A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Rule of Two

Back in the 70s, when TOF first dipped his toe in the endless swamp of geneology, he interviewed his grandfather, Pop-Pop.

Family history is lived forward, but often discovered backward. So in good Aristotelian fashion, one starts with the living and peels back the onion generation by generation, resolving contradictions and oral traditions along the way. Bits and pieces accumulate, not always in logical order. In the course of the interview, several things ancestral emerged.
  • Pop-pop had never known his paternal grandfather, who had died when his father was only ten.
  • He was no longer certain of that grandfather's name, but thought it might have been James or John.
  • He had married Anne Lynch, who had worked for "a miller and his wife."
  • They had all lived in Washington, NJ, where the railroad yards were.
  • His grandfather had been killed on the railroad when he was caught between two coal cars and crushed to death, sometime he thought in the 1880s. 
The railyards in Washington NJ, c. 1880s

Armed with this somewhat fluffy information, TOF wrote to the NJ Vital Statistics, and asked vaguely about Flynns killed on the railroad in Washington NJ in the 1880s. Bureaucrats were more nimble in those days and, after all, how many Flynns could have been killed in railroad accidents in Washington NJ in the 1880s? 
Ans.: Two.
One was the aforesaid great-great-grandfather, whose name turned out to be John Thomas Flynn. The other was a Martin Flynn. 
He was John's younger brother. 

So 5bro Pat and TOF heighed off to Washhington NJ in search of graveyards and found at St. Rose of Lima, Oxford NJ (directly through the RR tunnel from Washington) a tombstone to John Flynn and Anna Flynn and children John, Patrick and Martin. How many John Flynns could there be at St. Rose of Lima married to an Anne/a with children named John, Patrick and Martin?

Ans.: Two.

In this case, unrelated. At least, so far as we know. 
Pop-pop also recalled that his uncle John Thomas Flynn married a Kate O'Neil, "who was the daughter of the police chief in Bayonne, NJ." No one seemed to know much else, but did not think they had any kids. That should be easy enough to check. How many police chiefs named O'Neil could Bayonne have had in those years?

Ans.: Two. 

Chief John O'Neil
Chief Cornelius O'Neil
The lesson here, insofar as there is a lesson, is the Rule of Two. 
Whatever it is you are looking for, there are likely two of them. Whatever you think you've found, there's probably another one.
The Incomparable Marge had a great-grandfather yclept Charles Harding Harris. His death certificate names his father as Joel Harris and his birthplace as Missouri in 1877. Lo and behold, the 1880 Census (there is no extant 1890 Census) lists a Joel Harris in MO with a son Charles of the right age. 


The 1910 Census for Chickasaw Nation (the part which became Love Co. OK) lists Charles Harris and his wife Sadie (Holland) while that for Phelps Co, MO also lists a Charles of the same age with father Joel and a brother Oliver Perry Harris carried over from the 1880. So is there another Joel Harris lurking about? Too bad if there is, because this Joel was married to a Sinia Jane Chisenhall and had as a father Greenberry Harris and surely those names are unique!
To top it off, the records are not always accurate. People do not always age 10 years between Censuses. The informant is not always the family and neighbors might not know particulars. In 1900, most of the survivors of John Flynn's family were living in Trenton with the daughter, Bridget Flynn Sawyer, but the Census-taker listed them all as "Sawyer." In 1850, Anne Lynch was listed with her parents in Washington NJ and again as a domestic servant with a farmer named A. Miller. In three different Censuses, Charles Harris, his father's birthplace is listed as Kentucky, Iowa, and Connecticutt, resp. So things are not always cut and dried.  
That's what makes it fun.


  1. "Fun." Are you sure you're not a lawyer?

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, TOF.

  2. Not nearly as dedicated as you, and also live a couple thousand miles from anywhere ancestors might be buried, but did web search for information a few times. Looked for Adolph Polansky, my mom's dad, among the Moravian Czechs who immigrated to East Texas.

    There were at least 2 who popped up, neither of whom was him. One was probably his father. But is seems, among the tiny number of Czechs surnamed Polansky who came to East Texas, Adolph (along with James) was a common first name.

    How a first name that, as far as I know, is associated with a 5th century Visigoth king became popular among Czech Slavs (even Czech Slavs who seemed to have gotten there via Poland in some more distant past) would be an interesting thing to know.

    There's something like a million Moores and Walkers in the US, complicating any searches on my father's side.

  3. The informant is not always the family and neighbors might not know particulars.

    The most fun case I know of is family drama-- there's three censuses.

    The middle one has not a single name spelled correctly, random middle initials, and one person has a completely wrong name as can be shown from the birth certificate, which matches family lore and the earlier and later censuses.

    Guess which one the self-appointed family historian has latched on to re-write all the family records? *grin*

  4. In 1900, most of the survivors of John Flynn's family were living in Trenton with the daughter, Bridget Flynn Sawyer, but the Census-taker listed them all as "Sawyer."

    So you are related to a hero of Mark Twain? *grin*

    Best wishes for the new year. Left another comment under Hammontree post from July 4, 2017.

    1. Bridget's husband was in fact named Tom Sawyer.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Whoa, What's This?

adam amateur theology anthropology aphorisms Aquinas argument from motion Aristotelianism art atheism autumn of the modern ages books brains breaking news captive dreams cartoon charts chieftain clannafhloinn comix commentary counterattack crusades culcha dogheads easton stuff economics eifelheim evolution factoids on parade fake news fallen angels Feeders fir trees in lungs firestar flicks floods flynncestry flynnstuff forecasts forest of time fun facts gandersauce gimlet eye global warming glvwg headlines henchmen high frontier history home front how to lie with statistics humor Hunters Moon hush-hush hypatia in the house of submission irish Iron Shirts irrationalism january dancer jihad journeyman kabuki kool letter lion's mouth lunacon maps mayerling medieval metrology miscellany modern mythology moose zombies music new years nexus odds odds and ends paleofuture passing of the modern age philosophy philosophy math poetry politics potpourri psyched out! public service quality quiet sun quote of the day razor's edge redefinition of marriage religio reviews river of stars scandal science science marches on scientism scrivening shipwrecks of time shroud skiffy skiffy in the news skools slipping masks some people will believe anything stats stories stranger things the auld curmudgeon the madness continues the new fascism the russians are coming the spiral arm the writing life thomism thought for the day thread o' years tofspot topology untergang des abendlandes untergang des morgenlandes up jim river video clips vignettes war on science we get letters we're all gonna die whimsy words at play wuv xmas you can't make this stuff up