May 7, 2015 § 3 Comments
It’s been a whopping THREE YEARS since I posted anything to the blog; I should be ashamed…! But, there’s no better way to get back into things then with a post about baseball. Enjoy…
It’s one of the funny things that can happen in family history – you discover facts or stories contained in information that you already have, or have been exposed to, but didn’t realize or see it at first. That’s just what happened recently.
A few years ago I learned that a well-known and regarded Major League umpire from the 1940’s, Tom Dunn (in the Majors from 1939-1946), was in fact a distant relative of mine – my third cousin, once removed to be exact. I’ve done a fair amount of looking into his career, even discovering little mentions in books about notable events he was involved in during games. Perhaps one of the most notable games that transpired in his career was his first in the Big Leagues; the then Boston Bees (later to become the Braves) played against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a game that lasted 23 innings and resulted in a tie game, 2 to 2. Tom Dunn officiated at third base. It is one of the top 10 longest games ever played, by innings, in MLB history.
A couple of years ago my father gave me a CD collection entitled, “Selected Shorts – Baseball!” It is a recording of readings of baseball-inspired literature that were performed at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City. I’ve listened to the CD several times, but recently one listening brought something to my attention that I had been missing. The third track is a reading of Rolfe Humphries’ poem Polo Grounds, originally published in The New Yorker in 1942, and performed by Fritz Weaver. The second half is a rather esoteric reminiscence of baseball’s past and great players, but the first half describes a game played between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. He names several of the players, including the home plate umpire, who he calls by the name Dunn (who is described handing a new ball to the catcher, Danning). When I first really heard this I thought maybe I got it wrong, but sure enough, that’s the name – Dunn. So then I began to wonder if it was in fact my ancestor, Tom Dunn.
So I spent some time diving into old game records and fact sheets, and jumping between amazing baseball history sites such as Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com. What I can say is that it is undoubtedly my ancestor Tom Dunn that is being referred to; there simply are no other MLB umpires named Dunn, or anything close to that, who were working at that time. However, I believe the game described in the poem is a fictional one, or at least inspired by the players and events of the 1941 and 1942 seasons. This is because Tom Dunn never officiated – so far as his record shows – any games played between the Giants and the Dodgers in 1942. He most certainly did in 1941, even working as home plate umpire. However, one of the players mentioned in the poem, Johnny Mize, didn’t start playing for the Giants until the 1942 season, having played for St. Louis prior to that. I have also tried to verify some of the actual plays described in the poem (Camili’s flyout to outfielder Ott, for example) but that has also proved difficult.
It’s my feeling that Humphries used some poetic license when writing the poem, and that the characters and players he describes are meant to capture an archetypal moment in time, rather than record the events of an actual event. Either way, it’s tremendously cool to have Tom Dunn immortalized in not just a beautiful poem about baseball, but also an excellent recording of it.
Link to Fritz Weaver’s reading on YouTube : https://youtu.be/rZ1qcHslsjM
Link to poem as appeared in The New Yorker: http://pitchersandpoets.com/2009/05/26/poem-of-the-week-polo-grounds/
November 13, 2012 § 3 Comments
Some time ago I stumbled upon a fascinating clue regarding the relationship between two families. I had been searching for the immigration record of one of the Conroy sisters and by happenstance discovered the true immigration record for Ellen Conroy which I had not found til then. The discovery of it was made possible by an interesting example of human error. In this case, the information transcribed by whoever had indexed the document was incorrect. Specifically the spelling of the place of origin had been absolutely butchered. Had the glaring misspelling not leapt off the computer screen I might have missed it, coupled with the fact that the result was listed on the fourth page of search results, it was a very happy accident, indeed.
The ship manifest for Ellen Conroy, age 21, was dated 1895 and she sailed from Queenstown, Ireland on the SS Cephalonia of the Cunard Line, and landed in Boston. Interestingly she was traveling with one of her sisters, Mary, age 18, and their last residence was correctly listed as Rosenallis, Queens Co. Even more interesting was the revelation that they were traveling with a male companion, named Harry Burns (at least according to the transcription). Closer scrutiny confirmed that the first name was actually Henry, although it is difficult to read at a distance.
Incredibly Henry is described as having already lived in the States, and that on this voyage he is returning “home” to West Newton, Massachusetts. Ellen and Mary’s destination is also listed as West Newton. The next detail regarding their intended final destination really floored me when I read it. Not only are they travelling to West Newton, but specifically they are going to the residence of a Mrs. Harney, Cherry Street, West Newton who is described as Ellen and Mary’s cousin.
Flash forward in time a bit to the year 1909 when in February Ellen Conroy is married to a man named Thomas Martin Harney, who was previously married but is now widowed. Thomas is the son of Thomas Harney and Margaret Lynch both of whom were born in Ireland and later immigrated and were married in America. Thomas Martin himself was born in Newton. The senior Thomas Harney is the son of a (you guessed it) Thomas Harney and Bridget Nunderkin (not sure on that last name, though…), who have another son whose name is (don’t hold your breath) Martin and is about 10 years older. Both sons seem to have been born in a townland in Ireland called Skerry, Queens, County, which is not all that far from the region near Rosenallis from which the Conroys hail.
Here’s the catch: In 1895 when Ellen was travelling to America to meet her supposed cousin, Mrs. Harney of Cherry Street, the woman who fits that bill is the wife of Martin Harney, Eliza Byrne, residents of 271 Cherry Street. Please note the difference in spelling of the last name, an issue which repeats itself throughout my research. Martin Harney and Eliza Byrne seem to have been married in Ireland. They also have a son named Thomas (shocker, I know) who I believe was in fact born in Ireland and then later immigrated to Newton as well. In the Newton city directory below Martin is seen as well as his brother Thomas, the future father-in-law of Ellen Conroy, also living on Cherry Street, not to far away. Thomas Martin is also present on the next page.
So who are these Byrnes who appear to be related to the Conroys? And what degree of relation are we looking at? As best I can figure one of Ellen’s aunts would have to have married a Byrne (back in Ireland) in order for Eliza and Ellen (and her other siblings) to be cousins, at least first cousins. In an attempt to answer some of these questions I decided to see what I could discover of Henry Byrne/Burns and his whereabouts after 1895.
Henry Byrne shows up in the Newton City Directory of 1893 (below) living at 271 Cherry Street with Martin Harney, husband of Eliza Byrne, stong suggestive evidence that perhaps Henry and Eliza are siblings. A careful reader will also notice one John Conroy also residing at that address. Who he is remains a small mystery to me and must remain the subject of another post, another time.
In 1895, presumably after Henry’s return trip from Ireland, he has relocated and is now living with Thomas Harney, 327 Cherry (see above).
Extra careful readers will notice a Mrs. Fannie P. Byrne and a John Byrne both residing at 64 West – could they share a family tie with Henry and Eliza…? We shall soon see.
After 1895 Henry disappears and I have not yet been able to locate him elsewhere or discover what may have happened to him. I suspect he may have returned to Ireland for good but have found no proof of that. For example, he does not seem to be present in the 1901 Irish census. For now this particular trail has run cold. So where else might I find clues?
At one point I went back to immigration records. Perhaps I could find traces of other Byrne family members which would in turn provide some more information. It wasn’t long before a curious tidbit turned up.
Below is the passenger manifest of a ship from Ireland in 1899. Listed is one Andrew Byrne who, according to the record, is coming from none other than Rosenallis and traveling to West Newton.
Sure enough, Andrew first appears in the Newton City Directory in 1907, which is difference of a few years for which I’m not sure why this is the case. However, note who he is living with. He is residing with the same Mrs. Fannie P. Byrne as listed just above but who is now a widow. We see that John Byrne, clearly her husband, passed away in 1905. The address has changed, but clearly the same people.
Andrew last appears in the directory in 1915, and what becomes of him is also a mystery. Fannie ends up moving to Boston, where she in fact had lived before with her husband. So who then is this John Byrne, and are he and Andrew related to Henry and Eliza?
John Byrne’s own death certificate offers some clues. His parents are named as Richard Byrne and Sarah Morgan, but no place of birth is listed. John and Fannie had son also named John, who tragically died at the age of 16 after falling down an elevator shaft, an incident which was recorded in a local police almanac.
On his death certificate we see some more detailed information. John Byrne, the senior, was born in County Down, while Fannie Pope came from Cork. It is worth noting that he is buried in Calvary cemetary in Waltham where Ellen Conroy and most of the Harneys are also buried.
So the great question next was, who are Eliza Byrne’s parents and where did they come from? It seems slightly puzzling that a family that seems to be coming from Rosenallis, Queens County might actually be originally from County Down, but perhaps this is not so strange after all.
I wrote away to the Newton City Clerk for Eliza Byrne-Harney’s death certificate, which I recently received. Unfortunately it only lists her place of origin as Ireland and does not offer any more specific details. However, her parents are listed, but, incredibly, they are not Richard Byrne and Sarah Morgan. Eliza’s parents are named Patrick “Burns” and Bridget Conroy. Yup. A Conroy yet again. Could this be the elusive family connection? Could Bridget Conroy be somehow related to Ellen and her siblings? If so, why does there seem to be such a close relationship with this other branch of Byrnes who have at least one set of parents named differently and come from a different region in Ireland?
It is certain that a connection between my branch of the Conroy family has a connection to at least one of the Bryrne families, but so far the piece of evidence that proves it eludes me. However the travelling habits of these families clearly supports the pattern that people from the Old World often moved to the same neighborhoods in the New. More to come, I’m sure….
August 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
Thomas Patrick Dunn was born 15 Mar 1898 in Athol, Massachusetts, the son of Ellen Flynn and the much troubled John J Dunn (see post). According to his birth record his middle name originally was Michael, but that seems to have changed at some point, although I do not know why. In the year 1900 the family had moved to Fitchburg, Mass., and they appear in the 1900 census there. A brother, Daniel, was also born in that year.
In 1903 Thomas’ younger sister, Bridget H Dunn, died as an infant at the age of five months. The following year a second brother is born, William Francis. Tragically, their mother, Ellen, died in 1905. Not too long after these difficult times did Thomas’ father, John, began to experience increasing troubles with drinking and was arrested repeatedly for causing public disturbances, many of them violent. In 1910 John is a prisoner at the Worcester County Jail on Water Street, Fitchburg, which later became a one-time home of the Wachusett Potato Chip Company. In 1911 John is also sent to the Bridgewater State Hospital.
In the year 1915 Thomas’ younger brother, Daniel, dies from an illness, but the whereabouts of their father, John, is unknown. Thomas’s aunt, Bridget Dunn-Lombard, even inquires about John when hearing about a certain ‘John Dunn’ who died in Buffalo, New York, but it turns out to be another man. Eventually, John returned home to Fitchburg; he is listed in the 1920 census living with his sister, Bridget. By this time Thomas has married, to a woman named Loretta, and they continue to live in Fitchburg. They again appear in the 1930 census in Fitchburg, Loretta working at a beauty shop. What has become of Thomas’ father, John, is a mystery.
By 1930 Thomas has begun to work as a baseball umpire in the small-time local leagues. The earliest mention of his career that I found so far is actually from 25 Apr 1922, in a small section of the Fitchburg Sentinel. Dunn quickly built a strong reputation for himself as a balanced and fair umpire, it is often remarked in articles about his good favor among players and owners alike. His record, as noted in articles, includes mentions of typical umpire issues, such as making controversial calls which occasionally the crowds did not like, as well as ejecting a player or manager now and again.
Thomas moved up through a few different leagues before finally settling in for the National League by 1939. His debut game, in which he called third base, was played on 27 June 1939 between the then Boston Bees (originally called the Boston Beaneaters) and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The game lasted an amazing 23 innings and was played at Braves Field, Boston. Before becoming the Bees, the Beaneaters had also been known as the Braves, and the team made a deal with New York to acquire the famed Babe Ruth. Just prior to this Tom Dunn had umpired the Braves’ exhibition games in Florida, where he received good reviews. Upon his return to Massachusetts he officiated a Boston Braves-Boston Red Sox series, before going to New York with the American Association.
By the end of 1935 the Braves weren’t doing very well, and in an attempt to change their image they also changed their name to the Boston Bees. This did little to help, and by 1940, a new owner had changed the name back to the Braves. In 1953 the team was moved to Milwaukee, and in 1966 finally to Atlanta, where they became the now well-known Atlanta Braves. Historic Braves field was largely converted into a sports field, and is now part of Boston University’s Nickerson Field.
Tom Dunn also umpired the 1943 All-Star game, as well as the 1944 World Series. He eventually moved to Maryland, where he died. He was buried in Leominster with his wife who had passed away a few years before. Considering the darker times that seemed to surround his childhood, Thomas Dunn appears to have made a good life for himself, and was well thought of by many.
Very special thanks to Jeannine Levesque, Historical and Genealogical Collections Coordinator at the Leominster Public Library, who tracked down Thomas Dunn’s obituary, proving my family connection. You’re the best, Jeannine!
August 20, 2011 § 14 Comments
In telling the story of my great grand-uncle I must express my gratitude to the following individuals, my third cousin Patricia for her general hospitality and for providing me with the initial clue about my ancestor working as a baseball umpire; to Mark, a descendant of the Flynn family, who also supplied stories regarding my ancestor’s possible career as an umpire, as well as providing general history on the family; and lastly to Sunny, for so graciously helping my investigate John Dunn’s criminal record.
One of the most successful tactics I have employed to find ancestors is to do a broad search for records using the names of parents already known to me. For example, knowing the names of my great grandfather’s parents I would conduct a search to discover if he had any siblings by omitting any first name and only using the family name, the names of the parents, and an estimated range of birth years. This method has been very successful in locating records for entire groups of siblings.
In just this manner was I able to learn about the larger Dunn family. For many years I was only familiar with my own great grandfather, Thomas Francis Dunn. I knew who his birth parents were, and that he was from County Waterford, Ireland. Beyond that I knew very little. After some researching I discovered that, while living in Worcester, Massachusetts, he resided with the wife of his own brother, William Dunn, who had died in 1905. After some time I began to learn more about the two brothers, but I began to wonder if any other siblings had come to America.
I was thrilled when I uncovered one sister and three other brothers, all of whom had immigrated to the States. I’ve been able to track many of them, but it is the life of John J Dunn that has captured my attention for the time being. His story is both compelling and complicated, and to be true, much of it is still shrouded in mystery. But, here, at least, is what I’ve learned.
John J Dunn may have been born in Kilmacthomas, County Waterford, Ireland, sometime between 1871 and 1874, and may have immigrated to America in 1885 or 1887. He appears to have moved quickly west to Athol, Massachusetts, where he appears to have worked as a stone mason. Another brother, James Dunn, was also living in Athol but moved to Hartford, Connecticut in 1897. In that same year John marries Ellen Flynn, the daughter of Thomas Flynn and Hannah Leary, in Athol, and the following year (1898) the couple moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
In the 1900 census the couple are listed with one son, Thomas Michael Dunn, who was born in 1898, although their second son, Daniel J Dunn, is born in 1900, also in Fitchburg. At this point in the story of John Dunn things begin to take a somber turn. In 1903 their only daughter, Bridget H Dunn, is born but only lived five months. On her death certificate the cause is listed as marasmus, and indigestion is given as a contributing factor. When I first read this I didn’t know what marasmus was, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. What I found stunned me,
Marasmus is a form of severe protein-energy malnutrition characterized by energy deficiency. A child with marasmus looks emaciated. Body weight may be reduced to less than 80% of the average weight that corresponds to the height. The word “marasmus” comes from a Greek word meaning starvation. Marasmus is generally known as the gradual wasting away of the body due to severe malnutrition or inadequate absorption of food. Marasmus is a form of severe protein deficiency and is one of the forms of protein-energy malfunction (PEM). It is a severe form of malnutrition caused by inadequate intake of proteins and calories. Ultimately, marasmus can progress to the point of no return when the body’s machinery for protein synthesis, itself made of protein, has been degraded to the point that it cannot handle any protein. At this point, attempts to correct the disorder by giving food or protein are futile. (from Wikipedia)
I can hardly imagine the incredible pain and stress John and Ellen must have endured as they watched, helplessly, as their baby girl wasted away in front of their eyes.
Within the year the couple was gifted with another child, William Francis Dunn, but surely the pain of the loss of their daughter must
have been still fresh in their minds. During this time John appears to be working for a paper company, but by 1910 he goes to work for the D.M. Dillon Steam Boiler Works company of Fitchburg.
Tragedy strikes the family again, this time it is Ellen herself who dies, in 1905, of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the early stages of my research the next historical document I came across was a 1910 census return for John Dunn. What was incredible about it was that he was listed as a prisoner at the Worcester County Jail on Water Street, Fitchburg. I could find no other John Dunn at that time that matched his description, and indeed, he is listed as widowed in the document. This discovery sparked my suspicions; could John have been somehow responsible for the death of his wife and was now in jail? A cerebral hemorrhage can be caused by a brain aneurism or a blow to the head; perhaps there had been an accident that resulted in Ellen’s death and John was found responsible. But what evidence existed to support this?
By researching newspaper articles it soon became clear that John was a drinker, or at least became one, and had a reputation in the town for getting into fights with his fellow townspeople and even the police. One such example of this is in 1908, when John assaulted a coworker at the Boiler Works. Numerous articles began to surface, all of which described John’s trouble with the law. He is often described as a very large man, over six feet tall, and quickly gains a reputation as a fellow who easily intimidates other people. Despite these stories, there wasn’t anything to strongly suggest that John may have been responsible, at least officially, for the death of his wife. But no sooner had I made that conclusion did I discover the following article from 1903. It describes how police are called to respond to an altercation with his wife. Two other civilians attempted to intervene with John, who seems to have been able to handle them easily. The police are able to subdue him finally. Finding this article reignited my suspicions about Ellen’s death. If in 1903 there was already some troubles with the marriage, then perhaps those troubles continued till her death.
One way or another, the death of his daughter and then his wife a few years later seem to put John over the edge. More and more articles appear detailing his increasing troubles. A truly bizarre story is printed in 1907, when on December 31 John seems to have attempted to marry a woman who may have still had a husband living in Maine. The marriage was not granted a wedding license, and the clergyman refused to perform the rite. Then, in 1909 he became drunk and entered a tailor shop with his un-tethered bull-dog, and terrorized the shop owner whose own dog was attacked by the larger animal. In March of 1910, “Big John J Dunn, an old-time friend of the police department” is arrested again for being drunk, and this time is “given an unusually heavy sentence.” The article describes that “[t]wo month sentences have apparently failed to have the desired effect on the husky defendant” and his jail time is extended to six months. This seems to support his appearance in the Water Street jail in the 1910 census which was taken in April.
It has been believed or rumored by more than one living relative that John may have also worked as baseball umpire during this period. It is true that articles can be found mentioning a Dunn playing with a team, but not as an umpire, and the articles don’t provide any other identifying details such as name, address, or other occupation. At this point I have been unable to prove that John worked as an umpire, but if he did so, then he must have passed a love for the game on to his firstborn son, Thomas, who became a Major League umpire in the 1930’s and 40’s – but more of his story later.
In 1911 things become quite grim indeed for John Dunn. He was again charged for being drunk but had his sentence suspended on condition on his good behavior. Alas, in July he violates his parole and is “committed” to the Bridgewater State Hospital, or “farm” as it is referred to in the article. The institution has had a controversial history. In the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was used an almshouse as well as a mental hospital, where “rogues, vagabonds” and alcoholics and drug addicts were sent under the pretense of receiving treatment and turning around to become useful members of society. Unfortunately, in its early years the institution seems guilty of severe neglect and even abuse of its inmates, and very few ever received the actual treatment they needed.
In 1967 a documentary called Titicut Follies was released by a filmmaker named Frederick Wiseman who had observed day-to-day life at the hospital for twenty-nine days. The film exposed the terrible conditions and abuse many of the patients (or inmates) were forced to endure at the hands of the guards. Even the doctors were cast in bad light, apparently being ignorant of what treatments the patients truly needed to get well.
One can hope that in 1911 the conditions at the hospital had not become as poor as they would in later decades, but certainly
life would not have been easy for John Dunn during his stay. How long John was held at Bridgewater I cannot say, or where he went to when he was released. However, another strange news article appears, this time in March 1914. Word has reached John’s sister, Bridget, also living in Fitchburg, that a man named John Dunn was found dead in Buffalo, New York. An inquiry is made, but it is determined that the man is not the notorious John J Dunn, who was well-known for his great physical size. I find it fascinating that John’s own sister would be tempted to think that this news may have been about him. Where was he and what was he doing? In May 1915, John’s son Daniel dies from an illness. John does not seem to be present in Fitchburg at the time, as Bridget, again John’s sister, is listed as the informant on the death certificate. It would seem that John was absent for his own son’s death.
John shows up again in Fitchburg in 1918, once again getting arrested for being drunk. The 1920 census also shows that he has returned to Fitchburg, and is now living in his sister’s household. The last record I have of him is a registered voters list from 1924. After that, his trail runs cold. I do not know what became of him or where he went. If he died before the 1930 census I do not know where, but he if he survived I do not know what became of him. I have recently contacted the cemetery in Fitchburg where many of the Dunn family members were buried, including Ellen Flynn. It is my hope that perhaps John was buried there as well. In addition, I have been able to trace the descendants of one of his surviving sons, William, and I hope to reach out to them. Whether they will be able to provide any more information is hard to guess, but hopefully I will be able to learn a little more about the complex history of this fascinating ancestor.
July 12, 2011 § 1 Comment
Hello everyone, long time no speak. How’s it been? I hope the summer has been treating you well. My away-from-home work schedule has increased quite a bit lately, leaving only a little room for ancestral adventuring. I have also been quite busy with a new preoccupation of mine, which is beekeeping. If you’re interested in learning any more about that, head over to allonehive.blogspot.com to see what’s been up.
Despite my busyness I have poked away at my research activities here and there along the way, so let’s get caught up, shall we?
I mentioned a while back that I had reached out to a relative I had discovered and I’m pleased to say that she reciprocated in turn, and we had a lovely conversation via telephone. Her name is Patricia and she is the great-great granddaughter of my great-great grand-uncle, which makes her my third cousin. We talked at length about the history of the Dunn family and she provided some great stories to help fill out the family story. Most notably she mentioned how many of the Dunn males died very young, mostly in their forties, and that her branch of the family referred to this as the “Dunn Family Curse”! When I looked back it proved to be true; many of the men descended from Daniel Dunne all died quite young, leaving behind widows who long out-lived them. Another tidbit she mentioned was the belief within the family that one of the brothers, or perhaps a cousin or uncle, had been a Major League Umpire! It is quite exciting to think that we have some professional baseball in our family.
One of the great things about this blog has been how folks have found me by searching online for family names, place names, and other such details of their own histories. One such event happened recently when an individual found the genealogy report for Daniel Dunne on this blog. He contacted me mentioned that he was relative of Ellen Flynn, the wife of John J Dunn, one of my great grand-uncles. He was able to confirm that it was in fact John Dunn himself who was the baseball umpire, and helped provide some other details relating to that branch of the family. This particular Dunn family has proved to be one of the more difficult to research, but I hope to have more of their story to tell soon.
Thanks for sticking around, and I hope to have some more fresh material up in the near future.
March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment
So I’m feeling compelled to ramble on a bit. After publishing the post on my grandfather I’ve taken a bit of a downshift in research. I think I went through an intense period of work which was largely inspired by discoveries in the Conroy family tree. While I will no doubt pick it up again, I think my focus is shifting a bit. I have also uncovered some new information regarding the Dunn family in Worcester County and I hope to have that posted up on the blog at some point soon.
In the meantime, however, I think I’m changing gears. For one thing, Spring has decided to finally arrive here in St Louis, and I will be taking up beekeeping in the next few weeks, and I have a bit of work to do to get ready. But this doesn’t mean I am putting genealogy on the back burner completely. I intend to refocus on trying to work out the mystery of my grandfather’s birth. The catch with this is that it may require some regional research that must be done in person, and I do not expect to get to that anytime soon. However, I have tracked down another living relative who is descended from the Dunn family, and I have written them a letter and I hope to hear from them soon.
I am also anticipating applying myself to my own development as a researcher, but more about that at another time. See you around.
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.
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….?