Category Archives: history

When you’re dead, you’re dead a long time

Words of wisdom inscribed on the headstone of Robert and Grace McGowan, Mt. Hope Cemetery

Words of wisdom inscribed on the headstone of Robert and Grace McGowan, Mt. Hope Cemetery

Here’s the thing about death: it’s permanent. Regardless of your beliefs about the afterlife, in this life, when you take your last breath on earth, the story is over.

Think about it. In 100 years, with the exception of a handful of those who will defy the odds and live beyond a century, every single person on the earth will be dead.

Everyone. Gone. Me. You. Babies born at this exact moment, whether here in America or in India or China or Europe. In 100 years, billions of new humans will walk the earth, and while they’ll share our DNA and genealogical ties, none of them will be us.

How’s that for putting your life into perspective? It’s true. When you’re dead, you really are dead a long time.

Seasons of Mt. Hope Cemetery (pictures)

I was going through some photos today and realized I had taken some pictures a few weeks at Mt. Hope while I was out for a walk with Bailey and forgotten to upload them. I also remembered that while on that walk, I’d purposely tried to take some shots at places I’d shot during the last year,  places where I’ve been romping, roaming and researching in my favorite place in the city. So for fun, here are some pics of Mt. Hope, through the seasons.

Mt. Hope CemeteryOctober 2012 (c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope Cemetery, Curtis Mausoleum
October 2012
(c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope CemeteryFebruary 2013 (c) 2013 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope Cemetery, Curtis Mausoleum
February 2013
(c) 2013 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

* * * * * * * * * *

Mt. Hope CemeteryMay 2012 (c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope Cemetery
May 2012
(c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope CemeteryOctober 2012 (c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope Cemetery
October 2012
(c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope CemeteryFebruary 2013 (c) 2013 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope Cemetery
February 2013
(c) 2013 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

* * * * * * * * * *

Mt. Hope CemeteryOctober 2012 (c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope Cemetery
October 2012
(c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope CemeteryFebruary 2013 (c) 2013 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope Cemetery
February 2013
(c) 2013 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

* * * * * * * * * *

Sylvan waters, April 2012(c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Sylvan waters, April 2012
(c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope CemeteryOctober 2012 (c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope Cemetery, Sylvan waters
October 2012
(c) 2012 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Mt. Hope Cemetery, Sylvan waters
February 2013
(c) 2013 Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved

Emma Moore, Sarah Bardwell and me

It took months, but a reward was finally offered for information leading to the disappearance of Emma Moore. While the citizens took up the search immediately, the mayor and police insisted Emma left town of her own accord. When her body turned up in the river, they were proven wrong.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately doing research on a woman named Emma Moore, who I learned about when I went on the “Mischief, Murder and Mayhem” tour at Mt. Hope. (For the record, I am there so much I joined the Friends of Mt. Hope and volunteered to be a tour guide in the spring.)

Anyway, in Rochester, NY in 1854, Emma Moore went missing. Left home one night and simply disappeared. She was a single, 37 year old seamstress who had a loving family, a good job, some money of her own, and no reason to leave town without letting her family know where she went.

Her disappearance stunned the community, and for months afterwards thousands of citizens met nightly to coordinate a search for her – since the Mayor and police refused to believe she’d come to harm or investigate her disappearance. (In fact, she disappeared in November of 1854 and it took until February of 1855 before an official police reward was offered.)

The citizens scoured the areas surrounding the city, the Lake, the river. They followed every lead and interviewed hundreds of people. The raised money and donated time and diligently searched for the woman they hailed as a modest woman of impeccable character.

Then in March of 1855, the body of Emma Moore was found, frozen in the river. When the coroner examined her body, he found she was six months pregnant.

Her 26 year old fiance was the prime suspect, but while an inquest found that Emma had drowned, the jurors were unable to determine if she had been murdered or if she committed suicide. Emma Moore is buried in an unmarked grave in her family’s plot, the woman once known for her impeccable character hidden away forever due to the scandalous nature of her death.

I’m fascinated by Emma Moore, her life and her death. In an era where woman had few rights or money of their own, she had a little money – about $20 cash left in her room, $20 cash on her when she disappeared, a savings account with about $100, and notes that indicated she’s lent out small amounts of money to friends.

In an age when woman married young, she was single into her middle years. Unmarried and with a much younger fiance. Was that unusual? Despite the fact they were engaged about 3 years, why didn’t they marry? He apparently had lost fingers in an accident and was unable to work (he was a cutter in a tailor’s shop); how would Emma have felt about working to support a younger husband – because upon marriage, anything she had would have become his.

How unusual was it for a woman to be sexually involved with a man to whom she wasn’t married? We like to think of our ancestors as pure and innocent, but was that really how it was? An unmarried, pregnant woman today doesn’t raise an eyebrow. But in 1854? Another story.

And of course, there’s the big mystery: Why did she disappear? Who knew she was pregnant? Was she killed or did she commit suicide? There’s much to believe the truth lies with the former.

I’m also enamored with the story of another woman, Sarah Bardwell. Her interment records indicate that she died of “insanity”. How does one die specifically of “insanity”? I get that you can die of causes related to insanity – suicide, walking naked around town in December and freezing to death. But just … going insane until you die?

Sarah Bardwell died of “insanity” after spending the last 25 years of her life in an asylum.

So I did a little digging and found a newspaper notice of her death, which said:

“Under the effects of religious excitement, at a time well remembered by many of our old citizens, Miss B. suffered mental injury, from which she never recoverd, and the latter years of her life were spent in an excellent Asylumn at Brattleboro, where her friends had placed her with the hope of restoration at first but where she remained for comfort and safety.”

From all accounts, the Asylum in Brattleboro was fairly progressive; treatment included nature walks and painting and music and lots of rest. And the “time well remembered” is most likely the Finney revivals that swept Rochester in the 1830s, making the city a hot bed of evangelism for the entire nation.

“Insane” is a little subjective, in this case. So you know I’m doing research into the Finney revivals, what a “mental injury” from that experience might look like, and what it would be like for a woman to be committe to an insane asylum in the 1850s.

What ties these two women together? When Emma Moore disappeared, Sarah’s brother was the Police Justice.

One of the things I’ve determined this year is that maybe my purpose is to give voice to those who can’t tell their own stories. It’s a general idea that I’ve been able to apply specifically without committing myself to any one genre of writing. And that realization has been really helpful for me. I can share about animal issues, although I find that I’m less and less interested (and often completely turned off by the aggressive, angry, divisive animal scene; but that’s a story for another day).

More importantly, I can share Emma and Sarah’s stories, two women lost in history but whose stories are interesting and important.

And soon, I’ll be sharing about some children in Uganda. Stay tuned for more on that.

Tracing my family tree: my ignorance of world history and how it affects my family tree

In the 1930 census, my great grandfather’s family said they were from Northern Ireland, my great grandmother’s family from Irish Free State. That I don’t even understand the difference makes me realize how truly ignorant I am.

One of the things that has been really driven home to me as I research my family tree is just how ignorant I am – about my ancestors, about world politics, about U.S. history.

Take today’s new discovery: I’ve been curious about why, in some census records, my family identifies themselves as from “Ireland,” sometimes from “N. Ireland,” and sometimes from “Irish Free State.”

To get some clarity about why that might be, I wrote to the Association of Professional Genelogists in Ireland. I got a quick response from Nicola Morris, who explained that the term “Irish Free State” was only used after 1922, when the Irish Free State was established following the War of Independence. It follows the ratification of a controversial treaty of 1922. Morris explains further:

“This term referred to the 26 counties that today form the Republic of Ireland.  It was not uncommon to find families in the US using the term Free State when referring to the origins of their parents or grandparents. It would have distinguished their place of origin as being from the 26 counties rather than ‘Northern Ireland’   Also, if any family had a republican leaning, it would perhaps have been important for them to acknowledge the steps that Ireland had taken to independence prior to 1922.  The Irish republican movement raised a great deal of money for the support of the state in the US, so the details of the struggle were well publicised in Irish circles in the US.”

Going back through census data, I learned that before the 1930 census, all of my Irish ancestors simply identified themselves as being from Ireland.

In the 1930 census, however, they got more specific. The Larkins and Maloneys now considered themselves from Irish Free State, while the Sheerins and McDade/McDevitts (that’s another mystery) noted they were from N. Ireland.

From what little I understand so far, discussion around the dinner table might have taken a bit of an interesting turn, seeing as how my great grandather James Sheerin’s parents had Northern Irish ties while my great grandmother Mary Ellen Maloney’s parents came from Irish Free State.

I always wondered how my Irish and Italian grandparents connected, but now I’m curious about how politics in Ireland might have affected life here in the U.S. for my family.

I think we forget that when our ancestors came to the U.S. they didn’t necessarily break all ties from home. I have no idea if my family was politically active – my guess would be not, but then again you don’t have to be involved in politics to have an opinion and voice it. But either way, that they identified themselves as either one side or the other does suggest they were still very connected to what was going on back in Ireland.

Another day, another mystery … and another topic to research.

RELATED POSTS:

The scent of my family tree – a little dust mixed with a lot of history

Pittsfield, MA c.1860; lithograph of painting by artist James Colt Clapp

There’s a spot in my house, as you walk up the stairs to the second floor and make the turn on the landing, where, if the conditions are right, it smells like my grandparents’ house.

It’s the smell of tiny dust particles suspended in the air, warmed by the bright sun that shines through the windows that overlook the driveway (and my neighbor’s house). It’s a quick scent of a sleeping dog and wooden banisters polished smooth by a hundred years of hands grasping on the way up and on the way down. It’s the smell of plaster walls and dark attics and creaking stairs, if creaking stairs have a smell. Which I think they do.

It only lasts a moment – less than a second – but when I smell it I’m transported to their house in Pittsfield, MA, an ancient triplex row house where my mother grew up, where her father lived. It’s the house her grandparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents either lived in or next to or around the corner from.

I think the smell of my grandparents’ house is actually the spirit of all of those people who slept, ate, laughed, cried and lived in those rooms for more than a hundred years. And as I’ve been tracing my family tree, those spirits have come alive for me in a way I didn’t expect.

It’s one thing to create a family tree – a bracketed chart that lists the basic details of my grandfather’s parents, their parents, their parents and their parents.

But those simple details – date of birth, date of death, date of marriage – don’t even begin to share the information I’ve amassed about their children, siblings, family. Where they lived, where they worked, how they died, and what the world was like when they walked the earth.

Take one set of my great, great, great grandparents on my mother’s side, for example. Continue reading

Tracing my family tree one leaf at a time

My great-grandparents, James Francis and Mary Ellen Maloney Sheerin.

All of this cemetery walking I’ve been doing has piqued my curiousity about my own family tree.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled in tracing my roots. I’ve had some relatives who have done a lot of work and they’ve shared some information – although no one really wanted to share the bulk of the information. Just bits and pieces here and there.

And tracing your ancestry is like a mystery with a thousand plot twists and a million roads that will all lead to a legitimate clue. You’re only hinderance is time and patience.

So last week, I pulled out the old notebooks and folders and headed to the Rochester local history department, and then Brighton Memorial Library, because they have a free library edition of Ancestry.com.

I’ve been working on one mystery in particular: why my great, great grandmother is known as both Mary Ann McDevitt and also Mary Ann McDade.

Here’s the mystery: on the birth records and marriage records of the children of my great, great-grandparents John P Sheerin and Mary Ann McDevitt, her last name has been listed as McDevitt, McDavett, McDavid and McDade, McDeid, McDaid.

The first time I came upon the McDade variation, I passed the record up, because it was a birth record for a son, John, born in Willksbarre, PA. Wrong last name of the mother, and the other children I’d already found were all born in Berkshire County.

Then I found a photo that my mom’s cousin Suzanne had given to me before she died: a photo of two women she identified as “Mary Ann McDevitt (McDade)” and her sister, “Nellie McDevitt (McDade).”

Huh. Continue reading

Stories from the grave – another walk through Mt. Hope Cemetery

It was a beautiful day to meander among the headstones.

Bandit and I went out for a meander through Mt. Hope Cemetery today, mostly so I could clear my head and shake off the negative vibes I’ve picked up over the last month or so from some know-it-alls and jack-asses I’ve been forced to interact with.

That’s a pretty way to start a blog post, isn’t it?

You know I love the cemetery, so even though the temperatures hovered around 40 degrees on this late April morning, I  enjoyed wandering around the headstones, taking photos and reading epitaphs and wondering about the people who reside there.

Take, for example, the headstone from the Hommel family. I was struck by the age of their son Oscar, who died in 1878 at 7 years old. So I snapped a photo.

When I got home, though, I realized that the date of Oscar’s birth is the same as his mother’s death. That got me wondering if perhaps Regina died giving birth.

In general, I hate technology, but in situations like this I’m grateful for online databases like the UR’s records on the interments at Mt. Hope Cemetery. A little digging showed me that Oscar died December 13, 1877 of meningitis (although is tombstone says 1878). His mother, Regina, died December 21, 1871 of typhoid fever. George died March 13, 1879 of consumption.

So while I don’t know what month Oscar was born, we can assume his father, George, was left with a child under a year old after losing his wife Regina to typhoid fever. And then he  lost his son a few years later. Continue reading