Looking for Joseph

March 12, 2011 § 5 Comments

For some time now the blog has been largely focused on the ancestry of the Conroy family of Coen, Ireland. One thing has led to another, and I’ve been quite involved with pursuing that branch of the family tree. Now, however, it is time to turn some of the attention to the other main branch from which I descend, the Dunns.

The story really must be told in two parts. The first relates to the history of the paternal line of Daniel Dunne of Waterford, Ireland. For a long time I knew very little of this history, but recently I’ve uncovered quite a bit more, and the picture is beginning to fill out. The second part comes closer to home, for it tells the story of my grandfather, and the unusual circumstances of his birth. To make things interesting I’m telling this second part first.

The telling of this story involves discussing issues that are sensitive in nature, and carry emotional weight to them. I wish to make it clear that writing about them is not meant in any way to be some sort of exposé or sensational story telling. The attempt to uncover the past is not an attempt to lay blame or accuse, but simply to give voice and honor the truth.

My grandfather was born Joseph Francis Dunn in February of 1908 in Massachusetts; at least that is what he was raised to believe. His mother, Sarah Conroy of Queens County, Ireland, had married a man named Thomas Francis Dunne from Waterford, Ireland. At the time Sarah had been living in Newton and Thomas in Worcester. How they met remains a mystery to me. Sarah soon gave birth to a second boy, my grand uncle James. A few weeks after James’ birth Thomas died; he had been ill with diabetes. Sarah was now a widow with two small boys to care for, and by 1918 she had moved with them to Providence, Rhode Island.

Detail of Thomas and Sarah's marriage record. Newton, Massachusetts, 10 July 1910.

As a young man my grandfather lived in Providence and worked at a local grocery market. As family lore tells it, he frequently made the trip on the train up to Newton where he would visit with his aunt Ellen, one of Sarah’s sisters. Up till this point the story is like any other, but then it takes a strange turn.

The time was now between 1930 and 1940, when America was rolling out new federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The country was also about to enter the Second World War. When my grandfather went to enlist in the army a curious problem came to light – he could not locate his own birth certificate. It was not unusual for people born at the early part of the century to lack a birth certificate; mandatory registration had only recently taken effect, and many States lagged behind in full compliance for several years. However, Massachusetts was among those few who had been keeping records for many years, going as far back as the late 1600s. While not completely uncommon, it was unusual for someone born in the early twentieth century in Massachusetts not to have a certificate to their name (incidentally I cannot find a certificate for James, either, although he does have a baptismal record – however, my grandfather does not).

When my grandfather inquired about the discrepancy with Sarah she apparently became very upset, crying and asking him not to ask her questions and to leave her be. You can imagine what kind of effect this would have had over him. No matter how he would ask her, or how he would try to reassure her, the same scene would be repeated; she would not speak to him and would become very sad. Sometime later, when my grandfather had married, his wife would approach Sarah, telling her that no one was going to judge her or be angry with her, that they simply wanted to know what had happed. Despite these reassurances Sarah would keep her silence.

Eventually my grandparents stopped asking her, but they continued to search for an answer on their own. My grandmother wrote to different institutions for any records they might have. One document they obtained was Sarah and Thomas’ marriage certificate from the town of Newton. Examining the record reveals a curious thing – the marriage occurred 10 Jul 1910. How could this be? To make matters even more complicated, James had been born 15 May 1911, followed by Thomas’ death on 28 May 1911, just a short year or so after his wedding. Clearly there was a problem, but perhaps the problem was my grandfather’s birthdate.

In the records my grandmother obtained were letters from some of the early schools in Providence my grandfather had attended as a young child. Each one listed his date of birth as February 1908. Perhaps even more strangely, on one record it listed his place of birth as New York. Since it was his mother herself providing the date of birth, it seems likely that it is correct, making the discrepancy with the wedding date all the more problematic.

Another curious issue came to light when I discovered the 1930 United States Federal Census for Providence, Rhode Island. Sarah is listed, as a widow, living with her two sons, Joseph and James. The birthplace for the two boys is listed as Massachusetts, respectively. However, the age given for Sarah when she was first married seemed odd. It is difficult to read; there is one of those many mysterious slashes or marks that seem to appear on census records, this time right through the number. I believe it is either 16, 17, or possibly 19. It is definitely not 25, the age listed on Sarah’s marriage certificate from 1910. If my grandfather was truly born in 1908, then Sarah lied in the census about her age when she married in an attempt to compensate for his early birth.  My grandfather, in his early twenties at the time, would not have known any different.

But eventually he did learn of the difference. Family lore suggests that he even visited St Bernard’s, the very church where his parents were married and his younger brother baptized, in an effort to try to learn something of the truth. He apparently even confronted the very priest who officiated the marriage, who then acknowledged that my grandfather had come this far in his search, but that he should leave the matter alone. The priest then supposedly stated that it would only open up a can of worms. Imagine being a middle-aged man who has only just discovered you don’t really know the truth about your birth, and to have a priest tell you to leave it alone.

There are more strange details in this story. Thomas Francis Dunn lived out his life here in the States in Worcester City, Massachusetts. He is pretty easy to track in the city directories, but in 1909 an unusual thing occurs. He is listed as “removed to New York City”. For a man who otherwise never left Worcester, other than for his wedding in Newton, New York seems like an unlikely place to go. Furthermore, he isn’t there for very long; he returns to Worcester soon enough to be present in the 1910 Worcester census, as well as to be married in Newton in July. What could the reason for this short trip be? Did he visit a friend, or perhaps meet a family member who was immigrating? It is also impossible to ignore the apparent coincidence of his visit to New York in 1909 and my grandfather’s school record listing New York as his birthplace in 1908. Researching the 1909/1910 New York directories so far has proven difficult. For one thing, there are more than just a few Dunns, Dunnes, and Conroys living in the city.

One last odd detail is Thomas’ death certificate itself. It would seem logical that Sarah would have been the informant to his death, and indeed the document lists Thomas’ “widow” as such. But the absence of her name troubles me. I have seen a death certificate fail to list the informant’s name in only one other circumstance. Additionally, the names of Thomas’ parents do not match those listed on his wedding certificate. I have done some research in Thomas’ siblings and I am confident the information in his wedding certificate is correct. So how did Sarah, if she’s the real informant, get her husband’s parents’ names wrong?

All of this leads to some fundamental questions. First, if my grandfather was indeed born in February 1908, then where was Sarah living in 1907 when she got pregnant? Tracking an unmarried woman in city directories is very difficult, and women under the age of 21 are hardly ever listed. In addition to this, I have never been able to find her in the 1910 census in either Massachusetts or New York. The census was taken in April, so she still would have been unmarried, and while I have found the odd “Sarah Conroy” listed here and there, none has ever seemed to be right (birthplace wrong, age, etc.). Second, if Thomas is the birth father, then the couple would have been under tremendous social pressure to marry and make the relationship legitimate, but they aren’t married for almost two years. That seems like a long time to endure the pressures of your family members. But if Thomas is not the birth father then one has to wonder if he knew about my grandfather’s existence at all. And given Thomas’ early death, one also wonders if he or Sarah were aware of his illness when they married, and if, although it is a stretch, that was somehow a factor.

One way or another, Thomas dies in 1911 and by 1918 Sarah and the two boys have moved to Providence, Rhode Island. Almost every other member of Sarah’s family that came to Massachusetts stayed in Massachusetts, and Sarah’s relocation is a stark contrast to that pattern. By 1918 my grandfather would have been 10 years old, old enough to begin to be aware of tensions within a family that may have been trying to hide a secret. Sarah’s relocation was most likely intended to raise Joseph away from the family members who knew the truth behind the circumstances of his birth.

During one of the many times that my wife and I have discussed this puzzle, I began to consider how difficult it would be, as a parent, not to tell your grown child the truth about their birth, unless perhaps the secret was not yours to keep at all. In other words, perhaps Sarah herself is not the birth mother. However, that seems unlikely. I think Sarah’s silence has more to due with the perceived shame that an illegitimate child would have caused at that time, and that my grandfather’s discovery of the issue meant that Sarah’s potential attempt to keep him from ever learning of it had failed. The combination of those two factors was probably more than she could bear.

My pursuit of this mystery is fuelled by many things, but the point has never been to cause more pain or shame to family. I’m highly competitive when it comes to puzzles or games (anyone who has ever played against me in a game of Pictionary will attest to this), and until the last brick-wall in my research fails to crumble I will continue to pursue it. While the ultimate explanation has little value to the family members of the time, they are after all passed on, I do think it has meaning for those of us still here. Both of my grandfathers died when I was a young boy but my memories of them are still strong. I often wish they had been able to know me as grown man myself, and I miss them very much.

UPDATE 3/8/12: I recently uncovered the 1935 Rhode Island State census, which clearly lists Jospeh’s birthplace as New York. Again, this is at odds with the 1930 federal  census which lists Massachusetts as the birthplace. I wonder what the 1940 census will say….?

1935 Rhode Island State Census

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§ 5 Responses to Looking for Joseph

  • Liz Palmieri says:

    This was really intersting. I never knew any of this and really enjoyed reading it with my Mom and her telling me the story along with it. Keep up the good work!

  • andrew carpentier says:

    written with a lot of compassion.

  • Joyce Dressel says:

    Hi, Mike
    You’ve done a wonderful job of telling your story and I enjoyed reading it. I was a genealogy ‘addict’ before Bill’s stroke – you’ve inspired me to try getting into it again!

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