Thursday, May 12, 2016

Genealogical Journey: The Book, the Box and the Moment of Truth

Still basking in the glow of my wonderful visit to Staten Island, I returned to family history research.  I had gained a lot of knowledge, but the question of how and if we were related to Timothy O'Sullivan was still unanswered.  Or was it?  Here is how a book and a box helped me find the moment of truth. 

                                                      The Book

In genealogy research, a family Bible is often a valuable source of information.  Names, dates of birth, marriage and death are often recorded there.  How wonderful!  Unless you are Catholic.  You may have a Bible on your bookshelf, but it was not referred to as "the family Bible."  It sat on the shelf but you weren't encouraged to read it.  The priest did that at mass each Sunday.  No need for you to look at it on other days of the week.  And you certainly would never, ever deface a Bible by writing in it.  Especially the names of your family members who you already knew because you lived with them. So a Bible was not going to be the kind of book that would help me with my family history research. 

The book that helped me was authored by James D. Horan, titled Timothy O'Sullivan America's Forgotten Photographer, it was written in the 1960's.  James Horan interviewed my Great-aunt Margaret Sullivan for his book.  Cousin Tim was present for part of that interview.  When I asked him to tell me about it while we were waiting for the cemetery staff to located some information, Tim started at the beginning.  Literally.  He said James Horan rang the doorbell.  Tim made the doorbell pressing motion with his index finger.  Someone answered the door.  When they heard who he was and about the project he was working on, they went and got Great-aunt Margaret.  The two of them talked privately at length  and sadly, that conversation remained between them.  They did go to St. Peter's Cemetery to look for O'Sullivan's grave.  Great-aunt Margaret's memory was fading and his grave was not located then or to this day.  Horan was probably looking to photograph his headstone for his book.  Instead, he was only able to include a photo of many headstones with a caption saying, "St. Peter's Cemetery on Staten Island where O'Sullivan is buried in an unmarked grave." 

I was a child when my family obtained our copy of "the book."  Living in upstate New York, I remembered it was a big ordeal to get it (and many other things) as I recalled the frustration of the limited selection of items and places to shop in a rural community.  Online shopping changed all of that, but there was no Amazon back then.  The book had to be special ordered from a publisher in New York City because it was out of print.  Called an on demand printing and very expensive, a minimum number of books had to be ordered and paid for before the publisher printed another batch.  My Aunt Peggy took on this project after hearing about the book from Great-aunt Margaret.  At around $50 (compared to the five dollars I paid for my copy on Amazon), it was a big purchase four decades ago.  I recalled my Dad showing me the book and saying we were related to this man who took photographs during the Civil War and then out West.  I thought that was pretty cool. 

During the course of my research, I was so obsessed with finding out about how we were related to O'Sullivan that I even contacted James Horan's daughter, Patricia.  ( Horan himself passed in 1980.)  I explained who we were and how the book functioned in our genealogy.  I was hoping to get a look at her father's research notes, particularly his interview with Great-aunt Margaret, but they had been sold long ago.  In any case it was nice to be able to let her know what her father's work meant to our family.  "The book" turned out to be another way to verify relatives on my family tree.  Of course Cousin Bill had a copy; I didn't even have to mention the title to Cousin Tim.  When I called him he said, "Hold on while I get 'the book'. "  My Dad and Aunt Peggy each had their four decade old copies.  Cousin Drew had his copy and soon-to-be found cousins that descended from great-grandpa's siblings had their copies of "the book."  I came to realize that it was another sign that we were related to O'Sullivan. 

                                                      The Box

Several weeks after I returned to California from Staten Island, Cousin Bill called me.  He told me I had better sit down for this one.  In the course of his moving, Cousin Tim mailed Bill a box of their grandfather's memorabilia.  Having driven us around Staten Island that summer day, Tim saw how interested we were in the family's history and thought Bill might like to have that box.  At first I was horrified thinking that Bill was going to tell me the box was lost when mailed.  It wasn't.  I like to think that Bill's dad, who retired from the Post Office, watched over its safe delivery. 

Bill tells me about the many photographs in the box.  As his grandfather was a newspaper photographer at the turn of the 20th century, he had taken many historical photos.  Bill starts with the photograph of Timothy Michael Healy.  He was the first Governor-General of the Irish Free State from 1922-1928.  He was from Bantry in County Cork, Ireland, not far from where our people originated.  His wife's maiden name was Sullivan, but no relation to us.

The second photo was a scene at the train station in Hoboken, NJ.  Great-uncle Jim titled it "Home from the war 1919.  Me- Sulli- on left with camera case."  I think of it as a 20th century selfie! 

The next photograph was "A stolen picture of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Longworth and Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (left).  The former Alice Roosevelt is adverse to having her photograph taken.  But 'Nick' is a good sport, he generally says, 'Fire away.'" Much to our delight, this was in Bill's grandfather's handwriting. 

The fourth photograph is my cousin Erin's favorite.  She shared it on her Facebook page.  Again, in my great-uncle's handwriting:  "Red Fox-Skinhushu.  A blackfoot Sioux appealing to Secretary Baker to accept his warriors in the Army.  Sulli." 

Bill made sure I was sitting down for the next one.  "Elly O'Sullivan.  Music teacher PS 17 New Brighton, Staten Island."  Elly O'Sullivan was Timothy O'Sullivan's sister.  I calculated the photo to be around 120 years old.  Knowing Cousin Tim's sense of humor, he would have said, "Don't blame me, I am only 72 years old, not 120."  And it is only worse for his older brother Ed, because that means he hadn't looked in the box for 80 years.  My sister said that our dad has Elly's eyes.  I said we owe our mom an apology.  I always blamed the fat genes on her side of the family; looks like some might have come from Dad's after seeing Elly's photo. 

The photo could have come from a garage sale in the neighborhood and ended up in the box but I have a better theory.  Both Timothy and Elly pre-deceased their parents Jeremiah and Ann.  That means it was passed to our family upon their deaths.  Great-grandpa probably was charged with the lovely task of cleaning out Jeremiah and Ann's house and acquired the photo.  He gave it to his son, my Great-uncle Jim, who put it in the box with his other aforementioned prized photographs.  I am glad it was discovered but how is Elly related to us? 

                                                    The Moment of Truth

I had a great time meeting relatives for the first time and touring Staten Island but I was still no closer to finding the answer that started me on this quest.  Or was I?  How were we related to Timothy O'Sullivan? 

Still basking in the joy and the comfort of the trip, I reviewed Great-aunt Margaret's interview notes.  Deciphering the handwriting was as challenging as following her line of thought.  My sister said to re-type the notes so I didn't have to keep deciphering them each time I read them.  Good idea Sis!

The top of the second page read: "George in with Barnum & Bailey Circus 23 years.  Charles Sullivan died 1902.  Tim- Brady was Civil War photographer- cousin father's first cousin Jeremiah was his father father's father was Dennis."  I took a deep breath and re-read the page.  There were three different pieces of information here.  The first piece referred to Old Uncle George, Great-grandpa's brother who ran off to joint he circus.  The second sentence referred to my Great-grandfather Charles' death date.  The third piece of information was the answer to the question I spent years seeking:  Timothy O'Sullivan was my great-grandfather's first cousin.  Their fathers were brothers.  Great-aunt Margaret was saying the following:  Timothy O'Sullivan worked for Matthew Brady, a Civil War photographer.  He was a cousin.  He was my father's first cousin.  Jeremiah was the name of Timothy's father.  My father's father was named Denis.  There was the moment of truth!  My family's lore was indeed fact!  No one had ever said we were descended from Timothy O'Sullivan, only that we were somehow related to him.  He was our ancestors' first cousin.  That means that Timothy O'Sullivan's grandparents are my three times great-grandparents.  Can he help lead me to them?  For the moment, I drank in the glory of finding out the answer to my question that led me on my genealogical journey. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Genealogical Journey: Staten Island ( Part 2)

Bill, Paula and I ate lunch at one of the many diners on Staten Island located near the New Dorp branch of the New York City Public Library.  Afterwards, we wanted to go in to look at old street maps, but the branch was closed for technology upgrades.  The only day on that trip that I could visit the library, coincided with the day it was closed.  Thwarted by technology again!  I would have to visit the public library holdings another time, but first I would make sure it was opened as I had learned from genealogy research travel tips. 

We drove to Vahalla Cemetery, now called Ocean View the Cemetery Beautiful to look for Joseph H. Lyons' grave.  Using only Drew's directions, we could not locate his uncle's grave.  The cemetery office was closed but Bill called them the next morning to get the location for our return on Saturday with more family members.  Drew said that his grandmother, Helena Sullivan Lyons, was also in that grave although the military issued headstone only bears her son Joseph's name.  The cemetery later confirmed this information. 

Bill took me to meet another second cousin, Joan.  She is Bill's first cousin and her mother, Mary, was Great-uncle Jim's only daughter and my grandmother's niece.  Joan lived five miles from Ocean View the Beautiful Cemetery on Staten Island.  Like Bill, her husband Al, retired from the fire department and one of her sons currently works as a firefighter.  Another one of her sons is named Timothy Patrick, like my brother.  Bill told me that when she and her sisters get together, they could talk a hitch right off of a trailer.  Joan didn't disappoint. 

Upon arrival, she and her husband greeted us on the front steps of their home.  In hushed voices, we were whisked downstairs to a finished basement.  Their firefighter son, Kevin, finished a twelve  hour shirt learning to drive the fire truck and was asleep in the other room. 

We were there less than one hour but I learned the following from Joan:  She thought Great-aunt Margaret might have been a twin.  Her poor health might have contributed to her shyness and lack of many friends.  She had weak eye sight, wore thick, unfashionable glasses and had skin issued like rosacea.  These issues may have played a part in her self-consciousness causing her to keep mostly to herself.  She never married and probably never dated.  Even though she only graduated from high school, she had the knowledge of a college graduate.  She read all of the time and spend Sundays reading the entire New York Times newspaper.  Great-aunt Margaret also had vast knowledge of our family history. 

Joan celebrated her fiftieth wedding anniversary earlier that year ( 2013) by attending a blessing ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral built in 1858, opened in 1879in Manhattan.  I told her that our great-grand-uncles, our great-grandfather's brothers, built the spires on that Cathedral.  Joan was even more pleased to have celebrated her anniversary there upon hearing that.  My sister, niece and I visited the church the next day.  We were in awe of the accomplishment.  Considering that the rest of the building was under scaffolding for a major renovation but not the spires; it made us proud to know family built something so lasting. 

Joan said she met her husband of fifty years online.  In New York City, you stand on line, not in line waiting.  She and Al met while she was on line at the A&P supermarket.  He was bagger, she was a customer he thought was cute.  So she tells everyone they met on line to see their reaction. 

I showed Joan the photo of our great-grandmother holding Joan's Uncle Charlie.  She had a visceral reaction to the photo and politely declined my offer to get her a copy of it.  She explained that she and her sisters were afraid of their Uncle Charlie.  They would go over to his house on Monroe Avenue, ring the door bell and if he answered, run up the stairs past him only when their Aunt Catherine, his wife, sweetly called for them to come on in.  In the photo, Charlie is three months old hoping great-grandma will protect him from the kitty, but as an adult, he was big and loud and scary to his nieces.  I even heard Bill mutter that he too, was scared of him as a child. 

Joan's Uncle Charlie hoping Great-grandma Margaret protects his place on her lap from the cat.

Cousin Joan showed us a drawing that her grandfather Jim Sullivan drew that hung on the wall of her finished basement.  I photographed it while admiring his artistic talent and sense of humor.  Cousin Bill hadn't seen it before, was quite interested in it, asking Joan for a life size copy.  The Norman Rockwell-esque colored pencil drawing was of a drunk guy, bottle in his coat pocket, hugging a cow with the caption, "Gee, dearie-hic-but yer sure are shweet."

When Bill mentioned that we were at the ancestors' grave in St. Peter's Cemetery that morning, Joan said he was there recently and was the one who left the flowers.  Mystery solved!  Joan's mother and brother are also buried in the plot and she visits quite often.  Her husband, Al, said he was the one who made the pipe vase for the grave.  Attached to the ground, front and center of the headstone, it is a metal tubular pipe for placing a bouquet of the flowers.  As I thanked him for making the pipe vase, Al mentioned that he cut the grass at a cemetery in Pennsylvania.  Visitors seeking their family history often stopped him on the riding lawn mower to ask him about graves.  It said he was the unofficial cemetery historian and his work was greatly appreciated.

Meanwhile, Joan carried on several conversations at once.  She talked to Cousin Bill about their grandfather and her mother and then turned to me to give her family tree information.  She rattled off the names and the dates of birth of her four children, their spouses, and their children with pinpoint speed and accuracy.  Did I mention we were there less than an hour? 

The next day I took a break from the genealogical journey to sight-see with my sister and eight-year-old niece.  We rode the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan like our ancestors and cousins had done for 161 years.  We visited the Statue of Liberty for the first time.  Even though my sister and I were native New Yorkers and lived in the state for decades, we had never been to the Statue of Liberty.  New York State is big and we lived upstate four hours away.  So we waited until we grew up, moved out of state and then returned as tourists to visit Lady Liberty.  The ticket booth for the Statue of Liberty is located at Castle Garden.  A stone, circular fort, now run by the National Park Service, it was once used as an entry point for immigrants.  When my ancestors returned to New York in the 1860's, they would have passed through here.  It was a unique experience to walk around where they once stood.  We rode the subway to the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaur exhibit much to my niece's delight.  We took a taxi cab ride back to the ferry landing joking that my niece's made-in-China souvenir traveled on a boat, a subway, a taxi cab, another boat and then a private car to its new home. 

Saturday morning, my first cousins Bradley and Bonnie joined us on the genealogical journey.  Their mother, my Aunt Peggy, is my father's sister and oldest living relative on this branch of the family.  Cousin Bill arrived ( at the right hotel, on time) to drive us around Staten Island.  It was Bradley and Bonnie's first time meeting our second cousin Bill.  Bonnie told me she had stayed at this same hotel years ago when her husband was hospitalized on Staten Island after an accident. I told Bonnie I had not known that when I booked the Hilton Garden Inn and hoped she could replace her former memory of the hotel with the genealogical journey we were about to take.  We visited St. Peter's Cemetery, the ancestral homes ( including the one on Monroe Ave.) and vacant lots and the public pool bearing our cousin's name, Joseph H. Lyons.  We found his grave at Ocean View the Cemetery Beautiful.  It took all six of us plus a cemetery employee, to locate it in the rain, dodging geese droppings.  During the car ride, we laughed with Bill explaining to him that he sounded like my dad when he started a sentence with the words, "I should have...".  We ended the journey with a toast at lunch, " To ancestors in common.  May they be smiling down upon us proudly."