places, the passages connect a series of at least twelve rooms running east and west, north and south. They are not, in other words, shovel-and-bucket work, as would be the case if they were escape tunnels for not-so-far away Sing Sing prison or a literally underground section of the underground railroad.

So what are they? No one knows. Built, at best estimates, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, their origins and purpose have been obliterated by time. If these tunnels were in Egypt or Peru, some place where ancient civilizations left undocumented creations behind, the mystery would be “natural.” But how can well planned, permanent structures built in NY in what should be recent history turn out to have no discernable provenance?

There are some ad hoc explanations. Some local residents tell of visiting the tunnels as youths and of hearing lore about their origins. Reputed to run to the rail tracks along the Hudson connecting NYC to Albany-Troy, one story is the tunnels were used to move commodities. Researchers are currently studying the history of the land ownership and trying to document the structures. Reportedly there are other archways buried in nearby woods.

I would love to see these tunnels. They are now off-limits: on private property, a danger to casual explorers, and the subject of controversy over their fate.

The tunnels tell a story about the past. They tell a profound truth: the past is a mystery. The remnants we have may be solid as stone, yet what do they amount to? Hollowed out earth, brickwork enclosing . . . nothing. The air of long ago: we can breathe it, we do, but gain what? life, breath to go on, and wonderment.


June 25, 2007

Shelter for Our Own

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:37 am

Before me: a rich list of William R. Burgers in the Brooklyn 1920 census. Who would think there would be so many? Added to that, the plain Williams for this surname, and the William Ms and the William Bs, and on and on. Which one is mine?

My only clue: on his 1918 draft registration, he says his next of kin is Nora. It’s badly written, but that seems the best reading. But 1920 shows no Williams with a Nora, Eleanor, Alnora, Norma, or Lorna, and no widows with a name like that either. Perhaps the surname is more than misspelled—that is, thoroughly botched. It’s been known to happen. In 1900, his half-aunt’s surname registers with the indexer as “Bunce.” It’s a long long journey, extricating the broken bones of a name from the transcriptions. I might read the pages, some lonely night, the pages for the residents of Ward 22 in Brooklyn, looking for mine.

We say that, in doing family history: “mine,” as in “my William R.” People are either “mine” or they’re not, or they could be a “maybe.”

On the message boards, you read, “I have a so-and-so married in 1892 to Phoebe Such….” Said aloud, overhead, it could be a hand in cards, or a demented game of Clue.

But we’re talking real here, not Colonel Ravenport in candlelight or Auntie Gingham in the back seat of the Ford, but real. Not game cards, but cartes de visites: those little calling-card photos people once gave each other—except that I have none of those in my deck.

So, real, as in, what?

As in, names, dates, addresses, scraps, detritus I’ve found along some faint trail I think I see to follow?

As in, contributors of DNA to a twirling keychain dangling my quirky little ego?

Or real, as in figures, shadowy yet recognizable, moving about, talking, turning away to their own business, in small snippets from a drama, a tragedy, a soap opera, that’s having a very long run in my mind’s eye….

And walking on stage, is it him, or a supernumerary strolling through?

In the end, we genealogists give shelter only to our own. I’m entering my data in Family Reunion, and so far, no William Rogers from 1920 are invited.

June 20, 2007

Revision Alert

Filed under: Washboard — by WWG @ 7:52 pm

I’ve just added a new page (Brklyn101) to provide more details and pictures of my Brooklyn trip. And I’ve written some more on the Strickly page, having made some discoveries recently about my paternal grandfather’s family.

May 22, 2007

Destination Brooklyn–1900

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:04 am

I carried a list of about fifty addresses of my ancestors, addresses culled from censuses and vital records. (My forebears apparently house-jumped almost every year.)

There are caveats to finding ancestral addresses: streets are sometimes renumbered, so the current address may be houses or even blocks away from the address location in 1880 or 1910. And if the address is unchanged, the building on the site may not be. In one-hundred-twenty or –thirty years, how many generations of construction might there be at a site? If in 1876 a building was already old, what I see today might be two buildings away from the one associated with my blood.

Despite these problems, I felt compelled to the pilgrimage: at least I might glean some sense of the area as it existed in the past. My first priority was to find my Dad’s ancestral home; it is one of the few stable addresses, owned by the family for at least twenty-five years, until the mid 1920s. While I was sure of the address: 329 17th Street, whether the same lot had this number was unknown.

In the end, correctly relating the address to a building turned out to be a non-starter. The block on which this lot would be was demolished for the Prospect Expressway, which cuts a wide trough through south Park Slope and Windsor Terrace. We stood across the highway and I took a shot of what the location looks like now. The expressway was built in the 1950s, and so when my Dad drove us around his Brooklyn for a look-see, the house must have already been gone. Not far away, on 18th Street, is the 1890 Lain Directory address for a Daniel McM, a very strong candidate for my great-grandfather. That address would be located just about where I stood to take the picture of 17th Street, but it is now part of the wall of the expressway trough. Likewise, the Eighteenth Street Church where my grandmother worshipped is under the road.

The common life of common people is completely expendable. The neighborhood where my father ran as a tyke, where motorcars mixed in with horse carts, and trolleys with cars, where streets were cobbled, or were dirt, is not even a memory anymore, but only a mental reconstruction. There are images: of the sites, the wonders: Grand Army Plaza, the Prospect Park Zoo, the Shore Drive and Ridge Avenue, Borough Hall. But images of neighborhoods are more obscure. The candid and the snapshot are decades in the future.


The house would have been in this row, where the Expressway wall is now.

So I gazed over the flood of cars sliding by in the canyon of expressway, its smooth white walls and steel barriers an artery of modernity through this antique place. Transformations of transformations, the landscape of olden times inscribed and erased, albeit imperfectly, but still, treated as dispensable, as bury-able as any bones, and as buried.

More details and photos of the Brooklyn trip can be found on the “Brklyn101” page.

Note: See great photos and wry commentary on Brooklyn’s expressway “brutalist masterpiece” at Big Sky Brooklyn (16 May 2007).

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.]

March 27, 2007

Some Profiles

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:46 am

I’ve been reading around in Uncle Win’s genealogical book, published in 1989, Some Profiles of our S— Family. I was curious, in particular, about how he conducted his research, because it was all done before the explosion of online records. The book appears to be typewritten (professionally and competently), not word processed, and the diagrams and charts likewise completed on a typewriter.

Uncle Win’s sources include journals and memoirs, both published and unpublished, as well as letters, family Bibles, family-held genealogical records, entries in the Dictionary of American Biography, addresses, obituaries, and other records created by family members about their own lives or those of relations. Titles include the charming “Our Alpine Honeymoon” (1913), “The Revolutionary History of Fort Number Eight” (1897), and “An Appreciation by the Rector of the Church of the Holy Communion “ (1914). As Win points out in his forward, the family has had the “good fortune to had have several family members interested in genealogy” so that “books and records have passed down” (1).

So complete are these records in establishing the history of the family, it appears that Win did not use the census, deeds, church books, or even vital records in compiling his history.

Of course, this book is not about my family—Uncle Win is my husband’s uncle, not my own. Some Profiles dramatically illustrates the chasm between the classes regarding the past. Descended from John Winthrop, Conrad Weiser, Muhlenbergs, and Baldwins, among others, my husband’s family has (seemingly forever) been educated, professional, upper-class. They have been leaders: lawyers, ministers, company owners. They had the literacy, the leisure, the funding, to write, record, store, and publish a growing archive of material about the family and the times in which they lived. Descended even from notables about whom commercial or scholarly books have been penned, their lives intertwine with events in the larger world. Win writes about property and businesses acquired and divested, estates passed on, memberships in clubs and societies, all as if these things were most natural and normal.

I had mentioned to Win, not long ago, that I was conducting my own family research, and he seemed not to understand when I mentioned census records and the Family History Library—my first clue that not all family research is created equal.

If I had one letter—what would that mean to me?

One letter: written in the hand unique to my ancestor, in ink now sepia, perhaps, written in the spelling and sentences of their time—the very scrawl on the page an emanation of soul into the physical world. But I can’t describe the impact on me of writings that don’t exist—only the longing for them. I can be sure only that a description of self and circumstances would move me, that such a letter would swell the enigma of personality, and leave me wanting—more.

All emanations have gone up in smoke. Surely they did write: Josephine back to William and their mother Jeannette in Port Ewen; Jeannette to all of them down in Brooklyn. The younger Josephine to her grandmother, perhaps, and to her friends and her cousins scattered across the city. By the twentieth century, surely, someone might think to save something. Where are, for example, my Dad’s letters back from the war?—for surely he wrote some. I wonder, even, what happened to the letters that I wrote, on that thin blue paper once used for “air mail” letters, back to my dad when I traveled to Europe on the proceeds of my summers waiting tables?

None have survived. Not from or to my parents, or anyone else contemporary, or between any two names in my genealogy. But they did write. Those who could, did, certainly. I have this memory: my mother getting post cards from her sisters a few towns away. And this: she would sit at the kitchen table to write to one or the other, in ballpoint pen on the white 5 x 7 pads we kept by the phone for messages.

And I mean “gone up in smoke” literally. Once read, postcards, greeting cards, notes of whatever kind, were disposed of. A rip in half, a toe to the pedal of the kitchen trash, a hand pushing the paper down into the can.

The prosperous classes have something else, beyond resources and time, that prompts their copious self-expression and family documentation, even memorialization—something missing in the people who work and struggle and get by: a self-image.

I don’t mean my forebears were lacking a self—or depth or even introspection—but rather, they were absent the sense that who they were amounted to more than a hill of beans to a stranger or even to a descendent. I surmise this from knowing my parents, and their parents. Reticence was gospel; self-effacement the rule, quietness the treasure of a person. And when a life was done, it was done, and people went on with the rest of theirs; a home was dissolved, the things scattered, the papers chucked, all but the cemetery deeds. A person became a name and dates incised on polished stone, and, they prayed, a soul in heaven.

Intersection of Parallel Universes

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:39 am

Among the homes and apartments mentioned by my “uncle-in-law,” Win, in his family history is a vacation house: “In the summers, they rented at Greenwich, Connecticut, or at M—, Long Island, before the completion of their large summer home in M— in 1915” (9).

As Win grew up and the depression curtailed the family’s resources, this home became their main one. In fact, Win largely grew up there and went to elementary school in the town.

Strangely, M— is also the town where I was raised, many decades after Win’s youth there. We went to the same elementary school. At his time, it was the only school in the town, situated on the main street, quite far from his family’s house near the bay in the southern end of town. [Sometime I must ask him how he was transported to school.] I attended the school because it was walking distance from my house—a small Cape Cod built by my dad on a 50’ x 100’ lot. My little joke with Win has been that we went to the same school, he when it was new, and I when it was old!

Win summarizes his transition in and out of the New York suburbs:

By 1926, my parents must have realized the impossibility of maintaining two homes and the need to recoup some funds, so they sold the 39th Street [Manhattan] brownstone and settled into the M— house. Sister and I were sent to private schools in Garden City, while brother Henry was enrolled at St. Mark’s School at Southboro, Massachusetts.

After the fourth grade at St. Mary’s at Garden City, I went to M—‘s public school for three or four years and was then enrolled at St. Mark’s for the first form (7th grade). . .

During these lean years, father never let his financial concerns show in front of his children. He was ever one to enjoy outings at Jones Beach with his family and to socialize with his many M—friends.

Years later, while waiting to be called to fight in World War II, Win returned for a visit to his hometown, and in his book he quotes from the journal he kept at that time:

Good old M—! Our house [built by my parents in 1915 and rented to others since father’s death seven years ago] stands across the road from a small privately owned lake, noted mainly for its seaweed and bullrushes and one huge weeping willow. The lake empties through a small dam into one of the millions of creeks of the Great South Bay. We used to catch lots of eels, crabs, and snappers in the creeks in the old days. Mussels lined the banks of the small tributary creeks, but we never thought of them as edible. Meadows and swamps extended along the shores in great patches and probably still do where they haven’t been laid out in blocks and promoted by indefatigable real estate operators (or simply optimists).

I had friends in that south part of town when I was in high school, and their homes were new, built on landfill by those “indefatigable real estate operators.” But they were hardly “laid out in blocks”; rather, these developments were prototypes, I suppose, of today’s McMansions, with swirling streets confusingly lapping around, and houses with features I’d never imagined: atriums, loft bedrooms, walk-in closets, two-story family rooms, gourmet kitchens with islands, pendulum lights, wall ovens and stone-floored patios, and possessions I simply didn’t know were available: grand pianos, original oil paintings by New York artists, sectional sofas, pedigreed dogs. Simply: my public high school was as excellent as it was because of the taxes paid by the engineer-, physician-, and stockbroker-parents of the kids in my classes.

The particular niche in the layout of M— where Win grew up was unknown to me: an older neighborhood surrounded by the homes of the nouveau riche erected on acres of landfill. We drove out, my husband and I, some years ago, to see our respective ancestral homes, and while the S— house still stands, and is still elite, clearly some of its grounds have been sold off for new construction. Win’s expectation that the “meadows and swamps” he knew probably still existed in 1989 was surely over-optimistic.

Further journal entries reveal both the oncoming suburbanization of the town and the lingering lifestyle of the old social set.

In June of 1942, Win writes, he and his sister

. . .came out to M— to join mother. Her apartment is right across the street from the little tennis club to which our old “social community” belonged. The apartment is part of the house that the Swansen family rented in the old days. Mr. Swansen[‘s] . . . son Ed went to Kindergarten with me here in M— and later was my St. Andrews School and Yale roommate.

Mother and I went out to dinner with the Kanes, old friends of the family. We dined at the Shore Terrace, a new and swanky night club in M— complete with orchestra, floor show, and tables for a hundred or more! And then to think back to when I used to go to the public school here, and to when I heard Mr. Kane tell of how his father came to M— in 1892 and how for a couple years they had no gas or electricity and had to pump their own water! When Mr. Kane built his present house about 1900, M— was a village of not even 200 people. Those were the days when everyone in the village knew everyone else and the whole village would have parties down by the bay. Now he hardly knows a soul as he stands with the crowd taking the morning train for New York.

Though much of Win’s descriptions refer to a town and neighborhood alien to my experience there, I did have a bolt of recognition when he described the library as it existed in 1942:

M—‘s new population uses the same library which was functioning when I was born – a tiny one-room affair which used to be supported privately at an annual cost of $300. It is now under the Board of Education and has a budget of $5,000. I don’t know how this shanty can gobble up so much money in a year.

In my day, this library was still a shanty, although it had several narrow extensions also crammed with books. I remember my mother taking me there and my studious perusal of shelf after shelf of plastic-sheathed books. It was on wooded grounds next to the Catholic Church, itself on a large plot harboring a tan brick steepled ediface, a grade school, an old-house turned rectory, a nun’s quarters, and an extensive parking lot. By the time I left town, a new, modern library had been constructed on land at the other side of the church. When we visited M— in the ‘90s, the shanty was still standing and in use in some official capacity. A lot of people loved that old shack, I think, notwithstanding Win’s scorn.

February 21, 2007

Tug Sinking: What it was like

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 11:53 am


This photo is undated and unsourced, but it appears to be taken along a river. The area seems to be a river-town, built up along the water’s edge. If you look in the left hand side behind the boat, you can see, very faintly, that buildings edge the opposite bank for quite some distance. Across the water, the area seems flooded, and the water is pretty high in the foreground as well.

The boat itself looks pretty basic. It seems to be of wood and there appear to be no railings. It’s so shallow it looks almost raft-like. My guess would put it early in tug history, perhaps the 1870s, although the event pictured here might be quite a bit later.

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