Half Lives, and Stones Unturned

Siobhan handed me a stack of disorganized family photos, letters, and random notes about birth- and death-dates of various relations. They’re from her mother’s family history files. Siobhan’s mother was interested in genealogy, but never really got to wrangle it in any organized way.

I told Sio that I’d take a stab at organizing the information, but it’s pretty chaotic. One of the first juicy bits I pulled out relates to a family of McFaddens. Someone had sent Sio’s mother a list of birth-dates, marriages and death-date hand-written on both sides of a sheet of lined paper.

Sadly, the dates appear to be fairly inconsistent with various documents that I’ve been able to look up. And there are other oddities, too.

One particular family had a few interesting elements involving Francis (“Frank”) John Joseph McFadden, who married twice. In my records, to date, I’d only had the second wife recorded. According to Sio’s mom’s correspondent, Frank had married a woman named Mary Ruth in 1906 (but the correspondent writes that she didn’t know Mary Ruth’s last name).

Conveniently, it did not take long to establish that Mary’s last name was “Ruth”, but perhaps the confusion emerged because Frank and Mary named their daughter “Ruth” as well (Marion Ruth McFadden, — the “Marion” was apparently silent, and she was called Ruth, later Mrs. Deeks).

I’d found this family fairly quickly in the 1911 census for Peterborough County, but I couldn’t originally be sure that it was the right family: Frank and Mary McFadden, living with their kids Ruth and Ray. But slowly, I became more confident about the record. First, after I found records about Marion Ruth, and later after I found records about their son, Ernest Ray.

An Ancestry user has recorded that Ernest Ray married a woman named “Mary Elizabeth COFFEE De Mont McFadden” (as that user recorded it).

Names in genealogy are really weird, and the nature of genealogy is that we tend to favour what was written in records as people’s “real” names. In past years, almost all married women took their husband’s names, but despite that, most genealogists tend to record women under their maiden names, often with an annotation of a married name somewhere. Ancestry doesn’t really record married names well. So you’ll occasionally see users record people under their married names, but it’s not typical.

Me, I’m a bit too trans to put much stock in wallet names, and a bit too confused by “married names” to use them by default. I accept that there’s a lot of differing opinions about married names and legal names and whatnot. But for me, names and genealogy are just a big box of grrr.

So, anyway, I took the record to mean that Mary Elizabeth Coffee married someone named De Mont, but later married Ernest Ray McFadden. So I dug in to that. Who was Mary Elizabeth Coffee? There’s a marriage certificate for Mary and Ray listing Mary’s parents as John Coffee and Henrietta Moffatt (marriage certificates list maiden names of mothers, more often than not). Mary, herself, is listed as Mary De Mont.

But beyond that, there’s not a whole lot of information about Mary Coffee. The marriage certificate lists ages, rather than birth dates, so I’m not entirely sure when she’s born, other than “about 1909”. And there aren’t really any records about her: she appears out of nowhere, it seems, and then marries Frank.

John Coffee is also a mystery. I’ve found some John Coffees (usually with some spelling variations: Coffer, Coffey, etc.) Since the name comes from only one original source (Mary’s marriage certificate), I can’t really be certain about the spelling.

Turns out the record is more inaccurate than I thought. When I searched for Henrietta Moffatt, it turns out that she married John Coffey Stone, and gave birth to Mary Elizabeth Stone. There is no Mary Coffee, just Mary Stone. John and Henrietta had a fair number of kids (all named Stone) and I can find marriage certificates for most of them, and birth records for some of them.

There’s even a marriage record for Mary Elizabeth Stone and Ernest Gordon De Mont (Mary’s first marriage). Apparently Mary married two different men named Ernest. I feel like there should be an Oscar Wilde reference here.

But what’s interesting is that people’s Ancestry trees seem to record two different half-people: the story of Mary Stone who married Ernest De Mont — who tragically dies of tuberculosis in 1934 at the age of 25 — and who later disappears from all records; and the story of Mary Coffee who appears from nowhere and then marries Ernest Ray McFadden just before Christmas in 1934. And it looks like no one has really connected the two women with each other, largely because of a clerical error on the second marriage certificate.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this sort of thing: part of a family moves to Canada or the US, and four generations later, genealogists in both the new home and the old home each have half of the story to work with. What happened to all those siblings from that old census? Nobody knows.

There’s one other red herring in all of this: the 1911 census for the Stone family lists a fairly large family, but does not appear to have Mary. Instead, the transcription of the census lists a record for Riga Stone, born around 1909. But if you look at the scan of the original page, I think it says “Liza Stone”. What’s more, Mary’s record of birth lists her as Mary Eliza Stone, born 12 Jan 1909.

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