“These people actually existed. It makes it much more real, and it’s hard not to feel emotional about it.”
Because I watched this episode at my parents’ house, and because they, unlike me, have a digital video recorder, I had the advantage of watching this week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are without having to pay any attention to the commercials. Apparently, to compensate for my ability to skip over advertisements, both Ancestry.com and Apple upped the ante with in-show product placements. There was the Ancestry plug (7 minutes in), the other screenshots of Ancestry, and an iPad that Edie Falco carried around with her. Had I bothered with commercials I wonder if I would have seen an ad informing the public that the 1940 census was at Ancestry, while the government site crashed.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again; this show would work far better on a network like the BBC or PBS. I think it would be more fun if it were on non-commercial television too. PBS does have its own genealogy show, Finding Your Roots. Finding Your Roots is a better show for introducing genealogical research, but it’s like broccoli; good for you, but no fun. At its heart though, Finding Your Roots is yet another Skip Gates vanity project. Who Do You Think You Are may be the candy of the genealogical world, it may be nonsensical, it may be frustrating to the point where I scream at my television, but at least I want to watch it again (usually). A non-commercial network would make what it generally an enjoyable show a great one. (And Finding Your Roots is also big on the product placement, particularly with 23andMe, a DNA testing company that I am extremely suspicious of.)
Edie Falco is a wonderful actress. Ever since I saw her Carmela Soprano, I have loved her. Nevertheless, the episode itself was not the most thrilling of the season. It’s hard to say that because if anyone on this show understands the lure of genealogy it is Falco. Her statement that I quoted above and her question regarding whether family tree research is merely about bloodlines or about something more (her children are adopted), it shows that she cares and that she gets it. Nevertheless, there was something about this episode that felt slightly off. Like there was a major story that got bypassed somehow.
In the beginning of the episode, Falco, the child of divorced parents, noted that she did not know her mother’s family well and had very little contact with her extended relatives while growing up. Her mother however, had a beautiful handmade family tree that detailed her own mother’s (Ruth Megrath) family tree. Ruth Megrath was the daughter of George and Florence Megrath, and on the tree was an interesting tidbit: Megrath was the maiden name of George’s mother. His father’s name was Brown, and George’s mother left Mr. Brown and, with George, emigrated to the United States (from Wales). Falco wanted to know why George’s mother left his father.
The first place that Falco went to was the New York Public Library where she looked at the 1920 US census. (One wonders why she needed to go to New York just to look at the census, since all she did was use Ancestry’s collection.) There she discovered that George was born not in Wales, but in Wisconsin. Additionally, his mother was born in the United States and his father in England. Falco was surprised that her family tree was wrong and set off to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to discover the rest of the story.
At this point, I want to advise all amateur genealogists. If you go on to Ancestry, there is a good possibility that you will find some unsourced tree that goes back multiple generations, possibly centuries. You will think, “Hallelujah, the work has all been done! Look at how many ancestors I can trace.” Caveat emptor. Ancestry trees are notoriously unreliable. Unless you do the work yourself or can validate the source material of another’s tree, take nothing as truth. It is entirely possible that someone somewhere made a mistake (or twenty), like the one that belonged to Edie Falco’s mother.
In Wisconsin, Falco went to the All Saints Episcopal Church where she found the baptismal record of her great-grandfather George Megrath, who was originally George Brown. George’s mother was Mary Megrath Brown and his father was Charles Childs Brown. Charles Brown was present at the baptism.
Falco found in old city directories that Charles was an apprentice at a local paper. But Brown was not in Wisconsin for long. In 1885, seven years after George’s birth, he was in Little Falls, Minnesota (listed as C.C. Brown). A little further research revealed to Falco that Brown started the first paper in the nearby town of Royalton, Minnesota. He did not stay in the area for long; Brown moved out to Duluth where he died. An article was presented to Falco from Duluth from 1892 which said that George Megrath (now living in Albany) had died in a streetcar accident. Like with her relative’s family tree, Falco knew that this news article was incorrect.
Looking into the Albany connection, Falco found an article about a Sister Kathryn (Catherine) Brown (Episcopal not Catholic) who died intestate in 1902 in nearby Troy, New York. (My ears perked up. I have great affinity for Troy.) This was Charles’s mother, and because Charles had already died, George Megrath showed up to claim her estate. From this information, Falco learned that George was actually the eldest of Charles Brown’s children. Charles and Mary divorced in 1878 when George was two, and Charles remarried (and divorced) two more times and had three more children. The researcher who informed Falco about Charles’s later life said that as a newspaper man, Charles was probably an alcoholic and also probably very difficult to live with. (Thankfully, there was no attempts to whitewash him. Falco accepted that he was human and flawed.)
Falco turned her attention to Sister Kathryn Brown (her 3rd great-grandmother), and from the 1900 Census, she learned that Kathryn was born at sea to English parents. That Kathryn was born at sea interested Falco. Rather than go to Troy, Falco went to London where Charles was born. In London, Falco found a record of Charles’s birth; he was born to Kathryn Kindley (and William Brown, who was not mentioned in the episode, but I saw the birth certificate). Looking for Kathryn in the 1841 UK census, Falco found that Kathryn (Kate) was living with an older woman named Childs who was probably her grandmother. Kate’s parents were not listed. She also learned that Kate was born in Cornwall, specifically Penzance. And yes, Edie Falco made the appropriate Gilbert & Sullivan reference. (This is probably where the Wales story came from; both Wales and Cornwall are peninsulas in the West of England, both have a Celtic connection, and both the Welsh and the Cornish have very thick and distinct accents.)
In Penzance, Falco discovered that Kate Kindley was the daughter of Ralph and Dorothy Childs Kindly. Ralph was a master mariner (a sea captain), which was a good job, but it kept him at sea for long stretches at a time. From an 1833 newspaper article, Falco learned that Dorothy Kindley died; her daughter was two.
The next researcher that Falco met took her on a ship to explain to her all about the life of a master mariner, and he suggested that Dorothy was probably used to being on a ship. The researcher showed Falco the documents he found, one a copy of Lloyd’s List from which he was able to determine that Kate was probably born on the Lord Cochrane which was en route to New Orleans. He also showed Falco letters of administration from the New York Surrogate’s Court from October 1840, which showed that on July 20 of that year, en route from the Coast of Africa to New York, Ralph Kindley died from a fever. He was probably buried at sea.
And thus the episode ends with Edie Falco aboard a ship sailing on the middle of the ocean.
Next time is Rob Lowe although that won’t be for a few weeks.
[Edit: If you are interested in the Child/Kindley family history that was researched in this episode, this site is an incredibly thorough and detailed.]