Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Surprises in Old Records

I was looking at the Canadian military service records of my great uncle recently. In it you found the sorts of things you would expect. Copies of telegrams, medical records, information about what units he was with and where he was posted.

Sadly, my great uncle died in WWII in Italy, near Rimini, on Sept 16, 1944. When a soldier dies large amounts of paperwork are generated, letters of condolence, telegrams, death benefits, and multiple lists of personal effects. In the case of Pip (my great-uncle) there must have been at least 5 copies of Pip's personal effects, both typed and handwritten. There were telegrams letting his family know that the box was coming, there were records tracking where they were sent, and there was a packing slip for the box of personal effects, and this is where I found my surprise.

Amongst Pip's personal effects were letters. By itself that is no surprise. There were two or three to his mother, and two from girlfriends in England. Once again, no surprise.

The letters from the girlfriends in England were destroyed.

For me, that was a surprise. Why were they destroyed? What was in them? I have had a few relatives suggest that they contained place and unit information and that the letters were destroyed by censors. But the letters were apparently from his girlfriends, not to, so they already passed the censors, so why destroy them? The only thing I can think of is that one or both of them may have revealed that the girlfriend(s) were pregnant, or that she had a child of his.

Pip's father (Frederick William Halls) was a socially prominent figure in Toronto in the 1930's and 40's. Anyone who new anything about Toronto society would have known that he was religious, in all the right clubs, and heavily involved in charitable work. The revelation of a grandchild born out of wedlock would have been quite damaging to his reputation. It is quite possible that whoever destroyed the letters (or ordered them destroyed) knew Fred, and decided to spare him the scandal. Even if my scandal hypothesis is incorrect, given the general attitudes towards children out of wedlock in the 40's, and the military views towards children out of wedlock, perhaps it was simply decided to destroy the letters to spare the family and the military the inconvenience of dealing with a child born out of wedlock.

By now, any child would be about 67 years old. Most likely the child was born in Sussex, because that was where most Canadian troops were based while in England. Given that Pip arrived in England in late Spetember of 1942 and shipped out of England in June of 1943, any child would have been born no later than March of 1944.

There were pictures included in Pip's personal effects. The packing slip did not indicate that any of them were destroyed. I wonder if Fred and Kate were surprised to find an unknown young woman, posssibly holding an infant, amongst the pictures they received?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why Do Genealogy

I often wonder why we do genealogy. When you think about it, what purpose does it serve? I suppose it all depends on how you look at it.

One could argue that genealogy is essentially pointless. The dead are the dead, and nothing we do can ever bring them back. No amount of wishing will bring back those relatives we find most fascinating, or the family keepsakes that were mentioned in letters or articles, or seen in pictures, and are now lost through mischance or neglect.

And yet we continue to do genealogy. Why?

From a practical point of view, genealogy can tell us about diseases that run in families. In my family tree Samuel Pollard Halls (died 1900) and his grandfather Philip (died 1846) both appear to have died from strokes. More recently William Tanton Halls (died 1940) died from Lou Gehrig's Disease as has one of his grandchildren.

In some of us it can fulfill that psychological need to know where we come from, and perhaps by extension, tell us where we are going, or at least are descendants.

In some, it is a need to be remembered themselves. To give the younger generation a feeling for what our own life and times were like, what our own likes and dislikes, loves and losses were, so that we will not be just names on a page like so many that we have recorded.

For others it may be knowing whther or not we are better or worse than our ancestors. We can measure ourselves against their yardstick and determine if we would measure up to their abilities, their successes.

There is the thrill of the chase. The detective work that requires hours of sitting in front of microfilm readers to find a record. Of manipulating the online database so that it not only spits out the answer you want, but the answer you need, no matter how good or bad. Of taking a group of seemingly unrelated clues and putting them together in a pattern that leads you to new and unsuspected places. And the challenges of figuring out who someone is, like one of mine - Catherine Halls, who married John Dawson in Lambeth, Ontario in 1871. I still don't know how, but she must be related.

Finally, the fierce joy one feels when you find the picture of the relative who must have a picture somewhere, the story that makes what was just a name a person, or the record that pulls all the threads together. Intertwined with the thrill of the chase is the sheer intellectual rigour of the detective work.

There are other reasons to do genealogy I am sure, but I bet most of us fall into one or more of the categories above.

In the end, I find there is a certain sadness in genealogy. Perhaps it is digging through musty records, or all the graveyards we visit, or the contemplation of the dead, knowing that someday, we will be the record, or the gravestone, or the picture that is brought into the light by some descendant of ours, who will feel that fierce joy that we have all felt on discovery of the mysterious. Or perhaps knowing there might be no light for us.