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Family Skeletons and Mysteries


Every family has a few skeletons in the closet and a few mysteries in the stories told around the dinner table.  Ours is no different.  Here are a few of the more interesting ones we have carried with us through the years.  As we have researched, some of the stories have shifted from the likely-fiction column in our mental spreadsheet to the maybe-some-truth-to-it column.  Now you can decide for yourself.......

 

 

Grandma is the illegitimate daughter of a rich and famous person

We've always been told that my paternal grandmother was the illegitimate child of one of the Vanderbilts.  As the story goes, her mother (my great-grandmother) was a young Swedish cook working in the Vanderbilt mansion in Newport Rhode Island, and through actions and consequences unspecified (mutual affair? employer abuse?) she had a child out of wedlock, fathered by one of the Vanderbilts.

This was always a great story, but seemingly unlikely and definitely unverifiable.  Recent discoveries lend genealogical credence to the story, though it hasn't been fully corroborated (and likely will never be).

The first suspicions were raised a number of years ago when my sister and her husband toured the Breakers (the Vanderbilt mansion) in Newport and claimed that there was a distinct family resemblance seen in a number of the portraits of male members of the Vanderbilt family. Was it the power of suggestion at work, or was there really something to the story?

Clue number one that the story might have some truth arrived when I obtained my grandmother's SS-5 form (the original form with which she enrolled in the Social Security System back on September 16, 1941).  On this form she listed her birthday as 11 April 1885 (no surprise), and her birthplace as Newport RINewport. Secondary evidence that she was indeed born where the family legend says she was.

More clues arrived when I obtained the marriage certificate for my grandmother's parents of record.  It revealed that they were married four years AFTER my grandmother was born.  This was listed as my great-grandmother's first marriage, and her occupation was listed as cook.  None of these are direct evidence, but they clearly do not refute the family legend either.

Still more clues were uncovered when I spent a day recently at the Rhode Island State Archives in Providence.  My goal was to obtain my grandmother's birth certificate, but there was no official record of her birth to be found.  I searched in all the places where birth listings and delayed birth records for Newport, Providence, and other cities in the area were recorded. Nothing.  The archivists there who were helping me said that that was not terribly unusual, though, and suggested I look further in other sources.

What I did find was an entry in the 1885 Rhode Island State Census Summaries.  In Newport, Ward 5, I found my grandmother listed as Ellen Christine WILSON (not OLIVER, her father of record's name), a 3 month old baby, born in Newport, living as a boarder with her 22 year old unwed mother "Mina" (short for Wilhelmina) WILSON (occupation: servant), in the household of a different family.  It all fits.

 

Of course with any good mystery, the twists and turns taken in searching for the truth often uncover even more mysteries, and this was no exception (it seems like my research often answers one question while asking two or three more).  The last twist was totally unexpected though, and I am at a loss as to how it fits in;  The family that my unwed great-grandmother and her infant daughter were living with in Newport RI is the same family that produced the first wife of my grandmother's eventual first husband - my grandfather.  So my grandfather's first wife (listed on the 1885 RI State census as eleven years old) and second wife (the 3 month old infant on the same census) lived together as young children.  It makes my head spin........

 

 

 

Great-Grandpa had his surname changed involuntarily while working as a merchant seaman

Another family legend (same family) is that my grandmother's father of record (the man who married my great-grandmother four years after my grandmother was born) started life with a different surname than what he was known as.

As the story goes, Frank JOHANSEN was a Swedish merchant seaman, and worked on a ship with a tyrannical and prejudiced captain. This captain despised Swedes, and was furious that so many of his seamen were Swedes named JOHANSEN, so he arbitrarily changed some of their names. My great-grandfather got OLIVER.

The story continues that sea captains had absolute power on their ships and could do anything they wanted, so the name change was legal and official.

I thought nothing much about the story except that it was a good yarn, until the day when I finally found his death record in the state archives indexes, and sent for a copy. When it arrived, I found out that he died in a state mental hospital and drunk tank, having lived there for over ten years (family legend also states that he was a mean drunk who was thrown out of the house by his wife, never to return). On his death certificate he is listed as being married, but his spouse is listed as UNKNOWN (she was in fact living 20 miles north at the time). And plain as day, his father's name is listed as Joseph -- JOHANSEN !

 

 

 

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