So we have at last arrived at the season finale of Who Do You Think You Are. I’ll miss writing these recaps (and the page views they’ve brought), although my sleep patterns will certainly improve. Believe it or not, I will also miss this show despite my many (many) criticisms of it. I don’t actually dislike WDYTYA; I consider myself something of an ombudsman. The American version, unlike the British original, abandons itself to the excesses of reality television aspect–sometimes to the expense of history. No one that I have seen from the genealogy community has stepped up to criticize the show for its flaws or hector it get better, so with a sense of self-importance that I have not earned, I have stepped into a role that no one asked me to fill. Fortunately for me, I will have 10 more episodes next year to work with. Thank you, TLC; in gratitude I’ll stop making fun of your Amish fetish for a few days.
Jim Parsons. I kind of have a crush on him after this episode, which for the most part I enjoyed. He just seems so sweet and is adorable in a geeky way. I am unfamiliar with Jim’s work. I know he’s on “The Big Bang Theory,” but I have never actually seen the show. I will probably watch “The Normal Heart” when it airs, although I didn’t actually like the play for a variety of reasons when I read it about 10 years ago, none of which matter to this review.
Jim began this project as a tribute to his late father who died in a car accident when Jim was in his early 20’s (I think that’s what he said, but I could be wrong). Jim loved his father very much and thought the world of him. Jim said he thought his dad would have been intensely interested in his genealogy. (Apparently Jim was too, and has since started his own tree on Ancestry, although i am not searching for it.) But Jim had another reason for his interest; he said, “you are the sum of your parts.” I cannot think of any more genuine statement any guest has made about the show or why we do genealogy; it’s not just historical research, it’s a form of self-discovery.
Sometimes during those segments where the celebrities talk directly to the cameras, I wish we could hear the questions they are asked rather than just hearing their answers. Without the questions it’s just kind of a narration that doesn’t always reflect so well on the celebrity. Never more do I wish to hear those questions then at the beginning of the show when the celebrity talks about what he or she hopes to find. Inevitably, they always find it by the end of the episode (Jim wanted to find another artist in his family, and he found one of the most prominent architects of the Ancien Régime). I wonder if the research was done first and then the celebrity was led in that direction or the celebrity told the researchers what he or she wanted to find and then the researchers found it. Frankly, I wish they would abandon that who structure altogether. It’s too forced, and it takes away from the genuineness of the search. It’s one thing to investigate whether a family mystery is true or not (e.g., did Jim’s family come from France?), but finding over and over again exactly what a celebrity hoped to find in an ancestor is absurd.
Prior to his search, Jim said that he wanted to find out whether his family was French, which he had heard from someone (he did not remember who) years before. He thought that someone came from Louisiana, so a French origin was entirely possible. Jim’s family, for as far back as he knew, was Texan.
Jim’s search began with his mother Judy who met him in New York and brought with her old photographs and documents. One of the photos was a picture of Jim’s great-grandmother Jeanne Hacker Parsons, and one of the documents was her death certificate. Sure enough, Jeanne was born in Louisiana to Charles and Adele (Drouet) Hacker. Judy also brought with her a picture of Adele at age 90. Jim made a comment about how he and his mother shared good genes for long life, and then corrected himself–he has good genes. He wished his mother good luck. I laughed.
The first stop was New Orleans and the Louisiana Historical Society where genealogist Judy Riffel met Jim and told him that both Drouet and Hacker are surnames of French origin. At 7 minutes in we got the final contractual Ancestry plug of the season when Jim found Charles in the 1850 Census, which was taken shortly after Charles’s birth. Charles and his family lived in Plaquemine in the Iberville Parish of Louisiana. (Louisiana, with its French origins is something of a freak state, particularly at a legal level, which is why I was so glad to see it featured tonight. Finally, something we haven’t seen before.) Iberville was apparently very rural and Charles’s father J.B. Hacker was a doctor, which was exceedingly rare in that time period in that area. J.B. Hacker was not, however, the French connection, as he too was born in Louisiana around 1810. Jim expressed surprise that his Louisiana roots were so deep–his 3rd great-grandfather J.B. Hacker was born there–because everyone he knew is from Texas.
Genealogist Judy Riffel pretended that she was going to do more research and sent Jim to Tulane University to meet with Professor Jeanette Keith who was an expert in southern rural history. Together they looked into J.B.’s medical practice. Keith showed Jim a book, and I wasn’t exactly clear what it was (lacking a recording device, I can’t get everything), but Jim said it smelled like his grandmother’s house. I think it was a list of the graduates of the Medical College of Louisiana, the Deep South’s second oldest medical school and the predecessor of Tulane. Sure enough, in 1842, eight years after the school’s founding, J.B. (Jean-Baptiste) Hacker was the 55th graduate of the college. According to Keith, in that time period one did not have to go to medical school to be a doctor. Any joker could have (and often did) put up a shingle and practiced medicine. But the school was opened by a group of men who wanted to change the way medicine was practiced in the country and to legitimize and professionalize it. So if your parents pressured you to go to medical school, blame those people.
Jim also discovered that J.B. wrote an article for the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, which was published in 1854. Specifically J.B. wrote about a severe yellow fever epidemic in Iberville in 1853, which killed many people, and which he himself witnessed. At the time, no one knew that yellow fever was caused by mosquitoes, which made it all the more terrifying. Jim made a reference to that being similar to HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s, which really struck me.
I don’t know Jim Parsons, but I think I can guess his story. Jim is an openly gay man born in 1973. At the time he was coming into his sexual identity in the 1980’s, he was probably hyperaware of a deadly, incurable disease that was killing gay men in large numbers. I am a few years younger than Jim, and I was terrified, and I was not involved in theater like Jim, which had more than its fair share of deaths in that time period. Jim will be appearing in a televised version of The Normal Heart, a play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and a barely fictionalized recounting of the founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I bring this up because celebrities on WDYTYA have an unfortunate tendency to make grand comparisons between themselves and their ancestors, but here Jim did such a subtle job making the association between himself and his 3rd great-grandfather, if you blinked, you missed it.
Jim then went to GenealogyBank.com to find old newspaper reports about J.B. This is the second time this season a celebrity went to GenealogyBank without the site being named. Perhaps this is Ancestry’s quiet concession that they must use it even though they don’t own the site–it is far more comprehensive than Newspapers.com, the old newspaper site Ancestry owns. Jim found a news article from 1854 about the loss of the Steamer Gipsy following a boiler fire and the 10 people who died aboard it. Among the dead were J.B. Hacker, his daughter, and his nephew. (When I checked GenealogyBank, different articles had a different death count. Some of the articles listed different relatives who died.) Jim was curious about how the fire started, so he met with Robert Gudmestad, an expert on Mississippi River steamboats on the Steamer Natchez. Gudmestad told Jim that the Gipsy was made of wood and powered by fire in a boiler in the middle of the ship. The night of the fire was a windy one. You do the math. Gudmestand also showed Jim a painting of the Gipsy painted a year before the fire. Finally he showed Jim an article about how the community mourned for J.B, whom they dearly loved.
Jim reunited with genealogist Judy Riffel who said she tried to trace the Hacker line, but the paper trail ended and they are lost to history. She did however, have more luck with the family of Adele Drouet Hacker, Jim’s 2nd great-grandmother. Riffel gave Jim a pedigree chart which showed Adele’s lineage: her parents, Auguste Drouet and Anaïs Marie Trouard, the parents of Anaïs, Prosper Trouard (who was born in France) and Eliza Boisclair Chauvin Delery, and Proper’s father Alexandre Louis Trouard who was born in Paris on March 15, 1761. (It should be noted that some sources have the name Louis Alexandre Trouard.)
At the National Archives of France in Paris, Jim met with Drew Armstrong of the University of Pittsburgh, an expert in French history and a master of French pronunciation. Armstrong said he could not find anything about Prosper, but they did find the baptismal record for Alexandre Louis. He was the son of Louis François Trouard and Marie Genevieve Rondel. Louis François was an architect, a very, very important architect. So important that he even has his own Wikipedia page (it’s in French). He was an architect to King Louis XV. Louis François’s father, Louis Trouard, was the marble supplier to the King, a not quite as grand a title. Louis pere was middle class, but his son reached the highest artistic and cultural circles in France. In 1753 Louis François won the first place in architecture in the Prix de Rome, which is a scholarship for art students organized by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture that subsidized them to live in Rome to study art for three to five years.
Louis François was in Rome from 1754-57. In 1769, he was awarded a place in the very elite Royal Academy of Architecture, the greatest honor he could have achieved. There were only 16 seats and they opened up only upon the death of the previous occupant. Jim called it the Supreme Court of architects. Honestly, I don’t know much about any of this (I fail to understand almost everything French), so if anyone has any insight into Louis François’s rise to the top, please post. Louis François was so much in the counsel of the King, that he had a residence in the building adjacent to the Palace of Versailles, which is where Jim went next.
At the Chapelle de la Providence, Jim met with Ambrogio Calani, a historian of French architecture who told him that Louis François designed the Chapelle de la Providence, and it was one of his masterpieces. Jim thought that it was elegant and classy-looking but at the same time inviting. I don’t know enough about architecture to have an opinion.
Then there was a voice-over narration about the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. Apparently, architects were targeted by the revolutionaries for being corrupt and too close to the regime. I didn’t quite get why this history was given at that moment except to create tension as to whether Louis François was targeted.
He was not. Apparently, despite being the Architect to the King, he also had Enlightenment sympathies. He was friendly with liberal and radical figures, foremost among them Guillaume Thomas François Raynal, a writer, philosopher, and former priest. Raynal was very much in favor of the Enlightenment and very much against slavery. He also apparently lived with Trouard for a time, which seems to have established Trouard’s street cred so that when the Revolution came, he was not the first against the wall. Then, as if to throw in the mandatory ties to American history, we saw a letter from Benjamin Franklin indicating that he and John Adams also stayed in Trouard house, probably because they too were interested in Raynal’s ideas. I don’t know. That just seemed so tacked on at the end. In any case, Louis François survived the French Revolution and died in 1804.
Alexandre Louis/Louis Alexandre also won the Prix de Rome in 1780. He went to Haiti, where according to the information i’ve found online, he died in Port-au-Prince. I am not sure why he was there or what he did, but his son Prosper ended up in New Orleans. That information is all in the book that the producers gave to Jim and probably also on the cutting room floor. As the credits rolled, Jim spoke about his father.
So that’s it. The end of the season. I hope you enjoyed the recaps. This was not the best season of the show by a long shot, but it ended with a good episode, and it had the strongest “hour” of the entire American series in the Christina Applegate episode, which for my money stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the British series.
On to Genealogy Roadshow, which airs September 23 on PBS. I make no promises about watching it, but I am sure if I do, I will enjoy it very much.
Finally, a big thank you to all my readers who truly made this season a pleasure, particularly those who left such great comments. And I leave the last word to you. In the comments, I ask you to tell me your hopes for the season, which celebrities you would like to see next year, and what locations you hope they go to. I’m just hoping for something new. South Asia, Central America, Scandinavia, whatever. Just something different.