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. 

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