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.
* 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.