Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Where There's a Willett, There's a Way.

When you reach a dead-end in genealogy, it is referred to as a brick wall. The term "dead end" would be okay to use, but it implies there is nowhere else to go. A brick wall, on the other hand, can be scaled, or one can go around it or it can be torn down. So, I think it's an appropriate term for a difficult ancestral search. But, I don't give up easily, and where there's a Willett, there's a way through that wall!

My great grandfather, George Willett, was my brick wall for many years. Because of the way my grandmother Jessie, his daughter, talked about him with such adoration and love, he was one of the first ancestors I went after and did so with great curiosity.

Gram and me 1953
Even in her 70s and 80s Gram would often wipe away a tear as she spoke of her father. She described him as very tall and reminisced about the shiny shield and buttons on his uniform, and how handsome he looked wearing it. All my life she corrected us whenever we used the term "cop". Policemen were to be treated with respect and 'police officer' was the term we were told to use. She portrayed the Willetts as a proud, respectable and respectful people. She had a happy childhood in a large family at the turn of the 20th century in New York City, the daughter of a police officer. But she lost him much too early to illness when she was just a girl.


 I started my genealogy research after my grandmother died, which was a big mistake and something I regret. But, I had listened closely to her stories, or so I had thought.

I found George in the 1900 and 1910 census records, married to Josephine Patton and saw their family grow during that 10 year span from 4 children to 7. I wasn't able to find a death record, nor a birth record for George so I only had a birth year of 1859 as shown below. And I hadn't found his parents anywhere.

1900 Census

1910 Census
However, I did have anther bit of information from a photo copy of a page from my Uncle Alan's baby book. It wasn't exactly complete, but it gave us some clues, the most relevant for this hunt was that George's father and mother were Marinus Willett and  ? Fredenburg.

Now, Colonel Marinus Willett is a very well-known name in New York history. He was a Revolutionary War hero and later sheriff and a one-term Mayor of New York. Col. Marinus was the great grandson of Thomas Willett, New York's first Mayor and Plymouth Colony resident and although Gram had told us that the first Mayor was in our ancestry, I wasn't sure if that was family myth or real history, but this wasn't our Marinus because he would have been 117 when George was born.
Col Marinus Willett, by Ralph Earl c. 1791

And, I suppose because he was such an heroic figure, there were numerous men named Marinus Willett scattered throughout the New York census documents I found. I just wasn't able to find any of them with a son named George.

But, I did know George was a policeman so in 2004 I wrote to the New York City Police Museum. I received a disappointing form letter reply from the curator with a check mark on the block showing "No information on file". That was that.

But I didn't give up and on one more trip to the NEGHS library in Boston, my friend Rick helped me find a Marinus Willett, living in Brooklyn, a wife named Hester and several children, including George age 13 in 1870. 

I had a feeling when I saw that record that this was really him. Now I knew from the 1900 census George was born in 1859 and this George would have been born in 1857, but it was close enough for government work in the 19th century. As I looked closer at that census record, I noticed that Marinus was a plumber. I began to remember a story my grandmother had told me about a plumber in the family.

The story was that as a young boy, this fellow left home to become a plumber's apprentice in New York City. The master plumber in those days, was a highly respected figure who wore a suit and tie to work. The apprentice, on the other hand, would wear overalls or work clothes and was required to walk on the opposite side of the street, carrying the master plumber's tools.

I remember her telling me that story when I married my first husband, also a plumber. However, I had always thought she had been talking about my grandfather's side of the family. It was all coming together. Had I listened a little closer, I would have known it had been her father's father's story. And it was indeed our Marinus and our George in 1870. From that small bit of information, I was able to find out more about our Marinus, and therefore our George. I will tell more about Marinus at another time, and there is quite a bit more to tell.

In 2006, out of the blue, I received  another envelope from the curator of the New York City Police Museum. In the envelope was that same form letter but this time the block checked was "Enclosed please find the information you requested."  And there was my great grandfather's record as a Patrolman. I can only assume that the curator, like me, just hated the brick wall and only saw it as a challenge, going further and not giving up until he found something.  

What a wonderful surprise it was to receive that information, although it wasn't very complete, it gave me valuable facts. The more I do research for my family history, the more I realize how much I owe to the kindness of strangers, like Michael C. Cronin, the museum curator. And distant cousins and relations whom I have met along the way.

Putting together the information I already had with that of Officer Willett's record, I have pieced together some of his life, a biography I will continue to work on as time goes on and more details are uncovered.

George was born in New York, possibly Brooklyn, on July 19, 1859. His mother was Hester Van Fredenburg (1837- abt 1876) and his father Marinus Willett (1831-1900). George was the eldest of at least four children and in his teens when his mother died. His stepmother, Eliza Chittendon, took Hester's place at the table and George moved out of the family home, spending a few years as a bachelor before he married Josephine Patton about 1889, another native New Yorker.

George spent some time as a truck driver , a teamster, after moving out on his own. He apparently never felt the urge to become a plumber like his younger brother, Frank, who went into the business with their father. George and Josephine had 7 children in a 17 year period, the third being my grandmother Jessie. They lost their oldest daughter, Eliza as a baby.

About the same time George married Josephine, he began his one month-long probationary period in 1889 as a New York City Policeman. At the time he joined the department, the NYPD had a history of corruption from Tammany Hall fall-out and within five years of his first day on the job, a commission was formed to investigate illegal activities in the department. It must have been a pretty intense time for everyone involved with the department as allegations of bribery, ballot-box stuffing, nepotism and cronyism and all sorts of things were flying around. Over the next few years, these investigations led to reform which cleaned up much of the corruption, establishing a civil service structure. Teddy Roosevelt became Police Commissioner for a short stint while George was on the force. I wonder if he ever saw him in the course of his work?

George's record seems to be that of an average patrolman, sometimes pulling clerical duty, sometimes appearing in court and even assigned to  a "Special Court Squad" in 1910 and I wonder what that was all about.  In 1914 he was 'Station House Attendant' for precinct 17, which I assume meant he was on the desk. I can almost see my grandmother and her sisters visiting him at the station house some afternoon, then skipping down the 'sidewalks of New York' on their way home to their mom. His last assignment, on Patrol in precinct 145, was in September of 1916. 

Unknown NY policeman 1901(
George died on November 27, 1916 at his home at 67 East 85th St in Manhattan. He was 57 years old and left behind a wife and 7 children. My grandmother was a teenager and she'd lost her hero, that tall handsome man who wore shield number 2943 for the City of New York.

With the continued assistance of strangers and historians and cousins and friends, I hope to fill in the blanks of George Willett's life. I'd like to know more about his childhood and I'd love to someday have a picture of him. My curiosity about him hasn't been curbed at all, really. The more I find the more I want to know. So, stay tuned because a trip to NYC might just lead to the next chapter.


When George died, his wife Josephine was left with 6 daughters and a son, the youngest at just 9. But, she kept them together, teaching them service to others and respect and independence. "We were 8 at the table" my grandmother often said when she'd start talking about life after her father had died. She told us how she and her sisters spent much of their spare time at the Settlement House in the neighborhood, and what fun they had there. The stories I heard of the fun and cooperation of this big family, and never hearing of difficulties among them, reminded me of the Alcott Family in Little Women, each girl special with a unique personality and all of them overcame hardships together.

In my life I knew and adored 4 of those sisters, my great aunts. There was Millie (Amelia), the older sister, the younger twins Lottie (Charlotte) and Edith (Honey) and of course my grandmother Jessie, who had no nickname that I know of. I never met the oldest sisters Dodie(Josephine ) and Neely (Cornelia) nor the baby of the family Billy (William).

But as luck would have it, just recently I have connected via the Internet and to Dodie's granddaughter, who remembers the Willett sisters well and it will be so much fun to hear her stories some time soon. These wonderful women from New York, and their baby brother, were George's legacy and I was blessed to have had some of them in my life.
Back Row, Gram, her sister Lottie (Charlotte) my aunt Edith
In front, my dad. about 1936
When I get the chance to talk to Dodie's granddaughter and ask my dad and uncle for more information, one day I hope to write short biographies on my grandmother and her sisters to share with you. That could be a fun read!