Detective Stories

Sturgis Hartman Smith Fish Jones Bull
Back row, left to right: Mercy Elizabeth (Fish) Smith, Edgar Leslie Smith, Cyrus Cressey Sturgis, Angeline (Hartman) Sturgis. Front row, left to right: Berintha Lydia (Bull) Fish, Una Coy (Smith) Sturgis with Cyrus Cressey Sturgis Jr., Jane (Jones) Hartman. Author’s Collection

A few nights ago, I was watching Hercule Poirot on TV, working to solve a complicated mystery. At one point, he found himself stumped and said, “I am an imbecile. I see only half of the picture.” As an aspiring genealogist (read: amateur detective), I can certainly identify with the great detective in that way. I get that feeling all the time! I feel much more like Miss Lemon, who replies, “I don’t even see that.”

I guess it’s common knowledge that many aspiring (and even accomplished) genealogists see genealogy as a British murder mystery, a puzzle just begging to be solved. I know I do. And I have at least as much trouble solving my genealogical puzzles as Hercule, Miss Marple, and, dare I say it, Inspector Morse. Of course, the big difference is that those fictional detectives solve every case by the end of the episode. We genealogists can struggle for years, trying to solve our mysteries. Fortunately, very few of our cases involve murder. Continue reading

A revolution in one generation

Penny at podium_croppedI began my publishing career in pre-computer days: manuscript was typed on a typewriter, and editing was done on hard copy. I took a freelance job from a publisher who required that I work in ink, and for that job I acquired a special fountain pen that I filled with green ink.

To change or remove an edit, I used ink eradicator, which came in a little brown bottle with a stopper that doubled as an applicator. The ink rule ensured that every edit was very deliberate; still, I probably used up that entire bottle of eradicator. Continue reading

Adding context to my genealogy

Amos 1
Images from the author’s collection

I could easily go up to the seventh floor here at NEHGS and find a lot of my ancestry in published genealogies, but my research interests have gone in a different direction: I have spent close to the last six years researching the branches of my Italian family in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and writing a genealogy that traces all of the descendants of the earliest generation. Continue reading

Musicians in the family: an afterword

ABA with All Blue 1920
My grandmother in 1920

In thinking about the Ilsley family of singers and musicians to which my great-grandmother Theodora Ilsley Ayer belonged, I could think of no special evidence of the family talent having lasted into the twentieth century. Yet to pose the question is to invite the answer, and in fact I have a letter – preserved in my paternal grandmother’s scrapbook – hinting at musical skills which Mrs. Ayer hoped to foster.

In November 1925, my grandmother (Anne Beekman Ayer) was at school in Virginia. Continue reading

Musicians in the family: Part Three

Arthur Foote
Arthur Foote (1853-1937)

The Nathaniel Ilsley family of Portland, Maine (and later Chelsea, Massachusetts; Buffalo and Troy, New York; and Newark, New Jersey) produced more than a dozen singers, violinists, and conductors – and at least two composers. One of these last was my great-great-grandfather, Francis Grenville Ilsley (1831–1887), and the other was his younger brother, Eliphalet Clark Ilsley (1837–1866). Frank (or Grenville) wrote at least two hymn tunes that are still in general use – Ilsley and Dania – while Clark (or Clarke) ventured South and spent the Civil War years as the choirmaster of St. Paul’s Church in Augusta, Georgia. Continue reading

Like father, like son – like daughter?

Athlone Castle cropped
S.S. Athlone Castle, on which my grandfather was a deck hand in 1936. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland, John Oxley Library/Wikimedia Commons

Like many people in their early to mid-twenties, I am still struggling to figure out who I am. One day not too long ago, I was told that I was acting “just like my father.” Ah yes, the age-old phrase that was said to me when I was a child (and typically when I was misbehaving). This time, however, instead of shrugging off the comparison as I typically would, I decided to dig a bit deeper. If I act just like my father, then maybe I am destined to be like my father… Continue reading

Notes on Robin Williams’s ancestry

Click on the image to expand it.

When public figures die, I sometimes undertake research on their ancestry as a kind of summing up. In the days since the death of comic and acting icon Robin Williams, for example, I have been thinking about his potential connection to three American presidents.

From most online biographies, one learns that Robin McLaurin Williams’s mother, Laurie McLaurin (Smith) Williams, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, was the great-granddaughter of Mississippi senator and governor Anselm J. McLaurin (1848–1909). However, while most online trees indicated Laurie was the daughter of Laura McLaurin Berry (daughter of Stella Mae McLaurin, daughter of Governor McLaurin), there is disagreement about Laurie’s father, with some identifying him as Robert Forest Smith and others as Robert Armistead Janin. Continue reading

Nineteenth-century life in Newton

Tainter diary
Emily J. (Cook) Tainter diary. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

NEHGS has a rich collection of diaries. While browsing our Guide to Diaries in the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, I came across the mid-nineteenth century diary of Emily J. Tainter of Newtonville, Massachusetts. Newtonville, one of thirteen villages in the City of Newton, is just a few miles from Boston; the area was first settled in 1630. The Guide described the diary as concerning marriage and family life, and I was curious to get a glimpse of a Newton woman’s life during the mid-1800s.

The first entry was dated 5 September 1855; the last during 1881. The diary described weather conditions, the day’s outfit, as well as daily chores and activities. It spoke of whom the diarist visited and who visited her, neighbors who became sick, friends who got married, and family members who died. Continue reading

Cheat Sheets: Part Two

Alicia Crane WilliamsIn a recent post I mentioned the Early New England Families Study Project “template” that I use: a Word document file with the categories pre-typed. I keep it on my desktop to open and “save as” the new file name each time I start a new family. For those of you who are knowledgeable about Word template files, you can set it up as such. As I do the research, I dump all the raw material into the form, then whittle it down as I proof, compare, and refine the text. Continue reading

Musicians in the family: Part Two

Joseph Haydn
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

My great-great-grandfather Francis Grenville Ilsley (1831–1887) belonged to a family of singers and musical conductors and performers. The line apparently begins with his grandfather, Nathaniel Ilsley (1781–1870), who married four times and had (at least) fourteen children, eight of whom were notable in Portland, Buffalo, and Newark music circles. I covered the Portland period – and something of the musical careers of Francis L., Ferdinand, Arthur, Elizabeth, Esther, George, and Ann Ilsley – here.

By the late 1830s, the family had begun to scatter, and my great-great-great-grandfather Francis Lunt Ilsley (1804–1874) was advertising his services as an instructor at the Troy (New York) Academy of Music: his juvenile classes, and those for “young Ladies,” would be “progressively and thoroughly instructed in the elementary principles of vocal music, on the Pestolozzian or inductive system.” Continue reading