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Breaking Down a Brick Wall Part 3 | Our Prairie Nest
Breaking Down a Brick Wall: Part 3 (finale)

If you’ve read through Part 1 and Part 2, I’m sure you’re wondering what happened next. At least, I hope you are…

When I saw the burial record for Margaret Murphy with Emma A. Shaw as the person who’d purchased the plot, I couldn’t contain my excitement. But I would have to over the next 5 days, as we traveled to visit my lovely in-laws, went to a convention with some fellow geeks, and then home again.

Once we settled back into our routine, it took a couple of days before I was ready to delve back into my research. On December 11, I got to work, but what the heck was I even looking for, now? I did a bit of researching in circles that night, and then told myself to open Melanie’s notes and recommendations, my Emma timeline, and refocus.

From Burial to Probate

If Margaret had passed away and Emma purchased her plot, along with a second plot (not sure yet if it remains reserved or is occupied and, if so, by whom), wouldn’t Margaret have some kind of probate? Of course, she would. Even if it wasn’t extensive and she was poor, as possibly evidenced by the fact that she’d died in the City Hospital, there would be something.

With renewed focus, I dug into the images-only collection of the Suffolk County Probate Index on FamilySearch and immediately found 2 possible cases. There were 2 different administrations for a Margaret Murphy who died in the county in 1890. One of them might be the Margaret I was looking for.

Next, I went into the Suffolk County Probate Docket and that is where I found her case. Of course, I downloaded every single pertinent record image as I went. I opened a second browser tab, so I could go through the docket, volume by volume and page by page, to read through Margaret’s actual probate file.

Finding Emma Again!

First, I found that Emma A. Shaw of Middleborough had stepped up as administratrix, as a “sister of the deceased” and “only next of kin.” If this was true, my Guysborough theory did not hold water, because Laurence Murphy of Guysborough from that particular Murphy family lived until at least the 1901 Canadian Census. If Emma was the last of Margaret’s family, then they must have come from a completely different family.

Also, if this was true that Emma and Margaret were sisters, they could not be the daughters of Patrick and Mary (Fraser) (Lowry) Murphy of Guysboro, because Margaret was born about 1842-1848. Emma was born about 1861-1863. With an age difference like that, their mother had to be quite young in 1842 or thereabouts, and middle-aged by 1861 or so. The Mary Murphy of Guysborough was born about 1806. No way did she have a child at the age of 55-57, sometime from 1861 to 1863.

Still, there was another aspect to my Guysborough theory, and that was that the Emma Murphy found in the 1871 Census wasn’t the daughter of Patrick and Mary, but a granddaughter through one of their daughters. It was still a possibility, albeit now a slim one, with Emma claiming in legal records that Margaret was her sister. I just needed to either prove or disprove a connection. I needed, in good old-fashioned terms, a smoking gun.

Reading on through the probate file, I found that Emma chose not to fulfill the responsibilities of administratrix (no reason was given) and someone else, an Edward Jenkins, was appointed. He did his duties… and then, something marvelous happened.

A Red-Hot Smoking Genealogical Gun…

There was, indeed, another family member who stepped up. Perhaps this person had seen the notice run in the Boston Globe. Perhaps the administrator also ran the notice in another newspaper, but didn’t mention that publication in the probate file. Either way, Margaret and Emma were not alone in this world.

Laurence Murphy, a brother of the deceased, of Guysboro, Nova Scotia, appeared. He petitioned that Edward Jenkins continue to act as administrator of the estate on February 2, 1891:

Emma and Margaret belonged to the Guysborough, Nova Scotia Murphys!

After that, the property in which Margaret and Emma had purchased half shares together was sold and, it appears, Emma’s life continued to move on without her maternal family.

And thus, I’d found the document that tied it all together, wrapping my theory up as nice as you please in lovely paper, with a pretty bow on top. The one family that had any chance of fitting, did!

A Revised Timeline of Facts

But who was Maggie to Emma? Sister? Aunt? Perhaps even mother?

Aunt, for sure, as Laurence was Emma’s uncle, and their sister – Eliza – was Emma’s mother. Emma was an illegitimate child, born to Eliza Murphy (daughter of Patrick Murphy and Mary Ann [Fraser] [Lowry]) of Manchester, Guysborough, Nova Scotia, and Francis Wallace of Port Mulgrave, Guysborough, Nova Scotia. She is likely the Emma Ann Wallace found in St. Ann, Guysborough, Parish Records, Book 2, Baptisms: 1861-1863.

Emma’s gravestone gives a date of birth as February 14, 1861, but that means she was 1 1/2 when she was baptized. Not knowing Catholic baptismal traditions, I take the birth date with a grain of salt, as I always have.

By the 1871 Canadian Census, Emma was age 10 and residing with Nicholas and Johanna (Marah/Marr) Flavin. The Marah and Murphy families seemed to have some connection, because Margaret “Maggie” Murphy’s 1844 baptism was sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Laurence Marah. Johanna (Marah/Marr) Flavin and Laurence Marah/Marr were siblings.

On October 4, 1879, at the age of at least 16, Emma was one of the sponsors for the baptism of James Gregory Cleary. This coincides with the 1930 Census) stating that her first marriage occurred at the age of 16. She wasn’t married just yet by this date, but could have been married shortly thereafter.

From October 4, 1879 to Emma’s marriage to Erastus on November 17, 1888 remains a blank. While Emma is unaccounted for over 9 years, that’s simply fertile ground for more discovery – when she first married, when she came to the United States, supposedly started or was involved with running a store in the Boston area, and then ultimately settled in Middleborough.

She conceived my great-grandfather, Harrison Clifford Shaw, by mid- to late -August of 1888 in order for him to be born on May 9, 1889. DNA, in this instance, has proven our connection to our Shaw ancestors in Carver, Massachusetts, so I have no doubt that Erastus is the father of Emma’s one and only known living child.

After that, Emma’s life appears pretty straightforward. She married, her son was born, and she moved forward with her life. Other than 1910 court case where she was charged with assault against a neighbor over a land dispute (she sure was a feisty one!), Emma’s existence appeared to be as normal as any other. But the life she left behind in Nova Scotia as an illegitimate child might have been far from wonderful.

I still want to know her story and wish I could talk to her face to face. That can’t happen, but I feel like I have at least a little more insight into her life with these discoveries.

Now, if only we could find that elusive photo of Emma that supposedly exists…

Breaking Down a Brick Wall Part 2 | Our Prairie Nest
Breaking Down a Brick Wall: Part 2

If you started at Part 1, the story continues here!

After being told by one genealogical research company that the prognosis for finding my great-great-grandmother, Emma Anna (Murphy) (Reagan) Shaw, was “poor,” I thought maybe they were right.

However, I had Research Consultation time I had banked with the New England Historic Genealogical Society (American Ancestors), because for the past few years, I’d been renewing my membership at the Friend level, instead of just the Research level. The Friend level includes the benefit of 15 minutes of Research Consultation time and you may accumulate it up to a certain amount. I decided it was time to use it.

After filling out the details on their website, the coordinator scheduled me to talk to Melanie McComb, also known as The Shamrock Genealogist. NEHGS connects you with the genealogist best suited for your query based upon various factors and I was excited to finally have someone take an in-depth look at over two decades of my hard work!

Melanie requested anything and everything I had, so I made sure she had access to everything I’d collected, from vital records to newspaper articles to the timeline I’d drawn up with my verified facts and tentative dates, places, and people, and so much more. Having someone else analyze everything was what I’d been wanting for such a long time, and now I was finally getting the new perspective I needed.

During our call, Melanie offered numerous suggestions and, even though I was taking notes, she also sent me a comprehensive follow-up with her analysis and ideas. *A side note to say I would highly recommend this service through NEHGS. It is well worth the Friend or higher-tier level memberships, or paying for out of pocket!*

I set to work immediately, prioritizing Melanie’s recommendations and reaching out to people. One of the first things I did to follow-up after her call was dig deeper (no pun intended) to find out where Margaret was buried.

As Melanie pointed out, it could be useful to know if she was interred in a Catholic or Protestant cemetery, because the records for my Emma were all Protestant. The records for that Guysborough Murphy family were all Catholic. A mixing of religions within the family seemed unlikely and Melanie was gently skeptical of Emma being connected to the Guysborough Murphy family because of this, giving more weight to the possibility of her being born in Maine based on the censuses and death record. Also, there are many Murphy and Reagan families in Maine, and she suggested I really delve into them.

All this time, I’d given more weight to the Guysborough family partially because of the 1871 Canadian Census entry for Emma Murphy being the only one “left” for me, partially because of the name Laurence, and partially because in her 1888 marriage to grandpa Erastus, Emma had given her place of birth as Nova Scotia. However, it was the only time in all records pertaining to Emma that Nova Scotia was ever mentioned, except in the death of her son, my great-grandpa Harrison Shaw. Therefore, Melanie’s skepticism was entirely appropriate.

Digging Up a Burial

So, going back to Margaret’s death record in Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1915, the entry didn’t list her place of burial. However, I somehow stumbled upon the Undertaker’s Return of Margaret’s death and it did list her place of burial. Voila! She was interred at Calvary Cemetery in Boston.

I visited the Boston Catholic Cemetery Association and conducted an Online Burial Search on their website. Sure enough, there was a Margaret Murphy who died in 1890, buried at Calvary. So did this confirm she was Catholic and perhaps not the Maggie Murphy with whom Emma purchased land in Middleborough in 1889? Was I instead dealing with two Murphy women, (potential sisters?) who’d simply landed in Middleborough by 1888/1889, and then one disappearing without a trace?

I took a deep breath and emailed the contact person for the Boston Catholic Cemetery Association, and hoped for… Well, I didn’t know what I was hoping for. Margaret’s death record and Undertaker’s Return did say she was a widow and had a husband named William Murphy, so I guess that, at the most, I anticipated receiving a record stating that the two of them were buried in the same plot. And such a record would be another dead end for me.

When 2 months passed without a response, I reached out again with a gentle follow-up request. I know people are busy and genealogical inquiries don’t take priority when you’re writing to libraries, churches, cemeteries, and other organizations, and I try to always acknowledge this when writing to people. Patience and good letter or email-writing technique and etiquette are as important as ever, even in 2019!

On the morning of December 5, 2019, I woke up bright and early. It was 2 days before my 45th birthday and we were leaving that day for a long weekend. You know how the night before something you’re anticipating – a holiday, an event, a vacation, etc. – it can be difficult to sleep? That was my issue the night of December 4, so when I rolled over at 7 a.m. on the 5th, I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep. I picked up my phone to glance at my email.

There was an email from the contact person Boston Catholic Cemetery Association. She had sent me a JPG and a PDF, apologized for the delay, let me know there was no fee for the information, and wished me Happy Holidays.

And a Happy Holiday (and Birthday) it was about to become, because the PDF and image showed that the plot for Margaret Murphy had been purchased on December 24, 1890 by none other than my great-great grandmother, Emma A. Shaw!

What happened next, however, was what I’d been waiting to find since 1993… Find out how the story ends – and begins anew – in Part 3!

Breaking Down a Brick Wall Part 1 | Our Prairie Nest
Breaking Down a 26-Year Brick Wall: Part 1

After 26 years of wondering and guessing, digging and hypothesizing, flailing and sometimes giving up, it happened.

When I originally posted “2019: The Year I Find Emma” on January 4, 2019, my entire focus was on DNA. Would you believe that, after all these years, DNA was not what led me to answers? Instead, it was 3 of our most-often overlooked genealogical resources: burial, probate, and land records. I think we often focus on births, marriages, deaths, and census records for facts, but this experience is a reminder that all records are valuable.

I’d been trying for several years to get someone to take a critical look at my research and timeline on Great-Great Grandma Emma Anna (Murphy) (Reagan) Shaw, wife of Erastus Bartlett Shaw of Middleborough, Massachusetts. Sometimes another perspective will give us fresh insights and ideas. My questions were: 1. When and where was Emma born and 2. Who was her first husband? It was getting this outside perspective that led me to the records I needed to dismantle the wall I’d been staring at since I was 18.

From her 1888 marriage to Erastus to the 1970 death certificate of my great-grandfather Harrison Shaw, every piece of evidence offered conflicting information on her place and date of birth. Was it Nova Scotia, Maine, or Massachusetts? And were her parents born in Massachusetts, Maine, Canada, England, Ireland, or Scotland? And there wasn’t even a spark of hope when it came to the elusive Mr. Reagan beyond the entry in the 1930 Census stating that Emma was first married at the age of 16. Only nominally useful when her age varied from document to document!

I did have one thread of hope that formed the basis of a hypothesis about her origins, though. Roughly 10 years ago, before so many records were available via FamilySearch, Barbara Poole of Life From the Roots, found an 1871 Canadian Census entry for an Emma Murphy residing in Manchester, Guysborough, Nova Scotia, Canada. It was something, because every other Emma, Anna, or Annie Murphy that I’d tracked in the 1871 and 1881 Canadian Censuses, and 1870 and 1880 U.S. Censuses in Maine and Massachusetts hadn’t borne fruit. Those Emmas had the wrong parents, wrong husbands, the wrong everything. But this Guysborough Emma had, well, nothing. Just the lone census entry.

The Hypothesis

Over the past decade, I built a hypothesis piece by piece around the Guysborough Emma. She was 10-years-old in 1871 and living with the Flavin family. She wasn’t related to them, but there was a baptism for an Emma Ann Wallace, daughter of an Eliza Murphy at St. Ann’s in Guysborough in 1863. Again, just a tiny record and, really, it shouldn’t have meant much. Why? Because my Emma’s parents were supposed to be John Patrick (or John… or Patrick) Murphy and Mary Ann Frazier/Fraser/Frasher.

However, this Eliza Murphy of Guysborough had a sister named Margaret Murphy and a brother named Laurence Murphy, and their parents were a Patrick Murphy and Mary… Lowery. Again, you’d wonder why I clung to this family as a possibility when the names weren’t quite right. Because there were two names that were right: Laurence and Margaret.

Laurence is a family name for us, you see. My grandmother, Barbara Shaw (granddaughter of Emma) had a twin brother. His name was Laurence. Sadly, Laurence died when he and grandma were only 3-years-old. I can’t imagine the pain of losing one’s twin, especially so young. Grandma went on to honor his memory by naming her second son Lawrence, my Uncle Larry.

As you can see, there is no evidence here to prove that the Guysborough Emma was mine, but there was nothing disproving it, either, unlike other Emmas who I’d chased over the years.

Margaret was the other piece of the puzzle that kept me holding on to my theory. Emma purchased property in Middleborough in 1889 with a Maggie Murphy. Somehow, there had to be a connection, but it continued to elude me until 3 years ago.

So what was my hypothesis? It was that Emma was the granddaughter of Patrick Murphy and Mary Ann (Fraser) (Lowery). The pieces fit as far as the ages of the possible grandparents, potential mother, aunts, and uncles, and the fact that this Emma in 1871 was living with an unrelated family in town. But how was I going to prove or disprove it?

Margaret “Maggie” Murphy

In 2016, I tried a new search query on FamilySearch. Instead of searching for Emma or anyone by first name, I searched for the last name Murphy and various combinations of the father’s possible name, “Patrick Murphy” or “John Murphy,” and the mother’s name, “Mary Frasher/Fraser/Frazier” or “Mary Low(e)ry.”

I found 2 possibilities. The first was a James Murphy who was the son of Patrick Murphy and Mary Lowery of Nova Scotia. He died in 1886 off Grand Banks, Newfoundland in the loss of the Schooner Virginia Dare. He’d married an Annie Fitzpatrick in Gloucester in 1882 and had a son, John James Murphy, born a few months after James’ death. John went on to marry Leone Mason in Gloucester in 1907 and have 3 children, 2 of whom lived to adulthood and died in the 1980s. Great… but I didn’t want to pursue descendants without verifying a family connection.

The second hit was Margaret Murphy, daughter of Patrick Murphy and Mary Frazier, born in Nova Scotia and died in Boston in 1890. At last, someone whose parents’ names were the same as those on Emma’s 1888 marriage record and 1945 death certificate! By then, I’d forgotten about the purchase of the property on Plymouth Street, Middleborough in 1889 by Emma and Maggie. But, as you can see, it was another potential piece of evidence that my Emma was the Guysborough Emma.

This still didn’t prove anything, though, because how many Patrick Murphys and Mary Fraziers are out there? And how many Margaret Murphys? The death record also didn’t tell me exactly where Margaret was born or where she was buried. I wasn’t sure where to go from there, but I knew there was more. There had to be. I also continued to put out feelers for someone who might be willing to review my work and give me some fresh ideas.

Finally, I reached out to one genealogical research firm for an assessment, posing the two questions asked above. Their response? “Prognosis: Poor.” They didn’t believe it was possible to identify Emma’s date and place of birth, confirm her parentage, or find her first husband. I decided if they couldn’t do it, my only choice was to sit around and hope for DNA to provide answers…

Read on for Part 2.