Cindy Crawford, Who Do You Think You Are?

Another Tuesday, another edition of Who Do You Think You Are.  This week’s celebrity is Cindy Crawford, a woman whom I have not thought about in ages.  I imagine that this week’s episode left all serious genealogy-inclined viewers of the show gnashing their teeth in disgust.  It was not enough that Cindy was given a 12 generation family tree in the beginning of the episode; oh no.  (And it was her first day pursuing genealogy too!)  At the end of the episode she was given a 43 generation genealogy chart tracing her ancestry all the way back to Charlemagne.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What bothered me about the episode was not so much that Cindy was spoon-fed her family history, although I did feel a pang of envy, but rather the fact that complicated historical ambiguities were glossed over in favor of facile and incorrect assumptions.  After nearly four seasons, one would think I would be used to this.  Nevertheless, I still get frustrated every time the only lesson the celebrity learns from his or her journey is “Woooo!  My ancestor was awesome!  (And vicariously so am I!)”

Sometimes I wish I could put myself in the shoes of the historians, librarians, professors, and genealogists who appear as guides for the celebrities.  These are people who spend their lives devoted to history.  How does it make them feel to teach lessons that are incorrect even in an elementary school classroom?  Why they are even there?  All they do is give the next clue in the scavenger hunt.

Can I get something else off my chest?  I don’t understand how the opening credits are organized.  They are not alphabetical, and they are not arranged by order of air date.  In the (better) British version of the opening credits, the order is changed each episode so that celebrity of the week is the last one to appear.  The American credits, like the show itself, lack an internal rhyme and reason.


Cindy Crawford wanted to know about her family.  Or perhaps it was because her daughter had a big genealogy project for school.  We got both reasons.  Cindy, who was born in DeKalb, Illinois, knew all four of her great-grandmothers and two of her great-grandfathers.  For that I am truly jealous.  When I was born three of my great-grandmothers were still alive.  Two of them died when I was when a little boy, and the last one died when I was in high school.  I understand how fortunate I am that I remember them, but I’m still jealous of Cindy.  There are so many questions I would have loved to ask.

Cindy said she hoped that it turns out she is related to someone who was historically relevant, but mostly she wanted a connection to history.  I am the opposite; I am proud that I am a descendant of farmers, junk dealers, tailors, housewives, and jewelers, and I completely understand my connection to history.  However, when she expressed her wish that she is related to someone famous, I knew that she would be related to someone big.  Perhaps the biggest sin of WDYTYA is its predictability.

From what I gathered, Cindy’s great-grandparents all lived in Minnesota, so she traveled back and forth between Illinois and Minnesota as a child.  One of her grandmothers was named Ramona Hemingway, and naturally Cindy wondered if she was related to Ernest.  (She is–eighth cousin twice removed.)  Ramona’s parents were Frank and Hazel (Brown) Hemingway, whom Cindy knew as a child.  Frank, a popcorn farmer wanted a son, but got eight daughters instead.

Frank’s parents were called Grandpa Lou and Grandma Lou.  Cindy said she did not know Grandma Lou’s real name, and the show never actually told us.  In fact, on the genealogy chart shown on-screen for the benefit of the viewers, she is labeled as “Grandma Lou,” which I thought was rather condescending.  For the record, her name was actually Carrie Salisbury Hemingway.  You’re welcome.

Cindy, mercifully bucking of the trend of talking to a family member, researches on Ancestry (5 minutes in) on her own.  She randomly found the correct Louis Hemingway by clicking the first entry she saw (note to newbies: don’t search like Cindy does) and discovered that his father Frank came from New Hampshire.  So Cindy went to the New England Historic Genealogy Society in Boston where she got that 12 generation family tree that I mentioned.

It’s got a little confusing here, and I am glad I have an Ancestry subscription to double-check the research.  Bear with me.  Louis’s great-grandparents were Ebenezer and Ruth (Gates) Hemingway.  Ruth’s parents (Cindy’s 6th great-grandparents) were Amos and Mary Gates.  Mary Gates’s maiden name was Trowbridge.  Mary’s great-grandparents (Cindy’s 10th great-grandparents), were Thomas and Elizabeth (Marshall) Trowbridge.  And this is where the show wants us to be.  The Trowbridges were a very old New England family, so old and so important that the New England Genealogy Society had a book them about them.  Thomas and Elizabeth were also the first ancestors of Cyndi’s to be born outside the United States (presumably just on that side of the family, the other branches were left untouched).

Thomas, who was born in Taunton, England around 1600, was the son of John Trowbridge, a wealthy and prominent wool merchant.  Thomas married Elizabeth in 1627 and they had four children, the youngest was born in 1633 in England.  Since Cindy’s own ancestor, Thomas’s son James was born in New England in 1637, that meant that the Trowbridges moved to the new world somewhere between 1633 and 1637.

I have a sense of déjà vu all over again.  Thomas was a Puritan who left for Boston in the mid-1630’s during the so-called Great Migration.  We the audience are told that Thomas and the Puritans fled England because of religious persecution.  I’ve ranted about this before, so I don’t want to spend so much time on this, but this idea that the Puritans left England to flee religious persecution is not the full story, and it drives me crazy when it is treated as such.  When the Quakers and the Catholics came to Pennsylvania and Maryland respectively, they were fleeing religious persecution.  When the Jews from Eastern Europe came to the United States between the 1880’s and the 1920’s, they too were fleeing religious persecution.  But the Puritans were different.  They were a major political faction in England who had just challenged the monarchy.  The Puritans who left did so because the religious and political climate was hostile, but it is not religious persecution as we are accustomed to thinking of it.

Additionally, when the Puritans and the Separatists, both dogmatic Calvinist sects, came to what is now Massachusetts, they did not create a utopia.  Rather, they established a communal theocracy in which those who did not adhere to their strict tenets were punished or exiled (or both).  Thomas Trowbridge was one of those Puritans who believed that Boston was too populated and there was too much dissension–in other words, Boston was not strict enough.  So he and others founded the New Haven Colony.  (Ironic now that New England is the locus of American liberalism and the Congregationalists today are far removed from the Puritans.)

Cindy next went to Hartford, Connecticut where she learned that the New Haven Colony set an attachment on Thomas’s property because he did not pay his taxes and was a debtor to others.  In April 1644 his estate was sequestered and his family was dissolved.  His wife was no longer in the picture, probably dead for years, and his children were given to another member of the community to raise.

Another document showed that Thomas had returned to Taunton to marry Frances Shaddock because there was a dearth of single women and those who were single were completely ineligible for a man of marrying age to wed.  So he left his children in New Haven and fled the colony.  There was no record that he ever came back.

Following on his trail, Cindy flew over to Taunton.  There she was told that it was not unusual for the colonists to return to England either temporarily or permanently.  In 1640 and 1641, there was a great surge of people who returned following King Charles I’s unsuccessful war against the Scots.

Cindy then got a document that required the use of white gloves.  I don’t think I ever mentioned this, but white gloves are somewhat controversial in historical/genealogical circles.  There are two schools of thought.  The first is that the gloves protect the documents from the oils and dirt on readers’ hands.  The second school says that clean hands are better than the gloves which leave behind fibers that damage the documents.  I have no expertise in the matter; I’m just putting that out there.

The document that Cindy got was from the local court rolls, and it’s an award of pensions to former soldiers who were wounded in war.  Their captain was Thomas Trowbridge who, at the time, was a captain of the Parliamentary Army during the English Civil War.  So Trowbridge returned to Taunton, not just to marry, but to fight.  We are told he fought “King Charles’s religious oppression.”

I am no scholar of English history, but I find this idea of religious oppression to be extremely simplistic and wrongheaded, and it does an incredible disservice to history.  The English Civil War cannot merely be boiled down to religious oppression in the same way that the American Civil War is boiled down to slavery (which, in and of itself also does a disservice to that war’s complexity).  There were many reasons behind the English Civil War.  There was a money issue, and there was a problem with the Scots, and overshadowing everything was the rising power of Parliament.  And then there was the monarch himself.  The Stuarts were not the Tudors and could not inspire love and fear the way their predecessors could.  Nevertheless, Charles, and before him his father James I, saw themselves as absolute monarchs, unanswerable to both Parliament and the law.  Add this to the fact that Charles married a Roman-Catholic which alarmed Protestant England.  Parliament and the monarchy were on a collision course.  In other words, the English Civil War was less about religion and more about the balance of power.  It resulted in the beheading of King Charles I (not mentioned by WDYTYA), the Protectorate/military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell (also not mentioned), the eventual Stuart Restoration (also absent), today’s complete and utter dominance of Parliament–specifically the House of Commons–in the government, and the relative stability of England later on when the Continent burned with rebellion, or when there was yet another succession crisis.

So… religious oppression?


Back to our story.  Cindy learned that what Trowbridge did–leaving his children and going across the sea–was not that unusual.  She also learned that because of the English Civil War, shipping was disrupted so he could neither bring his children back or write to them.  Cindy decided to give him a break.  It’s lovely until you realize that Thomas lived until about 1672 and left his children in the early 1640’s.  Moreover, the English Civil War ended in 1651.  But again, what do I know?

Cindy went to Taunton Castle where she learned that Taunton was the only holdout in Somerset County for the Parliamentarians, and it was a hotbed of Parliamentary activity.  As a captain, Thomas had a duty to protect the people who were forced to endure a brutal seven month siege by the Royalists.  The people of Taunton dug trenches and built barricades, but the Royalists broke through.  What happened?  A commercial break happened.

After more commercials we learned that on the brink of victory, the Royalists had to withdraw to face Cromwell.  And even though there was a great cost to the city, Thomas Trowbridge was feted as a hero and he helped his soldiers get pensions.  Cindy then decided to learn more about her family, how far back it goes.  After all, she wants her daughter to get an A+ on her genealogy homework.  So she went to London for reasons that were unexplained.  In London she met the historian Charles Mosley, who I swear was in the Brooke Shields episode.  It was Mosley who gave Cindy that second family tree that went all the way back to Charlemagne through Thomas’s mother Agnes Prowse Trowbridge.  There were a lot of names on that tree and the camera went through them very quickly (and I was very glad to find Trowbridge’s family tree on Ancestry).  Earls of Somerset (William de Mohun), counts of Britney, Bernard of Italy, the King of the Lombards.  And then at the top of the tree was Charlemagne.

I’m sure it was very shocking and exciting for Cindy Crawford to learn that her 41st times great-grandfather was one of the great figures of European history, but my first thought was “Henry Louis Gates already did it.”  On one of his genealogy shows, I forget which one, he discovered that the poet Elizabeth Alexander was also a descendant of Charlemagne.  Also, although I cannot say with absolute certainty, I imagine that most people of Western European descent are descended from Charlemagne.  What’s shocking is not that he was her ancestor, but that they were able to trace it, and without actually seeing sources, I am going to be skeptical.  After all, this show does make mistakes.

Finally, Cindy went to Aachen, Germany where she learned all about Charlemagne, and if you’re interested in him there are a zillion resources in print and online, so there is no need for me to summarize.  Cindy said something about being a girl from the Midwest and connecting that to the history she learned, but by that point, I had completely tuned out.

Going back to the Charlemagne lineage, it actually ties in with something I want to make sure I say to any newbies out there.  If you find a family tree that traces your lineage back to Adam and Eve, it is wrong.  Ditto with King Arthur.  And quite frankly, if you find one that traces your lineage back to Charlemagne, demand citations.  Charlemagne, and his known ancestors, is probably the farthest point back in time most people will be able to trace.  Even European royalty, where the lineage is assiduously studied, can go only at the very farthest into the Merovingian dynasty era.  At some point, and is this is probably true around the world, history is not so much fact but legend.  Mathematically, we may all be descendants of Mohammed or Nefertiti or Confucius, but you can’t claim them unless you can document it.  Good luck.

Next week Trisha Yearwood.

Chris O’Donnell, Who Do You Think You Are?


One small question, and yet one that cannot be easily answered.  Why are we here?  Why do we think, care, feel, or love?  Why do we trace our family trees?  All very difficult questions from a tiny three-letter word.  Nevertheless, there is one why question that I can answer.  Why do I want to punch Chris O’Donnell?  Anyone who watched tonight’s episode surely can sympathize.

Chris O’Donnell is the first male celebrity to appear on this season’s Who Do You Think You Are; in fact, he is one of only two men to appear this season in total (this season is remarkably female and white, which was not the case on NBC).  I wonder how much this reflects general trends in society; in my own research, while I have come across other male genealogists, most of the relatives I have met online are women.  Perhaps I am wrong–I am a sample size of one after all–but it seems to be the case that personal genealogy is female-dominated, or at least egalitarian, while the genealogy of famous historical figures or royalty is a male-dominated pursuit.  I also whether men focus more on events like wars in their research, which brings up to tonight’s episode.

I’m going to spoil the surprise, Chris O’Donnell’s second great-grandfather Michael McEnnis fought in the Mexican-American War (or, the Mexican War) and his fourth great-grandfather George McNeir (or M’Neir) fought in the War of 1812 at Fort McHenry.  If you knew that this was the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” then congratulations; you are better educated than Chris O’Donnell.  Both the Mexican War and the War of 1812 (especially the former) are very nuanced conflicts.  Unlike the Civil War or World War II, where there were unambiguous evils–slavery and Nazism respectively–that could at least somewhat justify the fighting, the Mexican War and, to a lesser extent, the War of 1812 were unnecessary and, at least partially motivated by the United States’ nascent desire for empire building.  In the Mexican War, the US manufactured a war to successfully steal large swaths of territory from Mexico because of a misguided belief called Manifest Destiny.  (Then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln opposed the War, as did John Quincy Adams and Henry David Thoreau.)  With regard to the War of 1812, there was definite provocation by the British, who were still angry about the American Revolution and engaged in yet another war against France.  Nevertheless, the War of 1812 was also about American attempts to annex Canada, which was the opposite of the United States–the British colony that stayed loyal to the Crown.  (While neither the British nor the Americans could claim victory in the War of 1812, Canada emerged as the real winner.)

But nuance is well beyond Who Do You Think You Are.  This show is all about heroism and giving the celebrities an American identity to be proud of.  There is no room to ask why?  Why were these wars fought?  Why is a bad question because the answer most certainly disappoints.


Why Chris O’Donnell?  I hadn’t thought about him in years.  Not since Batman and Robin anyway, a movie so bad that one can only respond to it with this.  A movie that effectively killed the Batman franchise until Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale came along.  Technically, WDYTYA did not mention the movie by name (it mentioned the earlier one with Val Kilmer instead–and that’s considered the better one), but it did show a picture of Batman, Robin, and Batgirl.  Chris said that he left Hollywood to raise a family (it’s his running theme).  I thought it was because Batman and Robin effectively killed his career.

Chris said he wanted to find out about his father’s family because of how much he loved his father WIlliam, who died two years ago.  Chris’s niece Tory, an amateur genealogist set him on his path with the contractual plug (4 minutes in), and a lot of information that was just thrown at us very quickly.   Not having a DVR or a TiVO, I cannot go back and see what I missed.  Not being interested in the episode, I wouldn’t even if I could.

Tory told Uncle Chris to focus on his second great-grandfather Michael McEnnis.  I am so tired of the non-organic way of introducing the story.  Apparently Chris already knew all that he needed to know about the other sides of his father’s family.  And his mother is still alive so no need to research her side.  Look, I’ve had it.  Just tell us the truth, “Researchers looked into my family for the past few months and found the most (only?) interesting story to be my father’s great-grandfather.”  Pretending otherwise is just insulting.

So, like most of this season’s celebrities, Chris started in Los Angeles and went somewhere else.  This time the somewhere else was St. Louis, Missouri, the home of Michael McEnnis.  Michael had written his recollections about the cholera epidemic of 1849.  At first I thought he was a journalist, but no, he wrote his moving account years later.  Why did he write these memories?  I don’t recall ever getting an answer to that.  Michael lost his father John and a younger brother, all while he was away fighting in the Mexican War.  (We saw a picture of young Michael, and he looked a lot like Chris.  Scarily so.)

Next Chris flew to Washington DC to meet with Dr. Amy Greenberg, at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library.  I wondered why that location and not at the National Archives, and wondered that until later in the episode when Chris did go to the National Archives and met with a researcher.  I guess Georgetown was nicer.  Greenberg told Chris that Michael requested, and received, an honorable discharge so that he could go back to St. Louis and take care of his family.  She got this information from Fold3, which, if you are unaware, used to be called until it was bought by Ancestry and turned into a primarily military records site (Ancestry went heavy on the advertising tonight).  I’ve never really used Fold3 because none of my ancestors went to war.  (Fun personal fact:  My grandfather was in the army but was honorably discharged before World War II.  Every year on Memorial Day the people who put flags on veterans’ graves mistakenly put the flag meant for my grandfather on his father’s grave despite the fact that he never served in any branch of the military anywhere.  We decided my grandfather, who adored his father, would have preferred it that way, so no one in my family is planning on fixing it.)

Chris then headed off to “the Smithsonian,” and I kept yelling at my television, “Which one?”  See, there are a lot of Smithsonian museums.  It turns out it was the National Museum of American History, but that was left to the narrator to clean up.  At the museum, Chris decided that he and Michael are kindred spirits because Michael left the army to take care of his family ravaged by a cholera epidemic and Chris left Hollywood to start his.  Yes.  Totally equivalent.  At the museum Chris saw a saber used in the Mexican War, and after an anticlimactic commercial break (which this episode was full of), he learned that the saber actually belonged to Michael McEnnis, who donated it to the Smithsonian, where it was kept in storage.  (Chris said that he kept his sword from “The Three Musketeers,” so another totally equivalent comparison between the two.)  I wasn’t exactly clear why the Smithsonian wanted Michael’s saber, but I think it had something to do with being the only living Mexican War survivor in St. Louis in 1905.  Or maybe I am confusing things.  In any case, there was a picture of Michael in 1915 from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and a little family background.  Chris said that Michael looked like his dad a little.

It turns out that Michael was actually the 9th generation of his family in America, which if my (admittedly faulty) math is correct, then Michael’s ancestors came to America somewhere around 1620.  That might have been an interesting story.  The Post-Dispatch article mentioned that Michael’s maternal grandfather George McNeir fought at Fort McHenry.  Chris asked where that was.

Okay, here is where he and the show irreversibly lost me.  I ripped Kelly Clarkson for not knowing what Andersonville was.  I was even more anything by Chris O’Donnell not knowing anything about Fort McHenry.  You know, if you are going to put on the whole, “Yay America! U-S-A! U-S-A!” guise, which most of them do, then you should at least not be ignorant about important moments in American history.  I would say that the battle that inspired the lyrics (but not the music) to the national anthem is an important moment in American history.  Even without knowing the nature of battle, you should at least hear “Fort McHenry” and reflexively think “Star-Spangled Banner.”

George McNeir was a third lieutenant in the Sea Fencibles.  Before that he was a humble tailor in Baltimore with a wife and four children.  In 1813, his personal property and inventory was seized because he could not pay his bills, probably because the War of 1812 interrupted trade to Europe where most of his inventory would have been sold.  So he enlisted in 1814, almost a year after his property was seized so that he could put his life in jeopardy to be underpaid.  And yes, he was at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.  And then he request and received his discharge, which Chris assumes was to take care of his family, just like Michael McEnnis and like Chris, who (if you didn’t remember) left Hollywood for his family.

At some point Chris ended up at Fort McHenry (as we all knew he would), where he learned about the battle, and Francis Scott Key, etc., and Chris admitted that he never knew what the “Star-Spangled Banner” was about, which made me hate him all the more.  The guide at Fort McHenry asked Chris if he wanted to raise the gigantic flag over the fort, which I am sure they let everyone do no matter what their level of fame is or whether or not there is a television crew with them.  And if the message of Patriotism wasn’t overbearing enough, Chris hoisted the flag to the strains of, you guessed, it, the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

God, how I hated this episode.  The only thing it had going for it was that at least more than one ancestor was profiled.  But, you know, why?  Why prolong the suffering?

Next week: Cindy Crawford.

A little housekeeping note:  I have an engagement next week.  I am hoping to be home in time to watch the show, but my review may be a little late depending on timing and such.

Zooey Deschanel, Who Do You Think You Are?

This episode, as with every post-premier episode this season, was preceded by the last week’s episode, which I suppose is better than “Armed Amish Militias” or whatever drek TLC is pushing on us.  I’m curious about the ratings for last week’s show though, because if my blog is anything to go by, Chelsea Handler is not particularly popular.   My review of Christina Applegate’s episode was still the top viewed post almost every day this week.  Hopefully, more people will care about Zooey Deschanel and her family’s story.  Not sure if I do.


To pan or not to pan, that is the question.  Every week when I start to watch an episode, I wonder how I will enjoy the rest of my night.  A good episode is a worthwhile hour (or 30+ minutes and commercial breaks), but it is a very difficult to write about.  Ideally, I want to do something beyond just recapping, but when an episode is very good, there is very little to say.  Admittedly, this is a rare occurrence.  That brings me to when the episode is… less than very good.  A pan is a lot more fun to write, and hopefully more fun for you all to read.  The few hours that it takes to write and edit (one edit so that I can have it published before I go to sleep–hence the typos) provides the enjoyment that I couldn’t get from watching.

The downside of a pan is that I am tearing apart the hard work of many good and decent people.  I squirm when I think of how heartbroken those involved in Who Do You Think You Are were when NBC cancelled the series last year.  This is a labor of love as well as money, and here I am just trashing it.

What also makes a pan both fun and cringeworthy is that I am taking down a celebrity who has come across in a really bad light.  Sometimes I fear that what makes the celebrity seem so repellant is just an issue of editing.  I try to consider that maybe it’s the director’s fault.  On the other hand, when people like Paula Deen and Gwyneth Paltrow do their best to make themselves seem so reprehensible beyond their appearances on this show, I feel less bad for airing my gripes.  (Not that how I feel matters to them in any way, shape, or form).

Then there are those celebrities who have this annoying habit of desperately needing to show off what they believe to be their own amazing qualities by transposing them on the ancestors that they just discovered.  Until today the foremost example of this was Ashley Judd, who went on and on ad nauseam about how important religious freedom was to her, only to discover–lo and behold–that her ancestor was a Pilgrim who fled England because of religious persecution.  (Never mind that those same Pilgrims turned around and persecuted those who did not comply with their own strict Calvinist vision of the universe.)

It’s almost like these celebrities are told ahead of time what these historians found and then frame their entire on-show personae around those findings.  Could reality television possibly be scripted?  Say it ain’t so!


Which brings me to this week’s episode.  Zooey Deschanel seems to be one of those celebrities people just love to hate.  I don’t share in that hate–not that I actively go out and search for her dramatic and musical output (I wouldn’t delete a She and Him album from my iPod if I were given one).  But dear Lord, was she intolerable tonight.  It was like Ashley Judd redux; Zooey calls herself a “gung-ho feminist” and someone who came from a long line of feminists; therefore every action of this week’s featured ancestor, Zooey’s fourth great-grandmother Sarah Henderson Pownall, was framed through the lens of modern feminism.  When you consider that said ancestress died only four years after Seneca Falls, that may be the wrong approach.  In fairness, I will acknowledge that early American feminism largely came from the same women (and men) involved in the abolitionist movement, to which Pownall firmly belonged.  Also, many of the early feminists, most famously Lucretia Mott, were, like Sarah Pownall, Quakers.  Nevertheless, Sarah’s abolitionism and Quakerism did not mean she too was a feminist, just that she had a strong (and correct) moral compass when it came to slavery.

(And as a side note, I beg you WDYTYA, please stop focusing on one ancestor only.  That’s four weeks in a row, and I’m feeling really claustrophobic.)

Our story began with intrepid explorer, Zooey Deschanel discussing her recently-deceased paternal grandmother Ann Orr Deschanel.  Ann sounds like she was one incredibly cool lady.  She was a Quaker and a human rights activist who was passionate about ending worldwide slavery, and at age 80, she was arrested for chaining herself to a fence to protest nuclear war.  Zooey said she sees her grandmother in herself, and in one observation she managed to capture the ethos of the episode.  It’s all about her.

Zoeey was particularly curious to know where Ann came from, because she was told she came from a long line of abolitionists.  Her first stop was to her parents Caleb and Mary Jo Deschanel where they… I’m not exactly sure they did.  Caleb showed Zooey a picture of Ann’s father Adrian Orr.  Adrian was a young boy in the photo, which was a family portrait.  He stood behind his parents Joseph Orr and Martha Pownall Orr.  Then Zooey’s dad told her that her first stop should be the Free Library of Philadelphia.  It struck me as odd how specific his recommendation was.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note I am from the Philadelphia, and lived in and around the city for most of my life.  I was very excited to see Philadelphia on television, even though it looked much nicer and cleaner on my screen than it does in reality.  And while the library is a very large and pretty building with a huge collection (and some genealogy collections), I have always thought of it as a gigantic homeless shelter with some reading material.

For any potential family historians with Philadelphia roots reading this, I would recommend other places to begin your search before the public library, which doesn’t really have all that much in terms of vital records. Go to the Philadelphia City Archives, the Pennsylvania Office of Vital Records, or the Historical Society of Pennsylvania first.  (Or City Hall if you want to find a marriage license after 1915–be warned though, it takes several days for the staff to get said license, you cannot get a copy or take a photo of the license, and the staff may not get you the correct license on the first several attempts.)  Why did Zooey go to the Free Library then?  Because it’s a library, it’s famous, it’s big, and it has a very nice room to film in.  If you notice though, no research was actually done at the library, and Zooey’s ancestors came from outside of Philadelphia.

At the library, the Quaker historian handed her an entire family tree going back to her fifth great-grandparents.  The focus was on the ancestors of Zooey’s second great-grandmother Martha Pownall Orr in case you were wondering.  The “here’s your entire family tree” bit is something that really frustrates genealogists because unless you are royalty, it is almost never that easy.  Those genealogists have a point, but I can overlook that because of time constraints of the episode and the fact that there was a team of researchers working for months in advance.  I was frustrated for a different reason; giving Zooey the family tree telegraphed exactly how her story was going to play out.  She seemed awfully interested in her 4th great-grandmother Sarah Henderson Pownall of Lancaster County for no apparent reason.  There was something rote about the whole process.

The tree began with Sarah’s parents, Thomas and Elinor (Brinton) Henderson.  Just before researching them (and giving Ancestry its contractual plug seven minutes in), Zooey and the Quaker historian made a big deal about how Quakers were virulently opposed to slavery, which is also true.  (Fun fact: Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn to be a refuge for English Quakers, who were persecuted pretty much everywhere, and freedom of religion was enshrined in the colony’s charter from the very earliest days–take that, Ashley Judd!)

But as it turns out, when they looked at the Pennsylvania Septennial Census, Thomas Henderson owned one slave.  Oops!  Zooey was in a state of disbelief until her fearless Quaker historian pointed out that Thomas Henderson was not actually a Quaker.  The Quaker in the family was Elinor.  This led to the question of why Elinor, someone whose religion taught her that slavery was a moral evil, would marry someone who blithely partook in said moral evil.  The Quaker historian tried to smooth it over by talking about how Quakers encouraged women to marry for love, which may have satisfied Zooey (who called Elinor a “strong Quaker woman” despite knowing nothing about her beyond her name, dates and places of birth and death, and religion), but it did not satisfy me–not that it matters.  The Quaker historian’s answer inevitable brings up the more uncomfortable question of how a woman who believed slavery is a moral evil could fall in love with a slave owner.  As I see it, there are three alternatives: (1) she hoped to covert Thomas to the path of righteousness; (2) she didn’t really care about slavery one way or the other; or (3) she was an unscrupulous person.  (The latter two are not mutually exclusive, and would both indicate that she was not a strong Quaker woman).  But hard questions are not what WDYTYA wants to address because they get in the way of feel-good storytelling.

The Quaker historian sent Zooey to Swarthmore College “just down the road” to find out more about who Sarah Henderson Pownall was.  Swarthmore, Pennsylvania is home to the Friends Historical Library, which I imagine from the name has a very large holding of Quaker-related documents.  (I object however, to Swarthmore being depicted as “just down the road” from Philadelphia.  I mean, it’s easily manageable by car or train, but it’s not a hop, skip, and a jump away.)  Left unsaid, or at least as far as I heard, was that Zooey’s beloved grandmother Ann actually grew Swarthmore.  Which you think might be kind of important.  But what do I know?  I’m just some fool with an Internet connection.

At the Friends Historical Library, Zooey sees the minutes from the Sadsbury Township Friends Meeting from 1845-1852–Sadsbury being the town in Lancaster County where Sarah Henderson Pownall and her husband Levi lived.  (Sometimes the editing of the show makes it hard to figure out why particular places are important.)  Unlike her mother, Sarah, was unquestionably an ardent abolitionist.  Apparently it was dangerous to be an abolitionist at that time, although Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a hotbed of abolitionism, which I imagine made it somewhat easier.  Nevertheless, Zooey went on and one about how brave and courageous Zooey  Sarah was.  (You may know that Lancaster is one of the major centers of the Amish in the United States.  I am sad that TLC passed up the chance for cross-program synergy.)

In 1847, when Sarah was around 51, the Sadsbury Township Friends Meeting appointed a committee of 12 members (six men, six women–there’s that feminism again) to draw up a letter stating their position on slavery.  Sarah was one of the women.  Zooey teared up reading it.  It is a powerful letter, and the show did no favors by selectively editing quotes.  The committee railed against the institution of slavery and the federal government for allowing it.   What it meant in practice, and which was not spelled out until later, is that the Quakers of Sadsbury threw down the gauntlet, announcing that they would refuse to obey any law that aided slavery and slave owners.  (Lest anyone think that the Quakers would go all John Brown, Quakers have historically been among the foremost practitioners of non-violent resistance.)

Zooey was excited because Sarah now had an identity rather than just being a name on a family tree that was handed to her.  (Not that this stopped her from speculating about Elinor.)  She said she wanted to see a picture of Sarah, and immediately I knew that by the end of the episode she was going to see a picture of her.

Next stop: Lancaster.  At the Lancaster Historical Society, Zooey found out that Lancaster was a hotbed of abolitionism because (1) a lot of Quakers lived in Lancaster; and (2) it was very close to the Mason-Dixon line, which meant that escaped slaves fleeing via the Underground Railroad would have refuge right at the border.  And one of those stops on the Underground Railroad was the house of William Parker, a former–and fugitive–slave who rented land from Levi and Sarah Pownall.  Parker was a conductor and station manager on the Underground Railroad.  Zooey then traveled to what was once the Pownall farm to learn more about how Parker’s life intersected with her ancestors’.

It was at Parker’s house, where the Christiana Resistance took place in 1851.  In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which put the full force of the federal government behind hunting down escaped slaves and bringing them back into the South (and galvanized the abolitionist movement).  One slave owner, Edward Gorsuch, rounded up a posse (including a federal marshal) and planned to attack Parker’s house for sheltering escaped slaves.  Instead there was a violent standoff between free blacks in Lancaster and the slave owners.  The long and short of it is this.  Gorsuch was killed, his son Dickinson was seriously injured, the posse was driven away, and a reign of terror swept over Lancaster as black and white abolitionists alike were taken to the streets and beaten.  The historian who told Zooey about this called it one of the important catalysts of the Civil War, although I would say that it was more likely a symptom of the tensions over slavery that lead to the War rather than the causer.

The aftermath of the battle was that 38 men were accused of treason, Parker, who was among the 38, had already fled to Canada.  One man, Castner Hanway, was brought to trial as a test case.  The jury came back with an acquittal after 15 minutes, and charges against the other men were dropped.  According to a historian on WDYTYA, this acquittal deeply scarred and embittered a friend of Gorsuch–John Wilkes Booth.*


In all this history, what Zooey seemed most concerned about is how Sarah fared throughout the whole Christiana Resistance.  She said she felt protective of her.  It did not help that the historian who took her to the Pownall farm showed her that Sarah’s house was about a quarter-mile away from the fighting.  But more than that Zooey was desperate to know that Sarah was involved somehow.  Clearly she and her family did not fight, being Quakers.  Moreover, Sarah had apparently unsuccessfully urged Parker to flee to Canada when they learned that Gorsuch was about to attack.  That was not good enough for Zooey though.  She wanted to know that Sarah actually helped out in other ways, especially after her realization that, “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but so many people assisted.”  (Shocking!)

Her next stop was Moores Memorial Library in Christiana where she was handed “A Recollection of a Long and Unsuccessful Life” by George Steel (the husband of Sarah’s daughter Elizabeth).  In his memoir (?), Steel recollected that the Pownalls took in the injured Dickinson Gorsuch to try to save him from dying.  While he was in their house, the Pownalls orchestrated a daring escape for Parker, who eventually fled safely to Canada.  Zooey took this as a sign, probably correctly, that the Pownalls were in fact deeply involved with the Underground Railroad.  And then sure enough, she got a picture of Sarah Pownall.  Zooey thought she had a kind face and said, “To me, she’s a hero.  I admire her intelligence and her bravery.”

Sarah died in 1852.  The historical record apparently does not state how she died.  Zooey thinks that it might have been the stress of the Christiana Resistance.  Apparently things like the poor quality of 19th century health care or rampant and unchecked maladies were not more likely options.  Nope, it was stress.  Because that’s what a good and brave person like Sarah would die from.

And just as two of the previous three episodes have ended, Zooey too went to the cemetery to visit the grave of her long-gone-but-found-again ancestor and pay her respects.  Following that she spoke to the camera about seeing qualities of Sarah in her grandmother and spouts off a whole bunch of tiresome platitude such as, “You can’t put a price on being inspired.”  If that is the case, then perhaps needs a new business model.

Next week:  Our first male celebrity of the season as Chris O’Donnell explores his past.

One final note, that I feel duty-bound to bring up but am nonetheless hesitant.  There were some very uncomfortable racial overtones in this episode that I thought were very clumsily handled.  I understand that Zooey Deschanel wanted to celebrate her ancestress, but the overexcitement bordered on patronizing.  Have you ever seen the movie Philadelphia?  Most of the gay people I know, including myself, hate that movie.  We find it exceptionally condescending with it’s “look we’re people too” message and (especially) the idea that we need to be “saved” by an outsider because we cannot or will not do it ourselves.  It’s that latter point that reminded me of this episode.  There is something about the way Zooey and WDYTYA celebrated Sarah that had that same aura of condescension.  The poor black people needed the special white lady to save them.



* Unmentioned in this episode was that one of the defense attorneys for the 38 men charged with treason for the Christiana Resistance was Thaddeus Stevens, Lancaster’s Representative to Congress and the all-powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.  Stevens is perhaps one of American history’s most unfairly-maligned heroes.  When others, including Abraham Lincoln, wanted to go slow with regard to freeing the slaves, Stevens championed full equality.  He was a man a century ahead of his time, and for reasons I cannot figure out, he was tarred for so long as one of the major American villains.  One of the great services Steven Spielberg has done is the rehabilitation of Stevens for a mass audience in Lincoln.

Chelsea Handler, Who Do You Think You Are?

My dearest readers,

Before I begin this review, I want to tell you just how much I appreciate you.  I am always amazed that people really do want to read what I write.  Never was this shock and gratitude more true than last week; after I posted my last review, you set a record for most hits in a single day.  I can’t tell you how appreciative I am.  And I also am so appreciative of all the comments you have left; you continued to follow the mysteries of Christina Applegate’s family after the episode ended, which is amazing.  I am quite touched.

Thank you.


This week I listed to Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems podcast.  Cooke is sometimes a little too genteel for my tastes, but some of her interviews are fantastic.  This most recent episode was an interview with Allie Orton, the Producer and Research Manager of Who Do You Think You Are.  The interview was an interesting insight into the season (she singled out the Christina Applegate episode and next week’s Zooey Deschanel episode as ones she was particularly fond of), and she confirmed, in a roundabout, not-really-saying-so way what I suspected–last year the reason there were so many NBC personalities was because NBC had a say in who would be on the show.  Orton also said that these episodes were the fastest that the team has ever worked on a season (a mere seven months).  I wonder if that abbreviated schedule is why there have been three episodes in a row that concentrated on only one ancestor.  It is much easier to get as a lot of information about one person than it is to get a lot of information about many.

Which brings us to this week’s celebrity, Chelsea Handler.  Chelsea was born to a German mother Rita and a Jewish-American father–or as Chelsea called him, “a big Jew.”  Chelsea’s parents raised her and her siblings Jewish, so she connects with the Jewish side of her family rather than the German side.  Chelsea did however, have a relationship with her mother’s parents Karl and Elizabeth Stoecker.

Before I proceed, I need to talk a little about spelling.  Given that the entire episode focuses on Karl, I feel a little odd not knowing how to spell his surname.  Usually WDYTYA provides family tree visuals within  the episode, but not this time.  As of this writing, Wikipedia shows the spelling to be “Stoecker.”  (I feel duty-bound to point out that until after the episode finished airing, Rita’s  maiden name was not on Wikipedia.)  But this is a German name, and the “oe” is a big hint that there may have been an umlaut.  I know almost no German (I speak English and have varying degrees of limited proficiency with Hebrew, Yiddish, Danish, and Spanish.)  Furthermore, German typography on official documents is also somewhat ornate and difficult to read (even the font used in the translations in this episode was in that ridiculous, Gothic font) so I wasn’t completely sure if the original name was Stöcker of Stücker.  To those with keener eyes, please feel free to correct me in the comments.

As I was saying before I digressed, Chelsea knew her maternal grandparents.  She also knew that her grandfather was a German soldier in World War II who was taken as a POW by the Americans.  she did not however, know the extent of his military participation (i.e. was he a Nazi?), because while her grandmother spoke freely about her life, her grandfather was very secretive.  Chelsea said she doesn’t think her grandfather was a Nazi; given that his daughter married “a big Jew,” that is probably a decent guess, but she is still curious.

Two things final peremptory notes:  (1) Chelsea’s talking head bits were a little difficult to take.  She has a very flat monotone delivery that is somewhat off-putting, and it made her seem like she was either uninterested or knew the entire story already.  (2)  The German in the Jewish family is something that I am somewhat familiar with.  A cousin was in the army and while abroad married a German woman.  It caused tension in his family and some less-than-genteel remarks about hers.

Because Chelsea’s mother and grandparents died, she began her journey with her brother Glen.  He told her he “came across some pretty interesting stuff,” but he was not sure she will like it.  He also showed her the information her found online at to begin her journey.  (Did Glen set up a tree online?  I thought so, but when I looked for it for the spelling of Karl’s surname, I couldn’t find it.  I wonder if such as tree was set up only for the contractual Ancestry/Apple plug.  Four minutes in case you keep track.)

Glen found documentation showing that Karl was born in Bochum, Germany (fun fact: a friend of mine comes from Bochum), and gave her two documents, both in German and both untranslated: (1) a letter from their grandmother Elizabeth that appeared to be a life story; and (2) a green booklet with a swastika on its cover.  He then told her to go to Bochum and wished her an auf Wiedersehen.  Chelsea appeared unimpressed by his humor, but that may be her default emotional state.

In Germany, Chelsea received a translation for her grandmother’s letter from a genealogist named Andrea Bentschneider.  Bentschneider met Chelsea in a converted factory.  Now here is where I got confused.  I thought Chelsea was in Bochum, but apparently she was in Herne, which is about five miles away.  Anyway, it turned out that Karl worked at this factory.  The owner, a Herr Flottmann was an early (and fanatical) Nazi supporter.  Chelsea wondered what that said about her grandfather, and before Bentschneider could answer, the show dramatically went to commercial.  (Why are there so many Amish reality shows on television?)

Back to the show, Bentschneider told Chelsea that Karl’s employment in a factory owned by a Nazi supporter was not dispositive proof that Karl was a Nazi.  She then showed Chelsea the translation of Elizabeth’s letter, which is indeed a memoir.  It is also apparently a very good insight into what Germany was like during the Weimar Republic.  Elizabeth’s memoir is quite moving; the portion excerpted told about how she starved, and her mother had no food to give her because Germany had fallen apart (i.e. was economically decimated by England and France) after World War I.  The memoir was also something of an explanation about why Elizabeth and many other Germans embraced Hitler, “unaware of what was to come.”  At this point my boyfriend–who does not watch the show, but who lived in Germany for a few years–walked by and said, “Oh, they were aware.”

What the memoir did not have was any mention of Karl’s political leanings. Bentschneider reminded Chelsea about the green booklet with the swastika symbol, which she revealed to be the SA insignia.  As I grimaced, Bentschneider said that this “may not be good news.”  But Chelsea would not find out why until the next day.  There was stock footage of Chelsea walking somewhere, which I would swear had been used just a few minutes earlier in the episode.

The next days Chelsea saw a historian who told her that the SA were the Brownshirts, the Nazi street thugs/paramilitary organization who did most of the dirty/violent work during Hitler’s rise to power.  I am kind of surprised Chelsea did not know what they were; I thought it was pretty well-known.  One of the most chilling scenes in movie musical history, by the way, involves the SA.  If you’ve seen Cabaret, you know exactly which scene I am thinking of.  If not:


The historian translated the green book, which was a record from Karl’s time in a labor service camp in Fröndenberg.  While almost every young, German male was in the labor camps (which were effectively basic training for a nation forbidden from having an army), Karl’s green book showed that he was also in the voluntary sports badge program, which was special training for potential SA.  In the green book, Karl testified that he was Aryan and not Jewish.  There was not however, a picture or a signature in the place where there should have been one.  Therefore, the question of whether he was in the SA remained unanswered, and Chelsea went to Berlin for the answer.

In Berlin, at the Military Archives, military historian Roger Moorhouse told her that according to the records, Karl was not in the SA or the (even worse) SS.  Nor was he a member of the Nazi party.  Which was not to say that this cleared his named, as he could have been complicit in other ways.  Chelsea and Moorhouse looked at his army pay book.  Although Karl was in the service early, he was conscripted.  His military service was unimpressive, not promoted beyond corporal, in a 4th or 5th tier regiment, almost no front lines service, and no evidence of enthusiasm.  In other words, like many (most?) Germans, he went along with the Nazi regime, but he himself was not a Nazi.  In other words, he was just following orders.

An Internet review of WDYTYA is not the time or the place to debate the collective responsibility of the German people during the War, but I do think this show’s answer about Karl and Elizabeth’s implicit complicity and subsequent responsibility was a little too easy.  One of my recurring criticisms of WDYTYA (US) is that it does not trust its audience.  We are adults, and we understand that life is complex.  Very few people are heroes and villains all the time, and we all have things in our past we wish to forget.  Therefore, given that such big about Karl’s past were asked, attributing his future reticence to discuss his past as collective rather than personal guilt misunderstands the scope of the situation.  What does it mean that Karl fought on behalf of one of history’s most evil and anti-Semitic governments and then how could he reconcile his participation with his presumed love for Jewish family members?  There are no easy, unambiguous answers here, especially since Karl died.  But giving a pat answer life, “he suffered from collective guilt” is a way of avoiding rather than addressing the fascinating  ambivalence of Karl’s life.


Karl was on the front line once; in late 1942, he was on the Eastern Front (west of Moscow) were combat was beyond horrifying.  Fortunately for Chelsea, that was his only real combat experience.  In 1943 he was transferred to a different regiment, this time to Saint Raphael in the south of France where he was taken prisoner by the Americans.  Had he stayed with his old regiment, he most likely would have been killed.  Instead, according to Chelsea, he was taken to POW camp in Montana.

Chelsea went to Saint Raphael, and I’m not exactly sure why it was necessary that she go there, but she meets World War II historian Steve Weiss on the beach where, in August 1944, her grandfather was probably captured.  As it turned out, Weiss was there at that battle serving in the US Army.  He showed Chelsea video clips (on his iPad; nice second plug there, Apple) of German soldiers being taken prisoner at Saint Raphael.  If Karl was one of the German soldiers, Chelsea did not see him.

Chelsea asked Weiss what he thought about the German soldiers he took prisoner, and he said that while he had no problems with the regular German solders, as a Jew he had real problems with the SS.  Chelsea asked him how he knew which ones were SS, which makes me think she has never seen a World War II movie or read anything about the war.  He said it was the uniforms (obviously) and their arrogance.

Chelsea said that (for reasons I am not sure I understand) being with Weiss was a great full circle for her, and she was very proud of being Jewish-American.

While on the beach, Chelsea got a call from Roger Moorhouse who told her that Karl was not at a POW camp in Montana; rather he was taken to Algona, Iowa.  Off Chelsea went.  In Algona, Jerry Yocum showed Chelsea the area where German soldiers were kept.  He took her to the Camp Algona POW Museum and showed her documents relating to and pictures of her grandfather, who was young, bald and skinny.  (His name was also spelled “Stoecker” in those pictures.)

At Camp Algona, he was treated more humanely he would have been led to believe by the German government, who told the soldiers that in POW camps they would be treated the way that the German government treated the Jews.  (Those were not the words used, but that’s effectively the description given to the soldiers who the government wanted to fight to the last.)  Chelsea learned that the German POWs did farm work, and they were encouraged to write letters and use their artistic talents.  They performed plays, and in one picture Chelsea saw her grandfather, who played the violin, in the pit orchestra for a musical.  After the war, Chelsea grandfather stayed in the US and brought his family over.

I am ambivalent about this episode.  On one hand, the episode was interesting if somewhat more uncomplicated than it might have been.  On the other hand, there was something off about the episode.  Perhaps it was Chelsea’s flatness, which was a stark contrast to Kelly Clarkson’s oblivious exuberance or the emotional wallop of Christina Applegate’s episode.  It may also be that this season has put too many episodes together in which there was only one researched ancestor, even if two of the three were very interesting.  I know established genealogists actually hate when WDYTYA gives a celebrity a multi-generation family tree with absolutely no effort, but this is not a how-to program.  Sometimes, it’s nice to jump to different historical eras rather than focusing on just one.

Next up: the highly anticipated Zooey Deschanel episode.