Monday, December 18, 2017

The Problem with Predictable Projects

One of the most fascinating parts about researching these orphaned photographs I find in antique shops is that, though the pictures are practically picked at random, they are most certain to deliver the unexpected twists and turns that I've learned are just part of life. I've become quite convinced that even the most boring people have at least something about their life story which is unexpected, and thus interesting. And that is a good thing; a predictable project would turn out to be a boring one.

We've certainly experienced that when I picked up that 1936 photo album in a northern California shop; far from being a collection assembled by a long-gone local resident, the album ended up belonging to a family nearly halfway around the world. I certainly didn't expect that outcome.

The photo I found of John Blain was one I purchased in that same shop at the same time. Because the photographer's imprint indicated a studio halfway across the country from me, I assumed we'd witness the same pattern, discovering a life story which unfolded far from the location of that Lodi antique store.

Partially, that assumption proved true; John Blain may never have stepped foot in California, as we learned his last days were spent at home in Centerville, Kansas, after being injured while changing trains in nearby Paola. The last place we see him turns out to be the same city where we first "found" him: the tiny city of Walnut in Kansas, where he was buried in 1908.

That, however, doesn't explain how his photograph ended up in California. To find the answer to that involves researching the rest of story after his passing. Fortunately, though it requires a bit of skill in reading between the lines, we can figure out a plausible explanation through the use of easily accessible documentation. It's just that, seeing the photo end up in the very city in which I live makes this story seem quite predictable, after all. You'll see why, when you learn what I found simply by following the census trail for widow Harriet Blain and her daughters.

As you can imagine, John's wife must have had a rough go of it after John's untimely death at the age of forty four. That one episode instantly transformed Harriet, at the age of forty herself, into a position of being sole provider for her four young daughters.

For one thing, following the tragic death, Harriet decided to pursue whatever legal recourse was available to her, presumably with the hope of securing some means of support for her family in John's absence. That hoped-for remedy, however, was not to materialize, though it was a process tied up in the court system until eight years after John's death.

Meanwhile, by the time of the 1910 census, Harriet had moved from the family home in Centerville to a different house in a different town—not quite to California, yet, of course, but a move, nonetheless. As far north as Centerville was from the original Blain home in Walnut, Kansas, Harriet's new home was to the west of Walnut. Her new residence in Fredonia, however, was listed as owned free and clear; somehow, she was able to obtain the place without a mortgage.

Not that there weren't financial difficulties ahead for the young widow. Like many women in her situation during that time period, Harriet apparently eased the financial squeeze by taking in boarders. We can see two of them listed in that 1910 census—Benjamin Johnson, an immigrant from England, and George VanCamp, originally from the state of New York. Both were employees of a nearby glass factory.

It is with the next federal census that you can see what I mean by a predictable project: unlike the photo album I found, which ended up originating with a family from Ireland, the photo I found of John Blain may have made its journey from somewhere much closer than Kansas. It was a distance close enough to be a drive I make on a regular basis: a trip between the antique shop's location in Lodi to the nearby city of Stockton, California.

What makes me think the photo may have come from Stockton? My clue comes from the 1920 census, in which Harriet was no longer listed as a resident in the state of Kansas, but owner—with mortgage this time, incidentally—of a home in California. There she was, at 1436 South San Joaquin Street, fourteen blocks south of Main Street in downtown Stockton. With her were her four daughter: Emma, Rozella, Vida and Vera.

To make ends meet, Harriet was listed as a "practical" nurse employed in a private home, and oldest daughter Emma was a long distance operator for the phone company. The other three girls, all teenagers, were still students in school.

Discovering that Harriet had actually come to Stockton, herself, makes it easy to see how the photo would end up in an antique store so close by. Harriet likely kept that picture close, as a sentimental reminder of her deceased husband. She likely showed it to her daughters in hopes of keeping John's memory alive in his children's minds. Perhaps one of them inherited it after Harriet's passing and, eventually, left it in her own estate. A quite predictable outcome.

There was one puzzling detail about that 1920 census entry, though—well, besides whatever prompted Harriet to move her family from Kansas to California, and then to, of all places, Stockton. That puzzle can be found in one single letter entry on her line in that 1920 enumeration. While Harriet had been listed as a widow in the 1910 census, of course, by the time of the 1920 census, there was a big, bold "D" entered in the slot for marital status.

What had happened in the ten years between those two census enumerations? Even "predictable" can turn out to throw some curves into the story line.

Above: Photograph of John Blain, taken in the 1880s in the small town of Walnut, Kansas; found in an antique shop in Lodi, California.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Counting the Days as Well as the Data

It's time for my bi-weekly tally of genealogical research progress, but it's also nearly the end of the year. It will be interesting to aggregate all these tallies and get the bigger picture, not of just biweekly progress, but to see how far I've come in the past year's work. We'll see what the count next time will show—and the conclusion of the matter, since it will be the last day of both the year and the fortnight.

Once again, my mother-in-law's tree got the most attention. It's fascinating to see how easy it is to make progress on certain family line. Everything seems straightforward in following the generations for these large, Catholic families in her line—not convoluted, mysterious family histories like my own father's heritage, or the smaller, twisting lines of my mother's tree.

Today, my mother-in-law's tree contains 13,772 individuals, each of which has as much documentation as I can find, whether census reports for each decade of their life, or vital records, or newspaper and obituary reports providing additional information on their family. These people may have had a sixth sense about how to keep themselves find-able. In just these past two weeks, I was able to add 186 additional people to this tree, and it really was no effort at all.

My own mother's tree would be the next easiest, out of all the lines I'm researching. Some of the relations sharing mutual colonial ancestors with my mother may have harbored a deep need to become invisible, and I find myself struggling to pinpoint whatever became of some family members, but I otherwise have been able to duly document most of the members of the typically smaller families in her lines. This past two weeks, I was able to add 71 individuals to her tree, which now stands at a total of 11,891 people.

Sadly, for my father-in-law's family (which I'd rate as my third most challenging tree to work on), I made absolutely no progress in the past two weeks. Nor was I able to add anything to my own father's tree, though that is not surprising, considering the frustrating brick wall I've encountered, just two generations back. These clearly need to receive a high priority rank on my New Year's resolutions list.

As for progress with our DNA tests, the counts keep going up (well, all except for one company's results), and that's even before the holiday sales rush hits. For instance, my husband's matches over the last two weeks leapt up by twenty eight at Family Tree DNA (totalling 1,653) and ten at AncestryDNA (totalling 398 first through fourth cousins). On the flip side, he lost fifteen matches at 23andMe, so now he only has 1,166 there.

On my side of the equation, FTDNA increased by twenty eight—coincidentally the same as my husband's count there, though I top him with a total of 2,590. At AncestryDNA, I have 776 matches at the level of fourth cousin or closer, with a mere five new ones added in the past two weeks—hurry up, holiday sales! And, well, I lost five at 23andMe, so now the match count there is down to 1,129.

Not that we're greedy for more matches or anything, but I did happen to notice, a few weeks ago, that MyHeritage had an enticing sale. It just so happens that my husband has a niece who chose to test there, so I thought it would be interesting to go through the process with that company, as well. So, for next year, we'll add yet another company to the tally. With MyHeritage's smaller database, it will be interesting to see what we will find with this new addition, but as many people have noted, you never know where the significant relative may test—and I definitely would love to connect with some mystery relatives via DNA test results.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Off the Shelf:
Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins

To be precise, this book isn't exactly off my shelf; in his absence, I made an arbitrary decision to borrow the book off my husband's bookshelf. Since he's lately been my only reader in Saudi Arabia—until this morning, when he joined my readership from Germany—I figured he wouldn't mind if I lifted a title from his reading stack back here at home.

If you know me, you know I have a strong affinity for the use of story. For whatever reason, for the last several days, every time I pass that to-read stack of books, the one with the term "story" stands out; it's almost as if it is shouting at me. And since I haven't mentioned much around here about reading since last September, I figured it was about time to pull up a comfy chair and open another book.

So this month, it will be Annette Simmons' Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. I have the updated second edition, published in 2015.

There's no doubt story has a power to draw people's attention. We are naturally wired to wonder, "and then what?" We want to know whodunit, and why.

The drawback is that we associate stories with fiction—something to pull out in our spare time, for entertainment or to decompress from real world struggles. We forget that it is we who represent stories with our own lives, as well—we just haven't discovered the means for uncovering those stories, for harvesting their message.

For those of us in genealogy, we are aware of the stories resident in the family history facts we uncover. Those birth, marriage, and death dots connect us with the life stories of our ancestors. It is when we glean those details and let that family history narrative include the stories that we gain an audience with our fellow family members who otherwise might not be even slightly interested in knowing about their ancestors. The story becomes the hook.

As I step into the role of heading up our local genealogical society, I see the potential in the aggregate of all the stories represented by each of our members. Some of those stories belong in the locales where our families once lived, far from our current west coast location, but some stories happened right here in our own jurisdiction—stories so fascinating that they will draw in others and convert them into believers who want to know the rest of the stories of our county.

Those stories represent micro-histories woven into the larger fabric of our communities' heritage, of course, but while we may shy away from the "boring history" we remember from our school days, to know about the dramas that unfolded in the lives of the friends and neighbors of our grandparents contains an entirely different motivating factor.

To represent our genealogical societies is to represent the stories of our members and the stories of the people in our communities—present and past. To tell the story, then, becomes a means for encouraging others to join us, to weave their own family histories into our joint community story. Annette Simmons' book, as a workbook and inspiration for employing this storytelling modality, offers a blueprint to help us as a society to share those compelling elements of our research. Our audience—potential members and future supporters of our society's work—will find it is the stories that will resonate with them. We need to find the best way to bring those stories to life so they can work their magic.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Deciphering the Details

It's inevitable, when researching information on family history from past centuries, that we'll encounter terms and descriptions that seem so foreign that they are of no help at all in allowing us to better understand the world in which our ancestors lived. Face it, the world back in 1880 or even 1908 was a vastly different place than the one in which we now live. Activities of daily life became a collection of terms and tasks far different than ones we use today. Sometimes, the difference is so huge, we end up walking away without having the slightest idea about things that, to our ancestors, were so commonplace.

In researching my family's history, that's when I start asking questions.

Reading the reports on the untimely death of John Blain in Paola, Kansas, in 1908 had that same effect on me. Take, for instance, the court description of the main train track curving "round that cobhouse to the eastward." Cobhouse? I had to look that one up. (Apparently, the term either refers to a "flimsy unstable structure" or a small building "constructed of mud, clay, and straw."

Granted, I could have inferred a similar meaning from the context of the article, but I just wanted to know specifically what the term might have meant at the time it was used.

But it was another phrase that really pushed me to look it up instead of settling for an educated guess. Remember the part which mentioned that John Blain, in turning to see who was calling to him, was then "struck by the pilot beam of the engine."

What's a pilot beam?

I realize there are those who are so taken with the history of railroads that their enthusiasm for the subject has led them to either spend thousands of dollars on collectibles or spend countless hours consuming every last detail about the topic. I am not one of those people, so please forgive my ignorance. I had to go look up what a pilot beam might have been.

Going in search of this information was not an easy process, given my complete lack of understanding about locomotives. The handy-dandy drawing of the "Commonwealth Locomotive Pilot Beam with Flexible Buffing Gear" in the 1922 Locomotive Cyclopedia of American Practice, for instance, told me nothing. There was no scale to the drawing, nor any diagram with a red arrow and the directions, "insert pilot beam here."

I need that kind of guidance when attempting to understand my ancestors' world.

Nor did the entry I was directed to in the 1906 Locomotive Dictionary, despite its being billed as "An Illustrated Vocabulary of Terms which Designate American Railroad Locomotives." When I googled the term "pilot beam," I was directed to the page fourteen definition for "bumper beam." As a subheading to that term, the dictionary described pilot beams as "the term applied to the same part [bumper beam] when the locomotive is fitted with a pilot."


Eventually, on page fifty nine, I found an explanation which made a bit more sense—but only after wading through more verbiage. Here's how the book defined "pilot":
An inclined pointed structure of wood or iron bars fastened to the front bumper of a locomotive to remove obstructions from the track.

Oh. And then the dictionary provided the part that translated to our era:
Formerly called cow catcher.

Formerly called cow catcher? I've never heard of a pilot on a locomotive, but at least I've heard of a cow catcher. So the pilot beam must be something which affixed to the cow catcher. Great. So now I can disabuse myself of any visuals of the man being gored to death by a literal beam somehow protruding from the front of a locomotive like a gladiator's spear.

Taking the time to ascertain the exactness of terms we're not currently familiar with can help paint a clearer picture of the specific episodes in our ancestors' lives. While a 1908 term like pilot beam might not be that outdated, the terms of centuries past sometimes yield us curves which we're not sure how to field. Learning how to talk the lingo of our ancestors' contemporaries can sometimes open our eyes to the impact of those everyday realities in the lives of the people we are researching.

Above: Undated photograph of the Missouri Pacific Railway locomotive engine number 152; image number RG005_77_27_0714 courtesy the Missouri State Archives via Wikipedia; in the public domain—with a mighty fine specimen of a pilot included, if I say so myself.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

How it Happened: Version Two

In trying to piece together a cogent history of the life of the man whose picture I rescued from a local antique store, it turns out that, once again, we find that life stories seem always to include the unexpected. When we started, all we knew was that the subject's name was John Blain, and that he sat for his likeness at a photography studio in the small town of Walnut, Kansas, sometime during the 1880s.

More to the point, once we discovered the tragedy that had befallen this man in the prime of his life, we've been presented with two versions of just what happened to lead to his demise. You already know my bias against trusting, wholesale, contemporary newspaper reports. In John Blain's case, due to the nature of what befell him in 1908, we have the opportunity to examine two different versions of what actually happened.

From a summary of the appeals process, published in volume 184 of The Southwestern Reporter, we learn that John Blain's widow, serving as administratrix of his estate, had filed suit for $10,000 against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company for the death of her husband. While the summary, on page 1142 through 1143, mentioned that the suit was brought according to provisions under Kansas state statutes, the case was actually heard in the state of Missouri. No reason was given for this, though it appeared that, based on Missouri law, the outcome was not to be what the widow might have hoped.

Through the summary, we once again see details we've already learned through the newspaper report we discussed yesterday: that John Blain was a man of forty four years of age, that he was engaged in the lumber and furniture business in Centerville, Kansas, and that he received his fatal injuries in the city of Paola, Kansas.

That's pretty much where the similarities stop. The court cases, presumably extracting their evidence from witnesses on the stand, provided more detail about the incident—but also details that may or may not have lined up exactly with what we've learned from the Wichita newspaper account.

The summary in The Southwestern Reporter first included some background information, setting the scene:
Peoria street, in Paola, runs east and west across the tracks of three railroad systems all parallel and lying within a strip of about 200 feet. About 24 passenger trains on those roads cross that street within that many hours, and many more freights. As those tracks are approached from the east the first is a switch of the defendant [Missouri Pacific] running to an elevator standing just west of Peoria street and just east of the switch. Next comes the main track of defendant. Between it and said switch on the north side of the street is a cobhouse used in connection with the elevator. The main track spoken of above curves round that cobhouse to the eastward. About four blocks north of Peoria street is the defendant's station. The regular passenger train was due there at 11:40 a.m.

Now that the description has set the stage, the narrative went on to introduce the main player, our unfortunate John Blain.
Just at noon Blain was proceeding west on the sidewalk on the south side of that street. When he had crossed the switch track and got within 8 or 10 feet of defendant's main track, had he looked westward, he could have seen a train on that main track a distance of 400 or 500 feet. The regular passenger train south bound left the station just at noon, gave two long and two short whistles when about 400 feet from Peoria street, and continued ringing the engine bell from that point until it crossed the street....

This is where the description seemed incredible, making me wonder why it happened the way it did.
Blain proceeded straight ahead without looking for the approach of any train. He was in about two feet of the defendant's main track when someone called to him. He looked back, and, while doing so, was struck by the pilot beam of the engine and knocked about twenty feet.

Right there, at that point in the narrative, I find so many issues that prompt questions. Why, for instance, did he not look before crossing the tracks? Was he not responsive to all the din around him? Was it precisely for such a reason that his ears became deaf to the very signal that was supposed to warn him away? And why was someone calling to him at such a precarious point? Was it, ironically, to warn him to "Look out"?

As a sad postscript to the blow-by-blow, the case summary added,
For about two years there had been an electric bell at that crossing, but for a great portion of the time it had been out of repair, and was out of repair and not working on the day in question.

Although an oversight such as that, on the part of a defendant, would surely now have played a significant role in determining the outcome of the case, that was not so for Mrs. Blain's appeal. The $10,000 she was seeking—depending on which inflation calculator used, representing in today's economy anywhere from $239,000 to $261,000—was not to be awarded to her. The prime determining factor:
When a person, capable of seeing and hearing, in broad daylight, attempts to cross a railroad track in front of a rapidly moving train, without looking or listening for such train, and is struck by it and injured, his own negligence is the proximate cause of his injury....

Despite conceding, in the court's report, that "it was negligence in the defendant to allow the electric bell to be out of repair," that was not enough of a contributing factor to sway the court's decision. Apparently, the indiscretion of the victim of the injury trumped any negligence on the part of the corporation, according to the laws at that time in the state of Missouri, and the widow's appeal was unsuccessful.

That result, of course, put the mother of four young children in a precarious position of her own.   

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How it Happened: Version One

Determining just what occurred to cause the tragic death of John Blain seems a straightforward process, if you rely on only one version of the story. There were, however, at least two different accounts of what happened, back in 1908 in Paola, Kansas. While it is possible that the truth is closer to an amalgamation of the two versions, let's take a look at each one separately.

First, we'll look at the document which was published closest to the time of John's death. It's an article from The Wichita Beacon, appearing on page seven of the Tuesday edition on June 23, 1908. If you are a subscriber, you can view a digitized version of the original here.

We've already reviewed the report's opening paragraph yesterday. Under a headline blaring, "Lived Three Days," the article explained, beginning with the second paragraph, that
At Paola, Mr. Blain was compelled to change cars. After he left the train, he was struck by the engine of an outgoing train and received fatal injuries on his head, back and chest. He was immediately removed to the office of a physician where his injuries were given proper attention. As soon as Mr. Blain was able to be moved he was taken to his home. Upon his removal to his home he steadily grew worse, suffering both from external and internal injuries. Word was received in the city yesterday by his sister that after suffering intensely from his injuries for three days that he had died.

That was the complete report on the actual episode, according to The Wichita Beacon. The article continued with a note about his survivors—his wife and four young daughters, as well as the "sister" in Wichita and her daughter. It concluded with a note that "the body will be taken to Walnut, Kans., for interment."

After learning that the man spent the last few days of his life in such agony, you will not be surprised to learn that John Blain's widow found reason to bring suit against the railroad company operating the locomotive which had struck her husband. Perhaps her legal counsel was convinced there was a basis for a wrongful death case.

That case against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company wound its way through an appeals process up to the Missouri Supreme Court and was not resolved until nearly eight years after the June day in 1908 when John Blain was struck down by one of the company's locomotives.

Above: From the 1903 edition of Poor's Manual of the Railroads of the United States, showing the lines of the Missouri Pacific Railway Company. Among the tangled lines, the one dropping southwest from Kansas City heads first to Paola. The city name is written sideways, making it harder to locate on the map. Image courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Did the Newspaper get it Wrong?

While returning to his home in Centerville, Kans., after visiting relatives in this city, John Blain was struck by a locomotive. He received injuries which resulted in his death. Mr. Blain spent the last few weeks the guest of his sister, Mrs. G. W. McFeeters of South Dodge avenue, and left the latter part of last week for his home.

That was, in part, how the newspaper reported the tragedy that befell John Blain in 1908. "This city" referred to Wichita, Kansas, home of the McFeeters family, where The Wichita Beacon carried the report on Tuesday, June 23 of that year.

But was that the way it all really happened? If you have been following A Family Tapestry for any amount of time, you already know my unceasing doubt of journalism's reporting prowess. More than harboring an unforgiving stance on errors in print, though, I find that the discovery of one error in a report causes me to doubt the veracity of the rest of the article.

I'll show you what I mean. See that reference to John Blain's sister, Mrs. G. W. McFeeters? As I muddled through the genealogical process to determine just who this man was whose photo I had discovered in a local antique store, I set up a family tree to assist me in this pursuit.

One thing I learned in the process of building that tree was that while John Blain had many sisters, none of them had married anyone with the surname McFeeters. It turned out, however, that his wife had a sister who did.

John Blain had married Harriet Isabel Beeman, that nearly thirty year old woman with whom he tied the knot in the neighboring state of Missouri in the fall of 1897. While Harriet may have reported that she was living in Missouri at the time, she was part of a large family whose residence had ranged, over the years, from Indiana to Nebraska before their arrival in the Show-Me state. Even after that point, Harriet's parents, Green Yarnel and Martha Johnson Beeman, appeared in records in Wichita, Kansas, before her father's passing in 1902.

Harriet's next-oldest sister, Sarah Ellen Beeman, who like Harriet was born in Nebraska, eventually also settled down in Kansas. She was the one who married George W. McFeeters on October 20, 1885. (Interestingly, though both reported they were residents of Kansas, they traveled to Vernon County, Missouri, for their wedding, as Sarah's sister Harriet did for her own marriage over ten years later, making me wonder whether Vernon County served as a sort of "Gretna Green" city for the region, though I've found no mention of such a custom for the area.)

It was this Sarah Ellen and George McFeeters who were the ones John Blain had been visiting in Wichita, before returning home to Centerville by way of Paola, Kansas, on the day in which he was struck by the Missouri Pacific locomotive. While it may be a small detail for a reporter to confuse a sister for a sister-in-law, just that one mistake makes me wonder how many other details in the article might also have been inaccurate. When time comes to review the version reported in the court proceedings regarding the suit brought by John's widow, the different account rendered there only augments my doubts. 
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