Saturday, November 12, 2011

Conclusion: Case of the Found Cremains

During our last installment, I told you about a box containing old photos and cremains, which had washed ashore on Pavilion Beach in Gloucester, MA.  I had eagerly called the man who had written up the story for the web site of CAPS - Cape Ann Paranormal Society.

Within an hour or two, he called me back.  I was on fire, ready to delve into solving this case.

Imagine my disappointment when I learned that the mystery had been solved - about three years ago!

Actually, it was a bit of a no-brainer.  The name of the decedent, a man from Vermont, was right on the box - as well as the name of the funeral home which had cremated him.  Gloucester Police called the establishment, which returned the box to the family.

Apparently, they had decided to cast his ashes onto the ocean - from a boat, I'm assuming.  However, they left the cremains inside the box - probably because they wanted those pictures to stay with him.  (I wonder if the infant depicted him as a child - or perhaps it was his child, lost too young?)

The ending to the story had already been written, but that doesn't mean there's not a punch line here.

After telling me the story, the CAPS member said to me, "It's so weird that you should call today.  I haven't thought of that box in a while.  Just last night, I was walking along that beach with my daughter, and she said, 'Dad, isn't that where you found that box with the ashes inside'?"

As far as I know, this macabre package has not washed up again.  This time, hopefully, the family took the ashes out of the box before casting them into the sea - and saved the precious pictures for themselves.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Case of the Found Cremains

When I learned of this story, I was still wearing shorts, lathering up with sunscreen, and wading in the waters of Good Harbor Beach.  Now, the leaves have fallen, and the water's turned cold (or, I should say, colder, since it never really gets warm here in New England).

But intriguing stories have little or no shelf life; when I worked in TV news, these are the stories we would call "evergreens" - good for any occassion, they were stacked on the shelf and ready to roll at a moment's notice.  So, as we used to say back then, "roll tape"...

No matter where I go, I usually do a bit of research - just for fun - to see where the local haunts are near my vacation spot.  Yes, "haunts" - as in, places where ghostly spectres are rumored to roam.

Last August, while sipping coffee on the back deck of our Gloucester rental, I came across the web page for the "Cape Ann Paranormal Society" (CAPS).  One story in particular caught my eye.  A CAPS member had been strolling by another beach in town when he made a bizarre discovery.

He happened to glance down at the shoreline, and there was a battered black box.  Curious, he clambered down for a look.  On the cover was an address in faded ink.  Yards of clear packing tape had been wound around the box, over and over again, in an attempt to secure it from the elements.

Yet the box had broken open; two soggy photos peered out.  Inside was still another container - and it held human cremains.

My chair crashed forward.  I spit out my coffee.  A case!  Maybe I could trace these remains and help return them to the owner!  I Googled the CAPS member and eagerly dialed his number...

Remember how I mentioned I was in the TV business?  Tradition dictates that you let the interest of the audience reach a crescendo - then break for commercials.

To Be Continued....

(Photo taken by CAPS)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Committing "Blogicide"

Have you considered committing "blogicide"?  Many genealogists have, at one point or another.  Just yesterday, I contemplated just that.  My blog had lain dormant for over (egad!) three months.  I almost decided to end it all (virtually, that is), but then I felt a weak pulse returning.  It's alive!  A quick infusion of words and witticisms, and it's up and running again.

Then today, I see an article on just this topic.  It details when to revive a blog, and when to put it out of its (and your) misery.

I'll jump the gun a bit here.  The article states that if your blog doesn't generate business, you should dump it.  I disagree with that.  You may never get a call that says, "Hey, I saw your blog.  Now I want to hire you."  Life seldom works that way.

Yet if you advertise (on your biz card, across s.m. platforms) that you are active in social media, current or past clients may well check you out.  When they have a chance to refer someone, who do you think they'll refer?

That's right - the person who can be considered a "thought leader", because he or she is out there, day in/day out, commenting, learning, and engaging with the world.

But I'll let you read and decide:  w
Any thoughts on this?  Please post.
PS - The term "committing blogicide" was coined by Kathleen Pierce, the article's author.
PPS - The suicide analogy in the first paragraph is by no means meant to disrespect the notion of actual suicide, a very serious topic indeed.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

No Excuses!

Not I, said I, as I clacked away on my keyboard.  I will not be one of those people who starts a blog, then abandons it.  Or posts only once every couple of months.  Why do people DO that?  Why do they even start blogs if they don't keep them current?

Now I know why people do that.  Travel. Work. Family. Life!  That's why they - and I - don't always keep up with their blogs.  Life happens.

And before you know it, you're staring at your blog, and it's staring back at you.  Actually, I feel that it's glaring back at you - or, at least, the date is.  The date of the last post, over three months ago.  Sigh.

Okay, fellow bloggers, clue me in here.  How do you all find the time and motivation to keep up with your blogs?  I really do love to write, but I hate the pressure of coming up with fresh, intriguing material three or so times per week. 

But I'm back, and I'll do my best to check in far more often from now on.  Promise.

Did you hear that life?  Now don't stand in my way.  Right.  I'm just as likely to see ___________ (fill in your absurdity of choice here).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Valentine Saga Hits Local Paper

For those of you who've been following the saga of the valentine, here's an interview I did with my old hometown newspaper, The Jamaica Plain Gazette:

I spent way more time on this one than I intended to...but it was such great fun!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Valentine Redux

Remember the antique valentine?  The owner has come forward!  I had traced her several weeks ago.
I found her easily enough on Facebook; however, she apparently isn't on there very much.  Her Thurber cousin, mentioned in the previous post, passed on the message.

I received a great email from Jennifer, the granddaughter of the then-child for whom the valentine was intended.  She told me her mother - Elizabeth's daughter - is still alive!  The family now lives in California.

The English couple who rescued the valentine are mailing it to the family.  Jennifer is thrilled to receive it; she plans to preserve and frame it for her own small granddaughter - born, she notes, 100 years after Elizabeth herself.

Jennifer relayed a brief family history to me; in it, she revealed that Elizabeth Lockwood's sister, Rosamond, married a man named Norman Vaughan - a polar explorer!

Vaughan served with the infamous Admiral Byrd on his expeditions to Antartica. Vaughan only died a few years ago; he lived to be one hundred.  His incredible life is outlined in his obituary:

So, at long last, a valentine has made its way home - not to its intended address, but to its intended family - whose roots now stretch from England to New England, and from the baked earth of Arizona to the sparkling shores of California.

Too, those roots are woven into the history of our country - from the 18th century slave trade (see previous post) to 20th century polar adventures.

After my recent trips to the South, I have been compelled to personally revisit the issues of slavery, race, and the civil rights struggle.  More on that in an upcoming post.

The legacy of the DeWolfe family - and their modern-day gifts of education and openness - adds still more fuel to the fire of my curiosity.  I've got to see their film and read that book.

People sometimes ask me why I trace the origins of these "orphan items".  After all, it doesn't pay, they say.

No, it doesn't.  But in countless ways, I am so much the richer for it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Resting Place, A National Disgrace

A few weeks ago, I was in Birmingham, AL to attend IGHR at Samford University.  Prior to the conference, I swung back to the airport to pick up a colleague.

I arrived early and noticed an old cemetery on the airport road - a much more interesting place to kill time than the cell phone waiting lot.

It captivated me immediately.  It was sad and forlorn in a Southern Gothic sort of way, a way in which only a Northerner - an outsider - can appreciate.  For I've never seen a place quite like this, so poignant and beautiful in its decay.

Stones dotted its ragged hills in no apparent sense of order, many listing at crazy angles.  Cement tombs were cracking, separating, and sinking into the ground.  And then there was the amazing variety of markers - monuments crafted of wood, cement, traditional granite, even kitchen tile.

But most touching of all were the inscriptions themselves - painted on concrete, carved with a stick.  Desperate last tributes are scrawled in wet cement, executed seemingly without planning.  Misshapen letters arc toward the heavens, trail off toward the earth.

They are utterly human and, to me, moving beyond words.  As an artist, I reveled in their variety, texture, and lack of uniformity.  I took lots of pictures.  Then my cell phone rang, and knocked me out of my reverie.  My passenger was on the ground in Terminal A - a minute's drive that felt like a world away.

I was pleased with myself for discovering this place, and for taking pictures that I could maybe someday work into my art - a series of paintings?  A collage?  The theme could be beauty and decay - or, rather, beauty as decay.

I didn't notice the state historical marker until I was turning back onto the airport road.  It was then that I learned who was buried here. Suddenly, I felt a bit ashamed.  This was not a quaint Southern Gothic tableau, nor a tourist photo op.

Rather, it was the resting place of three small martyrs - children who had unwittingly sacrificed their lives in the name of civil rights.  And its condition was deplorable.

To be continued...

Friday, July 1, 2011

My "Funny" Valentine: The Sequel

Ah yes, My Funny Valentine - "funny", as in strange.  You won't believe the turn this story has taken.

So, the descendants of "Sky" Thurber (I just love that name!) are contacting the descendant of Elizabeth Lockwood in order to facilitate the reunion between valentine and family of origin!

As it turns out, Elizabeth's nickname was "Licky".  Licky and Sky!  I have a feeling this couple was, in the parlance of their time, the cat's meow AND the bee's knees!

Licky's daughter is still alive!  I hope to talk to her and learn more about them.

On a more serious note - Licky's husband, Sky Thurber, has an amazing link of his own to New England history.

The Thurber who spoke to me told me that she is a descendant of the DeWolf family of Bristol, R.I. - which declares itself "the largest slave trading dynasty in U.S. history".

Several years ago, a Dewolf descendant made the shocking discovery of her family's history.  The family has produced a book and a PBS film on the topic; they have used both as educational tools in lectures about racial inequality.

One of the consultants on the film was Edward Ball, renowned author of Slaves in the Family and The Genetic Strand, an amazing account of the DNA testing of his ancestors' hair clippings that Ball found in an old family desk.

What do I happen to be reading right now?  The Genetic Strand.  Strange.

Soon, a child's holiday postcard will be winging its way across the Atlantic, bound for the family of a woman long dead.  Its penny postage stamp is no longer sufficient to carry it across the Atlantic, but its legacy spans one hundred years.

The discovery of a tiny fragment of one family's history - the smallest plop of a pebble in a pond - has grown in concentric circles to encompass the broad and profound issues of slavery, shame, redemption, and race relations.

A funny valentine, indeed.

(Photos courtesy of The Jamaica Plain Gazette)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"A Year in Provenance"

Is that totally clever, or what?! <crickets>

With apologies to Peter Mayle, whose book by a similar name I bought years ago and still have not read...

But back to provenance.  According to, its definition is:  a place or source of origin.

For years now, I have been obsessed with the idea of reuniting old items with their families of origin.  
So you can see why I went slightly gaga when I saw this article in my old hometown newspaper:

In short, a couple in England found an antique valentine at a flea market.  It had been addressed at the time to a young child in Jamaica Plain - Elizabeth Lockwood.  The couple want to return it to one of Elizabeth's descendants.

In his article, reporter John Ruch did a great job researching the family, thereby laying the groundwork for  my fairly quick discovery of living relatives.

Just this morning, I just spoke to a woman in Atlanta who is a descendant of "Sky" Thurber, the man who eventually married Elizabeth Lockwood.

(An aside - he, of course, swept her right out of Jamaica Plain and resettled her in the Wild West.  And really - would you expect anything less from a guy named "Sky"?)

The Thurber in ATL was delighted to hear from me, and told me that her mother would be really interested in the saga.  She promised to put us in touch.

It's very gratifying to return a piece of family history - albeit small - to its provenance.  That feeling is a gift in itself.

But in this case, there may be another gift.

The lady tells me her mom is coincidentally coming to Boston next month.  The purpose of her trip?  To attend a small convention of sorts dealing with an aspect of genealogy - the same topic I am currently passionately reading about.

My hope is that the lady may let me sit in on one of these meetings - but we shall see.

What are the chances?

However it turns out, I still get that small thrill of solving a puzzle.

The smell of victory is sweet - as sweet as the lavender that blooms in Provenance.

Help! I'm Being "Followed"!

Seventeen people are potentially reading this?  Every day?!  Holy crap!  The pressure's on!

But seriously, folks - I am humbled and tickled that you all have signed on.  I would have been happy to get 17 followers in the first YEAR!

Enough silliness.  The purpose here is, after all, to write about genealogy - the legacy of people.  But today I want to write about the legacy of an object - its provenance.

I'm going to do this in a separate post below, so everything is appropriately classified and tagged.

Plus, I thought of a wicked cool title that I just have to use.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Now I've Done It.

For some time now, I've promised, threatened, and solemnly pledged to myself that yes, I WILL start a blog, and I will start it NOW. 

But then there's the recruiting of and working for clients...the needs of the family and minor child...the withering plants on my windowsill.  And all the good intentions are swept away - by the spring rain, the summer winds, the autumn gloom, the winter chill.

My clarion call came in May, at the NGS Conference in Charleston, SC.  I attended a workshop on how to monetize your blog, hosted by a great fellow named Mark Olsen of Family Link.  He was brilliant, and quick - too quick!  My addled brain could not keep up with the machinations of changing HTML code and the highlights of dealing with Google AdSense.

It didn't help that I'd walked in my customary ten minutes late, either.

In the end, Mark graciously offered to email a summary of the course to us poor, confused souls.

Not much of what he said that day stuck with me, but one thing did.  Allow me to paraphrase his wise words:

"If you don't have a blog, start one now.  Just start it!  My brother always wants to take the long road.  He says, wait Mark, I need to design a logo.  I need to figure out the message and the target audience.

I say, don't worry about it!  You can always add that stuff later!  Just WRITE something, and put yourself OUT there!"

So - here I am.  No custom colors, no logo, no profile pic - not yet.  I broke all of my own rules, and just decided to start writing about what I absolutely, passionately love to do - solving historic mysteries.

Hence the title: Unsolved Histories.

Now I've done it.  And there's no going back.

Mark, I don't know if I'll ever be able to dabble in HTML code.

But thank you, Mark Olsen.  This one's for you.