Bizarre Family Secrets

For years I have been researching my genealogy and have accumulated such a mound of strange stories I feel I must share them with my readers. These stories are in no particular order. I write about them as they occur to me. All of them are true to the best of my knowledge and while I do engage in some  speculation, I do not embellish. I hope my sisters and cousins don’t get mad at me.

How Did Mormons Get into My Tree?

Robert Berry

I was puzzled when I started my tree that some of my relatives were on other trees with Mormon events in their profiles; “sealed to spouse” and so on. I wondered what possible connection my family had to the LDS church, since I knew them to be mostly Methodists. The question simmered for a while until I started working on my great grandmother’s second husband (not my great grandfather), Eugene Berry. Eugene was first married to my great grandfather’s sister, so when she and her brother died, Eugene married his sister-in-law, Lydia Margaret Kinsley Mingus.  As I was soon to learn, Eugene was the vector by which the Mormon church entered my family.

Elnora Lucretia Warner

Eugene’s father was Robert Berry (1823-1905). He married  Elnora Lucretia Warner in 1842 and in the next two years they had Rosetta (1843-1918) and Charles (1844-1930). They got caught up in Mormonism with her parents and before 1847 migrated to Nauvoo, IL, the center of the Mormon universe at that time. But there was no work, so Robert went back to Hillsdale county, MI to earn some money, and promised to sent it along. After a while he was puzzled about why Elnora didn’t answer his letters, so he finally decided to make the trip and find out.

When he got to Nauvoo, his wife, children and in-laws were gone along with most of the rest of the town, in the Great Migration to Utah. Someone probably told him that his wife ran off with another man. Heartbroken, (it was said his hair turned white overnight) he went back to Hillsdale and eventually married again. Eugene was the product of this second marriage. Years later, when his long lost daughter showed up in Hillsdale on a “mission” for the LDS, Robert Berry finally found out what happened. It seems the Nauvoo postmaster, a Simon Cooker Dalton, took a liking to Elnora and hatched a scheme to win her over. He intercepted Robert’s letters, pocketed the cash and did the same with her letters back to him. After a while he offered to take her in as a plural wife (and eventually, Elnora’s sister as well) and took the whole family to Utah.

I don’t know if Robert stayed with the Mormon church, or whether son Eugene did either, but the two kids he lost to Simon Dalton apparently did. Daughter Rosetta M. Berry married  Charles Edward Robison and had 5 kids, the last of which was Alma Luella, who married Harold A. Lafount. Their third child, Lenore, married George Romney and they had a son Willard whom everyone knows as Mitt. So Mitt Romney’s great great grandfather is my step-great great grandfather. Out of curiosity I checked the genealogy of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. He’s my 7th cousin, four times removed. I guess Mormons are in my tree to stay.

Getting to America the Hard Way

It’s 1813. You’re 16 years old, stuck in Dublin, Ireland with an intense desire to go to America. What can you do? Join the British army! But now what? It’s 1815 and you are behind the British lines. The only way to stay in America is to swim the Niagara River and defect. So with buddy Henry Bates, Peter Kinsley did just that, under a hail of bullets. The United States had a policy of awarding citizenship to British defectors in the War of 1812 and so in 1829 he was granted citizenship. My third great grandfather then migrated to Ohio where he founded a town, Kinsley’s Corners (now called New London) and married Lydia Merrifield. He was a teacher, postmaster, mill owner, Justice of the Peace, store and hotel owner and fathered 6 kids before dying at the age of 40. Like most of my ancestors, he was an anti-slavery activist, years before the Civil War, which took the life of his son, my great great grandfather James Hilarian Kinsley.

I honestly don’t know if Peter joined the army specifically to defect or if he just was sick of soldiering, but it did get him here and it’s fun to think he had a clever scheme from the start.

The Loony Lady from Lafayette, IN

When I named this collection “Bizarre Family Secrets” this was the story I was thinking of. The syndrome which afflicted Gertrude Merchant now has a name: postpartum psychosis. Gertrude was the first wife of Ralph Voorhees Bump; they were married in 1900. Much later (1945) Ralph would become the second husband of my grandaunt Edith Anora Mingus, thereby entering my family tree. Ralph and Gertie had three children, Forest, Alvin and Robert. Forest Bump was the winner of my family tree’s funny name contest, beating out Thurber Gordon Brimmingstool and Rollo Fink. Forest’s baby brother Robert didn’t win anything besides an early trip to oblivion.

The best way to present this story is to just show the newspaper articles, from The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 13 July 1909:

Mrs. Bump was dealt with quite leniently, she spent no time in jail and was released to her parents directly from the hospital. The grand jury found, “conditions that in their minds excused the mother”. But things didn’t go well for her.  From The Fort Wayne Sentinel, 21 June, 1915: Many descendants of Gertude Merchant still roam this planet, so as flawed as she was, her genes live on. Let’s remember her when we think some of us should be better off childless. She was not a reason to stop the bloodline,  just a bad Bump in the road.

The Unique Life of Lewis Merrifield

How would you know if someone on your family tree had been gay in the 1920s? Not getting married and having children isn’t enough of an indicator. There needs to be more evidence. We can sympathize nowadays with what it must have been like there in rural upstate New York. No gay pride parades, gay marriage or gay anything. So how would we know? See what you think.

Lewis Merrifield was born in Lysander New York, a few miles from Syracuse, on 19 Aug 1894. His dad Fred was a salesman and later a butter maker. Tragically, his mom died when he was three. Fred was unable to care for Lewis and his brother Harold so the two boys were sent to live with two of Fred’s sisters.

Lewis ended up with Eudette Merrifield and her husband Willis Gillett, my great granduncle; a childless couple who were delighted to have an heir.

Willis and Eudette ran the town general store, post office and mortuary and were quite prominent in town affairs. Lewis fit right in, helped at the post office and excelled at school. But in December of 1922 something happened. There was trouble, an accusation, a secret trial and jail time. All having something to do with a wounded soldier and a radio, the only one in town…From the Syracuse Evening Telegram:

It all seems so unfair. Your fate decided in a church behind closed doors. What was this all about?

from the Syracuse Herald, 5 Jan, 1923

Lewis  spent a year behind bars, and soon there were articles appearing about him attending business school, in 1925. In 1928 both Willis and Eudette died, leaving their estate to Lewis. Lewis started living part of the year in Florida where he worked the night shift as a desk clerk at the Manavista Hotel in Bradenton, Florida.  He died in Gainesville, GA in 1963. Thanks to for such an amazing free New York newspaper collection.

Farmer Elmer Cutler Loses his Nerve

The newspaper article which goes with this story is hard to read, so I transcribed from the Cato Citizen, 13 April, 1910.


Elmer Cutler of Sempronius, While Preparing Home for Bride, Swallows Paris Green

Auburn, April 13 [1910]—Elmer Cutler, aged 40, a farmer living in Sempronius, committed suicide Monday. He had been married only a week, and leaving his bride he went to the farmhouse of a large farm which he owns in the town to prepare the same for their coming. He had been about the place for several days setting things in order and making necessary repairs. Charles Vosburg, who was assisting him about the place, arrived there early Monday morning and found the man ill. He, however, got up and was apparently all right for about two hours, when he was again suddenly taken ill. Becoming scared, Vosburg telephoned for a physician, who did not arrive at the place until afternoon because of the long drive. When the physician arrived Cutler confessed that he had taken a spoonful of paris green with intent to kill himself. Everything was done to save the man’s life but he died about 7 o’clock Monday evening.

The funeral services will be held to-morrow at 11 o’clock.

Poor Elmer. 40 years old and just married to an 18 year old girl. Did he put off their wedding night because he was nervous? Did he run out of excuses after a week? Did he change his mind? Was it worth suicide? Paris green was the favorite all-around toxic pesticide in use at the time, and still contaminates old orchards. Copper acetoarsenite was called paris green because it was famously used to kill rats in Paris. You had to really want to end it all to swallow a spoonful of this stuff. What effect did his young bride have on him?

Elmer’s widow of a week was Lottie Parsons, who a year later would marry another farmer, my great grandfather’s brother Addison Gillett. Addison had already been married twice to two sisters who both died young. Fortunately, Lottie did not appear to be too much woman for Addison, but he died early too, at 45, two years before she did, at 28.

A Lifetime in a Mental Hospital for William Gillett

In the last story we were introduced to Addison Gillett, his third wife Lottie and before that we met the Merrifields, all in the area of New York around Syracuse. This story is about Addison’s son William, by his second wife Pearl Baird. By any measure William must have had a sad life. His mom died when he was born, his father died when he was nine and his stepmother, the above Lottie Parsons died when he was 11.  As the article states, the first plan was for William to stay with Willis, Eudette and Lewis in Lysander. But it didn’t last, and William seems to be elsewhere during his teen years. In fact, except for spending some time with Lewis’ brother Harold Merrifield (he called himself Harold Coppernoll because he lived with his aunt), William seemed to disappear in adulthood. That was at least until I found him in Willis’ will:

But there was more stuff going on during his young adult years which may have contributed to his tenuous state of mind. During those years that he lived with Harold, Aunt Frances, Eudette’s sister died. She had been suffering from an old injury and finally decided to end her suffering. This happened when William was 22, in 1931. He seems to have had time away from the hospital, but who knows how much.

This suicide is brought into question by local Lysander historian Steve McMahon, who writes a column for the local paper called “Looking Backward”. He is assembling evidence for a theory that Frances died with a little help. He says that, “Before she died in 2009, Frances’ granddaughter, Frances Kelly Van Wie, told me a story about what may have really happened.” Steve promised that he is writing a book about the purported murder, but so far this is the best I have. Just from common sense it seems that committing suicide by hanging yourself from the foot of a bed seems ludicrous. Paris green seems more effective.

I don’t know whether William’s harsh early life experiences resulted in schizophrenia or what the circumstances were which led to his being committed, but I do know that once you entered New York’s Willard State Hospital your life was effectively erased.  The only other bookend to his life is the social security death record dated 01 Feb, 1979. I’m certain his grave is marked by a number at Willard, and that the remnant of state mental hospital secrecy will forever prevent us from connecting number with name. Likewise for any evidence of his medical history or a life for the decades he was imprisoned. As for Harold Merrifield/Coppernoll, I don’t know much. I have no record of a marriage or children. I did find evidence that he died in 1955. Did he kill his aunt? Did he impress his young cousin William to join in his scheme? Or did William embark on a murderous mania which Harold tried to cover?

To find out more about the mental hospital experience in New York, read “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.

Almost Incest

My Gillett family averaged three generations per century all the way back to 1600. If, for sake of argument I assume this same rate for all my ancestors, then I can calculate how many ancestors I have at any point in history. Mathematically, this means 2³ direct ancestors per century; 2X2X2=8 great grandparents 100 years ago; 2³X2³ or 64 4th great grandparents in 1800 and so on. In 1633 when many of my British ancestors were hopping a boat to America, there were about 2,048 of them. Unlike the trend in human population, the population of ancestors increases as you go back. If we consider the year 1000 AD, 10 centuries ago, I have 10X3 for an exponent of 30. Two to the 30th power is 1,073,741,824. So I have just over a billion people, mostly in the British Isles, who were my ancestors. OK, now, the sharp readers (Gillett, sharp, get it?) will probably figure out that in 1000 AD there were not a billion people in Britain. In fact, Wikipedia says Britain had about one million people in 1086, at the time of the Norman Conquest. So what happened to all my ancestors? And what about your ancestors?

The short answer is that they were doing double duty. Your 30th great grandmother was also five other 30th great grandmothers and probably a 29th, 28th, 31st and 32nd too. It boggles the mind to think our ancestors were all muddled up like that and it seems, well, creepy, but it’s true.

If you look in your family tree you may be able to find double ancestors. I did. And it’s the same ancestor I share with former first lady Barbara Bush. Her name was Mary Marvin. Her dad was Reinold Marvin and his pedigree places him squarely in the American colonial hall of fame. Mary was first married to

The elder Richard Ely’s signature

Richard Ely and had four kids, one of which was Sarah Ely. After Richard died an early death at 41 in 1676, Mary remarried to Captain Daniel Sterling, and had five more kids. Sarah Ely married my 6th great grandfather General Jonathan Gillett and had 9 kids, one of which was Joseph. Joseph grew up and married a girl named Abigail Kellogg, who was the daughter of Abigail and Samuel Kellogg. But the elder Abigail’s maiden name was Sterling…she was the daughter of Mary Marvin and Daniel Sterling. So my 5th great grandparents Joseph and Abigail Kellogg Gillett had one grandmother in common. I assume they knew this, after all it is not uncommon for small populations to marry cousins, and they were not really cousins, sort of half cousins. Still, the confusion about Mary’s two families extends to the present day. I had to correct a double findagrave memorial for her. She was claimed by both the Ely and Sterling cemeteries in Lyme, Connecticut, or rather, she was assumed by findagrave volunteers to be in both. As it turns out, she is buried in the Sterling graveyard. If this can trip up modern day record keepers, it’s easy to imagine how double-grandparents (or great or great-great) can slip into the family tree unnoticed.

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