My father passed away in 2008. I think Dad enjoyed my exploration into family history. I’m pretty sure he thought it was a little weird, but I think he enjoyed it, nonetheless. And I know that my discovery in 2006, of events which occurred in 1900 and 1901, finally helped him to understand the reasons his grandmother’s behavior shocked him so in 1929.
After my uncle Charlie graduated from eighth grade, his parents, Charlie and Agnes, took the train across the country from Tiburon, California to Webster, New York to bring their son to meet his grandfather, another Charles Kircher. They left their oldest daughter, nineteen-year-old Mary, to take care of her younger siblings remaining at home – Bertha, Barbara, Kathryn, Tom, (my dad), and John. Agnes’ parents lived just down the road, and would be there to help out if needed.
One day, Mary said to her charges, “Don’t pick any blackberries. I’ll need them to make a circus cake.” Kathryn and Tom went into the yard and Tom immediately popped a blackberry in his mouth. Nine-year-old tattle-tale Kathryn said, “I’m gonna te-ell,” stuck her tongue out, and ran into the house. Fearing the wrath of his sister, Tom’s immediate reaction was to hide, somewhere, anywhere, and stay there until the storm blew over. The basement looked like a good place.
With Kathryn’s news, Mary looked for Tom but couldn’t find him. She searched high and low, but no Tom. Hours passed, and eventually she had to fess up to Grandma that she’s lost one of her charges and enlist her aid. The Kircher home was a block from the edge of San Francisco Bay, and I imagine that when Grandma Bradley called out for her grandson, the foremost thought in her mind was of her niece Agnes Jane, drowned in the waters of Tiburon nearly thirty years earlier, and of the way that loss destroyed the life of her sister-in-law, Sarah. How would her daughter handle the guilt of having left her children while she went away on a pleasure trip? What regrets would haunt her granddaughter who let her little brother drown in those very same waters? These fears must have colored her voice as she call into the basement, “Tom, Tom, are you there? Come out.”
But seven-year-old Tom didn’t come out. Not the next time she came to the door. And not the next. Eventually, Charlie Orbell, the boarder on his way to his room in the Kircher basement, saw Tom hiding behind a pile of scrap wood and said, “You better get upstairs. They’re looking for you.” Finally, Tom showed his face. I’m sure Grandma Bradley hugged the breath out of him when he appeared at last. Dad recalled that for weeks after, whenever she saw him, she’d shake her finger and admonish, “I’m gonna get you. I’m gonna get you. Not because you hid, but because you didn’t come out when I called.”
When Dad was seven years old, he’d never heard of his great-aunt, Sarah, nor his mother’s wee cousin, Agnes Jane. He had no notion why his simple act of hiding could scare his grandmother so. But in 2006, when I shared the stories of the little child drowned in the lagoon and her mother’s tragic death a year later, Dad finally understood why his Grandma Bradley threatened to “get” him.
And as Judy G. Russell told those of us lucky enough to hear her at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, our charge is to tell the stories of those youngest ones who didn’t survive. In telling their stories we help others make sense of their history.
Keeping with my Technique Tuesdays theme, I'll share one of my favorite tips for using one of my favorite resources. I love love love researching in old newspapers. I fear I spend far more time reading 100-year-old "news" than I ever do reading current papers!
Here's the tip...if you have a birth date or anniversary for your ancestor, be sure to look for something in the newspaper around the same month and day at significant intervals, such as a 21st birthday or a 25th or 40th or 50th anniversary. I’ve never been able to find a contemporary article of my great-grandparents marriage, but 50 years later, the newspaper not only detailed their anniversary celebration, but provided a description of the bride’s attire and the honeymoon plans from the original event.
I've also seen a number of mentions in newspapers of birthday celebrations for, 5-year-olds. And who often attends a 5-year-old's birthday celebration? His cousins, aunts and uncles of course!. Check out all those guests mentioned. You just might discover in those names the married name of your ancestor's sister.
Oh, and one more side tip - don't believe everything you read in the paper. This couple was actually Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Thomas Bradley. Thomas G. (for Graham) Bradley, was actually their son.
Mill Valley Record, 27 Nov 1931
Sarah Davidson Ahern suffered the most devastating experience known to a mother, the loss of a precious child, Agnes Jane, on February 15, 1900. I don’t know what that feels like, and I can’t know how that loss affected Sarah, her husband, Jimmy, or her other two daughters, Bessie and Irene. But I do know that the loss must have haunted Sarah for the remainder of her short life.
Agnes Jane wandered away from home and drowned in the lagoon in back of her house. Almost exactly a year later, in February of 1901, Sarah became pregnant. But laughter from this new life would never grace the Ahern home.
In the evening on May 9, 1901, Dr. Florence Scott of Belvedere was called to the Ahern home to find Sarah suffering in bed. Sarah indicated she had given birth to a fetus about six o’clock. While Dr. Scott attended to Sarah and telephoned for another more experienced physician from San Francisco to assist, Sarah told her that she had taken some pills on and off for the last two months, but would not say who had given them. Jimmy returned from work about 10 p.m., the doctors left in the early hours of the morning, and Jimmy and neighbor, Katharine Sanger, attended Sarah until six a.m. when she took a turn for the worse. Jimmy left to telephone the doctors, and when he returned he found Sarah dying.[i] Later that day, on Sarah’s bureau he discovered a box and some business cards of Mrs. J. A. Achard, a San Francisco midwife.[ii]
Five people testified at the coroner’s inquest held in the Ahern home that day, including Dr. Wickman, who declared that he examined Sarah’s remains and finding a perforation in the uterus, determined that she was pregnant for about three months, and that she aborted and died of septicemia. Julia Achard, also known as Julia Shiland (the name of her fourth husband), denied having touched Sarah or giving her any medicine, stating that Sarah had invited her over for some “chow-chow and chili sauce.” In the end the jury ruled that Sarah came to her death by blood poisoning following miscarriage from causes unknown.[iii]
Did Sarah want the child but allow external doubts about her ability to be a good mother change her decision? Did Jimmy want another child from this emotionally fragile woman who couldn’t go through with a pregnancy? Whatever the reasons, I’m confident that if the winsome Agnes Jane hadn’t drowned a year earlier, Sarah’s husband and daughters would not have faced the second horrific loss, that of their wife and mother.
My father never knew Sarah. He remembered Uncle Jimmy and his second wife, Aunt Laura. But when my genealogy research led me to the events that hit this family in 1900 and 1901, my father finally understood that day in the summer of 1929 when his loving Grandma Bradley shook her finger at him and admonished the seven-year-old “I’m gonna get you.” More next week.,,
[i] Testimony of Coroner’s inquest held May 10,1901 at Tiburon Marin Co upon the remains of Mrs. Sarah Elizabeth Ahern
[ii] The Marin Journal, 16 May 1901
[iii] Testimony of Coroner’s inquest held May 10,1901 at Tiburon Marin Co upon the remains of Mrs. Sarah Elizabeth Ahern
With my new genealogy blog, I hope to tell Stories on Sundays and share Techniques on Tuesdays. I think, for now, that’s a reasonable goal. I’ve shared my first story, and now that it’s Tuesday it’s time to share a technique.
I’ve been a genealogist for almost sixteen years. In that time I’ve attended many presentations in my local area, a conference or two, and even had the chance to take a year-long class in the Genealogy and Family History Program at the University of Washington. And last week I got to add a new experience – attending an institute, namely the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG). What these things have in common is the chance to meet and network with other genealogists. There is nothing like working on a project with other genealogists or being in a class and hearing a classmate’s question to sharpen your own understanding of the lesson. At a conference or an institute you get a chance to network with other genealogists and see what kind of projects or activities their local societies do and bring something back to enrich your own society.
SLIG was particularly nice for me to get to meet genealogists from all over the world and see their passion for what they do, from the plenary speaker David MacDonald to my project teammates Gideon, Sandy and MarGay, to my roommate, Kate – I learned something from each of them and treasure that experience.
If you belong to a society, go to a meeting. If you don’t belong, join one. And If you’re thinking about attending an institute, maybe it’s time to do it.
To that end, SLIG has asked its most recent graduates to come up with a couple of taglines that might sum up the experience. Here’s my tries…
SLIG – Where everybody knows your grandma’s name
SLIG – Where nobody makes fun of your hobby
Inspired by Judy G Russell’s excellent keynote, “Suffer the Little Children,” at the SLIG banquet, I’m inspired to write my first genealogy blog post about just such a story.
I’m sure that when Jimmy Ahern boarded the ferry from Tiburon to San Francisco on the morning of February 15, 1900 he had little idea of how much more tragedy would strike before the day was done. Jimmy and his sister, my great-grandmother, Mary Bradley, were embarking on one of the most sorrowful of tasks, traveling to the city to help their sister-in-law, Becky, plan the funeral of their brother, Henry, who had died the previous day.[i]
While he was away, Jimmy’s wife, Sarah, attended to her household tasks, perhaps laundering the clothes the family would wear the next day or preparing food for the mourners and visitors who would undoubtedly gather. As she worked, distracted by her grief, the youngest of her three daughters, fifteen-month-old Agnes Jane, named after both of her grandmothers, wandered away from the family home. How long until Sarah noticed the child’s absence is unclear, but once she did, she raised the alarm in the small railroad town, and neighbors and colleagues of her husband, an engineer with the California Northwestern, began to scour the town for the toddler. Nearly an hour later, Fred Curtis discovered the lifeless body of the little girl, lying face-down in the shallow tidal lagoon behind the Ahern home.[ii]
Yet more tragedy would befall Jimmy later that evening. As Sarah and a neighbor toiled upstairs in the house preparing Agnes Jane for burial in the morning, Jimmy, Mary Bradley and Felix Murphy, one of the pall bearers who would carry the little white coffin the next day, gathered to visit in the quiet of the yard. The neighbor’s child was there, too, and when she reached up to pet Jimmy’s bird dog, the animal snapped at the child, lacerating the face. After losing his brother and daughter within a day, Jimmy had to put down the dog.[iii]
The loss of Agnes Jane had grave implications for Jimmy’s family the following spring, and sent ripples of grief that would touch his sister’s family a generation later. More next week….
[i] Petaluma Argus, 16 February 1900, page 1
[ii] Testimony of G. F. Lewis at the Coroner’s Inquest held at Tiburon, Marin County, California, February 15, 1900 upon the body of Little Agnes Jane Ahern who was found drowned in the lagoon
[iii] Petaluma Daily Courier, 16 February 1900
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.