Saturday, September 11, 2010

Gerry Towle - Interstate Man of Mystery

Once in a while, you come across a particular relative on your tree who is more illusive and harder to pin down that the others.  While it's easy to click "add" to all those siblings of your grandparents on Ancestry, sometimes these sibling names seemingly disappear between censuses; sometimes forever. This was the case with my grandmother Rose's brother, George Towle.

This is what my Towle branch looked like circa 1860.  You see the father, my great (x3) grandfather, Elbridge G. Towle, age 31; his wife, Hannah J (Clayton), age 25 and their daughters Mary L (age 5), Rosanna (my grandmother, age 2), and Hannah J (age 5 months).

                                                                  (Click to enlarge)

In the 1870 Census, the family looks quite different.  Noticeable, is the absence of the father, Elbridge G Towle, and the additions of Mable (misspelled "Noble") Nickett, a baby named William Nickett, and a boy named George Towle, who is 8 years old.  I know that despite the changes, this is the same family.  They are living in the same town (Kingston, NH) and all the names and ages of the daughters correspond correctly to the previous census.  

If a male head of household is missing between the 1860 census and the 1870 census, there's a good possibility it's due to not surviving military service in the Civil War.  A quick check proved this was the case with my grandfather, Elbridge Gerry Towle.   He was wounded and did not survive.

Comparing the information in both census extracts and you can get a rough outline of this family's story.  The father doesn't survive the war, the mother remarries and she has son with the surname of her new husband.  The 3 children from the previous husband continue to live with her...but, what about that 8 year old boy, George Towle?  Doing the math, 8 years old, minus the census year 1870 gives the the rough estimate of his birth being around 1862.  1862.  Obviously, this boy wouldn't have known his father.  But did his father even get to see his face?  Did he ever hold him in his arms?  I have a number of other grandparents that lost a parent at a tender age: Thomas Caron, Frank Brewer, Henry Pratt, Thomas Means, Cora Blier...sad, yes.  Unfortunately, that situation isn't altogether unusual for the era.  I knew that Elbridge Gerry Towle's line continued on - I didn't have to look any further than myself.  But what about George?  

I began searching for him.  While there were plenty of George Towles in the 1880 census, not one of them fit.  They were too old or too young or were born in the wrong place.  I checked the 1900 census because maybe the 1880 census taker missed him or something.  1900 was a wash.  Same thing - there were no George Towles that fit.  1910?  Nothing.  Could George be dead?  Quite possibly.  Okay, probably, really.  At this point, I half-heartedly chalked up George Towle having died young.  I say half-heartedly because I didn't have actual documentation that he died.  A slim reed, yes - but I was hanging onto to it.  For whatever reason, I just couldn't bring myself to lose all hope for George.  Every so often I'd poke around to see if I could find him.  I never did find George Towle.  But I did find this guy on the 1880 census.


Gerry Towle?  Gerry?  That's my grandfather Elbridge's middle name.  And he's 17 - close enough for government work.  Plus, he's living cat swinging distance from my grandmother Rose and her mother, Hannah Nickett; they're in Haverhill, MA, this Gerry Towle guy is in Bradford, a couple of miles and a mere bridge away.  Intrigued, I began searching for Gerry Towle.  I found that he married, had children and moved to California.  Using the California database at Ancestry, I found that Gerry Towle had a living grandson named Howard living right up the street in LA.  Address provided and everything!

But a person can't just knock on a stranger's door and ask, "Hi, I was just in the neighborhood and I was your grandfather Gerry Towle the son of Elbridge Towle?"  You don't just namedrop a total stranger's grandparents out of the blue on them.  Doing that would scare the crap outta people.  This is what my husband Tim said, though my genealogical buddy Teresa wavered on the question: "I don't think it's that it?"

Yes, it is.  So I didn't knock on Howard Towle's door.  I just sat on the unanswered question though it bothered me enough that every so often, I'd Google search Gerry Towle.  And I'd look to see if anyone put up a tree with him included in it.  One day, I discovered that someone had.  In it, there was a cool story about Gerry winning a sculling contest in Haverhill back in 1890, written by someone named Mike Towle who I deduced must be Howard Towle's son.  This kid is into his roots!  Fabulous.  He's probably young enough to have a Facebook page, I can ask him if he knows who Gerry Towle's parents are!  It's weird to approach strangers over Facebook but much less weird than knocking on their front door.  He has the option to not answer and quietly, politely block me.  No harm, no foul.

He answered back within a day.  Unfortunately, he didn't know who Gerry Towle's parents were.  His father didn't know either.  Neither did his great-aunt.  None of the California Towles knew anything other than their Gerry Towle was the same Gerry Towle on the 1880 census living in Bradford.  Now I had to figure this out - I've got poor long dead Gerry Towle living in Calfornia without parents, an unanswered question about the fate of little 8 year old George Towle, and now this nice Mike Towle guy, surely a cousin of mine of some degree, totally unattached to any Towle tree.  I couldn't let everyone just dangle loose in the wind with their unattached branches.  For good measure, I put Teresa on the case, too.  

Using what scant clues we had, we scoured the internet for any possible information on Gerry.  We got no where in the way of answering the burning question but if you'd like a course on the history of sculling in Haverhill, Masschusetts, Teresa could teach it.  Meanwhile, I drove to LA to order Gerry Towle's death certificate from the LA County Department of Vital Records office.  Gerry Towle died in 1925; by then it was customary to list the decedents parents on the death certificate. Finally, we would have the answer!   I also ordered Hannah Clayton Towle Nickett's Civil War pension application.  She'd have to prove the births of all her children.  If she mentions Gerry, we're golden.  It would arrive in about a month.  Ugh.  I also quizzed Mike Towle...any idea where Gerry is buried?   Mike said his great aunt was certain that he was buried in Inglewood.  His dad wasn't so sure.  I was putting my money on the elderly aunt.  I had a hunch she was going to be right.  Elderly aunts and uncles have always had the inside scoop for me.  I emailed a couple of cemeteries.  The auntie was right.  Gerry was buried in Inglewood.  Unfortunately, there wasn't any information about his parents in their paperwork.  I'd have to wait for the answer by snail mail.

I don't know why, but as soon as I saw the envelope from the LA County Department of Vital Records sitting in my mailbox, I just knew I wouldn't have my answer.  Maybe because by this time, with all this time and effort invested and still no definitive answer I had grown accustom to disappointment...I don't know.  But I knew.  I knew I wasn't going to know.  When I tore open the envelope and saw the little box for the names of Gerry's parents and read, "Mr Towle" and "Mrs. Towle," I laughed out loud.  Death certificates are a secondary source.  After all, the person you're talking about isn't the one answering the questions.  I immediately called Teresa.  "You're never going to believe this..."

To hedge my bets, I decided to order Gerry Towle's marriage license application from the city of Haverhill - just in case.  By this time, Teresa and I began referring to Gerry Towle as our "genealogical bad boy" - like all "bad boys," he seemed to continuously lure me in with intriguing, implied possibilities but was unwilling to make a solid commitment.  I'd see Teresa and she would immediately ask, "Any word from Gerry?"  I'd answer, "Nope.  Nothing.  He's still toying with me."  

I spent a solid day going over all the information I had on Gerry/George.  It was a helluva circumstantial case for Gerry to be George for a multitude of reasons, but there lingered the possibility that my hunch was wrong.  If my hunch was wrong, it meant that George Towle had died.  There just wouldn't be any other reasonable explanation for his disappearance.  I tried hard not to think about that.  I was putting my chips on my hunch.

The Civil War Pension Application finally arrived.  In it, Elbridge and Hannah's children Mary, Rose, and Hannah were listed but no there was no George and no Gerry.  Huh?  Where's George?  Was George illegitimate or something?  "It's probably due to some dopey government rule," Tim said.  "Most likely they weren't going to give out pensions to children born while the father was enlisted."  I admit it, the dates didn't quite line up and that did bother me.  Elbridge Gerry Towle enlisted in September 1861 and Gerry Towle was born in September 11, 1862.  The Civil War Pension Application made me think that maybe, even if Gerry was George, that Elbridge Towle wasn't the father of either one of them.  If so, I don't know what the heck I could do to ever solve that mystery.  I ruminated on that possibility all night.  I woke up early the next day and wrote Mike Towle an email telling him that although I had received the paperwork from the National Archives, I didn't have an answer.  Again.  Still.    

While online, I ordered Elbridge Gerry Towle's war record from The National Archives.  I'm not sure why.  I didn't think it could tell me anything in the way of the George/Gerry question, but I was ready to order whatever paperwork pertaining to my Towle family I could find.  I shuffled off to work and on the way to my car, I picked up the mail.  There was a letter from the city of Haverhill - it had to be Gerry's marriage license application.  I took a deep breath and tore open the envelope. Okay, let's see who Gerry says his parents are:

Success!  Finally.  After asking his great-grandchild, his grandchildren, the city of Los Angeles, the cemetery where he's buried, the US government, and every genealogical resource available on the Internet, the answer eventually came from...Gerry, himself.  George was, in fact Gerry.  He didn't die a little boy after all and for certain.  Apparently my great (x3) grandfather Elbridge Gerry Towle was called simply, "Gerry" by his family. When his Civil War record finally made it to my house, I saw that although he had enlisted in September of 1861, he wasn't on the muster rolls until January 1862 - within perfect time to father his son, Gerry. I later found my grandmother Rose's marriage application - she too listed her father as "Gary Towle" - which is how the Calfornia Towles pronounce "Gerry" when they're talking about his son.  Their grandfather, my great-uncle.  The one with the grandson named Howard who lives up the street.

Today, I got another envelope in my mailbox.  This one was from Howard and his wife Dotti.  I had gone to their house to attend Mike's going-away party and to finally meet them in person.  What's a mere 115 years or so between family?  After I had left the party, they had found a photograph of their grandfather, Gerry Towle.  My grandmother Rose's brother; my genealogical bad boy uncle.  

Gerry Elbridge Towle circa 1880's

Of course, they found it about an hour or so after I had left. 

Today is September 11th.  Happy 148th birthday, Uncle Gerry.


  1. Gotta tell ya, I was hoping this part of your search would have a happy ending. Gerry was a handsome guy, Laurie.

  2. Love the side-part. I'm loving your adventures!!!

  3. Thanks for hanging in there with me, Linda! <3