Part 2: When History and Family History Intersect

In my last post I shared a fascinating newspaper tidbit from 1901 from the Jackson (Michigan) Patriot on my aunt Grace Desmond (1891-1972). It mentioned that she was a “child wonder” and “musical prodigy” at the age of 8 who had played on numerous occasions at the home of Carter Harrison II, Chicago’s mayor at the time.

Jackson  (Michigan) Patriot August 23, 1901

Jackson (Michigan) Patriot
August 23, 1901

It took me awhile to get past my astonishment at this unusual, yet true, story about a member of my own family whom I actually remember from my childhood.  Once I did though,  I went on to review some of the other news items on that same page which, as it turns out, proved to be equally fascinating, and clearly products of their historical time.

Take this, for instance, on the Baroness Burdett-Coutts of England:

Second Lady

courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Baroness Burdett-Coutts of England in her younger days. (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Washington, D.C.)





Don’t you just love that last line? She was acquainted with William IV (an ancestor, no doubt); was a friend of Dickens (I’m presuming  British author, Charles Dickens); and expended over $1,000,000 in charity. (That’s a lot of  bucks in 1901!)

Elsewhere on the page with Aunt Grace’s mention is this bit of royal gossip related to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and her hubby who wed earlier that year.  Seems the queen-mother was none too happy with her new son-in-law’s spending habits:

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands on her wedding day, 7 February 1901

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands on her wedding day, 7 February 1901







And how about this for all you female meteorologists out there today?  You can thank Mrs. L. H. Grenewald for paving the way for you. (It’s a shame we don’t know her first name, however.)

meteorologistIt also seems that despite her renown in the “scientific circles of Europe,” her credentials as President of the Woman’s National Science Club, and her overall experience in the field of meteorology, her beloved manages to show up in this news item as  sheriff of  York County, PA after the Civil War.  (Ahem…and what’s that got to do with her accomplishments?!)

My favorite news item on this page, however, is the  following.  It manages to combine  details on the resignation of Mrs. Marguerite Coleman, a 27-year veteran of the Treasury Department, with how she personally saved the life of  William H. Seward (President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State), on the fateful day Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.  It then winds up tossing in a little harmless nepotism at the end of the story when it indicates Mrs. Coleman’s position would be filled by her very own niece.

William H. Seward, Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy of  Google Images)

William H. Seward,  (1801-1872) Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy of Google Images)











And I was impressed with Aunt Grace–the  child wonder and musical prodigy–who entertained at the home of  a Chicago mayor at the turn of the last century. Amazing what else you can find in those old newspaper clippings to put your ancestor’s story into context!


 Copyright © 2014 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in American History, Biographies, Civil War, Family Legends | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

When History and Family History Intersect

Jackson Patriot August 23, 1901

Jackson  (Michigan) Patriot
August 23, 1901

Over a year ago, GeneaJourneys readers were introduced to Grace Desmond (1891-1972)–a  gifted pianist at the turn of the last century, who just happens to be my  aunt.

Grace Desmond c. 1906 Chicago Illinois Desmond Family Photo Collection

Grace Desmond c. 1906
Chicago, Illinois
(Desmond Family Photo Collection)

Our family knew nothing of Grace’s fascinating past which I was fortunate to learn about for the first time from a complete stranger–Jay Sherwood–who I now count among my dearest (and most generous) genealogy friends, for providing me with numerous photos, newspaper clippings, and historical ephemera related to Aunt Grace and Chautauqua which he has gifted my family with.

You can read all about how this talented, liberated young woman from the early 1900s traveled the Chautauqua circuit with equally gifted artists of the day–like  Jay’s grandmother Ruth Bowers, a violin virtuoso–bringing music and culture to the American west in the early 1900s.

Grace Desmond, classical pianist, c. 1910. (Photo courtesy of University of Iowa  Libraries.)

Grace Desmond, classical pianist, c. 1910. (Photo courtesy of University of Iowa Libraries.)

I first met Jay online and we began conversing by email.  Eventually I had the good fortune to meet him in person during a research trip he made last year to repositories throughout the eastern U.S. and Midwest for the book he’s writing on his grandmother’s Chautauqua career.

It was Jay who showed this genealogist how obtaining primary, original sources can add to the richness, depth and context of the family stories we tell.

Noting his success, I decided to give newspaper research a try myself, and was delighted to uncover a number of fascinating headlines and stories that not only mention Grace–but  more importantly–place her in a time period of American history that brings her story to life .

One example is the item that opened this post which I repeat below:

Jackson (Michigan) Patriot August 23, 1901

Jackson (Michigan) Patriot
August 23, 1901

Once I got past the astonishing headline describing Aunt Grace as a “child wonder”, I looked a little deeper into this brief newspaper mention from 1901.

Grace is described as the daughter of Owen E. Desmond (my grandfather), yet her mother’s name is not even mentioned–an  oversight which would be politically incorrect if not outright offensive to women today, over a century later.

She’s also described as a “musical prodigy” which is borne out in numerous other newspaper articles I found in Chicago and across the country in the years that followed this one.

The age listed for Grace is incorrect. Grace was 10 years old in 1901. Was this perhaps a two year old story actually written in 1899 which appeared in the  Michigan newspaper years after it was originally penned? Who would know?

Cover of The Musical Critic, a publication of Chicago Musical College, July 1901.

Cover of The Musical Critic, a publication of Chicago Musical College, July 1900.

The details about Grace “playing piano by air”, taking lessons at age 6, and  and “reading music at sight” may or may not be accurate.  I’m not a musical prodigy and have no idea what “playing the piano by air” and “calling the root, third and fifth of a chord upon hearing it struck” even means.

All of the above are minor points, though. My favorite part of this newspaper mention is right there in the last line which states that “Little Miss Grace has given several recitals under the patronage of Mr. and Mrs. T.S. Bergey, at the Carter H. Harrison house.”

That’s when I put my keystroking skills to work on Google.

Advertisement in The Musical Critic, a publication of Chicago Musical College, July 1900.

It seems  Mr. and Mrs. T. S. Bergey were voice and piano teachers in Chicago as seen by this advertisement in the July 1900 issue of The Musical Critic, a publication of Chicago Musical College.

Perhaps Grace was one of their proteges in 1901 and the Bergeys obtained engagements for her to enable her to practice her craft.

And the “Carter H. Harrison” home where Grace gave numerous recitals at that very tender age?

Why, that refers to the residence of  The Honorable Carter H. Harrison II, who served five terms as the mayor of Chicago between 1897 and 1915.

Way to go, Little Miss Grace!

Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison II with his wife (c. 1913) during his fifth and final term as mayor. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and The Library of Congress.

Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison II with his wife (c. 1913) during his fifth and final term as mayor. Grace Desmond, a gifted and classically trained pianist, performed for the mayor at his home in 1901 when she was only 10 years old. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and The Library of Congress.)


 Copyright © 2014 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Up next:  Other articles that appeared on the “Society” page of the Jackson Patriot on August 23, 1901 which place Grace Desmond in historical context.

Posted in Biographies, Chicago History, Family Legends | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Stretching the Truth vs. Finding the Proof: Family Lore

Photo courtesy of

Yankee drummer boy. (Photo courtesy of

Recently, I was poking around on my newspaper database looking for any mentions of my great-grandfather William P. Donar (1826-1899) or his son William H. Donar (1826-1923)  when I came across the item below which read:

Wm. Henry Donar, of Washington, D.C., followed a New Jersey regiment on their return, some days ago, and was yesterday stopped by the conductor of the Camden and Amboy Railroad, who gave him in charge of the police. He was sent to the Northern Home for Friendless Children, and the secretary of that institution has written to Washington about him. The lad says he is ten years old, the son of William Donar, tailor, who belongs to another regiment.

The article above appeared on page 4 of  The Baltimore Sun newspaper (Maryland) on Saturday, August 24, 1861.

The article above appeared on page 4 of  The Baltimore Sun newspaper (Maryland) on Saturday, August 24, 1861.

Whoa!  What?!

It seems that earlier that week in August of 1861, a 10-year-old boy named William Henry Donar, decided to take up the Union cause. Was he running away from home? Seeking adventure? Emulating his father who was serving in Lincoln’s army?

Now, this little fella just happens to have the exact same name as my own grand-uncle: i.e,  the brother of my grandfather, Peter Donar. This boy also had a father named William Donar (as my grand-uncle did) who served in the Civil War. In addition, his dad,  just like my own great-grandfather, was a tailor by trade.

Could this little patriot have been my ancestor?


…or maybe not…

I read and re-read the brief newspaper article milking it for every clue I could.

First sentence:

“William Henry Donar”:  Yep, that’s the name of my grand-uncle.

“…of Washington, DC: Uh, no. My Donars resided in Albany, New York in 1861.

Last sentence:

“The lad says he is 10 years old,…”: According to my records, my grand-uncle named William Henry Donar (born in 1856), would have been 5 years old in 1861 at the time of this incident–not 10 years old as this William Henry Donar was said to have told the police.

Could this boy have lied to the police saying he was 10 so he’d sound more grown up? Well, maybe…but  come on, most people can tell the difference between a 5-year-old and 10-year-old, can’t they?  Hmmm..on second thought, maybe my facts are wrong–maybe my guy was actually born in 1851, not 1856.  Yeah, that’s a possibility.  Why not? ….

“…the son of  William Donar, tailor…”:  Yes. That’s my great-grandfather’s name, and yes, great-gramps was, indeed, a tailor. I’ve got the census and pension records to prove it.

“…who belongs to another regiment”: Well, that’s also true. My great-grandfather William P. Donar enlisted in a regiment from Albany, New York as a Private in Company C,  25th New York State Infantry.

There was one nagging difference, though:  The newspaper article recounting this young William Donar’s adventure ran in August of 1861. According to my great-grandfather’s pension record, gramps didn’t enlist until  June of 1862–almost a year after this incident occurred.

So what’s going on here? The Donar surname is not all that common as Irish surnames go. That’s probably why I’ve been as successful as I have been so far, in finding information on this family line. In five years of genealogy research–much  of it spent on the Donars–I’ve NEVER found another William Donar living in that geographical area during that era, much less another William Donar with a son of the same name.

Could it really be possible there was another Donar family in that same general time and place with a father and son with the exact same names as my own great-grandfather William P. and and his son, William Henry?  Could there really have been two William Donars, who were both tailors by trade, who both served in the Union army in that era, who both named their sons after themselves?

Seems very, very unlikely…so maybe this kid was mine.

Sure, he had to be…The newspaper reporter was probably on deadline and slipped up on a few of the details in his story getting the age and hometown wrong (“10-years-old” instead of “5-years-old”; “…of Washington DC”  instead of  “…of Albany”).  If so, that little rascal really was my ancestor running off to join the army. Yeah, that must have been what happened. This little renegade definitely belongs on my family tree.

But what about those conflicting dates? My great-grandpa William Donar wasn’t in the Army until almost a year later.

Hey, I know! Maybe this kid’s dad (my grand-uncle) was just talking about mustering in, the kid overheard him, and that fostered lofty ideas of his own. Sure, that’ll work–that’ll make him my grand-uncle.

A lot of the  facts in that newspaper clipping match those of my ancestor’s, right? And with a little twist here and little nudge there, I can kind of make the rest of them sort of fit, right? Oh, what the heck, it’s a cute story. I’ll just pass it on and add it to the family lore. It’s harmless. If it turns out to be wrong, what difference does it make? It’s not going to hurt anybody. Who’d know the difference anyway? Is anybody really going to check? Probably not. So what’s the problem?

Proof–that’s the problem.

Sure, I’d love to be able to say that mini-miltary hobo claiming to be a 10-year-old William Henry Donar, was my very own 5-year-old  grand-uncle–a boy also named William Henry Donar –but  it wouldn’t be accurate (at least not yet), because I haven’t proven it.

It’s called truth, accuracy, being certain. It’s called having the integrity to only publish that which we can  prove.  Sure, it’s very tempting to talk ourselves into something that may not be true, but the fact is, a square peg will never fit into a round hole without a few alterations, no matter how hard we try to force it.

As professional genealogists it’s our duty–our obligation–to make sure the facts we obtain match up correctly with the people we are researching. It’s not the other way around. We’re not supposed to make the people we are researching fit the facts that we find–no matter how close those facts might seem to match or how cute the story we’ve unearthed may be.

I’ve found no follow-up  yet to this little human interest piece which ran in The Baltimore Sun back in 1861. So perhaps I’ll never know if  William Henry Donar, the 10-year-old boy whose dad was a tailor, who ran off to join the Union army that year–does  in fact belong on my family tree. I hope he does, ’cause it’s a doozie of a tale. But I’m not quite ready to claim it as my own just yet.

And that’s OK.

I’ll just put this item on my  growing list of genealogical conundrums to pursue when I have a clearer head. After all, as they say: “You can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.” I imagine that was as true back in 1861 as it is today.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll start poking around my newspaper database again to see if I can find dear old Grandpa Desmond in there somewhere. I hear from some family members he had a few connections to the gangsters in Chicago back in the 1920s.  Sounds pretty promising to me…


Recently the bricks have been flying on a stubborn brick wall related to someone named Frank Anthony Fay, who is very likely an ancestor of mine who worked in vaudeville, silent pictures, and the early “talkies” at the turn of the last century.

I’m very close to proving that this fellow belongs on the Desmond-Donar family tree. GeneaJourneys readers will be among the first to know if, indeed, it turns out to be true–but only once I’ve verified that fact.

To learn more about this murky, and complicated family mystery see my post from January 28, 2012 entitled: “Frank Fay: Fact, Fiction or Family Legend?”


Copyright © 2014  Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in American History, Biographies, Civil War, Military | Tagged , | 4 Comments