This is a guest post by Ava Cohn - known as Sherlock Cohn, The Photo Genealogist - who writes The Photo Genealogist blog*
Sometimes it takes more than the proverbial village to solve a mystery.
This is the tale of three cities, of a mystery photograph and of how an intricate web of relationships helped a family researcher learn more about a lost branch. Perhaps it can serve as an example of how similar mysteries can be solved in your family.
This story starts in Hampshire, Illinois, where I met Michele Halt after one of my talks on old photographs. She showed me a photo of a proud and distinguished soldier in full regalia. Who was he? The photo came from a family album passed down to the females in Michele’s Radley family for over 100 years. Each time the album changed owners, new photos were added.
Michele’s grandmother’s great-aunt, Maggie Radley Mole, started the meticulous family photo album. There was only one problem - Maggie knew everyone in the photos so she never labeled or identified them - nor did any of the album inheritors label their photos. Only one person was identified and he wasn’t the soldier.
When I looked at the photo, I was thunderstruck.
The photographer was from Gloversville, NY, a town not 30 miles from where I grew up in Saratoga Springs and where my family had lived for 62 years. Here I was sitting at a library in Hampshire, Illinois and reading the name of a town that I knew like I know my own name. I, too, had moved from New York to Illinois. I was fated to identify this fellow upstate New Yorker. The bond was immediate.
Michele explained that Maggie Radley was born in Herkimer County, New York, in 1839 and moved to Illinois sometime between 1860-1868. Maggie's brother, Andrew Radley, was born in 1834 and may have remained in Gloversville. Could our mystery soldier be Andrew?
From the soldier’s great handlebar mustache and the style of the photograph, I knew the photo was taken in the 1890s. If the man had been Andrew, he would be in his 50s, but this soldier was younger. I asked Michele for photos of other men in her family, but none matched the photo. Michele knew that Maggie had three brothers: Cornelius, Andrew and Theodore Burr.
I searched online City Directories1 for the family in Gloversville. Along with Andrew, I found Theodore Burr. Like Andrew, he was too old to be the soldier. Maggie’s sister, Susanna Radley, had married Samuel Gibson. I searched Gibson and found only one in Gloversville, born in 1832. Again, he was the wrong generation.
Having come up short on names, I decided to focus on the soldier’s uniform. I found it very puzzling. I didn’t think it was a Civil War uniform, nor a uniform from the Spanish American War. Was it New York State Militia or maybe New York State National Guard? I had my suspicions, but if I could identify the uniform, I could check military records for soldiers from Gloversville. I needed another connection.
There are many affinity groups on Facebook. I belong to two active groups of history buffs from Saratoga Springs. Used to seeing old photos from upstate New York on “We Love Being Saratogians” and “You Know You’re From Saratoga if…,” my buddies in these groups never shy from a history challenge.
Moderator of “We Love” - Janice Pancake - immediately sent the 1898 Gloversville City Directory. Paula Cornell Scribner-Phelps, whose husband’s family was from Gloversville, volunteered to check the Gloversville Armory for clues. Kathleen Cogan Keeney, a collector of old military buttons, spent hours searching the soldier’s hat and buttons. Civil War buff Art Zeh confirmed my suspicions that the uniform wasn’t from that conflict. The best clue was provided by Mary Brill VanVranken. She had gone to grade school with military history expert Lance Ingmire; she had last seen him at their high school reunion. I contacted Lance, president of The Friends of the New York State Military Museum, in Saratoga Springs.
Michele had sent me a letter dated March 6, 1890, from Andrew Radley to his sister Maggie in Illinois. She had read the letter repeatedly but had not noticed a phrase that proved to be the ultimate clue to the soldier's identity. Among the family chit-chat about the weather and relatives’ health was this: “Linda’s boy’s (sic) name is Seward A. Shepard.” Linda was Andrew Radley’s daughter and Seward Shepard’s wife.2 Could Andrew have misspelled the word beau?
Census records and city directories find Seward Shepard, born 1867, living in Gloversville in the 1890s and in 1910. In 1910, Andrew Radley and his wife are living with Seward and Linda. Seward was too young for the Civil War, but old enough for the Spanish American War. There were no military records found for Seward, but I wasn’t surprised.
Deborah Bucholtz and Sandra Town from the Gloversville Library researched more city directories for Seward and for the photo studio, Tucks, in Gloversville. “Andrew Radley, occupation carpenter, is listed as residing at 12 High Street,” Sandra wrote. She also searched unsuccessfully for another photo of Seward.
At the Military Museum, Lance confirmed what I had suspected. The soldier’s uniform was not US military, but that of the Knights of Pythias, an international fraternal organization established in 1864, along military lines. Its members were dedicated to universal peace.
I checked the Fulton County History website, and found that Seward was a a founding officer of the Gloversville chapter, and one of its highest-ranking officers. His day job was manager for the Grand Union Tea Company.3
From many newspaper articles mentioning Seward - found on MyHeritage.com and at Fulton County History - I narrowed down the photo's date to within a few months in the year it was taken, learned more about the uniform and why the photo was taken. To learn more, see “How I Dated The Mystery Soldier’s Photo” at The Photo Genealogist.
Federal censuses and newspapers tell us more about Seward's family. He and his wife, Linda, had a son, Don B. Shepard, born in 1894.4 The family moved to Albany. Seward died in 1937, Don in 1967.5 We don’t know if Don had children, but that's our next step in adding to the Radley family tree.
While this information can help locate relatives, it would be nice to have another photograph of Seward for comparison, to complete the identification process.
This is where MyHeritage members can help. If your family is from upstate New York, around Albany, and your family tree has Radley or Shepard surnames, perhaps you are related. Michele and I would like to hear from you. After all, in the end, it is the tale of three cities and, perhaps, of the whole world.
1 www.Ancestry.com, City Directories, Gloversville, NY 1889, 1890, 1892, 1893, 1895, accessed April 30, 2012
2 ibid., 1910 U.S. Federal Census accessed May 5, 2012
3 www.fultonhistory.com, Gloversville NY Daily Leader, Monday, August 10, 1896
4. www.MyHeritage.com, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, Albany City, Albany, NY, accessed May 6, 2012
5. ibid., Social Security Death Index, accessed May 6, 2012
*Ava Cohn - known as Sherlock Cohn, The Photo Genealogist - is an internationally known professional genealogist who specializes in the analysis and interpretation of family photographs. She combines geography, ethnography, fashion, world history, photographic history, art history, decorative arts and social history to tell the stories in portrait photographs. Ava is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), The Genealogical Speakers Guild (GSG) and The Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois. Her articles have appeared in many genealogy journals. Read her new blog, The Photo Genealogist.