The Washerwoman’s Genes


Digressing to another branch: My grandfather McM’s mother. Complexities abound.

APRIL 9, 2006

I started to beat the census again, this time for my father’s paternal grandmother. I have clues: we know her name. I had in fact found a boy who might be my grandfather John in a Brooklyn household in Park Slope south, fascinatingly close to the family enclave of the woman he will marry in 1910: Josephine. But this boy’s last name is different from the head of household’s and is misspelled in an almost comical way. And, he is listed as “boarder” even though he is nine years old and at school.

I would have discounted this boy but for the complex web of family surrounding him. The mother is named Mary, as was my grandfather’s mother; she is considerably older than her twenty-five-year-old husband, with whom she has an infant. There is a mother-in-law, Sarah, who must be Mary’s mother. Her surname matches the name we have for my grandfather’s mother. So it appears that Mary remarried and began a new family.

But the complications don’t stop there: there are four other children in the household, all older than John. They have yet a different last name, Reed, and are all identified as step-children. They must be, then, Mary’s children by an earlier marriage. It appears that Mary married, had four children, was widowed, then had a child, John, who became my grandfather, and then remarried and started a new family with a young man. That John is not identified as a step-son suggests that he was not accepted as a family member, perhaps because his mother Mary was not actually married to his father.

This is quite a story to cook up on the basis of one census. Of course, the records for 1890 are missing, so to follow the trail backwards I had to look in 1880. My previous attempts led nowhere, but now I know a few more tricks for panning the census stream.

Trying Brooklyn, I found George, Mary’s 1900 husband, with his family on Eighteenth Street, no. 286. He is four, living with parents George W. and Ella, and a younger sister Lucy. George, Sr., is a “bank note printer”; Ella is originally from Maine. Of course, young George would be only a step-great-grandfather to me.

I remembered my father’s enigmatic comment that many McM’s went to Pennsylvania to “mine the coal.” Perhaps, the record of Mary, my great-grandmother, might start in PA.

I looked around PA in 1880 both for Mary and her mother Sarah. And there popped up Sara A., already a widow, head of household, in Allegheny, a town in Allegheny County, PA, born 1841. Children Etta, age 17, John, age 15, and Annie, age 11, are in residence, as well as as a young couple: Mary and Harry Reed! In one pass, I discovered that Mary was married at least twice. He is 21, she is 20. Harry and Mary’s brother John both work in some kind of factory. They are at 1 Lance (?) “Ay.” A previous street named on the page is Spring “Ay.” Could it stand for “Alley”? Or does the enumerator just have an odd way of writing his v’s?

I backed up to 1870 and looked for Sarah and her husband. It was rough going; eventually I just dug in and read the list of all the Sarahs in Allegheny county, on the assumption the surname was misspelled beyond my ability to imagine variations. Tedious, but it worked: out popped a family with Sarah, b. 1837, married to Charles, b. 1827, a “coffee roaster.” (She is 34, he is 43). They have four children, Mary, 10; Lucetta (“Etta” in 1880), 8; John, 5; and Anna, 2. Despite the age discrepancy, this must be my Sarah, my great-great-grandmother, and her children, the Sarah who is the mother-in-law in Mary’s household and therefore grandmother to John, my father’s dad.

The family in 1870 is indexed with a “W” as the first letter. Looking at the original page, it indeed looks like it was recorded as “W” instead of “S.” No wonder I couldn’t find it before.

Birthplaces in this family show some moving about. Sarah is born in NY, and so are all her children (except possibly Anna, who in 1880 is listed as born in PA). Her husband Charles is born in PA, however, indicating a complex scenario. Perhaps he moved from PA to NY (either to NYC or to a western part nearer to Allegheny Co.), met Sarah (her original name is unknown), married before 1860 (when Mary was born), and had the first three children. By 1868, they were back in PA, and Anna was born. He died sometime between 1870 and 1880. Perhaps they returned to PA because he was ill—although their having another child suggests not that ill.

Mary’s first husband Harry is also a Pennsylvanian, which makes sense since she would have met and married him while her family was living in Allegheny.

Mary and Harry have four children in the 1860s, and then, Sometime after this, Harry dies or leaves. Mary then bears my grandfather with an Irish immigrant who seems to have left no trace other than his name. Whether they met in Allegheny or Brooklyn is not known; my grandfather was supposedly born in NY, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t conceived in PA. Whatever the case, if I cannot find my grandfather’s birth record in Brooklyn, I might try PA. Or, if I can determine that Sarah was from western NY near PA, perhaps that is where Mary met g-grandpa McM. In any case, by 1900, Sarah and Mary and her children relocate to Brooklyn. And Mary has married George and started another family.

Questions to pursue: Where were Sarah and Charles in 1860? This would be just around the time Mary was born. Can I find Sarah in 1850, somewhere in NY? I would need her maiden name. I may have found her death record in Brooklyn through the Italian Geneology site: d. 1909 at age 68 (born in 1839). Perhaps, if this is her, the death certificate will tell me her birth name.


I have made great progress on this side of the family. I wish I had recorded my discoveries along the way, because that might ease the examining of this tangled web. Here’s what I know now– though getting through this chain of relations may be daunting unless you REALLY want to get in deep in the plot.

Cast of characters: my grandpa John McM, born 1890 in Brooklyn; his mother Mary, born 1860, also Brooklyn, who married Reed, then McM, then George Payn, Jr; grandpa’s grandmother, mother of Mary, named Sarah, born about 1841. She and Mary are in the same household in every census throughout their lives: a big help for the 21st-century genealogist. Then there are the Georges. Mary’s dad, Sarah’s early-deceased husband, is a George. Mary’s last husband is a George, son of a George.

It wasn’t long before I discovered the maiden name of Sarah, who was my great-great-grandmother. She turned up in the on-line index of NYC deaths: 1909. Her parents’ names were on the certificate: she was born Sarah Payn- in Brooklyn NY. When I started a search for Tobias, her father, his unusal name helped pop him out of the census despite some bizarre spellings. Some time later, I found some other family members, and a candidate for the patriarch father: William. William and some of the sons have been fairly well researched: Tobias was indeed a descendant. I was able to construct a family tree from information online.

One oddity though, came up quite quickly. The younger man that Mary married and lived with in the 1900 census had the same last name as her mother. I started trying to cluster out all the folks with this surname in mid- to late-nineteenth century Brooklyn. It’s not a common name, in fact; and many of the descendants remained in New Jersey where William settled, or moved west. How was this young man related to her mother? Was his father her mother’s brother? The birth dates I culled from various censuses didn’t line up. Sarah’s brother appeared to be several years older than the father of the man Mary married.

As I dug around in the various censuses, I discovered Mary’s husband was one of those rare birds who pops up in two places in the same census. In 1900, not only was he in the extended household as the step-father of my grandpa, he was also recorded a few blocks away living with his mother, Ella, now a widow, albeit a fairly young one, and his younger siblings. I decided to check out a listing for another fellow with the same name, and–it was him again. Same age, same occupation (plumber). This time, the locale was more ominous: the Long Island State Hospital . . . for the Insane. Had the census charted a sad decline? The dates did not show a progression ending in the hospital. It seemed more likely that the instruction to provide the names of all people who lived in the household prompted both his wife and his mother to situate him in their homes, when he was actually in the hospital. A quick check of the subsequent censuses show that, alas, Mary’s third husband remained in the hospital for the rest of his life . . . from then on he is recorded as in residence in the mental hospital. His death certificate indicates he was first hospitalized in 1898–meaning that his faint, shaky signature on his marriage license, also 1898, was likely a sign of illness already underway.

Attempts to follow Mary forward were unsuccessful. I did find her son, my grandpa, in the marriage database for Brooklyn; he and my grandma married early in 1910, before the census; he was 19, but the certificate has him as 21. But where was his mother? I remembered my Dad once saying my grandpa was orphaned and was “raised by the fathers,” so I began to suppose that Mary died. But since her mother, my grandpa’s grandmother, lived until 1909, wouldn’t he have stayed with her? No explanation comes out of data. I searched in vain for a death listing for Mary after 1900. I searched also for a remarriage, but again, her name did not come up.

At some point, I realized I’d actually seen listings for Mary in the marriage database and in the Lain Directory for 1897-98. I had just assumed it was not she; it was too easy, too unlikely. But now I realized, the Mary McM living on Fourth Avenue in 1897 was indeed my great-grandmother. She was within walking distance of several Payn-s, who appeared in the Directory as well.

I sent for the certificate of her marriage in 1898 to the young man with her mother’s maiden surname. There are some oddities. She says she’s been married only once before. But I know she’d had children by Reed and McM, in fact, bore McM’s name at the time of her last marriage. Her age is wrong–she’s listed as quite a bit younger than she actually was. Her father’s name is listed as “George”–but in his one census appearance, in 1870 Allegheny PA, he is “Charles.” She was marrying a George, who was the son of a George . . . I wondered if perhaps the clerk went a bit bonkers and recorded George everywhere.

I explored Sarah’s birth family further, fleshing out the tree with her siblings, their marriages, their children. I searched in the death index for all Payn-s. Topping the list, “Eary” Payn. Dunderheaded me stared at this over and over for the longest time before realizing it was “Mary.” She died in 1900, shortly after the census. (So my grandpa was indeed an orphan at age nine.)

Mary’s death certificate confirmed her father’s name as George. I have to assume that her still-living mother, Sarah, was the informant, and she would of course know her husband’s name. So the census of 1870 is in error. Nevermind, I can’t find “George” in any previous censuses either. In 1860, he and Sarah would be married; Mary was born that year. But my searches on both their names, in PA and NY, come up dry.

One day I googled the Payn-s. There’s a website devoted to William and his descendants. Only John’s family has been researched. Tobias is listed, but no one–except for me–seems to know of his descendants. I love this about genealogy: coming into possession of new knowledge, knowledge that has been lost and is now recovered.

William was an immigrant from England, and he served in the Revolution. I had to laugh. I am a DAR. My husband’s family is full of notable colonials, and I’ve been the slubbly Irish girl with no heritage to speak of. Almost the next day, I encountered a representative from the DAR at a genealogy meeting, and she helped me do a bit of research. William is in their database, and I wrote for the application of the person who joined on the basis of his revolutionary service: 1929, the only application, a descendent of John, a woman who lived in Spokane. To prove my decent I need bmds for every person in the chain, or equivalents. I still haven’t come up with my grandpa’s birth certificate (even though I know his exact birth date), so this would be a long process!

My mysteries: the heritage of George, Sarah’s husband, Mary’s dad. The birth certificate of my grandpa. And any information on his father, the elusive Daniel McM.

Oh–another thing. I got a hold of the marriage certificate of Ella and her husband George, the parents of Mary’s last, mentally infirm husband. His parents are listed: Tobias is his father. The census dates are just screwed up. So Mary’s last husband, father of her sixth child, was her first cousin.

MAY 2007

A great discovery in the Brooklyn directories that I examined in the NYC archives earlier this spring. When I go back I’ll make a photocopy of the pages. One says, McM, Daniel conductor 358 18th Street. There are a few other Daniels with the last name spelled variously, but this fellow is the likely one. Among my rare inherited possessions is a conductor’s punch, which I remember my father said came down from his father–however, from the time he was nineteen my grandfather is recorded as a plumber, the occupation he had until his retirement, so I am quite sure this old implement is Daniel’s.

He’s in the right neighborhood, too, in a house that would now be under the Prospect Expressway, like other ancestral homes.

In 1893, I find McM, Mary wid. Daniel F. on Sackman n east NY Avenue. Data collected in 1892, his death before then.

These directory records indicate the drama of Mary and Daniel occurred in Brooklyn. I will have to search on for a marriage record, a birth record for their son, and a death record for him. To note: all the directory records and Mary’s marriage certificate for her last marriage spell McM name differently than it has been spelled since at least the time of my grandpa’s marriage in 1910.

JUNE 2007

Rereading the above: I know it all, and it’s still confusing!

But yes, continuing research confirms: George, who survived Mary by forty years living in the asylum, was her first cousin. In other words, my step-g-grandfather George was also my first cousin thrice removed. My grandpa’s younger half-brother was a double Payn: one his mother’s sets of grandparents was also of his father’s. I found grandpa’s half-brother’s WWI draft registration: it lists his address as 329 Seventeenth Street, where my grandpa was living with his wife, children, mother-in-law and extended family. He lists my grandpa as his nearest relative. I don’t think anyone in my generation knew that grandpa had a younger brother (he died in the forties.)

I’ve just recently discovered one of g-grandma Mary’s sisters, her youngest, Annie, born 1868 in Pittsburg. Previously, I had identified her only in the 1870 and 1880 censuses, as a child living with her family, her mother and father in 1870, and widowed Sarah in 1880.

But when I was in the NYC archives this spring, I happened to discover her marriage certificate, under the name of “Fannie,” when I was searching around for Mary’s marriage to my great-grandfather in the years bracketing 1890. The last name’s not common, and of course the parents were listed on the certificate, so I know it’s her.

She married a Taylor: hard to follow up on except his first name was Theodore. They lived in Brooklyn up through the 1930s, with one foray into Queens in 1910. They had four children, Frank, 1889; Ruth, 1894; Henry, 1901, and Warren, 1906. Theodore is a driver, a truck driver, a laborer, and finally a painter for the gas company for the last two open censuses. By 1920, Fannie is listed as Frances on the census, and she is listed as such in the death records online at the Italian Genealogy site. She died in 1927.

In 1920, the household includes a “Weigh” family: William, age 43 and, like Theodore, a painter for the gas company, and Ruth, age 25, quite obviously Fannie and Theodore’s daughter, married to one of his colleagues. They have two children, William, Jr., and Frances, apparently named for Fannie.

In 1930, Theodore is a widower, with Henry and Warren still at home. Henry repairs meters for the gas company, and Warren is a chauffeur for a private family. Also in residence is Ruth “Weih,” a widow now, and her two children. I found William, Sr.’s death listing for June 1926 on IGG.

So far I have not found any death information for Theodore.

It amazes me that sometimes I can put together a pretty complete reconstruction of a family in a few hours, if the force is with me.

Counterintuitively, Mary’s brother John has been much more difficult to trace. I have had in my records for some time one census finding for him: 1900 on 7th Avenue with a wife, Lilly, and two children Robert and Gertrude. The 1900 census gives so much detail—month and year of birth, number of years married, number of children—that it’s usually a big help in following people. And, a bonus, this Strick family is on the census page following: the listing for the household that includes his mother Sarah, Mary and her last husband George Payn, and all her children from her three marriages. They are only a couple of doors down from John and Lilly, on a section of 7th Avenue near 17th Street.

The only other possible findings for John, who in 1900 is a day laborer, include a Lain Directory 1897 listing, finding him on 18th Street near 7th Avenue, working as a “cutter.” Then in the IGG I find a death listing for a John Strick of the right age in 1927. Circumstances suggest he resided in Brooklyn all the while but I have not been able to find him or the children. I have found Lilly’s death listed for 1908, and both John and Lilly are in Greenwood’s database.

And Mary’s other sister Etta, or Lucetta? She is also elusive, but I may have her as “Lucy” in the online bride’s index for 1894, Manhattan. No groom’s name pops up to match her, and I’ll have to get the certificate to make sure it’s her in any case.

Among the missing–Mary’s children by her first husband, the Reed kids. This name is so common I despair of finding them.


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