Working with Family Documents and Other Primary Sources

If you are interested in your family’s history and are fortunate enough like me to have family letters, photographs and other documents available, here is some advice gleaned from my own experience about how to mine them for the interesting information about your family that they contain.

  1. Read Everything

And I mean everything.  I am in the process of writing Coming to Amerika which is based on family documents spanning over one hundred years. Just recently in looking over old photos I found one of my great uncle John in his 60’s wearing a uniform. On the back of the photo was the notation “Columbian Guard.” Obviously, he had not been in the Army of Columbia! I knew, however, that as a young man he had been to the World’s Columbian Exposition—the Chicago World’s Fair—in 1893 as I had a booklet he had collected at the time. Further research revealed that the law enforcement authorities at the time felt they needed to beef up security and so hired from around the country about 2000 young men to help keep the peace and deal with pickpockets and other such offenders. They were called the Columbian Guard.

I checked to be sure that the uniform great uncle John was wearing in the photograph matched the uniforms in the other photographs of Columbian Guards on the internet. It did. So great uncle John not only attended the World’s Fair in 1893, he was part of it—a good story to include in Coming to Amerika.

  1. If You Have Documents in a Foreign Language, Get Them Translated!

Such documents are mute unless people today can read them. It may be that you are fluent in the language in which they are written. If not, there are translation services available and a professor or graduate student in a foreign language at a local college might be a good resource. In my case, although I have studied quite a few foreign languages, including German, I could not read the letters written in Old German script. Before his death my father had had some of the letters translated, but there were many more. My brother and I researched translation services, finding it difficult to locate someone who could read the script. Then through perseverance on his part, my brother located a German professor in a small college in South Dakota who in fact taught the old German script. She and her institution were willing to have her translate the remaining documents for a relatively small fee and the donation of some of the original materials for use by students in her classroom. Translations done, she is now serving as a consultant for Coming to Amerika. Without her the book would not have come alive.

  1. Put the Documents in a Historical Context

Just from the content of the documents themselves, it is not always clear just what a reference means or how typical a particular circumstance is for the time when a document was written. So now you must dig. I am a historian by training and nature and have written a great deal about United States history, but I find myself learning new and surprising things as I try to place the documents in context. For example, a number of the letters speak of going to Pike’s Peak. As I researched this I learned there was a brief gold rush in the Denver area in 1858-1860. In fact, this was how Denver got its start.

My great-great grandmother in 1850’s Germany was deeply in debt.  She had only 150 Gulden to pay them off. I could find no solid information about the value of a Gulden so I looked for amounts for comparisons. It later cost her 300 Gulden to travel from Germany to the United States, funds raised by selling possessions and receiving money from a son who had already emigrated.  So 150 Gulden was not much.

  1. Go Through Your Letters and Documents Again and Again

This is important because what might have had little meaning when you first read the material may now be a significant piece of the puzzle. In my case, as I was riffling through some materials I came across, for the second or third time, a business card for an inn in New York City. With the information I had now gleaned I realized it was for the inn my newly arrived relatives stayed at when they first disembarked.

  1. Verify, Verify, Verify

Just because a document is a primary source does not make it accurate. It was written by a human being with a certain amount of knowledge, which might have been limited, and a certain perspective, which could be quite biased. So be sure to check statements out with other available sources. In my case, in addition to writing Coming to Amerika, I am currently researching a biography of Montgomery Ward. I encountered his brief memoir in the files of the Chicago History Museum in which he asserts that his name came from the name of a general who fought in the French and Indian War. Just a little research showed that there was no such general.

  1. Not Everything is on the Internet

There is of course much information on the Internet today.  Ancestry.com and familysearch.org as well as other sites have much family data as does fold3.com for those wanting to search military records. Many important historical books have been digitized and made available, often for free, through GooglePlay and other sites.

It is a mistake, however, to limit research to just the Internet. In gathering information about Montgomery Ward I have followed his path from Chatham, Massachusetts, where he was born, to Niles, Michigan, where he lived as a youth, and finally to Chicago.  All along the way there have been resources available that are not on the Internet. Local historical societies, run often by committed volunteers, as well as public libraries are amazing founts of information. The public library in Niles has an extraordinary genealogical section with information on Ward which I am not finding at the much larger and fancier Chicago History Museum.

 

Going off the Internet grid was most important for my book Examined Lives, which will be coming out this fall.  It is a no-holds-barred look at mental illness, narrated around the lives of my mother and me. I had family letters but I ferreted out much more by locating medical records and sources for information on Walter Freeman, the man who gave my mother a lobotomy and who famously botched the lobotomy of Rosemary Kenney. I was fortunate in having a major research library at hand at the University of Chicago, from which I graduated with a B.A. and M.A. in history. They had copies of materials written by Freeman which had been destroyed by many other institutions as well as the only copy of a work by another neurologist who was Freeman’s inspiration.

Special Collections at the George Washington University where Freeman had taught, archives his donated papers, which include an unpublished autobiography, which I paid to have digitized for myself and future scholars.

I hope that these pointers will make your own family research more fruitful and thus in the end more exciting and amazing!  Happy digging!

 

 

 

 

 

Here We Go!

Although Examined Lives is not yet on the digital market or on bookshelves, I am starting my efforts to get the word out.  My first event will be a reading and discussion at Woman Made Gallery, described in the release below.  Just click on the link.  I hope that those of you in Chicago can attend.

I welcome any suggestions about further opportunities to make my voice heard.  The book offers so many possible angles:  the glamour of my mother’s life in 1930’s Chicago, a no-holds-barred look at mental illness, the hopeful message that it can be faced and overcome, a cautionary tale about embracing medical practices based on hype and  little data as well as about the responsibility one has for making medical decisions for someone else.

WMG Talk

 

 

The Surprises, Joyful and Sad, of Family Research

When I began writing Examined Lives about how my mother came to have a lobotomy by Walter Freeman and the ramifications for my own life, I did not know what I would find.  I had of course known my mother before she had her lobotomy (I was almost seven at the time) and afterwards.  I did not, however, have any idea of what she was like before my birth.  She rarely mentioned that period of her life.  So, discovering this was one of the surprises of my family research.  I found a mother I had never known.

This discovery was a joyful one.  I read carefully through all the scrapbooks, 5-year diary. photographs and books in which she wrote down poetry she loved including Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Milay.  These covered the time between her 15th birthday and her marriage at the age of 23.  The picture which emerged was of a vivacious, competent woman who devoured life.  In high school she had a bevy of friends, was totally boy crazy, briefly made money as part of a dancing team, participated in basketball and loved swimming and skating. She could be something of a scamp, making a nun at her parochial school angry. In her diary she comments: “Gee! I had fun but was she mad.” She told her diary that “I crave excitement.”

On coming to Chicago on her 20th birthday, she found her excitement. The first thing she and the friends who accompanied her did was take a speedboat ride on the Chicago River and the next day she got a job waitressing at a party for the prize fighter Jack Dempsey.  It was the beginning of her rise in the hospitality industry.  She took up residence and worked in the area around North Michigan, then as now a bustling, swanky place to be. She started out as a waitress at the lunch counter of the Walgreen’s Drug Store at Rush and Oak, which served breakfast, lunch and dinner and offered for dinner as drinks of choice domestic Port, Sherry or Muscatel Wine as well as fruit juice and chilled tomato juice.  This store served sometimes over a 1000 patrons a day. She soon became its night manager, then moved on to become the head receptionist at the Younkers Café on East Chicago where she managed 12 waitresses, including Ruth “a sad piece of humanity who was a streetwalker on the side.” Finally, she reached what she considered the pinnacle as room captain at the Camelia Room of the Drake Hotel frequented by the likes of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo.

Outside of work she enjoyed Chicago to the full, taking art classes at the American Academy of Art, having a bit part in a production of Richard Sheridan’s “School for Scandal,” and attending concerts and plays starring John Barrymore and Lillian Gish.  With various swains and friends, she took in the night clubs.  In just one night she visited the Dome of the Sherman, Rickett’s, Ye Old Cellar, Old Heidelburg, Adolfo’s, Augustino’s and the Blue Star. One evening she and a date spied an empty baby carriage in an apartment hall. They stole it, she got in and her date pushed her down Rush Street.

It was wonderful to meet this woman, my mother, who I had known as caring and kind, but not very sophisticated or interested in things like poetry.  Given what was to happen to her later in life, I am grateful that she had this period in which to shine.  It makes the lobotomy, however, all that much more dreadful and unwarranted.

Nevertheless, the saddest surprise for me in my research was the poem I found among my father’s possessions, clearly revealing his loss of love for my mother fairly early in their marriage, even before my birth.  It is a much worked over scrawl but with the beginning words clearly “I could adore her/but I abhor her.”  That discovery hit me in the stomach and eventually went on to explain much.

Walter Freeman and Me

As the time comes ever nearer for the publication of Examined Lives, I am still trying to understand the man who performed a lobotomy on my mother. I never met Walter Freeman, the man who was the very public face of lobotomies as cures for mental illness in the mid-20thcentury and at whose own reckoning performed some 3,500 such operations.  The photo below of his performing a lobotomy, without mask or gloves, in front of curious bystanders was one of his publicity stunts.  The procedure he used extensively, as depicted, involved hammering an ice pick-like device through the eye socket and wiggling it back and forth to severe connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain.

MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.25616

Freeman performed that operation on my mother in 1950.  He saw her for the first time on a Friday, pronounced her a paranoid schizophrenic, and did the procedure the following Monday.  The man wasted no time.

The operation drastically changed my mother’s life and so my own.  Her diary and scrapbooks reveal her to have been a vivacious, competent woman.  She came to Chicago on her 20th birthday and began her rise in the hospitality industry, starting with serving at the lunch counter at a busy Walgreen’s Drugstore at Rush and Oak Streets, where she ended up supervising 12 other waitresses, to serving as room captain at the Camellia Room of the Drake Hotel, frequented by the likes of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.  In her off hours she devoured the nightlife, visiting numerous clubs on any one night with a string of young swain, several of whom wanted to marry her. One was Jerry with whom she visited a night club and “afterward on the way home Jerry and I spied a baby buggy in an apartment house hall and we stole it and I rode down Rush Street in a baby buggy.  Fun. They took the buggy back though.”

After the lobotomy, her drive and “sparkle,” as my aunt put it, was taken from her and in fact she ended up being “adjudged insane” and institutionalized for a period of time.

What led to her having the lobotomy?  That is the story I tell in my book Examined Lives, based on thousands of pages of family letters, diaries, scrapbooks, medical records, an unpublished novel, poetry, and photographs.  And, yes of course, on the writings of Walter Freeman.