Jason Sukeikis, Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are aired its penultimate episode: Jason Sudeikis researched his paternal line trying to determine why his forefathers abandoned their families.

Before I begin writing, I have a confession to make: this episode left me rather cold.  Now much of the season has been lackluster, but unlike the lesser episodes which I railed against, there was nothing particularly egregious about this episode.  No attempts to retell history by reframing an unflattering ancestor as a hero, no dubious DNA test results, no use of bigotry as the answer for every question.  There was nothing wrong with this episode per se, it was more about gestalt.

It is something of an open secret that Who Do You Think You Are researches more celebrities than are actually filmed.  Celebrities whose stories are not interesting are handed their research before the cameras roll and are wished good luck.  There are some very infamous stories from Britain about potential guests were who considered and then rejected because the show could not make it interesting.  It’s sad but understandable; to keep a show going it must be interesting to viewers.  It also must be fresh, something that makes the story totally new or at least an old theme retold in a different way.

The vanished parent is a very familiar trope in Who Do You Think You Are, which is very sad from a  societal point of view.  It is also most likely where the most pressing genealogical questions are asked.  Nevertheless, this theme also starts to get perhaps too familiar over time.  Kim Cattrall chased down her grandfather, Susan Sarandon her grandmother.  Jerome Bettis his grandfather’s father.  There are others.  (Over in the UK, Alan Cummings also chased down a grandparent who left his family which led him to Southeast Asia.)  Both Cattrall and Sarandon discovered that their absent grandparents were also bigamists.  Both absenteeism and bigamy are also part of Jason Sudeikis’s family story.  To Jason Sudeikis this is (naturally) shocking, but this is now something I have now seen several times over so the drama has faded somewhat.  (And with the decreased time to tell a story, the overabundance of commercials, and the Ancestry and Apple plugs, Who Do You Think You Are is a bit like The Simpsons of the past decade or so–retreating into the familiar while losing its freshness.)

This show could have used some better editing.  When I watch each episode, I write down names and dates to keep things straight, but this episode got the better of me.  I wasn’t sure who was alive when and who immigrated when.  This is an editing room problem rather than a research problem (I hope), but it makes the research look slapdash.  I went on Ancestry to try to clear my confusion.  It did not help.  It also didn’t help that there were so many Lithuania names, which are very difficult to transcribe to my ears.*  Clearly I wasn’t the only one.  Sudeikis’s ancestor named his mother “Mary Gash” on a marriage certificate when her real name was Marianne (Lithuanian name that I couldn’t catch).

Sudeikis’s traces his father’s line, which I suppose is appropriate given that his mother’s family is probably familiar territory to him.  Sudeikis’s maternal uncle is George Wendt (Norm Peterson of Cheers).  According to Wikipedia, his maternal great-grandfather was Tom Howard, a famous photographer.  But Sudeikis knew nothing about his paternal grandfather Stanley Sudekis because Stanley died when Dan Sudeikis (Jason’s father) was very young.  Dan Sudeikis had no memory of his father whatsoever and was raised by his mother Edna.  All Edna ever said about Stanley was that he was six feet, two-and-a-half inches tall, weighed 195 pounds, and died after falling on a sidewalk outside of a Chicago church.  So Sudeikis began his search in Chicago.

In Chicago, Sudeikis got Stanley’s death certificate, but the informant was not Edna.  It was an Anna Pukel who lived at the same address as Stanley.  Stanley did indeed die outside a church by slipping on a sidewalk and fracturing his skull.  There was a coroner’s inquest, and it turned out that Anna Pukel was Stanley’s cousin.  Stanley did not actually live with her; it appears that he was a homeless drunk who abandoned his family (which Sudeikis also learned from decree for separate maintenances–which is not a divorce–that his grandmother filed against Stanley), refused to work, and slept on park benches.  Sudeikis’s grandmother refused to appear at the inquest, saying that she hadn’t seen him in three years.  Stanley’s uncle also wanted nothing to do with him.  Alcohol was also probably involved in Stanley’s fatal fall (figuratively and literally).  And it also appeared that Stanley never ever met his son Dan.  All in all, not the kind of discovery that one would generally want to find.

Sudeikis wanted to learn how to feel sorry for Stanley, which he eventually did.  Now it’s important to recognize that Sudeikis was showing empathy rather than the hero worshiping of false idols that went on earlier in the season (most notably by Martin Sheen, Blair Underwood, and Jerome Bettis).  The reason he was able to feel empathy is because he learned that Stanley’s father (also Stanley) abandoned his wife Michaelina “Emma” (Bielskis) Sudeikis and young son in Chicago to start a whole other family in Bridgeport, Connecticut.**  Whereas Stanley Sr.’s bigamous second family thrived, his first family suffered.  (I would note that the genealogist who brought the bigamy to Sudeikis’s attention looked positively shocked at the discovery.  I wonder if this was legitimate or just acting.)  Stanley Sr. in turn also his father Joseph at an early age.  Joseph Sudeikis, a Lithuanian immigrant, was a miner in Mahanoy, Pennsylvania at a time when mining was even more dangerous than it is now.  He probably lived in a company town in which he had virtually no job security and his labor was exploited by his robber baron overlord.  And he tolerated it all so that he could provide a better life for his family.  Joseph died in a mining explosion on November 9, 1901, leaving a wife and many children including young Stanley Sr.  In Sudeikis’s mind, this is where the absentee father began, a cycle that his own father broke.

Sudeikis went home to tell his father all that he learned.  The family discussion did not appear too painful, although it is not one that I would have wanted to have to give.  The Sudeikis family took it very well.

Footnote:

* One thing that was not discussed was what exactly Lithuania is.  I mean, yes it’s a country, but at the time when Jason  Sudeikis’s ancestors came to the United States, what we know of today as Lithuania was actually a part of Russia.  Yet, as you can tell from the names, language, and the self-identification, the Lithuanian people saw themselves as a discrete and separate nation.  I know this is a story about immigration and vanished fathers, but a little Lithuanian heritage lesson might have been nice.

** This is where the show leaves me so frustrated.  In 1920, Stanley Sudeikis Sr. is married to Amelia “Mill”(Trakitis)  and has a daughter named Lillian who was a newborn.  In 1930, he has a 9-year-old daughter Julia.  While Jason Sudeikis noticed Julia, he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that there was another daughter who evidently died very young.

Rashida Jones, Who Do You Think You Are?

Continuing on the Parks & Recreation theme from last week, this week’s Who Do You Think You Are celebrity is Rashida Jones.

First, a full disclosure:  Even before this week’s episode, I had a soft spot in my heart for Rashida Jones, because she is the only celebrity that I have ever personally met (Rufus Wainwright gave me a hug once, but that was after a concert, so it’s not like we actually met).  Now when I say I met her, I mean that for a couple of hours our paths crossed, and we were in the same room at the same time although we did not actually interact with each other after being introduced.  This was post-Boston Public, but pre-The Office, so Jones wasn’t quite a celebrity yet.  Not being a fan of Boston Public, I did not actually know who she was, although of course I knew about Quincy Jones.  (Quite honestly, I couldn’t remember what she looked like after she left.)

Having said all that, in the brief time we interacted, Rashida Jones was a thoroughly decent human being.  Now that I have actually seen her on television, I am a fan.  And I very much enjoyed this week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

Rashida Jones’s father is Quincy, but her mother, Peggy Lipton, is an Ashkenazic Jew.  Rashida grew up very much a part of both African-American and American-Jewish cultures.  According to Jones, her father avidly pursued his genealogy years ago, and already shared it with her.  Therefore, it was her mother’s side of the family that required exploring.  And this gets to the heart of why I liked this episode so much; the story she traced is very much like my own.

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The initial focus of the Rashida Jones episode was her maternal grandmother Rita Hettie Rosenberg, who was born in Ireland but came to the United States when she was 12 or 13.  Rita was something of a free-spirit, and when she was old enough she left her family in Nyack, New York for Manhattan where, prior to her marriage to Rashida’s grandfather, she worked as a taxi dancer.  (I was disappointed that despite the constant references to taxi dancing, no one mentioned Sweet Charity.) Rita ditched the surname Rosenberg and went by the name Benson, which Jones and Lipton ascribed to avoiding anti-Semitism.

Jones began her search at the New York Public Library where the show got its contractual Apple and Ancestry plugs out of the way at five minutes in.  At the library, Jones found her grandmother’s passenger list from 1926 when she arrived with her elder sister Pearl.  The ship’s manifest recorded that the girls were going to join their mother Jeanie Rosenberg in New York where she was already living.  Another relative was listed on the manifest, an uncle Elliott Benson, and that surname piqued Jones’s curiosity given that she thought her grandmother made it up.

In 1939 Rita became an American citizen and officially changed her surname to Benson (again, the show hammered home the theme of anti-Semitism by showing one employment ad after another in which only Christians were acceptable.)  In 1941 Rita married Jones’s grandfather.  Prior to her marriage however, there was a 15 year period of Rita’s life which Jones knew nothing about except that she was a taxi dancer.  At the remains of Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub, Jones was showed an old tabloid from 1933 with a column about a taxi dancer that very likely could have been her grandmother.  It appeared that for Rita, taxi dancing represented her attempts to break into show business, which although failed for her, succeeded for her daughter and granddaughter.

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Jones left New York for Dublin to see if she could find out about the origin of Rita and her family.  Prior to this episode, I had no idea there was a Jewish community in Dublin worth speaking of.  Apparently there was one and there is even an Irish-Jewish museum.  In Dublin, Jones was given her grandmother’s birth certificate.  Rita was the daughter of Hyman Rosenberg and Jeanie Benson, which meant that Benson was definitively a family name for at least another generation before Rita.  Wanting to follow how far back the Benson name went, Jones discovered that her great-grandmother Jeanie was born in Manchester as Ginny (or Jennie) Benson in 1882.  From her great-grandparents’ marriage certificate, Jones discovered the names of Jeanie’s parents: Benjamin and Sophie (Winestein) Benson.  She was also given photos of Benjamin, a Hebrew teacher, who made quite a striking figure with his long white beard and Shabbos clothes.

In the 1911 census, Jones found Benjamin and Sophie, and she learned two very important facts: (1) Benjamin was born in the late 1830’s or so; and (2) he was from Russia.  “Russia” in this context is a very nebulous term that the show only partially explained.  When a Jewish person says that his ancestors came from (pre-Soviet) Russia, what he means is that those ancestors came from the former Russian Empire.  This is an important distinction because the chances are that those ancestors were not from Russia proper–certainly not Moscow or St. Petersburg–but rather the Pale of Settlement, an area which encompassed all or parts of modern-day Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Moldova, with a little bit of western Russia thrown in.  With few exceptions, this was the only part of “Russia” that Jews were allowed to live in, and largely because this had been the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where they already had been living.  15 of my 16 great-great-grandparents were from the Pale of Settlement; on my mother’s side this meant modern-day Ukraine, and on my father’s side it meant northern Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.*

While most of the Irish-Jewish community came from a specific area of Lithuania, the Bensons did not.  Using information gleaned from the documents of Benjamin Benson’s sister Pescha, Jones learned that her family actually came from Latvia. Therefore, she set off for Riga.  One of the major questions on Jones’s mind was why her family left Latvia, and the answer to that is, of course, anti-Semitism.  The Russian Empire was bent on physically and spiritually destroying the Jewish community through measures such as conscripting young Jewish into the Russian army, where they would stay for two-and-a-half decades.  (Escaping this fate gave rise to the gruesome crippler phenomenon, of which I previously mentioned.)

Because of the conscription, meticulous records were kept for men, and from those Jones learned (1) the name of Benjamin’s father, her 3rd great-grandfather Schlaume (Solomon); (2) the town in Latvia Benjamin and his family were from, Hazenpoth (now Aizpute) which was in the Courland Gubernia of the Russian Empire;** and (3) the names of Benjamin’s brothers Abraham and Yankel.  She also learns the name of Schlaume’s father, Benjamin Marcus Benson (Jones’s 4th great-grandfather) who was born in 1786 and was possibly the originator of the Benson name.  Surnames for Russian Jews came late, around the early 19th century, and only following an official decree by the Russian Empire.  Prior to that, the surname was the patronymic.  Schlaume would have been known as “Schlaume, the son of Benjamin.”  It’s not much of stretch to see how “son of Benjamin” becomes “Ben(‘s) son,” particularly in the Courland Gubernia which was unique among the gubernias in that the region had strong Prussian/Germanic cultural ties.

In Aizpute, Jones came face to face with a very hard truth, the once-large Jewish community was entirely wiped out during the Holocaust in brutal, executioner fashion in a nearby forest on October 27, 1941.  (I wondered who was responsible for that massacre, the Nazis or the Latvians, who were no innocents during the Holocaust.)  Jones, for the first time, also understood exactly how close the Holocaust actually was to her.  That sudden realization is one that I am deeply familiar with.  As is the belated survivor’s guilt that she began to feel throughout the latter half of the episode.  It’s a remarkably upsetting and humbling feeling to realize that you live while your cousins were killed or prevented from being born.

In Aizpute, there was no evidence that the Bensons were killed, but back in Riga, Jones got the bad news.  Her family had left Aizpute for Riga and, as required by Latvian law, they got passports.  Using those passports Jones saw for the first time, photos of Jette Benson and Abram David Benson, desendants of Schlaume Benson’s brothers.  But those passports also told a sad story; these cousins were also killed on 27 Oct 1941 in the forest of Rumbula.  In Rumbula there is a memorial to these Jews.  At the end of the episode Jones and her mother made a pilgrimage to the monument in Rumbula to memorialize their lost family.  Jones says that it is important to remember them, a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with.  If we do not remember, no one will remember for us.

This episode touched something very personal in me.  In a way Rashida Jones was telling my story, although I think there is more documentation in Latvia than in Ukraine where my known relatives who perished in the Holocaust lived.  It was a very moving episode, and a hard one to sit through.  But it is also one I will watch again.

Next week: Jason Sudeikis.

Footnotes:

* The remaining great-great-grandmother came from Galicia, which means either present-day southern Poland or western Ukraine.  Galicia was at that time a part of the Austrian Empire.

** Gubernias were the largest administrative districts of the Russian Empire, sort of akin to the states of the United States.  Often we genealogists are told by relatives that our family came from (for example) “Grodno Gubernia” when we ask about our town of origin.  This is about as helpful as being told “California” when the answer we want to know is San Diego (or Bakersfield).

Rob Lowe, Who Do You Think You Are?

You may have noticed that I did not write about Rob Lowe’s episode until well after its initial airing.  I apologize for that.  Because of my work schedule, I was not able to catch the first half of the show last Friday, and the half that I did see was not all that interesting to me, so I had to force myself to sit down in front of Hulu to catch up.  Lowe spent the entire episode chasing after his 5th great-grandfather John Christopher East ( Johann Christoph Oeste).  Episodes that focus on the solitary ancestors are often the most gripping of the entire series; think about Rita Wilson or Susan Sarandon.  The inherent problem with this kind of episode though is that if the ancestor’s story is not gripping, the whole episode is flat and irredeemably dull.  In other words, high risk, high reward.  Wilson and Sarandon had a personal connection to their (respective) father and grandmother, even if in Sarandon’s case she never met her grandmother.  In contrast, Rob Lowe had no knowledge of or connection with his 5th great-grandfather.  He could have been researching anyone, and the distance really came through.

It was also a problem that the entire episode felt like it was shaped fit the search for Lowe’s solitary ancestor despite the pretense he knew nothing about his mother’s family.  First Lowe eliminates his father’s side of the family.  Then he goes on and on about hoping to find a patriot in the family (yes, The West Wing was referenced).  Even his meeting with his brother Chad seemed stilted and awkward as though designed to find the one story that Rob Lowe would be chasing.  It’s not exactly a well-kept secret that all the research is done months in advance, but it really felt like Lowe knew who and what he would be searching for and acted accordingly.  On the bright side, it was good to see Rob and Chad together; I thought they were estranged.

Rob and Chad found the wedding picture of their great-grandparents, Oran Hepler and Bessie May East, and then find a news article from early 1900’s Ohio about a reunion of the descendants of Christopher East.  After an overt Ancestry* plug (and a somewhat more subtle Apple one) about six and quarter minutes into the episode, the Lowe brothers discover a John Christopher East who the Daughters of the American Revolution were looking into as a possible Revolutionary War patriot.  So, off Rob Lowe went to Washington, DC to the DAR’s library.

A word about the DAR.  Without a doubt they have one of the finest collections that a genealogist could hope for, particularly if you have deep American roots.  (As I do not, I am uncertain that the DAR’s collection would do me much good.)  The DAR strikes me as an organization devoted to elitism–in order to be a member, you must have the right ancestry and be able to recite it as though you Homer composing The Iliad.  By default, the right ancestry by-and-large means WASPs, perhaps not entirely but undoubtedly predominantly.  This WASPishness is all the more pronounced because of the DAR’s terrible, foolish, racist blunder in 1939, which it will never live down no matter how hard it tries.  This is because the DAR’s blunder gave us one of the iconic moments in American music (and racial) history.

I am not claiming that the DAR is still a racist, pro-segregation organization, nor do I claim that in 2012 they would refuse to book Marian Anderson (were she still alive) in Constitution Hall.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that by excluding all but a few from their organization, they have created an ersatz Roman patrician class–the ancient founders who have more inherent worth than the rest of us undeserving plebeians.  This gives lie to the pretense (delusion?) that America is a society without a class structure.

At the DAR library, Lowe was given a family tree that showed how his great-grandmother Bessie May was related to John Christopher East.  He also learned that the DAR closed the application on East because there was no proof he fought in the Revolutionary War.  Apparently they had confused East with someone of a similar name.  Lowe did find a tax list from Newtown, Pennsylvania that listed East.  To further pursue the truth, Lowe’s then went to the Library of Congress, although he first stopped by the Lincoln Memorial for meaningless filler shots despite the fact that the Lincoln Memorial is in the opposite direction from the Library of Congress (not that it is that far away when traveling by car).

Long story short, East was in the Revolutionary War, except that he was a Hessian.  Moreover, he was captured by George Washington’s army at the Battle of Trenton, which Lowe did not know much about, but having grown up in the Philadelphia area, I was quite familiar with.  Lowe then went off to visit historical Trenton, and I was disappointed that the Lower Trenton Bridge with its “Trenton Makes The World Takes” sign was not featured.  As a side note, I find Trenton to be a terrifying city although perhaps not yet at Camden levels of sheer horror.  To contradict all my fears, Trenton’s historical area seemed quite lovely.  (As a side note, this map… true.)  On the other hand, Lowe didn’t have to go to Trenton’s train station.

Lowe followed Christopher East’s (Christoph Oeste) path to Newtown, Pennsylvania, a town I know well given that I grew up in that general area.  There he learned that George Washington showed mercy and (via act of the Continental Congress)permitted  the captured Hessians to assimilate in the United States should they defect from the British army.  They were also allowed to go home instead should they choose that path.  Although I learned about the Hessians growing up, I must admit, I never once thought about what they did after the Battle of Trenton.  I guess if pressed, I would have assumed that they went back to the area of what would later become Germany that they were from.  And I would have been mostly right, as 85% of them did return. But not East/Oeste  (Should Oeste have an umlaut over the O instead of an e afterwards?  I am unfamiliar with the finer points of German spelling.)  Oeste stayed and Lowe went to Germany to find out why.  In Germany Lowe learned that Oeste was the youngest of eight children, and therefore had little choice but to join the Hessians to improve his prospects.

Then came the twist.   Because Oeste paid some kind of tax to raise money for the war effort, the DAR accepted him as a patriot, and therefore Lowe was able to joint the Sons of the American Revolution.  Which makes absolutely no sense if you think about it, and despite (or perhaps because of) my railing earlier about the DAR and its elitism, I am highly suspicious of why they accepted Lowe.  My guess is that it is one of three things: (1) they need the membership dues; (2) they want to be able to say that Rob Lowe is a member; or (3) it would look really bad on television if the DAR/SAR kept Lowe out despite the fact that Oeste’s patriot credentials are really rather sketchy.  Technically, Lowe is a descendant of an American Revolution soldier, but a soldier who fought for the wrong side.

In a season of peaks and valleys, this episode is definitely nearer to the bottom.  I apologize to all the descendants of John Christopher East; I have nothing against your ancestor, whose story is no doubt fascinating.  But Who Do You Think You Are did him no justice with an episode that was listless and overly scripted (and allowed me too much time to pontificate on class and the DAR).  I just wanted the episode to end.  This one will not be savored on repeat viewing.

Next week, Lowe’s Parks & Recreations co-star, Rashida Jones, and it seems to be a Holocaust episode.

Footnotes:

* For those not in the know, Ancestry just bought Archives.com, a site that had been around for a while, but only recently tried to make a serious dent in the online genealogy market.  Archives (not to be confused with Archives.org or Archives.gov) was the site that the government chose to partner with for hosting the 1940 Census online.  Ancestry has been steadily gobbling up all competitors, most famously Footnote.com (now Fold3), to the point where it seems like it is the only major American player left in the market other than the LDS Church’s (free) site FamilySearch.com.  In fact, other than FamilySearch, there are really only three major players in the market: Ancestry, the British company brightsolid (which owns findmypast.com and has yet to become a player in the American market), and MyHeritage (which is Israeli, and which is also only starting to break in).  I am quite fearful that Ancestry is going to create a monopoly, and I am wondering if perhaps it would be for the best if federal regulators put a stop to its acquisition of Archives.  Not that they will.

Rita Wilson, Who Do You Think You Are?

When the guest list was announced, I raised an eyebrow in curiosity when I saw that Rita Wilson was one of the celebrity guests.  I know that Wilson is an actress and has appeared on stage and screen, but because of her marriage to Tom Hanks, she is eternally overshadowed by her husband’s fame.  The conceit of Who Do You Think You Are is that the guests are “some of America’s most beloved celebrities,” and I am not sure that Rita Wilson really qualifies for that title.

Having said that, this past week I was extremely excited about her episode.  The promotional teaser looked amazing, and Wilson, being of Greek/Ottoman/Bulgarian heritage (her birth name is Margarita Ibrahimoff), brings a new geographic sphere to the show.  This episode was unique in the Who Do You Think You Are canon, because the search was entirely unlike any other in the show’s run.  I have written before about the two types of episodes in this series: the general “trace the family tree” episode and the specific “follow one ancestor” episode.  Both types of episodes have their benefits, but the common theme that both share is that the celebrity knows almost nothing about that family or the individual in question.  Wilson however knew the man whose history she was researching; it was her beloved and recently-deceased father, Allan.  Because she knew him well and loved him so much, each fact she learned about him was not about discovering a picture of him but rather reconciling the one she already had with facts he never told her.  Is it any wonder that she was emotional throughout her entire journey?*

Allan Wilson was born Hassan Halilov Ibrahimoff in Oraion, Xanthi, Greece.  Wilson found the name of his birth town on her parents’ marriage certificate which she located online.  (This was this week’s Ancestry plug.  One might ask why Wilson’s mother didn’t have it, but I suspect it had more to do with getting the plug in as all the research in this week’s episode is outside the scope of Ancestry’s holdings.)  I looked for the certificate, but I could not find it online; it’s a bait and switch that Ancestry did with the Martin Sheen episode too.  I did find the information from Rita Wilson’s birth certificate though which lists her first name as “Margarit.”

When Hassan Halilov was born, Oraio was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, and, as you can probably tell from the name, the ibrahimoffs were a Muslim family–another first for the show.  In Oraio that Wilson began her journey.  A guide took her to the house where her father was born, a home that now used as a storage house, and is otherwise vacant.  Wilson wanted to know why her father moved to Bulgaria, and her guide introduced her to her father’s cousins.  Truth be told, I could not understand what exactly they were trying to tell Wilson; it seemed a bit contradictory.  The cousins did show her a picture of her grandfather Halil Ibrahimoff, and told her that he was a funny man.  Wilson learned that her grandfather moved his family to Smolyan, Bulgaria, a town near the Greek border.

In Smolyan, Wilson learned from an archivist that the Ibrahimoff family moved to Smolyan somewhere between 1927 and 1934 (when Wilson’s father was between 7 and 14).  Wilson also learned that her father was drafted into the Bulgarian artillery in 1941 at the age of 20 because Xanthi, the province where he was born, was, in 1941, a part of Bulgaria (all persons born in Xanthi were retroactively considered Bulgarian, including Wilson’s father.)  It also meant that he fought for the Axis alongside the Nazis and Italian Fascist regime.  Wilson’s father however, was dismissed shortly into his service and sentenced to over three-and-a-half years in prison because of petty theft; he took 28 siphon bottles and five levs, an incredibly small sum. The army wanted to make an example by punishing the petty crimes disproportionately harsh.  Wilson’s father had told Wilson that he had been imprisoned in a labor camp when he was young, and Wilson wondered if labor camp was a euphemism for prison.

Wilson’s father was paroled after just over two years and he returned to Smolyan briefly but then moved out to Plodiv, and it was there that Wilson got the shock of her life–her father had been married before and had a child.  The marriage, to a woman named Alice Markayan, took place on October 26, 1945, 11 years to the day before Wilson’s birth.  The son of that marriage, Emil Hassanov was born on December 26, 1945.  Three days later Alice died.  Four months after that, Emil followed.

Is it any wonder that Allan Wilson never spoke about his past?  There was already so much pain, and more to come.  I imagine Bulgaria was a nightmare from which he could not wake up.  But 66 years after Emil died, his younger half-sister finally discovers his existence.  I was reminded of something similar in my family.  My great-grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1911.  He married my great-grandmother in 1919 and their first child was born nine months afterwards.  When I found my great-grandfather’s World War I draft card, I got a similar shock to what Wilson found.  My great-grandfather was asked is he had any dependents, and he answered that he had an 8-year-old child in Russia.  This is the only time I, my mother, or my uncles ever heard about this child, and he never mentioned the child again on any records.  I think this is something that he also kept from his own children.  It is possible that the draft card was mistaken, but between the Nazis and an archives fire in Ukraine, I am not sure I will know the truth.

There was a five year gap between the death of Alice and Emil and Wilson’s father’s marriage to her mother Dorothy.  Wilson traveled to Sofia where she discovered that her father told her the truth about the labor camp, a Soviet-style gulag with harsh conditions and the constant specter of murder.  Wilson was shown her father’s secret file, something that no doubt would only have been possible following the fall of the Bulgarian Communist regime.  Like in other Communist countries, most notably East Germany, the authorities got neighbors and friends to spy on suspect targets, and Wilson’s father was one of those suspected.  He was arrested for trying to flee to Turkey, declared a traitor, and sentenced to two different mining camps.

Although the punishment for trying to escape was death, Wilson’s father did manage to flee in the night, and on May 4, 1949, he landed in the United States.  In 1973, 26 years after the escape, he was declared an enemy of the state.  Had he ever returned to Bulgaria, he would have been rearrested.

After learning the truth about her father’s life, Wilson gets one final shock, her father’s older half-brother Fairhat was still alive (at age 96) and residing in Smolyan.  The family reunion between Wilson and her uncle was a tearjerker, for them and for me.  It turned out that Fairhat was sent to the same labor camp as his brother, but Fairhat could not escape because he had a wife and two children.  After Wilson’s father escaped, Fairhat was interrogated and beaten.  He was however, eventually released.

In 1950, Hassan Halilov sent Fairhat and their father a beautiful letter from the United States about his progress, how happy he was there, and his hope for the future.  This appears to be the last communication that he ever had with his family, and Fairhat kept the letter in case one of his brother’s children even found him.  Her brother was flown out to Bulgaria to meet his uncle and the show ended with the two Wilson siblings in tears to the (incredibly out of place) stains of “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” as sung by Rita Wilson.

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What an episode!  It was almost something out of fiction.  After a patchy start, the show has finally found its ground, and the last two weeks demonstrated spectacular quality.  I hope that Edie Falco’s story is equally as interesting.

There have been some complaints about how the celebrities have stopped pretending to do the work, and that is true to an extent, but that is not a fair criticism of Rita Wilson’s episode.  It all happened in Greece and Bulgaria and in languages that Wilson did not speak.  Hiring experts is the only way that she could have learned about her father’s early life.

I have yet to see the new PBS genealogy show, the newest Henry Louis Gates project, but I will get on that as soon as I can.  I’m curious to see how the two compare.  I cannot imagine that Skip Gates’s show pack’s anywhere near the emotional punch of tonight’s Who Do You Think You Are, but I hope to be mistaken.

Footnote:

* This episode may be the likeliest to make me cry.  Part of that is the emotional content, but in large part it is because of how much it parallels my own family research.  I mention above about my great-grandfather’s possible child, but there is another story that struck me.  In a deleted scene available on the website, Wilson discovers the Oraion birth registry (of males) which has the births of her father, his older brothers (including Fairhat, who we meet during the course of the episode) and her great-grandfather.  Missing from the registry is her grandfather Halil, although the researcher who showed Wilson the book identified someone he thought was Halil, an entry that is listed as “the one whose finger is cut,” meaning he was probably missing a finger.  My great-great-grandfather Abraham was missing his right index finger like Halil.  I never realized his finger was missing until I stared a few old pictures of him for very long periods of time.  I wonder if the missing finger was accidental or deliberate.  In Czarist Russia, Jews who were not allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement were nevertheless conscripted into the army and navy, which was a form of cultural murder and worse, a very real possibility of actual death.  To avoid that fate, there arose men called cripplers, hired thugs who mutilated Jewish boys to ensure that they would be unfit to serve.  I wonder if that was what happened to Abraham.

Helen Hunt, Who Do You Think You Are?

After the Jerome Bettis disaster from two weeks ago,* I had nearly given up on this show.  I was prepared to watch only the bootlegged UK and Australian episodes on YouTube.  I’m glad I didn’t.  If the last episode was the worst in the show’s run, this week’s episode starring Helen Hunt is one of the best.  It was so good that even the commercial breaks and two (two!) Ancestry plugs did not feel like such a big deal.

When I first saw that Helen Hunt was going to be on Who Do You Think You Are, my first thought was, “What ever happened to her?”  After the end of Mad About You and her Oscar for As Good As It Gets, she kind of vanished from the public eye.  (Fun fact:  Executive Producer Lisa Kudrow’s hit show Friends was a quasi-spin-off of Mad About You.  On Friends, Kudrow’s ditzy Phoebe Buffay had a twin sister Ursula who was also played by Kudrow.  Ursula first appeared on Mad About You.)  Her episode however, knocked my socks off.

Before I delve into the content of the episode, it is important to explain why I liked this episode so much.  The reason this episode was so good is that it focused on the history rather than on Helen Hunt.  In most episodes this season, we got one, maybe two, historical interludes to give us a sense of time and place for the story.  In this episode we got six, which is more like a British episode than an American one.  It completely makes the difference, and the story becomes far more compelling.

The episode also avoided making facile associations between Hunt and her ancestors, which is a pleasant change from most of this season.  In previous episodes, the celebrity spoke about an aspect of his or her life and sure enough, the ancestor in question had that quality (although it was often a stretch.)  This week however we were not subjected to (for example) Helen Hunt talking about how important feminism was to her prior to her journey and then discovering that her ancestor was an early feminist.  Instead, the revelations happen organically, and we feel like we are learning about the stories of interesting people from the past rather than HELEN HUNT’S ANCESTORS.

Finally, everything was documented through pictures, censuses, vital records, directories, election rolls, and newspaper articles–all very important tools in the genealogist’s toolkit.  Mercifully there was absence of speculation about what their lives must have been like or what their personalities probably were by both Hunt and the historians.  No gimmicks, no DNA tests, not secondhand recollections from decades later.  Just the facts.  The facts really do speak for themselves.

The episode started in Los Angeles with Hunt and her father.  Hunt’s paternal grandmother, Helen Roberts Hunt, was killed by a drunk driver when Hunt’s father was a little boy, and so he knew very little.  Helen Roberts was of German-Jewish descent (Yekkes), and her mother was named Florence Roberts, although the family name was originally Rothenberg.  Hunt knew little beyond that.

From a personal point of view, learning about a German-Jewish family was a novel experience.  My family is entirely made up of Eastern European Jews who arrived during the migration wave that spanned from around 1880 through 1920.  In contrast, German Jews such as Hunt’s family immigrated significantly earlier (Hunt’s great-great-grandfather William Scholle immigrated from Bavaria to New York in 1845).  By the time the Eastern European Jews started arriving, the German Jews already had deep roots, and quite a few of them were very wealthy–perhaps most famously the Gratz family.

Having said that, the importance of the German Jews in the United States has been largely overlooked.  So much of modern American culture and the Jews who helped shape it was rooted in the Eastern Europe migration, it is easy to forget that Jews had a presence in the United States from the very beginnings of the colonial era (especially the Sephardic Jews).  It is therefore good to see stories about Jewish families from places other than Eastern Europe.  It gives a tiny bit more diversity to a show that use a bit more diversifying.

Hunt learned that her great-grandmother lived in a hotel in Pasadena, and that there was some money in the family.  By looking at the 1900 Census, she learned that  her great-grandmother Florence and her husband Gustav lived in the Upper West Side of New York City with their children, including Helen.  They also had four servants who lived with them (none with last names, apparently).  Gustave died in 1900, and Florence moved her children out to California, the state of her birth.  In the 1910 Census, the Rothenberg family is living in a hotel in Pasadena, although without servants.  By 1920, Florence changed her name to Roberts.

If I had one quibble with this episode, this is it.  The episode implies that Jews who changed their surnames did so because of anti-Semitism in the United States which predated but was inflamed by a quota system that limited the number of immigrants, particularly those from Southern and Eastern Europe.  Yes, many Jews did change their name in the attempt to avoid anti-Semitism.  But that was not the only reason.  A lot of Jews wanted to fit in with American society so they adopted less “ethnic” names for more English sounding ones.  Nor was this a specifically Jewish phenomenon (remember Martin Sheen?).  In my family I can think of quite a few instances where people changed their first or last names (or both) to fit in, not because they were afraid of anti-Semitism, but because they wanted to be more American.  I bet you a know of a few Jews who changed their names for reasons other than anti-Semitism too.  Maybe Nathan BirnbaumMelvin Kaminsky?  How about Issur Danielovitch?

Racial and religious persecution is a fall back option for Who Do You Think You Are to explain things when there is a lack of evidence.  It’s incredibly lazy and misleading.  Maybe Florence Rothenberg became Florence Roberts because of anti-Semitism, but it’s also likely that she (or one of her sons) changed her last name because she wanted to fit in with her peers in upper-class Pasadena.

From Florence’s 1949 death certificate, Hunt discovered that Florence’s father was named William Scholle (formerly Wolf Scholy of Bavaria).  Scholle immigrated to New York City and worked with his brother Abraham, but during the California Gold Rush, he moved out west to San Francisco.  Still in business with Abraham and their younger brother Jacob, William Scholle became very wealthy (apparently his personal wealth was somewhere between 3 and 10 million dollars); by 1870 he and his family had three live-in servants.  Scholle rubbed elbows with Levi Strauss (another quibble, given the significance of Levi Strauss, and given that his name appeared multiple times in Scholle’s story, one would think that at least one historian would have explained who Strauss was), and they were both a part of a consortium that bought the Nevada National Bank which then merged with Wells Fargo.  Given the financial crisis of 2008 and how much I hate Wells Fargo for unrelated reasons, I wonder if I should be impressed or carry a grudge against Scholle and company.  Therefore, before she became the Little Old Lady from Pasadena, Florence was a part of the San Francisco elite.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Closing the book on the Scholle/Rothenberg/Roberts family, Hunt turned her attention to her father’s paternal great-grandfather George Hunt who was from Portland, Maine.  George was a businessman who imported sugar from the Caribbean in exchange for wood from Maine forests.  Like Scholle, George Hunt too was very successful, but the real story came from his 1896 obituary which introduced Helen Hunt to her great-great-grandmother, George’s wife Augusta Merrill Barstow Hunt.

Augusta was a leader of her community, and deeply involved with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  Hearing that Augusta was in the WCTU made Hunt uneasy but immediately I thought, “Augusta was an early feminist and probably a suffragette.”  Prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which ensured women the right to vote, women were nevertheless very active in social and civil rights causes, including abolitionism, temperance, the settlement house movement, and pacifism.  In their minds, and for good reason, temperance was a women’s rights movement as alcohol often led to the brutal treatment of women and children and the decay of the family.  (There was a dark side to temperance; the movement was bound up in anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly those from Ireland and Germany.  The WCTU itself was very much a club for Protestant women, and no doubt some of its most prominent members had lineages that the Daughters of the American Revolution would envy.)

Hunt, not knowing anything about temperance except for the circus act that was Carrie Nation and the failed experiment of Prohibition was a little embarrassed, although a WCTU historian explained the truth to her, and introduced her to exactly how important Augusta was to both temperance and to the suffrage movement in Maine.  (Helen Hunt noted the bitter irony that Augusta’s granddaughter-in-law would eventually be killed by a drunk driver.)

As it turned out, Augusta was instrumental in getting a suffrage law on the Maine ballot for a referendum in 1917, which failed miserably before an all-male voting populace.  (I was reminded about how Maine voters also rejected same-sex marriage in a referendum.)  Despite that failure, Augusta was behind every pro-woman reform of her day, including day care and female prison matrons.

In the end Augusta’s work was not in vain.  She lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment, and according to a profile of her in a newspaper from Portland, she was given the honor of being the first woman to cast a ballot in a Maine election.  It was both a stunning and moving find, and Helen Hunt seemed overwhelmed by it.

At the end of the episode, Hunt visited the grave of George and Augusta Hunt and took a charcoal rubbing of their monument for her daughter.  Charcoal rubbing is somewhat controversial and there are people who claim it damages the headstone/monument, although I confess that I made one for an ancestor whose grave was otherwise impossible to read.  It was however, an extremely poignant moment, and wisely, that was where the show ended.

Next week, Rita Wilson.

Footnotes:

As bad as this episode was, I have to shamefacedly offer a correction.  A few days after the episode aired, I found a newspaper article that indicated that Bettis’s ancestor lost his court case on appeal, and I blasted the show in a separate blog post for dishonesty.  It turns out, I was wrong in the chronology, and Bettis’s ancestor did win his court case with as far as I can tell no appeal from the railroad defendant.  I took down the blog post, but I want to set the record straight.  Mea culpa.  I’m sorry.  It does excuse how bad the Bettis episode was, but if I demand honesty, I should be honest too.

Jerome Bettis, Who Do You Think You Are?

This third season of Who Do You Think You Are has not been doing particularly well in the ratings.  Because of this, and because of a slower subscriber growth expectation, Ancestry.com’s stock has slumped.  For those reasons, this will probably be the last season of Who Do You Think You Are.  If the rest of the season is like this week’s episode, all I can say is “good riddance.”

At the outset, let me say that I have nothing against Jerome Bettis.  Not being a fan of the NFL, I had actually never heard of him until this season’s celebrities were announced.  I take great pains to point out that this review is not personal against Bettis, because in the past I have gotten personal before, and got a very nasty response from a reader.

This week’s episode was awful, maybe the worst of the show’s entire run.  In the previous two seasons, there have been definite valleys among the peaks, but overall the series was very strong.  This season not so much.  The show began with an awful episode (Martin Sheen), and the next three, although better in quality, also had major flaws.  Who Do You Think You Are, which has always been a vehicle for Ancestry, is abandoned storytelling for the sake of sales.  It’s Ancestry’s right to do so, but it certainly affects my enjoyment of the program.

The problem with tonight’s episode was that it reinforced almost all of the show’s other flaws: the Ancestry plugs, the unsubtle hints about what is to come, the importance of story at the price of history, too many commercials and too much filler, and the baseless assumptions made by the celebrities to whitewash ancestors with less than stellar qualities.  In the world of Who Do You Think You Are, only owning slaves makes you less than heroic; lesser sins however, do not disqualify shady figures from Ancestry canonization.  Over and over again we learn about ancestors who abandon their families, and over and over again it is excused away.  Only Kim Cattrall was honest enough to call out her grandfather as a reprobate, but that episode was filmed for the British series.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Jerome Bettis knew about his father’s family (his father died a few years prior), but knew virtually nothing about his mother’s family, the Bougards.  He began his journey in Detroit where he spoke to his mother Gladys and her brother Abram (“Butch”).  Bettis learned that his grandfather Abram Bougard was the son of Burnett and Ruby Bougard, and that Burnett was a troublemaker who disappeared when Abram the elder was all of six-years-old.  Abram never spoke about his father.

Using Ancestry (PLUG!), Bettis found Burnett’s death certificate, learned that he died in Paducah, Kentucky and found out that Burnett’s father was named Abe.  Coincidentally, I looked up on the certificate online, and found out Burnett’s mother’s maiden name too (Amanda Gee), but she was never mentioned on the show, ignored to the point that her name was not even shown on Bettis’s family tree.

In Paducah, Bettis learned that there was a divorce between Burnett and Ruby, which seemed to relieve him and would later relieve his mother and uncle.  I’m not exactly sure why; if anything the divorce record (between “Ruby Beaurgard” and “Burnett Beargard”) indicates exactly what a heel Burnett was.  The reason for the divorce was abandonment.  What I wondered, and what was never addressed is whether Burnett was even at his divorce.  After a certain period of time, an abandoned spouse can simply go into court and just get the divorce.  Given that Ruby brought witnesses with her to affirm that she was abandoned (one witness testified that Burnett told Ruby he was leaving and she could keep the house), I am pretty sure that is what happened.  Ruby was able to divorce Burnett because he up and left; Burnett did not divorce her.

But, because this is American television, Burnett had to be redeemed.  Redemption came in a newspaper article from 1897 which detailed how Burnett pressed charged against his supervisor for an assault and battery that took place at his job.  Because Burnett was a black man and his boss was white, bringing this charge in the Jim Crow South (where lynching was the norm) was extremely dangerous. Even the newspaper reflected this climate of hatred; the 21-year-old Burnett pejoratively as both “boy” and as a “darkey.”  Unsurprisingly, the charges were dismissed.

Then we got a narration about Reconstruction.  As I said in my last recap, slavery is America’s original sin.  The oppression of Jim Crow is almost its equal, and Kentucky has its own pernicious, racist legacy from which it cannot escape.  But Kentucky was different from most of the South, because Kentucky never left the United States.  Four slave states–Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware–stayed in the Union and did not defect during the Civil War.  Kentucky slave owners kept their slaves throughout the War, the Emancipation Proclamation never applied to Kentucky, and because Kentucky was in the Union, it was never militarily occupied during Reconstruction like former Confederate states were.  Although the narration did not explicitly say that Kentucky was occupied, it was implied.  Since Bettis’s entire story happened in Kentucky, it would have been nice if someone had made this distinction.  If anything, blacks in Kentucky suffered more during Reconstruction than their counterparts in the former Confederate states because there was no Union army to protect them.

Bettis, seeing this court case, decides that Burnett is brave and harps on and on about his bravery.  Here’s the problem for me though  Bettis knows exactly two things about his great-grandfather’s life: (1) he abandoned his wife and children; and (2) he pressed charges against his employer, and those charges were dismissed.  I can only speak for myself, but in my eyes Fact #2 does not negate Fact #1.  Burnett was not brave; he was irresponsible.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Like with the Brassfields last week, spelling is an issue again here; we see Bougard, Bogard, Beaugard, Beauregard, and a few other variations.  One of the historians attributes it to the racism of the census takers.  No doubt there is truth to that, but spelling on the federal census, and on pretty much every legal document before Social Security, is notoriously bad regardless of race.  No one should watch this episode and think that just because your family was white your family records are free of spelling errors or that your family name is spelled wrong just because your family was black.

Who Do You Think You Are is less a show about genealogy and more of a family history scavenger hunt.  Find a clue in Place A and you are sent to Place B.  Find a clue in Place B and you are sent to Place C.  Bettis learned in Paducah that his great-great-grandfather Abe Bougard filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Central Railroad for $2,000 for injuries he sustained while walking on a track.  Wanting to know more about this, Abe went to Frankfort, Kentucky to learn about this lawsuit.

In Frankfort, Bettis was shown the documents related to the case.  First he learned that Illinois Central did not like to lose cases, and with its team of lawyers, fought cases all the way to the Supreme Court.  Then he discovered that Abe’s lawyers were famous for representing the poor against big companies and probably did so pro bono (or perhaps for a percentage of the settlement, which is how plaintiffs’ attorneys make their money).  Finally he saw that Abe could not sign his name; there was only an “x” around which said “his mark”.  Bettis seemed so upset by that, and interpreted it as a sign that Abe was probably born a slave.  It is a fair assumption (and, as it turned out, correct), but illiteracy was common at that time period regardless of race.  For example, my 3rd great-grandfather died without a will, and his wife Mina, my 3rd great-grandmother, filed papers of administration.  Mina, an Eastern European immigrant, also could not sign her name, and there was an “x” with “her mark” around it in place of a signature.  There is plenty to be sad about in genealogy, but in my estimation illiteracy ranks very low on that list.

The show built up this court case as a battle between the good guy against the evil corporation, which I have reservations about given how only limited information about the case was revealed.  The librarian who showed Bettis the records invoked the specter of racism; Abe’s case would have been heard by an all-white jury of landowning men.  And just as he was about to read aloud the verdict, the show cut to commercials for what seemed to be the twentieth time.  It was a cheap move, and I knew right then and there that Abe won his case.  But the show’s director and editor should be ashamed of themselves.  Cutting to commercials at that moment was a soap opera-like way to extend out what was really minimal drama.

When we came back from commercial, we learned that yes, Abe did win, although less than the $2,000.  This made Bettis very happy because it appeared to him to show that Abe was a man of integrity.  I will grant that it was a big deal for Abe, a poor black man in Kentucky, to win that case, but I will not concede that winning a court case is a sign of integrity.  Perhaps I have spent too much time around lawyers (I am one myself), but the ideal of a court case and the reality of it are two entirely different things altogether.  Abe may have been an upstanding man of unimpeachable integrity, but winning a court case, even against a railroad, even in Kentucky, even at that time period, is not proof positive.  The jury is an idiosyncratic institution; who knows why it decided as it did.

The librarian in Frankfort told Bettis that if he wanted to hear the story of the court case, he would have to go to Paducah.  A historian in Paducah who worked on the railroad remembered that when he began working there some of the older workers who were in their 70’s talked about this case.  I have to say, I find that highly dubious and very convenient as it allowed Bettis to again posit that Abe was a man of integrity.  Then this historian showed Bettis an engine like the one that injured his great-great-grandfather.  It was big and heavy.  It is amazing that it hit Abe, and he still survived.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Bettis wanted to know for certain about whether Abe was born a slave.  Again he turned to Ancestry to find Abe’s death certificate (it’s there, I looked), and he found out that Abe was born while slavery still existed and his parents’ names were Jerry and Liza.  Yes, it turned out that Abe was indeed born into slavery.  Jerry and Liza (Eliza) were slaves of a Joseph Bogard, and that was how Abe got his surname.  In Bogard’s 1841 will, he left all his property including his slaves to his wife Mary.  Using dower lists, Bettis was able to trace Jerry, Eliza, and Abe through 1860 when Mary died and her property was divided.  Abe was sold for $1363 and separate from his parents.  He was about 10.  I wondered however, given that Jerry and Eliza were purchased by a man named Bogard, and Abe was purchased by a man named Hand, if these two men were brothers-in-law and they were dividing Mary Bogard’s estate as her heirs.  Not germane to the story necessarily, but it was something I was curious about given what happened next.

Bettis asked if Abe ever saw his parents again, and as it turns out, he did.  In the 1870 Census, Abe was living with Jerry.  The show spent virtually no time on this discovery, but I looked it up for myself, and I think it is one of the most interesting documents of the Bettis family history.  Abe (here Abram) was indeed living with Jerry.  Eliza was not there, but there were also three other Beaugards (the spelling in 1870) living with them: Mary who was 24 (two years older than Abe), Frances who was seven and Elizabeth who was one.  More interesting is that while Jerry is listed in the census as black, the four other Beaugards–who presumably were his children–were all listed as mulatto.  Again, presuming that these are his children (the 1870 census does not list relationships), that would indicate that Eliza was also of mixed race.  And given that the youngest child was one-year-old, and that at her birth Eliza would have been around 47, there is a strong possibility that Eliza died in childbirth or just afterwards.

Some of this is speculation, but it is no more speculation than assuming a man has integrity because he pressed charges or won a court case.  The story this episode told was manufactured and in some cases blatantly deceptive.  I suppose there are only so many ways to tell a story about slavery and have still be of interest to television viewers.  Nevertheless, this story did not let the facts speak for themselves.  It was so coated in speculation and legend, that I think the show made a mistake by producing this episode, which is something I have never thought before.

Next week appears to be either Helen Hunt or Rita Wilson.  NBC wasn’t telling in the previews.

Reba McEntire, Who Do You Think You Are?

Every family has its black sheep, its scoundrels, and its horse thieves.  Sometimes they provide the most colorful stories that regale us through the generations, but more likely than not they do things that we are deeply ashamed of even if we never knew them.

In my own family, my grandmother’s grandfather Abraham was an awful human being.  His two granddaughters’ husbands referred to him as “Black Bart” because they thought of him as a villain in old Western movie.  Abraham was an abusive lout who drank too much, beat his children, and openly hated his grandchildren.  My great-great-grandmother Bessie was by accounts a sweet and much-loved woman, Abraham’s opposite in every way.  For her reward she was afflicted with multiple sclerosis while she still had a young child to care for.  As her health declined, Abraham found a mistress and had an illegitimate child with her.  I have a picture of Abraham, his mistress, and this child.  (I have not tried to track down this child; it is the one branch I have no interest in.)  About a month after Bessie died, Abraham married his mistress, scandalizing his family who thought he should have had the decency to at least wait until the mourning period ended.  Abraham eventually died alone in a nursing home in Atlantic City.  No one in his family even visited him once.  Ironically though, he is buried next to Bessie and by three of their children.

I bring up the story of Black Bart to illustrate that we all have sinners in our family, although some sins are worse than others.  As lousy a human being as Abraham was, his misdeeds were nothing compared to those who eagerly partook in America’s Original Sin: slavery.  Tonight on Who Do You Think You Are, Reba McEntire had to confront the fact that one of her ancestors was a slave owner and worse, a slave trader.  For perhaps first time, Who Do You Think You Are could not whitewash a celebrity’s ancestor.  To be fair, other celebrities had slave owner ancestors, but those celebrities were African-American; they had no feeling for or connection with their slaver-owner ancestor whom they saw (with good reason) as a rapist.  For Reba McEntire it was different because she could not dodge the connection.  Her 4th great-grandfather George Brasfield (or Brassfield, Brasfeild, or Braisfield depending on which document was used) was an eager participant in the slave trade.  Unlike Spike Lee or Lionel Ritchie (also descendants of slave owners), McEntire could not treat Brasfield as a brutal other.  We live to imagine our ancestors as virtuous people, and it is a hard blow when we learn how truly awful they were.

Because McEntire knew her father’s genealogy, she wanted to learn about the family of her maternal grandmother for whom she was named: Reba Estelle Brassfield Smith.  She also wanted to learn when her first family members came to the United States.

As a prefatory note, it is clear that the show is no longer trying to maintain the illusion of spontaneity.  The very first scene between McEntire and her mother featured the most blatant Ancestry.com plug of the season.  Then McEntire’s mother told her daughter she was going to have to go to Monroe County, Mississippi when they could not find Reba Brassfield Smith’s father in the 1900 Census.  The conceit of the show is that it is like a treasure hunt and the celebrity follows clue after clue, but usually the first journey begins with a little more subtlety.  The meeting between McEntire and her mother line was practically scripted by the show’s producers.

As per her mother’s advice, McEntire did indeed go to Monroe County (the Stars and Bars on Mississippi’s state flag were featured rather prominently).  At a local library she did the bare minimum research that she could have done by searching unsuccessfully for the obituary of her great-grandfather B.W. Brassfield.  Of course, she looked in a bound volume of obituaries that were in alphabetical order.  Then McEntire met a genealogist who gave her a seven generation family tree of the Brassfield/Brasfield family dating back to pre-Revolutionary War North Carolina.  He said it was difficult to track down information on B.W. Brassfield, and no doubt it was, but that scene illustrates the main complaint of genealogists who watch this show.  Genealogy is blood, sweat, and tears, thousands of hours of research over many years, but here the celebrity was handed a comprehensive family tree without having to do anything.  Why bother having her look for an obituary that wasn’t there if the work was already done?  (And worse of all, the show did not say a word about how the work was done.)

The earliest ancestor on McEntire’s family tree was George Brasfield, McEntire’s 4th great-grandfather who came from Wake County, North Carolina.  In Raleigh, McEntire discovered that Brasfield owned a tavern and over 1600 acres of land.  He also owned 10 slaves.  McEntire was clearly appalled by this, and looking for a bright light, she asked if Brasfield treated his slaves kindly.  Here I was afraid that Who Do You Think You Are would do its typical whitewash, but no, there was no way to make this callous man sympathetic.  Not only did he own slaves he traded slaves, included young children and babies.  McEntire looked sick and deeply ashamed.  It’s not her sin, but it is understandable (even if perhaps slightly irrational) that she feels a kind of guilt by association.

Turning her attention toward her other goal, finding out how her Brasfield ancestors came to the United States, McEntire went to Virginia where she discovered George’s grandfather, also named George.  McEntire learned that he bought 300 acres of land in exchange for a lot of tobacco.  More importantly, she discovered that he came to the Americas as nine-year-old indentured servant.  (A quick confession: I knew about indentured servants from history class, and I knew that they were treated no better than slaves although indentured servants had the hope of a better future.  What I did not know is that they started so young.  It is one of those horrifying and inconvenient truths that our history teachers don’t tell us.)  Reba, wondering how his mother could let him go so far, followed George’s path to his origin in Macclesfield, England.  Ironically, at the beginning of the show, McEntire admitted she never felt comfortable in England, unlike Scotland and Ireland where she felt at home.  In Macclesfield, she found out that George’s mother Abigail died in 1696 and his father Thomas put young George into indentured servitude two years later probably because this was the only way for him to have a better life.  Reba, rather movingly, made her peace with Thomas’s actions and ended her journey.

This episode of Who Do You Think You Are mixed the genuine and the staged rather clumsily.  On one hand, McEntire’s emotions were entirely genuine: helpless disgust she felt when she learned about her slave owner ancestor, anger that Thomas Brassfield put his son into indentured servitude, sorrow about the death of Abigail Brassfield, and finally forgiveness and understanding for why Thomas did what he did.

On the other hand, this episode seemed even more staged than the others.  The truth about Who Do You Think You Are is that the real genealogical work had been done for months if not years before the show is recorded.  The celebrity does no work whatsoever although occasionally you get scenes of some research, like Rosie O’Donnell or Susan Sarandon searching through microfilm.  The celebrities just go to the designated place where they are told about their ancestors.  Despite how unreal this is, usually this artifice is handled well. Not so this time.  Perhaps the best illustration of how the producers showed their hands was when McEntire used a database to find church records in Macclesfield and found the correct records by using a variant spelling of her family name (in this case “Brasfeild”) that had never been used before.  Lo and behold she was absolutely correct!  It’s obvious that McEntire was told what to type.  I don’t mind the artifice, and I am willing to suspend my disbelief.  I do however, mind the clumsiness.  It ruins the illusion.

Next week’s show is Jerome Bettis, whom I had never heard of before, but that is my issue not his.  Until then, happy trails to you, dear reader.