In the Footsteps of Ghosts

In his 1881 classic play Ghosts, playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote about a family haunted by figurative ghosts from its own past. As we prepare for the upcoming Halloween season of ghosts, ghouls, and specters what better place to seek the ghosts of our own history than in graveyards? In past issues of this publication I’ve written about various sources for locating information regarding one’s genealogy. Eerily enough one of the most interesting I’ve found is a cemetery.

            My Great-Grandfather Michael Stephany was a veteran. Appropriately enough he’s buried at a military cemetery. I found a lot of valuable information about him from visiting his grave. His head stone at BeverlyMemorialCemetery listed him as being from Pennsylvania and as serving in the First World War. The crucifix engraved on the headstone indicated that he was a member of the Christian faith. It had his rank listed as Private First Class. He served in the 313th Field Artillery of the 80th Infantry Division. Of course, it had the main pieces of information every genealogical researcher longs for: his dates of birth and death.

            Cemetery records also contain a wealth of information. I found out from my 4X Great-Grandfather Joseph McClay’s death certificate that he worked in the liquor business. This was a great find, because I’ve always been curious as to where I inherited my long standing interest in the liquor industry. (Admittedly, my ancestor worked in the distribution end of the business whereas I’ve been more drawn to the consumption end of it.)

           Curiously enough, he and his wife, Mary, both have the unusual distinction of having moved after they passed away. They were both interred at OddFellowsCemetery in Philadelphia in the 1870s. Their graves were moved in the early 1950s when the land was converted into a housing project. It’s horrifying that even in death one can’t escape the reach of government.   

            The most fascinating thing about visiting graveyards is that you never know what you’re going to find. I learned this when I visited my great-grandmother’s grave. My great-grandmother Violet Bishop Connelly was the family historian. She knew all kinds of things about our ancestry. She said that the city of Coatesville, PA was named after one of our relatives. She told the family that we were related to the famous explorer Zebulon Pike. She even found that we were related to two presidents of the United   States (William Henry and Benjamin Harrison) and a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Benjamin Harrison). In addition, her Great-Great Grandfather Ichabod Bishop played a role in the American Revolution. Her Grandfather, William Henry Harrison Coates, served in the American Civil War. Some of her ancestors immigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s. When I found out she was buried in a Bishop family plot at OaklandCemetery in Philadelphia, I figured there was going to be this huge monument to the Bishop Family; something rivaling the types of monuments one would find in Washington, D.C.

            I called the cemetery ahead of time and got the section and location of the family plot. My dad also found the deed to my great-grandmother’s plot. I headed over there one Saturday afternoon with my father. In spite of all this information we had we ended up wandering around for at least a half-an-hour looking for it. It took a kindly groundskeeper who went out of his way to go to the front office and get maps and a burial card to take us to the grave. Wouldn’t you know it, the grave was unmarked! There were seven members of the Bishop family buried there. There was a marker that only had two of their names (her brother’s and sister-in-law’s): not my great-grandmother’s or even her parents’! This was one of the biggest disappointments of my adult life.

            The thing that bothered me the most about this experience was that I don’t have any idea why her grave is unmarked. I would have thought that someone so interested in genealogy and history would leave something so that future generations of the family can find where she’s buried. My great-grandmother had three children: two of whom are living. Unfortunately, age and memory don’t permit them to tell me why. I asked two of her grandchildren and they didn’t have any idea why there’s no marker either.

        One clue I did find was that whenever I ask anyone to describe my great-grandmother the first word they always use is humble. I learned from the Ghost Tours presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown that orthodox Quakers didn’t have grave markers because they believed them to be a sign of pride. I know my some of my great-grandmother’s ancestors were Irish Quakers. That’s one possible reason why there’s nothing identifying her grave, but unfortunately I’ll never get a definitive answer as to why.

        While it may sound macabre to some, visiting cemeteries and reviewing cemetery records can provide a wealth of information to genealogical researchers. As I know from my own personal experience, the results can be scary or even unexplained. But aside from the wealth of data we can gain from this, let’s face it: paying our respects to relatives who have gone before us is just the right thing to do. If I may paraphrase the greatest philosopher who ever lived, a man named Yogi Berra, you should visit your relatives’ final resting places. If you don’t they’re never going to visit yours.       


Criminal History

Grand expectations consume us whenever we commence genealogical research. Images of discovering we’re related to world figures who changed history dance through our dreams. If not a Churchill or a Washington, at least we want to find some relative who will impress our friends and/or fellow researchers. When I started researching my Great-Grandmother Violet (nee Bishop) Connelly’s family history I had just such aspirations.

“Mom Vi” was the closest my family came to having an official chronicler. She’d regale everyone with all these great tales about our family history. I didn’t have the pleasure of hearing them first hand, as she passed away during my early childhood. When her “students” did relay her stories to me I felt inspired to learn more.

Mom Vi held that our lineage included two Presidents of the United States: William Henry and Benjamin Harrison. Not just Chief Executives, but a great adventurer was among our ancestors as well. She said we were related to the man who discovered Pike’s Peak: the great explorer Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. When I heard all this I couldn’t wait to start digging on my own. I wanted to see what other interesting characters I could find hidden among the roots of my family tree. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of my relatives, in fact Mom Vi’s own grandfather, had a criminal history! Curiously when I mentioned this to some members of the family they were shocked. For some reason Mom Vi neglected to mention this part of the family saga.

With help from friends in the on-line community, I located a snippet from the Philadelphia Inquirer dated March 28, 1870. It read that Edgar Bishop and an accomplice were sentenced to three years in prison. They’d been convicted of counterfeiting five-cent pieces. As stunned as I found this news, the most astonishing part was that the sentencing took place on a Saturday. They must’ve really wanted to shuffle this guy off to prison if the judge came in on a weekend to do it.

Every family has its share of less than savory characters, but I never would’ve thought that person would come from the Bishops. They’ve got a long history in this country going back to the early years of the eighteenth century. In fact, my 5th Great Grandfather Ichabod Bishop even played a role in the American Revolution. According to an application for membership in the National Society for the Sons of the American Revolution, “Ichabod Bishop received from Timothy Elmer, December 20, 1777, 5:0:0 for a blanket during the Revolutionary War.” Apparently, that blanket helped the Colonists in the war effort as it qualified Ichabod Bishop as a genuine patriot. What went wrong with his grandson Edgar, then?

Another interesting thing about Edgar’s story is that Mom Vi’s other grandfather, William Henry Harrison Coates, fought in the Civil War. While Mr. Coates spent the following years recovering from that experience both in mind and body, his counterpart was trying to make a living by stealing from the same government for which he fought. I found this to be an intriguing comparison.

In light of this new revelation about my ancestry, I’m sure people will ask me what I think of having a criminal in my past. The first thought that comes to mind is that the measure of a person’s life is more than the worst thing he/she ever did. In the course of my research I’ve found that Edgar fathered seven children. One of whom, Albert Bishop, went on to father “Mom Vi.”

I discovered that Edgar married a woman named Mary Pike. I’m still researching to discover whether or not she is the “missing link”, so to speak, as to how I’m related to General Pike. If so, I could say that Edgar redeemed himself by “marrying up” and tying our family history with that of the great explorer.
The thing that stands out most in my mind is that Edgar had a number of different jobs throughout his career. I’ve discovered documents showing he worked as a watchman and a mariner. Those are pretty diverse fields of endeavor. I know that in 1850 he didn’t have a source of employment. It’s difficult to support a family large as his under any circumstances. It’s much more challenging when finding one’s self out of work for a time. Not that hardship excuses law breaking, but it’s useful to look at the whole picture before judging someone.

To borrow a line from the great historian Charles Beard when we take up the study of history our “noble dream” should always be the pursuit of truth through objectivity. Just because we’re researching our own history doesn’t give us the right to select facts that happen to appeal to us. We owe ourselves and our family an accurate portrayal of our past “as it actually happened” to paraphrase Leopold von Ranke. To do anything else would be criminal.

When “That Noble Dream” Becomes a Nightmare

I was a graduate student in American History when I first heard Charles Beard’s musing on that so-called “noble dream” of historical objectivity; I never thought I’d be reminded of it while researching my own ancestry. Strangely enough, I recollected Mr. Beard’s idea when I came across some data about my Great-Grandfather, Tom Connelly; or as I call him, “The Irish Immigrant Born in Athlone, Ireland Who Was a Second Generation American from Georgia and Philadelphia.” Who would have thought the life of an accountant could be so intriguing, fascinating, and filled with mystery?

Even though I started doing a genealogical survey of my heritage for my family, as a pseudo-trained want to-be historian, I thought I should be as objective as possible. I aspired to follow in the tradition of the great Nineteenth Century Historian Leopold von Ranke. I was going to use his technique and write about the past “as it actually happened” while documenting all my data as thoroughly and as professionally as I could. Great-Grandpa Tom’s story made this a little tricky. I wrote in a previous article of this publication about issues arising from the “disparity between memory and documentation.” I never thought I’d encounter a situation where various documents conflicted with one another on basic facts.

There’s an old family yarn about how my Great-Grandfather Tom Connelly (my paternal grandmother’s father) came to the United States from Ireland when he was 12 accompanied only by his mother. I thought that would be easy enough to confirm, until I came across the 1920 Census Records. I viewed the primary source itself and it stated clearly that Tom Connelly was born in Georgia as were both his mother and his father. That was certainly interesting. I knew this was my Great-Grandfather because it listed Violet Connelly as his wife and Tom Connelly, Jr. (then one year old) as his son. I did some more sleuthing and I located Mr. Connelly’s draft registration card for World War I (c. 1917). On that one, he very specifically indicated that he was born in Athlone, Ireland in 1892. That was really interesting. I knew that Ireland was part of the United   Kingdom until 1922. Was it briefly part of Georgia, U.S.A. in 1892?

I mentioned earlier that the tradition is that Tom Connelly came to the U. S. from Ireland when he was 12 years old. Both my grandmother and my aunt told me that same story on different occasions and decades apart. On the Draft Registration Card, it states that Tom Connelly (I know it’s him because of the other data on there) was born on June 12, 1892. The 1930 Census Record says he came to the U. S. in 1896, when he would have been four. There was no mention of Georgia this time. On that Census Record it reads that Tom Connelly and both his parents were from Ireland.

I later found a draft registration form my Great-Grandfather filled out in 1942. On that one he indicated his place of birth as Philadelphia. I felt a tint of envy upon reading this. He got around more extensively at the time of his birth than I have my entire life! I’ve got to keep researching to find the name of his travel agency.  

I knew my Great-Grandfather Tom was an interesting guy. He worked as a paymaster, a real estate salesman, and even an IRS Agent. The fact he claimed to be born in both Ireland and Georgia made him a lot more interesting than I ever could have imagined. I was also curious as to why on his draft registration card, the “Date of Registration” line was left blank. He was listed as an “alien” and a citizen of Ireland. He also declared that he was supporting his wife and mother at the time. Could either of those explain why? For that matter is it possible that the people responsible for processing draft cards were as thorough and proficient in their duties as census takers of the day? I was really surprised that my great-grandfather, a person who worked with numbers where precision was a hallmark of his trade, would leave a series of documents with so many open questions. It’s very difficult to draw firm conclusions and details about Great–Grandpa Tom’s life from all this.

Great-Grandpa Tom was a wizard when it came to numbers, but his public relations skills were an area he could have developed better. His legacy has the misfortune of suffering by comparison. In modern day language, he “married up.” My Great-Grandmother Violet nee Bishop (or “Vi” as she was known) was the family historian/genealogist. She was related to the famous explorer and discoverer of Pike’s Peak, Zebulon Pike. The city of Coatesville, Pennsylvania was named after one of her ancestors. By my research she was eighth generation American. As if that wasn’t a formidable enough legacy to compete against, “Mom Vi” is remembered very favorably by all who knew her. When she was in her seventies she worked with handicapped people at the WoodsSchool in Langhorne. She wasn’t just loved, she was revered. Since her passing, her reputation has reflected that.

While Great-Grandpa Tom may not have originally been from the South, in spite of what the 1920 Census taker reported, that’s where he chose to spend his remaining years. Robert Gray wrote in his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” that “all paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Great-Grandpa Tom’s journey ended in Sarasota, Florida in March of 1960.

As lovers of history we all try to present the truth when we write about it. We all strive for that ever elusive goal of complete objectivity. After researching my Great-Grandfather Tom’s life with all the conflicting information, contradictory documents, and his being overshadowed by my great-grandmother’s glowing reputation I wondered if objectivity was even possible. I then realized that there was one thing missing in all this: Tom Connelly’s voice. I remembered a story about Winston Churchill. During the Second World War Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin asked Churchill how history would remember the way they conducted the war. Without hesitation Churchill replied, “History will remember us fondly.” They asked how he could be so sure. Churchill responded, “Because I shall write the history!” It sure would be neat to read Great-Grandpa Tom’s version of events. I don’t know if it would be objective, but I can guarantee this: it would definitely be the most interesting work of history ever written by an accountant born in Ireland, Georgia, and Philadelphia.