Thursday, June 27, 2013

Skeletons in the Closet

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
George Bernard Shaw

Whenever I research someone’s family history, whether it’s for fun or for profit, I try to find out how they feel about “skeletons in the closet” before I start.  Everyone thinks they want me to find a few—but perhaps that’s one of those things that sounds better in theory than it turns out to be in practice.

For example:  “La Corriveau,” the infamous Canadian murderess who is my husband’s second cousin six times removed…  Canada in the 1700s…  No problems there.  She is far enough away in time to be harmless, and only a cousin. 

But what about a criminal a little closer to home?  What about a great-grandfather?  How was I to tell a nice older lady that her husband’s great-grandfather, who “died suddenly” in his thirties, was actually shot to death by a prostitute?  Apparently he had been harassing her repeatedly and had a habit of kicking in her door when he got drunk on a Saturday night.  (All this was in a newspaper article about his death that I found online.)   

How about another kind of death—by taking one’s own life?  That hits close to home also.  One client had an ancestor whom she was told was a Civil War hero.  And indeed, he was, and he survived that terrible war in one piece—only to commit suicide years later (according to his death certificate, which I found online) by putting his head in an oven and turning on the gas.

How about marriages?  My most recent client knew that his father had been married once before—there were three children from the first marriage and two from the second marriage.  What he didn’t know (until I found a marriage record online) was that between the two, his father had been married a third and fourth time—before he married my client’s mother—to a woman named “Ida” and another one named “Margaret.”  My client may have half-brothers and sisters out there that he doesn’t know about!

One client knew that his mother had borne a baby out of wedlock before she married his father—a baby who didn’t survive.  What he didn’t know was that his mother abandoned the baby at an orphanage to die.  (For a dollar apiece, I got a copy of the birth and death certificates.)  The birth father’s name was listed on both documents, and I found out more about him quite easily on   He wasn’t anyone my client knew—but what if he had been?  And I wonder if the birth father’s relatives and/or descendants know about this baby?

“Insane asylums”—that’s what they called them back in the day.  I’ve had more than one client who was surprised to find out that he had family members who spent time in one.  One client said, “So that’s why my great-uncle wasn’t in World War I!”…  How did I find this out?  On the man’s 1917 WWI draft card, under occupational information, authorities had stamped “Insane Patient—Gowanda State Hospital.” 

I recently discovered, after ordering a copy of her death certificate, that one of my great-aunts died of dysentery at Elgin State Mental Hospital—an infamous ‘asylum’ located near where I grew up.  That’s not the way I heard her story when I was young!

Skeletons in the closet…  Perhaps they’re highly entertaining when you find them in other people’s closets, but less so when they’re found in your own.  What do you think?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Big Sister Without a Name

My father, Robert Milo Wallin (1923-1993) spent nearly all of his life thinking he was the oldest child in his family.  But things aren’t always what they seem to be, particularly in genealogy. 

Dad was born in Nebraska in 1923, in a hospital rather than at home—very unusual for that place and time.  As the years went by, he was joined by Helen in 1926, Richard in 1927, and then little Janet in 1932. 

From early childhood, a big part of Robert’s identity was his position as oldest child.  He was a typical firstborn—responsible, mature, hardworking, serious—a liaison between the adults and the younger kids, trying to set a good example.  (Those of you who are firstborn, as I am, know what I mean.)  He went off to World War II, writing letters home to his parents and younger siblings—reassuring his parents and sisters and trying to keep his brother from ending up on the front lines like he was.  (A story for another day.)

The years went by, until Dad was a businessman in his sixties, applying for a passport so he could attend a conference in London.  Part of the process was obtaining a certified copy of his birth certificate—and when it arrived, there it was in black and white:  “Number of children of this mother born alive and now living -1.  Born alive but now dead -1.”

Dad then remembered hearing long-ago whispers among his aunts about a baby girl who died.  And suddenly he understood the likely reason his mother went to a hospital when he was born (and a good thing, since he was a breach birth).  Why hadn’t his older sister ever been talked about openly as he was growing up?  Why wasn’t she remembered, and mourned?  Probably because it wasn’t the Swedish way to “dwell on the past” or “stir up sad memories.”  So, Dad let it lie, and now he is gone, too…  Recently I decided it was time to find out more, if I could.

Although my father died many years ago, his youngest sister is still alive.  I asked her what she knew about this mysterious child, and she said that she had heard whispers, too—but she had always been too hesitant to bring up the subject with her mother.  She asked that I let her know what I found out.  It seemed like I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know more.

Then I went to my favorite resource for vital records info and followed the instructions for obtaining old Nebraska birth and death records.  No luck there, however.  I was told that neither event was recorded—or if they were, the records are lost now.     

I wish I could have discovered more about this little baby girl, who was my aunt.  But this is one sad event from long ago that seems destined remain a mystery. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Lewis Mosey—Civil War Survivor

My husband has a great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War and lived to tell about it (although barely).  His name was Lewis Alpheus Mosey (1843-1925).

A few years ago I found Lewis’ Civil War Pension Index Card and 1890 Special Veteran’s Census Schedule on  The census said that he had a “rifle wound in hip left” and was a “prisoner at Libby.”  I was intrigued! 

Eventually I obtained his Civil War pension file from the National Archives, and it was well worth the $135 it cost me.  It was a treasure trove of information.

Lewis Mosey enlisted on September 12, 1861 for a three-year tour of duty.  On February 15, 1862, during the Battle of Fort Donelson, he received a rifle wound in the hip.  He rejoined his unit in April or May of 1862 but was then captured on December 31, 1862, during the Battle of Stones River.  But his bad luck was just beginning…  On his way to the infamous Libby Prison of Richmond, Virginia, the train derailed, and he was further injured while jumping from the car.  He was released from prison on February 3, 1863 as part of a prisoner exchange, but was hospitalized again in April for an ailment he had developed in prison called “fistula” (internal injuries), perhaps from the train accident. 

Upon his recovery, he was not well enough to fight—but not injured enough to send home.  So he was assigned to hospital duty (the Invalid Corps) in Indiana for the remainder of his time in the army.  He was discharged on November 22, 1864.

After the war he married the sweetheart of his youth, Hanna Wilkinson, and they settled down first near his parents in Allegan County, Michigan, and then near hers, in Huron County, Michigan, and they had five sons.   

Shortly after Hannah’s untimely death from cancer in 1898, Lewis married Ruth Leeper, a widow.  Apparently this was ‘love on the rebound’ and Lewis lived to regret it—he and Ruth divorced, according to his pension records. 

Lewis was married a third time in 1904 to Sarah Armstrong Brooker, but this marriage was not a long one.  In a 1915 pension application, written in his own hand, he says, “I am alone in the world, that is I have no wife and but 2 children, Willy and Rowland Mosey by first wife.”  He also says that his other three sons (“Mark, Johnnie, and Mark”) have died.

His grandson Norman told me that in his later years, Lewis lived alternately with his two surviving sons, William and Rowland, to whom he had given his land, and the census records bear this out.  Lewis died in 1925 at his son Rowland’s home and was buried in Huron County, Michigan. 

In the end, Lewis was a survivor.  He lived into his eighties and was the patriarch of a family that, three generations later, gave me my husband—who, when called upon to do so, also served his country.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Getting in Touch With My Inner Swede

Recently I wrote about “lutefisk,” and that got me thinking about my Swedish roots. 

Last year I had my DNA tested and it came out 53% Scandinavian.  But growing up a Wallin in the Midwest, it felt like much more.  Looking at my hair, my friends agree; while they are going gray in their middle age, I faded to platinum blonde.  My family tree shows more like 62.5% Swede—five great-grandparents out of eight emigrated from Sweden.  My four grandparents’ surnames are Wallin, Peterson, Anderson, and Erickson.  (The Erickson branch was from northern Germany.)  You’ll find no offensive “-sen” endings on these last names—that would mean Norwegian, and Grandma Wallin had no use for Norwegians. 

I’ve inherited a few things from The Old Country, but not many.  My great-grandparents all came as young adults, with very little but the clothes on their backs.  Only one of the five Swedes who came, my great-grandmother Emelia Fryksdal Peterson, ever saw the old country again, when she went back to Sweden with two of her daughters in 1920, shortly after Great Grandpa died.  A postcard survives from that trip, showing the town where they stayed (Sandviken):

 My Grandma Sara Peterson Wallin said in the 1940 census record that her mother tongue was Swedish, and I believe it.  She had quite a few Swedish books in her possession, and even in her old age, she could open one and read out of it without much effort.  My father remembers as a very young child that the rule was this:  If his grandparents spoke to him in Swedish, he was to answer in Swedish, and if they spoke to him in English, he should answer in English.

My Grandpa Sture Wallin was next-to-youngest of seven Wallin children, the others (in order of age) being Isador, Inez, Iranus, Ithel, Aurora, and Leonard.  My father said that my great-grandpa Frederick Wallin was a bit of a Swedish history buff, which accounts for his children’s names.  Sten Sture, for instance, was a Swedish statesman who “beat up on the Danes,” which would have put him in high favor with Great Grandpa.   

In my childhood and youth, the Wallins gathered at Grandma Sara and Grandpa Sture’s house on Christmas Eve.  Besides the traditional Christmas lutefisk and the delicious butter cookies which we called “Swedish Spritz,” there were Swedish meatballs and rice pudding with a raisin in it.  It was said that whoever ended up with the raisin would have good luck in the coming year. 

Things were a little less Swedish the rest of the year—but compared to my middle-class Midwestern friends, this was still far more ethnicity than most of them were exposed to! 

In my younger days, I colored my hair brown.  But as I have gotten older and given up that expensive and high-maintenance habit, I have gotten in touch again with my Inner Swede.  I think my father and grandparents would be pleased about that...  As Grandpa Wallin said to my brother one time many years ago, “Remember, Bruce, you are a Swede.  And nobody can outthink a Swede, nobody can outwork a Swede, and nobody can outfight a Swede.”

Postscript: Recent ancestry DNA "ethnicity estimate updates" now have me as 84% Scandinavian. I'm not surprised!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Robert C. Erickson - Champion Plowman

My Uncle Bob was a champion plowman, back when that kind of thing was a big deal here in the Midwest.  I don’t want his story to be forgotten.  How many young men of his generation ended up meeting four presidents, and competing in Europe (twice!) solely because of a remarkable ability to plow a straight furrow?

Robert Charles Erickson (1924-2005) was my mother’s younger brother.  He grew up in a farm family in northern Illinois, and learned young how to drive a tractor and work a plow.  By the time he was a teen, he was competing in—and winning—level land plowing matches at the local level and beyond. 

He first competed nationally in 1947 at age 23, where he lost by only .05 point.  But made a number of appearances at the nationals, and in 1954 at Olney, Illinois, he achieved his dream of being national champion.  So in 1955 he competed in the world championships in Uppsala, Sweden, coming in 8th out of 36.  1960 saw him winning the nationals again, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, qualifying him to compete the next summer in Grignon, France, where he placed 12th out of 48. 

The photograph below shows him in 1956 with President Eisenhower.  I also have pictures of him with Truman and Nixon.  He told me once that he ate lunch with President Kennedy around the time he competed in France, but there was no photographer there.

Uncle Bob retired from national-level competition after France, due to a rule that forbade the same person from representing the U.S.A. more than twice, so my mother told me...  She said the rule later changed, but he chose not to return to competition.  He went back to Minooka, Illinois and farmed there the rest of his life with his father, my Grandpa Erickson, who had taught him everything he knew about plowing.

Sadly, Uncle Bob died a lonely man.  He and his wife Shirley had no children, and his wife died many years before he did.  Quarrels about money and inheritances had broken his ties with most of his family by the time he died.  But he always loved his farm and his tractors and his stories.

I drove out to Minooka, Illinois one day a few summers ago and looked up his tombstone.  I was pleased to see that it was well cared for by his best friend Tom, and that it was a fitting tribute to a Champion Plowman.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Mystery Monday: Seeking Relatives of Joseph Roy Crews

I am looking for someone.  But this time, for a change, it’s not a dead person!

I have been working on a genealogy binder for a client from Florida.  Her grandmother Francis, now deceased, was married for a long time to a man named Joseph Roy Crews.  (I wrote about her first husband in another post.)  My client has some things that belonged to Roy, and she would be happy to pass them along to one of his family members, if one can be found.

Some background:

Joseph Roy Crews, who went by “Roy,” was born in Devon, England in 1904, son of William Henry Crews and Louisa Jane Rabone Crews.  By the 1911 England census, he lived in the famous orphanage in Bristol, England which was run by George Müller—who during his lifetime, cared for over 10,000 orphans and established 117 schools.

But then things looked up for Joseph; he came to America in 1919 on the ship “Melita.”  Records show that he made the border crossing from Canada into the United States in April of that year, and eventually went to live with his mother and stepfather in Yates County, New York.  The 1930 census find him there, living with stepfather Oliver Brown, mother Louise Brown, and siblings Leslie, Cecil, and Doris. 

By the 1950s he lived in Florida and worked for Pan American Airways.  He married Francis Norton Phillips in March of 1955 in Miami, Florida, and they lived happily after.  Was this his first marriage?  I don’t know.

My client remembers Roy as a beloved step-grandfather.  She says this about him:  “We called Roy “grandpa” and he adored us, and it was mutual.  There was absolutely nothing that he wouldn't do with us or for us.  He had a hearing aid because while working out on the tarmac for Pan American, he lost most of his hearing—but he had a lot of fun with it.  He showed us that when our grandma would start to fuss, he would just turn down the hearing aid.  He had an incredible sense of humor!”

Roy died in Miami on March 1, 1968 and is buried there with Francis, his wife.  My client is in possession of some of Roy’s things—his passport, his citizenship certificate, and some photos, for example.  She would love to find a good home for them with one of Roy’s relatives.  She's not sure if he had children, but perhaps he had nieces and nephews.  Does anyone know of a family member who might be interested in some mementos belonging to Joseph Roy Crews?