Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sort of a Blah Update...

Not too exciting, but an update on my email spree from last week.

St. Agnes High School Academy, where my great-grandmother attended (about 90% sure on that) responded to my request for information.  It sounded positive, they mentioned yearbooks and transcripts.  Only bad thing is that I'll have to wait 'till term starts up again in the fall, when they have more staff around.  Oh well, I can be patient (pff, yeah right, but I'll work on it).

Fordham University responded about my request for information about Edward Gorman's expulsion.  I guess the  Alumni office bounced it over to the Archive office, and she sent me a link to their digitalized yearbooks (go all the way up to 1941, pretty cool).  She said that, according to her records, FXR Sr. graduated in 1930, and Edward Gorman graduated in 1940.  The plot thickens.

So, I took a quick look at the 1940 yearbook.  Edwards' definitely listed in the Senior Directory, but I'm not sure if that just means that he was expelled during his senior year?  I'll have to take a closer look at the yearbook - unfortunately, my computer estimates that it will take about 9 hours to download the whole thing.  -____-

Well, there you have it.  A pretty optimistic start to my first attempts at gathering information outside my family / comfort zone.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ponies in Context

For me, context is the key - from that comes the understanding of everything." - Kenneth Noland

So, on the completely opposite side of the family tree (aka my mother’s family) I’ve had some success with my research as well.  My mom had already done a good bit of research – not to mention collecting stories and photos from her parents, both now deceased, so that was a huge help.

Starting off with more information lets me do more in terms of research and bringing stories together with general history to create a much more meaningful and relevant family history. 

For example, while going through old photos, I found three photos of my relatives as small children sitting on ponies outside their houses.  Some Google-aided research later, and I’ve discovered:

“In a fascinating historical parallel, the progress of modern photography coincided with a momentous cultural shift within the United States.  Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, American families were on the move across a young nation in search of greater prosperity.  The Industrial Revolution was pulling first, second, and third-generation Americans from the farms they had grown up on to the crowded urban centers that promised high-paying factory jobs. 

As the twentieth century dawned, many of these new city and suburb dwelling Americans found themselves fondly recalling the pastoral life they had left behind; a time when they lived in close proximity to their animals; a time when they relied on – and loved – their horses.  For some, it would be the first time they felt a sense of nostalgia for the past.  Perhaps because of this collective memory, parents sought out more romantic settings for portraits of their children – a way to capture a remembrance of things past, if you will.  And what better way to coax a smile from a reluctant subject than a gentle nudge from the velvety muzzle of an equine friend?

Until the 1890s, portrait photography was still a relatively cumbersome and expensive proposition.  The large-view cameras that produced daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes were not easily transportable.  Having a portrait made involved going to a professional studio and standing or sitting alone or in a stiffly posed group.  But the new film cameras were smaller and lighter, which enabled a photographer to take his services directly to his customers.  The itinerant photographer became, like the traveling salesman, a fixture across the country.

In addition to his camera and tripod, a photographer was often accompanied by a small pony decked out in a fancy saddle and bridle.  A straw suitcase full of cowboy costumes, including Stetson-style hats, wooly chaps, and toy guns, completed the tools of his trade.” – Victoria Randall, A Pony in the Picture: Vintage Portraits of Children and Ponies

So, not only does my family fit into this little bit of photography history, but it even ties into the larger cultural trend mentioned.  For example, my grandfather (the baby on the painted pony) Gil’s father (N.L. Huey) did, in fact, leave his family farm to find a job in one of Detroit’s many factories.

Everything's just a little cooler in context, don't 'ya think?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Spades Are What You’d Use to Dig a Grave

 “Whether he likes it or not, a man’s character is stripped at the poker table; if the other players read him better than he does, he has only himself to blame.  Unless he is both able and prepared to see himself as others do, flaws and all, he will be a loser in cards, as in life.” – Anthony Holden

While researching my family history, I can’t help but imagine a sort of inter-family competition between the four main contributors to my ancestry (represented by my four grandparents).  The winner is, as of yet, unclear, but at the moment, I can tell you who the “loser” is: my father’s father’s family – ironically, the family whose name I carry.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this family.  In fact, the mystery that makes them so challenging could potentially make them the most interesting in the long run.  Assuming, of course, that I can solve the mystery.

                In the beginning of my project, when I first talked to my grandpa about my goals, he suggested that I contact his brother, Dave.  Apparently, Dave had already done some genealogy work in the past, and so could give me a head start on that part of the family.  Optimistic, I asked him if I could look at his research, and he graciously lent me his notebook of family trees, photocopied documents, and notes.

                Not only were the lists of birth dates, death dates, and spouses extremely helpful in filling in my own family tree, but some of Dave’s notes were both interesting and excellent interview start-off points when I later talked to my grandparents.  For example, my grandpa’s father, who, by all accounts was very strict and more than a little intimidating, moonlighted as a competitive marathon dancer in the 1930s. 

                The real mystery, however, the reason why my work on this particular family line has sort of sputtered to a stop, is my grandpa’s grandpa, Michael Reichert.  Or, at least, I think his name is Michael Reichert.  Sometimes he lists it as Michael Rajchert (the Polish spelling of the name), or Micholy Reichert.  Or Nicholy Reichert.  Or Nicholas Reichert.  He was born in Poland. Or Germany, or Austria, depending on the document.  He even switched around the birth order of his children with some regularity.  All of this has made it extremely difficult to follow his historical paper trail. 

I had thought this nothing more than an unfortunate frustration, until I noticed this note written in Dave’s notebook that I didn’t really understand – something about fleeing Ohio and moving the family to Pennsylvania.  When I mentioned it to my dad, he told me about the old Reichert family rumor – that Great-great grandfather Michael (Micholy, Nicholas, whatever) murdered a man in Youngstown, Ohio over a poker game, and ran from the law, causing the family to move to Washington, Pennsylvania.

Intrigued, I wanted to learn more, but that seems to be as far as the legend goes.  On a long shot, I decided to google unsolved murders in Youngstown, Ohio, thinking there couldn’t be that many.  Unfortunately, it seems that Youngstown has a bit of a Mafia problem, and has (as a sort of cruel irony from my point of view) been nicknamed “Murdertown USA”.

How will I ever solve this mystery???

(P.S., learning about my family’s less-that-excellent history made the fact that my grandpa taught my sister and I to play poker at an early age a little less funny, and a little more concerning.)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Going Through the Motions

Couldn't really make myself work much today - feeling that pre-holiday-weekend blah, I guess.  So, instead of being truly productive, I just re-organized my notes, making sure to highlight all possible leads for me to jump on next week.

Not much to do until I talk to my grandma again, which won't happen until Tuesday at the earliest.  To be honest, I need to talk to a couple of relatives...  again, nothing until Tuesday.

I was a little bit productive, at least.  I emailed (or snail mailed, depending) a few churches where I know relatives were baptized, married, etc.  I even emailed what I think is the high school my great-grandmother Marion Gorman attended.

One of the churches (St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn, where my great-great grandparents Peter Reilly and Anna Doonan were married) even changed names, closed, and was then sold, so that took a bit of tracking down.  Eventually I just emailed the diocese, asking them where the heck I'm supposed to find the old records from St. Vincent's.  Hopefully they'll be able to help.

So, now I have a nice excuse to sit around and not work until Tuesday.  Could be worse.  I could have found something brilliant today that would have kept me so obsessively distracted that I wouldn't have enjoyed the 4th at all...

Friday, July 1, 2011

Better to Ask than to Not, Right?

So, as mentioned before, great-great Uncle Edward Gorman was mysteriously expelled from Fordham University sometime between 1935 and 1942.  While Fordham-grad FXR Sr. was never able to find out why, I figured maybe in the last 69-76 years Fordham's loosened up it's privacy codes...

It's just that, I'm SO CURIOUS.  So, I checked out Fordham's website, found the contact email for the alumni office, and asked them if there was anything they could do to help me out.

Not sure if it's possible, legal, etc, but at least I've asked, right?

Fingers crossed!

The Week I Obsessed over New Jersey

“Obsession: an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind.” –

So, I believe I mentioned in my first post that my genealogy project is made mostly possible by the website (if you’re at all interested in your own family history, I strongly recommend this site).  If you’re not familiar with the site, here’s the basic idea: you create your family tree, adding as much information as you know, or can get from helpful grandmas J.  Then, once you pay them, of course, the website starts sending you “hints”, or documents they think may be referring to your relatives.  They have a truly remarkable collection of sources.  One of the most useful, and most accessible, sources is their collection of U.S. Census data, from 1930 and earlier.  Once the hints start rolling in, the challenge is to verify whether it’s actually your relative that the document is referring to.

                Thus the stage is set for the great New Jersey dilemma.  My problem revolves around the come-and-go father of my grandma’s mother, Marion Gorman.  You see, Thomas Gorman was such an absent father that Marion knew very little about him – and passed down even less information to her daughter, my grandma.  All I knew was that he was from New Jersey, that his parents were from Ireland, and that he was born in the late 1870s.  I was determined to trace my family beyond him, however, so I set out to follow him via the U.S. Census until I found his parents. So, when’s hints relating to Thomas Gorman included the 1880 Census, I was thrilled – until I realized that it’d listed two different Thomas Gormans. 

Both lived in New Jersey.  Both of their parents were born in Ireland.  Both were born in 1879.  Both of their father’s names were Patrick (damn the Irish and their obsession with this name), but their mothers’ names were different.  One T.G. was from Middlesex County, and his mother’s name was Margrett.  The other was from Monmouth County, and his mother’s name was Catherine.  They each had several siblings (Mr. Middlesex grew up with Margretta, John, Bernard, Rose, and Catherine, while Mr. Monmouth grew up with James, Margaret, May, John, Willia, George, and Catherine).  
Frustrated beyond belief, I continued comparing the two possible T.G.s to what little I knew about the real T.G.  I knew that Marion, his daughter, grew up in Mercer County, NJ.  So, I drew a sad little version of New Jersey, and scribbled in the three counties, Mercer, Middlesex, and Monmouth.  The plan was, if one of the two possible counties was significantly farther away from Mercer, then it probably wasn’t that one.  However, to my dismay, the three counties all lie right next to each other.

Next, I returned to my grandma, explaining the predicament.  A little startled by the passion I had dedicated to my little investigation of New Jersey, she dutifully wracked her memory for any passing details about her mother’s family.  She remembered an Aunt Catherine, as well as an Aunt Margaret (apparently she lived to be 100 and ended up in the newspaper.  When I googled Margaret Gorman, hoping to find the article, I instead discovered that a different Margaret Gorman was the first Miss America, so she was hogging all the Google results.  Pushy beauty queen.)  This was good, but unfortunately both possible T.G.s had sisters named Margaret and Catherine. (Apparently the Irish weren’t too original when it came to naming their children).

Grandma suggested that Monmouth County was the better bet, however, on the hazy idea that she remembered her mother mentioning it once.  Something about a John Reddington – whether he was a friend, colleague, whatever, she couldn’t recall.  Desperate to leave New Jersey behind me, I decided to go with the hunch, and added the Monmouth T.G. to my profile.

It wasn’t until several weeks later, when discussing Marion’s sister Georgia, that my grandma – as if she’d only just thought of it – mentioned that Georgia was named after her father’s brother George.  Grandma didn’t seem to grasp the significance of this detail, but I knew what it meant.  T.G. had a brother George, which only the T.G. from Monmouth had.  Grandma’s hunch was correct.  Although, since she knew about Uncle George all along, it wasn’t really a hunch, was it?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

So That’s Where That Joke Started

 “That’s not funny.  But don’t worry; it’s a running joke, so they’ll repeat it several times until you have no choice but to find it funny.” – The Nostalgia Critic, Suburban Commando review

                My father’s family has a history of people that are… well, liars.  And I mean this is the best way possible.  The funny kind of liars, you know?  For example, one of my uncles is a high school teacher, and he once seriously attempted to convince a class that cantaloupes are grown on terrace-style farms, and so the only way for the cantaloupe farmers to harvest the fruits is by harpooning them from the lower levels (the scary part of this story is that his class at least acted as if they believed him).

                The lying, outrageous as it is, adds to the family charm, and has done so for generations.  My grandma’s brother (FXR Jr.), I’ve been told, had the same sense of humor.  And my grandma’s father (FXR Sr.), though not quite as bad, is reported to have had a good sense of humor as well.  However, I really wasn’t aware of how far back this characteristic existed until I was going through a box of old photographs and documents from my grandma’s collection.  In an old folder I found some postcards and a letter sent by FXR Sr.’s mother’s brother, Francis Doonan (the name “Francis” is apparently another inescapable family trait) from his time in France during WWI.

                The first postcard, addressed to “Sister Margaret” (one of FXR Sr.’s sisters) in 1918 reads: “I was just downtown for a couple of hours for my breakfast.  They are in the wagon behind a load of eggs.  I sure have some appetite.  Love, Uncle Frank.”

                Next, a postcard addressed to “Master Peter” (one of FXR Sr.’s brothers): “I done this job – I lost my hat, I couldn’t find it, so I tore down this little shack.  I am standing looking over the job.  Love, Uncle Frank.”

                With his… unique, dry sense of humor, the comedic Uncle Frank managed to put a funny spin on the images of war he was sending home to his nieces and nephews.  The three-page letter he sent to FXR Sr., however, shows more of his humor, but also more of his personality as a whole:

                Sent from Gievres, France.  February 11, 1919.
                “My dear Francis;
Just a few lines Frank old boy to let you know that your letter is on hand and that I don't know how to explain how overjoyed I was to get it, it sure was a corker.  Thats the kind of letter I like to receive it sure was a big one.
Say Frank, that was a corking picture you sent me of you in the Sailor suit, you sure looked the goods, I'll bet your lady friend was crazy about it, I was so proud of it that I had to show it alla round the camp I sure did let them know that it was my nephew.
The letter that I received today is the second one that I have received from you.
Frank you ought to be glad that you are not over here, it is way below zero and still going strong water is all frozen and we cannot take a bath (The colored fellows are tickled to death) they sure like the Cooties, and we are still living in one story barrachs, it is just like putting your bed in the yard and going asleep, I wonder if little Peter would like that very much or Sister, what do you say about that Frank.
You mentioned about the Helmet well Frank old pal I am going to send one by mail tomorrow to you, and the gas mask I will bring home with me.
Things are slow over here, the boys all want to get home and so do I.  Tell Mother she will receive a card regarding my health every one had to send them home, it was compulsory and not to mind it.  Also tell Pop, that they mentioned about Larry Carrols death in the Paris papers, I was surprised to see the notice.
I am sure glad that all have recovered from that old Flue I had it a couple of times but I was too busy to notice it Frank this is the place for that stuff the hopsitals are filled.
I think that I will spend the winter over here it will not be long before I will get my gold stripe for six months overseas duty, we also get an insigna on shoulder it is, SOS that means help come quick, and it means that when the boys cried for food in the front lines we always answered and sent it to them we sure did some good work and nothing could stop us.
Frank that was some not Rose Catherine wrote to me I am just longing for a sight of her I bet she will be a regular lady when I get home, I sure have an aweful lot of stuff to tell you when I get home, yes, some of it is true.
You mentioned about a 1919 card Frank as soon as I go to town I will get some and send them to you how will that be and i want you to send me the Star I haven't had a Brooklyn paper in 6 months and I am tired of asking for it if you can't get the dough cop a few Magnesia bottles and if you get caught blame it on me you know me Buddie.
Well Frank I will have to close and i will write you in a couple of days. Give my love to Mother, Pa, Peter, Margaret, Rose Catherine, Madeline, Charlie, Rita, and little Charles he must be some boy now I am longing to veryone, Good Night old Pall. I am going to break in 4 new blankets tonight.
Love to everyone.
                Your loving Uncle,
I have your picture right on my desk besides Anna, Everyone wants to know if you are my son.  In a few days I will send another picture I had taken.

                When I found this letter with the postcards, having not heard anything about this Uncle Frank before, I was practically giddy.  I photocopied them and brought them to my grandma the next day.  While she had, of course, heard of Uncle Frank, she had no idea that her father had kept these, so she was pretty excited too.
                She said that Uncle Frank lost a leg during the war, and returned home with a wooden replacement.  He didn’t let this dampen his sense of humor, however, and used to entertain the neighborhood kids by sitting on his front porch and sticking needles into his leg (with the pants on, the kids couldn’t tell that his leg was wooden, and were fascinated by someone who could so stoically stab themselves in the leg over and over).
                To just round off the story of Frank’s life, it appears that FXR Sr.’s father didn’t really approve of him, and so Frank wasn’t really welcome in his house.  Undeterred, Frank would simply wait until the man of the house was asleep, and would then climb in the second-story window to visit with his nieces and nephews.
                So, here’s to Uncle Frank Doonan, who managed to transform the family tendency towards humorous fibs into an honored century-old tradition.