Family Research — The Stories That Really Matter

It’s a simple truth that anyone doing serious family research will — at some point — hit a brick wall. The more obdurate that wall, the more determined we are to surmount it. Given the ease with which we can obtain contemporary information about people, it vexes us that with a little earnest effort we can’t find out all we’d like to know about our ancestors. Since we Morrisseys descend nearly entirely from Irish forbears who left the Isle in the period extending from the Famine (latter half of the 1840’s) up through the 1880’s, with few exceptions our ability to confirm lineage beyond the ancestors who immigrated is hampered by several factors, such as:

  • Vague references by those who settled here as to their home of origin. In most cases, we have the county name only (if that).
  • Inconsistency in the self-reporting as to year of birth, especially on census records and death records, but also marriage records. Rather than assume that the variance was born of suspicion and distrust, the inconsistencies are most likely attributable to their own uncertainty about their birth — bear in mind that in the 19th century and earlier, knowing precise dates was unimportant (unless you were Irish and neglected to register a birth within a required time period, in which case you would simply alter the authentic date to comply with the law.) Family bibles have been perhaps the most reliable records of births (or more importantly, baptisms). . . if the researcher has access to them.
  • Early census records (19th century) for Ireland were destroyed in the fire of 1922 at the Public Records Office. As a “census substitute”, Griffith’s Valuations is the go-to, but despite its voluminous listings of tenancies, teased out by townland, barony, parish, and county; it has severe limitations. (A more thorough examination would be better suited in a separate essay.)
  • Civil registration for births, marriages, and deaths in Ireland did not begin until 1864. Wouldn’t you know that most of the ancestors for whom the trail runs cold is right before that year — it inevitably seems that the 1850’s is the period of time that we most need to examine? For Roman Catholics (as nearly all our ancestors seem to have been), having the name of the diocese (as well as a fair idea of year) is crucial if we want to do a work-around and establish dates and confirm family connections. (Even here, the records are incomplete, especially regarding burial information — fewer than half the parishes kept burial information prior to 1900.)

When we pause to consider the driving force behind our research, it seems we are most motivated by our curiosity about our own part in the ongoing narrative — why am I dreamer, for example? Do I get that from my dad? And, in turn, where did he get it from? Is Margaret’s (or Michaela’s) widow’s peak a genetic trait inherited from Gama’s family? Is Tom’s intensity something passed down from the Morrissey side of the family? (They were, it seemed, a very competitive and intense lot.) Surrounded as we are by blue or green-eyed siblings, Bobby and I have brown eyes — are they a Murphy characteristic? And, let us not overlook shortness — is that from the Gildeas or the Morrisseys? (The Murphys — at least the women — were on the tall side, but Annie Mulhern — Papa Joe’s mother — was purportedly a “very tiny lady”.) Following are some of the questions to which we are always seeking answers in our researching of ancestors:

  • What did they look like?
  • What types of personalities did they have?
  • Did they get along with each other? And with others?
  • Did they have any health issues?
  • What types of livelihood did they have? (And how much of that was by choice or through coercion?)
  • What was their academic life like? (Achievers? Underachievers? Smart? Lazy? The educator part of me would want, furthermore, to tease out multiple intelligences.)
  • What did they do in their spare time? What were they passionate about? (Sports, social or political causes, travel, The Church, etc.)
  • What should each one be remembered for? (I always am most moved by the ones who would otherwise be forgotten over time — the ones who strayed or disappeared. . . or were institutionalized, and the ones who never had their own children. Who can assure their legacies? Who will perpetuate their memory?)

The Bugler and His French Wife

Sometimes all it takes is a photograph, and we family researchers are like a dog with a bone. I had always known a few of the essential facts about my grandmother’s brother, “the one who moved away”, but other than being only mildly curious about Edwin Lincoln Murphy’s life in France, there wasn’t any single detail that made me especially interested in his story. He was just one of Nana Morrissey’s many siblings, and that’s how it remained for nearly forty years.

Recently, however, I was busily examining a boxful of family photos and albums that had been sitting in storage at my Aunt Ginny’s house in West Medford, Massachusetts. It was impossible to ignore one of the largest photos in the box, an 11” x 14” portrait, still sheathed in the photographer’s protective sleeve. The curious photograph instantly captured my attention; peering intently at the subject, my first thought was, this is not a relative; she’s too pretty. All my Murphy ancestors could be described as long-faced, mournful, in some cases dour-looking; it may be somewhat unfair, but the word that always comes to mind is “horsey”. Reine’s portrait had been professionally done by a well-known photographer whose studio was in Biarritz, France; it featured a young woman in her mid-twenties. She had delicate features and dark eyes that hinted at vulnerability; her smile, too, suggested an innocence, or at least an openness, as she looked slightly over her shoulder at the camera.

More than one hundred years after Winchester, Massachusetts native Edwin Murphy married the enchanting Reine Latrille of Bordeaux, France, we still don’t know — and likely never will know — how and where they met. Their long lives together remain a mystery, a romantic one, to be sure, and with all that we don’t know — yet can’t help but imagine — about the couple, it makes their story all the more captivating.

The first time I knew of the existence of Reine was an oblique reference by my Aunt Ginny back in the 80’s. I was beginning to get serious about my family research, and Aunt Ginny was the best informant I had for details about my father’s side of the equation. Reine was never mentioned by name, nor the fact that she was French. She was only ever referred to as Edwin Murphy’s wife.

Edwin in photo preserved by Reparations Commission post- WW1

 To begin, you’ll need to understand who Edwin was. Edwin Lincoln Murphy was my one of my grandmother’s two younger brothers, the fourth child (of eight) born to my paternal great-grandparents, Edward P. and Honora (Walsh) Murphy. Until the age of twenty-two, he lived with his family in Winchester, Massachusetts. The only biographical details I could tease out about his early life came from a few mentions in The Winchester Star. It appears he, like two of his sisters, was big into basketball; he also played football, for which he was awarded a varsity letter. Edwin was also a musician and performed (in a Shakespeare scene) at his Winchester High School graduation in 1914. After graduation, one of the things we know about him is that he joined the Massachusetts Militia as a bugler. He would continue to have that unique responsibility when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917. In March of 1918, he left the United States on an Army transport and began his military career, making France his permanent home, but visiting his family often in Winchester and (later) Somerville throughout the years. From the end of 1919 — when Edwin and Reine married — until about 1980, Edwin and Reine alternated between Paris and their home in Bordeaux, but gave up the Paris apartment on Rue Marbeauf (known as “the street of the shirtmakers”), thus making Gradignan their year-round home for the remaining ten years of their lives.

Aunt Ginny with Reine in
Somerville MA c1926

It is easy to see how my Aunt Ginny, who was always enamored of exotic and sparkly people and things, could be smitten by her French aunt, an alluring creature with a buoyant personality and unconventional behaviors. When I reflect on the eye-catching couture style choices that seemed as much a part of Aunt Ginny’s persona as her forthright manner and careerist mindset, I suspect her greatest fashion influence was her Aunt Reine. She adored her, besides.

Reine Latrille was born in Gradignan, Bordeaux, France on April 16, 1898 to Marguerite Catherine Latrille and “un père non nommé” (unnamed father), the French people’s neutral way of saying a child was illegitimate. To date, no records have been found to suggest that Reine had siblings or that her mother ever formally married, although unofficially Dominique Michel is referenced as her husband and Reine’s father. According to one of Edwin’s expedited passport applications, Dominique — Edwin’s “future father-in-law” — appeared to be a successful Parisian businessman with an interest in freight shipping (via railroad). By July of 1919, Edwin had already partnered with Dominique, having invested 50,000 francs in his business. I often come back to the question, Is that how Edwin met Reine? Through her father? Or was it the other way around – he met Reine, and, through her, formed a business relationship with her father? At the very least, it’s safe to say that they met in France. Whether it was Paris, where he was stationed in the U.S. Army, or Bordeaux, where the more temperate climes made for pleasant escape, Edwin very likely was instantly love-struck upon meeting Reine. 

What we’re able to piece together about Edwin and Reine’s early years of marriage is that they lived with her parents, and that they made occasional return trips to Massachusetts, at least every few years. Also, they vacationed in Biarritz, on the French Riviera; the seaside resort town — a popular destination for French aristocracy — is described as the “jewel of France’s Atlantic coast”.

At this juncture, it would be prudent for me to confess that I tend to fall under the spell of my own restless imagination. Inasmuch as available documentation often fails to offer the finer details of a subject’s personality or the most engaging features of a person’s life, it is of great benefit to introduce an element of wonder as we contemplate the full story. Thus, in stitching together sufficient (documented) details, the narrative becomes much more satisfying by having, let’s say, “gilded” the cold, hard facts. I’m okay with this approach, even if the purists within the genealogical community are not. After all, we are all prone to fill in our own blanks when confronted with stories that have empty spaces. 

Furthermore, it’s useful to keep present in our minds the impact of historical context. In the case of Edwin and Reine, it is particularly meaningful that during World War II they lived both in Paris, which surrendered to Germany quickly and with little resistance in June of 1940, and Bordeaux, the region to which the French government and many Parisians consequently fled. I stifle the urge to imagine that they immersed themselves in all manner of subversive acts or that they inserted themselves into La Résistance. I see it as perfectly acceptable, however, to make qualifying statements such as, “It’s conceivable that when Paris was invaded by the German Army, Edwin and Reine retired to Bordeaux, to wait out the war.” Bear in mind that while Edwin initially held a subordinate position in the U.S. Army while serving in the earlier world war, his trustworthiness and sense of responsibility were qualities that his superiors recognized soon thereafter and rewarded through several promotions. For an unspecified period of time, he held the position of court reporter for the U.S. Army. As a staff member of the Reparations Commission that was formed once the terms of the Treaty of Versailles had been “negotiated,” he began as the private secretary to the head of the Finance Service, then moved on to assistant cashier, next promoted to cashier. It would appear, then, that he knew how to make himself very useful to upper brass. In any event, it’s doubtful that either he or Reine would have wanted to invite the curiosity of any Nazi officers.

I made the mistake early in my searching of assuming that Edwin and Reine had children. So, when I hired a French genealogist to investigate records in his country, I included instructions to look for birth records, beginning around the time that the couple married (1919). Paul-Marc was a tenacious investigator, but he came up empty-handed in that particular task. It puzzled me because I had for so long imagined that the presence of children would have been why they never migrated back to the States. I returned to the clues that Aunt Ginny had given me, and realized that she had never indicated that the couple had children. There was never a mention of “family”.  I then, of course, wondered if that was by choice. We’ll never know.

Reine vacationing in Biarritz

From available military records, held from the time he served on the Reparations Commission, it was easy to piece together a pattern in the 1920s, whereby he gave written instructions to have his pay deposited into a Paris bank while he and Reine vacationed in the French Riviera for a month at a time. Photos from the era support the claim that they favored the popular seaside town of Biarritz. I found one interesting account of a swanky Easter weekend gala at the Hotel Miramar, which — if the newspaper reporter’s numbers can be trusted — was attended by 350 guests, several of whom were singled out by name; they represented the French aristocracy and many majors and captains, barons and baronesses, counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses . . . and Mrs. Edwin Murphy, apparently unaccompanied by her husband. (Disclaimer: I have no proof that this is our Mrs. Edwin Murphy, but signs do point in that direction.) Among the glamorous, bejeweled attendees were several members of the Rothschild family; of note were Edouard and two of his children, Guy and Jacqueline. The names will mean something to those who have always followed with interest the fate of the priceless art that the Nazis stole during WW2. For those to whom the Rothschild name means nothing, they were an established French family whose wealth and stature were tied to banking. Their unforgivable sin — to the Nazis, of course — was their Jewishness; thus they were deemed unworthy of possessing fine art.

Available evidence of Edwin and Reine’s activities from the 1940’s until their deaths in 1990 dwindle, making it impossible to color in any details of their lives. It can be said that, with the exception of one visit in 1950, after the deaths of Edwin’s parents, first his mother in 1946 and then his father in 1949, their trips to Massachusetts ceased. Not only does it leave us with a lot of unanswered questions, but great disappointment about the apparent detachment from the family.

With several decades of unaccounted movements and activities, their final hours on this earth nevertheless capture our attention and evoke our sympathy. On February 13, 1990 — one day after he turned 94 years old — Edwin passed away at their Bordeaux home in Gradignan. Twenty hours later, Reine, too, died in that same place. No record has yet to be found that confirms their final resting place. Their bodies were cremated, and given the absence of any French relatives, Paul-Marc conjectures (with more wishful thinking than the evidence suggests) that they may have been buried alongside Dominique Michel in Paris, where, also and presumably, Reine’s mother was laid to rest. 

As is the case with any family research project, I imagine, we remain most unsettled about the members of our family whose stories persist as mysteries. Often they live and die without descendants to keep their memories alive, and their deaths go unnoticed, unremarked upon, unmemorialized. The worst fate, in my opinion, is to be forgotten. Like most family researchers, I’ll never completely close the book on a subject, even one for whom further clues remain obdurately hidden. No matter what bargains I might be willing to secretly or pointlessly negotiate, I’m always hopeful for just one more hint. Rarely, then, do we consider the job done. Most researchers pledge, “At least guide me to the headstone that proclaims, ‘Here lies so-and-so’ and I’ll be content.” Memory would thus be ensured. The hunt, then, is still on for the final chapter on Edwin and Reine.