Literature In Other Languages

I grew up in the United States.  English is my native language, and, while I am not fluent in any other language, I have varying levels of skill in reading a few others.  In the past few years I have become fascinated with linguistics, not in the Noam Chomsky sense, bur rather in the history and evolution of languages.

This fascination with the history of languages has progressed over to literature in other languages.  Growing up in the American school system, the majority of books, short stories, dramas, and poetry that I read were written in English, usually by American and British writers.  This is not necessarily a mark of provincialism; English language literature has a very long and distinguished history that spans centuries, continents, and genres.  Moreover, there are nuances in the original language that just cannot be captured in translation–save for occasionally with explanatory footnotes.

It is not that I have been unexposed to literature in other languages, but the exposure is generally limited.  In my experience, a world literature course covers the following materials: (1) Ancient epic poems, specifically those in ancient Greek (The Iliad and The Odyssey) and Latin (The Aeneid).  Sometimes this includes Sumerian (Gilgamesh), and Old English (Beowulf); (2) English language novels from nations once part of the British Empire; (3) The Bible and maybe the occasional other religious text; and (4) fiction in one of five other European languages–Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, or German.  Occasionally a European writer who wrote in a different language (like Henrik Ibsen) will sneak through if he is famous enough, but they are few and far between.

I am not knocking such classes.  Everything I have mentioned thus far is worth reading.  But there is so much out there from so many different places, and it also merits consideration.  For example, I have more than a passing familiarity with Yiddish and Hebrew literature.  Hebrew literature comprises everything from Biblical texts through the modern state of Israel.  Yiddish literature is a much more recent phenomenon, only a couple hundred years old.  Both are extremely worthwhile for the reader.  There are so many languages out there, large and small, which have a great body literature that deserves to be read.

It is not actually difficult to find out about foreign literature.  Wikipedia is the new repository of all human knowledge (a blessing and a curse).  There are also, of course, extremely flawed lists ranking works of world literature, but I am skeptical of such lists.  Greatness is a nebulous concept that often suspiciously coincides with the list maker’s personal agenda.  The Nobel Prize is even more suspect in determining worthwhile literature.  There are a lot reasons for my distrust but primarily it is because Nobel has a long track record of missing many of the world’s greatest and most important writers.  Tolstoy, Twain, Zola, Chekhov, Joyce, Ibsen, James, Auden, Woolf, Pound, Achebe, Nabokov, Strindberg, Brecht, and Borges are only a few of the notable names the Swedish Academy has overlooked.  Proust died too soon, and Kafka’s major work was published posthumously.

Although the vast majority of readers of this blog are from English-speaking countries (especially the United States), readers from elsewhere occasionally stumble on my posts.  Probably most of these hits are because of my Who Do You Think You Are Recaps, but to all of you who speak a language other than English, I have a question for you, and I would greatly appreciate any time you take to answer.  What is the general consensus for the great works of literature in your language?  Do you agree or no?  Finally, what works do you believe will stand the test of time and should be included in a world canon?

Minnie Driver, Who Do You Think You Are?

It is not fair to compare the British and American versions of Who Do You Think You Are.  The British version is on the BBC, which is funded by the state, and thus does not need to rely on commercials and sponsorships.  Moreover, an hour program in Britain is really an hour, not the 40-some odd minutes of American broadcast television.  (PBS and HBO being notable exceptions, of course.)  The BBC version also lacks the blatant Ancestry plugs in the British version; the one from today (35 minutes in) was clearly added in later after the episode had been reedited for American television.

The flaws of the American WDYTYA, which I have commented on so many times in the past, are all the more apparent when the show imports an episode from the British series and tries to fit it into the American paradigm.  This is actually the second time this happened, the first being the Kim Cattrall episode.  Unlike that one however, I never actually saw the Minnie Driver episode in its entirety.  Tonight was the first time I saw it.  Nevertheless, the attempts to format it for a trip across the Atlantic were very awkward and apparent.  Despite the fact that the episode was both intense and engaging, the narrative flow was also jarring.  I was also left wondering if the questions I had after the episode had been answered for British viewers.  In truth, the British episodes have a very different feel to them, and the Minnie Driver episode is an oddity, because it had that British feel, but  because of the time limits, it felt somewhat patchwork (aided by with dubbed in mood music and celebrity narration for quick transition).

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Minnie Driver was born in London but now lives in Los Angeles with her son Henry.  Her dad Charles Ronald “Ronnie” Driver died when Henry was just over a year old.  For Henry’s sake, Minnie wanted to learn about Ronnie’s family.  Ronnie never spoke about his parents or his past.

Ronnie and Minnie’s mother Gaynor met around 1962.  They never married and broke up when Minnie was six.  Ronnie was married to someone else the entire time he was with Gaynor, and he had another family.  Ronnie’s mother was alive when Minnie was a child, but they never met; Minnie never even saw a photo of her grandmother.

And dear readers, especially if you have seen this episode in the British version, perhaps you know the answer to this, but did Minnie know her father’s other family?  Or have any kind of relationship to them?  Because I wondered if Minnie had half-siblings, and did those siblings ever meet Ronnie’s mother or know anything about her?

Minnie began her journey in London at her mother’s residence.  Minnie had a copy of her father’s birth certificate and a copy of a book that listed her father’s Royal Air Force service.  Gaynor knew about the RAF service, but she never asked about it.  It bothered her that Ronnie was married, but she never pressed that either.  She said she thought Ronnie was hiding something, but she did not want to dig up whatever that was.

Ronnie was born in Swansea, Wales in 1921 to English and Scottish parents–Charles Edmund Driver and Mary Jessie Kelley, who, like Minnie’s parents, were not married.  In the RAF service book that Minnie had, there was a picture of Ronnie.  He was awarded the second Distinguished Flying Medal given out during World War II, but he told Gaynor that he threw the medal into the Thames, claiming he did not deserve it.

Before digging into Ronnie’s familiar history, Minnie went to learn about his RAF service.  Ronnie was 18 when he first saw battle, the Battle of Helligoland Bight of 1939, which was the first named air battle of World War II.  The British were confident of their air superiority with their Vickers Wellington bombers, but the Luftwaffe routed the RAF.   Of the 22 Wellingtons that were in battle, 12 were destroyed and another three were damaged.

Minnie was given an account of the battle in a book called Epics of the RAF.  Her father’s heroics were detailed.  He beat out a fire with his bare hand and saved the lives of most of his fellow airmen.  He did however, lose his best friend in battle.  Minnie said that when her sister named her daughter Lily, Ronnie cried and cried.  They never asked why, and assumed it was because of the birth of his granddaughter.  In actuality, this friend’s surname was Lilly (Lily?).

Minnie was then introduced to Derek Alloway, an RAF veteran who knew Ronnie.  He talked to Minnie about what happened at the battle and showed her an official report, which detailed how Ronnie helped save the crew, who survived largely because of his actions, and nearly at the cost of his life.  Alloway however, never saw Ronnie after the battle.

Minnie went to the RAF museum where she was given the transcript of an interview done with her father.  He talked about his background as well as the events of the battle.  The interview was to be used as a propaganda piece to encourage other young men to get involved and also to forget that the battle was a very heavy defeat.  Minnie was given a copy of Ronnie’s home town paper from shortly afterwards where there was a clip about Ronnie’s mother welcoming her son home and a picture of her with Ronnie.

Ronnie received his medal in 1940, but the next entry in his file was his discharge shortly thereafter.  He was discharged to the RAF Hospital in Matlock, a psychiatric hospital.  Minnie went to Matlock to learn more about his diagnosis, which was anxiety.  He was given sleep medication and time to himself.  Today, undoubtedly he would have been diagnosed with Posttraumatic stress disorder, especially as later that year (December 1940) he was again admitted to a psychiatric hospital, this time the RAF Liverpool in Ealing.

Yet, Ronnie stayed with the RAF.  In 1943 he was commissioned as a pilot officer, and in 1944, he was promoted to flying officer.  There was even a portrait from the Portrait Gallery of his wedding day to his wife Ann.  Notably, despite wearing his uniform, he did not have his Distinguished Flying Medal, and Minnie said she understood why he threw the medal in the river.

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Ronnie’s father Charles died when he was young, and Minnie wanted to know more about him, so she traveled to Stockton to learn more.  It turned out that Ronnie’s parents did marry, but in 1936 when Ronnie was 15.  Minnie had to wait for the marriage certificate though, which she could not order online.  Instead she looked for Charles in the 1891 Census.  He was one of five children born to John and Sarah Driver.  (John was from Ipswich and Sarah from Ireland).

Minnie wanted to know if she had any relatives from that side of the family and the researcher, who clearly knew the answer, led her through the descendants of Charles’s younger sister Maud, whose granddaughter (and Minnie’s second cousin) Jean Eileen Cranson Wiper was still alive and 84-years-old.  Minnie got her address and phone number and called her.  Jean, who goes by Eileen, had wondered in the past if Minnie was a relative.  She did known Ronnie’s parents Charles and Mary (who went by Jessie).  She described Charles as a lovely gentleman and Jessie as an outgoing, fun person.  Eileen did not know why they married so later, and she could not remember seeing any pictures, which Minnie desperately wanted.

(At this point I was wondering a question which would never be answered, at least on the American version.  Why did Ronnie cut off all ties with his family?  Why did his daughter never know her grandmother?  Those were questions that no one ever addressed, and they are the first ones I would have asked.)

After meeting Eileen, Minnie got the marriage certificate, which listed Jessie as a widow and Charles as a widower.  Minnie wanted to know when Charles’s first wife died (I do not think anything was mentioned about when Jessie’s first husband died, which I guess meant there was no story.)  Prior to his marriage to Jessie, Charles was married to Ada Wood Stancliffe.  Charles and Ada had a son Leslie, whom Minnie never knew existed.

Minnie wondered if Ronnie knew about Leslie, and acknowledged that yes, he probably did.  Leslie was an actor, which made Minnie very happy to hear that there was someone else who had the calling.  Minnie went to a theater where one of the WDYTYA experts told her Leslie was the lead in a 1945 production at the (now destroyed) Hippodrome in Stockton.  He gave her the program, where she saw that Leslie went by Les Stancliffe, and that was not all; Leslie’s daughter Jean Stancliffe was also in the production.

The WDYTYA people had contacted Jean, and she said she would be happy to speak to Minnie, who called her.  I am interested to know what the full conversation was like, and if they talked about what Leslie’s relationship was like to his father and stepmother (and Ronnie), given that he took his mother’s maiden name for a stage name.  But it also seemed like his daughter had a relationship with Jessie.  (This episode left me with so many questions.)  Jean had no memories of Charles, but she did have a photograph of Charles and Jessie.  Jean was unable to meet up with Minnie, but did send her a copy of the photo, which allowed Minnie to see her grandfather for the first time.  She teared up as she showed the photo to Henry who thought they looked very handsome.  Minnie was left wondering why her father kept everything so secret, and she wished she could talk to him again.

I have said before that episodes focusing on one person are very powerful, especially when the ancestor investigated is a close one.  The Christina Applegate episode is, I believe, the high point of the American series.  Minnie Drive, like Rita Wilson, investigated the secret life of her father, which (like Wilson’s) made for a very compelling story.  (It is no shock to me that the Rita Wilson episode was played immediately afterwards by TLC.)

And with that, this season of WDYTYA has come to an end.  It definitely had its moments, and I look forward to seeing whose stories we are able to see in January.  I hope you have enjoyed the season reading my blog.  I had fun writing it.

Kelsey Grammer, Who Do You Think You Are?

I listen to a lot of podcasts every day, and a couple of times a month I get some genealogy-related ones.  Among those is Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems, which I have mentioned previously.  On her most recent episode she featured a (second) interview with Lisa Kudrow, star of Friends, The Comeback, and (for our purposes) an Executive Producer of Who Do You Think You Are.

I would not normally make a second plug for anything so soon after I made the first one, but I was fascinated by the interview.  Kudrow was actually pretty honest about the flaws of the show despite the fact the interview was completely softball and fawning.  In particular, she lamented how similar this season’s celebrity stories have been, and how the ethnic mix for the celebrities has been, especially since the show moved to TLC, nearly completely homogenous (not her words, but that was the gist).  I bring this up, because I made the same complaint last week, so I felt rather gratified to hear the show’s EP make my exact  complaint in a program uploaded to the Internet half a day after I posted my critique.

Another criticism of Kudrow’s was about how rushed this season has been (she effusively praised the hardworking researchers who found stories and crafted coherent and enticing narratives in such a limited time).  She said next season, which starts this coming January, will go a long way to rectifying what she sees as problems with this season.

I bring this up for two reasons.  First I want to give credit where credit is due (and point out that I am not alone in my complaints).  Second, Kudrow’s criticism is especially apt for this week’s episode, which was, frankly, boring.  There is nothing wrong exactly with the episode; the Oregon Trail is a new historical event for the show, but how many pioneer ancestors can we possibly see?  And the ending monologue every week–bravery, blah blah, pride, blah blah, courage.  It all merges into the same story after a while even if the particulars are different.

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Kelsey Grammer was the son of Frank Allen Grammer Jr. and Sally (Cranmer) Grammer.  Kelsey was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and when he was two, his parents divorced and his mother moved in with her parents Gordon and Evangeline (Dimmick) Cranmer.  Grammer’s life was tinged with tragedy.  His father died at age 38, his grandfather died at 63, two twin half-brothers died in a scuba diving accident, and most horrifying of all, his sister Karen was abducted, raped, and murdered two weeks before her 19th birthday.

In between tragedies, Grammer became very close to his grandmother Evangeline (whom he called Gam).  It is her life he wanted to know about.  She never spoke about her mother–never even said her name–and only mentioned her father once, who walked out on the family when she was little.  Evangeline found him when she was older, and he wanted nothing to do with her.  Evangeline was raised by her aunts, especially her Aunt Lela.  Grammer wanted to know why.

First Grammer met with family historian Jennifer Utley who, via Ancestry (plug 5 minutes in),  found Evangeline in the 1910 Census.  She lived in Alameda, California with her mother Genevieve Dimmick and with Genevieve’s family, including parents, Charles B. and Amelia R. Geddes and sisters Evangeline, Minerva, and Lela (who in 1910 is listed as Delia).  Genevieve had been married for 5 years, but there is no mention of a husband.  On my own perusal of records, what I found particularly interesting is that Evangeline the elder was divorced, which was not mentioned in the episode, but was actually an important piece of information in hindsight with regard to Genevieve’s story.  (Also not noted, Charles, Amelia, and Evangeline the Elder were all naturalized, having been born in Nova Scotia.)

The next stop was the 1920 Census, where Grammer found that his grandmother was living with her Genevieve’s sister Eland Swindell and her family.  Genevieve, Minerva, and Lela lived in the same residence but were a different household.  The historian offered an explanation for that, but I forget now.  Something about a split level home.  In any case, Genevieve is now divorced.

Grammer went to a repository of digitized articles from California and in 1913, he found that Genevieve brought charges that her husband Ellis Dimmick neglected and deserted her.  Apparently they married in Oakland in 1905 and he left her later that year (the implication being that Genevieve was pregnant when they married).  But why wait 8 years before filing for divorce?  Grammer went to the Bay Area to find someone to explain divorce in that era.

And he got a social historian who found the final decree of divorce.  Genevieve Marriott Dimmick filed for divorce against Ellis Loughborough Dimmick, who did not participate in the proceedings.  Why did it take so long?  Grammer and the historian talked about social stigma.  Maybe it was Genevieve who felt the social stigma or maybe her parents pressured her.  (There was already one daughter who was divorced, although again, never mentioned.)  But I wondered–and this was never brought up–if perhaps there was a specific amount of time that had to pass before a woman could get a divorce on the grounds of desertion.

Grammer got more information about Genevieve, specifically her death certificate.  She remarried William Foltz and died at age 52 (in 1924).  The cause was cirrhosis of the liver, meaning that she was probably an alcoholic.  There was some discussion about Prohibition and Genevieve being a victim of her time.  Grammer posited that she was a party girl and Ellis probably knocked got her pregnant, which is why they got married.  And that seemed to answer why Evangeline never spoke about her mother.

With that, Grammer closed the book of Genevieve and turned to Ellis.  He went to Oakland to learn about his great-grandfather.  At this point I notice that typical WDYTYA arc of tragedy and triumph.  We are well into the tragedy part.  Inevitably there will be some family redemption, but I wondered how.  It turned out we would not find it with Ellis.

Ellis Loughborough Dimmick was, how do I put this gently?  From the evidence shown, he appeared to be a rat bastard of a human being.  In 1908 at age 29, three years after his marriage, he joined the Marine.  He waived his marriage so that he kept all his salary rather than send any to his wife and child.  His record notes many absences over leave and one glaring AWOL.  Then Grammer read the comments that (commercial break for drama) he was discharged as undesirable because of habitual use of intoxicants.  He was also labeled as having a bad character.  He spent a lot of time in the brig living on bread and water, and his salary was repeatedly docked.  In 1917, he worked as a night porter at the exclusive Shattuck Hotel in Berkley.  On his World War I Selective Service Card, he listed his daughter Evangeline Lucille Dimmick (address unknown) as his dependent.  Grammer thought it was a showing of decency, but I wonder if it was a way of avoiding the possibility of getting drafted.

It is a cliché of WDYTYA that the celebrity always finds some virtue of him or herself in the ancestor being traced.  It is always, always, always a virtue–never a vice.  The irony is that whereas most celebrities struggle to make these far-fetched connections with ancestors, Kelsey Grammer already has some, granted dubious ones.  Over the years, Grammer has had some very well-publicized battles with his personal demons, specifically alcohol and cocaine addiction.  Substance abuse has a biological/genetic component, and Grammer discovered that two great-grandparents were also substance abusers.  Maybe that is a little heavy for the show, maybe it is just too personal for Grammer to talk about, I don’t know, and I am not going to assume or judge.  But I will say that when I heard about the fates of his great-grandparents, I wondered what went through his mind and if he made any kind of connection.  Grammer may have made a slight allusion to his past, but it went by very quickly.

Grammer got one last piece of evidence about Ellis, his death certificate.  He died at age 60 of arteriosclerosis.  His parents Joseph and Mary (Krichbaum) Dimmick were from the Midwest.

Back to the Census, this time 1880, Grammer found the Dimmicks living in Oakland.  Prodded by the historian, Grammer found that the younger children were born in California, but the eldest two were born in Oregon.  So that led Grammer to go to Portland rather than the places of birth of his 2nd great-grandparents.  Because this show is extremely heavy-handed and obvious.

En route to Portland, Grammer thinks of the Oregon Trail.  I do too, except that my recollections of the Oregon Trail are tinged by that old video game that I played endlessly as a child on the Apple II (as a banker because that gave you the most money to spend).  Also, I killed a lot of pixellated bison even though they weighed 900 pounds and I could only carry 100 pounds back to my wagon.  It was a horrible waste.  I am responsible for the near extinction of computer-generated bison along the Oregon Trail, and I feel horrible about it.  Maybe that is why I am a vegan today.

Grammer met Oregon Historian David Del Mar who told him about Joseph Dimmick, the son of Joseph Dimmick (born in New York) and his wife Comfort (Dean) Dimmick.  The names in this episode are fabulous: Evangeline, Genevieve, Minerva, Lela, Eland, Ellis, Comfort, Lucinda, Ebeneezer, and my personal favorite, Athalinda.  Love it.

Joseph the Younger (Grammer’s 2nd great-grandfather) is one of 14 children.  Or more.  There are multiple sources and the one that is least accurate was on WDYTYA which undercounted.  (I counted from the 1950 Census, and I could tell 12 was too few.)  It appears there may be a few more Dimmicks than were counted on the show.  Not that is matters.  The Dimmicks moved from Rushville, Illinois to Oregon along the Oregon Trail.  Land was cheap, and the scenery was beautiful.  Of course, pre-Transcontinental Railroad, getting to Oregon was exceedingly difficult, and the Dimmicks lost their eldest son Thomas to cholera along the way.  (A nephew of Joseph the Elder kept an account of the trek that history professor Peter Boag showed to Grammar.  According to that account, more people died than just Thomas.  It is very sad.)  But the rest of the family made it.  Joseph and Comfort both got land, and Joseph died on it.  There was a small biographical portrait of him, and he was listed as a pioneer, which is apparently a badge of honor in Oregon.  Thus, we have the triumph part of the requisite tragedy and triumph arc I mentioned above.  The episode ended with Kelsey Grammer waxing poetically about bravery and courage and pride, and I lost focus thinking about this write-up.

Next up: Lauren Graham and the season finale.

Edit:  The Lauren Graham episode is not airing this season if at all.  Instead next week will feature Minnie Driver.  Driver was actually featured on the BBC series, which means that this episode is probably a reedited version of that. 

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.

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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.

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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.”)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.