Friday, September 7, 2012

More Family Death-Certificate Finds: Stories Piled on Stories

And what do you do amidst the political nonsense and religious drivel to retain such scraps of sanity as you manage to retain, you ask?  Thanks for asking.  I do appreciate the concern.

I can't say that, like William Byrd of Westover, I dance my dance, read my Greek and Latin, and then proceed to roger this and that enslaved serving girl under my complete control.  Kneeling down at the end of each day to ask God's forgiveness for my transgressions, knowing full well I'll keep at the manful wench-rogering the following day and the next . . . .  Since I have pieces of paper telling the world I own those servant girls, after all.

do read my daily Latin and my daily French, as in struggling to keep my memory of both languages alive by reading psalms each day in both languages, and a bit of the breviary in Latin when I have the time to labor over arcane tenses and constructions that have vanished from my head.  Greek's a lost cause.  Though I could once read both classical and biblical Greek with relative ease, I haven't had the good sense to keep the language alive for myself.  And now it's Greek to me.

And then there's this: I continue to pore over those death certificates I mentioned in a recent posting.  And here are some of my recent finds--again, in research I'm doing on behalf of a genealogical group I moderate, which is pursuing the history of a particular family down all its far-flung lines:

1. I've now run across yet another death certificate that has a mysterious notation penned as an afterthought to the officially recorded cause of death.  Same state as the one about which I posted a few days since (see the preceding link).  And, again, this is the death certificate of a woman up in years.

The official cause of death, insofar as I can make out the scribbling, says, "Hypostatic pneumonia; 3rd degree burn of abdomen."  But under that--again, in the lines reserved for recording the direct and contributing cause of death--the doctor has written as a secondary cause, "Schizophrenia."  And then finally, down below the lines reserved for recording the official causes of death, he's penciled in, underlining the word, "Suicide."

And what to make of that, I wonder?  My guess is that the woman in question, who was, according to my genealogical program, the wife of a second cousin of mine twice removed, may actually have committed suicide--most likely by having set herself on fire.  And rather than record that fact in the official causes of death, the doctor has slipped it in at the bottom of the death certificate so that there will be a record of it, but where it won't loom large when the causes of death are disclosed to anyone.

Am I right to conclude this, do you think?

2. I also find, to my astonishment, that a woman who was also a second cousin twice removed went through husbands like Carter has oats--and that at least two of her four husbands died, according to their death certificates, of mysterious gunshot wounds.  It's clear to me that this woman, who was an only child of a rather wealthy father (her only brother died as a boy), was marrying up with each marriage: rich, richer, richest.  Every federal census cycle, a brand-new husband.

And I'd have known of none of this, since none of it is in family histories, except that a biography of her father written in 1948 happens to mention that he has a daughter and a granddaughter, giving the granddaughter's name.  Which doesn't match the surname by which his daughter was known, and by which she appears in all family histories I've ever seen.

So that I realized recently the daughter had had a husband prior to the one by whose name she is known in every document I've ever seen, and as I began to search for that previous husband, I found he was not one, but three: three in a row.  Rich, richer, richest.

And, to repeat, two of those richer and richest gentlemen died of gunshot wounds, according to their death certificates.  The death certificate of one records that he accidentally shot himself while cleaning a gun (but as Steve asked when I read this to him, "Who cleans a loaded gun?").  The death certificate of the other states that he died of a gunshot wound to the head, without explaining who inflicted that wound.

I don't think it could have been his wife, who has been my focus of interest since she was a cousin, because she had long since traded up when both gentlemen were shot to death.  And I'm happy to report that she did do some good with the money she amassed, by making a gift of some 5,000 acres of land to her state to turn into a wildlife refuge, so that a series of books about the flora and fauna of the state published by its state university press is named in her honor.

Whether the . . . let's call it an unconventional streak . . . in this cousin came from her mother or her father, I can't say.  This I do know, though.  Her father, who served in his state legislature and who was a first cousin of my great-grandfather, was an ardent supporter of women's rights who also served on the advisory board of the National Woman's Party.  In 1931, he donated a building for the use of women in his city as a gathering and study place, which is now on the National Registry of Historic Buildings.  And so I imagine he'd have raised a daughter who'd have thought for herself and refused to dance to the tune of anyone who tried to control her.

But then there's this: the wife of my cousin was also an assertive and accomplished woman, who attended the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Columbia University, and was a published poet.  She organized the poetry society of her state, and perhaps instilled in her daughter the love of nature that  led to the daughter's gift of land to the state for a wildlife refuge.  Many of her poems celebrate the natural beauty of her state.

I also note that her father, a Hungarian immigrant, came to this country in 1848, and as Steve has reminded me, that's the year in which many revolutionary-minded folks (including some of his own forebears) fled the German states and the Austro-Hungarian empire.  This man had a German name, and so we wonder if he had been involved in revolutionary activities in the empire, and fled when the conservative clampdown occurred.  All of which is to say, a streak of assertive independence of thought may run on both sides of  my second-second cousin's family.

3. And then there's the death certificate I've found, in which yet another second cousin twice removed--again, in the same state in which these other two cousins lived--died as an elderly man in the state penitentiary.  Leading me to suspect there had to be some story here . . . . 

And that suspicion led me to a newspaper article which explains precisely how and when he murdered his wife, dragged her body across their farmyard, and buried it there slaked with lime, while telling inquirers that she was away on an extended visit to see family in the western part of the large state.  The article notes that the man (who's actually a double cousin of mine, since his parents were cousins of each other, and both related to me) had confessed after two years of trying to escape his guilt by remaining constantly drunk.

He had turned himself in, taken the police to the site of the grave, and told them the following story: his wife nagged.  Constantly.  One bone of contention was that he had been providing care for his mother and youngest sister in the mother's old age.  

And so one evening when he came in from the fields, as the wife launched into one her nagging sessions, he began to fix himself a toddy.  Seeing him stirring the sugar into the water and bourbon, the wife asked for one, too.

As he fixed their toddies, he happened to look across the kitchen and see a box of strychnine, and then, as he told the police, the devil entered him.  He fetched the box, stirred a few spoons of poison into his wife's toddy, and they sat in conjugal silence sipping their preprandials.

Whereupon she collapsed and he carried her to bed, where she lay in a cold sweat, twice calling him by name, twice saying goodbye, and then expiring.  And not even two years of constant self-medication with alcohol could expunge his guilt, so that he finally decided to tell the police what he'd done and was sent to prison for the duration of his life.

I have a picture of this man when he was a boy about 10 or 11 years old.  It's taken with his mother and the sister for whom he provided care before he murdered his wife.  The three are very nicely dressed, he in a high, stiff collar and bowtie and swallowtail suit coat.  Nothing about him looks like a murder in the making.  In fact, he looks rather sweet and vulnerable.  All three look like nice people.

His poor mother, fortunately, didn't live to know what her son became.  I suspect a strong propensity for many toddies ran through that branch of my family.  There are hints of tragedies due to a fondness for the drink in this record and that one, having to do with these members of my family.

The stories you find, when you start to follow your family's history.

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