As I am deciding whether to keep this blog, I have become addicted to the ABC Family Show “The Fosters.” I have my issues with the show, which I may or may not write about, but nevertheless it is highly entertaining. But one thing recently struck me; the terrific Maia Mitchell, who plays the central character Callie Jacobs, so much resembled Linda Cardellini from her “Freaks and Geeks” days. I’m not comparing the two shows, “Freaks and Geeks” was, despite only having one season, one of the most perfect shows ever to air on television, and “The Fosters,” despite its addictive quality, has a very strong tendency to repeatedly dive into needless melodrama. But Mitchell’s Callie not only looks like Lindsay Weir, she has many of the same mannerisms. Put her in an army jacket (please, someone, make it happen!) and it would be like Lindsay reborn.
Valerie Cherish has walked off into the sunset with an Emmy in one hand and Mark’s hand in her other. There is no word yet on when or whether Season 3 of “The Comeback” will happen. (Please HBO! Make it happen!) As we wait, it is time to turn our attention to two of HBO’s other half-hour prestige comedic dramas, which are returning this week. On Sunday, “Girls” and “Looking” will begin their fourth and second seasons, respectively. Both shows are very similar to “The Comeback” in that they are critical hits, have a strong gay fan base, and receive an outsized amount of media attention compared the relatively modest audiences they pull in. “The Comeback” may have the measliest ratings among the three, but it also has a fanatically devoted cult following. “Girls” is the highest rated of the three shows. In Lena Dunham it has a standout figure who causes controversy for pretty much everything she says or does. Therefore, she will always attract attention.
And then there is “Looking.” “Looking” is the story of the trials and travails of three gay friends in San Francisco. “Looking” is, like “Queer as Folk” before it, not so much a controversial show among the television-watching community at large, but rather within its target demographic. I have written about The “Looking” Wars at great length before, but the general gist is that the show exposes the fault lines within the gay community (1) as to how its members wish to see themselves represented to the larger society; and (2) as to how the community sees itself in a society where homosexuality becomes ever more normative.
I doubt this season of “Looking” will bring about the hue and cry that met its debut season. My guess is that the show’s defenders will say something briefly in support of the show and continue watching while the show’s critics will say something briefly reaffirming their distaste for the show and then continue ignoring it. (This is a contrast to “Girls,” which is hugely controversial every season.)* Without the controversy (or buzz) that keeps it in the public’s attention, the metrics for success are going to have to change somewhat to earn “Looking” a third season.
Ratings for HBO are not the same as ratings for other networks. Television and cable networks have historically lived and died by the overnight ratings. A show aired once a week, and that was the one time people could watch it. Recording devices changed that a little bit, much to the networks’ and advertisers’ chagrin. The DVD box set changed it even more. The Internet however, is making that model, and indeed television as we know it, obsolete. Nowhere is this more apparent than on HBO. As a subscriber-based network, advertisement revenue means little, and the advent of HBOGo frees subscribers from a weekly schedule. This year HBOGo will begin life as a subscriber-based online service, and customers will no longer need to order HBO for television as a prerequisite.
With the rise of Netflix as a purveyor of quality programming, and Amazon Prime following suit, HBO need not be concerned with ratings so much as prestige. What brings in the money is critical acclaim as viewers will presumably go where the critics (and fellow viewers) lead. It is this world that “Girls” was meant for. Had this world been around in 2005, then perhaps “The Comeback” would have gotten a second season much earlier. And it is this world that “Looking” must find a way to negotiate in this upcoming season if it wishes to have a third. Whether that is by offering a show of tremendous quality ready-made for awards season or creating enough controversy to attract more viewers beyond its current audience, I do not know. I would like to see the show continue; I just hope HBO does too.
* It somewhat astounding to me that the two most polarizing shows on HBO are “Girls” and “Looking.” Contrast that to the network’s most popular program “Game of Thrones,” which routinely features graphic violence, torture, murder, sexual content, and fairly heavy exploitation of the female body. To my recollection however, “Games of Thrones” is rarely controversial, save among fans of A World of Ice and Fire, the series from which the show was adapted. In fact, there is only one moment from the show that stands out in my mind as truly controversial. Last season Jaime Lannister may or may not have raped his sister Cercei in front of the corpse of their dead son. What made that scene controversial however, was not the scene itself, but the tone deafness of the show’s creators. In the series, that moment is one of consensual sex, and the director insisted that he intended for it to be seen as consensual. Watching the show however, one can only come away with thinking that it was a rape scene.
It is not fair to compare the British and American versions of Who Do You Think You Are. The British version is on the BBC, which is funded by the state, and thus does not need to rely on commercials and sponsorships. Moreover, an hour program in Britain is really an hour, not the 40-some odd minutes of American broadcast television. (PBS and HBO being notable exceptions, of course.) The BBC version also lacks the blatant Ancestry plugs in the British version; the one from today (35 minutes in) was clearly added in later after the episode had been reedited for American television.
The flaws of the American WDYTYA, which I have commented on so many times in the past, are all the more apparent when the show imports an episode from the British series and tries to fit it into the American paradigm. This is actually the second time this happened, the first being the Kim Cattrall episode. Unlike that one however, I never actually saw the Minnie Driver episode in its entirety. Tonight was the first time I saw it. Nevertheless, the attempts to format it for a trip across the Atlantic were very awkward and apparent. Despite the fact that the episode was both intense and engaging, the narrative flow was also jarring. I was also left wondering if the questions I had after the episode had been answered for British viewers. In truth, the British episodes have a very different feel to them, and the Minnie Driver episode is an oddity, because it had that British feel, but because of the time limits, it felt somewhat patchwork (aided by with dubbed in mood music and celebrity narration for quick transition).
Minnie Driver was born in London but now lives in Los Angeles with her son Henry. Her dad Charles Ronald “Ronnie” Driver died when Henry was just over a year old. For Henry’s sake, Minnie wanted to learn about Ronnie’s family. Ronnie never spoke about his parents or his past.
Ronnie and Minnie’s mother Gaynor met around 1962. They never married and broke up when Minnie was six. Ronnie was married to someone else the entire time he was with Gaynor, and he had another family. Ronnie’s mother was alive when Minnie was a child, but they never met; Minnie never even saw a photo of her grandmother.
And dear readers, especially if you have seen this episode in the British version, perhaps you know the answer to this, but did Minnie know her father’s other family? Or have any kind of relationship to them? Because I wondered if Minnie had half-siblings, and did those siblings ever meet Ronnie’s mother or know anything about her?
Minnie began her journey in London at her mother’s residence. Minnie had a copy of her father’s birth certificate and a copy of a book that listed her father’s Royal Air Force service. Gaynor knew about the RAF service, but she never asked about it. It bothered her that Ronnie was married, but she never pressed that either. She said she thought Ronnie was hiding something, but she did not want to dig up whatever that was.
Ronnie was born in Swansea, Wales in 1921 to English and Scottish parents–Charles Edmund Driver and Mary Jessie Kelley, who, like Minnie’s parents, were not married. In the RAF service book that Minnie had, there was a picture of Ronnie. He was awarded the second Distinguished Flying Medal given out during World War II, but he told Gaynor that he threw the medal into the Thames, claiming he did not deserve it.
Before digging into Ronnie’s familiar history, Minnie went to learn about his RAF service. Ronnie was 18 when he first saw battle, the Battle of Helligoland Bight of 1939, which was the first named air battle of World War II. The British were confident of their air superiority with their Vickers Wellington bombers, but the Luftwaffe routed the RAF. Of the 22 Wellingtons that were in battle, 12 were destroyed and another three were damaged.
Minnie was given an account of the battle in a book called Epics of the RAF. Her father’s heroics were detailed. He beat out a fire with his bare hand and saved the lives of most of his fellow airmen. He did however, lose his best friend in battle. Minnie said that when her sister named her daughter Lily, Ronnie cried and cried. They never asked why, and assumed it was because of the birth of his granddaughter. In actuality, this friend’s surname was Lilly (Lily?).
Minnie was then introduced to Derek Alloway, an RAF veteran who knew Ronnie. He talked to Minnie about what happened at the battle and showed her an official report, which detailed how Ronnie helped save the crew, who survived largely because of his actions, and nearly at the cost of his life. Alloway however, never saw Ronnie after the battle.
Minnie went to the RAF museum where she was given the transcript of an interview done with her father. He talked about his background as well as the events of the battle. The interview was to be used as a propaganda piece to encourage other young men to get involved and also to forget that the battle was a very heavy defeat. Minnie was given a copy of Ronnie’s home town paper from shortly afterwards where there was a clip about Ronnie’s mother welcoming her son home and a picture of her with Ronnie.
Ronnie received his medal in 1940, but the next entry in his file was his discharge shortly thereafter. He was discharged to the RAF Hospital in Matlock, a psychiatric hospital. Minnie went to Matlock to learn more about his diagnosis, which was anxiety. He was given sleep medication and time to himself. Today, undoubtedly he would have been diagnosed with Posttraumatic stress disorder, especially as later that year (December 1940) he was again admitted to a psychiatric hospital, this time the RAF Liverpool in Ealing.
Yet, Ronnie stayed with the RAF. In 1943 he was commissioned as a pilot officer, and in 1944, he was promoted to flying officer. There was even a portrait from the Portrait Gallery of his wedding day to his wife Ann. Notably, despite wearing his uniform, he did not have his Distinguished Flying Medal, and Minnie said she understood why he threw the medal in the river.
Ronnie’s father Charles died when he was young, and Minnie wanted to know more about him, so she traveled to Stockton to learn more. It turned out that Ronnie’s parents did marry, but in 1936 when Ronnie was 15. Minnie had to wait for the marriage certificate though, which she could not order online. Instead she looked for Charles in the 1891 Census. He was one of five children born to John and Sarah Driver. (John was from Ipswich and Sarah from Ireland).
Minnie wanted to know if she had any relatives from that side of the family and the researcher, who clearly knew the answer, led her through the descendants of Charles’s younger sister Maud, whose granddaughter (and Minnie’s second cousin) Jean Eileen Cranson Wiper was still alive and 84-years-old. Minnie got her address and phone number and called her. Jean, who goes by Eileen, had wondered in the past if Minnie was a relative. She did known Ronnie’s parents Charles and Mary (who went by Jessie). She described Charles as a lovely gentleman and Jessie as an outgoing, fun person. Eileen did not know why they married so later, and she could not remember seeing any pictures, which Minnie desperately wanted.
(At this point I was wondering a question which would never be answered, at least on the American version. Why did Ronnie cut off all ties with his family? Why did his daughter never know her grandmother? Those were questions that no one ever addressed, and they are the first ones I would have asked.)
After meeting Eileen, Minnie got the marriage certificate, which listed Jessie as a widow and Charles as a widower. Minnie wanted to know when Charles’s first wife died (I do not think anything was mentioned about when Jessie’s first husband died, which I guess meant there was no story.) Prior to his marriage to Jessie, Charles was married to Ada Wood Stancliffe. Charles and Ada had a son Leslie, whom Minnie never knew existed.
Minnie wondered if Ronnie knew about Leslie, and acknowledged that yes, he probably did. Leslie was an actor, which made Minnie very happy to hear that there was someone else who had the calling. Minnie went to a theater where one of the WDYTYA experts told her Leslie was the lead in a 1945 production at the (now destroyed) Hippodrome in Stockton. He gave her the program, where she saw that Leslie went by Les Stancliffe, and that was not all; Leslie’s daughter Jean Stancliffe was also in the production.
The WDYTYA people had contacted Jean, and she said she would be happy to speak to Minnie, who called her. I am interested to know what the full conversation was like, and if they talked about what Leslie’s relationship was like to his father and stepmother (and Ronnie), given that he took his mother’s maiden name for a stage name. But it also seemed like his daughter had a relationship with Jessie. (This episode left me with so many questions.) Jean had no memories of Charles, but she did have a photograph of Charles and Jessie. Jean was unable to meet up with Minnie, but did send her a copy of the photo, which allowed Minnie to see her grandfather for the first time. She teared up as she showed the photo to Henry who thought they looked very handsome. Minnie was left wondering why her father kept everything so secret, and she wished she could talk to him again.
I have said before that episodes focusing on one person are very powerful, especially when the ancestor investigated is a close one. The Christina Applegate episode is, I believe, the high point of the American series. Minnie Drive, like Rita Wilson, investigated the secret life of her father, which (like Wilson’s) made for a very compelling story. (It is no shock to me that the Rita Wilson episode was played immediately afterwards by TLC.)
And with that, this season of WDYTYA has come to an end. It definitely had its moments, and I look forward to seeing whose stories we are able to see in January. I hope you have enjoyed the season reading my blog. I had fun writing it.
I listen to a lot of podcasts every day, and a couple of times a month I get some genealogy-related ones. Among those is Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems, which I have mentioned previously. On her most recent episode she featured a (second) interview with Lisa Kudrow, star of Friends, The Comeback, and (for our purposes) an Executive Producer of Who Do You Think You Are.
I would not normally make a second plug for anything so soon after I made the first one, but I was fascinated by the interview. Kudrow was actually pretty honest about the flaws of the show despite the fact the interview was completely softball and fawning. In particular, she lamented how similar this season’s celebrity stories have been, and how the ethnic mix for the celebrities has been, especially since the show moved to TLC, nearly completely homogenous (not her words, but that was the gist). I bring this up, because I made the same complaint last week, so I felt rather gratified to hear the show’s EP make my exact complaint in a program uploaded to the Internet half a day after I posted my critique.
Another criticism of Kudrow’s was about how rushed this season has been (she effusively praised the hardworking researchers who found stories and crafted coherent and enticing narratives in such a limited time). She said next season, which starts this coming January, will go a long way to rectifying what she sees as problems with this season.
I bring this up for two reasons. First I want to give credit where credit is due (and point out that I am not alone in my complaints). Second, Kudrow’s criticism is especially apt for this week’s episode, which was, frankly, boring. There is nothing wrong exactly with the episode; the Oregon Trail is a new historical event for the show, but how many pioneer ancestors can we possibly see? And the ending monologue every week–bravery, blah blah, pride, blah blah, courage. It all merges into the same story after a while even if the particulars are different.
Kelsey Grammer was the son of Frank Allen Grammer Jr. and Sally (Cranmer) Grammer. Kelsey was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and when he was two, his parents divorced and his mother moved in with her parents Gordon and Evangeline (Dimmick) Cranmer. Grammer’s life was tinged with tragedy. His father died at age 38, his grandfather died at 63, two twin half-brothers died in a scuba diving accident, and most horrifying of all, his sister Karen was abducted, raped, and murdered two weeks before her 19th birthday.
In between tragedies, Grammer became very close to his grandmother Evangeline (whom he called Gam). It is her life he wanted to know about. She never spoke about her mother–never even said her name–and only mentioned her father once, who walked out on the family when she was little. Evangeline found him when she was older, and he wanted nothing to do with her. Evangeline was raised by her aunts, especially her Aunt Lela. Grammer wanted to know why.
First Grammer met with family historian Jennifer Utley who, via Ancestry (plug 5 minutes in), found Evangeline in the 1910 Census. She lived in Alameda, California with her mother Genevieve Dimmick and with Genevieve’s family, including parents, Charles B. and Amelia R. Geddes and sisters Evangeline, Minerva, and Lela (who in 1910 is listed as Delia). Genevieve had been married for 5 years, but there is no mention of a husband. On my own perusal of records, what I found particularly interesting is that Evangeline the elder was divorced, which was not mentioned in the episode, but was actually an important piece of information in hindsight with regard to Genevieve’s story. (Also not noted, Charles, Amelia, and Evangeline the Elder were all naturalized, having been born in Nova Scotia.)
The next stop was the 1920 Census, where Grammer found that his grandmother was living with her Genevieve’s sister Eland Swindell and her family. Genevieve, Minerva, and Lela lived in the same residence but were a different household. The historian offered an explanation for that, but I forget now. Something about a split level home. In any case, Genevieve is now divorced.
Grammer went to a repository of digitized articles from California and in 1913, he found that Genevieve brought charges that her husband Ellis Dimmick neglected and deserted her. Apparently they married in Oakland in 1905 and he left her later that year (the implication being that Genevieve was pregnant when they married). But why wait 8 years before filing for divorce? Grammer went to the Bay Area to find someone to explain divorce in that era.
And he got a social historian who found the final decree of divorce. Genevieve Marriott Dimmick filed for divorce against Ellis Loughborough Dimmick, who did not participate in the proceedings. Why did it take so long? Grammer and the historian talked about social stigma. Maybe it was Genevieve who felt the social stigma or maybe her parents pressured her. (There was already one daughter who was divorced, although again, never mentioned.) But I wondered–and this was never brought up–if perhaps there was a specific amount of time that had to pass before a woman could get a divorce on the grounds of desertion.
Grammer got more information about Genevieve, specifically her death certificate. She remarried William Foltz and died at age 52 (in 1924). The cause was cirrhosis of the liver, meaning that she was probably an alcoholic. There was some discussion about Prohibition and Genevieve being a victim of her time. Grammer posited that she was a party girl and Ellis probably knocked got her pregnant, which is why they got married. And that seemed to answer why Evangeline never spoke about her mother.
With that, Grammer closed the book of Genevieve and turned to Ellis. He went to Oakland to learn about his great-grandfather. At this point I notice that typical WDYTYA arc of tragedy and triumph. We are well into the tragedy part. Inevitably there will be some family redemption, but I wondered how. It turned out we would not find it with Ellis.
Ellis Loughborough Dimmick was, how do I put this gently? From the evidence shown, he appeared to be a rat bastard of a human being. In 1908 at age 29, three years after his marriage, he joined the Marine. He waived his marriage so that he kept all his salary rather than send any to his wife and child. His record notes many absences over leave and one glaring AWOL. Then Grammer read the comments that (commercial break for drama) he was discharged as undesirable because of habitual use of intoxicants. He was also labeled as having a bad character. He spent a lot of time in the brig living on bread and water, and his salary was repeatedly docked. In 1917, he worked as a night porter at the exclusive Shattuck Hotel in Berkley. On his World War I Selective Service Card, he listed his daughter Evangeline Lucille Dimmick (address unknown) as his dependent. Grammer thought it was a showing of decency, but I wonder if it was a way of avoiding the possibility of getting drafted.
It is a cliché of WDYTYA that the celebrity always finds some virtue of him or herself in the ancestor being traced. It is always, always, always a virtue–never a vice. The irony is that whereas most celebrities struggle to make these far-fetched connections with ancestors, Kelsey Grammer already has some, granted dubious ones. Over the years, Grammer has had some very well-publicized battles with his personal demons, specifically alcohol and cocaine addiction. Substance abuse has a biological/genetic component, and Grammer discovered that two great-grandparents were also substance abusers. Maybe that is a little heavy for the show, maybe it is just too personal for Grammer to talk about, I don’t know, and I am not going to assume or judge. But I will say that when I heard about the fates of his great-grandparents, I wondered what went through his mind and if he made any kind of connection. Grammer may have made a slight allusion to his past, but it went by very quickly.
Grammer got one last piece of evidence about Ellis, his death certificate. He died at age 60 of arteriosclerosis. His parents Joseph and Mary (Krichbaum) Dimmick were from the Midwest.
Back to the Census, this time 1880, Grammer found the Dimmicks living in Oakland. Prodded by the historian, Grammer found that the younger children were born in California, but the eldest two were born in Oregon. So that led Grammer to go to Portland rather than the places of birth of his 2nd great-grandparents. Because this show is extremely heavy-handed and obvious.
En route to Portland, Grammer thinks of the Oregon Trail. I do too, except that my recollections of the Oregon Trail are tinged by that old video game that I played endlessly as a child on the Apple II (as a banker because that gave you the most money to spend). Also, I killed a lot of pixellated bison even though they weighed 900 pounds and I could only carry 100 pounds back to my wagon. It was a horrible waste. I am responsible for the near extinction of computer-generated bison along the Oregon Trail, and I feel horrible about it. Maybe that is why I am a vegan today.
Grammer met Oregon Historian David Del Mar who told him about Joseph Dimmick, the son of Joseph Dimmick (born in New York) and his wife Comfort (Dean) Dimmick. The names in this episode are fabulous: Evangeline, Genevieve, Minerva, Lela, Eland, Ellis, Comfort, Lucinda, Ebeneezer, and my personal favorite, Athalinda. Love it.
Joseph the Younger (Grammer’s 2nd great-grandfather) is one of 14 children. Or more. There are multiple sources and the one that is least accurate was on WDYTYA which undercounted. (I counted from the 1950 Census, and I could tell 12 was too few.) It appears there may be a few more Dimmicks than were counted on the show. Not that is matters. The Dimmicks moved from Rushville, Illinois to Oregon along the Oregon Trail. Land was cheap, and the scenery was beautiful. Of course, pre-Transcontinental Railroad, getting to Oregon was exceedingly difficult, and the Dimmicks lost their eldest son Thomas to cholera along the way. (A nephew of Joseph the Elder kept an account of the trek that history professor Peter Boag showed to Grammar. According to that account, more people died than just Thomas. It is very sad.) But the rest of the family made it. Joseph and Comfort both got land, and Joseph died on it. There was a small biographical portrait of him, and he was listed as a pioneer, which is apparently a badge of honor in Oregon. Thus, we have the triumph part of the requisite tragedy and triumph arc I mentioned above. The episode ended with Kelsey Grammer waxing poetically about bravery and courage and pride, and I lost focus thinking about this write-up.
Lauren Graham and the season finale.
Edit: The Lauren Graham episode is not airing this season if at all. Instead next week will feature Minnie Driver. Driver was actually featured on the BBC series, which means that this episode is probably a reedited version of that.
The problem with a genealogy based television show is that if you watch week in and week out, eventually you get a sense of déjà vu. On its own, the Valerie Bertinelli edition of Who Do You Think You Are is quite good. But having seen every episode since Season 1 (and some episodes from series outside the US), I felt like I had seen it all before even if some of the details were different. A trip to Italy? Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, and Marissa Tomei. Meeting a long-lost relatives. Tomei and Rita Wilson. Nobility in the family stretching back through the centuries? Shields again and Cindy Crawford. (It was no accident that the repeat episode following tonight’s was Brooke Shields.) English and/or colonial American ancestry? That must be at least 75% of the guests.
Perhaps it is an unhappy accident within our celebrity culture that the people we elevate, or at least those with a traceable story, tend to have similar backgrounds. Personally, I would be interested to see a story that went to places we haven’t really been to: Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa (preferably with a traceable story that doesn’t rely on questionable DNA evidence), anywhere in Asia, Oceania, or a Northern European country that is neither a British Isle nor Germany. I am not faulting the show–it is not the fault of the researchers if the story is just not there–but I cannot deny having a wish list.
Like I said, tonight’s episode was good, aided by the fact that we have returned to a format in which more than one story is pursued. It was a nice bit of variety and it releases the claustrophobia that can potentially build up following just one ancestor. On the other hand, there were a lot of names thrown at us tonight and the spellings were not entirely reviewer friendly. Please be kind if I misspell a name, and feel confident in the knowledge I am losing potential Google search hits as a result of my errors.
Valerie Bertinelli, star of One Day at a Time, Cafe Americain, and Hot in Cleveland, and the former Mrs. Eddie Van Halen, is the daughter of Andrew and Nancy (Carvin) Bertinelli. She was very close to her father’s family, but her mother’s side was a mystery as her mother left home at a very early age and immersed herself in the Bertinelli family. Nancy’s parents were Lester Carvin and Elizabeth Adams Chambers Carvin, leading Valerie to believe that her mother’s family was originally English. As such, Valerie’s son Wolfie wanted to know if there was a family crest (spoiler: of course there was).
Before that inevitable reveal though we learned a bit about Andrew Bertinelli’s family. Valerie was very close to Andrew’s mother, her grandmother Angelina (Croso). Beyond her, Valerie knew almost nothing. Here, you will have to forgive me, dear reader. I had a very rough commute home, and then my computer froze so until the first commercial break I had to write my notes rather than type them, so I cannot remember how the following events occurred. (1.) Valerie received a picture of Angelina’s mother, Maria standing behind an gelato stand that she ran. There were other women in the picture and a little girl who might have been Angelina. (2.) Maria remarried a man whose last name was Mancia, and lived on a farm in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania.
Using Ancestry (plug 5 minutes in), Valerie found Maria and her husband Gregrorio Mancia (spelled Mancha) in the 1920 Census. They lived in Jefferson in Lackawanna with Maria’s two children Angelina and Giorgio, both were listed as “Manchas” on the Census but were actually Crosos. Valerie traveled to the Lackawanna Historical Society in Scranton, and bonus points if the theme song from The Office was stuck in your head.
At the Historical Society, Valerie learned that a widowed Maria deeded her farm to her daughter and son-in-law Angelina and Nazzareno Bertinelli, doing so only a week after her husband died in 1931. How did he die? By using the Ancestry-owned Newspapers.com (plug 9 minutes in), we get the whole horrible story: Gregorio shot himself in the head after attempting to kill Maria. She was in bed, and lay still as if dead, pretended that he killed her. Then he killed himself. That was traumatic just to listen to.
Valerie was given one last document, an obituary for her great-grandmother (called Mary) dated July 6, 1961. Her survivors included her two children and a brother Joseph Possio. The discovery of this maiden name, led Valerie back to Ancestry (15 minutes) to find an immigration record from 1915 for Maria Possio, age 36, and her two children “Maddalena” (Angelina) and Giorgio Croso. The show never really answered why Maria reverted to her maiden name on the passenger list (although perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she was joining her brother already in the US), as she was a widow when she set sail, but Valerie did learn that Maria came from Lanzo in the Province of Turin (Torino), Valerie’s next stop.
Valerie went to the Lanzo Library where she discovered that Maria Possio married Francesco Croso in 1910 when she was 31. There had already been a daughter (Maddalena/Angelina) born from “their natural union” which is a very ecclesiastical/political/polite way of saying that the daughter was born out-of-wedlock. The historian assured Valerie that the marriage was a way to legitimize Angelina, and that the reason they had not married was because church weddings were very expensive and dowry expectations were unrealistically high. Giorgio was born about a year later and three or four years later, Maria left town.
Francesco Croso died of a heart attack about a year into the marriage, and that was when Maria ran the gelato cart in Valerie’s picture. Apparently, Maria’s story was uncommon. The historian helping Valerie said she asked around Lanzo about the Possios and found someone who knew them but would not say anything more, which (of course) meant that the person she found was a relative. Valerie then gave a little speech about how brave her great-grandmother was, and I would have loved to listen, but I swear I have heard this same speech every single episode this season, and I was desperately trying to figure out how to spell some of these Italian names.
As predicted, the mystery guest was a relative: Pietro Possio who said he was Valerie’s third cousin as his grandfather was Maria’s first cousin. Actually, the relationship is third cousins once removed, but who’s counting. Pietro and Valerie are both overjoyed, and he gave her a postcard sent by Maria to her Lanzo family on the eve of her departure, although something confused me. The postcard appeared to be from Palermo, which is in Sicily, and Maria’s ship left from Genoa in northern Italy, not terribly far from Lanzo. Did my eyes deceive me? Pietro also had a letter that his father Francesco wrote to Angelina (although why he had a letter that was presumable mailed and received a continent away is a mystery that remained unaddressed) asking her to ask her children to write him–even in English–and to one day visit. Valerie said that her visit to Lanzo was the fulfillment of that dream.
After the happy reunion, Valerie went to London to research her mother’s side of the family. Her first stop was the Society for Antiquaries. Valerie talked about how she never thought much about her English ancestry because of her Italian last name, and I am reminded of the Jewish genealogist Arthur Kurzweil, who wrote in his book From Generation to Generation (one of the first important books on Jewish genealogy):
After seven years of research on one of the many branches in my family, I realized that I had made a mistake: I had neglected all of the other branches. In large part, it was the fact that my last name is Kurzweil which subconsciously made me think that I was more a Kurzweil than a Gottlieb, which is my mother’s maiden name. For that matter, I was equally an Ennis, which is father’s mother’s maiden name. I am also just as much a Klein, a Loventhal, a Rath, a Grünberger, and countless other names as well.
It is a lesson that every genealogist needs to learn, and bravo to Valerie for acknowledging it
At the Society for Antiquaries, Valerie received a massive family tree of her mother’s side (which was very New Jersey heavy). Her grandmother Elizabeth did not have much of a pedigree, but her grandfather Lester had a family tree that traced back many generation. His parents were Joseph and Ida (Gooden) Carvin. Ida’s parents were Joseph and Mary Emma (Bishop) Gooden. Mary’s parents were Benjamin and Mary (Claypoole) Bishop. And then the genealogist told Valerie that the Claypooles were “gateway ancestors,” ancestors who link seemingly ordinary lineages to nobility or royalty or both (and thus potentially go back dozens of generations). WDYTYA previously showed one such gateway ancestor in the Cindy Crawford episode, when she learned about Thomas Trowbridge.
The Claypooles in particular are an especially important family because Mary Claypoole Bishop’s 3rd great-grandfather (and Valerie’s 8th) was James Claypoole (b. 1634 in England) who was involved in the birth of the Quakers. The Quakers, with their beliefs in full equality of souls, men and women, highborn and low (which is why for a long time they adopted the informal “thou” rather than the formal “you.”) As a result of such heresy, they were imprisoned. James Claypoole was so significant that Valerie discovered a James Claypoole Letter Book, a compilation of letters he wrote, including one from 1683 to his friend William Penn. Being a native of Pennsylvania, I knew very well who William Penn was, and I was glad to see that Valerie did also. James Claypoole wrote to Penn that he wished also to go to Pennsylvania, which was settled as a haven for Quakers (who were not welcome in, among other places, Puritan Massachusetts). Valerie also got to see a copy of a document written in England, an early constitution written by William Penn to govern the Pennsylvania colony, making it one of the oldest constitutions in the world. Naturally, one of the signed witnesses was James Claypoole.
At the end of the book of his letters, James Claypoole’s life was summarized. He was elected to the Provisional Council in Philadelphia, but died shortly thereafter on August 6, 1687. His wife Helena survived him by only a year, but he left to her, among other things, his coat of arms, which made Valerie very happy to hear, because her son wanted it so badly, and because a coat of arms is apparently a big deal.
Valerie’s next stop was London’s College of Arms where she spoke to the Herald of Arms. There she saw the Claypoole coat of arms, which was a chevron with three circles around it. The Herald gave her a little more history of the Claypoole family. James’s great-grandfather (also James) was a yeoman but made money and became a gentleman, which is how he got his coat of arms. Although the Claypoole line did not extend much further back, the elder James’s son Adam married Dorothy Wingfield, whose bloodline was very long indeed. In fact, it is so long and confusing, I will just tell you the punchline–Dorothy Wingfield, and thus young James Claypoole and his descendants, including Valerie, are descended from Edward I “Longshanks” of England, one of the major Plantagenet kings. I looked up the genealogy (lots of Elizabeths and deBohuns), and it is rough to describe.
The problem that I had here was not the big reveal, but what was left out. If Valerie is a descendant of Edward I, then she is also a descendant of a host of Plantagenet and Norman monarchs including such famous names as William the Conqueror and Henry II, and infamous ones such as John (think Robin Hood). And while it is nice to focus on the king who subjugated Wales and grudgingly allowed the beginnings of Parliament, isn’t the Battle of Hastings more interesting? And then if we can trace back to William the Conqueror, we can almost definitely trace back to Charlemagne, and Valerie and Cousin Cindy Crawford can get together for a family reunion.
Valerie returned home for a family reunion to share her information, which is the first time in a while we’ve seen that. That is the nice part of this genealogy passion, when the people around us are as amazed as we are by the things we find.
Next week: Kelsey Grammar
It’s time to talk about that most frustrating part of family tree research; the family. Genealogy is a less a hobby than an obsession, and as with any obsession, it often mystifies the people around us who just don’t understand. Sometimes we get a little bit of interest, while other times it seems that we are talking some poor, unwilling soul’s ear off. We may not understand why our relatives don’t care about their own personal history, but they don’t, and they just want us to shut up.
I have two brothers, and neither of them has ever expressed an interest in even so much as looking at the family tree I have spent years building. When I offered to show them, they said no. Which is why tonight’s episode was something of a pleasant surprise for me–two siblings actively explore together. Who Do You Think You Are almost always features family members, but usually at the beginning of the end of the journey. This is the first time the show has actually featured two family members taking the entire journey together. (Perhaps my brothers would be more interested if my research involved international travel.) And one of said siblings is not even famous.
Speaking of this lack of fame, did this season of WDYTYA have its usual promo tagline of “Some of America’s most beloved celebrities”? Because while we can joke about whether Valerie Bertinelli fits that bill, it is fair to say that Kayleen McAdams most certainly does not–regardless of how talented a makeup artist she is.
Kayleen is the makeup artist and Rachel McAdams is the star who was fantastic in Mean Girls. The McAdamses are from the exotic land of Canada, although I believe that both of them live and work in the United States.
Before we get into the details of the show, I want to talk a little about Canada, the Jan Brady of North America. WDYTYA is a British show, which had many offshoots around the world. There was a Canadian version, but it did not last beyond a season, which is a shame. Canadians who want to see their own celebrities’ stories must therefore either embrace either the British version (which originally aired the Kim Cattrall episode) or the American version (Rachel McAdams). Just as Canadians sports have been incorporated into US leagues (hockey, baseball, soccer), so too are their celebrities incorporated into US television. This particular episode is a fascinating look at Canadian history. The episode also offered a glimpse into a fascinating alternative universe, Canada as a mirror image of the US, what would have happened had the 13 colonies not broken away from the mother country but instead remained loyal. Maybe we in the US would have even had a period of sustained sensible governance and beneficial laws and policy. Or perhaps as a southern neighbor I will block out what makes Canada great and instead think of Canada as a frostbitten wasteland where everyone pronounces “out” incorrectly, and Toronto is a short jaunt from Vancouver, eh? (I am reminded of the Onion headline, “Perky ‘Canada’ Has Own Government, Laws.”)
Rachel and Kayleen, are the daughters of Lance and Sandra (Gale) McAdams. Their father was from a large, close family, so we can safely ignore them. Their mother’s side is a mystery because their mother’s parents–Howard Gowen Gale and Eileen Maude (Bell) Gale–died when she was in her early 30’s.
Our intrepid heroines began in the US on the phone with their mother who sent them the Gale/Bell family tree. Howard, who was a mechanic in the Battle of Britain, was born in Plymouth, England. Mother McAdams also sent a photo of Howard’s parents, William and Beatrice Maud (Sedgmore) Gale. William was a mechanic in the Royal Navy. Mother McAdams suggested that her daughters start their search in Plymouth, and I died a little inside. No research? Not even on Ancestry? (The plug would come 8 minutes in the episode, after they were already in Britain.) Come on, WDYTYA! Let’s at least pretend that this is an organic search.
At the Plymouth Central Library, genealogist Paul Blake showed the Sisters McAdams the marriage certificate of William and Beatrice Maud. William was the son of William Henry Creber Gale (b. 2 Jan 1850) who in turn was the son of William Gale and Elizabeth Creber. On his son’s birth certificate, William Gale the eldest was listed a servant, and on the 1851 Census, he was listed as a footman, which one of the sisters says was “very Downton Abbey.” Sure, why not? (My views of British servants is more informed by Gosford Park than Downton Abbey, so I kind of recoiled.)
William Gale was the footman. Having no conception of the hierarchy of servants, I will take the show’s word for it when they say it was a big deal. He was second only to the governess, and the face of the household. His wife and child however, did not live with him, and his job was 24/7 and very demanding. It seems like the job’s only redeeming grace was that it lifted his social standing, which was not insignificant, but what a trade-off.
William Gale’s family lived far away, and he barely saw them. He met Elizabeth Creber because they had both been servants at the same house, but once she had a child she had to leave because while a married servant was acceptable, children of that union were not. Probably because caring for a child would get in the way of around-the-clock-care for the family of the house. William died in 1860 from delirium tremens (alcohol withdrawal). There was some talking head/empathy for the fact that maybe this would not have happened had he had his wife and child near him, but honestly this is hypothetical psychobabble, which I really do not like about WDYTYA.
The Sisters McAdams headed back to Canada in order to learn about how their family got to Canada, which I interpreted to mean why the Gales immigrated, but no, they were talking about the other side of the family. Considering that the show focused on one tiny branch, the Grey family, my guess is the others were either not as interesting, impossible to trace, or merely redundant.
The Bell family tree goes back quite far. So far and so quickly, I did not catch all the names thrown at the audience, although that does not really matter. Somewhere along the maternal lineage we ended up with Rachel’s and Kayleen’s great-great-great-great-grandparents Alexander and Charlotte (Grey) McDonald. They were born just around the time the American Revolution broke out. The show did not care much about Alexander, but Charlotte was significant because in 1824 she petitioned the British crown as the daughter of James Grey of the Johnstown Loyalists for a land grant. When the American Revolution broke out, James was a Loyalist who fled to Canada where he would eventually join the Loyalist Army. WDYTYA’s narrator gave us a little history lesson about the Canadian side (or what would become the Canadian side) of the Revolution in the battle of the Loyalists vs. the Patriots. Kayleen and Rachel discuss a Canadian identity (and hint at a Canadian inferiority complex) and wondered what their Loyalist ancestors would think about them working and living in the US. I imagine not much, but both countries have changes tremendously in 230-some years, so who knows. Largest undefended border in the world and all that.
At the City of Ottowa Archives, the Sisters were shown the document where James Grey first appeared in the historical record. He was quartered at a refugee camp in 1779 at Fort Saint-Jean in Quebec with his wife and two sons. They had fled from the Lake Champlain area around the New York/Vermont side of the border. The historian assisting Rachel and Kayleen posited that James Grey was probably a farmer and a new settler because that area was full of new settlers. After the British were defeated at Saratoga, the Loyalists left their land forever to settle in the harsher conditions of the refugee camp at Saint-Jean. James Grey served in the Peters Corps in the Crown forces.
The Sisters McAdams went the land that was the site of one of the refugee camps, and looked like they were about to cry. There were a lot of children housed in the camps and disease ran rampant. One of James Grey’s sons died at the camp, probably from disease, which killed more than the actual fighting. And after all that hardship, the American forces beat the British so the Loyalists could never go home.
To find out what happened to the Grey family, the Sisters headed to the Archives of Ontario in Toronto. What struck me is how beautiful the architecture of Toronto is. At the Archives, they found records of James Grey. He was awarded two 200 acre lots of land along the Saint Lawrence River near the new United States.
Afterwards, the Sisters McAdams and their historian friend talked about this being a source of pride for many Canadians because these were the founders of Canada. Which begs the question, is there a Canadian equivalent of the Daughters of the American Revolution? It is a shame that there was no connection to the War of 1812, basically a wash for the United States and Great Britain, but a real win for Canada, which forever afterwards became not part of the US.
The Sisters were very excited to find out they had such deep roots in Canada. One might say like the deep roots of an old maple tree. Or something like that. One of the sisters said she wanted to be more like her ancestors. Here’s how you do it: attack the US. Impose your universal health care, curling, and Anne Murray. One of the McAdams sisters also said that ending the journey was like finished a book and she felt sad to leave the characters behind but excited to share the details with their mother. I totally understand the finishing the book sadness; I felt incredible melancholy when I finished Don Quixote and War and Peace given how much time and effort it took to read them, but I am not sure why this is the end of the McAdams journey. Genealogy goes on forever. This is not the end; it is the beginning. To any newbies out there, don’t listen to the McAdamses.
Next week is… I have no idea. Wikipedia says Kelsey Grammar. I missed the promo commercial, but it looked to be either Valerie Bertinelli or Lauren Graham.
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.
Bear with me for a minute. My brother is a fan of American Ninja Warrior, an imported Japanese game show in which extremely fit people sate their masochistic impulses by attempting (and failing) to conquer a ridiculously difficult obstacle course. My brother complained that he preferred the Japanese version because the American version spends too much time on story and pathos of the competitors. This is an opinion I share, but I have voiced similar complaints about the Olympics. The focus on back story seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon, and I often wonder who determines it, the audiences or the networks. Do they show us the human interest story because we want it, or are we subjected to it because they determine that is what we want to see?
I often feel this way about Who Do You Think You Are. In order to ensure pathos, authenticity is often needlessly sacrificed. At its best, WDYTYA follows where the evidence leads. Take, for example, the episodes in which Christina Applegate and Rita Wilson researched their grandmother and father respectively. They had no preset agenda other than to learn. Those are examples of how finely crafted WDYTYA can be. Each climaxed in terrifically, aching moving resolutions without rewriting the historical record.
The flip side of this is that more often than not, WDYTYA does not let the evidence lead, but rather makes it subservient to a prefabricated story. Celebrity of the Week knows nothing about his or her family but hopes to find something in particular–usually someone who shares a trait that Celebrity sees in him/herself. Celebrity is then led to a particular ancestor and does his/her damnedest to find that trait in said ancestor. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not. At its worst, WDYTYA becomes a show about personal vindication of the present rather than an exploration of history.
Cynthia Nixon is now the third of the four Sex and City stars to have appeared on the show. Like Sarah Jessica Parker’s episode and especially Kim Cattrall’s, it was a worthwhile watch (your story better be good, Kristin Davis). Also like her costars, Nixon learns about an ancestor with a less than stellar reputation. Whereas Parker’s ancestress was an accused witch in colonial Massachusetts and Cattrall’s maternal grandfather was a bigamist reprobate, Nixon’s 3rd great-grandmother, Martha Curnutt Casto, was a convicted killer.
(Side note: Cynthia Nixon is a fantastic actress, and I admire her desire to be outspoken on issues like marriage equality. I think Nixon may even be the first LGBT celebrity whose activism and same-sex spouse have actually been mentioned on the show. Who knew that the “gay agenda” spread to genealogy?)
Nixon’s parents (both deceased) divorced when she was young, and as she was much closer to her mother, she chose to research her father’s family. This is one of those moments where I wondered if “chose” is WDYTYA code for “the producers could not find an interesting story in her mother’s family.”
Even from the beginning, this episode showed signs of the producers’ heavy hand. The family tree she received at the New York Historical Society has a big question mark next for the maiden name of Nixon’s 2nd great-grandmother Mary M. Nixon. It’s like a flashing neon sign that screams, “This is where we are headed.” As it turned out, Joseph Shumway, the genealogist who presented Nixon her family tree, also got Mary Nixon’s death certificate where we discover her birthplace (Missouri), and mother’s maiden name–Martha Curnutt. Notably, Mary’s father’s name, and, thus presumably her own maiden name, was unknown. Using a certain genealogical website that sponsors the show (first plug 5 minutes in), Nixon discovered that Martha Curnutt married Noah Casto in Missouri.
(Speaking of that certain genealogy website, my dear reader, do you use it? And if so, are you aware of the outrage that Ancestry.com has produced by closing down its services like MyCanvas and the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA sites? There is some real (and in my opinion, deserved) fury over the clumsy and unthinking way Ancestry botched the DNA closings. Given that I have never used any of these services though, I am curious what other people think, especially those who have. Does this also make you hesitate to try Ancestry’s autosomal test?)
Back to Martha. Shumway shows Nixon the 1850 Census, the first to list family members instead of just heads of household. Although there is no Martha Casto, there is a Martha Curnutt who has three children, Sarah (age 6), Noah (age 7), and Mary (age 10), Nixon’s ancestor. All the children have the surname Curnutt, and Noah Casto is not in the picture. Seven minutes in, we get our first commercial break and the promise of a shocking secret.
Noah Curnutt served and died in the Civil War. Nixon went to Washington DC and found his pension record, which Martha, as his mother and therefore survivor, filled out. The pension file stated that Noah the father died in 1842, when his daughter Mary was only two and his son Noah was not even born. Which inevitably led to the question of who was Sarah’s father.
Long story short, Noah Casto’s death was not natural, and we find this out, first in a prosecution against Martha and then in a fantastically gossipy newspaper account which contained this description of Noah, “A man whose name our informant had forgotten.” Martha killed him with an ax to the head while he slept and was found guilty only of manslaughter. A perusal of a contemporary newspaper showed that Noah was a vile man who abused and possibly raped his wife and threatened to kill her the night she killed him. This probably explains why she was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder. At the time, women were stripped of their rights and privileges once they were married, so even a divorce would not have protected Martha. Murder, according to WDYTYA, was Martha’s only option, and the jury was sympathetic to an extent. As it happened, she became only the second female prisoner in the history of the Missouri State Penitentiary, and was the lone female in a prison full of men.
As one would expect of any prison run by private corporations for profit, the prisoners were treated abominably, which was described in a book by a former inmate whose sentence was concurrent with Martha’s. He wrote about Martha and described the abusive treatment the prison authorities dealt to her and to the child (Sarah) who was born while she was in prison. Given the timing of Sarah’s birth, it appears that she was indeed not Noah’s daughter, but possibly that of a warden or guard who may have raped Martha. In fact, Martha’s treatment was so horrible that the petition for her pardon was signed by many people, including prominent politicians. Indeed, she was pardoned not even two years into her five-year sentence. It was a pretty awful story, and I have no desire to trigger readers any more than I already may have by recapping it in full. It certainly hit Nixon pretty hard, although I do wonder from time to time, given that many of these celebrities are actors, are these emotions genuine? And if so, is it because of story of because of how draining the journey is? It is one thing to react when a parent or grandparent is involved, but to get so emotional about a distant ancestor who you never knew existed until a few days before–that seems a little different. Of course, this could also be a natural empathic reaction, and I could be a horrible cynic.
Regardless, the story was pretty powerful, so I will not fault Nixon for her emotion. Where I believe she is on less solid footing is this supposition, typical of WDYTYA, that Martha helped usher in prison reform (specifically a separate prison for women and the recognition that they too commit crimes). Two minutes earlier, we were told that so many prominent politicians petitioned the governor for her pardon precisely because they may have been opposed to such reforms. Additionally, it is hard to see Martha as anything more than a passive figure in whatever prison reform movement may have occurred. More likely, given the sparseness of the historical record, Martha wanted to move on with her life and get as far removed from that time as possible.
Using FindaGrave.com, a site Ancestry now owns but WDYTYA left unnamed, Nixon discovered Martha’s grave where she was buried with daughter Mary and son-in-law Samuel Nixon. Nixon visited the graves and left flowers for Martha. Then she spoke at length about Martha’s strength and she ran up against history and changed it. Which, honestly seems quite a bit of a stretch, but these are definitely qualities that Cynthia Nixon has in spades.
Next week, WDYTYA continues its foray into the “gay agenda” with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the third openly gay celebrity in a row, following Nixon and Jim Parsons.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: no one looks good with a mustache. I have no idea what they were thinking in the 1970’s, but I assume it had something to do with drugs. Mustaches make their wearers look like pedophiles, ethnic stereotypes, or in the most generous circumstances, kindly uncles. There is nothing sexy about the mustache.
On the new HBO show Looking, Murray Bartlett plays Dom, a 39-year-old waiter entering a mid-life crisis. Bartlett is an absolutely gorgeous man (do an image search for him; I’ll wait), yet for weeks, I did not realize how gorgeous because Dom sports a mustache. Nor I did not realize that Bartlett played (the small but important role of) DK on Farscape, a show that I love. I blame the mustache.
The mustache is one of only two issues I have with Looking. My second issue is that there are only eight episodes, and I want more–all the more urgently as Looking has low ratings, and HBO has not yet renewed it.
Looking, based off of creator Michael Lannan’s short film Lorimer, centers around a group of gay friends in San Francisco. Andrew Haigh, a writer, director, and co-executive producer on the show, had previously come to prominence with his film Weekend, which told the story of two gay men in Nottingham, England who hook up on a Friday night and spend the weekend together. As Weekend is one of only a few truly great gay-themed movies, there was much anticipation about Looking. Gay-centered television series are rare, and fewer still of those have been worth watching. As such, expectations were heightened to unrealistic levels, especially for a show as subtle as Looking. Unsurprisingly, the show has been trashed by many of the loudest gay voices in the room despite general critical approval.
Ever since Lance Loud appeared on An American Family in the early 1970’s, gay men have had some kind of television presence. In the United States this presence has been decidedly mixed, especially in contrast to the British. The brightest star of gay television, Queer as Folk, was a terrific British show before it became a terrible American one. The original Tales of the City miniseries was a Channel 4 production. Showtime and Channel 4 co-produced the mediocre-but-watchable More Tales of the City, and Showtime alone produced the unwatchable Further Tales of the City.* The problem with American gay-themed television (the discussion in this essay is specific to gay men rather than the full LGBT spectrum) is that shows try to be important and meaningful rather than good. The two most prominent examples are Will & Grace (W&G) and the American Queer as Folk (QAF-A).
W&G was bitchy, campy, stridently pro-gay in message, reliant on exaggerated stereotypes, and startlingly sterile. The reason for the latter, we were told, was that intimate physical contact between two men might irreversibly alienate those little, old lady viewers in Kansas and Nebraska. Even though Will (the A-gay) and Jack (the camp queen) were virtual eunuchs, they were on network television (NBC) and were therefore changing hearts and minds. This self-congratulatory canard always irritated me, never more so than when it was repeated by Joe Biden in 2012. At best, W&G was a step sideways not forwards. Yes, there were gay characters on television, but was it truly a net positive when the show was a gay Amos ‘n’ Andy?
In one important way, QAF-A corrected the sins of W&G. Because it was on Showtime rather than network television, there was not only kissing between two men, but also copious, graphic, soft-core, man-on-man sex featuring the occasional, visible penis. Forget the little old ladies in Kansas and Nebraska; QAF-A’s intended audience was gay men (and younger heterosexual women). The characters of QAF-A were not any better developed than the archetypes–or stereotypes–of W&G; there were just more of them. There was the (handsome) central character, unashamedly sexual and irresistible to all; the (handsome) geek best friend; the (handsome) newly-out kid; the (handsome) camp queen; the (handsome) ugly, self-conscious guy; and the older guy with AIDS–who died and was replaced by the (handsome) younger guy with HIV.
Although, QAF-A was acutely aware of the present,** in most meaningful ways the show’s outlook was a relic of an earlier era, specifically the 1980’s. Where W&G revolved around a gay/straight friendship, QAF-A was tribal. Despite the presence of supportive straight characters (such as the overbearing, fag hag mother), the heterosexual world of QAF-A existed to relentlessly oppress the gay community. While it is true that QAF-A-era America was not nearly as good for gay people as it is now (DOMA and DADT were still in force, no state had marriage equality until late in the show’s run, George W. Bush was President), the us vs. them mentality of the show was akin to the anger of early AIDS activism and the street theater of ACT-UP.
Given that the there were varied and strong opinions about W&G and QAF-A, it should come as no surprise that there are varied and strong opinions about Looking. The most complex and sustained criticism of Looking is that the show is boring. One hears this from many corners, but the loudest voices have been at Slate, specifically from the gay men at the Outward blog, who enjoy taking potshots at the show (some sillier than others). This “boring” complaint however, needs to be unpacked. Looking is indeed slow and deliberately paced, which I enjoy; others might not. But the cries of boring from Slate are disingenuous; their true complaint is not about Looking‘s artistic merits but rather an anger that they do not see themselves reflected in the show.
Before addressing this anger, I want to defend the show’s stylistic choices. Looking is heavily influenced by Weekend, which in turn is indebted to the Richard Linklater masterpieces Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two movies which are very slow, very deliberate, and very dialogue-heavy. The movies may not be for everyone, but the boy-meets-girl love story is still universal. Weekend changed boy-meets-girl to boy-meets-boy but proved that a movie with a gay love story at its center can also be universal.
Looking too strives for the universality of its predecessors. (The show makes its Before Sunrise and Weekend connections explicit in its fifth episode “Looking for the Future.”) Patrick, Agustin, and Dom are gay just as Jesse and Celine are straight, but that does not mean only gays can enjoy Looking or only heterosexuals can enjoy Before Sunrise. Looking aggravates its critics because it lacks fidelity to the tropes found in other gay television shows such as the closet, coming out, camp, marriage equality, AIDS, politics, and homophobia, even as some of these topics were addressed in “Looking for the Future.”
It is precisely because Looking’s focus lies elsewhere that the gays at Slate dislike it. Take for example Tyler Lopez, who wrote that, “Looking somehow eschews any acknowledgement of advances in LGBTQ equality, presenting San Francisco as a dreary post-DOMA dystopia where gay men worry more about foreskins than politics.” One might ask what exactly is so dystopian or dreary about gay men living openly, honestly, and untroubled as gay men? Or why discussions related to sex and love, as opposed to politics, are frivolous? Does Lopez seriously believe there is more of an obligation for a show to be didactic than to strive to be a work of quality? Finally, what exactly is so wrong with a Virtually Normal universe in which gay people have successfully assimilated into society?
Assimilation is, of course, the looming yet unspoken fear lurking behind the “boring” complaints. Distaste for assimilation lies between every line of the most infamous hit piece on Looking, Bryan Lowder’s caustic review on Slate. Undeniably, Lowder is very well-versed in queer culture, a rarity these days, even among gay writers. He also has a fine appreciation for camp, so much so that he wrote a sixteen part treatise on the subject, in which he incisively tore apart what had been the seminal work on the subject, Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.'”
Lowder, perhaps as the defender of camp culture, takes it upon himself to play the contrarian to the overarching narrative of gay assimilation. He has therefore written critically about what the LGBT community embraces, for example Tom Daley and Jason Collins, same-sex marriage (multiple times), the boycott of Barilla pasta, Steve Grand, and (although I cannot find it), Weekend. Given this history, it should come as no surprise that he dislikes Looking. That, of course, is his right, but I find his reasons for disliking the show more interesting because it says less about Looking and more about the seismic changes to gay culture–changes Lowder clearly resents.
Lowder begins his review with a complaint on the artistic merits of the show: “Looking is so boring, so utterly flat in terms of narrative or characterization, so in need of occasional pauses in which to perform a few jumping jacks to bring one’s heart rate up to resting, that I would opt out entirely if we gay men—or at least gay male culture critics—weren’t contractually obliged to watch.” Lowder is no doubt trying to be clever; perhaps it is his attempt to achieve that perfect queeny snap. His cleverness fails him however; his barb was uninspired, and he himself acknowledges that his real problem with Looking “does not stem from aesthetic disagreements, at least not entirely.”
What really bothers Lowder is his belief that Looking is “a show that amounts to a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straights.” Lowder continues that, “the show eschews elements that might be seen as artful or entertaining and instead depends on the peculiar idea that gay audiences should find ‘joy’ in watching gay characters move from one (maybe slightly stressful) quotidian situation to the next.” Lowder dismisses these so-called “quotidian situations,” by saying:
All these issues have been openly discussed within the community for decades now, with a level of nuance and intelligence that, frankly, seems hopelessly beyond the kind of grown gay men who, as we see in upcoming episodes, have nervous breakdowns about foreskin or titter like teenagers at an institution as venerable as the Folsom Street Fair.
His conclusion is that, “[i]n attempting to escape the dreaded ‘stereotype,’ Looking has run headlong into something worse—a cynical tokenism, a gay minstrelsy of another kind.” In Lowder’s view, the characters on Looking are sops to a straight world (and a gay one) that refuses to accept gay men who do not ‘act straight’. Previous generations of gay activists protested stereotypes such as the self-loathing queens of Boys in the Band, the BDSM leather serial killer of Cruising, the hedonists of Queer as Folk (American and British), and, most dreaded of all, the effeminate, camp sissy who found his widest audience as W&G’s Jack.*** Lowder, an opponent of gay assimilation, upends those old activists; he rejects the ‘straight-acting gay’ by tapping into the activists’ same primal fear: what will straight people think of us?
Yes, straight critics and viewers seeking liberal cred will find an easy tool here; Looking is, after all, gay without any of the hard parts (dick included), gay that’s polite and comfortable and maybe a little titillating but definitely not all up in your face about it. And in that, the show may represent the greatest victory to date of those who strive not for the tolerance of queerness in straight society, but for its gradual erasure as we all slide toward some bland cultural mean. Beneath the modern platitudes like love whoever you want and all families are beautiful, there’s a quiet, insidious demand that you blend in as quickly as possible. Don’t harp on the struggles of coming out beyond gay meccas, don’t complain about rampant homophobia and increasing gender policing, don’t lament the ongoing health crisis in your community—that stuff is too old-fashioned, too dramatic. Because some gay people can get married now, we’re past all that. And anyway, it gives your so-called allies a case of the sads.
You see, released in this moment of assimilation, Looking cannot just be a show about a specific circle of gay men; it is also unavoidably a PSA for how the mainstream increasingly expects gayness to look—butch enough, politically apathetic, generally boring.
Whereas previously, generations of gay men feared that straight people would reject us for thinking we are different from them, Lowder worries that straight people will reject us after realizing we are different.† Lowder does not actually think Looking is boring; he thinks it is dangerous because it gives straight people a false sense of security. In effect, Lowder inverts the assimilationists’ old argument and uses it against them.
Ironically, in making his argument Lowder proves to be as judgmental toward assimilated gays as he believes they are toward his beloved camp culture. Lowder rejects out-of-hand as unworthy and oppressive any portrayal of gay life that is not a stereotype, particularly the queen who has “already sashayed on over to the isolation of Logo.” He never entertains the possibility that there exists gay men who are like the characters on Looking and that they should be able to see an honest portrayal of themselves. No, they are a fiction invented to appease the straight world.
Others have taken also issue with Lowder’s criticism of Looking, but I have not yet seen anyone examine the culture clash fueling his vituperative attitude toward the show and gay assimilation. Without engaging this background, any response to Lowder is only half complete.
Lowder, though in his mid-20’s, is a throwback to an earlier era of queer men whose culture was almost exclusively camp. Perhaps the one thing that Lowder and Sontag agree on is that camp culture is largely the domain of gay men. These are the gay men who worshiped Judy and Liza; who quote All About Eve, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Mommie Dearest at length; who says things like, “Mary, please!” or “Get her!” to and about other gay men; and who will ensure that once the parade finally passes by Madonna, she–unlike Norma Desmond–will still have an audience to wave to.
What Lowder refuses to recognize–even if the insinuation is the eight hundred pound, pink gorilla in his queer culture think pieces–is that his beloved camp is the culture of oppression. Camp served as a means of communication and identity for gay men in bad times, which was most times. That is why much of camp is about the covert, the unintended, and the subversive. Yet oppression cannot always be at the center of one’s communal identity, especially in the face of acceptance. Camp is repellant to many gay men because of its inextricable association with the bad, old days. For these men, camp is something to escape not embrace.
Lowder’s first essay in his series on camp is titled “Camp is not dead. It’s alive, well, and here to stay.” That Lowder even has to defend camp’s existence is a clue that his opponents have been largely successful in shunting it to the side. Of course Lowder is correct; camp is not dead because concepts cannot be killed. Nevertheless, the conception of camp has been altered by assimilation and mainstream acceptance, and now the gay communal perception of camp has shifted from a positive to a negative. A queer culture that previously had no alternatives except camp or closet is being outnumbered by a new majority with many alternatives. Looking is self-consciously not camp, which is why it is both threatening and horrifying to Lowder. He is fighting the rearguard in the battle against assimilation, and it is a losing battle even if he cannot admit it outright.
The marginalization of camp culture is tragic. Much great art in modern history is a product of or bettered by camp. Camp is also a lot of fun, which is something assimilationists refuse to recognize. Marginalization however, is inevitable–even natural–for two related reasons: (1) the expansion of the visible gay community; and (2) the rise of a new generation of gay men. Due to expansion, the gay community has become so multifaceted in recent decades, that the monolithic gay community has been shown up for the myth that it is. In earlier times, camp had largely, but not exclusively, been the domain of an affluent, educated, urban, urbane, white, gay, male culture. That was the dominant gay male culture simply because if such men were not out exactly–although many were–they lived in glass closets. Camp was the culture of those who could not or would not hide and who suffered for it. Therefore, this practically homogenous gay community was “the gay community” simply because they were visible. As it is now easier to be openly gay in much of the country and in many more walks of life, a larger number and percentage of out gay men both within and outside of that demographic have the luxury of rejecting camp.
The second reason why camp culture is fading is due to generational replacement. In gay life, as in the world at large, each generation rejects what the previous one held dear. Take, for example, Judy Garland, the quintessential gay icon. On Towleroad.com, the question was recently asked about whether Judy still matters, and the animosity aimed at her in the comments section was stunning even for Towleroad. For older generations of “Friends of Dorothy,” Garland was a figure of enormous importance. Her career in general and “Over the Rainbow” specifically were at the very heart of gay culture, never mind camp. The are rumors that the rainbow flag, the symbol of the LGBT rights movement, was inspired by “Over the Rainbow,” and of course, the Stonewall Riots began the night of Garland’s burial.
Yet, a large portion of at least two generations of gay men either know little about Garland or reject her entirely. It is not hard to explain; whereas Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, etc. court gay fans, Garland rarely (if ever) acknowledged hers. Garland’s lack of acknowledgment is important insofar as it starkly contrasts to the present day where it is okay–even expected–for mainstream superstars to openly love their gay fans and speak out for gay rights. Ergo, young gays who might have turned to camp to participate in the cultural dialogue reject it because it is old and because they have been embraced by mainstream culture.‡ Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” may not be a good song, but its positive message to young gay boys is overt. Compare that to “Over the Rainbow,” an objectively better song that will be covered for decades (at least) after “Born This Way” is long forgotten. There is no specifically gay message in “Over the Rainbow,” but it spoke to gay men so they infused their own meaning into it. Young gays do not need to do that anymore, and camp is robbed of its purpose.
Looking is representative of these larger shifts. For the first time, gay men have a show which reflects how absorbed into the mainstream they have become. The characters are not classical archetypes; rather their normative experiences are colored by the fact that they are gay. This is a huge victory for assimilationists, and it is threatening to cultural arbiters like Lowder because their hegemony over the culture is ending.
For my part, if this means good storytelling with interesting characters, then I do not fear the change. But please, no more mustaches.
* The original Tales was superior for many reasons, not the least of which was Marcus D’Amico as Mouse (Michael Tolliver). The clean-shaven D’Amico was replaced by Paul Hopkins who sported an authentic 1970’s-style porn mustache. While Hopkins more closely resembled the book description of Mouse (and therefore author Armistead Maupin), again, mustaches never make anyone look good.
** One particular incident stands out for me. In 2001, Andrew Sullivan was publicly identified as the poster of an anonymous personal ad seeking condomless sex, which, in fairness to Sullivan, clearly acknowledged his HIV+ status. This was back when we were all still supposed/allowed to hate him for his support of the Republicans and his criticism of the gay left. (This was also before George W. Bush announced that he favored a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which was Sullivan’s come-to-Jesus moment.) In January 2002, an episode of QAF-A, subtly titled, “Hypocrisy: Don’t Do It,” introduced a gay, conservative writer who railed against wanton, gay, sex culture, only to be discovered at a bareback party.
*** In the last two decades, the culture has added another stereotype, the ‘straight gay,’ a handsome man who lacks stereotypical gay mannerisms. Eric McCormack’s Will in W&G and Justin Bartha’s David in the short-lived The New Normal were classic straight gays as are the characters in Looking. Before Looking this character existed primarily to set up the jokes of his more flamboyant partner thereby making the straight gay the straight man.
† This is a common fear that all minority groups have when they know the majority is watching them, perhaps most famously encapsulated by the phrase, “But is it good for the Jews?”
‡ This is not universal by any means. Although the new generation of gay men is coming out to far more acceptance than previous ones, that is of little comfort to those individuals who are rejected by their families and communities and who face possible physical or emotional trauma.
The final week of Genealogy Roadshow comes from Austin, Texas, that little pocket of blue in America’s largest red state. Specifically, the program was recorded at the Driskill Hotel, about which we were told much, but which I missed because life is short and duty called.
I have not counted, but this week’s Genealogy Roadshow probably had the fewest televised guests. There were no bite-sized appearances that lasted all of two minutes. There were only six participants in total, which meant a lot of history, a lot of filler, and a lot of fluff. This week also had some odd editing, which sometimes made it seem like the powers-that-be sacrificed part of the actual story for time constraints.
The problem I have with Genealogy Roadshow is that may be too small in is scope. Perhaps this is a byproduct of a limited budget and time constraints in the research. But I think the show has rather myopically chosen to just show what makes people American, which makes it more like Who Do You Think You Are than I feel comfortable with. It also excludes so many people whose ancestors were not a part of the major events of American history or have recent immigrant ancestors. It’s why I think going on the show would be a waste of time for me, which is a very sad thing to admit.
A caveat: Names and family trees flashed by very quickly, and while I tried to get them correct, it is possible that I wrote down something wrong. Please forgive me if I made a mistake.
Denise Garza Steusloff loves Texas. I mean, she loves Texas. Almost to the point of tears. (Loving one’s state that much is a phenomenon I just don’t understand. There is something unsettlingly antebellum about it.) Denise has two big stories in her family. (1) There is a family legend that her father’s family was descended from Sephardic Jews who fled the Canary Islands to escape the Inquisition. This is especially relevant to her family as her sister is raising her children Jewish. (2) Being Tejano is very important to Denise, and she feels (justifiably) that the contribution of Tejanos to Texas’s War of Independence against Mexico has been overlooked because Tejanos “don’t look American.” (It’s a heartbreaking statement.) Denise wanted to know if any of her Tejano ancestors fought in the war, which would allow her to join the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), which I guess is an honor, but as with the DAR, it just seems like there is so much baggage attached to membership.
The first question that (D.) Joshua Taylor dealt with was the Jewish heritage question. Is Denise the descendant of Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition? (Or were they crypto-Jews, which she used interchangeably, but which are actually different? Crypto-Jews were public Catholics but secretly maintained their Judaism. Jews who fled the Inquisition may have done so to stay Jewish publicly and privately.) As you can imagine, when you are trying to hide something to avoid torture, exile, imprisonment, or death, you don’t leave much in the way of records. Alas, there was no paper trail for Denise. But… there is the DNA test, and that, according to Taylor, proved that Denise is a descendant of Sephardic Jews because her DNA matches that of people who are known to be the descendants of Sephardic Jews. I am an avowed DNA skeptic, which I have said many times, and I just think it is somewhat irresponsible to say that a DNA test (probably Y-Chromosome, but never explicitly stated) is definite and dispositive evidence of descent. Nevertheless, I welcome Denise to the tribe and say, “Mishpucha!”
As to her second question, there were a lot of names that were thrown around, so bear with me. There was a Simon Casillas who had a brother Ambrosio Casillas who was Denise’s 3rd great-grandfather who had an ancestor named Juan Casillas who was in the Mexican Army before the Revolution. Fortunately, there was a pension record filed by Juan’s children (with testimonial evidence) that stated that Juan was at the Battle of Bexar. Ergo, Denise qualified for the DRT, and lo and behold, there was someone from the organization there to give her a membership, a flag, and a hug. Taylor said, “Mazel Tov.”
The next participant was Earl Campbell. Now, I am not a fan of football (the American kind), so I had no idea who he is, but he was apparently a great player in college (at the University of Texas) and in the pros (at the Houston Oilers). Even though I didn’t know who he was, the people there did, and after his segment, people took pictures with him. Earl wanted to know about his father Burke (who died when Earl was in 5th grade) and grandfather Julius. Apparently Earl’s family goes back to at least 1863 in Tyler, Texas. Both of Earl’s grandfathers were landowners (although his maternal grandfather’s land was lost after he died, and Earl bought it back.) Furthermore Burke was a Black Army AirCorp pilot and was at D-Day.
Marc Airhart had done his own genealogy but hit a roadblock with his ancestor George Airhart who, according to family legend, was adopted. Taylor was very excited by this search because the name Airhart is so unusual and therefore easier to research. George served in the Civil War for the Confederacy and was at Vicksburg where he was captured. Also captured at Vicksburg, a William and an Alexander Airhart. Looking at old census records determined that there was some relation to each other and to an Eliza Airhart. After looking at the 1880 Census and an obituary, Eliza, it turned out, was a “mulatto” half-sister of George. Also apparently of William and Alexander, although I am not sure how they determined that William, Alexander, and George were brothers. Marc submitted to a DNA test, and his results included a bit of sub-Saharan DNA, which is extremely unusual for a white person. This led only to more questions, all of which went unanswered.
Sheila Jobe lived in Texas all her life. She had heard two stories, the first is that there was a murder in her maternal grandmother’s line, which she wanted to explore, warts and all. Also a great-uncle did research and through him she has a roadmap to how she may be connected to the Mayflower on her maternal grandfather’s side. Kenyatta Berry told Sheila about her ancestor Isaac L Page of Maine who was in the Civil War. Isaac’s muster record showed that he was left sick in the hospital at Gettysburg following the battle. He was also at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, which meant he was at three extremely bloody and horrific battles. After the war he returned to Maine, married Arletta Braun, and had five children with her. One day, Isaac walked into the home with a pistol when Arletta was in the kitchen. She said “Don’t shoot” but he shot her 6 times and killed her. Isaac’s aunt Sarah Horn said he didn’t remember anything; he had blacked out completely. Isaac was placed in an insane asylum, and while there he killed himself by jumping off a bridge. Berry wanted to examine why he killed his wife, and she offered a theory, probably correct, that he may have suffered from PTSD from his time at war.
As to whether Sheila could trace her origins to the Mayflower? Berry says everyone wants to be related to the 102 survivors of the Mayflower. I would just like to say here and now, that not everyone. I am quite happy about the fact that I do not come from the Mayflower, and I would not trade my heritage for anyone’s. Berry told Sheila that she is not related to just one person, but four people who were on the Mayflower. Sheila got a silver book of Mayflower descendants through five generations. (There were a lot of gifts in this episode.)
Max Hibben wanted to know if he was related to Roger Williams the founder of Rhode Island. Because Roger Williams was a rebel like Max. (If I had played a drinking and took a sip each time someone said, “rebel,” I would have dropped dead from alcohol poisoning before the show ended.) Taylor thought that there is a family resemblance between Max and Roger Williams (“America’s first rebel”) from the old portraits. Whatever. Don’t get me wrong; as far as our founders go, Williams was definitely one of the better ones. WIlliams negotiated and treated with the natives (unlike almost everyone else). Max is related–11 generations back. But now the big reveal, Taylor is also related to Williams, so they are cousins. Another famous relative was Anson Perry Windsor who also descended from Williams. In the Second Great Awakening he became a Mormon (which Max also is) and made his way out to Utah. I didn’t really catch the rest but Windsor had something to do with the time when President Buchanan called out the federal troops to Utah. Windsor was a rebel too. (I’m reminded of the SNL sketch when TIna Fey played Sarah Palin during the Vice-Presidential debate and said, “Maverick” over and over again.)
The final guest was Julie Delio who wanted to know how her family fit with American (and world) history. Julie believed that dead relatives easier to deal with than living ones, which is not a very happy thought. In 1985 Julie asked her mother to write a history, but decided her mother’s notes were completely unreliable. Berry told Julie that her ancestors came from Ulster Province in Ireland. The family immigrated in 1735 or 1745 to Philadelphia and then moved to Rockbridge County, Virginia. There were clergy in the family, one of whom built a Presbyterian church in Rockbridge. Julie, as it turned out, shared an ancestor with Samuel Houston. But that’s not the only governor of Texas she is related to. Berry told her that she is also related to Rick Perry. Julie is stunned. I would be too. I can’t imagine ever wanting to have anything in common with Rick Perry. Ever. Especially DNA. The truth is though that there are only so many ancestors to go around. Sooner or later we are related to everyone. We just lack the documentation to show it.
At the end of the show, useless host Emmett Miller wondered what will next week’s episode will bring. The answer is nothing because the show’s season is finished. This is what I mean when I complain about the editing.
But now my complaining is done. All genealogy shows are finished for now. Hopefully the next post I write will have nothing to do with genealogy television.