Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Landrigan Puzzle, Part 2: How John Landrigan became Richard A. Wells

Mystery, Intrigue and a Little Bit of Luck: How John Landrigan became Richard A. Wells

In my last entry, I explored the life of my great-grandmother, Kathryn Hunter, and I expanded a little on her mother Katherine Landrigan. The Landrigan family is, to say the least, an enigma, and Katherine's older brother John is no exception.

John A. Landrigan was born March 17, 1865 in Charlottetown, PEI to James Landrigan and Mary Ann MacAulay. John had three siblings: Nellie (b. 1869), Katie (b. 1872, my great-great grandmother) and a younger half-sister, Mary Ann Murphy (b. 1883). John's father was twenty-three years older than his mother, and in 1874 James died, leaving behind his widow and three children. Mary Ann Landrigan left for Boston with her three children in June of 1879. The family came to Winthrop, Massachusetts, where Mary's younger sister Catharine Boylan was living with her husband and two daughters. Mary remarried, but her husband left in the early 1880s, leaving John to help support his three younger sisters. He married Elizabeth Hines in the spring of 1890, and they had their first (and only) child that fall.

Landrigan family, 1900 US census.
The last record of John A. Landrigan is on the death certificate of his wife in 1904. Up to this point, the search was not at all difficult: John was a typical Irish-Canadian immigrant. He listed his birth date as March 17 (an extremely common date for Irishmen who were unsure of their births), he regularly attended mass, and he worked as a laborer on the railroad, where he introduced my great-great grandmother to my great-great grandfather.

Death of Elizabeth Landrigan, 1904. The last known
mention of John A. Landrigan before his 1909 name change.
(Note John Landrigan's mother-in-law: Ann Welles)
Yet John Landrigan seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth after his wife died. I spent nearly a year scouring city directories and Massachusetts death indices for John Landrigan, but considering he didn't appear on the 1910 or 1920 censuses, I assumed he had died or left the country. After all, his daughter was listed as living with a new family in 1910, something that seemed unlikely for a girl with a living father. In what seemed like a last attempt to find my uncle, I grabbed the Suffolk county probate index (1894-1910) to see if he had indeed died in-state, but perhaps the death had been indexed improperly. I found John Landrigan in the index, but the document was neither an administration, nor a will, nor even an abandonment case: it was a 1909 name change in which my ancestor, John A. Landrigan, had changed his name to Richard A. Wells.

From there, finding more about Richard Wells was simple. He married Julia Belle MacGillivray on November 27, 1909, a mere two weeks before he changed his name. Of course, on the marriage record he had already assumed his new identity, so it was likely that Julia was unaware of John Landrigan at this point. Furthermore, Richard Wells had four more children, as evidenced by the 1930 US census:
Richard Wells (a.k.a. John Landrigan) and family, 1930 census.
I found the birth and marriage records for two of the four children, and from there, I discovered that Richard and Julia had quite a few grandchildren, most of whom were still living. I should add that the Wells family posed a fascinating genealogical phenomenon: since Richard Wells had his first child in 1890 at the age of 25, and his last in 1920 at the age of 55, there was a difference of 30 years between the five Landrigan/Wells siblings. Richard Wells Jr. was an uncle a few times over by the time he was born, though apparently the younger kids were not very close to their older sister.

I got in touch with Rita Annabelle Wells son Richie (who happened to be named for his grandfather) and learned quite a bit about what happened to my uncle after 1909. The family was aware of John Landrigan, and family lore suggests that he changed his name around marriage so that he could find a job more easily, as Irish prejudice made this difficult in the early 20th century. Richard Wells was a loving father, and in 1933, he died, just after his youngest son turned 13. There was an old family rumor that he had gone back to Canada in the 1900s and tried to incite a rebellion, but I have yet to find any evidence to confirm this.

Julia Belle McNeil-MacGillivray-Wells-Grant died in 1972 at age 89 after her third marriage. Richard Wells' last child, Rita, died in 2004, and he currently has living grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren, and great-great-great grandchildren. Like the rest of his family, Richard Wells was, to say the least, and interesting character.

Needle Family Ties

Sam and Bessie AbramsSara Holmes Abrams, 1940Morris Holmes familyDavid AbramsEsther Abrams grade 8Fannie Holmes Holmes
Jeanette Abrams and Carl JorgensenAlice Barry and Walter CombsGeorge and Ruth AbramsRuth Abrams, Stanley Adams, Estelle Abrams.DoubleDouble
LetterAbrams cousinsMaurice and Fannie HolmesStanley Adams, Moe Barry, Aunt RuthGeorge AbramsEsther Abrams
Abrams familyAbrams family 1922EstherEsther AbramsGeorge and Jennie AbramsSara Holmes Abrams

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Landrigan Puzzle, Part 1: The Hunt for Kathryn Hunter

Elusive Ancestors: The Hunt for Kathryn Hunter

In 1976, at the age of 81, my great-grandmother died. Her name was Kathryn Hunter Voke, and she left behind an array of conflicting facts, a mysterious past, and some very confused children.

"Papa Nana" (as she was called) was born April Fools Day 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland. Of course, according to her sister, the family was from Winthrop, Massachusetts. She apparently loved to tell stories, yet a family historian, this made things difficult for me - my grandfather truly had no clue where his mother was from. When asked about his grandparents, he would tell me all about his grandfather's days on the railroad, how they were cut short in the 1918 influenza epidemic, and how his wife, Catherine Spalding, had died shortly thereafter. His name was John Hunter, and much to my surprise, the Vokes had kept his picture in the basement for almost 100 years.
John J. Hunter, ca. 1898
The only Hunter family picture
prior to the 1930s.
Kathryn Alicia Hunter of Baltimore turned up no results. All my family knew was the two younger Hunter sisters - Sister Mary Evelyn and Sister Ann - who had both entered a convent in their early lives. My cousin Eddie threw in another child, James Louis Hunter, who died at a young age. It was thanks to these ladies that I made my first discovery: the 1910 census from Massachusetts with three girls named "Hunter" listed in a Dorchester orphanage, all of them born in Massachusetts. At just 16, Catherine was the oldest, followed by Evelyn G. Hunter, and then Mildred, born ca. 1899. I had long hoped to find extended family full of warm feelings and southern hospitality, yet for three girls in a Boston orphanage, this notion seemed unlikely.

Hunter girls, 1910 Federal Census
A phone call to my grandfather confirmed these names - the second sister became "Mary Evelyn" as there had already been a Sister Evelyn in that convent, and Mildred became "Sister Ann" due to her dislike of the name Mildred. It was still possible that this wasn't the family, as Hunter was such a common name, yet the likelihood increased with each repressed story the various Voke cousins told me. As it turns out, Papa Nana was born in Winthrop, she had been in an orphanage at one point, and the Sister's of Charity - not family connections - had brought the girls down to Baltimore. The icing on the cake came in the form of the 1900 Federal Census:

1900 Federal Census, Winthrop, MA

This seemed to answer a lot of questions. I eventually discovered the Massachusetts State Archives (this was a long time ago), and from there I found the death of John Hunter in 1899, Catherine (Landrigan) Hunter in 1906, and the birth record for Katherine Alice Hunter on April 1, 1895. Her marriage to Edward J. Voke had listed these facts as well, and with the examination of guardianship documents, I was no longer skeptical. It appears that, after 100 years, we had finally found Catherine Hunter, and while the truth may not have been pretty, it was nice to finally know the facts about somebody so revered by her descendants.

In reality, Kathryn Hunter's early life had been one of extreme sadness, or so I would imagine. Her father died a horribly painful death at a young age (according to his obituary in the local paper), and after seven years of a stretched income, she became an orphan at age ten. Despite having seven aunts and uncles, a grandmother and various other relatives in the area, she found herself in St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum for the destitute, left with the responsibility of two younger sisters. She spent her 18th birthday petitioning for guardianship of Evelyn and Mildred. All three girls joined the convent - though, evidently, my great-grandmother left at some point in the 1910s. My mom said that Papa Nana was always rather closed about her emotions, and any mentions of family besides the two Sisters were few and far between. People often mention how difficult life was for our ancestors - I can't even imagine the suffering Kathryn Hunter endured, not only in childhood, but also the many years to come. My great-grandfather, Edward Voke, was a largely respected man in the area, and keeping up with the high-society life was likely very difficult for a woman with such a haunting past.

My grandfather died knowing nothing about his mother's true life, though he died two years after I made my initial discoveries. In this case, the truth was better left unsaid...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Story behind the picture: Philip Abrams and family

The Abrams family, ca. 1902
I first started working on my genealogy three years ago this summer. I had set out to answer so many questions, yet one came first and foremost: what happened to my grandmother's grandfather?

His name was Philip Abrams, and the last time anyone had heard from him was 1911. I am lucky in a sense: I still have my grandmother to answer questions, and being the sharp-as-a-tack lady she is (our surname is Needle, after all) she can generally answer any questions I ask her about the family. Yet Philip Abrams remained a mystery. The story always went that he left, and the responsibility to be "man of the house" was left to my great-grandfather, Samuel Abrams. On top of all this, his mother, Sara Holmes Abrams, was a "shrew", and three of the six children would eventually leave her. Thus, my great-grandfather left home in 1914 to go to war in England, and he never saw his father again.

I had a few clues to work with. First off, my granduncle David was born in 1935, and he was named for Philip: those familiar with Judaism know that one cannot be named after a living person. I had a certain inkling that Philip had died prior to this point, as my great-grandparents wouldn't have defied Jewish custom and named a child after a living person. 

My second clue came in a more corporeal form: my great-grandaunt Ruth Abrams, the wife of Philip's youngest son, George. Ruth was much younger than her husband, and he was the youngest of all six children, thus I was provided with a unique opportunity. Ruth also happened to be one of the kindest and most helpful people I have ever met: she immediately mailed me documents and pictures, including a marriage certificate that was issued "January 22, 1922". I hadn't a clue why anyone would have needed a marriage certificate at this point, especially since the marriage had occurred in the 1890s: it was that of Philip and Sara Abrams. I assumed that the death was near this point, and that the marriage certificate was issued for proving kinship upon a death. I checked with the Norfolk County Probate court, but all I found was a bitter 1913 abandonment case entitled "Abrams v. Abrams" in which Philip could not be located.

Clue number three was the most evident, yet took me a while to uncover - Randolph, MA city directories. The listings began calling my great-great grandmother "Sara Abrams, wid. Philip" in 1922. This was the icing on my familial cake. Philip Abrams most likely died around 1921-1922, and in what seemed like a stab in the dark, I found him.
Philip Abrams grave, Riverside Cemetery, NJ
Philip died December 29, 1921 in Manhattan. It's been 89 years since my grandmother's grandfather died, and any hope of learning more about this mysterious progenitor is long gone. Yet there was still one thing I needed to find: I wanted to know what Philip Abrams, a man who had graced my thoughts for so long, looked like. Nobody in my family had ever known him, and as far as my grandmother knew, there was only one picture that had been lost for years. Nonetheless, on my birthday last year (which has always been located conveniently at the end of the spring-cleaning season) I was given the best gift I could have imagined: the subject of this post.


Hello all,

My primary intent with this blog is to keep a "journal" of my family history and my journey in finding my roots. However, to hit two birds with one stone, I figure that I might as well put these things online - after all, we are in the internet age, and there's always that possibility that someone will have a connection worth sharing.

Please enjoy my ramblings. Don't hesitate to comment with suggestions or comments of any kind!