Friday, 14 September 2007

Looking for Edgar, Finding Frank and Jesse

My mother always insisted that we were related to Edgar Allan Poe. Her mother had told her so, and my maternal grandmother, an exceedingly pious, serious-faced woman who tended to keep very good track of her ancestors, was not the kind to lie about a thing like that. We also had a movie star in the family: a man who worked as an extra in every shoestring western and obscure science fiction flick you could think of, whose success we all monitored closely. There were other poets in the family too: an aunt who wrote sonnets, and my father's mother, a published poet of modest acclaim, but the actor and the movie star were as nothing next to our Poe connection. Everyone in our family loved poetry, and it made perfect sense to us that we should be related to the author of Annabel Lee and The Raven. Oh, the pride.

Some years ago, I got ill and had a long, boring convalescence. To help while away the hours, I decided to check out my genealogy, especially that Poe connection. I was certain that I would find it if I looked hard enough.

At the start, things looked pretty promising. Like Poe's family, my maternal grandmother's ancestors were largely of Irish extraction and many of them had come from Ayrshire in Scotland. The problem was finding out when. I'd always assumed that my ancestors arrived in America in the mid 1800s, but in fact, I was hard pressed to find anyone who showed up after 1720. This surprised me: for some reason, I always pictured my ancestors arriving in the New World rather late in the game, after all the hard work of tree-cutting, planting, and log cabin building was done. In fact, plenty of them were in America before the Mayflower, and not just those who were Native American, either.

I'll spare you all the tiresome stuff about my genealogy -- all of the dozens of surnames and dates, the wars and pensions and wills and censuses. Suffice it to say that if any of the people I managed to trace were related to Edgar Allan Poe, I could not find them. And believe me, if you ever do your own genealogy you will see that one of your big problems is how many people you can find. You start out with four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, then sixteen great-great grandparents -- and pretty soon you are into very serious numbers. Just keeping track of everybody is a huge headache. Genealogy isn't for the organizationally challenged, either: you begin to see that behind every human being is not just a handful of progenitors, but a cast of thousands.

I did find two people I wasn't looking for, though: Frank and Jesse James. Their grandmother Mary Poor was a sister of my great, great, great (you get the idea) grandmother Nancy Poor. I didn't believe it at first, but there is no doubt about the fact that we are cousins. My poor grandmother must have known about this, but never dared to mention it. The shame of being related to homicidal killers must have been mortifying. We're also related to Jesse James' wife, Zerelda. Cousins marrying cousins also ran in their -- well, our -- family.

Someone once told me that Frank and Jesse James weren't the world's greatest shots, that they had to fire a lot of bullets just to hit a target. I have to say that this fits right in with my family: we like poetry just fine, but in a snowball fight or shoot-out, you'd be perfectly safe around us.

Anyway, I'm all finished with my genealogy now. And although I recommend it as an interesting pastime, I have to warn you: if you go looking for poets, you may well end up finding outlaws.


Brian said...

There was a time when the Oz would-be aristocrats did their best to hide their convict ancestry . Nowadays the opposite applies .

Even those who were not convicts were in general thieves, robbers and con men of the first water . ( NB my proletarian bias )

Those of my own ancestors who were not actual criminals had been lucky enough not to be caught .

No cupboard without its rattling skeleton.

As for me , I am quite pure.


Carolie said...'s always surprising what (or who!) one can unearth. I was hoping for Revolutionary War "celebrities" once I found a Mayflower passenger. Just my luck...not George Washington or Patrick Henry or Paul Revere (or any of his silverware). Nope, I'm a direct descendant of....

Benedict Arnold.


Carolie said...

p.s. -- the reading shall commence this weekend, Mary!

Gorilla Bananas said...

How refreshing that you do not delude yourself that the James brothers were heroes of any sort. I suspect many of their living relatives hold this belief. No human alive is without a few shits in the family tree. I may be related to a baboon.

Christy said...

I don't know much about my ancestry nor do I care to. But I'm fascinated by this thought: "you begin to see that behind every human being is not just a handful of progenitors, but a cast of thousands." Take any one person and go backwards or forwards and you can trace a connection to an astonishing number of people, be it by blood or some other connection. Kevin Bacon doesn't have a corner on six degrees of separation! It's interesting to ponder how we are all tenuously webbed together.

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- While it was certainly interesting to find Frank and Jesse in my own tree, I cannot say that I am proud. They were killers, pure and simple. Many of the convicts who were transported to Australia were largely innocent to begin with and suffered terribly once they arrived. I've always assumed that their descendants must be proud of their hardihood, as I would be. But you are right about the rattling skeletons. There are just too many bones out there for us to be certain that none of them rattle...

Carolie -- I guarantee you that if I had found Admiral Perry among my forbears, I would be so thrilled that I would probably stop right there! So a little Benedict Arnold can't possibly hurt, and besides, I'm probably related to him too. Another one of my great (etc) grandfathers was Increase Mather, who, I believe, might have had some connection to burning witches...

Gorilla Bananas -- I suspect that if I delved even deeper, I'd find a lot worse. I quit when I was ahead -- or perhaps behind. As for you, from your photograph you look to be pure gorilla. Lucky you!

Christy -- What I enjoyed about looking up my genealogy was the sense of being connected to history. And you are right about how we are all connected: what really amazed me was discovering that my best friend and I actually share an ancestor. Her brother was working on their genealogy and we found a few ancestors in common. We all share DNA with thousands of others, and I find this both humbling and fascinating.

Carole said...

I also have not done a search into backgrounds, but I have heard stories. My grandfather, came here from Scotland because he was ashamed and horrified at the family business. It was I heard a paper mill the used and abused child labor. Creepy. And my husband's family came from Wales. But the first recorded ancestor in America was hung during the revolutionary war as a spy. I should think that would make him a hero in Wales, but who knows.

I have always loved the stories of Frank and Jesse James so I guess I will have to go back and check up on them. I do not like revisionist history--which means if I have one view and someone else has another, they are making their stuff up.

Brian said...

Someday , Witzl, I will send you an email about the class divisions that were part of the early history of Oz , and the cultural cringe that existed here for far too long.

True , many but not all early convicts among the * First Fleeters * were transported for minor crimes and suffered dreadfully. They are now the lionised ones .

But the corruption among their gaolers was worse than criminal and I fear I have nothing but contempt for them . They were not ancestors to be proud of .


Merry Jelinek said...

My mother is really into geneology, she and her sister even went to a Whitney family reunion (all Whitneys who are researching their lineage, some related many very very far back). Interesting how the internet has expanded this passtime, she found all sorts of new information from people she met online that filled in the blanks of her own, and vice versa.

There's a ton of information out there on her direct line and also offshoots that are really far removed - I think she has them traced back to the crusades sometime. Personally, I'm more interested in my father's side, but as records aren't well kept in Sicily, and I don't speak Italian, and they weren't exactly of upper class or elite stock, I haven't had much luck in info... that's probably one of the reasons I'm so interested.

Kanani said...

Gosh, I think it's the Mormons who have all that info on genealogy.

Too bad about Poe. Was your family disappointed when you couldn't find a connection? Did you kids know who Jesse and Frank James were?

I think it's interesting --one day my girlfriend met this woman. She asked my friend about her last name --Boone. The lady said, Oh... you must be related to Daniel. My friend confirmed it. The lady said she was too. Every time she saw my friend, she said, "Hi cousin!" Which was pretty weird because they must've been 13th cousins.

But speaking of distant cousins... isn't everyone in the royal family already related?

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- If you ever do your genealogy you will see how much better children have it now than they did a few hundred years ago. I can't get over how many children died of diphtheria, smallpox, malaria, even croup -- even in the U.S. And there are so many reports of children crushed under wagon wheels, burned to death in fires, blinded by measles, etc.; even children in fairly well-to-do families had it tough. I love your view of revisionist history -- mine precisely.

Brian -- America, too, was used as a penal colony, or at least parts of it were. I believe that Georgia was first used as a 'correction facility,' and many prisoners were transported there. A handful of my ancestors first came to the New World from Ireland as slaves, after the Battle of the Boyne. They were shipped to Barbados, then later ended up in Georgia and the Carolinas, where they graduated to jailer status themselves. There is plenty out there not to be proud of, but it is important to learn about it all the same.

Merry -- I can easily understand your mother's interest: once you get started, it is hard to stop, and the Internet really makes it easy. You almost don't care who or what you find; the hunt itself is the thing. I'm not sure I would ever want to attend reunions, but I have corresponded with far-flung cousins in Barbados, Kentucky, Ireland, and the Iroquois Nation.

Kanani -- I remember learning about Frank and Jesse James in schoool, but we never learned that they were heroes or admirable in any way. They were outlaw Rebels and from a slave-owning family, and my parents both remembered relatives who had died or been wounded fighting for the Union. My sisters aren't particularly interested in our genealogy, but I know they'd be gutted to learn that we aren't related to Edgar Allan Poe. So I won't tell them unless they ask...

As for your friend named Boone, there were also Boones in my mother's family, so she can call me cousin too. But then so could you, most likely; we'd just have to go back a little further.

A Paperback Writer said...

Kanani is right: it's the Mormons who are into geneology. I should know: I'm a Mormon. (Oh, don't run away; we're not all intolerant, you know. And we don't do polygamy anymore, that's the fundamentalists.)
Anyway, we Mormons have geneology pumped into us from the time we're about 3.
But the good news for the rest of the world is that we don't keep what we learn to ourselves. TONS of stuff is now available free online -- and you can use the site without fear of having missionaries track you down from it. Really, it's okay.
Here. Copy and paste this and have a look:

Even if you're just curious, it's a fun site.

Now, here's an Edgar Allan Poe tidbit for you: Poe visited and went to school in Ayreshire while he was living with his foster family there as a youth. Some scholars have argued that this was a horrible experience for him, but nearly all agree that it affected him for the rest of his life. Professor Edwin Morgan of Glasgow University (yes, the poet) used the interesting theory that Poe tried to escape as a cabin boy on a ship because he was so unhappy.
Here's a more neutral version of the story:

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I know that site! I have used quite a few genealogy sites, including the LDS one. It was recommended to me by a friend who had lost a lot of relatives in the Holocaust. He claimed that they had a better genealogical data base than anyone else. I agree with him up to a point: there are a lot of inaccuracies, and I am not sure just how well researched some of the submissions are. (One of my ancestors, for instance, was reported to have been born when his mother was four years old.) But it is wonderful to have that site available to everyone, and you are right: it is a fun site, and very useful.

I used to know quite a few Mormons, and ex-Mormons, and I know that only the fundamentalists practice polygamy. There was also a Mormon church not far away from us in Japan, and almost every weekend, the Mormon men could be found industriously picking up all the trash in the park. Mormon women were never sent overseas, for some reason.

How interesting about EAP -- I notice from your blog that you are also a fan.

A Paperback Writer said...

Yes, I should've mentioned that the stuff on the website is put in by ordinary people, based on what they've found, and, as with any bare-bones research, discrepancies and mistakes are there. But it's still a good site.
Odd that you didn't see any female Mormon missionaries picking up trash, because we do have "sister missionaries." Maybe they just didn't do that particular public service job.
Thanks for not taking an immediate dislike to Mormons. Some people do, you know. But, just like any other group of people, some of us are good, some bad, and most in between.
Yup. I like Poe. His writing's incredible. Nobody beats him for horror, in my humble opinion. Creepiest dang stuff in the world. He never substituted blood and gore for true, mind-numbing fear. wow.

Eryl Shields said...

I keep hoping that one or two of my cousins will search the family genealogy and tell me what they find. I'm just not methodical enough.

I remember once, years ago, my husbands father being delighted to find a family crest relating, be believed, to his maternal family. After that he was convinced of his aristocracy.

DaviMack said...

Custer. Family changed their name to Kuster after that.

A member of John Philip Sousa's marching band. Don't know what instrument he played, but I believe it was a horn of some sort.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I would never take an immediate dislike to anyone on the basis of their religion, though devil worship would give me pause. I won't pretend that I understand Mormon theology or practices, though. One of the young Mormons in Japan we used to meet used to lament that he had to wear his 'vestment' or undershirt even during the blisteringly hot summer months. He fully sympathized with the Moslem women he saw in their suffocating burquas.

Eryl -- There are all sorts of charlatans on the Internet selling family crests, shields, etc. I never was interested in these; what I wanted to know was what my ancestors did, where they were from, and -- more than anything -- what sort of people they were. That latter bit was the hardest of all to find out, but I did get more than I bargained for with the James brothers.

David -- Custer? Boy, do I feel better! One of my cousins found that a certain Daniel Whitsell (we pray we're not related) was touted as a famous Indian fighter. In fact he was a homicidal maniac, killing any native Americans he found, no matter what sort of people they were.

On the positive side, I have horn players in my family too, and one of my great-grandfathers was a band leader...

kathie said...

OMG, love it, Mary! That's fantastic history. Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the Thanksgiving table to hear just how quiet things actually were in regard to the James brothers??? Perhaps your family was like mine and you made fun of ill-mannered relatives and their life pitfalls. Perhaps Great Gram hid them out at some point??? Or maybe she hated them and never breathed their names or gave them two thoughts...fantastic find.

Danette Haworth said...


According to my grandma, we are related to a Romanian prince. My sister actually believes this.

Mary Witzl said...

Kathie -- Yes, boorish behavior was frowned on in my family. Violent or greedy people, braggarts, and liars were scorned; people with bad manners were both loathed and pitied. There were already a handful of ne'er-do- wells in my family, so the James connection was probably quietly ignored. But I will admit that I would love to have been around when their names were brought up at the dinner table!

Danette -- At least your sister is interested in her genealogy! My sisters could not see the attraction. But it is funny how many people long to be related to princes, counts, etc. No one dreams of being connected to miners, serving wenches, or farmers.

Kim Ayres said...

I genuinely have a great great grandmother called Fanny Picking.

There's no hope for being pretentious after a discovery like that...

allrileyedup said...

Edgar Allan Poe is a top notch writer, one of my favorites in fact, but I wouldn't lose too much sleep over not being related to him. I mean, in this day and age, if he turned in his writing to a creative writing prof, I suspect they might gently recommend a visit with a therapist and walk a wide circle around him. WIDE circle.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Personally, I'd be pretty proud of a Fanny Picking in the family -- what a great name! There are some pretty unusual names in our family, too: I found an Arizona, for instance, (born the year Arizona became a state) and another interesting name that ran in the family was Larahama, one of my great (etc) grandmothers. Larahama was really special: she could actually read and write.

Riley -- I can imagine that EAP's rather dense prose would give modern writing teachers pause. As for it being creepy, though, surely it's no worse than Stephen King's stuff. And besides, I've got plenty of ancestors that I'd probably want to give a very wide birth. We all do...