Sandy Fleming from North Carolina spent 30 years of research unraveling multiple generations of orphaned ancestors. A MyHeritage SuperSearch Alert she received led her to a small, two-sentence newspaper item that completely transformed her research and led to a number of important discoveries.
Here is her story:
The poignancy of my grandmother Reba’s orphaned childhood years, in addition to the “orphaned” childhood of her own mother, aunts and uncles, has been the catalyst for my research for decades. The two generations of orphaned children caused significant interruptions in transmitted family knowledge.
When I started out, the 1869 carte de visite below was the only documented evidence I had to connect to earlier maternal generations:
This was the basis for decades of searching for Margaret, my great-great-grandmother, and my great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Spencer, in Trenton, New Jersey.
Piecing together the gaps in Reba’s life
The above photograph of Margaret Spencer Luckman Ernest came to me from my maternal grandmother, Reba. Margaret was Reba’s maternal grandmother. Reba’s mother, Mary Elizabeth (Spencer) Webb died in Frankford, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1893 when Reba was 4 years old. Her father, Henry Webb, died 10 months later, near Wilmington, Delaware, when Reba was 5 and a half.
Of the 8 children born to Henry and Mary Elizabeth, only two survived beyond one year. Reba’s surviving brother, Wilfred, married 3 years after their father’s death, at which time he took Reba into his home and cared for her until his death 13 years later.
Of the intervening time, Reba’s “lost years” during which she could not pinpoint her whereabouts, her only recollection was she was “boarded out” — understood to be an informal foster care arrangement. However, her appearance in photographs suggests she may have been in an orphanage: the unusually close-cropped hair and simple clothing, in sharp contrast to the ruffles, ribbons, and long corkscrew curls seen in an earlier portrait, as well as the fact that the photographs were taken during that time at all. All of this contributed to the scarcity of knowledge she had of her parents and grandparents, which fueled my desire to fill in the gaps for our family.
Margaret’s circumstances suggest her security was heavily dependent upon her marital status. She first married Joshua H. Spencer in 1837 at St. George’s Methodist Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their family grew with the births of Mary Jane in 1838; John H., in 1842; Mary Elizabeth in 1844 Trenton, New Jersey; William T. in 1846 and Julia Taylor 1849, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Orphans scattered among non-relatives in 3 adjacent states
During the 1850s, following her husband’s death, Margaret’s children were settled in various and widespread locations with people for whom there is no known kinship connection. In the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Mary Jane (widowed) had married Charles P. Clymer, they lived in New Jersey; Mary Elizabeth, my great-grandmother, age 16, lived in Frankford, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the household of the Shoemakers: Thomas, a fisherman, and his wife, Harriet, a grocery shop owner.
Julia was in the household of farmer John Rung and his wife, Mary, in West Twp., Huntingdon Co., Pennsylvania. Another son or possible stepson, George P. Luckman, had been in Margaret’s life in the 1860s, though none of her Spencer children appear to have been.
In 1863, Margaret married for the second time, to Edward Luckman, but 6 years later she was widowed again. In the 1870 U.S. Federal Census she appears as an attendant in the New Jersey State Hospital (asylum). It is evident how difficult her circumstances must have become. Likely the carte de visite image was taken during this phase of her life.
By the time of the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, Margaret had married for the third time, to Joseph Ernest, a widowed shoemaker. They lived in Wilmington, DE.
With further research, I also found two of Margaret’s sons, John H. Spencer and George P. Luckman, living in Wilmington at this time.
Margaret is listed once in the Wilmington City Directory as a grocer in 1885. In 1888 Joseph Ernest died, leaving Margaret widowed for the third time. She lived with her son or stepson George Luckman, his wife, and his brothers-in law from about 1890 until she went to live with her daughter, Mary Jane Davis Clymer in Camden, New Jersey, from about 1899 to June 1900 (the 1900 Federal Census provides a December 1818 birthdate for Margaret). Less than two weeks after this, Margaret relocated to live with her youngest daughter, Julia (Spencer) McClure, married to Cassius McClure, a farmer, near Petersburg, Huntington Co., PA., where she resided until her death in 1903.
The two sentences that broke a 30-year brick wall
The brick wall breakthrough came from a small, two-sentence newspaper item which I received in my email as a MyHeritage SuperSearch Alerts result.
This was a newspaper death notice, of an unanticipated locale, which provided the essential key to unlock a long-standing (30+ years) brick wall in my research. It led to the discovery of two sons of my great-great-grandmother Margaret, never previously known to exist. It also led to documented research discoveries which confirmed kinship hypotheses which had only been speculations until this contribution from MyHeritage (and undoubtedly the algorithms it has created for such newspaper searches).
Fewer than 20 words in a newspaper death notice, and the subsequent research it has made possible, has filled huge voids. It has been a life-changing research saga ever since that singular MyHeritage email.
Another most recent discovery was quite a revelation, made possible by a “who else lived at this address” search in the MyHeritage City Directories. The search showed a listing for Margaret with Mary Elizabeth and her family, including the then 3-year-old Reba. This was the year prior to Mary Elizabeth’s death from tuberculosis; she was 49 years old.
These documented facts for this family, scattered by the death of the head of household, provides new evidence that they did maintain connections (or reconnected) with one another despite their tragic losses and far-flung separations.
Both of these discoveries enabled further research, which yielded an obituary detailing her surviving five children, including two never-before-known sons, making a much more complete picture of this family than I’d ever had before. It also confirmed hypotheses regarding the identities of her daughters, Mary Jane and Julia.
Thank you MyHeritage for helping breakdown this long-standing research brick wall. Thank you for forever changing my understanding of my family tree by expanding these branches by this one “small” newspaper mention. It has made all the difference! I am looking forward to the next MyHeritage tools, innovations, and additions to the collections.
Many thanks to Sandy for sharing this incredible discovery with us, along with the impressive results of her meticulous research! We’re sure Reba, Mary Elizabeth, and Margaret would all have been very proud.
If you’ve also made an amazing discovery on MyHeritage, we’d love to hear about it. Please share it with us via this form or send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Source: My Heritage