Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My Circuitous Route To Willie T. In Which I Sing The Praises Of The Internet Yet Again

     While sifting through my family notes the other day, I revisited the mystery of John Sheehan.  After he appeared in the 1870 census of Manchester, NY with his mother and brothers, he vanished.  Literally.  When his mother, my 3rd great-aunt Mary Ryan Sheehan died in 1891, her probate records noted that John's family had neither seen nor heard from him since he departed for Chicago 20 years earlier, and they believed him to be dead.  How dreadful to never know what became of your firstborn, as was Mary's fate.

     I haven't been able to find John either, perhaps he was indeed dead, but now I noticed I hadn't followed up on his brother Cornelius C. Sheehan, which is not like me.  I'm a big fan of cluster genealogy, where you examine the extended family and even the friends and neighbors of your subject. I had a good starting point for Cornelius, his obituary from 1931.  It told me that he lived in Detroit, but was in town on an extended visit to his youngest brother Terrence in Clifton Springs, NY, near Manchester, at the time of his demise. It also says he had a son named Thomas who lived in Los Angeles.  That's quite alot to go on, but I was having trouble locating him.  I did a quick search of the appropriate censuses, which turned up nothing promising.  I then looked at some city directories for Detroit and found several possibilities, but no way of knowing which if any was my man.  I returned to the 1900 census, but the prime candidate's son was named William, not Thomas.  This wasn't a great match but it was the closest I could find; indexed as Cornelius Schan,  born in March (my guy was born in August) and with a son with the wrong name.  But it just might be him, the birth year and place was correct.

1900 Detroit Census-- Cornelius 1857, Lillian 1874  and William 1899
     Since Cornelius' obituary placed his son Thomas in California in 1931, I next pulled up the California Death Index at Rootsweb and typed in, "Thomas Sheehan" (rather than William), "birth in Michigan 1899", which I knew from the above census.  The only name that came up?  William THOMAS Sheehan!  Born June 21, 1899 in Michigan,  died November 20, 1951 in Los Angeles, mother's maiden name, Putnam.  Now that I had Lillian's maiden name, I could look for a marriage.  Which I found at Family Search in their Michigan Marriage Index.  The index read, on May 15, 1895, Lillian Putman (sic) married Cornelius Sheehan from NY, the son of Mary Ryan and Terrence Sheehan Sr.  It was him alright, and get this, Con lied about his age.  He made himself five years younger on his marriage record.  He was in fact a good seventeen years older than the bride, probably why he fudged his birth year.  

     I couldn't locate this family in any more censuses, and as Con was survived by only his brother and a son, perhaps Lillian had passed away, though I couldn't find her in any death indexes.  Then it occurred to me, with that large age difference looming between them, maybe there had been a divorce.  Bingo!  Ancestry has a divorce index for Michigan and there they were.  In 1904 Lillian filed for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty.  I was shocked at first, but the more I thought about it, there was no such thing as no-fault divorce back then.  If you wanted out of your marriage you had to come up with a good reason, maybe he wasn't as bad as all that?  William Thomas' birth year of 1899 was a clue to look for a draft record, and in the World War 1 Draft Registration Cards at Family Search I found young William and his mother Lillian Maude Sheehan living in San Francisco in 1918.  She had come to California as a divorcee, via Seattle Washington and a second divorce from one Albert Welke.

William Sheehan's Draft Registration

      The two were in Oakland California by 1920, and Lillian was now married to George Farmer; by 1930 William was himself married to a woman named Esther and they had two children, William T. Jr. and Barbara P.  But what was Esther's maiden name?

     My first try at finding her name was a search for her marriage to William, also at Family Search.  That came up empty, but it did bring up the second marriage of their daughter Barbara which contained Esther's maiden name of Dodge.  I had better luck finding William and Esther's marriage at Ancestry, they had a copy of the marriage certificate dated 1921.  It pays to go back and forth in your searches, different sites have different databases, search engines and indexers too.  What one doesn't have the other might.

William T. Sheehan Sr. and Esther Dodge marriage

     Looking ahead to the 1930 census, William appeared to be an up and coming young real estate agent.  He lived in a Pasadena home valued at $8,000, that would be $109,200 in today's dollars. The 1940 census however would paint a very different picture.

     The great depression which racked America in the 1930's had ruined William.  Nineteen forty found him living in a rented flat in Los Angeles city with his wife and two children.  It said he had lived there in 1935 also, and his income for the year was $0.  Within eleven years he would be dead.  I'm currently looking for an obituary for William, I'm very curious what his final years were like and what his cause of death was, he was only 52 when he passed.  When I find it there will be a sequel to this story.  As always, I am astonished at the primary sources available to me as I sit here in my jammies clutching my coffee cup.  Censuses, obituaries, various certificates, draft registrations...and not transcriptions either, the real thing!  In a matter of hours I have an excellent start on the story of Cornelius C. Sheehan and his descendants.  

     To be continued...



  1. Excellent research, Ellie, I wonder what happened to John? It would be nice to lay him to rest. Happy Easter, to you and yours!

  2. Happy Easter to you too Dara! If I ever find John I'll let you know but I doubt I will.