Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Ancestor Who Did Not Exist

Some family stories are based on just a few kernels of truth. Sometimes fiction has been wrapped around the truth simply to make it a better story, but sometimes a story has been fabricated to hide the truth. This is probably what happened to the story of my great-grandmother Samantha “Mattie” Rixon’s parents. 

Mattie was born in Cramahe Township, Upper Canada in 1856.1 According to the family story, her father was Arthur Wellington Rixon, but the genealogical evidence points to a different reality: Arthur Wellington Rixon probably never existed, and she was probably born out of wedlock. 

I learned the family story about Mattie’s family from a note, written on the back of a photo of her that was emailed to me by an elderly cousin. It read: “Mattie Rixon’s father, Arthur Wellington Rixon, died of typhoid fever when she was three years old. Her mother remarried and went to the USA to live and died there when Mattie was 15. Mattie was brought up, first by her grandparents and later by her aunt, Mrs. Fennel … a daughter of Thomas Rixon, Mattie’s grandfather.”

The note was signed at the bottom, LMF, the initials of Lillian May Forrester, Mattie’s daughter and my grandmother. I believed this story for several years, making assumptions about details that didn’t make sense.

The note was on the back of this photo of a young Samantha "Mattie" Rixon
The note gave the impression that Arthur Wellington Rixon was Thomas Rixon’s son, and that Mattie’s mother’s name was unknown. But research has demonstrated that Mattie’s mother was Martha Rixon, Thomas Rixon’s daughter. Unless this was a case of incest, which is highly unlikely, Mattie’s father could not have been Thomas Rixon’s son.

Researching this period of Ontario history is difficult. Civil registration wasn’t introduced until 1855, so genealogists depend on newspapers, personal papers, land records, and so on. After having no success with my search for Arthur Wellington Rixon in genealogical records online, or in the library of Ontario Genealogical Society, Quinte Branch, I hired Gabrielle Blaschuk, a professional genealogist who lives in the area and is familiar with all the local archives and surviving collections. 

She found no trace of him in Northumberland County and her report finally convinced me the story was fiction. Some stones still have to be turned over, which is why I have used the word “probably,” it would be very surprising if Arthur turns up now. As Gabrielle noted in an email, “This total lack of confirmation when there is so much on all the other relatives is baffling, but it usually means something is out of kilter somewhere.

One of the documents Gabrielle discovered was a thoroughly researched article about Thomas Rixon, written in 1984 by descendant Brian Harling.2 He cited a similar story about Arthur Wellington Rixon, and he too was unable to find any concrete evidence of his existence. 

Mattie was a member of a large and well-documented family in the Bay of Quinte region of Ontario, near Belleville and Brighton. Her grandparents, Thomas Rixon, a farmer and carpenter, and his wife Elizabeth “Betsey” Thompson, were married in October 1825.3 Thomas and Betsey lived in Sophiasburgh Township for many years before moving to Cramahe.

The Rixons were listed in Cramahe in the 1851 census with their 11 children.4 Martha Jane was their fourth daughter, born 1834. Arthur Wellington was not listed, and I assumed that simply meant he was living somewhere else at the time. 

I have not found baptismal records for Mattie or for her younger brother, Phineas Wellington Rixon (1859-1938). The Rixons were Methodist Episcopal, and the records of the church the family attended may be in the United Church Archives in Toronto. 

The strongest clue that Mattie’s father was not named Arthur came in her 1879 marriage record. Mattie identified her parents’ names as “Thomas and Martha Rixon.”5 In his 1883 marriage record, Phineas also wrote that his father was Thomas Rixon. Knowing that the children had been raised by their grandparents, and that grandfather Thomas Rixon was the only father figure they had known, I assumed they had simply put his name on their marriage records. 

There was another Thomas Rixon (1834-1882), a cousin in Halton Township, Canada West. He could have been the father, but there is no other evidence to prove it. 

As for the origin of the family story, it was probably created to hide the fact that Mattie was illegitimate. 

Unfortunately, the name Arthur Wellington Rixon has been published on the Internet for several years. When I first saw the note about Mattie’s father, I enthusiastically shared it with a genealogist who posted it on the Public Member Trees section of Ancestry.com. Since then, many people have copied it into their own trees. If you have Arthur Wellington Rixon on your tree, you need to know that he probably did not exist.

In a future post, I will write about Mattie’s mother, Martha Jane Rixon (1834-1875). 

See also: 

Janice Hamilton, “Mattie Rixon and the Forrester Family”, Writing Up the Ancestors, June 8, 2015, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/2015/06/mattie-rixon-and-forrester-family.html

Janice Hamilton, “Thomas Rixon, Ontario Farmer, Carpenter and Transplanted Englishman,” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 10, 2017, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/2017/03/thomas-rixon-ontario-farmer-carpenter.html.

Notes and Sources:
Arthur and Wellington were both fairly common names in every corner of the British Empire. That is probably because Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), 1st Duke of Wellington, was the army commander who led the British to defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

An accountant named E. Arthur Rixon appeared in the 1901 Census of Canada in Deseronto, County Hastings, Ontario, however, he does not seem to have been related to my family. He was born in England in 1857, so he was the same age as Mattie. 

Thomas Rixon, Martha’s cousin, was the son of James Rixon, Thomas Rixon’s brother. James came to Canada around 1820, settling near Milton. Son Thomas (1834-1882) became a minister, married and had several children, one of whom was named Arthur William Rixon (1879-1940.)

Mattie named two of her children Arthur. The first Arthur, my grandmother’s twin brother, died at birth in 1880. Her second son was Arthur Wellington Forrester (1883-1922).

1. “1901 Census of Canada”, Manchester, Provencher, Manitoba; Page: 3; Family No: 25, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 8 June 2015), entry for Samantha Forrester; citing Library and Archives Canada. Census of Canada, 1901. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2004. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/census/1901/Pages/about-census.aspxl. Series RG31-C-1. Statistics Canada Fonds. Microfilm reels: T-6428 to T-6556.

2.  “Fennells & Smiths, 19th Century Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada. A genealogical newsletter. Quarterly/ vol. 3 no 1/November 1984.” 

3. Ameliasburgh Parish Register, 7B1, p. 146, Anglican church Diocese, Kingston, Ontario. 

4. “1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia,” database, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca, accessed Dec. 24 2009), entry for Thomas Rixon, Cramahe, citing Year: 1851, Census&nbspPlace: Cramahe, Northumberland County, Canada West (Ontario), Schedule: B, Roll: C_11739, page 129, Line: 2.

5. “Ontario, Canada Marriages, 1857-1924” database, Ancestry.ca, (http://www.ancestry,ca, accessed Nov. 24 2008), entry for Samantha Rixon, 1879, Shannonville, citing “Registrations of Marriages, 1869-1922,  MS932 Archives of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada”

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Arthur’s Baby Book

The night before three-year-old Arthur Hamilton became ill, he was reciting a rhyme and joking about lisps and kisses and mistletoe with a family friend who was helping put the children to bed. Someone – his mother or the friend – recorded those words in his baby book.  

The following day, Arthur came down influenza. In fact, everyone in the house – his parents, his twin brother and his two older siblings – got sick. The others recovered, but Arthur did not.  

When the influenza pandemic reached the Hamiltons’ Winnipeg home in January 1919, it was at its deadly peak. Arthur was among more than 1,200 Winnipeg residents and 50,000 Canadians killed by the pandemic, which was brought to Canada by troops returning from the trenches of World War I. Some 21 million people died from the virus worldwide.

The last page of Arthur's baby book

Today, Arthur’s baby book, and that of his twin (my father) is in the University of Manitoba Archives as part of the Hamilton Family collection. These cheerfully illustrated booklets include important milestones, such as the twins’ first steps. Arthur’s book is especially moving because of the entry about the jokes he made just before he became ill.2

Archivist Shelley Sweeney has used Arthur’s baby book in the classroom many times. For example, she took it to a religious studies class that was exploring how people react to death by expressing regret and memorializing the person who has passed.

“It strikes people as so unbearably sad,” she says. “There are always sympathetic expressions and murmurs when I talk about it.”3

The death of a young child like Arthur seems especially sad, but the influenza pandemic traumatized whole communities. Some people lost family members to the flu after having already lost sons and brothers in the war. Many of those who died were between 20 and 40 years old, in the prime of their lives. Children were left without parents, families without income earners, businesses without customers, and manufacturers without workers. Poor neighbourhoods had the highest death rates.
Some people compared the pandemic to the Black Death of medieval times. The government banned large public gatherings to try to control the spread of the virus. Hospitals and physicians were overwhelmed.

My grandfather was a physician and my grandmother had trained as a nurse, but they couldn’t save their son. They tried everything they knew, but there were no effective treatments in 1919.

Their older son, Glen, a future a physician himself, later recalled being taken in to see Arthur’s body. He said, “I can remember on the floor beside his crib there was an enamel basin with boiling water in it – Friars Balsam [eucalyptus oil] – that aromatic stuff you put into body rub, and a little tank of oxygen. And those were the weapons to fight the flu. That was all!”4

My grandfather, Thomas Glendenning (T.G.) Hamilton, was devastated by his son’s death. Not only had he failed as a physician, but, as Glen Hamilton suggested in an interview, T.G. may have felt that he had been too attached to Arthur. “Dad was a very strict Calvinist Presbyterian and he felt that in some way, because he was so fond Arthur …. that he was being punished by the Lord ….”5  

Arthur and James (I'm not sure which is which)

Arthur’s death was a pivotal event for the Hamiltons in a way that seems surprising today, but was typical for the time. Many people were deeply religious and believed in personal survival after death. Grieving families wanted to communicate with loved ones who had passed, so they turned to mediums and séances. Between the two world wars, a strong spiritualist movement developed in Canada and elsewhere.6 Glen suggested that Arthur’s death stimulated his parents’ interest in the psychic field.

What made the Hamiltons unusual was the effort they put into exploring psychic phenomena. For more than 10 years, until T.G.’s death in 1935, they held almost weekly séances with a small group of regular participants.7 T.G. became known across Canada, the United States and England for his psychic research, while Lillian played a key organizing role in the background. T.G. emphasized the “scientific” nature of his enquiry, but his grief must have coloured these experiences. 

Around 1980, Margaret (Hamilton) Bach donated her parents’ research notes, speeches and photographs to the University of Manitoba Archives, and a few years ago I added a few items, including the twins’ baby books. Today, many people consult the Hamilton Family fonds. Some are interested in psychics, several have used the collection as inspiration for plays and visual art, and other researchers are using the collection to explore how people cope with trauma.

Although many people, including myself, are skeptical about the authenticity of their experiments, it is wonderful to see that T.G.’s and Lillian’s passion is still contagious in so many different ways.

(This story is also posted on www.genealogyensemble.com)
Notes and Sources
T.G. Hamilton and Lillian (Forrrester) Hamilton had four children: Margaret Lillian (1909-1986), Glen Forrester (1911-1988), and twins James Drummond (1915-1980) – my father -- and Arthur Lamont (1915-1919).

To read more about the Hamilton Family fonds, see http://umanitoba.ca/libraries/units/archives/digital/hamilton/index.html

1 Janice Dickin, Patricia G. Bailey, “Influenza”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/influenza/ (accessed March 20, 2017).

2. Baby book of Arthur Lamont Hamilton. University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections (UMASC), Hamilton Family fond, A10-01, Winnipeg.

3. Personal email communication with Shelley Sweeney, March 23, 2017.

4. James B. Nickels. “Psychic Research in a Winnipeg Family: Reminiscences of Dr. Glen F. Hamilton”, Manitoba History, June 2007, p. 53.

5. Ibid.

6. Esyllt Jones, “Spectral Influenza: Winnipeg’s Hamilton Family, Interwar Spiritualism and Pandemic Disease,” in Magda Fahrni and Esyllt W. Jones, editors, Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society and Culture in Canada, 1918-20, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012, p. 195.

7. Janice Hamilton “Bring on Your Ghosts!” Paranormal Review, winter 2016, p. 6. This magazine is published by The Society for Psychical Research in England. This edition is entirely devoted to the psychic research carried out by the Hamiltons.