Author Archives: Janice Hamilton
Writing Your Family History
Got a family story that you are itching to write? Presenters Janice Hamilton and Mary Sutherland are two of nine Montreal-area genealogists who write about their ancestors and publish their stories on the family history blog Genealogy Ensemble, and in a new book called Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble. Their presentation will inspire you to write about your own family and provide tips to help you start writing and publishing your stories.
Tuesday January 16, 2018 7:00pm
Montreal West Public Library, 45 Westminster S, 514-481-7441
Note: if you can’t make this event, Janice and Mary will do the same presentation at the Benny Library in NDG on Feb. 28. Meanwhile, Tracey, Barb and Claire will be talking about writing family history at the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa on Feb. 10, and other presentations are planned for Montreal and the West Island area.
Every year at Christmas dinner, my husband toasts our guests with a small antique goblet. His gesture has become a new family tradition. Before he came across this goblet in our kitchen cupboard, it had sat unused at my parents’ Montreal home for decades. I had no idea what it was or how it came into the family.
A pattern of flowers and leaves encircles the metal goblet and the initials and date “MJM to AJB Dec. 25 1852” are inscribed. I realized it must have originally been a Christmas gift, but from whom and to whom?
Research revealed that MJM was MacGregor Joseph Mitcheson (1828-1886), and AJB was his 10-month-old niece Amelia Josephine Bagg (1852-1938). This must have been a gift MacGregor sent Amelia for her first Christmas. A fancy goblet seems like a rather strange present for a young man to give a baby, so perhaps it was a tradition, or his parents’ idea.
Amelia was the second surviving daughter of Montreal notary and landowner Stanley Clark Bagg (1820-1873) and his wife, Catharine Mitcheson Bagg (1822-1914). Catharine’s family lived in Philadelphia and McGregor J. Mitcheson was the youngest of her three brothers. In 1852, he was age 24 and a law graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who had recently been admitted to the bar of Philadelphia.
Despite the distance between the two cities, Catherine Mitcheson Bagg and her brother seem to have been quite close, so perhaps McGregor and Amelia eventually got to know each other. Amelia was 21 when her father died in 1873, and McGregor was one of the executors of Stanley Clark Bagg’s will, so he may have travelled to Montreal to advise his sister on family matters.
MacGregor must have been an unforgettable house guest. His blue-grey eyes and long brown beard give him a rather wild appearance.1 He also had a forceful personality. In a book on Philadelphia lawyers, written some 30 years after MacGregor’s death, a former colleague recalled, “There never was an advocate who fought harder, or who merged his excessively egotistic personality more completely in that of his client. In another important sense was he entitled to great praise. He had a ready and instinctive perception of every essential fact in a case, in all its bearings, and a fine gift of memory for retaining them …..”2
Professionally, he specialized in real estate law. In the community, he was involved in the charity work of the United States Sanitary Commission at the time of the U.S. Civil War, he was president of the Northern Home for Friendless Children and Soldiers’ Orphans for many years, and he was an active member of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.3
MacGregor married at age 41 to Ellen Brander Alexander Bond, a widow with a young daughter, and together they had three children. One died as a child, one did not marry and one married but had no children.
As for MacGregor’s niece Amelia, she also married relatively late at life. She married her first husband, real estate agent Joseph Mulholland, in 1890 and he died seven years later. Her second husband, Rev. John George Norton, Anglican Archdeacon and Rector of Montreal., was a widower.
Amelia had no children of her own, but she was quite close to her niece Gwendolyn Bagg (1887-1963) and Gwen’s husband, Fred Murray Smith — my future grandparents. They probably inherited the goblet when Aunt Amelia died, age 86, in 1938. For them, it would have been a precious reminder of a favourite aunt and a link to a great-uncle who died the year before Gwen was born.
Photo of MacGregor J. Mitcheson by Wm. Notman & Son, Montreal; Bagg family collection.
This article is also posted on http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca
Notes and Sources
I have described the goblet as metal because I do not know whether it is silver or pewter. There is no hallmark.
MacGregor J. Mitcheson was born Joseph MacGregor Mitcheson on Nov. 26, 1828 and died at age 57 on June 29, 1886. These dates are according to the cemetery records of St. James the Less Episcopal Church, Philadelphia. The records of St. John’s Protestant Episcopal Church, Northern Liberties, Philadelphia, held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, say he was baptized on April 17, 1829.
MacGregor eventually lived on Locust Street in downtown Philadelphia in a house designed by architect Frank Furness. See http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMG1GH_MacGregor_Mitcheson_House_Philadelphia_Pennsylvania
- “U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” Ancestry.ca [database on-line] entry for MacGregor J. Mitcheson, 1865; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC. ARC Identifier 56612/MLR Number A1 508, NARA Series M1372; Roll # 127.
- Robert D. Coxe, Legal Philadelphia: Comments and Memories, Philadelphia: W.J. Campbell, 1908, p. 140, accessed March 3, 2013.
- An Historical Catalogue of the St. Andrews Society of Philadelphia with Biographical Sketches of Deceased Members, 1749-1907, printed for the Society, 1907; Google Books, accessed July 19, 2013.
“Someday I’m going to write a book!” How often have you said that, or heard a friend or relative make a similar statement? You probably didn’t hold your breath until it appeared.
So it comes as a surprise to the nine members of Genealogy Ensemble, the family history writing group of which I am a member, that we are actually doing it. In November, we will launch Beads in a Necklace, a book of collected short stories based on our family research.
These real-life stories include a young Scot who immigrated to Canada and became a famous gospel singer, memories of queueing up for food rations in post-war England, and a young girl who was kidnapped from her home in southern Maine by the Abenaki Indians in 1692 and spent the rest of her life in Quebec.
Now that it’s about to be published, I thought it would be worthwhile to look back at some of the lessons we learned that might help potential authors.
The genesis of Beads in a Necklace goes back to 2012 or so when we decided to write about our families and share our stories. Since then, we have met once a month to critique each other’s work, improve our story-telling skills and gain confidence.
After a while, our stories were so good, we wanted to share them more widely. We began taking turns posting them on our blog, Genealogy Ensemble. The book authors among us kept talking about the possibility of publishing something, but the idea always seemed far away.
Last year, we got serious about the idea. With 2017 being the 375th anniversary of the City of Montreal, where we all live, and Canada’s 150th birthday, we decided it was time to publish a collection our stories: a 250-page book, with a proper binding and a beautiful cover, that we will be able to give to friends and relatives for Christmas.
Start with Structure
We started discussing the project last September. The first step was to each choose our five favourite stories. Each article had to be about 500 words long and include endnotes citing the sources of our facts. Apart from that, there were no rules.
After considerable debate, we agreed on the title Beads in a Necklace, and we came up with a logical way of organizing the stories into sections.
We all pitched in to help at various stages of the process, depending on our areas of expertise. I did most of the editing, with help from Tracey. I had worked as a journalist, and Tracey and Dorothy are also professional writers. That helped a lot: we know how to tighten a longwinded sentence, spot a good first paragraph and structure a story so it flows smoothly. Several members of our group have natural writing talent that they never knew they had, but they are still learning the skills that come from writing on a daily basis. And sometimes writers have to let go of their egos and allow changes. Of course, everyone could say yes or no to editing suggestions, and we always managed to find compromise solutions.
Sandra, who has experience preparing annual reports in the corporate world, did most of the layout, with Claire’s assistance. Claire also knows her way around digital photography and she cleaned up the often scratched or faded photos we wanted to use.
Ask for Help
We even got friends involved: one friend who is a proof reader is making sure there are no typos or missing punctuation marks, while another friend who is a graphic designer has agreed to do the cover.
There have been many details to consider. The people responsible for the layout had to decide on the size of the book and the fonts to use and get quotes from a local printer. Someone has to look after making a digital version available, and we have to crank up our marketing strategy. Last but not least, we had to find a place that is big enough but not too expensive for our celebratory book launch. We found a church hall that is perfect!
Persevere through glitches
Most of the glitches we have encountered have been computer-related. For example, we tried both Google Drive and Dropbox so we could upload files that everyone could edit. Both did the job, but we found Google Drive to be a bit unstable, while for a reason I still don’t understand, I can’t see many of the changes that Sandra and Claire have made to the layout in Dropbox.
This has been a long process. We were editing in January and the book will be launched in November. But we are all thrilled about it. Furthermore, I hope to apply the lessons I have learned from this experience when I write a book about my own family’s history. Just don’t hold your breath until it appears.
This article is also posted on writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca
Before 1900, photography was the domain of the expert. Cameras were complicated, film was bulky. That year, the Eastman Kodak company introduced the Brownie camera, a simple box with a lens, loaded with a roll of film, and photography became available and affordable to the general public. My grandmother’s family were early adopters of this new technology, and my grandmother, Gwendolen Bagg (1887-1963), became an enthusiastic photographer.
One of her first subjects was her own house in Montreal’s Golden Square Mile. She photographed not only the exterior, but also the drawing room (living room), with its ornate mantelpiece and heavy drapes.
The majority of photos were taken during summer vacations with the family. Many Montrealers left the city in the summer, not only to escape the heat, but also to avoid the outbreaks of disease that plagued the city in those years. In the early 1900s, the Bagg family went to Cacouna, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, and they also spent time at a lake near Ste. Agathe, in the Laurentians, north of Montreal.
Gwen photographed her father stretched out on the lawn at Cacouna, her mother in a wide-brimmed hat, and her older sister on horseback and in a canoe. Her little brother, Harold, was a favourite subject. In one picture, taken when he would have about five years old, he posed with his two girl cousins. According to the custom of the day, he had long hair and was dressed exactly like the girls in what appears to be a dress. The following year, his blonde hair remained long, but Harold wore a sailor suit.
In her late teens, Gwen photographed her friends, wearing elaborate bathing costumes on the beach near Kennebunk, Maine. On the porch at the hotel where they stayed, all the young women wore light dresses that reached the ground and covered their arms to their wrists. They must have been very hot.
In 1913, Gwen photographed her mother, by now a widow and dressed in black, leaning up against a big log at Kennebunk Beach, chatting with a friend. By this time, her sister Evelyn was married, and Gwen liked to photograph her little niece, Clare.
The camera must have been a good one, and whoever Gwen shared it with (probably her mother), was also a good photographer. All these photos were in focus, well exposed and tightly composed. Most importantly, Gwen put her photos into albums and identified most of the people, places and years they were taken. She got married in 1916, and after that, although she continued take family photos, the prints ended up in a box, loose and unidentified.
Gwen kept these albums and my mother inherited them and then passed them on to me. Several years ago, I asked the McCord Museum in Montreal whether they would like them. The McCord already had a collection of letters and business ledgers that had belonged to the Bagg family, so these photos shed light on another aspect of their past. The albums are now part of the Bagg Family Fonds, and a few of them have been digitized and can be viewed on the McCord’s website at http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/explore.php?Lang=1&tableid=18&tablename=fond&elementid=31__true (go to the very bottom of this page).
This article is also posted on http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca
I cannot say for certain that my grandmother had a Brownie, but she certainly had some type of simple box camera. The square photos in her album are approximately 3 ½” x 3 ½”, corresponding to the Kodak film sizes 101 and 106. This chart on the Brownie website describes the different sizes of film that Brownie cameras used over the years: http://www.brownie-camera.com/film.shtml. If she did have a Kodak, it was probably similar to the camera described on this website: http://www.historiccamera.com/cgibin/librarium/pm.cgi?action=display&login=no2bullet
The conclusion of one of the stories on Vita Brevis, the New England Historic Genealogical Society blog, demonstrates a typical family historian dilemma.
“We still don’t, of course, know who wrote down the story, when, or how likely they were to know the true facts of the case, but someday the original family version may surface.”
Alicia Crane Williams’ conclusion to her post about a man whose ancestor’s wife allegedly received a dowry equal to her weight in gold (http://vita-brevis.org/2017/01/poor-man-in-london/, Jan 9, 2017) was exactly as it should be. An important part of our job as family historians is to clearly make the distinction between history and story, fact and myth. Williams came across the story while researching a sketch of Henry Lamprey of Hampton, New Hampshire, but as far as she could tell, it was just that: a family story. She read it in an 1893 history of the town and traced an earlier reference, but she was still trying to figure out how much – if any – of the tale was based on fact.
As family historians, we all run across family stories, some amusing, others tragic. We are usually thrilled to find these stories since they help fill in some of the blanks between our ancestors’ birth and death dates. But that does not make them true.
Accounts written at the end of the 19th century are often suspect. Many towns in North America published books featuring profiles of prominent members of their communities. These accounts were usually provided by the families and they tended to emphasize the positive rather than relying on solid research.
My ancestor Stanley Clark Bagg is a good example. After he died in 1873, several Montreal “historians” wrote about his family’s roots. My research has proved that they made an error and this misinformation has been perpetuated until today in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. (See “The Biography of Stanley Clark Bagg: Don’t Believe Everything You Read”, Genealogy Ensemble, Dec. 2, 2015, https://genealogyensemble.com/2015/12/02/the-biography-of-stanley-clark-bagg/
Also common is the story about families being descended from royalty, aristocracy or the very wealthy. My MacGregor ancestor was supposedly descended from the clan chiefs and my Hamilton ancestor, a tailor, was – you guessed it – allegedly related to the Dukes of Hamilton. None of my research has showed either claim to be true.
Our job as family historians is not to just to repeat family stories as facts but to try to verify them and to correct the record when necessary, or at least indicate that there is doubt about a story. Many family stories do contain kernels of truth, and it is often helpful to put our ancestors’ lives into historical context. But if we can’t sort out what is fact and what is fiction, we have to be clear that we are recounting an unverified story.
The night before three-year-old Arthur Hamilton became ill, he was reciting a rhyme and joking about lisps and kisses and mistletoe with a family friend who was helping put the children to bed. Someone – his mother or the friend – recorded those words in his baby book.
The following day, Arthur came down influenza. In fact, everyone in the house – his parents, his twin brother and his two older siblings – got sick. The others recovered, but Arthur did not.
When the influenza pandemic reached the Hamiltons’ Winnipeg home in January 1919, it was at its deadly peak. Arthur was among more than 1,200 Winnipeg residents and 50,000 Canadians killed by the pandemic, which was brought to Canada by troops returning from the trenches of World War I.1 Some 21 million people died from the virus worldwide.
Today, Arthur’s baby book, and that of his twin (my father) is in the University of Manitoba Archives as part of the Hamilton Family collection. These cheerfully illustrated booklets include important milestones, such as the twins’ first steps. Arthur’s book is especially moving because of the entry about the jokes he made just before he became ill.2
Archivist Shelley Sweeney has used Arthur’s baby book in the classroom many times. For example, she took it to a religious studies class that was exploring how people react to death by expressing regret and memorializing the person who has passed.
“It strikes people as so unbearably sad,” she says. “There are always sympathetic expressions and murmurs when I talk about it.”3
The death of a young child like Arthur seems especially sad, but the influenza pandemic traumatized whole communities. Some people lost family members to the flu after having already lost sons and brothers in the war. Many of those who died were between 20 and 40 years old, in the prime of their lives. Children were left without parents, families without income earners, businesses without customers, and manufacturers without workers. Poor neighbourhoods had the highest death rates.
Some people compared the pandemic to the Black Death of medieval times. The government banned large public gatherings to try to control the spread of the virus. Hospitals and physicians were overwhelmed.
My grandfather was a physician and my grandmother had trained as a nurse, but they couldn’t save their son. They tried everything they knew, but there were no effective treatments in 1919.
Their older son, Glen, a future a physician himself, later recalled being taken in to see Arthur’s body. He said, “I can remember on the floor beside his crib there was an enamel basin with boiling water in it – Friars Balsam [eucalyptus oil] – that aromatic stuff you put into body rub, and a little tank of oxygen. And those were the weapons to fight the flu. That was all!”4
My grandfather, Thomas Glendenning (T.G.) Hamilton, was devastated by his son’s death. Not only had he failed as a physician, but, as Glen Hamilton suggested in an interview, T.G. may have felt that he had been too attached to Arthur. “Dad was a very strict Calvinist Presbyterian and he felt that in some way, because he was so fond Arthur …. that he was being punished by the Lord ….”5
Arthur’s death was a pivotal event for the Hamiltons in a way that seems surprising today, but was typical for the time. Many people were deeply religious and believed in personal survival after death. Grieving families wanted to communicate with loved ones who had passed, so they turned to mediums and séances. Between the two world wars, a strong spiritualist movement developed in Canada and elsewhere.6 Glen suggested that Arthur’s death stimulated his parents’ interest in the psychic field.
What made the Hamiltons unusual was the effort they put into exploring psychic phenomena. For more than 10 years, until T.G.’s death in 1935, they held almost weekly séances with a small group of regular participants.7 T.G. became known across Canada, the United States and England for his psychic research, while Lillian played a key organizing role in the background. T.G. emphasized the “scientific” nature of his enquiry, but his grief must have coloured these experiences.
Around 1980, Margaret (Hamilton) Bach donated her parents’ research notes, speeches and photographs to the University of Manitoba Archives, and a few years ago I added a few items, including the twins’ baby books. Today, many people consult the Hamilton Family fonds. Some are interested in psychics, several have used the collection as inspiration for plays and visual art, and other researchers are using the collection to explore how people cope with trauma.
Although many people, including myself, are skeptical about the authenticity of their experiments, it is wonderful to see that T.G.’s and Lillian’s passion is still contagious in so many different ways.
(This article is also posted on http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca.)
Notes and Sources
T.G. Hamilton and Lillian (Forrrester) Hamilton had four children: Margaret Lillian (1909-1986), Glen Forrester (1911-1988), and twins James Drummond (1915-1980) – my father — and Arthur Lamont (1915-1919).
To read more about the Hamilton Family fonds, see http://umanitoba.ca/libraries/units/archives/digital/hamilton/index.html
1 Janice Dickin, Patricia G. Bailey, “Influenza”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/influenza/ (accessed March 20, 2017)
2. Baby book of Arthur Lamont Hamilton. University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections (UMASC), Hamilton Family fond, A10-01, Winnipeg.
3. Personal email communication with Shelley Sweeney, March 23, 2017.
4. James B. Nickels. “Psychic Research in a Winnipeg Family: Reminiscences of Dr. Glen F. Hamilton”, Manitoba History, June 2007, p. 5.
6. Esyllt Jones, “Spectral Influenza: Winnipeg’s Hamilton Family, Interwar Spiritualism and Pandemic Disease,” in Magda Fahrni and Esyllt W. Jones, editors, Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society and Culture in Canada, 1918-20, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012, p. 195.
7. Janice Hamilton “Bring on Your Ghosts!” Paranormal Review, winter 2016, p. 6. This edition of the magazine, published by The Society for Psychical Research in England, is entirely devoted to the psychic research carried out by the Hamiltons.