Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Black Clouds Hover

I had an unexpected opportunity to re-educate a co-worker the other day when she remarked how "boring" genealogy was. Why did I want to do it? All those names and dates! Just not interesting at all.

Ah, I said. You have to flesh out those names and dates. You have to place them in the historical period in which they lived. You need to search out the stories that turn them into real people. You never know what you will find that will turn out to be absolutely fascinating. And then I proceeded to regale her with the tales of my nefarious great-great grandfather Henry Hodge and a few of the adventures of my great-great grandfather McAfee who fought with Custer. A half-hour later she was still interested in my stories and asking questions. She didn't look bored at all.

I feel sorry for people who never go any deeper into genealogy than to build that grid of names and dates and places for their sixteen great-grandparents. What a lot they miss if they never seek out the family traditions you only learn by visiting with the older members of the family. What a lot they miss by never looking into the lives of the aunts and uncles and cousins.

Let's take my Mason line, for instance. I have about come to the conclusion that there is a black cloud that hovers over that family. Just yesterday I uncovered another story in a long ago newspaper that helps prove my theory.

You may recall a photo I posted sometime back of the tree where my great-grandfather Burl Mason was found hanging on August 20, 1925. That has always been a shadow on the family history that remains unexplained. Was his death suicide or murder? We may never know the truth about that incident.

Burl's death was not the only disturbing death in the Mason family. Burl's father John also met an untimely demise at the age of 41, while the family was still living in Indiana. The story passed down by my grandmother is that an epidemic, possibly cholera, had swept through the community. All the members of one family had perished and John was one of the men elected to go in and clear out the house. He contracted the disease and died shortly afterward.

John's widow Mary remarried and she and her new husband moved the family to Smithville, Texas. Brothers Burl, John and Henry Mason and sister Hulda (who had married William Ashley) are alive and well in the 1880 Bastrop County census. Court records show that Hulda died in her early 30's and cemetery records show that Henry died when he was in his early 20's. I have not been able to find death records for either of them, but it is still disturbing to know that they died so young.

Hulda's widower William Ashley remarried shortly after her death. About ten years into his second marriage, he and one of his new brothers-in-law were killed by a train at a crossing near Smithville. Apparently the horse team pulling their wagon spooked and ran into the path of the train. Both men and the team of horses were killed and another brother-in-law seriously injured in the 1899 accident.

To compound this tragedy, the two brothers-in-law were also related by marriage to Burl and his brother John. James Fariss (killed) and Charles Fariss (injured) were the brothers of Burl's first wife Pinkie and the uncles of John's first wife Mary. What a sad multiple tragedy to hit the family. A short two years later Pinkie would die from cancer, leaving three small children.

After Pinkie's death, Burl remarried to my ancestress Nettie McAfee, herself a widow, and they blended their two families. In 1903, when Nettie was pregnant with their first child together, Kleeber, a relative came to visit and was ill with whooping cough. Nettie herself became sick and the strain of the disease brought on the birth prematurely. Little Kleeber lived only a few weeks, too frail to survive.

Another family story, as yet unproven, says that Burl's brother John died in 1916 from blood poisoning, contracted after skinning a squirrel. Another source says that he died from pneumonia. In either case, John was dead at about age 41.

With the advent of newspaper archives being loaded online, I have uncovered a few other tragic deaths in the Mason family. The year 1951 was not a good one for the Mason family.

On February 9, 1951, John's grandson Johnie "Sonny" Mason was working as a crew member on a shrimp boat in West Bay out of Galveston, when an explosion blew Johnie off the boat. His body was recovered the following day and the official cause of death was compound fracture of the skull. Johnie's father Dock Mason died one week later from pulmonary tuberculosis.

In May 1951, Burl's grandson and namesake, Burl William Branum, was accidentally electrocuted while working on the docks on the north side of the Houston ship channel.

What a dull genealogy it would be indeed had I not dug a little deeper into this family's history. As I find these stories of human interest, it brings the dry genealogy charts to life. I find myself wondering how the Mason and Fariss families, who were so thoroughly intertwined, managed to cope with all the tragedy that befell them in such a short period of time.

And you might understand why I now wonder if there is a shadow on that particular line.

LSW