Researching Indirect Relatives May Provide
Unusual Stories Not to be Missed
Today’s Post: Dead Line Child – William Byron Baker — 22 May 1930 to 29 February 1936 — Fact that can Read Like Fiction
By J. B. Trayer
When Marlene Badger first started showing me her hard researched do’s and don’ts of genealogy she made one point perfectly clear — Always Go Wide, meaning just don’t focus on your direct blood line alone, take the time to gather information on siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., of your direct relative. Family Group Sheets are imperative for a variety of reasons, especially when you can’t find something on your direct ancestor, yet plenty appears for a brother or sister in genealogical data. Somewhere within their information you may discover what you need for your own direct-line research.
There is another advantage — a purely emotional one. Once you encourage yourself to go wide, you’ll find a plethora of interesting stories that can be added to your own collection on the general family name. Sometimes you’ll get so emotionally attached to these indirect relatives that you just can’t seem to stop yourself from researching further, even if you know in your heart the information has no relevance to your own direct line. You become caught in the story they left behind, entranced by something… a strange newspaper article, a haunting photo, or a group of census records that just don’t add up and the mystery carries you along until you have satisfied yourself with the conclusion. This is especially so with children who shared this earth for a short period of time. They won’t leave a direct blood line for you to follow; yet, there is a part of you when you find them that just won’t quit. They need to be acknowledged, and you find yourself putting just as much importance on them as your own direct relative.
Every family has stories and anecdotes of indirect relatives, and in the telling over the years, you can bet that a great deal of the embellishment has no basis in fact. Yet, they are fun stories, interesting facts, or tearful memories that make up the tapestry of your combined family history. Most importantly, this history belongs to you, and if you are so lucky, your children and great grandchildren. When you are interested in genealogy it is most often not for yourself alone that you research — it is for those to come. Your eyes are always on the future, even though your nose is buried in the past.
When writing down a family story realize that you may not always know the right answers, and you can couch your verbiage in a way that explains this very fact. Newspaper articles, obituaries, diaries, census records, wills, etc., can help support what you’ve been told. It is okay to draw conclusions as long as you are clear this is your analysis. Someone else in the family may study the same story and get an entirely different end scenario of the events. That’s okay. People make judgments based on their beliefs, their background, and their current emotional situation in life. These conclusions are not always logical. Things like religion, politics, and self-esteem can, and will, pummel your story from another relative’s point of view. Truth is an enigma, after all.
Such is the case of William Byron Baker, a little boy who died tragically of an unknown malady at the age of six. Billy would have been my uncle, had he lived to adulthood. His brief sojourn here on planet earth and in the Baker family left a lasting impression on all who knew him, and these memories are those I heard from several older family members as I grew up. Billy came to the forefront of my interest this past month when I decided I would drag out that proverbial shoebox of stuff I hadn’t gotten around to organizing in my family notebooks. Sometimes, you are so concentrated on making headway on your direct line pedigree that you leave the more recent historical information you have to gather a bit of dust. You already know the information, even have a few photos, so the mystery that might drive you isn’t really there. We forget, I think, that just because we know this information, others in the family do not. I’d promised myself that I would scan a large number of pictures into my gedcom file, and update my tree on-line as well. As I was working through the photos — scanning, annotating, and inserting them into my private tree and the one on-line — I came across several of Billy that I never really paid attention to.
Hmmm, I thought, as I looked at some of the snapshots. So…just who did have a camera in 1934? Several of the photos weren’t professional. I wondered who, in my family at that time, could actually afford a camera. And, how interesting, that the only photos I have of those years in that family unit…are of Billy or have Billy in them with his mother and brother (my grandmother and father). I realized that I’d never written Billy’s story for my genealogy notebooks, about his unusual meeting with death, nor what happened…afterwards. My mind drifted to what I remembered hearing about Billy.
The Story of Billy Byron Baker
August. Sweltering. I am a teenager not yet driving and my normally over-protective mother has allowed me to ride my bike across town to frequent the local pool on one condition — I must always check in with my Grandfather Baker who lives one block away from the swimming club. I have no problem with this. My Grandpa Sam is pretty cool, even if he is in his early eighties. He gives me rock hard cookies he baked himself, homemade iced tea, and pocket change for the pool vending machine on a regular basis. He also shares with me, that blistering summer, stories of family and life in the early part of the 1900’s that I will take with me to my grave. I don’t realize this then, of course, I’m too busy relishing my new found freedom from a West Virginia bred Scorpio mother who never did lose her distrust of her Pennsylvania relatives and co-workers. Oh yeah.
We always sat in the kitchen, my grandfather and I. He had his chair, facing the back door. I had mine, angled toward the white wooden cupboards filled with a variety of mismatched dishes. The cupboards were particularly special in this house because they were hand painted by my grandmother and decorated with distelfinks of her own design long before I was born. Although she passed a year or two before, her presence could still be felt with those magickal birds of good will.
Sunny. That kitchen, even though it was positioned primarily in the shade of an old cherry tree. It is how I remember those afternoons, though. Bright. Cheerful. Plastic tablecloth sticking to your elbows. Dappled light. That funky, country smell that I still don’t know where it comes from; but, if you’ve ever experienced it, you know what I mean. Its not bad. Just…different.
But, it wasn’t until I really dove into genealogy that I experienced a strange clicking moment. You know, like when you are turning the dial on a safe and suddenly the combination softly snicks and the door swings magically open and a true treasure evokes a jaw dropping moment? Like that.
There’s so much I could tell you about Billy — William Byron Baker — and these things are always mixed with poignant sadness. I never met Billy. How could I? He died in 1936 at the age of 6; yet, his death resounded through the family with such heartbreak that it resonates in my own life. Indeed, I deal with the results of Billy’s death now, seventy-five years later, with the behavior of my father, a man whose fear of loss is so astronomical that he sits paralyzed by it in a big, old recliner, watching the western channel all day. A thousand times, it seems, I’ve heard various stories about William Byron. My Dad even has a toy that belonged to him. A wooden monkey that climbs up and down a stick. It sits safely in a drawer near my father’s chair. It is one of the few things he remembers these days — Our Lady Dementia his only mistress.
The short saga of Billy’s death is very unusual. It is a tale of death, justice, and perhaps…revenge. My sources are from two people — my grandfather and my father — told at different times by father; but, so painful, only once by my grandfather.
On that summer afternoon.
In the sanctity of the Baker family kitchen.
“Neighbor boy hit him with a rock in the back,” said my grandfather. “Never healed.” He shook his head. “Left a hole that just kept getting larger. By the time he died, it was as big as a softball. To this day we don’t know what it was. Doctors couldn’t do anything. Your grandmother even went to a Braucher.”
“What’s that?” I asked, as I crunched through one of those concrete snickerdoodles my grandfather loved to make.
“A Pow-Wow. Faith healer of sorts,” he answered. “Your great grandmother was one; but, she was long dead, so your grandmother found a man to come.” He shook his head again, his faded blue eyes staring at a tragic mental scene I could not see. “They couldn’t do anything, though. They said we called him too late.”
“What happened to the nasty boy who hit Billy with the rock?” I asked, my own fury slowly burning at the injustice of it all. “How dare that mean boy hurt Billy! Just a little boy! Only six years old!” I said. “As my father tells it,” I went on. “He and Billy were outside the house, and this awful bully ran up behind Billy and slugged him with the rock square in the back.”
My grandfather nodded. In the Baker family there has always been a lot unsaid on any subject. It isn’t a gossipy family, in general, this unit. Almost entirely German and Scottish stock, closed mouths on personal business has always been the norm. It went, unsaid then, that day with my grandfather, my Dad’s entire telling of the story. My father, at the time, was aged nine. He was supposed to look out for Billy. That was his job in the pecking order of the family, the others available for baby duty being older, male, and uninterested in watching out for their littlest brother, who to hear my father tell it, was viewed as a burden by his older siblings. Until my father began to lose his mind, he carried the guilt for not standing up for Billy his entire adulthood. He was supposed to protect Billy. He didn’t.
All this went unsaid. My grandfather knew the guilt my father carried. He made no mention of it. My attention drew back to my grandfather, who was strangely silent until I looked straight at him. I was hoping that he would answer my question of what happened to the bully. He didn’t.
Instead, he said, “All the neighbors made fun of your grandmother for calling that Pow-Wow in… you know, when your great grandfather died, D.B.? They burned everything. All of his personal things. All his papers. They say the Johnstown Flood was a terrible thing. That was back in ’36. Your grandmother was never the same, after that. Took a lot of life out of her.”
I could understand the loss of a child and my grandmother’s heartbreak. How the flood that occurred almost three hours away driving distance and my great grandfather’s papers related to Billy, I wasn’t sure. Indeed, at the time, I didn’t know a thing about Johnstown or the horrific disaster that occurred there. By now I’d lost interest, itching to get to my friends, swimming fun and maybe an ice cream or two. As I peddled down the street toward the distant sound of splashing and delighted squeals I forgot all about the morose story of little Billy, his wasting disease, or my father’s small part in it.
My question of what happened to the boy who threw the rock went unanswered for thirty-eight years.
Now, you might think that my grandfather, at eighty, was just letting his mind wander; but, don’t you kid yourself. He lived to be 100, and stayed in his home taking care of himself into his late nineties. Unlike my own father now at approximately the same age as when my grandfather first told me Billy’s short story, his mind was needle sharp. I attributed his side-dance verbal thread of Billy, D.B., and the flood to the way conversations sometimes go with human stream of consciousness speech (something my entire family is in a habit of doing) and thought nothing of it. After awhile, I forgot all about it.
In the ensuing years I remembered pieces of the conversation with my grandfather that day for a different reason. He’d mentioned the Pow-Wow man and that my great grandmother had practiced. Curious I began to do research and eventually found a man to teach me. In the meantime, I also learned that my Great Grandfather — D.B. Baker (my grandfather’s father) — was quite a character as well as a graduate from Dickenson College. In his lifetime he wrote a book, sold textbooks, farmed, and taught school. His best friends were judges and bankers, politicians and such — let me be clear about this — of a small town. He had a very varied net of interest — including the occult, and wrote copious letters to relatives in Germany to further his research. Which is probably why his sister burned all his papers. This was another story I picked up that summer, verified by my father when he still had his wits about him. Don’t panic, though. When I say the word — occult — I’m talking about astrology, phrenology, healing herbs, Braucherei (Pow-Wow) etc. — not devil worship. These subjects, at the time, were all lumped together under the word — occult, and so for the sake of historical accuracy — we’ll just keep the same label.
Fast forward to 2009. Dementia patients go through stages which are varied according to personality type. There are periods of rage or at best anger, normalcy, crystal clarity of the past, and a return to childish behavior, etc.; but, no retention of the day before. It is as if the hippocampus takes a vacation for long periods of time and the information of the now doesn’t follow the bridge to the long-term memory banks. This means that you never know what is going to come out of the patient’s mouth.
We are sitting at the dinner table — my father, my husband, and some of my adult children. We are talking about history. My father, who takes three hours to eat a meal (no kidding, he chews in ratcheted slow motion) looks up from his plate and says, “You know, so-and-so that hit Billy with that rock? Rock as big as your fist. He died in that flood.”
“What flood, Pop?” asked my husband.
My father gave him an irritated are-you-stupid? look. “Johnstown! The Johnstown flood!”
I glanced from my father to my husband, who passed me a silent what-the-heck expression. “Wait,” I said. “How did the kid who hit Billy with the rock die in the Johnstown flood? Lemoyne isn’t anywhere near Johnstown.”
“The boy moved,” said my father. “He hit Billy with the rock!” he said, shaking his fork at no one in particular. “Billy died. That family sold everything and took off within the month. Good riddance to bad rubbish. They were a crude lot. Violent people. Went to Johnstown. Nasty bastard was dead in no time flat, like Billy. He got what he deserved, just like old D. B. said he would. “
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked.
My father shrugged. “You didn’t need to know.”
And just like that, I heard a snicking sound in my head. And my jaw dropped.
You see, my Grandfather Sam (the original story teller) was a pretty slick fellow indeed. He was always careful what he said and to whom he said it and how he said it. That Baker thing of no-gossip? Grandpa Sam certainly understood that if he told a teenager unusual facts they might drift back to her mother who (unlike most of the family) couldn’t normally keep a secret to save her soul, and who may not approve of the unveiling of said knowledge, let alone how it would go through the rest of the family like a Tsunami unlike the world has ever seen. And so he said nothing of D.B.’s prediction that day. Nor the untimely demise of the bully. My mother simply wouldn’t have approved. Instead, he gave me side-step data, and if I was smart enough, and I thought about it long enough, I would eventually put it together myself. D.B. had made other predictions during his lifetime that have come true, including the idea of cell phones, television, and something like Skype — no kidding — and remember, he lived before Star Trek.
I didn’t think this was a prediction, and to this day I’m certain there’s more to it than that. D.B. (Grandpa Sam’s father) was known to have a tremendous temper. When you look at D.B.? Think of a Banty Rooster on crack (except he didn’t do drugs), and that was only when he was angry in the key of minor. Major fury would make a category five hurricane look like a pansy attempt at destruction. As a grandparent myself, invested in the lives of my children…I wouldn’t stand down at the death of a grandchild.
I don’t think he did, either.
Historical Information: William Byron Baker (22 May 1930 to 29 February 1936)
Samuel Cornelius Baker (13 June 1891 to 20 September 1991) Billy’s Father
Lottie Grace Knaub Baker (28 July 1891 to 10 March 1971) Billy’s Mother
Living Family Member: Brother, my father
Daniel Bentz Baker (D.B.) (10 April 1859 to 14 May 1940)
Story Location: Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, USA
Burial Site of aforementioned family members: Dillsburg Cemetery, US Route 15, Dillsburg, PA.
Johnstown Flood: On March 17, 1936, Johnstown experienced a devastating flood caused by heavy runoff from melting snow and three days of rain. The 1889 flood is not the only flood in Johnstown’s history that caused significant loss of life and property damage. The most famous of these occurred in 1936 and 1977. Source: http://www.jaha.org/FloodMuseum/1936.html
Distelfink: Stylized gold finch (bird) used primarily in Pennsylvania Dutch artwork symbolizing luck, success, and happiness. Distelfink means thistle-finch in German European and painting them on birth certificates, marriage certificates, hex signs, and home furniture was a common practice in South Central Pennsylvania.
How This Story Relates To Your Own Work
And that’s how I left the end of the story that I recorded — open. The reader, depending upon his or her own background will now be left to draw their own conclusions. What did D.B. do? Did he take his political and family connections and put them to use by so denigrating the bully’s family that they picked up and moved the month of Billy’s death? Only to vacate into the arms in one of the worst disaster’s of Pennsylvania history? Or, did D.B. focus his intent on justice in a different way? Those with more colorful imaginations will draw one conclusion from the belly of mystery and magick. Those with a belief in an avenging God will think another. What doesn’t change are the few facts we have:
The kid hit Billy with a rock.
The bully moved.
The bully died within the month in a terrible disaster.
The genealogical facts we have are Billy’s death date and the date of the Johnstown flood. Upon research, we find the flood date fits the memories of both story tellers. We tie the flood to the event of Billy’s death through two first person accounts through their narratives. We also have pictures of Billy, which help to boost the story and give the reader an emotional tie to the child.
Too, Billy’s story is actually two stories — you read about Billy in 1936, and you read about memories of the family unit as time progressed past his death through the eyes of the storyteller. You learn a little bit about each person mentioned within the story, which makes them seem more real. Tags like the distelfinks my grandmother painted makes it plausible that she might, indeed, consult a Pow-Wow as that was a strong belief within her childhood. D.B. was smart (Dickenson College), a character (his temper), and a researcher on the occult as well as other subjects (letters to Germany). And so forth.
What I’m trying to express to you here is that your genealogical work and what you share with future generations does not have to be boring. Too often we are accustomed to reading genealogical accounts that are so full of dates and relationship information that the real meat of the story gets lost. By the end of paragraph one, you are yawing and maybe you’ll get to the end. To me, that’s what the Ahnetafel or Register Reports are for — and if you like that, that’s fine. Just don’t forget that there is room for creative expression in your work. By adding the historical data at the end of the story we’re allowing the reader to relish the story for what it is without sacrificing the facts to fiction. Many facts in this tale read like fiction — the setting for example, in the kitchen that hot summer. Although it moves like fiction — it isn’t. The added touch of photos of Billy throughout the story helps the reader to remember this is a story about Billy even though the major characters in the telling are other folks. Finally, the postcard type Photoshop 9 collage that will go on my title page in my notebook allows the reader to see all the characters for themselves.
Those interested in facts alone can find them at the end of your story with as many notes as you wish to provide. In the story of Billy I included the birth and death dates of all the real-life characters, where they are buried, and a cited source for the flood date and the devastation as a result. I chose my source — a bricks and mortar museum that will hopefully exist in the future, even though access information for the facts is currently on the web. I also added the definition of a distelfink. Just because I know what it is doesn’t mean the reader is familiar with this type of stylized art form. If your inner researcher is truly in panic mode that the facts must prevail, consider using footnotes, or even better — endnotes. That way you can still satisfy that inner itch for accurate data and still keep the flow of your tale moving in hopes of keeping your future reader interested enough to actually get to the end!
Finally, some of you reading this article are asking — Do you know the name of the bully? Yes, is your answer. I didn’t include it for a variety of reasons, and am still undecided whether or not I will put it in the family account. Our family, as you have read, sees the injury done to Billy and his resulting death as a murder with Billy the victim and the bully the cause of his demise. Why should the bully be remembered at all other than the fact that Karma definitely operated here with an unusually swift sword? On the genealogical side, however, there is credence in adding at least his full name and a record of his death in the flood. What would you do?
Did you find this article helpful? If so, please leave a comment. Didn’t find it interesting? Tell me why. We can all learn from different points of view and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts. Have a good story of your own? Please do share! Thanks for reading!