Thursday, March 31, 2011

"More" Members of our Tree

I use just about everyday, searching, discovering, confirming all sorts of facts and information about our family history. One of the fun options they have included in their website helps you link your own family tree with famous people's trees. It completely depends on information people have entered there. All of the information hasn't been confirmed, but it's a great place to get hints and clues that can later be proven with source documentation.

In a previous blog, I wrote about a "devil" of an ancestor, Uncle Thaxter Underwood from the deviled ham company. Well, not only is there a devil in our tree, we also have a saint! According to my most direct famous ancestor is my 14th great grandfather Saint Thomas More, the heavenly patron saint of statesmen and politicians.

I hate to admit I knew very little about him until I read a little for this post. There are Thomas More fans and Websites all over the Internet. I had heard of him, of course, but apparently didn't listen too carefully in class that day. I did know that was the name of the church where my son Bill and his bride Kim were married in New Hampshire a couple of years ago.

St. Thomas More Parish Durham, NH
But, most of you probably know more about Sir Thomas than I do, so I'll just tell you a little of what I found out.

ggggggggggggggGrandpa Sir Thomas More
Thomas More was born in England in 1478. He had a highly developed sense of humor at a very early age and he was a very quick study in Latin and in Greek. He was educated in law and became a lawyer, a judge, was knighted and became very chummy with King Henry VIII. He was an Undersheriff, Lord Chancelor and served the King in several other highly respected offices.

Henry VIII
He toyed with the idea of becoming a monk, but really wanted to be married, so he rejected that idea. Good thing or there may have never been any descendants, including me! He wore a hairshirt most of his adult life, anyway.

He was busy with the law and the various offices he held, but he always found time to write and continued to do so throughout his life. He coined the word "utopia" and wrote many, many important books, essays and poems.

Sir Thomas was an opponent of the Protestant Reformation, defending the Catholic Church against Martin Luther's complaints while Henry VIII was trying to separate from the church at the same time. That period was really confusing for the church and when Thomas refused to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul Henry's marriage to one of the Catherines, it did not make the King happy. Then, Sir Thomas denied to agree that the King had supremecy over the church and that was the final straw that broke the back of the friendship he had enjoyed with Henry.
Henry and his wives

Making a very long story shorter, Thomas was tried and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the usual punishment for treason. But, Henry, feeling a little sentimental about his old friend, commuted his sentence to execution by decapitation. Nice of him, don't you think? One of his sons was John, is mentioned as having witnessed his father's procession from sentencing back to the Tower of London. "His children were waiting for him close by the Tower itself. John More knelt down in the street, and, weeping, asked for his father's blessing."  There were several accounts of his last words during the last hours of his life where he made humorous remarks in spite of his impending execution.

"When he came to the Scaffold, it seemed ready to fall, whereupon he said merrily to the Lieutenant, Pray, Sir, see me safe up; and as to my coming down, let me shift for myself. .. Then kneeling, he repeated the Miserere Psalm with much Devotion; and, rising up the Executioner asked him Forgiveness. He kissed him, and said, Pick up thy Spirits, Man, and be not afraid to do thine Office; my Neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry for having thine Honesty. Laying his Head upon the Block, he bid the Executioner stay till he had put his Beard aside, for that had commit­ted no Treason. Thus he suffered with much Cheerfulness; his Head was taken off at one Blow, and was placed upon London-Bridge, where, having continued for some Months, and being a­bout to be thrown into the Thames to make room forothers, his Daughter Margaret bought it, in­ closed it in a Leaden Box, and kept it for a Relique." Hall's Chron. Vol. 2. S. 2.

After they chopped off the poor guy's head, they parboiled it and put it on a stake on London Bridge, as was the custom. His daughter later bribed someone to remove it and give it to her. They had buried his headless body in the church at the Tower of London.
Here Lies the Headless Body of Thomas More

It's been said that Margaret was buried with the head folded in her arms. Now, that's daughterly devotion. Sir Thomas was beatified and canonized by the Catholic Church about 400 years later, because of his martyrdom. John, who wept for his father in the street that day, is in our direct line. Several Johns and Thomases later, another John Moore (now with two Os) was born in 1613 in England. He is said to have become a Protestant minister and the first of that line to immigrate here from England.

The whole family. John stands to Thomas's left.

After landing in Charlestown, John settled in Sudbury, MA. Some 300+ years after that, I was born and raised in that same little Massachusetts town. The funny thing is that the connection I have with Sudbury is through my father's ancestors, yet this is my mother's line. I never knew that her ancestors had any Sudbury connections before her. Small world even back then!

But that line only stayed in Sudbury briefly, on their way to Canada. There are 9 more generations between John Moore the immigrant and me, and another 4 or 5 other surnames are involved. From Sudbury, the tree wound through neighboring Lexington and Weston and Woburn. Abigail Merriam, 3rd great granddaughter of immigrant John Moore, married Abraham Bradshaw from Medford. They lived in Woburn, MA before they moved to Nova Scotia some time shortly before the revolution began. Loyalists perhaps?

From there, the family moved to Prince Edward Island, where they remained for 100 years, when a Lidstone married a Waters and moved back to Woburn, MA. My grandfather was Daniel Lidstone Waters.

It's very cool to think there may have been a saint in our tree, but after 16 generations I don't really think much of his saintliness made it through such a long filter to me. I find it even more cool to be in the same tree as a writer and someone who asked his executioner to "spare his beard" and warned him that he had a short neck.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Newest Blossom on the Tree

It took me nearly two weeks to write the sketchy draft I needed for my weekly genealogy blog after the visit. Ordinarily an easy thing for me to do, this time although I worked on it until 2:00 in the morning it still wasn’t exactly the way I wanted it. The characters didn’t seem so interesting to me while I wrote it as they had been before when I had decided to write about them. The blog is all about ancestors and their stories but the past isn’t where my head is since my visit with Lily.

One would think spending time with such a perfect creature would inspire me to put pen to paper but it didn’t at all, at the time. Actually, that makes some sense to me. It is so much like what happens to me when I am at the beach.

Staring out at the ocean, soaking up the warmth of the sun, the salt air, the sight of gulls suspended overhead by wind currents, flapping their wings but going nowhere. Timing it just right so that they hover over a particularly interesting beach blanket, abandoned by its inhabitants, I can’t stop watching. The notebook I brought with me is open but the page is blank. Looking out at the vastness of the water, reaching out to who-knows-where, you’d think I’d be able write something profound, but nothing comes, so mesmerized am I by what I see wherever I look.

Not until I fold up the blanket, and head home, trudging through the hot sand, so deep and loose that it seems as if the gravitational pull is doubled on Cape Cod beaches, not until then does my mind start to waken again. Only after I’ve showered off the sand and salt and can no longer see or feel the ocean, except for in my mind’s eye, do I feel inspired to write about it, to reflect on its impact.

And so it is with Lily. From the moment they handed her to me, the connection was made. She looked nothing like my side of the family. I couldn’t see her father in her. I didn’t see my eyes or my mother’s chin or my father’s smile. I saw only her mother and Lily's own unique self in her miniature features, and yet she was mine, too.  

She was perfection. Her head, perfectly shaped, the size of a small grapefruit or large apple; light brown hair, just enough, feels so smooth and soft and is so comforting just stroking it over and over with my fingers as I hold her close.

I tell her Mom and Dad that she is like a little human hot water bottle, keeping me warm as she nuzzles up against my neck, her little legs tucked up under her tummy.

Her tiny hand holding tight to my finger as all newborns will do, but her fingers are long and narrow. Maybe a piano player, I think. And her little feet are long and narrow, too. Maybe a dancer, I think.

So comfortable it is to hold this child, so right it feels. Her parents are in love as am I. She is surrounded by people now who don’t ever want to put her down, eager to hold her, finding it impossible to be in the same room without wanting to touch her. We are drawn to her as if by some invisible energy or spirit. If only her whole life would be that way, surrounded by love alone. In the moment, that is all there is and I don't want to think of anything but this moment.

We three compete for a chance to change a diaper, just to have her all to ourselves. Watching for a moment, for our turn to have her in our arms. And when it's my turn, I can’t take my eyes off her face as she smiles in sleep, having just filled her tiny belly at her mother’s breast.

Mom and Dad and baby are like a three-legged stool in the beginning-a very sturdy thing yet balanced just so as they learn to nurture and care for this new young life. Dad brings Mom her coffee and some breakfast after the first feeding of the morning. He takes his little one downstairs while Mom goes back to sleep for a while. And he has her all to himself. Later, the new little family works out the new dance, choreographing as they go. ‘Is it time to change her? Which blanket should we use? Do you want me to rock her awhile? Her belly button looks okay, don’t you think? Will you help me with her bath? When does she eat again? Should we go up to bed after this feeding or the next?’

Daddy takes her on a little walk around the room, bouncing her a little harder than I would, but the change from Mom’s touch to his calms her cries and he shows her the sights in the family room like the dart board and the closet door, making them seem like wonders of the world that they are discovering together. Mom looks on and smiles.   

I could feel that I wasn’t always where they wanted me to be. Helpful, I suppose, but still I felt as if I was invading their space and their experience. It was a little like filming a documentary. I wanted to reach in and be part of it, yet I knew I should just observe and not insert myself in the moment, so as not to upset that natural balance. And, so I found a time to leave them alone allowing them to bask in their own light for a while.

To give them a break I went to the mall and had my eyebrows threaded. It was supposed to be something that we did together, the new Mom and I, but babies don’t really care about plans their grownups make.
Eyebrow threading is a technique imported from India. It hurts a little but it’s an interesting feeling more than it is what I'd describe as real pain. The hairs are ripped out in groups rather than singularly, as in plucking, but not all at once, either, as in waxing. The Asian girl who did the threading gave me the most soothing facial massage after it was over. I told her how wonderful it felt as she worked wonders on my forehead, eyelids and temples. In broken English she said to me “To help forget the pain.” And, so it did.

If only there was some such ritual, a touch of some kind to take away the very real pain of missing that baby. When I was with her, like the ocean, all I could do was look at her, mesmerized, hypnotized, warmed by her little body and the rest of the world receded into the background. Now, that I have left her I can reflect on feelings and I want to write about that. Not about ancestors I never knew.

And yet, I know why I felt when I first held her that she was mine, too. I could not see her father in her, nor could I see me. She is this brand new life, a completely new being, and a clean slate upon which her story will be written. Nevertheless, she is also the embodiment of all those ancestors I write about here. She is all of us in this family tree.

She is Henrietta. She is Jessie, Rose-Marie and Kim.
She is William and Leslie, She's Daniel. She's Jim.  
She is Scotland. She's England. She's Portugal. She's Rome.
She's Canada. She's Sudbury. She's Manhattan. She's home.
She is all who came before her,
Every branch of this great tree,
Each leaf, each bud, each blossom,
And she's everything to me.

“I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me, and they must come, for at this moment I am the whole reason they have existed at all.”

From the movie “The Amistad”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Father calls me William, sister calls me Will, Mother calls me Willie, but the fellers call me Bill.

The Willett side of my family, my paternal grandmother's people, are still a bit of a mystery to me. Gram was exceedingly proud to be a Willett and I have felt that pride myself all my life. That's why it's been kind of difficult for me to write this story today. Ordinarily, I would just be light about finding something less than stellar in our tree. I think it's because I haven't found out too much about the Willetts yet that it was a little harder to write this one. The furthest I can go back is to my 3rd great grandfather, Ebenezer. He was born in 1798 in Babylon, NY.

They all seem to be New Yorkers, something else Gram was proud to be. Her father, George, was a New York City Policeman, his father a well respected plumber and gas-fitter. Ebenezer was a "Bayman" or a fisherman and lived on Long Island for all of his life where he raised my great, great grandfather, Marinus the plumber and six other children. Another of Ebenezer's sons, William Forte Willett, who was my great great grand uncle, also had a son whom he named William Forte Willett, Jr. Today's story is about William Willett, Jr.

William Forte Willett, Jr. was born in The Flatlands in 1869. This is a small neighborhood, now part of Brooklyn, but back then it was a farming town separate from the city, close to Jamaica Bay. In fact it was one of the oldest communities in New York, having been settled in the 1630s by the Dutch. The area was heavily Dutch which leads me to think that The Netherlands may be the place to look for our Willetts oldest roots. To give you some idea of the community of the Flatlands at the time, when William Jr was 3 years old, the directory for the town listed 87 people, 49 of them were farmers. Six worked on the water as fisherman or sailors, including William's grandfather Ebenezer. William's father was a plumber and possibly in business with my great great grandfather, Marinus.

William Jr. was the eldest of three children. He was eleven years older than his sister Elizabeth and eight years older than his brother, Marinus, with whom he was very close all of their lives. William Jr. attended Brooklyn public schools and went on to the University of New York where he earned a Law Degree and began practicing law in 1896.  He married Marie Rebecca Van Tassel, probably of Dutch origin, although her family was from New Jersey at the time they married. They had two children, Marie and William Foster Willett.
William Jr.'s practice became quite successful and it wasn't long before he had offices in Jamaica, Far Rockaway and Manhattan. In 1904 he ran for Congress, as a Democrat,  but was defeated. He ran again in 1906 and he won that election.

He served for four years in Washington, living the high life and was found residing in an expensive Hotel in DC. The Congress Hall Hotel built in 1907 provided Exclusive accommodations for members of Congress who needed long-term housing as well as rooms for visiting dignitaries. It opened late in 1907 or early 1908. The newly elected Representative apparently wanted to be where the action was. He was listed in one article as one of a handful of folks who had already made reservations for an apartment at the new luxury spot just across the street from the capitol building, even before it was completed.

Although he only served four years, he made two memorable speeches from the floor, both revealing his distaste for one Teddy Roosevelt. In one, which he delivered in March of 1907, he denounced the President blaming him for the financial panic of 1907.  (I didn't really know there was a financial panic then, did you?)"There seems to be," he said,"a conspiracy of silence on the part of Republican members of the House on the subject of cause and effect of the panic." "Those members, he declared, were "afraid to attack the president for fear of his big stick."

But, exponentially nasty and cutting was a speech he gave from the floor on January 18, 1909 when he attacked President Roosevelt once more, never actually using his name, but instead calling him: Gargoyle Tyrant, Horse-tender, Hay Tedder, Fountain of Billingsgate, Imitation of a King, Bogus Hero and, my favorite, Pygmy Descendant of Dutch Tradespeople. I am not sure what most of those meant, but I really liked the Pygmy Descendant of Dutch Tradespeople, especially since I believe that the Willetts and the Van Tassells, his father and mother's people, probably were Dutch Tradespeople.

So condemning and according to many, inappropriate, was this speech that the House voted to stop him from concluding it and then, voted to have it expunged from the record altogether. It is something  you might want to take the time to read as it is quite eloquent, albeit pretty nasty. 

If you click on this link, Link to HOUSE STOPS WILLETT Jan 18, 1909 I am hoping you can get to a copy of the story in print you can read. The article is continued on page 2 so just click the right arrow near the top of the newspaper to go to page 2.

So, William didn't get reelected and settled back at home to continue his legal practice back in New York. But, it wasn't long before he was once again in the news. In 1911 he was accused of buying a nomination for a supreme court judgeship in New York. The Democratic Political "Boss" at the time, one Joseph Cassidy was supposed to have received a bribe from William Jr. in order to secure this nomination. Although the nomination was made, he never received that judgeship. Instead, he was indicted for bribery and after a long court trial which was closely followed in the newspapers, poor William Jr. and Boss Curley Joe Cassidy and the poor fellow who delivered the money, were found guilty.

William Jr.'s brother, Marinus, had followed in his older brother's shoes and had also become an attorney. He was mentioned in several articles because there was some suspicion that he was involved in the crime. At one point he was sought after as a witness, a "person of interest" in modern day terms, but the prosecutor's office couldn't find him anywhere. The District Attorney was wondering what had become of him and according to others who the reporter questioned, Marinus hadn't been seen in several days. The DA said that process servers had been looking for him for three days when one article was written in January of 1911. William's defense about the $27,000 he had withdrawn from various bank accounts around town was for investing in a business deal with Marinus. But apparently Marinus was never charged and I didn't find his testimony mentioned, so I am not sure if the prosecutor's office ever found him.

Joe Cassidy
Despite the ex-Congressman's innocent plea, William and Joe were sentenced to serve eighteen months in Sing Sing. An account of his first days in Sing Sing appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on January 15, 1914. The article is very interesting and full of details about their arrival and their lives at Sing Sing. It describes William Jr. as follows: "Willett was a sort of Beau Brummel always scrupulously careful about his personal appearance. When he entered the prison and submitted himself to be bathed and then re-clothed, he discarded a rich brown overcoat of brown Melton and a hat of the same shade...If Willett is a model prisoner, he may be permitted to act as judge or "counsel" for the Golden Rule Brotherhood, which is the prisoner's organization. The Brotherhood tries complaints in court and a prisoner acts as judge while others plead the case as attorneys before the court."

In fact, William does finally get his judgeship, although it would be while he was in Sing Sing. There are many, many newspaper articles about William Jr. and this whole case. So much material was available it was hard for me to choose what to include here. But, I have to include one article entitled "Sing Sing "Judge" Punched by Convict" which was the story of how after sentencing an inmate to 10 days in confinement, the ex-Congressman, (the title always attached to William in these articles), was punched by the inmate, losing several teeth and landing in the hospital. On another occasion, "Judge' Willett was struck in the head by a stool while presiding over the prisoner's court.

Another article in 1916, the headline reads "Prisoner Strolls Around City, Tells of Willett Junket". Apparently they were bringing William between the jail at White Plains and Great Meadow Prison. He was escorted by a "keeper" Charles Stewart. It says he "enjoyed five pleasant hours" in the City one Sunday, dining and strolling about in Manhattan. He and his keeper, Mr. Stewart, dined at a hotel on 42nd Street, then wandered around for a few hours. They left for Albany on a train, taking two berths in a sleeper. They got to Albany about 5 the next morning, had breakfast at the Hotel Stanwix. Stewart explained they stopped in the capital so William could have a talk with the superintendent of prisons about his parole. They were to take the 4:45 train from Albany, but were late and had to sprint to catch it. William caught the 4:45 train to Whitehall, "but Stewart missed it because he could not sprint as fast as his prisoner." Stewart telegraphedd ahead and William "accommodatingly" returned to Albany and they left at 11:15 Monday night for Great Meadow, arriving there Tuesday morning. I guess he wasn't exactly a maximum security prisoner.

Then, another article accuses William Jr. of conducting business and actively trading on the stock market while in prison. Chances are that's true since once he was released, he seems to have gone on to do quite well. He became the out-of-town manager for a prominent realty auctioneer and seemed to have come out of it all fairly well. I haven't looked into what happened to Curley Joe Cassidy, but he probably landed on his feet as well.

From everything I have learned about William and about Boss Cassidy, William was a smart guy, but maybe not too clever. He probably got caught up in Joe Cassidy's schemes being inexperienced in politics. I suspect he got bedazzled by the power but also probably believed that it was common practice at the time, so what choice did he have if he wanted to be a judge? He was no match for the temptation that Curly Joe put in front of him. The atmosphere was ripe for making an example of these two, but particularly of Boss Cassidy.

In January 1914 the following appeared in the American Review of Reviews in an article about New York Graft:

"The practice of paying large sums of money to political organizations in return for nominations to judgeships had obtained so long in and about New York that it had even come to be taken by members of the bar and others as a matter of course. It is true that the money did not usually pass in such a way as to constitute an actual purchase that could be legally proven yet the large contributions to campaign funds made by judiciary candidates before and after nominating conventions placed the candidate in the position of a buyer and the political committee in the position of a trafficker in the desired nomination, District Attorney Cropsey succeeded in this particular instance in proving to the satisfaction of a jury that former Congressman William Willett paid to Joseph Cassidy the Democratic boss of Queens County in 1911 a large sum of money for the explicit and single purpose of securing a nomination to the State Supreme Court."
"Since the fall of John Y McKane, more than twenty years ago no boss of so high a rank as Cassidy has ever been made to serve a prison sentence. The incident carries its warning to all bosses but especially to the present leadership of Tammany Hall to whose door in the past has come many an aspiring lawyer with ambitions to grace the bench. Even more impressive is the lesson it teaches to the New York electorate. It can no longer be said that judgeships can be bought and sold with impunity or that those who are powerful in politics are beyond the law's reach."

All but lost in this flurry of newspaper articles was one small article that tells the story of Governor Whitman granting William Junior a full pardon in 1918. 

In February of 1938, William Forte Willett, Jr. was found by a maid, dead in his hotel room at the age of 68. His wife was visiting their daughter and her family at the time. Their home in Woodmere, Long Island, just on the other side of Jamaica Bay from the Flatlands where he was born, was closed-up for the winter. William and Marie were living in the Hotel McAlpine in Manhatten, as was their custom during that time of year. William had just returned from a trip to Washington, although I don't know why he was there.

William Forte Willett, Jr. died of natural causes but his daughter, when asked to comment, said that her father's death "may have been partly due to grief over the death of his brother Marinus Willett, a well-known lawyer, on Christmas Day."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Devil of an Ancestor

One family member my  mother spoke about on occasion was Uncle Thaxter. He was, according to my mother, a very well-known architect and someone she really respected. I never knew him but he seemed a fairly interesting fellow the way my mother talked about him, so I decided to do a little investigating. I only had my mother's stories to go by and that's where I started.

When my mother knew Uncle Thaxter, he and his wife Mabel were living in Belmont, on a large estate with beautiful gardens.

The family Estate in Belmont

According to my mother's recollections,  Aunt Mabel was a good friend of Mrs. Gardner, of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. She remembers going to tea at Mrs. Gardner's house once. She said that Aunt Mabel's hair was bright red, but that Mrs. Gardner's hair was even brighter red. She remembered that she had a lion as a house pet and my mother thought it was a very large dog. Somehow, Mrs. Gardner was very friendly with some circus folk and through these circus people she acquired some performing dogs for my mother's grandmother. One of the dogs was named Trixie. Trixie could walk on her hind legs, holding my great grandmother's hand for the whole length of a city block. Now that would have left an impression on me, too.
Isabella Stewart Gardner

Mrs. Gardner was credited with the quote: "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth." Unfortunately, I must say that what my mother remembered, was more likely something she was told. It is unlikely she went to tea with Mrs. Gardner since Mrs. Gardner died 4 years before my mother was born.

But, the story of the lion has some grain of truth to it as it is one of the more well-known stories about the eccentric Mrs. Gardner. Isabella Gardner had one child who died in infancy but she and her husband raised 3 nephews so, to give my mother the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it was the wife of one of those nephews who she was remembering.

Since that bit of information really didn't pan out in the investigation, I went on to the normal research of census records and the like. Not knowing much about him except his name and his profession and that he was married to Aunt Mabel, it was a bit of a challenge. How Uncle Thaxter was related to us was another mystery that I had to solve and that I thought might lead me to some answers.

My mother knew that Uncle Thaxter's wife's name was Mabel, but she did not know to which branch of the family Mabel belonged. In one census record, Mabel's middle initial was W. I made the assumption that she might have been a West, my great great grandmother's maiden name. That assumption proved to be accurate and through the census records in Southbridge I found out that there was a Mabel West born almost 20 years after my great great grandmother Clara West Paige.
Clara West Paige my GGGrandmother.

They shared the same father but Mabel had a different mother. So, Uncle Thaxter was my great great grandmother's half sister's husband. Not exactly in my direct line. But, still interesting to me.

Although that mystery was solved, I wanted to know more about Uncle Thaxter. What I found out is that he was born in Boston in 1872, the son of a Boston physician and a wealthy socialite. I found out that his first name wasn't Thaxter, but rather Herbert and Thaxter was his middle name.

Uncle Thaxter was an architect of some note, as my mother remembered. He designed many public buildings and many private homes in the Boston area, but more specifically in Belmont, Mass. I found several Boston business directories listing Uncle Thaxter's architectural firm on Boylston street. He designed several municipal buildings in Belmont, including the Junior High School  and the Police Station. He designed the Sacred Heart Church rectory in Malden, the Watson Memorial Chapel in Acton and many homes throughout the greater Boston area.

His uncle Loring, a landscape architect, designed the first outdoor pool in America for the community of Belmont and Uncle Thaxter designed the locker rooms and the bathhouse for the pool, pictured below. The land on which the pool was built, surrounded by a large playground, was donated by Thaxter's Uncle Henry.
The outdoor pool at Belmont
Thaxter served on the Belmont Board of Assessors for almost 30 years and was a town meeting member for many years. He was president of the Middlesex County Assessors Association and the Massachusetts Assessors Association. He was a director of the Waverly Cooperative Bank, a charter member of the Boston City Club and several other charitable fraternal organizations. He was very active in his church as well.

At some point he became one of the most knowledgeable builders and architects of bank buildings, particularly in and around New Orleans. But he returned to the Boston area and that's where he died at the age of 77 and in his obituary in 1949 he left no children, just his wife Mabel, his sister Ethel and a niece from Peabody.

Uncle Thaxter was an interesting and successful fellow, I learned, but some of his relatives really piqued my interest along the way. He came from a large family of over achievers. His sister Ethel was an accomplished artist and was known in particular for painting miniature portraits. Perhaps that was how Mabel met Mrs. Gardner, or whomever.

One of Ethel's miniatures.
Thaxter's brother George was a Boston purchasing agent and his other brother Western, was a Los Angeles Banker. Thaxter's uncle Loring, the designer of the pool, was a highly respected landscape architect who designed many large gardens in the area and around the country. He was the resident landscape architect at Vassar College and designed their Shakespeare Garden, the second oldest in the country in honor of the bard. It was built in 1916 using seeds from Shakespeare's own garden.

Building the Shakespeare Garden in 1916

Shakespeare Garden at Vassar today
Loring wrote several books, mostly about gardens, featuring his own photos. Loring and his brother William Lyman, in fact, were both well-known commercial photographers. W. Lyman concentrated on nature of the northeast. A book of the photos of Thaxter's two uncles entitled "Gentlemen Photographers" is available on

W. Lyman and Loring enjoying nature
W. Lyman published several books as well, including "The Mosquito Nuisance and How to Deal with it";

"Wilderness Adventures" and  "Wild Brother: The Strangest of True Stories from the North Woods" published in 1921.

Bruno in the living room in Belmont
This Wild Brother story is about Bruno, a bear cub found when he was just a day or two old after his mother had been killed. He was taken in by a family called the Weldons who lived in a lumber camp in northern Maine. Mrs. Weldon who had a newborn herself, actually nursed this tiny two pound bear cub along with her own child. Kind of a strange thought, but the story is quite interesting and touching as well as humorous. It includes photographs taken by Uncle Lyman.

Baby Ursala and Bruno and Mrs. Weldon-nursing her cubs.
Uncle Lyman and Bruno
As the story unfolds, the bear, Bruno, after a few months, moves to Belmont where Thaxter and his Uncles, Aunts and cousins made their home on the family estate. The book is available in its entirety on Google Books where you can read it for free, but don't go there until you've finished reading this post because there's more to Uncle Lyman's story.

Thaxter's great grandfather William, father of nine, started a condiment company in 1822. This successful company was the source of much of the family's wealth. His son William J. carried on the family business. In turn, William Lyman, although most well known as the photographer, also was very involved in the company and took on the task of improving the process of preserving foods.

In 1836 the company had switched from storing the condiments and other foods in glass containers to using cans lined with tin because Boston glass manufacturers couldn't keep up with the demand. However, there were often problems with bulging cans and tainted food. During the civil war, Uncle Thaxter's great grandfather's company supplied much of the food to the Union Army in the field and one wonders if the food these cans contained may have caused some of the casualties of that war.

Years later, during the late 1890s, Uncle Lyman, in a forward thinking stroke of genius, approached the biology department at MIT in order to solve the problem of safely preserving foods that plagued the company since its inception. In collaboration with MIT professor Samuel Cate Prescott, Uncle Lyman spent 1895 and 1896 researching clams. With Uncle Lyman's photographic skills, he was able to capture images of microscopic bacteria that assisted in this research. What this partnership between industry and academia accomplished, aside from solving the problem for the family business, would be a breakthrough in time-temperature research changing the entire food industry. It would also lead to 'food science and technology' as a profession. William Lyman retired from the company business in 1899 and for the next 30 years, until his death in 1929, he devoted his time to the study of bacteriology at MIT and took no pay for this work.
Uncle Lyman and Professor Prescott
Although this story started out as an investigation about Uncle Thaxter, it led me down a different path toward his uncle William Lyman and the others in his family. The family food business is still prospering today. I wonder if you've guessed what the last name of this family is. The company, located in Boston developed a recipe for canning spiced ham during the Civil War. William Underwood, Thaxter's Great Grandfather was the founder of that company.

And Wm. Underwood and Company's Deviled Ham is the recipe that most of us are familiar with today.

So, I thank Uncle H. Thaxter Underwood of Belmont, Massachusetts, architect and husband of Aunt Mabel West, friend to some woman named Mrs. Gardner, owner of circus dogs and a lion; nephew of William Lyman Underwood, the hero of this story, in my opinion, for taking me down this road.

It was a devil of an investigation that I thought would take me somewhere else entirely, but I loved ending up here!