Valerie Bertinelli, Who Do You Think You Are?

The problem with a genealogy based television show is that if you watch week in and week out, eventually you get a sense of déjà vu.  On its own, the Valerie Bertinelli edition of Who Do You Think You Are is quite good.  But having seen every episode since Season 1 (and some episodes from series outside the US), I felt like I had seen it all before even if some of the details were different.  A trip to Italy?  Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, and Marissa Tomei.  Meeting a long-lost relatives.  Tomei and Rita Wilson.  Nobility in the family stretching back through the centuries?  Shields again and Cindy Crawford.  (It was no accident that the repeat episode following tonight’s was Brooke Shields.)  English and/or colonial American ancestry?  That must be at least 75% of the guests.

Perhaps it is an unhappy accident within our celebrity culture that the people we elevate, or at least those with a traceable story, tend to have similar backgrounds.  Personally, I would be interested to see a story that went to places we haven’t really been to: Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa (preferably with a traceable story that doesn’t rely on questionable DNA evidence), anywhere in Asia, Oceania, or a Northern European country that is neither a British Isle nor Germany.  I am not faulting the show–it is not the fault of the researchers if the story is just not there–but I cannot deny having a wish list.

Like I said, tonight’s episode was good, aided by the fact that we have returned to a format in which more than one story is pursued.  It was a nice bit of variety and it releases the claustrophobia that can potentially build up following just one ancestor.  On the other hand, there were a lot of names thrown at us tonight and the spellings were not entirely reviewer friendly.  Please be kind if I misspell a name, and feel confident in the knowledge I am losing potential Google search hits as a result of my errors.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Valerie Bertinelli, star of One Day at a Time, Cafe Americain, and Hot in Cleveland, and the former Mrs. Eddie Van Halen, is the daughter of Andrew and Nancy (Carvin) Bertinelli.  She was very close to her father’s family, but her mother’s side was a mystery as her mother left home at a very early age and immersed herself in the Bertinelli family.  Nancy’s parents were Lester Carvin and Elizabeth Adams Chambers Carvin, leading Valerie to believe that her mother’s family was originally English.  As such, Valerie’s son Wolfie wanted to know if there was a family crest (spoiler: of course there was).

Before that inevitable reveal though we learned a bit about Andrew Bertinelli’s family.  Valerie was very close to Andrew’s mother, her grandmother Angelina (Croso). Beyond her, Valerie knew almost nothing.  Here, you will have to forgive me, dear reader.  I had a very rough commute home, and then my computer froze so until the first commercial break I had to write my notes rather than type them, so I cannot remember how the following events occurred.  (1.)  Valerie received a picture of Angelina’s mother, Maria standing behind an gelato stand that she ran.  There were other women in the picture and a little girl who might have been Angelina.  (2.)  Maria remarried a man whose last name was Mancia, and lived on a farm in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania.

Using Ancestry (plug 5 minutes in), Valerie found Maria and her husband Gregrorio  Mancia (spelled Mancha) in the 1920 Census.  They lived in Jefferson in Lackawanna with Maria’s two children Angelina and Giorgio, both were listed as “Manchas” on the Census but were actually Crosos.  Valerie traveled to the Lackawanna Historical Society in Scranton, and bonus points if the theme song from The Office was stuck in your head.

At the Historical Society, Valerie learned that a widowed Maria deeded her farm to her daughter and son-in-law Angelina and Nazzareno Bertinelli, doing so only a week after her husband died in 1931.  How did he die?  By using the Ancestry-owned Newspapers.com (plug 9 minutes in), we get the whole horrible story: Gregorio shot himself in the head after attempting to kill Maria.  She was in bed, and lay still as if dead, pretended that he killed her.  Then he killed himself.  That was traumatic just to listen to.

Valerie was given one last document, an obituary for her great-grandmother (called Mary) dated July 6, 1961.  Her survivors included her two children and a brother Joseph Possio.  The discovery of this maiden name, led Valerie back to Ancestry (15 minutes) to find an immigration record from 1915 for Maria Possio, age 36, and her two children “Maddalena” (Angelina) and Giorgio Croso.  The show never really answered why Maria reverted to her maiden name on the passenger list (although perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she was joining her brother already in the US), as she was a widow when she set sail, but Valerie did learn that Maria came from Lanzo in the Province of Turin (Torino), Valerie’s next stop.

Valerie went to the Lanzo Library where she discovered that Maria Possio married Francesco Croso in 1910 when she was 31.  There had already been a daughter (Maddalena/Angelina) born from “their natural union” which is a very ecclesiastical/political/polite way of saying that the daughter was born out-of-wedlock.  The historian assured Valerie that the marriage was a way to legitimize Angelina, and that the reason they had not married was because church weddings were very expensive and dowry expectations were unrealistically high.  Giorgio was born about a year later and three or four years later, Maria left town.

Francesco Croso died of a heart attack about a year into the marriage, and that was when Maria ran the gelato cart in Valerie’s picture.  Apparently, Maria’s story was uncommon.  The historian helping Valerie said she asked around Lanzo about the Possios and found someone who knew them but would not say anything more, which (of course) meant that the person she found was a relative.  Valerie then gave a little speech about how brave her great-grandmother was, and I would have loved to listen, but I swear I have heard this same speech every single episode this season, and I was desperately trying to figure out how to spell some of these Italian names.

As predicted, the mystery guest was a relative: Pietro Possio who said he was Valerie’s third cousin as his grandfather was Maria’s first cousin.  Actually, the relationship is third cousins once removed, but who’s counting.  Pietro and Valerie are both overjoyed, and he gave her a postcard sent by Maria to her Lanzo family on the eve of her departure, although something confused me.  The postcard appeared to be from Palermo, which is in Sicily, and Maria’s ship left from Genoa in northern Italy, not terribly far from Lanzo.  Did my eyes deceive me?  Pietro also had a letter that his father Francesco wrote to Angelina (although why he had a letter that was presumable mailed and received a continent away is a mystery that remained unaddressed) asking her to ask her children to write him–even in English–and to one day visit.  Valerie said that her visit to Lanzo was the fulfillment of that dream.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After the happy reunion, Valerie went to London to research her mother’s side of the family.  Her first stop was the Society for Antiquaries.  Valerie talked about how she never thought much about her English ancestry because of her Italian last name, and I am reminded of the Jewish genealogist Arthur Kurzweil, who wrote in his book From Generation to Generation (one of the first important books on Jewish genealogy):

After seven years of research on one of the many branches in my family, I realized that I had made a mistake: I had neglected all of the other branches.  In large part, it was the fact that my last name is Kurzweil which subconsciously made me think that I was more a Kurzweil than a Gottlieb, which is my mother’s maiden name.  For that matter, I was equally an Ennis, which is father’s mother’s maiden name.  I am also just as much a Klein, a Loventhal, a Rath, a Grünberger, and countless other names as well.

It is a lesson that every genealogist needs to learn, and bravo to Valerie for acknowledging it

At the Society for Antiquaries, Valerie received a massive family tree of her mother’s side (which was very New Jersey heavy).  Her grandmother Elizabeth did not have much of a pedigree, but her grandfather Lester had a family tree that traced back many generation.  His parents were Joseph and Ida (Gooden) Carvin.  Ida’s parents were Joseph and Mary Emma (Bishop) Gooden.  Mary’s parents were Benjamin and Mary (Claypoole) Bishop.  And then the genealogist told Valerie that the Claypooles were “gateway ancestors,” ancestors who link seemingly ordinary lineages to nobility or royalty or both (and thus potentially go back dozens of generations).  WDYTYA previously showed one such gateway ancestor in the Cindy Crawford episode, when she learned about Thomas Trowbridge.

The Claypooles in particular are an especially important family because Mary Claypoole Bishop’s 3rd great-grandfather (and Valerie’s 8th) was James Claypoole (b. 1634 in England) who was involved in the birth of the Quakers.  The Quakers, with their beliefs in full equality of souls, men and women, highborn and low (which is why for a long time they adopted the informal “thou” rather than the formal “you.”)  As a result of such heresy, they were imprisoned.  James Claypoole was so significant that Valerie discovered a James Claypoole Letter Book, a compilation of letters he wrote, including one from 1683 to his friend William Penn.  Being a native of Pennsylvania, I knew very well who William Penn was, and I was glad to see that Valerie did also.  James Claypoole wrote to Penn that he wished also to go to Pennsylvania, which was settled as a haven for Quakers (who were not welcome in, among other places, Puritan Massachusetts).  Valerie also got to see a copy of a document written in England, an early constitution written by William Penn to govern the Pennsylvania colony, making it one of the oldest constitutions in the world.  Naturally, one of the signed witnesses was James Claypoole.

At the end of the book of his letters, James Claypoole’s life was summarized.  He was elected to the Provisional Council in Philadelphia, but died shortly thereafter on August 6, 1687.  His wife Helena survived him by only a year, but he left to her, among other things, his coat of arms, which made Valerie very happy to hear, because her son wanted it so badly, and because a coat of arms is apparently a big deal.

Valerie’s next stop was London’s College of Arms where she spoke to the Herald of Arms.  There she saw the Claypoole coat of arms, which was a chevron with three circles around it.  The Herald gave her a little more history of the Claypoole family.  James’s great-grandfather (also James) was a yeoman but made money and became a gentleman, which is how he got his coat of arms.  Although the Claypoole line did not extend much further back, the elder James’s son Adam married Dorothy Wingfield, whose bloodline was very long indeed.  In fact, it is so long and confusing, I will just tell you the punchline–Dorothy Wingfield, and thus young James Claypoole and his descendants, including Valerie, are descended from Edward I “Longshanks” of England, one of the major Plantagenet kings.  I looked up the genealogy (lots of Elizabeths and deBohuns), and it is rough to describe.

The problem that I had here was not the big reveal, but what was left out.  If Valerie is a descendant of Edward I, then she is also a descendant of a host of Plantagenet and Norman monarchs including such famous names as William the Conqueror and Henry II, and infamous ones such as John (think Robin Hood).  And while it is nice to focus on the king who subjugated Wales and grudgingly allowed the beginnings of Parliament, isn’t the Battle of Hastings more interesting?  And then if we can trace back to William the Conqueror, we can almost definitely trace back to Charlemagne, and Valerie and Cousin Cindy Crawford can get together for a family reunion.

Valerie returned home for a family reunion to share her information, which is the first time in a while we’ve seen that.  That is the nice part of this genealogy passion, when the people around us are as amazed as we are by the things we find.

Next week: Kelsey Grammar

Rachel and Kayleen McAdams, Who Do You Guys Think You Are, Eh?

It’s time to talk about that most frustrating part of family tree research; the family.  Genealogy is a less a hobby than an obsession, and as with any obsession, it often mystifies the people around us who just don’t understand.  Sometimes we get a little bit of interest, while other times it seems that we are talking some poor, unwilling soul’s ear off.  We may not understand why our relatives don’t care about their own personal history, but they don’t, and they just want us to shut up.

I have two brothers, and neither of them has ever expressed an interest in even so much as looking at the family tree I have spent years building.  When I offered to show them, they said no.  Which is why tonight’s episode was something of a pleasant surprise for me–two siblings actively explore together.  Who Do You Think You Are almost always features family members, but usually at the beginning of the end of the journey.  This is the first time the show has actually featured two family members taking the entire journey together.  (Perhaps my brothers would be more interested if my research involved international travel.)  And one of said siblings is not even famous.
Speaking of this lack of fame, did this season of WDYTYA have its usual promo tagline of “Some of America’s most beloved celebrities”?  Because while we can joke about whether Valerie Bertinelli fits that bill, it is fair to say that Kayleen McAdams most certainly does not–regardless of how talented a makeup artist she is.

Kayleen is the makeup artist and Rachel McAdams is the star who was fantastic in Mean Girls.  The McAdamses are from the exotic land of Canada, although I believe that both of them live and work in the United States.

Before we get into the details of the show, I want to talk a little about Canada, the Jan Brady of North America.  WDYTYA is a British show, which had many offshoots around the world.  There was a Canadian version, but it did not last beyond a season, which is a shame.  Canadians who want to see their own celebrities’ stories must therefore either embrace either the British version (which originally aired the Kim Cattrall episode) or the American version (Rachel McAdams).  Just as Canadians sports have been incorporated into US leagues (hockey, baseball, soccer), so too are their celebrities incorporated into US television.  This particular episode is a fascinating look at Canadian history.  The episode also offered a glimpse into a fascinating alternative universe, Canada as a mirror image of the US, what would have happened had the 13 colonies not broken away from the mother country but instead remained loyal.  Maybe we in the US would have even had a period of sustained sensible governance and beneficial laws and policy.  Or perhaps as a southern neighbor I will block out what makes Canada great and instead think of Canada as a frostbitten wasteland where everyone pronounces “out” incorrectly, and Toronto is a short jaunt from Vancouver, eh?  (I am reminded of the Onion headline, “Perky ‘Canada’ Has Own Government, Laws.”)

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Rachel and Kayleen, are the daughters of Lance and Sandra (Gale) McAdams.  Their father was from a large, close family, so we can safely ignore them.  Their mother’s side is a mystery because their mother’s parents–Howard Gowen Gale and Eileen Maude (Bell) Gale–died when she was in her early 30’s.

Our intrepid heroines began in the US on the phone with their mother who sent them the Gale/Bell family tree.  Howard, who was a mechanic in the Battle of Britain, was born in Plymouth, England.  Mother McAdams also sent a photo of Howard’s parents, William and Beatrice Maud (Sedgmore) Gale.  William was a mechanic in the Royal Navy.  Mother McAdams suggested that her daughters start their search in Plymouth, and I died a little inside.  No research?  Not even on Ancestry?  (The plug would come 8 minutes in the episode, after they were already in Britain.)  Come on, WDYTYA!  Let’s at least pretend that this is an organic search.

At the Plymouth Central Library, genealogist Paul Blake showed the Sisters McAdams the marriage certificate of William and Beatrice Maud.  William was the son of William Henry Creber Gale (b. 2 Jan 1850) who in turn was the son of William Gale and Elizabeth Creber.  On his son’s birth certificate, William Gale the eldest was listed a servant, and on the 1851 Census, he was listed as a footman, which one of the sisters says was “very Downton Abbey.”  Sure, why not?  (My views of British servants is more informed by Gosford Park than Downton Abbey, so I kind of recoiled.)

William Gale was the footman.  Having no conception of the hierarchy of servants, I will take the show’s word for it when they say it was a big deal.  He was second only to the governess, and the face of the household.  His wife and child however, did not live with him, and his job was 24/7 and very demanding.  It seems like the job’s only redeeming grace was that it lifted his social standing, which was not insignificant, but what a trade-off.

William Gale’s family lived far away, and he barely saw them.  He met Elizabeth Creber because they had both been servants at the same house, but once she had a child she had to leave because while a married servant was acceptable, children of that union were not.  Probably because caring for a child would get in the way of around-the-clock-care for the family of the house.  William died in 1860 from delirium tremens (alcohol withdrawal).  There was some talking head/empathy for the fact that maybe this would not have happened had he had his wife and child near him, but honestly this is hypothetical psychobabble, which I really do not like about WDYTYA.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Sisters McAdams headed back to Canada in order to learn about how their family got to Canada, which I interpreted to mean why the Gales immigrated, but no, they were talking about the other side of the family.  Considering that the show focused on one tiny branch, the Grey family, my guess is the others were either not as interesting, impossible to trace, or merely redundant.

The Bell family tree goes back quite far.  So far and so quickly, I did not catch all the names thrown at the audience, although that does not really matter.  Somewhere along the maternal lineage we ended up with Rachel’s and Kayleen’s great-great-great-great-grandparents Alexander and Charlotte (Grey) McDonald.  They were born just around the time the American Revolution broke out.  The show did not care much about Alexander, but Charlotte was significant because in 1824 she petitioned the British crown as the daughter of James Grey of the Johnstown Loyalists for a land grant.  When the American Revolution broke out, James was a Loyalist who fled to Canada where he would eventually join the Loyalist Army.  WDYTYA’s narrator gave us a little history lesson about the Canadian side (or what would become the Canadian side) of the Revolution in the battle of the Loyalists vs. the Patriots.  Kayleen and Rachel discuss a Canadian identity (and hint at a Canadian inferiority complex) and wondered what their Loyalist ancestors would think about them working and living in the US.  I imagine not much, but both countries have changes tremendously in 230-some years, so who knows.  Largest undefended border in the world and all that.

At the City of Ottowa Archives, the Sisters were shown the document where James Grey first appeared in the historical record.  He was quartered at a refugee camp in 1779 at Fort Saint-Jean in Quebec with his wife and two sons.  They had fled from the Lake Champlain area around the New York/Vermont side of the border.  The historian assisting Rachel and Kayleen posited that James Grey was probably a farmer and a new settler because that area was full of new settlers.  After the British were defeated at Saratoga, the Loyalists left their land forever to settle in the harsher conditions of the refugee camp at Saint-Jean.  James Grey served in the Peters Corps in the Crown forces.

The Sisters McAdams went the land that was the site of one of the refugee camps, and looked like they were about to cry.  There were a lot of children housed in the camps and disease ran rampant.  One of James Grey’s sons died at the camp, probably from disease, which killed more than the actual fighting.  And after all that hardship, the American forces beat the British so the Loyalists could never go home.

To find out what happened to the Grey family, the Sisters headed to the Archives of Ontario in Toronto.  What struck me is how beautiful the architecture of Toronto is.  At the Archives, they found records of James Grey.  He was awarded two 200 acre lots of land along the Saint Lawrence River near the new United States.

Afterwards, the Sisters McAdams and their historian friend talked about this being a source of pride for many Canadians because these were the founders of Canada.  Which begs the question, is there a Canadian equivalent of the Daughters of the American Revolution?  It is a shame that there was no connection to the War of 1812, basically a wash for the United States and Great Britain, but a real win for Canada, which forever afterwards became not part of the US.

The Sisters were very excited to find out they had such deep roots in Canada.  One might say like the deep roots of an old maple tree.  Or something like that.  One of the sisters said she wanted to be more like her ancestors.  Here’s how you do it: attack the US.  Impose your universal health care, curling, and Anne Murray.  One of the McAdams sisters also said that ending the journey was like finished a book and she felt sad to leave the characters behind but excited to share the details with their mother.  I totally understand the finishing the book sadness; I felt incredible melancholy when I finished Don Quixote and War and Peace given how much time and effort it took to read them, but I am not sure why this is the end of the McAdams journey.  Genealogy goes on forever.  This is not the end; it is the beginning.  To any newbies out there, don’t listen to the McAdamses.

Next week is… I have no idea.  Wikipedia says Kelsey Grammar.  I missed the promo commercial, but it looked to be either Valerie Bertinelli or Lauren Graham.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Who Do You Think You Are

Last week, I discussed at length my disbelief about how the celebrity-of-the-day’s often extremely emotional response to the hardships of distant relatives the celebrity had never known about until a day or two before.  I am glad to see that today’s celebrity, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, has also expressed a similar sentiment.  Ferguson, like Cynthia Nixon, had an alleged murderer ancestor, and like Nixon, his reaction was visceral.  Nevertheless, Ferguson said that had it not been such a recent ancestor, the father of his beloved grandmother, he may not have experienced such strong feelings.

The series began at Ferguson’s home with a domestic scene of Ferguson and his husband Justin, who both advocates for marriage equality, and almost as much so for bow ties.  Ferguson gave a little background about his parents Anne Doyle and Bob Ferguson, and about his happy and stable childhood.  He said he was fortunate to know his maternal grandparents and was especially close to his paternal grandmother Jessie Uppercu Ferguson, whom he was named after.  It was because of his closeness to Jessie that he wanted to explore her side of the family.  Ferguson flew off to his native Albuquerque, New Mexico to discuss the search with his father.

After looking through photos (Ferguson is correct, he was a cute kid), he finds a very classy photo of a young Jessie and another photo of her father Jesse Wheat Uppercu (whom from hereon in will be JW).  JW, who was from Maryland, bears a very strong resemblance to Bob Ferguson.  In the photo, he is a very dapper gentleman.  The back of a photo had a message to his wife Elizabeth (née Quigg).

Starting not on Ancestry, but on Google, they searched for JW, who appeared as Jesse “Uppercue”.  And here I am going to register my first quibble.  Clearly starting on Google was not their idea–a search had already been done for Jesse Uppercue on that computer.  To which I say, if you want the suspension of disbelief, at least have the decency to create a good verisimilitude.

On Google, the Fergusons find that JW, who was 22, a law student, and an “unexceptional individual,” was arrested and tried for the murder of his aunt Amelia Wheat, with whom he lived.*  The newspaper article related that JW’s alibi was a crazy story about a robber.  From my limited perspective it seemed rather shady, but I guess he was more convincing on the stand and from his (many) character witnesses because, as we learn at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, he was acquitted.

The story, which Ferguson referred to as “the situation,” was that on July 26th, 1872, Amelia Wheat executed two wills, both written by the same attorney.  The first of those wills, made some charitable donations, but the bulk of the estate was left to nephew JW.  That estate totaled $22,000, or about $400,000 in today’s money.  JW was unhappy with the allotment, so, as the attorney was still there, a second will was drawn up to supersede the first.  The entirety of the estate was then left to JW.  A month later, Amelia was killed.

The first trial, from the September 1872 term, resulted in a hung jury.  The prosecution, believing they could win, retried the case in the January 1873 term, and this time JW was acquitted.  The record did not show whether he actually inherited.

Ferguson next found JW in the 1880 Census, the first census taken after the trials (Ancestry plug 19 minutes in).  To Ferguson’s shock, JW was married to an L.I. (Laura) Uppercu–who was not Ferguson’s great-grandmother.  Not only was he married, he had three children, the eldest of whom must have been born shortly after the trial.  JW and his family also lived in Evanston, Illinois, Ferguson’s next stop.

In Evanston, Ferguson received a timeline of JW’s life through 1897.  After Evanston, JW went to Fargo, then in the Dakota Territory, where, he was put on trial for embezzling $1800 (today’s value $50,000-$60,000) from First National Bank.  JW said he dropped the money and lost it, and apparently was again acquitted.  In 1886, he moved to St. Louis, where he divorced Laura because she complained too much about how horrible St. Louis was (make your own jokes here).  Later that year, he was again charged with embezzlement by the firm where he worked.  This time it was for $200, and he paid it back, so the charges were dropped.

In 1893, he was in Hoboken, New Jersey, and married his second wife Sadie Canta.  In 1897, he was a lawyer in Philadelphia.  Ferguson said he though JW was a bit of a con man; I think that is being polite.  He is every bit the stereotypical, vile, bloodsucker who profanes my profession (a reputation unfortunately often deserved).

After 1897, the timeline ended.  From a newspaper article Ferguson found out JW went to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush, the other Gold Rush in American history.  (I think Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestor and Helen Hunt’s went to California for the earlier one.)  And thus, Ferguson went out to Wrangell, Alaska in the southeast part of the state.

Before Ferguson left, the historian in Evanston promised to do more research on the rest of JW’s life and send it to him in Alaska, and again, this is where the suspension of disbelief is really tested.  Months and months of research is done on the celebrity’s ancestry before the show films.  The deliberate misdirection that (1) they haven’t already done the research; and (2) that they can do all that research in about 3 days is just aggravating.

Ferguson thinks Alaska is beautiful, which having been there, I heartily concur.  He also cops to being “more of an indoor kid” which I also agree with.  Ferguson says he is allergic to clean air, and that line just made me laugh.  I think I may have said the same thing.

From the record, it turned out that JW put the Klondike expedition together.  He was the fundraiser and financial manager, and you could just see the color drain from Ferguson’s face when he heard that, although he said it was inspiring that his 48-year-old great-grandfather would put together an expedition like that.  As it happened, the secretary of the expedition sent reports back to his hometown paper, which were compiled in a book.  JW’s expedition was very large for the time, apparently almost uniquely so–60 men, 40 horses, and 90 tons of gold digging machinery.  The expedition began at Fort Wrangell and was to end in Dawson, which appeared to be in Canada, although the geography went by very quickly, and it was hard to follow especially while taking notes.

The expedition turned out to be a disaster, so much so that any members who desired to leave could do so and keep their interest in the expedition so long as they left their food and supplies.  24 men took that option, one of whom being JW.  His decision to leave was reported rather scathingly by the secretary, who basically called JW out as a terrible leader.  (The expedition was a complete bust for everyone involved.)  Ferguson tried to rationalize his own disappointment away, and the historian with him said that he should feel proud of his murdering, embezzling, family abandoning, expedition fleeing ancestor for getting as far as he did.  You convinced?  Me neither.  I hate, hate, hate when WDYTYA does something like that.  Learning how to live with the disappointments we find is all part of the genealogical experience.  Stop trying to sugarcoat it.

Back at the hotel, Ferguson got his package from the historian in Evanston.  In 1900, JW lived in Brooklyn with Sadie and their daughter Muriel.  He divorced Sadie seven years later.  Beginning in 1900, JW became a speaker for the Republican party for New York City municipal politics.  He also appeared to be a supporter of Teddy Roosevelt, which I guess made him a progressive, although that is never delved into.  In 1914 (aged 64) he married Elizabeth Quigg (a 24-year-old widow) and adopted her two children Grace and Dorothy.  He divorced Elizabeth in 1925.  In 1930, he was living in Rockland County with Grace, Dorothy, and his two new daughters Jessie (Ferguson’s grandmother) and Elizabeth.

This episode ends on a sadder note than most.  Ferguson tried to move past JW’s shady past and was grateful that he raised such a good person in his daughter Jessie.  Ferguson wished he could have shared his discoveries with her.  This is one of the most tragic parts of genealogy–when our loved ones are no longer around, and we can neither ask them questions nor share with them our discoveries.

Next week: Rachel McAdams and her sister Kayleen.

 

Footnotes:

* This past week, I heard an interview with Dan Bucatinsky, the writer/actor/best buddy of Lisa Kudrow/Executive Produce of Who Do You Think You Are.  It’s a fascinating interview from Lisa Louise Cooke who created and runs the Genealogy Gems podcast.  What struck me most from the interview was that Bucatinsky said that if he could do anything with the show, he would not limit it to 42 minutes but take as much time as it needs.  I wish that too because there are so many unanswered questions.  For example, why would JW live with his aunt, and did that help to create the person he would become?  I also think that more time would reveal to an even larger extent the person that JW truly was, including what happened to the children of his first two marriages, something that was completely dropped in the show.

 

Cynthia Nixon , Who Do You Think You Are?

Bear with me for a minute.  My brother is a fan of American Ninja Warrior, an imported Japanese game show in which extremely fit people sate their masochistic impulses by attempting (and failing) to conquer a ridiculously difficult obstacle course.  My brother complained that he preferred the Japanese version because the American version spends too much time on story and pathos of the competitors.  This is an opinion I share, but I have voiced similar complaints about the Olympics.  The focus on back story seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon, and I often wonder who determines it, the audiences or the networks.  Do they show us the human interest story because we want it, or are we subjected to it because they determine that is what we want to see?

I often feel this way about Who Do You Think You Are.  In order to ensure pathos, authenticity is often needlessly sacrificed.  At its best, WDYTYA follows where the evidence leads.  Take, for example, the episodes in which Christina Applegate and Rita Wilson researched their grandmother and father respectively.  They had no preset agenda other than to learn.  Those are examples of how finely crafted WDYTYA can be.  Each climaxed in terrifically, aching moving resolutions without rewriting the historical record.

The flip side of this is that more often than not, WDYTYA does not let the evidence lead, but rather makes it subservient to a prefabricated story.   Celebrity of the Week knows nothing about his or her family but hopes to find something in particular–usually someone who shares a trait that Celebrity sees in him/herself.  Celebrity is then led to a particular ancestor and does his/her damnedest to find that trait in said ancestor.   Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not.  At its worst, WDYTYA becomes a show about personal vindication of the present rather than an exploration of history.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Cynthia Nixon is now the third of the four Sex and City stars to have appeared on the show.  Like Sarah Jessica Parker’s episode and especially Kim Cattrall’s, it was a worthwhile watch (your story better be good, Kristin Davis).  Also like her costars, Nixon learns about an ancestor with a less than stellar reputation.  Whereas Parker’s ancestress was an accused witch in colonial Massachusetts and Cattrall’s maternal grandfather was a bigamist reprobate, Nixon’s 3rd great-grandmother, Martha Curnutt Casto, was a convicted killer.

(Side note: Cynthia Nixon is a fantastic actress, and I admire her desire to be outspoken on issues like marriage equality.  I think Nixon may even be the first LGBT celebrity whose activism and same-sex spouse have actually been mentioned on the show.  Who knew that the “gay agenda” spread to genealogy?)

Nixon’s parents (both deceased) divorced when she was young, and as she was much closer to her mother, she chose to research her father’s family.  This is one of those moments where I wondered if “chose” is WDYTYA code for “the producers could not find an interesting story in her mother’s family.”

Even from the beginning, this episode showed signs of the producers’ heavy hand.  The family tree she received at the New York Historical Society has a big question mark next for the maiden name of Nixon’s 2nd great-grandmother Mary M. Nixon.  It’s like a flashing neon sign that screams, “This is where we are headed.”  As it turned out, Joseph Shumway, the genealogist who presented Nixon her family tree, also got Mary Nixon’s death certificate where we discover her birthplace (Missouri), and mother’s maiden name–Martha Curnutt.  Notably, Mary’s father’s name, and, thus presumably her own maiden name, was unknown.  Using a certain genealogical website that sponsors the show (first plug 5 minutes in), Nixon discovered that Martha Curnutt married Noah Casto in Missouri.

(Speaking of that certain genealogy website, my dear reader, do you use it?  And if so, are you aware of the outrage that Ancestry.com has produced by closing down its services like MyCanvas and the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA sites?  There is some real (and in my opinion, deserved) fury over the clumsy and unthinking way Ancestry botched the DNA closings.  Given that I have never used any of these services though, I am curious what other people think, especially those who have.  Does this also make you hesitate to try Ancestry’s autosomal test?)

Back to Martha.  Shumway shows Nixon the 1850 Census, the first to list family members instead of just heads of household.  Although there is no Martha Casto, there is a Martha Curnutt who has three children, Sarah (age 6), Noah (age 7), and Mary (age 10), Nixon’s ancestor.  All the children have the surname Curnutt, and Noah Casto is not in the picture.  Seven minutes in, we get our first commercial break and the promise of a shocking secret.

Noah Curnutt served and died in the Civil War.  Nixon went to Washington DC and found his pension record, which Martha, as his mother and therefore survivor, filled out.  The pension file stated that Noah the father died in 1842, when his daughter Mary was only two and his son Noah was not even born.  Which inevitably led to the question of who was Sarah’s father.

Long story short, Noah Casto’s death was not natural, and we find this out, first in a prosecution against Martha and then in a fantastically gossipy newspaper account which contained this description of Noah, “A man whose name our informant had forgotten.”  Martha killed him with an ax to the head while he slept and was found guilty only of manslaughter.  A perusal of a contemporary newspaper showed that Noah was a vile man who abused and possibly raped his wife and threatened to kill her the night she killed him.  This probably explains why she was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.  At the time, women were stripped of their rights and privileges once they were married, so even a divorce would not have protected Martha.   Murder, according to WDYTYA, was Martha’s only option, and the jury was sympathetic to an extent.  As it happened, she became only the second female prisoner in the history of the Missouri State Penitentiary, and was the lone female in a prison full of men.

As one would expect of any prison run by private corporations for profit, the prisoners were treated abominably, which was described in a book by a former inmate whose sentence was concurrent with Martha’s.  He wrote about Martha and described the abusive treatment the prison authorities dealt to her and to the child (Sarah) who was born while she was in prison.  Given the timing of Sarah’s birth, it appears that she was indeed not Noah’s daughter, but possibly that of a warden or guard who may have raped Martha.  In fact, Martha’s treatment was so horrible that the petition for her pardon was signed by many people, including prominent politicians.  Indeed, she was pardoned not even two years into her five-year sentence.  It was a pretty awful story, and I have no desire to trigger readers any more than I already may have by recapping it in full.  It certainly hit Nixon pretty hard, although I do wonder from time to time, given that many of these celebrities are actors, are these emotions genuine?  And if so, is it because of story of because of how draining the journey is?  It is one thing to react when a parent or grandparent is involved, but to get so emotional about a distant ancestor who you never knew existed until a few days before–that seems a little different.  Of course, this could also be a natural empathic reaction, and I could be a horrible cynic.

Regardless, the story was pretty powerful, so I will not fault Nixon for her emotion.  Where I believe she is on less solid footing is this supposition, typical of WDYTYA, that Martha helped usher in prison reform (specifically a separate prison for women and the recognition that they too commit crimes).  Two minutes earlier, we were told that so many prominent politicians petitioned the governor for her pardon precisely because they may have been opposed to such reforms.  Additionally, it is hard to see Martha as anything more than a passive figure in whatever prison reform movement may have occurred.  More likely, given the sparseness of the historical record, Martha wanted to move on with her life and get as far removed from that time as possible.

Using FindaGrave.com, a site Ancestry now owns but WDYTYA left unnamed, Nixon discovered Martha’s grave where she was buried with daughter Mary and son-in-law Samuel Nixon.  Nixon visited the graves and left flowers for Martha.  Then she spoke at length about Martha’s strength and she ran up against history and changed it.  Which, honestly seems quite a bit of a stretch, but these are definitely qualities that Cynthia Nixon has in spades.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Next week, WDYTYA continues its foray into the “gay agenda” with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the third openly gay celebrity in a row, following Nixon and Jim Parsons.

Absence

Dear Readers,

Sorry for the absence.  I have been abroad on vacation, working hard, and now distracted by the World Cup.  I hate letting a month go by without posting though, so here is my apology. 

In the meantime, marriage equality is here to stay in my home state of Pennsylvania, which means the entire Northeast and West Coast are in the win columns.  Another ban has been struck down (pending a stay) in Wisconsin, so now over half of the country has marriage equality or the law has been struck down and put on hold temporarily.  Interesting times. 

A Celebration Of The Wurst

My dear readers,

I am very sorry that I have been absent these past few weeks.  While abroad I have missed much, the judicial decisions in Arkansas and Idaho, the oral arguments before the 4th Circuit, the goings on in Oregon, where a decision is expected to be handed down in a matter of hours from the time of this writing.  And, as warned, I missed my Eurovision recap.

Nevertheless, I do want to write a little about things on my mind related to the Eurovision Song Contest.  Being in the audience is a completely different experience than being at a party.  It is a little like Plato’s cave.  If watching online is the shadows, and a Eurovision party is the fire, then actually attending is like seeing the light of the sun.  Everyone should do it at least once.  Most of the acts are actually designed for the stage, and television obscures all the goings on–Azerbaijan’s act with the acrobat is a good example.  The cameras can show the woman or the acrobat, but not both.  Or at least not often.   In the audience however, you can see it all.  (On the other hand, the excellent Dutch entry benefited from television because the song was free of gimmicks, and the cameras could focus on a specific musician and nothing was lost.  That however, was a rarity.)  Television also cannot show the stagecraft so well, such as the interesting way lights were used (Sweden).

But the best part of the show is the audience and watching the way the performers feed of the audience excitement.  Being in Copenhagen, Denmark’s entry got a very warm reception (as did neighbors Norway and Sweden).  But the real story of course was Conchita Wurst, the bearded Austrian drag queen who won the competition.  The largest applause of the night was for her.  You can sort of hear in the television feed the audience singing along Conchita whenever she get to the chorus, particularly the “Riiiiiiiiiiise like a phoenix” line.  I can assure you that it was much louder in the hall.  When the song ended, the cheering was so boisterous and the excitement so palpable, my partner turned to me and said, “We have a winner.”

It should come as no surprise that the live Eurovision audience is comprised largely, perhaps mostly, of gay men.  In the run up to the competition, Eurovision and Copenhagen had been doing everything possible to make gay men feel welcome (the amount of emails I got telling me to get gay-married in Copenhagen would make a Jewish mother blush).  There were practically as many pride flags at Eurovision as national flags.  This embrace was a sharp contrast to the homophobia coming out of Eastern Europe in the past year, particularly the Russian government.  After watching Russia pass laws designed to demean gay people and tear about their families, gays had the further humiliation of witnessing the world not care.  The Sochi Olympics proved exactly how little regard we are actually held in when money and diplomacy are on the line.  When members of the Russian government (and from Russia’s annoying little sibling Belarus) started attacking Conchita, a gay man when in not in drag, she became the symbol of the LGBT community’s resistance to Russia.  In Eurovision terms, Conchita won the all-important gay bloc vote, a bloc that had not come together in such solidarity since 1998 for Dana International’s win.  (The animosity toward Russia also extended to the Russian entry, the Tolmachevy twins, who received loud boos after their performance and even louder one every time they were awarded 8, 10, 0r 12 points during the voting.  They themselves did not deserve such treatment, but it underscored the anger at Russia.)  That Russian government officials completely flipped out afterwards, combined with the knowledge that Conchita came in third in the Russian televote (and that her song went to the top of Russia’s iTunes chart), only made her win that much sweeter.  Conchita has before and since been an eloquent and elegant spokesperson for the LGBT community, which is another reason for the rallying behind her.  She fended off the ugliest homophobia with grace and panache.

2014 may well  the year of the European drag queen.  Earlier this year, the Irish gay rights activist and drag queen Panti Bliss (real name Rory O’Neill) discussed homophobia in Ireland and called out certain journalists and institutions for their homophobic actions and writings.  Those who were named threatened to sue O’Neill and the broadcast network for libel.  (Ireland, like Britain, has ridiculous libel laws.)  The network settled, and in response, O’Neill, as Panti, gave a speech in response at the Abbey Theater in Dublin.  It is a remarkable speech about the events and about homophobia that deserves to be watched in its entirety.  The video has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

So to date, an Irish drag queen gave one of the best speeches in that nation’s history and an Austrian drag queen won the world’s biggest music contest.  And the year is not even half over.

Eurovision Recap Status

Every year following the Eurovision Song Contest, I like to write a recap of the competition as I saw it.  This year however, will be a little different.  This year, I will be in the audience in Copenhagen, and I will be traveling through Denmark over the following week.  No time to write a recap.  I will try to write thoughts and reflections of Eurovision when I return, but no promises.