Old Letters Give You Glimpse in to Ancestors’ Day to Day Lives

Left to Right: Charles Rundle, Marion Ratcliffe, Marion's siblings: Charles Ratcliffe, Lillian Ratcliffe, Thomas Ratcliffe

Left to Right: Charles Rundle, Marion Ratcliffe, Marion’s siblings: Charles Ratcliffe, Lillian Ratcliffe, Thomas Ratcliffe

As a genealogist, I’ve read official record after official record. You can, of course, glean a myriad of information from baptism records, marriage records, census records etc. You can make assumptions about what an ancestor’s life was like based on where they lived, what their occupation was, how much schooling they had etc, but nothing gives you an insight in to how they really felt like a letter.

I’ve mentioned my grandmother, Marion Ratcliffe, the pack rat, before. One of the things that she left me is a collection of a few letters written to her over the years. I’m in the process of scanning all of the photos and memorabilia that she saved, so I’ve been reading as I go. These letters are mostly from right around the time of her marriage to Charles Rundle in 1927. Marion grew up in Middletown, CT and Charles was from Wallingford, CT. After their marriage, Marion moved to Wallingford with her new husband. Middletown is only 15 miles away from Wallingford. If you drove it today, it would only take about 20 minutes. For that reason it is hard to envision what it was like for Marion in 1927. For her, newly married, with no driver’s license, it must have seemed like the other side of the world.

One of the letters that I have, was written days after Marion’s marriage and move to Wallingford. It is from her mother, Mary Elizabeth Kieft Ratcliffe. It is obvious from the opening of the letter, that it was written in response to a recently received letter from Marion to her family. Every time I read this letter, I get a lump in my throat. The sentiments expressed in her mother’s letter show a great deal of affection and concern on the part of Marion’s family back in Middletown. It mentions missing Marion ( with the word miss underlined!) It mentions worry over how Marion was adapting to “house keeping”. I found it interesting that not only her mother was concerned about this, but also Marion’s father, Fred Ratcliffe. In the letter, there is also mention of Marion’s maternal grandfather (Charles Kieft who actually died later in 1927), who worried about Marion being lonely. Charles Kieft’s wife, is also mentioned as one of the “Grandmothers” working on a quilt for Marion. The other “grandmother” would have been Marion’s “step-grandmother”, Martha Johnson Ratcliffe. Marion’s mother also talks about Marion’s younger brother, Charles Ratcliffe, wishing that he could “run in and see” Marion. The letter is signed with “hugs and kisses” and many “x’s”. When you read the genuine affection and concern expressed in this letter, you start to understand how hard it must have been for Marion to leave her close knit family and move what then was a great distance away.

I also found it interesting that Marion’s mother encouraged her to “put on her hat and coat” and visit her mother in law, Jen Smith Rundle, to “ask her anything you don’t understand”. I knew “Grandma Jen” when she was getting on in age, and yet I still found her to be an imposing, if not a big “scary” woman. I can’t imagine that it would have been easy for Marion to approach Jen. It makes me hope that Jen was a little more approachable her younger years.

Here is a transcript of the letter and actual scans.

Tuesday Morn
Dear Marian
You see we were thinking of you too. I washed Monday and it rained so the cloths (sic) didn’t get dry so we are working on the quilt for you. I have got it laid out on the dining room table and the two grandmothers are working on it.
I am so glad you wrote this morning as we all miss you very much but than (sic) I know it is for the best. Grampa said not for you to get lonesome that you will be allright (sic). Dad was wondering how you got along the first day of house keeping he said that Monday would be the first as Charley would go to work. I am glad that you are doing so well and hope you will keep it up.
Lucy was here just before supper last night and brought the pictures to show us. They came out pretty good. I told her to have some more finished and I would pay er for them. She said she hates the thoughts of you being so far away.
Mother Kieft as got a good glass wash board if you want it you can have it as it down cellar. I was going to tell you if ever you feel lonesome to put your Hat and coat and go down to Mother Rundle and don’t be afraid to ask her anything you don’t understand for I know she is good.
Charles often says he wish(sic) he could run in and see you once in a while. I will tell him to write.
Come over when you can. We shall allways (sic) be glad to see you and Charley.
Well Marian it is dinner time and Charles will be looking for something to eat. I suppose you are busy with your dinner too. I would like to see you. Will close with love and kisses to you both from all XXXXXXXX
Allways(sic) your loving
Mother & Dad

Marion and brother, Charles, in 1921

Marion and brother, Charles, in 1921

Marion’s younger brother, Charles, suffered from Polio and was in the hospital off and on. I have a letter from Charles to Marion from one of the times he was in the hospital, again, shortly after Marion’s marriage. It is heartbreaking to read how often Charles mentions being “homesick”. It is also funny to read about him not trusting a friend to borrow his drums. In later years Charles was an accomplished drummer and it is obvious from this letter that his passion developed at an early age!

Here is a transcript of his letter to his sister, followed by the scans.

Tuesday Morning
April 24, 1928
Dear Marion,
Just got your letter. It made me feel good. But I wish I was home though. How is Charlie? Gee I’m getting sick of this place. I wish I could go home. I’m getting home sick. The doctor was just in to see me and he moved my foot around and ? hurt it so I yelled. Gee Man.
I wish I was home. I can go to bed and get up at quarter to eight but down here you have to get up at five o’clock and wash. You know I’m not used to that. I guess I won’t be home for a little while yet. I asked the doctor when I could get up and he said not right away. Oh I’m sick of this place. I wish I could go home.
How are all of the Rundles? I held up is into every thing. Come over again won’t you?
Mrs. O’Toole was down to see me last night and one of the Grippo girls. Miss O’Toole is going to move on Main St. at the Paramount you know where that is next to the church on the corner of William and Main next to Sheridan taxi service. Why she is moving is she is to(sic) far from the city. The men that board there like it but they say its to (sic) far from the city. Mother asked Miss O’Toole how the house was. She said that she had the dark side and the flies were terrible but she said maybe they came because she was cooking all day. So I don’t know whether mother will take it or not.
Did you know that Bub Mantle wanted to borrow my drums for the wedding. You know most likely they would have drink there an Italian wedding and Bubby likes to drink so you don’t know what he would do to my drums.
Well I guess I’ll sign off Sta-in (sic) HOME SICK
Brother
Please answer soon

Update on Wrynn/Rynn/Rinn Family of Leitrim, Ireland and New Haven, CT

I hadn’t worked on this family for quite awhile, but I recently realized that there were parish registers from the parish they were from in Leitrim on a film that I have on permanent loan at the LDS FHC here. So today I decided to look at the records and see what I could find. I was mainly looking for the burial record for James Wrynn. Based on a probate record, I assumed that James had died c. 1850, however I couldn’t find a burial for him in the parish registers.

I did however make another huge discovery that altered some assumptions I had made concerning the marriage of my 3X Great Grandparents, Thomas Wrynn and Alice McKeon. I had found Thomas, with his brothers, in the 1850 US Census for New Haven, CT. Thomas and Alice’s first child was born in New Haven in June 1852. While I never found a marriage for the couple in New Haven vital records, I had assumed that they had met and married in New Haven sometime between the 1850 census and the birth of their child. Today I found the marriage record for Thomas and Alice in Kiltubrid, Leitrim, Ireland on 15 Dec 1847. This means that Thomas must have come over to the US with his brothers and after he was settled, Alice joined him in New Haven.

marriage record

Marriage record for Thomas Wrynn and Alice McKeon (Click to enlarge)

I’ve uploaded 4 generations of the descendants of James Wrynn and Bridget McGovern. You can find it here: Wrynn/Rynn/Rinn Family of Leitrim, Ireland and New Haven, CT

Emotional Involvement in Genealogy Research

Peter Stanford Headstone

Toppled Headstone for family of Peter and Mary Stanford

When I first started doing genealogy research, it was all names, dates and facts. It was just putting together puzzle pieces, with each individual being a part of the puzzle. As my research continued, I felt as if I got to “know” the families. As I collected more photos, I could actually start putting faces with the names. That is when the research took an emotional turn.

I’ve always enjoyed being able to add anecdotal information to my research. I think that makes any genealogy research results more personal. That of course lends itself to more emotional involvement. Even before I had too many interesting side stories about my ancestors, the mundane looking up of data started to affect me emotionally. Early on I realized that after going over death or burial records for a long period of time, I was emotionally drained. It was very depressing to read about children and young people dying, especially when the cause was something that people don’t die from now.

One family’s story in particular upset me more than most. It was the family of Peter Stanford and Mary Doherty in New Haven, CT in mid 1800’s. I was collecting information from the New Haven Vital records. Combining birth data and death data, I found out that Peter and Mary had 9 children, 8 daughters and 1 son. Only the one son, Peter Jr, lived pasted the age of 6. Only one daughter lived even that long, the rest died by the age of one! I couldn’t imagine the grief that Peter and Mary must have felt as each child was born, and subsequently died. Then to make matters worse, Peter Sr died at age 44, only one month after the last daughter died as an infant. Peter Jr went on to a sad life himself. He married Catherine Bohan in 1896, she gave birth to a daughter with exactly the same name as me, Mary Elizabeth Stanford, in 1897. Catherine died in 1899. Peter became ill with Phithisis and his daughter was put in an orphan asylum. Mary was 2yrs 7 mos at the time of her death due to Tuberculosis Meningitis while in St. Francis Orphan Asylum. Peter died at age 31 in 1902. I couldn’t help but feel very sad for this family that seemed to personify how hard life was for those living in the Irish ghettos in New Haven at that time.

Another part of my genealogy research, as referenced in other posts on this blog, is reading old newspaper stories. I’ve read 100’s of old articles, some just giving me data on marriages, births and deaths, but others adding details to my ancestors’ lives. I had an inordinate number of ancestors who were constantly arrested for serving alcohol on Sundays! I read about how my Great Great Grandfather fell and slipped on ice and was out of work. Along with those mundane anecdotes, there are stories of a more serious nature that make me think about ancestors involved. How might their lives be different if they lived in modern times and got help for their alcoholism or other mental illnesses.

Just this week I was researching my Kieft family in Devon, England. I was pouring over old newspaper articles on findmypast.co.uk (They have a new monthly subscription that I highly recommend.. pay a reasonable fee for one month of binge researching!). I started finding article after article about a Bertie Kieft ( he went by “Kiff”) who was born in 1883. It became increasingly apparent that Bertie was a serial rapist. At one point after many convictions, a judge called him a “terror” to the unprotected women of the neighborhood”. I couldn’t help but wonder if Bertie wouldn’t have benefited from counseling after his first arrest. In later arrests, based on statements he made to the judge, I felt as if his arrests were almost a cry for help. It became clear that he couldn’t help himself. While the details of his many attacks were horrible and depressing, I also found myself caring about Bertie.

Since it seems impossible not to get affected emotionally while researching your family’s history, I like to think that these side stories, whether happy, sad or merely the day to day happenings in their lives, these details help add a certain dimension to my research. It is a lot more interesting reading stories about an individual than it is to just read names and dates. Now, if the researcher can just survive the researching!

Here is the synopsis of the sad criminal life of Bertie Kiff:

On 25 Nov 1901 Bertie was charged with assaulting Miss Clara Evelyn Lewis, the school mistress in West Down. She was walking home and was followed by Bertie who then grabbed her and assaulted her. She was found by a Mr. Slocombe who brought her home. On the way they passed Bertie and she pointed him out as her attacker. In the trial Bertie was found guilty and sentenced to 4 months in prison.

In 1902 Bertie was charged with assaulting Annie Manning, age 20 in Berrynarbor. The trial was held October 1902.
Miss Manning had been a school friend of Berties and was on her way home from the Coronation festivities. Bertie approached her and offered to walk her home, but when she refused he chased her and assaulted her. She testified that he was wearing a “Volunteer Uniform” at the time. She pushed him away and he fell in a stream. Her friends arrived to help and Bertie ran away. During the trial Bertie had to admit that a year earlier he had been charged with a similar crime. He was found guilty of the assault on Miss Manning and was sentenced to 6 months hard labor.

In early 1906, Bertie married Frances Sable Avery, however it does not seem as if the couple lived together for any extended period of time. Bertie was in jail much of the time after the marriage.

In 1906 Bertie pleaded guilty to charge of violent assault against Agnes Ferrier who was under the age of 16, in Bittadon. The judge referenced his past convictions and said that he was a “source of terror to unprotected females in the neighborhood”. Bertie was sentenced to seven years in prison.

In 1909 there was a death notice for Bertie printed in the paper. It said that he had died on the Isle of Wight at age 27. His wife, Frances, notified the paper that he was in fact still alive and in good health. She was living in Barnstaple.

In 1911, Bertie Kift, age 26, married, born Ilfracombe in “His Majesty’s Prison” on Castle Street, Worcester, Worcestershire, England

In 1915, when Bertie must have been just out of prison after 7 years, he plead guilty to the charge of assault on Annie Marie Harris in Ilfracombe. He was sentenced to six months hard labor.

Adding “Color” to Your Reports – More on Old Newspaper Articles

As I’ve mentioned before, I love browsing through old newspaper clippings to both get hidden genealogical information as well as to add some “color” to my research reports. We all know that genealogical research can be pretty dry and boring to read. I try to add anecdotal information about the people and places that they lived in to give some life to my reports.

There are a couple of places that I use often for newspaper research. For old articles in the US I use GenealogyBank.com. They have some reasonable annual memberships that have proven to be worthwhile to my reasearch. For old newspapers in the UK, I’ve been using the new database at FindMyPast.co.uk. On FindMyPast.co.uk I don’t have a subscription. Instead I purchase “Pay as You Go” credits. It is 5 credits each to view an article.

Both of these sites are limited as to the locations and time periods covered, but so far I have managed to find a wealth of information. On both sites there is family information such marriages, births and deaths. There is also valuable address information in some notices. Then there is the minutiae that was written about in the old newspapers, such as the time my Great Great Grandfather returned to work after having been injured in a fall. Some of the small items and descriptions included in stories is amazing to read today. The really interesting information comes from stories involving brushes with the law. My Irish family in New Haven, CT seems to have not understood the law about not serving liquor on Sundays. If a relative owned a pub, and many of them did, then you can be sure they were arrested for serving on Sundays. I also have the assorted drunks in the family. One of my Great Great Great Grandfathers was charged with hitting his wife after she refused to give him money to go to the bar.

This week I was working on some of my British lines and came across just as many law breakers on that side of the Atlantic! The first one involved a Joseph Pilling who in 1865 in Cheshire, England, was charged with attempting to kill his wife. The account of the trial makes it clear that the wife, Elizabeth, was a bit of a drunk herself. It seems she would take off to parts unknown, get drunk, pass out and end up in jail. After one such trip she was confronted by her husband who chased her to a neighbor’s house and hit her with a poker. The husband was sentenced to 9 months of hard labor. I guess while the couple split up, they failed to make it official, because later news reports that Joseph was charged with bigamy. Hopefully his second and third marriages worked out better than the first!

The second unruly relative that I discovered was a Grace Hancock Kieft who in 1879 in Braunton, Devon, was involved in fight with a neighbor that caused quite a scene in the middle of the main road in town. Grace was involved in an altercation with a Mrs. Anne Dendle of Knowle. Mrs. Dendle and her husband had been walking in town and when they passed Grace visiting at the home of Mrs. Harris, the Dendles yelled deragatory things at Grace. Grace ran out the back of the Harris’ house, but ended up going back to front and confronting the couple. A physical fight erupted between Grace and Anne Dendle. During the trial it came out that Grace had “for a long time” suspected that Mrs. Dendle had an “improper relation” with Grace’s husband, Richard Kieft. Grace had taken to harassing Mrs. Dendle. The judge determined that the fight was Grace Kieft’s fault. She was fined and told to “keep the peace” for 3 months.

No one stopped the fight

The amusing part of this story involved the fact that the fight went on for an HOUR and none of the people standing around watching tried to break the fight up. They admitted as much to the judge. After hearing this, the judge felt the need to lecture the other witnesses for not doing anything to stop the fight.

So, while there may not have been a lot of genealogical information in these two stories, I think we can agree that we definitely have a better idea of what life was like for the individuals involved. And if nothing else, it makes a research report much more interesting to read.

Here are the two news stories:

A Lesson in Alternate Searching: When Ancestors Drop Off the Face of the Earth!

I’m in the process of putting together another “book” for one of my lines. When I do that, I go through and try to tie up any loose ends such as people in my database that seemed to “drop off the face of the earth”. This time the individual was one Charles Kieft b. 1829 in Braunton, Devon. I had found Charles in 1841 and 1851 UK census records. He was single and working on farms in Devon. Up until now I had found no further records for Charles.

I know that just because I’ve done one search for an individual that came up blank, doesn’t meant that another attempt won’t result in a new “find”. Sometimes it’s just a matter of new records being added to databases. Sometimes it seems as if some websites search engine will turn up different results at different times. I’ve had many situations where I did a search for an individual on Ancestry.com and nothing turns up, then the next time, entering the same information..there they are! It has also worked in the opposite way. I’ve found someone in a record, then go back to look at it again and can’t get it to show up in a search result for anything!

In the case of Charles, I found a marriage record for Charles Kieft and Susan Braund in Bideford, Devon in 1857. Charles had been working on a farm in Torrington, Devon in 1851 and that is not far from Bideford, so this seemed like a likely match. My next search was for Charles and Susan in 1861. I had no luck! I decided to search for just Susan instead of Charles. The name “Susan” was not as common as the name Charles so I thought this might narrow things down. I didn’t find Susan in 1861 on the first try, but I did find a marriage for a “Susan Kieft” and Samuel Martin in 1869 in Bideford. Since I have no “Susan Kiefts” as a “birthname” in my database, there was a good chance that this was Charles’ wife, now widow.

My next search was for Susan and Samuel Martin in the 1871 Census. I struck gold! Not only did I find the couple living in Northam, Devon, but there was also a Mary Ann Kieft, age 11, b. Bideford, living with them! So now I know that Charles was deceased and that he and Susan had a daughter!
1871 Census

This record also now gives me an age and birthplace for Susan Braund Kieft Martin. This is useful for future searches. I decided now to go back and search for Mary Ann Kieft (Kift). I found her in the 1881 Census with her mother and a new step brother. It seems that Susan had acquired a third husband! Susan Beer was living in Bristol, Gloucestershire with her son William Henry Beer, age 5, born Clifton, Bristol as well as Mary Ann Kieft now age 22. Susan is listed as “married” but the husband was not with the family.
Kieft_MaryAnn1881

My final searches solved the puzzle as to pinning down Charles death date. In earlier research I had discovered a Mary Kieft, age 2, b. Bideford, who was living with Charles sister, Eliza Kieft Mock, in Pilton, Devon in 1861. She was listed as “niece” but I could never place her with parents. I now knew who that Mary Ann Kieft belonged to! My assumption was that Charles was deceased at that point, but where was Susan? I did some more searches for Susan, made easier by the fact that I now had her birth year and birthplace. I finally found her working as nurse for a family in Northam, Devon. That location matches with where she and Samuel Martin lived in 1871. The big find was that Susan was listed as a “widow”.

This means that my brick wall concerning Charles Kieft was breached, at least somewhat. I now had a wife, a marriage date, a daughter and an approximate death year of c. 1860 based on daughter’s birth and fact that Susan was a widow in 1861.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this search. The first being – NEVER give up! Just because you didn’t find an individual in the first try doesn’t mean they won’t eventually show up. The second lesson is to broaden your search details. Try different surname spellings ( with this family I have to try Kieft, Keift, Kift, Keft etc), try searching for just a first name with birth date and birth year. I like to put in as much information as I know, then if that doesn’t work.. I keep removing things to see if alternate results show up.

I’m feeling very satisfied after this find since Charles was one of the last individuals in my Kieft family that had gone missing. I’m happy that I didn’t give up all hope of finding him!

Old Newspapers and Black Sheep Make For Interesting Research

When doing genealogy research a lot of it is painstakingly BORING. You spend hours pouring over records and searching for some new bit of information. However, the one part of genealogy research that I find interesting is reading old newspaper stories. It’s always amazed me that in the 1880’s the papers would report the smallest minutia of daily life.. such as “so and so is visiting their relative for a week”, “so and so has a bad cold and is out of work”, “so and so went back to work today after short illness” etc. Those are examples of items that I have actually read. There is also the daily court report where you see who was fined $1 for disturbing the peace, or as in the case of one of my relatives.. who hit their wife because she wouldn’t give him money to go to the bar! Yes, that was actually in a court report. It really gets interesting when you stumble upon some juicy stories. The journalists back then definitely had a “different” style from the journalists of today.

This week I did get caught up reading the details in one of these “juicy” stories. I don’t mind sharing because the individuals involved were not related to me by blood! Well.. ok.. the prelude to the story DOES involve one of my relatives who was less than an exemplary individual.

I’ve pieced together the following from a series of articles involving the characters in this domestic drama:

Catherine Kelly Brereton at the trial

Catherine Kelly Brereton at the trial

The story starts with my relative, John Brereton, a New Haven fireman born in 1857 in Ireland. In 1885 he married one Catherine Kelly. The couple had three children. By 1890 the couple had separated and Catherine sued John for divorce. The divorce and custody of children was granted on basis of habitual intemperance and intolerable Cruelty. Just to give some credence to Catherine’s claims, I found another article In March 1890, reporting how John and another man were arrested for breach of peace due to an attack on a man that came to John’s house to supposedly buy liquor, although the house is not licensed to sell it. A very brutal, bloody fight ensued. John and his friend tried to say that they were the victims and only acted in self defence, but the judge did not believe their story.

John Brereton died in February 1891 of a “hemorrage of the brain”.

Then later in 1890 I found a story reporting that Catherine and a “Jane Brophy” wife of James Brophy. It seems that James was married with children, but that his wife and he would often separate.. and then get back together. There is not reason given for the fight, but based on the rest of this story, we can safely assume that the women were fighting over James Brophy. *UPDATE* I just found out that in 1891 “Jane Coffee, who used to be called Mrs James Brophy” coming back to New Haven after living in Bridgeport for some time while the “county took care of her children”. Jane claimed that she was never married to James Brophy and only lived with him for 10 years until he cast her off and took up with Catherine Brereton.

After her divorce, Catherine was supposedly running a “rooming house” and who turns up as one of her tenants but James Brophy. Then in 1891 the you know what really hit the fan. The article that I’m attaching to this story details the operation that the police went through to trap the couple, but basically, neighbors had reported to the police that Catherine Brereton and James Brophy were carrying on in a less than proper way. The police trapped the couple and they were both arrested for “improper conduct”.

James Brophy at the trial

James Brophy at the trial

The article reports on the trial and then reports that after the couple was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $7 fine for Catherine the couple was carted off to jail. On the way to jail James, romantic soul that he was, figured that the way to avoid further trouble was for the couple to get married..so he proposed to Catherine on the way to jail!! They were married that afternoon in the jailer’s office. James’ attorney, Jacob Goodhart, performed the ceremony.

As an interesting epilogue to the story.. Catherine Brereton Brophy was buried in the Brereton plot. That is a “forgiving” family!

Here is a pdf of the article about the trial:
Article: Katherine Kelly Brereton – James BrophyTrial