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Sex, Lies and Miniature Portraits

Michael Tormey:

For those interested in seeing some of my other research and historical articles, I invite you to visit my companion blog: http://www.michaelsmuseum.com.

Originally posted on Michael's Museum:

The history of fine art is peppered with drama, intrigue, and even sexual innuendo — sometimes at the hands of artists, sometimes at the hands of larger-than-life collectors and sometimes at the hands of thieves and scoundrels. The world of miniature portraits is no exception; and we feature today two rare miniatures that have emerged from a world of drama and intrigue that easily inspires a captivating novel or movie script.

Imagine an opening scene in Rome, for example, where a refined Italian man, a wealthy art collector, is studying a miniature portrait under a magnifying glass while bombs go off overhead or German troops march in the streets below. Imagine this same man then in Germany, meeting with Adolph Hitler and, later that same evening, upon returning to his posh Berlin hotel suite, being met at his door by an attractive young man, a German art dealer who has…

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Returning after a Long Absence

The time has come to check in with my readers after a long absence from my blog.

Much of my time and energy over the past year was spent on helping care for my father who had been in declining health. Sadly, he did not win his fight and, in the wee hours of Christmas night past, he departed this world en route to the next.

At my father’s side throughout his entire struggle, my life has been forever changed by the things I witnessed. The expressions on his face during his last hours, in particular, have been deeply seared into my memory. Those haunting expressions also conjured in my mind some unexpected visions of generations past. That is to say, I saw the faces of dying ancestors quickly cycling through my mind, much like flipping through a deck of cards. The happy portraits of them in family photo albums were quickly replaced with visions of how I imagined they might have looked, like my father, on their deathbeds. I saw the same tired and longing expressions; and I saw on those gathered around them the same tears and faces of sadness that I myself had. It occurred to me, too, that my father’s expressions will someday be on my own face, when the deck of cards finally cycles to me. This is the lot of humanity, after all, despite our wishes that it might be otherwise.

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My father’s departure has left a huge hole in my heart. Such was our relationship. We were best friends. We were soul mates. To be sure, there are some who would find it strange to think of a father and son as soul mates, but that definition truly is the best description of our relationship. I believe I understood my father better than anyone else did and, likewise, he understood me like no other. We understood each other’s thoughts; we shared each other’s values; and we vigorously defended each other’s interests.

To the point of this blog, my father has always been (and will forever continue to be) the biggest inspiration behind my genealogy work. No, he himself was not a genealogist; but he was, nonetheless, passionate about his (our) family’s history and culture. In fact, many of my fondest memories of childhood are of conversations with my father as he recounted tales of the Tormeys, McDivits, Heuislers, Hartmans and Creys of our past. And many of my fondest memories as an adult are of the excitement and pleasure my father had upon learning the results of my research. He loved his family; he loved his family’s admirable past; and he loved learning about the lives and the hopes and fears of his forebears. To the end, he intimately cherished the legacy that was passed to him; and, as he departed this world, he left a noble legacy of his own.

My father’s name was Joseph Heuisler Tormey, Jr. He may be gone in body; but his spirit remains lager than life. And he will forever remain the inspiration behind my research and writing.

I will close with two simple words: pax vobiscum (Latin for “peace be with you”). My Dad cherished his Jesuit upbringing and he embraced the sentiment behind that simple yet complex Latin phrase.

Pax vobiscum, my dear readers. May peace be with you. And may you, too, be blessed with the love and passion that Joseph Tormey had for his family… a legacy worth honoring and preserving for generations to come.

Thoughts on the Greater Legacy of Humanity

History is not always pretty. Humanity is not always pretty. If you look deep enough into your family’s past, you will surely encounter some ugly memories that your ancestors would prefer you overlook and forget. But should you?

Yes, I know… We all want to be descended from royalty. We all want to believe that our family is cut from the finest of cloth, that our ancestors were kind, wealthy, generous, intelligent, hard-working examples of what all mankind should aspire to be. But were they? Perhaps better said… Were they all?

The fact of the matter is, you and I are connected to many tens of thousands, if not millions, of other people from the past who shared a very similar DNA. (See my article, The Math Behind a Family Tree .). The likelihood, therefore, is that somewhere in our past, we are all connected to someone famous. And it is just as likely that we are all connected to someone infamous.

My personal take on life is that there is a fine line between prince and pauper, oppressor and oppressed, benefactor and thief. And if our legacy as humans is that we are intimately connected to those who have come before us and contributed to our DNA, our looks, our personality traits, etc., then all of us have in our past opposing forces of good and evil, triumph and tribulation, success and failure.

Perhaps this is summed up best by the ancient Roman playwright, Publius Terentius Afer (known better in English as simply, Terence), who nearly two centuries before Christ, wrote the now famous words, “Nothing human is alien to me.”

As I read these words, in the context he portrayed them, I believe Terence was suggesting that we humans all have within us the power and the ability to commit the most heinous of acts; and that, likewise, we all have within us the power and ability to achieve magnificent things… The power and ability to kill, and to take from others that which is theirs… And the power and the ability to impart grace, forgiveness and love.

The more I look at the past and the nature of humanity, the more I understand my Christian faith and the magnificence of God's grace, without which we have nothing.

The more I look at the past and the nature of humanity, the more I understand my Christian faith and the magnificence of God’s grace, without which we have nothing.

It is with this in mind that I phrase the question again… While there might be some ugly memories that our ancestors would prefer us genealogists and family historians to overlook and forget, should we? Should we be revisionists when passing on our family histories? Should we sterilize the record to remove evidence of the likes of crime, alcoholism, adultery, discrimination and domination over others?

As I have researched my own family, I have discovered evidence of depression and alcoholism; and evidence of confident leadership and superb salesmanship. I have found cases of infidelity and even occasional bigamy; and yet many more cases of loving, lifelong partnerships. Within my family’s past were those who endorsed and participated in slavery; and, likewise, those who were disgusted by it and stood against it. There were those who were Viking plunderers; and those who were Puritan saints. In one branch of my family were ancient Irish ancestors who were enslaved and ultimately killed by their English oppressors; and in another branch, were the very same English who defeated them and took their lands. There were those who were brave colonists who carved a new and fruitful existence in what was then the wilderness of colonial Massachusetts; and there were those who displaced, and even killed, the Native American Indians who were there before them.

All of this is part of my legacy. (Somehow, I suspect it isn’t far removed from your own family’s legacy.) It is my personal belief that these opposing forces of good and evil, triumph and tribulation, success and failure, all need to be included in any complete and honest historical narrative of our families’ pasts. No, I am not suggesting we villainize those occasional unsavory souls who came before us. Nor am I suggesting we attempt to atone for their missteps or, for that matter, to whitewash over them for our own benefit. Rather, I am suggesting we look at history with objectivity and balance and that we celebrate the sum of who we are and the lessons that can be drawn from that.

I have often imagined what it would be like if I could assemble a thousand of my ancestors in one large room and ask them to share their best advice, their common legacy. Somehow, all these years after their passing, I suspect that they would want their descendants, with full awareness of their human faults and flaws, to rise up above those faults and flaws and make something better of themselves. Not just for those who are here now, but for those who will come after us… Indeed, for all of humanity. Perhaps this is the conversation I will someday have with my ancestors when I meet them in the “great beyond”… as we look down together on those who will yet continue to inherit the legacy I will leave behind.

Interestingly, the more I look at the past and the nature of humanity, the more I understand my Christian faith and the magnificence of God’s grace.

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “Thoughts on the Greater Legacy of Humanity”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog’”, posted May 5, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).

 

To Be or Not to Be… a Descendant of William Shakespeare

One recent evening, I was browsing my online family tree at Ancestry.com. I had just days earlier confirmed a connection that led me to being able to identify a tenth-great-grandfather on my mother’s side: John Hill, born in 1572, in Sommerset County, England. Having identified John Hill, my next mission was to see what other records might exist that could perhaps lead me to even older ancestors.

Anyone who is familiar with Ancestry.com can easily imagine what I did next… On my profile for John Hill, I clicked the folder tab titled “Hints”. (A “Hint” is a term Ancestry uses to refer to a promising lead that might help one identify additional family connections. Ancestry scans their databases for such leads and then passes them on as links to historical records or information submitted by other genealogists.)

Amongst the several hints that appeared for my John Hill, were some links to the family trees of other genealogists who also claimed to be descendants of John Hill. (Such leads can prove valuable, as someone else may have already discovered meaningful information about a common ancestor that you could, in turn, incorporate into your own family tree.)

As I scanned through several of these other genealogists’ family trees, I noticed something that most of their files had in common: they showed John Hill as being married to Susanna Shakespeare. Exploring this further, I clicked one link, and then another, and then I gasped in disbelief…

This Susanna Shakespeare was noted to have been the daughter of a William Shakespeare. “Nooo,” I thought to my self, could this be THE William Shakespeare??” Sure enough, he was: William Shakespeare, the famous English poet and playwright, born 449 years ago, in 1564! And if what I was seeing was correct, that would make William Shakespeare MY eleventh-great-grandfather!

“Wait until I tell my family!” I thought to myself (in proper Shakespearean English, no less).

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Armed with this new information, I did what any eager family historian would do… I searched for as many historical texts as I could find that might describe the personal life and the family of my new-found ancestor, William Shakespeare (information that would both validate this new discovery and, perhaps, lead to yet more family tree connections).

As I did so, one contradictory fact emerged that was nagging at my inner historian self. In my prior research, I had understood John Hill to have been a farmer; but all of the historical texts I was reading about William Shakespeare referred to his son-in-law, John Hill, as having been a prominent physician. Determined to resolve this discrepancy, I dug further and was surprised to find my ancestor’s life painted in a very different way than I had previously known.

My inner historian self still troubled, I returned to my prior research. Laying the conflicting information side by side, it was immediately apparent what I had done. My tenth-great-grandfather, John Hill, was indeed a farmer, a simple man and a Puritan. John HALL, on the other hand, was a prominent English physician. And yes, it was John HALL, not my ancestor, who married William Shakespeare’s daughter.

Frustrated and angry, I slammed the palms of my hands down on my desk. Mind you, I was not angry at learning that I was not descended from William Shakespeare. Rather, I was angry at myself for having made such a simple mistake. With all my experience, how could I have let myself get drawn down this erroneous path?! Of course, it then occurred to me that I was not alone in my error. After all, numerous other genealogists commingled the identities of John Hill and John Hall and included the Shakespeares in their online family trees. (More than half of those researching John Hill on Ancestry.com had done so!)

An Analysis of the Problem

Personally, I am a big fan of Ancestry’s “hint” system. Through their hints, I have found some remarkable information that I might otherwise never have known about. That said, I nonetheless caution people to look very closely at every hint before accepting it as fact and incorporating it into one’s own family tree. (On average, I estimate that I have rejected about 75% of such hints as being inaccurate or not applying to my family.)

One shortcoming of Ancestry’s hints is that they will include records for individuals with similar names. Interestingly, this is also a strength of their hint system. (Every genealogist has encountered documents with misspelled names. For that matter, people, and sometimes entire families, have themselves changed the spelling of their names over the years. So it helps to be openminded to name variations.) My mistake, in this case, was that I scanned over the hints so quickly that I didn’t even notice the difference in spelling.

More than simply missing a different spelling of my ancestor’s last name, however, I also neglected to thoughtfully analyze other conflicting information. Had I done so, I would have noticed more quickly the different professions of the similarly named men. And I would have realized that the timeframe of the supposed marriage to Susanna Shakespeare was not logical, given the dates of birth of John Hill’s known children. Instead, I seized on the excitement of thinking that I might be related to William Shakespeare; and, albeit it only temporarily, I accepted the findings of other genealogists without first reviewing their sources with a critical eye.

Conclusion

I think it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.” (He was so ahead of his time!) This is especially the case with genealogy.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that internet-based research be avoided. Quite the contrary, I am a big fan of the internet! It has facilitated the sharing of information like mankind has never known before; and this sharing of information has led many a genealogist to discover meaningful legacies! (As a personal example… While I might have been disappointed to learn that I am not a descendant of William Shakespeare, through the internet I was able to discover — and verify — a connection with another tenth-great-grandfather, George Calvert, First Lord Baron Baltimore.)

Nonetheless, genealogists have a responsibility to themselves, and to the genealogy community overall, to include citations on all information they publish online. And genealogists, likewise, need to be diligent in reviewing and verifying the sources cited by others, lest they make the mistake that I did and accept as fact something that is far from it.

As William Shakespeare himself said, “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.”

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “To Be or Not to Be… a Descendant of William Shakespeare”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog’”, posted May 3, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).

 

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