Strange Hall

Adventures in family history

Last Call

The Irish certainly had a tradition for elaborate wakes and strove to present the dearly departed “a good send-off.”

My family was no exception. Wakes were long family affairs lasting two or even three full days.  People would go and spend the day there.  There was often food in the basement of the funeral home.  Although I would not call the atmosphere “festive” (though it has always amazed me how people will tell funny stories at wakes) there was a certain party-like atmosphere.

When my grandmother Jane Wall Ryan died in 1972, it was very important for the family that she had a good send-off.  Going to wakes had been a sort of hobby of hers.  She would scan the death notices every day and if she felt that she had even the remotest connection to the deceased, she would go to the wake.  (One red letter day she managed to go to a total of three.)  She was originally an Irish peasant girl and when she went to a wake she would (to my terrified astonishment) take the hand of the corpse.  She claimed that she did this out of respect, but also to keep the person from haunting her.  Since she often went to wakes of people she had never met it seemed to me that if she was worried about being haunted she would have been better off not going to the wake at all.  But she didn’t think that way.

She had many, many grandchildren and her wake was full of kids.  At first they were a bit afraid of her in the coffin, but eventually (as children will) they got used to it and my mother reported that a flock of them would gather around her and dare each other to touch her.  She also said that after one of these dare sessions, when the children dispersed, my brother (who was about nine years old) came up to my mother and her brother and sister and said “Do you know what she looks like with her eyes open?”

Of course my mother, aunt, and uncle were appalled.  Could the children have somehow managed to open her eyes?  They were too afraid to go up and look.  So they just waited there (a full twenty minutes as it happened) to see what the reaction would be of the first new guest that came in and went up to the coffin to pay their respects.

As it happened, my little brother’s question had been merely rhetorical and the incident passed into the family folklore as another amusing story about another wake.

Follow Friday (or Frustration Friday) – Finding Immigrants

Looking for immigrant records can be monumentally frustrating, but it an also lead to amazing finds. I’ve had both in the past couple of weeks. Read more…

Black Sheep Sunday – Grandpa Runs Away from Home

Black Sheep SundayWell, he wasn’t grandpa at the time, but it was fun discovering and sharing this particular story from grandpa’s past, about which none of his kids apparently knew. Dominic always was a bit of a firecracker, and well, I guess he started young. From the Aug. 11, 1913 Philadelphia Inquirer:

…two Italians, Joseph Eito and John Oliva, of 1217 Christian Street, reported that their sons had run away. Oliva explained that his nine year old son, Dominick, was accompanying sixteen year old Rocco Eito on a trip to the West, where they were to hunt Indians and robbers. The boys were armed with a suit case and a 32-calibre rifle. They had also taken $20 from a room in their home before starting on their journey, he said.

Knowing how strict his Sicilian mother was, I can only imagine the trouble he was in when he returned.

Funny Friday – Gunfire on the Old West Side

Funny FridayI don’t have any adult memories of my great-grandmother (Genevieve Mahon Payne), who died in 1965 when I was eleven. But even I remember what a tough old bird she was. She was a Chicago police officer, and she had enough political clout to still be active on the force when she died at almost eighty years of age.

One of my mother’s earliest memories of her was typical. “Here I was,” my mother told me, “meeting my soon-to-be husband’s grandmother downtown, and the old lady suggests that we take a taxi back to her apartment. The driver drove for a few minutes and then took a wrong turn, which I am positive was just an honest mistake. Suddenly, Jennie pulls a pistol out of her purse and puts it at the back of the driver’s head and says, ‘Listen Mister. You are going to drive us straight there the right way and you are not going to take advantage of a couple of women.’” Read more…

Thankful Thursday – Memories of Ireland

The first time I visited Ireland, I was surprised how many of my sentiments about it were formed by stories I had heard at the knee of my immigrant grandmother (Jane Wall Ryan) when I was a small child in the early sixties.

Wednesday’s Child: Salvatore and Domenic Jr.

Headstone for John Oliva, Salvatore Oliva (son, died age 4), Dominic Jr (grandson, died age 5 mos), Matteo Campanella (father in law)

This is the grave of my great-grandfather and 2nd great grandfather. But it’s also the grave of two children.

Read more…

Church Record Sunday – Premature Baptism

When my grandmother Jane came over from Ireland in 1912, she shaved three years off her age, claiming to have been born in 1896 rather than 1893.  This I discovered when I was finally able to obtain her Irish birth certificate.  In the context of certain things I knew about her, it made sense.  There was a story in the family that would sometimes emerge over drinks that my grandmother had had a lover in Ireland named Harry Hurrell who had been a soldier stationed in the local garrison.  (I have a photo somewhere of an English sergeant captioned “Dear Harry” in her hand).  This man had gotten her pregnant and in a bit of a rush she had taken a steamboat ticked that had already been bought for her younger sister for passage to Boston.  It was entirely likely that the ticket was for a 16 year old instead of a 19 year old.  And it makes perfect sense that my grandmother would have kept to the 1896 birth date when she arrived in the States, especially after she met and married my grandfather Charles, who was born in 1895.  Why admit that she was several years older than he was?

So grandma lied about her age and no one knew about it until I got hold of her birth certificate.  But her birth certificate held another mystery.  It shows her being born on 2 November rather than 11 September.  Why would my grandmother also lie about her birthday?

Read more…

Shopping Saturday – Rose Inke’s Latvian Women’s Hat Shop

Genealogists rely on the kindness and hard work of strangers. So much of what we learn frequently comes from those incredible acts of kindness we experience as anonymous transcriptions or responses to [e]mailed and phone requests for records, details, *anything* that will provide clues as we follow the trail of our fascinating forebears. Today’s example comes from the kindness of some faraway church administrators who gave me some incredible stuff. Read more…

Follow Friday: This week’s favorites

This is my first “this week’s favorites”. These are resources I’ve found interesting and/or useful. I hope you do too.

Chicago History


  • Video: The art of the hand-crafted gravestones by a modern stone cutter. As a knitter and lover of hand-made things, I always find it enjoyable to listen to craftspeople talk about their craft.

Those Places Thursday: L’Emmanuello Italian Episcopal Mission Church in Philadelphia

In the late 19th century, countless home missions and missionary societies sprung up in the US in response to the incoming waves of immigrants. Their purposes included education, orientation, and “transform[ing] the raw immigrant into a white-souled citizen,” as the 1902 Woman’s Home and Foreign Missionary Societies of the Methodist Episcopal Church put it. One of these home missions was the L’Emmanuello Italian Episcopal Mission church, founded on Dec. 20, 1883 at 1024 Christian Street. Read more…

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