Sep 17, 2013

Family Stories - It Pays to Investigate

Most family researchers have heard and collected stories that have been passed down in their families.  I am referring to those stories that are told over and over again by Grandma at every family gathering and just assumed to be true.  In fact it was the often related "story" of how my great grandfather abandoned his family then disappeared that got me started in genealogy so long ago.

I have learned that as a researcher it is important to investigate the facts contained in these tales.  Whether they turn out to be true or just myth you can learn a great deal from your investigation.  Even if they turn out to be just a myth it will give you insight into your family history as to why the story was passed down.  Here is an example of just that from my Orth branch of the family.  This experience is what led me to research ALL family stories.
L to R:  Bobby Orth, Marie Lammay Orth, Sarah Orth Lammay Thomas, and Sarah Orth Collettes
This story is about the death of Sarah Orth Collettes (far left in plaid in above picture).  She was my grandfather's sister.  This story was told to my mother from the time she was young and repeated by my mother and grandmother to me many times as I was growing up.  Both my mother and I just took it at face value and assumed it was true.  We had no reason to question it, I mean why would grandma lie?

Here is what grandma told us about Sarah and her death.  Sarah died an unfortunate death at the age of 20 in 1926 (that much is indeed true).  Grandma said she was single, never married.  Sarah went to spend the night with a female friend who lived in an apartment.  The building caught fire during the night and Sarah perished.

Grandma always said it was a suspicious fire.  Sarah was the only one in the building to die.  Her purse was supposedly found after the fire and her wallet was missing.  Because of this incident my mother was never allowed to "have a sleepover" at a friends when she was a child.  My own mother would repeat this story to me every time I wanted to sleep over at a friends house.

As I got older and started my genealogy journey I did think parts of the story were odd.  Sarah and the whole Orth family were very far from wealthy.  I couldn't imagine the amount of money she might have had in her wallet to justify such a crime by anyone.  But still it did not occur to me to check it out (this was before the internet also so not as easy to check newspapers).  I just chalked it up to grandma being overly suspicious.

Grandma passed away in 1986.  At the funeral home an Orth cousin brought a small typed booklet with what he knew on the Orth genealogy.  He had ironically just completed it and had not had a chance to mail it out to family members.  I of course read it immediately that night. 

I was baffled when I came to the paragraph on Sarah Orth.  He claimed she was married to a man named Al Collettes and had died in their home.  According to him (as per his mother) Sarah's clothes had caught fire from the kitchen stove and she died from her burns.

The next day at the funeral home my mother and I told our cousin that he was wrong.  Sarah was single and died in a fire at a friends home.  He said she was most definitely married to Al Collettes.  His mother had taken him as a child numerous times to visit Al---in prison!  Al Collettes was incarcerated for a car theft that occurred after Sarah's death.  Plus our cousin's mother had told him many times the circumstances of Sarah perishing in her kitchen which seemed a much more reasonable scenario.

Grandma was now gone so we could not question her but I have to say both my mother and I were rattled by this new information.  My investigation confirmed Sarah was indeed married.  I found her marriage record, cemetery records list her as Sarah Collettes, and have even spoken to a descendant of Al Collettes. 

I do not have her death certificate and am waiting for to get PA death records on line.  But I have intensively searched the local papers for any news articles of her death and have found none.  Which seems reasonable to me.  A large apartment fire with a death should have made the papers where one unknown person dying from burns from a stove in 1926 very well may not.

So why the bizarre story?  Mom and I came to the conclusion that is was mainly to hide the fact Sarah was married to someone who ended up in prison which we know would have embarrassed grandma.  Plus we think it was a great reason for grandma to use to not allow my mom to stay over at any friends house.

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