Just Because Something Is Written In Stone

While I was taking the introductory course (online) in genealogy from Boston University, it was pointed out that you can’t always take things at face value when you are searching for information about your ancestors. There are a few reasons for this. People don’t always remember facts and stories correctly; some information passed down may not be accurate. Official paperwork is not always correct because of mistakes made by the people filling out or filing documents. In some cases, the person providing the information may have the facts wrong, only offer part of the story, or pass on misleading information to protect themselves or someone else. The fear of a family secret being discovered or impugning the family’s reputation may be powerful motivators to providing alternative “facts.”

Boyle-Cooke family headstone, Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.
(Section: Olive Square | Row: N | Plot: 38)

I had two research assignments from my mother’s sisters that had to do names etched into the above headstone. The first comes from my godmother, Anne. Some years ago, Anne asked me to do two things. First, find a photo of the Fred Goat Building Corner Turret with the company logo. That took some doing with help from the Goat family. Second, find out the cause of death for John Boyle, Jr. John Boyle, Jr. was born in 1852 and died in his twenties.

Aunt Maureen, who sent me the headstone photo, asked me to find out where Jane fits in the family tree. Jane is the last name on the Cooke side.

Let’s begin with John J. Boyle, Jr. On February 15, 1852, John was born to John J. and Ellen (Carr) Boyle in Brooklyn, New York. He was baptized a few weeks later at St. Pauls Catholic Church. There is not much more information on him that I could find, except for census records. I am four generations removed from him in the family tree. He is my 2nd great-granduncle.

Aunt Anne’s request was to determine if the junior John Boyle met his demise by drowning in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. She had heard this story growing up as a girl. If you are from Brooklyn or are familiar with the most famous superfund site in Brooklyn (yes, that Gowanus Canal), you probably just cringed at the thought of some poor soul drowning in the highly polluted waters of the Gowanus in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century.

If you are not familiar, let me give you a quick rundown on this body of “water.” Completed in the later 1860s, the two-mile-long canal from Gowanus Bay allowed barge access to the refineries, tanneries, and factories that sprung up along its banks. As a result, the channel became Brooklyn’s primary location for heavy industries. The combination of chemical and waste discharge dumped from these businesses, sewage, and storm runoff created a seriously polluted waterway that emitted an omnipresent collection of strong odors. The local residents referred to it as “Lavender Lake.” I can think of no worse place in Brooklyn in the 1870s to die.

I actually spent a fair amount of time during the pandemic trying to find any indication that poor John met his end in the industrial goo. But no mention in any of the papers that covered Brooklyn in 1875 made mention of John Boyle drowning in the Gowanus. Surely that would be newsworthy! I limited my search to 1875 because that was his end date on the headstone in Holy Cross Cemetery.

Just to allay my curiosity, I went back into the 1880 United States Federal Census looking for the Boyles on Boerum Place. It appears that the stone carver for the headstone had some lousy intelligence. I found John, Jr alive and at home, age 28, working as a “driver.”

1880 United States Federal Census for Kings County, New York – The Boyles

I expanded my search years another five years. I only went through 1885 because I could not find John, Jr. in the 1885 New York State Census. Sadly, I did find an article and a definitive answer to Aunt Anne’s question. From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 23, 1882, page 3, comes the report of John Boyle, Jr.’s demise. He was reported missing on the afternoon of June 16, 1882. The body was recovered four days later near Union Street.

I found no other mention of him. I will research his death certificate and contact St. Pauls for information on his funeral. The headstone in Holy Cross Cemetery looks like a 20th century stone. Definitely not something that would have been placed when John Boyle was the first member of the Boyle family interred in that plot in Holy Cross Cemetery.

I emailed this information to my parents and aunts. A few days later, Aunt Maureen had a follow-up question. The last name on the Cooke side of the headstone listed an infant named Jane, who was born and died in 1950. Maureen wanted to know what part of the family Jane was from. Pouring through family records, I placed her in the Cooke family. As I discovered, Jane and Maureen are second cousins. That makes Jane my second cousin once removed. She was the great-grandaughter of Anthony Cooke and Mary Boyle.

A family legend was, tragically, confirmed to be true. While researching all of this, I remembered my lessons from the Introduction in Genealogy course, reminding me that just because something is written in stone doesn’t mean it is accurate.

One thought on “Just Because Something Is Written In Stone

  1. Thanks for another great blog – I too am into genealogy and have ventured down numerous dead ends only to eventually find other information!


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