All posts by Michael Dwyer

Michael Dwyer

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he edits Vermont Genealogy. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, The American Genealogist, The Maine Genealogist, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. He heads the English Department of Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, Vermont. The Vermont Department of Education named him 2004’s Vermont Teacher of the Year.

A case of Civil War PTSD

Carte-de-visite photo of Irving B. Delano, ca. 1866, taken at Knowles and Hillman, 8 ½ Purchase Street, New Bedford.

Although the term PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) did not come into widespread use until a century after the Civil War, the aberrant and antisocial behavior of Irving Brewster Delano (1840–1905) of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, seems to fit some of its symptoms. He served in the United States Navy from October 1862 until October 1863 aboard the U.S.S. North Carolina, Dacotah, and Alleghany. Irving’s family entry in the prodigious genealogy, The American House of Delano, gives details on his marriage and the births of his three children but neglects to mention his divorce.

From the evidence of the Delano family gravestone in Riverside Cemetery in Fairhaven, with full dates for birth and death, Irving would seem to be tucked in the family plot among his parents and three of his siblings. In fact, though, he died far from home in Haskell, Polk County, Florida, where he had lived as a lone Yankee for the last twenty years of his life. Continue reading A case of Civil War PTSD

Missing years

How old was Catherine Dwyer when this photo was taken in Newport’s Leavitt Studio, around 1882?

Before the internet and the digitization of some Irish records, one needed patience, persistence, and problem-solving skills to connect the lives of Irish immigrants here in America to the world they left behind. Guessing someone’s true age and their birth order within their parents’ household amounted to a shot in the dark.

In January 1941, the death certificate of my great-grandmother, Catherine (Dwyer) Dwyer, recorded her age as 76 years and ten months. She had lived in Newport, Rhode Island, for sixty years, and in that time knowledge of her specific birthplace had vanished from her children’s memory. One of her sons, who acted as informant, also misremembered his mother’s maiden name! Catherine’s obituary mentioned no siblings.

My imagined time line in Ireland of vital events for these Dwyers erred by an entire generation. Continue reading Missing years

Institutional stigma

Persistent family genealogists will eventually encounter a relative who died in a state hospital, city shelter, or mental institution. In many instances, that fact may have been hidden, disguised, or made more palatable for public perception. The death of my grandmother’s only brother, John P. Cassidy (1887–1934), presented me with my first “alternative version” of a vital statistic. After Pott’s Disease crippled him and terminated his career as a pharmacist, John spent the last years of his life in the tuberculosis ward of Fall River’s City Hospital. There he dabbled in trick photography and tinkered with his superhetrodyne radio. Continue reading Institutional stigma


The author with the late Mary O’Mahony, Dreenauliff, Sneem, Kerry, Ireland, in August 2001.

Inspired by the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, Horace Walpole gave us the word serendipity. The following three tales shine among my past treasures as extraordinary encounters that would have been lost to history had I not been in the right place at the right time.

In the fall of 1983, I drove to West Wareham, Massachusetts on a mission to find my great-grandfather’s grave. As I searched in vain for the stone, an elderly man who lived across the road from the cemetery spied my Vermont license plate and asked for whom I was searching. “Millard Morse, father of Emory,” I said. He retorted, “Who ARE you?” Continue reading Serendipity