I am knee-deep in genealogy paperwork this weekend. A package from the National Archives containing the military records of my great-grandfather, Sidney J. Kelly, Sr. spilled over 100 photocopied pages across my table that probably have not been disturbed since the 1920’s at a time when his widow was seeking assistance with pensions and death benefits. I spent most of Saturday pouring over the documents and creating a transcript of the many handwritten logs contained within.
The danger in the research I have been doing for the past few years comes in when I discover that a family legend is not really true. We all have them, celebrated skeletons in the closet. They could also be whispered secrets through the generations or notes in the margins of family histories left to us from those who came before us. The names Baumann, Boyle, Cooke, Flood, Gaynor, Kelly, and O’Connell get tangled in the vines on my family tree.
Did John Boyle, Jr. drown in the Gowanus Canal in 1875? (If you are not from Brooklyn, you could not possibly understand just how horrible it would be to drown in that body of “water”.) In World War I, was PVT Thomas Kelly of Company “G”, 106th Infantry Regiment gassed by the Germans on the battlefields of Belgium? Was Michael H. Baumann guilty of manslaughter in the 1910s? Was his victim, a man with the last name of O’Connell from Brooklyn, another relative on the other side of my family tree? It reads like a Penny Dreadful.
What do I know now that I did not know last Thursday? I know that Provisional Ensign Sidney J.Kelly, USNRF, died of disease in March of 1919 while on home leave due to illness. His medical discharge, signed by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels days after his death, had to be revoked so that benefit and pension issues could be dealt with by his widow, Emily. I also have found that Ens Kelly’s son, Private Thomas M. Kelly, served with the 106th Infantry Regiment in the European theater and most likely did see combat in the 2nd Battle of the Somme in March and April of 1918 fighting alongside the British Third Army. He returned to the United States in 1919 and was discharged when the 106th was demobilized in June 1919. His name does not appear on the casualty lists from the battle. I am still looking into his unit history and am waiting for the National Archives to provide his records. The story of him being gassed is still unproven.
Whatever I uncover, I think it is best to stick to what I can prove through research and documentation. The truth will find a way to come out. Some the legends may continue as legend, others may not stand up to scrutiny. For now, I will go where the records and, hopefully, the truth take me.