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A Photo Full of Mystery

It was a photo I’d seen all my life.  It’s my maternal grandmother with two siblings, their parents and her brother’s two children.  I thought I knew the story.

Turns out I didn’t.  It was a classic case of evidence outside the frame.  Let’s call it a photo audit.

The trouble started when I decided to create a short video about this photo for Women’s History Month.  My grandmother in three photos. The story of her life as a timeline of images.  I picked this one because I was confident about the story.

I was wrong.  Very wrong.

Using my skills as the photo detective, I’d studied the image and the family history to establish a tentative date of 1910.

The census listed the six children living in the household, the niece and nephew, the parents and my grandmother’s paternal grandfather’s names.  One of the questions asked my great grandmother about how many children she had and how many were still living.  7 she said.

What? !

It was time for an audit of what I actually knew and what was in the photo.  Six children listed in the 1910 census.  Seven lived to adulthood.  Three in the picture.  O.k.  So with a dizzy head, I had to confront the problem.  Where were the other four children?  My grandmother’s siblings.

I took a shortcut and phoned Mom.  Thank goodness she’s still around.

“Mom, your mother had a lot of siblings, but in that photo four are missing.”

Hmm.  she said.   “She had a brother or maybe two that died.”     She didn’t recognize the names in the census.   I was beginning to doubt my research skills.

I traveled the Ancestry.com databases from Pawtucket, RI to Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts to Quebec all in search of the facts.  It was a long trip with lots of twists and turns.  I still don’t have all the documentation but I have enough.

The census taker had anglicized the French Canadian names.  Alfred was actually Alphage.  John B was Jean Baptiste who was actually Joseph Jean-Baptiste.   The nephew wasn’t Pete. He was Hubert Napoleon Jean Baptiste <check this> whose nickname my Mom said was Pete except it wasn’t P.E.T.E.  His nickname was Pitou which sounds like the other.  Are you feeling confused?   Ah…French Canadian research can be such a tangle sometimes.

Let’s return to the photo and it’s layers of history.   The Photo Audit was complete.  My great grandmother had seven children. One son married in 1904 and moved to Boston. One son died in 1912. Another other son died before my grandmother married in 1916 and before this photo was taken. Yet another son moved to New York.  That’s four down and the three left in the image.  My grandmother. Her sister Rose and their widowed brother Albert who’d moved back home for his parent’s to help with his children.

I was close in dating the photo but it was the tragic facts of this family that proved that #outsidetheframe there was a lot of family history worth discovering.  I can only imagine how sad they were to lose two sons and a daughter-in-law within a few years.

Watch this short video on my grandmother created with Animoto.com.   Make your own home movie at Animoto.com.  Use coupon code photo20 to save 20% on a subscription.