Thursday, November 27, 2014

Pilgrim food and etiquette

When we think of the traditional Thanksgiving menu, what comes to mind is turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

This has its origins in the Victorian era, however; the the spread on the table of the Pilgrims in the autumn of 1621 was quite different.

So what did the Pilgrims and natives actually eat at that first Thanksgiving? And how did they eat it?

Most Europeans in the 17th century didn't eat potatoes; they were thought to be poisonous and fit only for pigs. Meals in general were far more meat-heavy with few vegetables; 17th century people worked physically much harder than people do today, and they needed all that extra protein and fat.

So at this three-day fall harvest feast, those who had braved the Atlantic and the first harsh few months in a strange and foreign land would have likely had fowl (probably turkey and duck), lobster, eel, nuts, turnips, corn, and berries. The Wampanoag natives who participated (we don't know if they were actually invited or whether they crashed and the English were too polite/scared to tell them to shove off) may have contributed by bringing deer meat.

For 17th century Europeans, the main meal of the day was eaten at about noon, at the time we today consider to be lunch. The lighter evening meal, supper, would usually consist of leftovers from noontime "dinner."

The English custom of set mealtimes must have seemed strange to their Wampanoag native guests, who simply ate when they were hungry.

They didn't yet have porcelain or even pewter plates at this time. Instead they had wooden plates-and-bowls-in-one called trenchers, and children often shared their trenchers with siblings. No forks either-- just spoons and knives. Instead of placing  napkins on laps (which I personally feel is stupid and pointless), the napkin was draped over the left shoulder, convenient for wiping hands.

A trencher, c. 1600

There were no courses; everything would have been on the table at the same time. The feasters would not have been expected to sample everything, but would only eat the foods that were close to them.

Everyone would have been seated according to class, with the best foods next to the most important people. Children would have served the adults, and likely would not have been seated at the table with them, but would stand behind the adults, waiting for food to be passed to them.

Some things haven't changed much though; here is a little poem by Tudor-era poet Francis Segar from Schoole of Vertue (1582):

Photo courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

For rudeness is thy pottage to sup,
Or speake to any, his head in his cup
Thy knife be sharpe to cut fayre thy meat:
Thy mouth not be full when thou dost eat
Pyke not they teethe at the table syttnge,
Nor use at thy meat Overmuch spytynge;
this rudeness of youth is to be abhorred;
thy self mannerly Behave at the borde.

Don't talk with your head bent over your cup-- look up before speaking.

Don't hack your food, and swallow what's in your mouth before taking another bite.

Don't spit too much or pick your teeth at the table.

Board is an old word that refers to a narrow table off which one eats, and it's still in use today in the expression "room and board"-- i.e., room and meals.

Whatever you'll have on your table today, and whomever you'll be sharing it with, have a happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

BILLINGTON of Plymouth, Massachusetts

For Thanksgiving, I wanted to focus one of the 8 Mayflower surnames in my family tree (it's not unusual for someone to have this many, by the way, considering that many of the families intermarried).

I decided to choose BILLINGTON... it's one of the more unusual Mayflower surnames names to be descended from, and because I'm connected to this line in three different ways. 

Generation 1: John Billington was born in Lincolnshire, England about 1580, and he married Eleanor Unknown. They had only two surviving children, John Jr. and Francis. 

John and his family seem to have been troublemakers. During the voyage across the Atlantic, 14-year-old Francis almost blew up the ship when he fired a musket among barrels of gunpowder. Once in Massachusetts, John Sr. was charged with contempt of "the Captain's lawful command with opprobrious speeches", but upon "humbling himself and cracinv pardon", he avoided the punishment of having his neck and heels tied together. 

Not long after, John Jr. was kidnapped by Indians while wandering in the woods, forcing the colonists to send out a search party and negotiate the boy's release. John Jr. died in 1627, unmarried and without issue.

In 1624, John Sr. was implicated in a failed rebellion against the authority of the Plymouth church, but claimed ignorance and was never punished. In a 1625 to Robert Cushman, Governor Bradford referred to Billington as a "knave."

Things only got worse when, in 1630, John Sr. shot and killed his neighbor John Newcomen, with whom he had been feuding over land hunting rights. It was decided that Billington should pay the ultimate price, and he was hanged for murder in September of 1630. 

Six years later, John's widow Eleanor was charged with slander against a Mr. John Doane and sentenced to be put in the stocks and whipped. 

Generation 2: Francis Billington (John) was born in Lincolnshire, England, about 1607. He married Francis Penn, widow of Francis Eaton, in July of 1634, and the removed to Middleborough. Francis died on 3 December 1684. 

Generation 3a: Martha Billington (Francis, John) was born in 1638 in Plymouth, and she married Samuel Eaton, who was actually her stepbrother (the son of her mother's first husband Francis Eaton by his first wife Sarah Unknown). 

John BILLINGTON (1580-1630) m. Eleanor UNKNOWN
Francis BILLINGTON (1607-1684) m. Christian PENN 
Martha BILLINGTON (1638-1704) m. Samuel EATON I (1620-1684)
Samuel EATON II (1663-1724) m. Elizabeth FULLER (1666-1723)
Barnabas EATON (1703-1790) m. Mehitable ALDEN (1707-1739)
Hannah EATON (1730-1809) m. John CLEMENTS  (1719-1805)
John CLEMENTS (1750-unknown) m. Sarah PERRY (1750-unknown)
Hannah CLEMENTS (1771-1835) m. Jonathan BAKER (1769-1852)
John BAKER (1792-1861) m. Mehitable HILTON (1796-1865)
George Albert BAKER (1842-1914) m. Hannah Melissa SPECHT (1843-1924)
Jessie May BAKER (1873-1927) m. Thomas Parker SIMMONDS (1871-1953)
Estelle MAY SIMMONDS (1893-1930) m. Horace William HOWES (1882-1976)
Henry Richard HOWES (1913-1987) m. Dorothy Elizabeth PALMER (1918-1984)
S. HOWES (1937-1999) m. my father (b. 1933)
Me (b. 1974)

I'm also descended from a second child of Hannah Eaton and John Clements, John Clements' sister Mehitable:

Mehitable CLEMENTS (1754-1834) m. John TRASK (1751-1833)
Hannah TRASK (1774-1829) m. Jacob Lufkin HILTON (1775-1855)
Mehitable HILTON (1796-1865) m. John BAKER (1792-1861)
George Albert BAKER (1842-1914) m. Hannah Melissa SPECHT (1843-1924)
Jessie May BAKER (1873-1927) m. Thomas Parker SIMMONDS (1871-1953)
Estelle MAY SIMMONDS (1893-1930) m. Horace William HOWES (1882-1976)
Henry Richard HOWES (1913-1987) m. Dorothy Elizabeth PALMER (1918-1984)
S. HOWES (1937-1999) m. my father (b. 1933)
Me (b. 1974)

Generation 3b: Mary Billington (Francis, John)was born about 1640 in Plymouth. On 20 January 1663, she married Samuel Sabin in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. She died on 28 June 1717 in Rehoboth.

                              John BILLINGTON (1580-1630) m. Eleanor UNKNOWN
                                    Francis BILLINGTON (1607-1684) m. Christian PENN
                            Mary BILLINGTON (1640-1717) m. Samuel SABIN (1640-1699)
                                  Israel SABIN (1673-1718) m. Mary ORMSBY (1677-1715)
                                Jeremiah SABIN (1703-unk) m. Mary ABBOTT (1707-1818)
                         Jeremiah SABIN (1732-1815) m. Susannah LEVALLEY (1732-unk)
                               Sarah SABIN (1747-unk) m. Borden THURBER (1748-1822)
                          Samuel THURBER (1774-1847) m. Mary "Polly" LEWIS (1777-unk)
          Margaret Sophia THURBER (1808-1846) m. Anthony C.  SPECHT (1796-1875)
             Hannah Melissa SPECHT (1843-1924) m. George Albert BAKER (1842-1914)
Jessie May BAKER (1873-1927) m. Thomas Parker SIMMONDS (1871-1953)
Estelle MAY SIMMONDS (1893-1930) m. Horace William HOWES (1882-1976)
Henry Richard HOWES (1913-1987) m. Dorothy Elizabeth PALMER (1918-1984)
S. HOWES (1937-1999) m. my father (b. 1933)
 Me (b. 1974)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Veteran's Day: Honoring Great-uncle James Fitzgerald RYAN

I have many ancestors and relatives who have served in the U.S. military, but today I'd like to focus on one: my great-uncle James.

James Fitzgerald Ryan was born on 31 Jul 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of David Thomas Ryan and Mary Elizabeth Fitzgerald. He was the youngest of five children; there was an 8 and a half-year gap between the two youngest, my grandmother Clare (born on 18 January 1911) and James.

My father talked quite a bit about his uncle growing up-- James was something of a savant, and became a high school math teacher. He was fun-loving and musical, able to play the piano by ear very well. 

Dad mentioned in passing a couple of times that Uncle James had served in the Pacific during World War II. Awhile back, I poked around on Fold3 and found several Navy records pertaining to his service.

He enlisted in the Navy on 2 July 1942 and served on the U.S.S. Prairie, a Dixie-class destroyer tender, until at least October of 1945. According to the ship's reports of changes, Uncle James was an "S2", which I found out via a Google search of Navy rank abbreviations meant Seaman 2nd class. The report of changes I found dated 30 April 1944 gives a new rank for James-- he was now a TM3c, which means a Torpedoman's mate 3rd class (thanks again, Google!). That sounds a bit more interesting than simply a seaman... according to Wikipedia, this job mainly involved maintaining torpedo equipment, though it also seems to have involved getting to help blow stuff up.

The U.S.S. Prairie, photo courtesy of

The first log of changes I could find on Fold3 listing Uncle James as a TM3c

The U.S.S. Prairie's locations during World War II

James was a brave man, never one to be intimidated, either by the many tough boys he had to teach, or by muggers!

He passed away on 15 January 1995 due to the effects of Lou Gehrig's Disease.

I only met him once, but I was a toddler and only very vaguely remember him playing the piano in our living room in Quincy, Massachusetts. I wish I could have known him, or at least had a photo of him (for some reason, photos of my Ryan relatives are very scarce).

So, along with all of my other family members-- past and present-- who serve and have served in the United States armed forces, I want to honor James Ryan. Thank you for your service, and eternal memory.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

SEVERANCE of Salisbury, MA and Kingston, NH

Generation 1: My first Severance ancestor in America was John Severance, who was born about 1609, probably Suffolk, England. He was a planter, a "vintner" (winemaker), and a "victualler", which is a ship goods supplier. John Severance was also master of a ship called George which brought many English to Massachusetts. John married Abigail Kimball, daughter of Henry Kimball and Ursula Scott, and he died on 9 April 1682.

Generation 2: Ephraim Severance was born on 8 April 1656 in Salisbury, Massachusetts. He married Lydia Morrill, daughter of Abraham Morrill and Sarah Clements in Salisbury, and he died in Salisbury on 24 October 1732.

Generation 3: Jonathan Severance was born on 21 April 1700 in Salisbury, Massachusetts. On 24 Feb 1726,  he married Katherine Tucker, daughter of interestingly-named parents Benony Tucker and Ebenezar Nichols (yes, Ebenezar was female). Jonathan died on 14 May 1786 in Kingston, New Hampshire, having removed there at some point after marriage.

Generation 4: Samuel Severance I was born about 1741, probably in Kingston, New Hampshire. On 9 August 1768 he was married to his first cousin Hannah Winslow, daughter of Samuel Winsley/Winslow and Frances Tucker (Frances was the sister of his mother Katherine... yeah, you can say it-- "eewww!")

When the rebellion against their mother country of Britain broke out in 1775, Samuel volunteered and served in the Continental Army that summer. He took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and reportedly took a stone as a memento of that event. He only served for three months when he contracted "camp sickness" (dysentery), and was sent home. A letter that he wrote to his family is preserved by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, having been donated by an ancestor. More on this in this entry.

Generation 5: His son, my 4th great-grandfather Samuel Severance II, was born during that revolutionary summer, while his father was serving, on 25 August 1775. He married Judith Towle in Kingston on 6 January 1802; she was the daughter of Jeremy Towle and Mary Sargent. His death date is not known.

Generation 6: Mary "Polly" Severance was born in Kingston on 14 November 1805. She married William Winslow, son of John Winslow and Mary Webster, on 26 February 1824 in Kingston. She and William had a large family of ten children, but she was widowed at 55 in 1860 when her husband froze to death while walking home from visiting friends on the night of 14 February 1860. She never remarried, and died on 13 September 1889.

Ancestry line:

John SEVERANCE (1609-1682) m. Abigail KIMBALL
Ephraim SEVERANCE (1656-1732) m. Lydia MORRILL
Jonathan SEVERANCE (1700-1786) m. Katherine TUCKER
Samuel SEVERANCE I (b. 1741) m. Hannah WINSLOW
Samuel SEVERANCE II (b. 1775). Judith TOWLE
Mary "Polly" SEVERANCE (1805-1889) m. William WINSLOW
James W. WINSLOW (1838-1906) m. Lizzie MACE
Bessie Maud WINSLOW (1886-1970) m. Frank Bailey PALMER
Dorothy Elizabeth PALMER (1918-1984) m. Henry Richard HOWES
S. HOWES (1937-1999) m. my father
Me (b. 1974)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Harry Houdini, 1874-1926

I was thrilled when I saw the History Channel come out with its recent miniseries Houdini, which, despite its historical inaccuracy in some regards, was terrific.

Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, to Rabbi Mayer Shmuel Weisz and his wife Cecilia (nee Steiner). The family immigrated to the U.S. when Erik was four years old, and they settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. The family adopted the German spelling of their names-- e.g., Erik Weisz became Ehrich Weiss. Houdini's family did not speak Yiddish, but German.

"Ehrie", as his mother affectionately called him, developed an interest in magic at a young age, and when he became a magician himself, would take the name Harry Houdini; Harry was a variation of his nickname Ehrie, and "Houdini" was in honor of a French magician named Houdin.

After his father lost his position as rabbi of their synagogue, the Weiss family relocated to New York City. For awhile Ehrich took a job as a cutter in a necktie factory, one of the few professions open to Jews, before he and his brother Theodore ("Dash") partnered in a magic act.

When Harry was 19, he met a vaudeville singer named Bess Rahner; they were married just weeks later, and she replaced Dash in their act.

For years, Harry built his reputation, career, and fortune on being able to escape from virtually anything: handcuffs, chains, straight jackets, jail cells, and even water tanks; the only thing he was better at than escapes was promoting himself. He dabbled in aviation, flying across Australia in an airplane, as well as moving picture shows.

Harry was absolutely devoted to his mother, and when she passed away in 1913, he was devastated. He reportedly never really got over her loss.

His mother's death almost certainly played a large role in his next mission. At a low point early in Houdini's career, he and Bess had held false seances purporting to contact deceased loved ones, and he now felt guilty. It was one thing to fool people's eyes, but capitalizing on their grief and pain was something else.

So Houdini began a crusade against false spiritualists. He publicly challenged and exposed them, offering large sums of money to any so-called mediums whose tricks he could not uncover. Among those he antagonized were former friends Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle.

Houdini with his mother Cecilia and wife Bess;
the text reads "My two sweethearts, Houdini, 1907"

And still he performed his death-defying acts. Harry had always been athletic and fit, but by 1926, he was 52 years old-- well into middle age-- and had taken a lot of physical punishment over the years. In October of that year,  he fractured his ankle while being lowered into the Chinese Water Torture cell.

A few days later, on October 22, he was in his dressing room  being visited by some university students who wanted to sketch a portrait of him before a show. One of them, J. Gordon Whitehead, asked him if it was true that he could withstand the hardest punch to the stomach. Houdini replied that he could, and Whitehead asked if he could try himself. Houdini agreed, and started to rise from his couch-- with some difficulty, due to his recent ankle injury. Whitehead punched before Houdini had a chance to get into position and tighten his stomach muscles-- and kept punching. Houdini had to tell him he'd had enough.

Houdini insisted he was fine, and went on stage, but he was visibly pale and unwell; he developed a high fever and couldn't sleep. By the time he finally got medical attention days later, he was found to be suffering from severe appendicitis, and the infection was too fargone for anything to be done for the Great Houdini except to keep him as comfortable as possible. Whether the punches to the gut ruptured his appendix or whether Harry had already been suffering from appendicitis is not known.

Houdini passed away on 31 October 1926.

For the next ten years his widow Bess held a seance each Halloween (the anniversary of his death) in an attempt to contact his spirit. She never felt that she succeeded and finally gave up, wryly declaring that ten years was long enough to wait for any man. She lived until 1943, surviving her husband by 17 years.

Apparently even today spiritualists conduct seances each All Hallow's Eve to try to communicate with the legendary magician. I figure, though, that if he wouldn't or couldn't even talk to his beloved Bess, he's not talking to anyone.

Because of his death date and his link to spiritualism, Harry Houdini is forever associated with Halloween.

Today let us honor his life and legacy.

Friday, October 24, 2014

George and Mary Palmer autographs

Sometimes I google the names of recent ancestors to see what comes up. A couple of weeks ago, I did this, and came across something very cool on a wonderful blog called Heirlooms Reunited.

Pam Beveridge, the blog owner, posts items of historical interest, and one such item was an autograph book from the early 1880's. At this time such books, which you would have loved ones and friends sign, were all the rage. 

The book featured in this particular blog post was owned by a Samuel Thomas Woodman, and two of the autographs were those of my great-great grandparents George Bailey Palmer and Mary Olivia Purinton Palmer.

My great-great grandmother Mary signed herself as "Mae"; until I found this, I didn't know she had gone by that name.

The 1880 U.S. Federal Census shows that Samuel Woodman was a neighbor to the Palmers- and an organ tuner living with his parents: 

I also notice that, while Mary signed the book on 23 May 1883, George didn't sign the book until 9 September. A married couple would presumably be present together at most social situations, so I find it rather strange that they wouldn't have both signed at the same time.

A big thank-you to Pam for sharing the first four above images, and for allowing me to repost them here. Be sure to check out her original post, as well as other items on her blog!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why I made my tree private

Ever since I've had my family tree uploaded on, I've kept it public. My rationale was that there was no point in having your tree on a website if you didn't want it to be accessible, and regarded people who had their trees marked private as jerks who were jealously keeping their information to themselves.

But I've rethought this of late.

I noticed that someone (who turned out to be a the wife of a second cousin) was saving many documents and photos relating to my paternal grandmother and her line from my family tree to hers. I recognized her last name as being the married name of my great-aunt, so I contacted her, and she emailed me. I emailed her back, twice, and have not heard anything back. I noticed that she's been recently logged into her account, so it isn't that she hasn't had an opportunity. I can only conclude that she's simply not interested in sharing information with me, although she accessed and saved all of the information I had.

This has prompted me to make my tree private. Not because I'm a jerk who doesn't want to share genealogical information-- most genealogists are thrilled to share what they have-- but I want people to share back. And having one's tree public means that people can access your information without having to communicate/reciprocate.

So from now on, yes, I'll be very happy to share my information with you, but you'll have to contact me first.