A Skeleton in the Family Closet

…came to America. Married girl from South. They visited Hamilton, Ontario, during Civil War but lost contact with Canadian relatives afterward.”

This snippet written on a hand-drawn family tree aroused my attention. Who was this unnamed McCrie kin? When did he arrive in America and where did he settle?

A note on the McCrie Family Tree from Margaret (nee McCrie) Mead

I set out to put some flesh on this skeleton. Then I discovered a surprising twist to his story — he enlisted in a Confederate infantry regiment at the start of the American Civil War.

The Civil War has stirred considerable interest in recent months. Confederate statues and flags have fallen out of favor as symbols of Southern pride, now being viewed by many as symbols of white supremacy and slavery. Finding a Rebel in the family? That seemed like a real outlier for my family … a family that has its roots in the north.

As background, this “Reb” Hugh Ronald was the first-born son of Andrew Ronald and Katherine McCrie — Kathy being the sister of my great-great grandfather William McCrie. Hugh was born in 1832 in Old Cumnock, Scotland, at a farmstead where his father apprenticed as a millwright.

Entry in the Old Cumnock parish register of 1832

When Hugh was three his family moved to Glasgow where his father practiced his trade by the River Clyde. When the family subsequently moved to Ireland in around 1840, Hugh was left in the care of his grandparents back in Old Cumnock, appearing with them in the 1841 census. Some time later his family returned to the Glasgow area, and in 1851, Hugh, age 18, showed up in the census with them working as a flesher (butcher).

In 1858 Hugh emigrated to America. It’s unknown where he first settled in his adopted country. There is only one Hugh Ronald I could find in the American 1860 census, and that was a 25-year-old Scotsman living with a Canadian-born wife and working as a clerk in Buffalo, New York. I can’t find anything to corroborate that this is our Hugh, but the country of origin, age, and occupation fit his profile. If it was him, however, it begs the question of what became of the wife and how to explain the next chapter in his life.

Hugh next appears in Warrenton, North Carolina, where as a salesman he enlisted for a 12-month hitch in Company F, North Carolina 12th Infantry Regiment, on April 18, 1861. North Carolina was moving in the direction of secession in early 1861, but the Confederate attack on Fort Sumpter on April 12th seems to have inspired the state to take over three U.S. forts and an arsenal. A month later the state adopted an ordinance of secession, becoming the tenth Southern state to do so.

In a time of conflict young men’s souls seem to swell with patriotic fervor and martial stirrings. Hugh—in his late twenties—may have been caught up in the frenzy. At least that’s a natural assumption when seeing that he enlisted the week after Fort Sumpter fell. The evidence is more nuanced, however.

Company rolls show that he mustered into service as a Private on May 17th, but within a week was “absent on furlough from sickness.” Subsequent muster rolls show he never returned and at the end of the year was “discharged for sickness” effective New Year’s Day 1862. Hugh may have put some of his persuasive salesman skills to work here.

Hugh remained in the South for at least a couple of years, marrying the Carolinian native Catharine Baker in Warrenton, North Carolina — in the Piedmont region just south of Virginia — in May of 1862, when they were both 29. They had a daughter there, Kate McCrie Ronald, in October of 1863. However by the time they had their next child, Andrew, in 1866, they had moved north and were living in New York state. Considering the note on the family tree that “they visited Hamilton, Ontario, during [the] Civil War,” it’s likely they left North Carolina before the war’s conclusion in 1865.

Marriage Certificate for Hugh Ronald(s) and Catharine Baker issued in Warren County, N.C., 1862

Hugh and his family, which grew to four children (although one, John, died early) lived primarily in Jersey City, New Jersey, with a two year stint across the Hudson river in East Harlem, on Manhattan. He reported his work variously as a clerk and a salesman of dry goods.

There are a couple of intriguing items in the federal censuses. In the 1880 census — when he and his family were living in New York City — his wife Catharine is noted as having “Nervous Debility.” This fell under the column “Is the person sick or temporarily disabled, so as to be unable to attend to ordinary business or duties?”

In the same census, their daughter Kate McRay [sic] Ronald, at age 16, is checked off under the column headed “maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled.” Kate subsequently never married, was never employed, and died at age 40.

Catharine’s younger sister was living with them, as she had in the previous census. She was probably helping to tend to the children and run the household, as the earlier census listed her as a domestic servant rather than a family member.

The 1890 census had a schedule showing “Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows, Etc.” Although Hugh is listed, none of the columns were filled out. The federal government was only interested in Union soldiers, many of whom were eligible for pensions. The individual Southern states were responsible for their own veterans. Hugh was probably ineligible for that too. In fact, given his week’s actual time in service (probably spent in-processing), I’m surprised he self-identified as a veteran.

Hugh lived to see two children get married — at least one was a home wedding — and to enjoy two grandchildren, including his namesake Hugh. He’d been married 38 years when he passed away in 1901 at the age of 69 in Jersey City, near the piers. He left behind his widow and his daughter Kate at home. His son Andrew (with wife Nellie) and daughter Minnie (with husband Alfred Houliston) were raising children in their own homes in the city.

A son of Scotland, and a long-time resident of Jersey City, Hugh’s unlikely and short-lived spell as a soldier in the Confederate army seems an anomaly. It’s open to speculation as to the nature, or legitimacy, of the “sickness” that generated a soldier’s wages without its hardships. Equally mysterious is his presence in North Carolina during the Civil War. There are just some chapters of family histories that remain mysteries.

Hugh is one of those skeletons in the family closet — unnamed, slightly scandalous, and bare boned. Despite our best efforts to put some flesh on his remains, we’ll probably never get a full picture. But at least now we know of another McCrie family branch that immigrated to America … and hope that some day we can reestablish the contact that was lost during the Civil War.

An Ace Up Her Sleeve

In my pre- and early teen years I spent my summers with my grandparents at their cottage on Halfmoon Lake in Michigan.

Bessie with a granddaughter in 1959

Most evenings my friends and I played canasta with my grandmother Bessie. She was in her element— animated, competitive, joking, story-telling, and smiling. Those evenings spent playing cards at the table in the knotty pine-paneled dining room are probably the clearest images I have of her, and they are wonderful warm memories.

I’ve covered Bessie in a few previous posts on this blog. This time, I’m introducing the pen I’ve named for her, and it’s a jolly good match.

The pen is the Parker Duofold Centennial “Big Red.” It’s name and color harken back to pens the company made in the 1920s, the premier pen in their lineup at the time. And it’s still the flagship pen of the modern incarnation of the Parker Pen Company.

The Parker Duofold Centennial “Big Red”

The nib of the pen is engraved with an ace of spades. There couldn’t be a better homage to Bessie than a pen that when capped literally has an ace up its sleeve. Bessie would have loved the symbolism. She occasionally joked that one of us was holding one up ours when a card game was going against her. Conversely we’d tease her when she gleefully laid down a run of high-scoring aces.

The vivid color of the pen reminds me of Bessie’s outgoing personality. She loved to be around people and she enjoyed being the center of attention. Most of my pens are staid, but this one is eye-catching. Bessie would have approved.

Interestingly, the pen company seems to trace the arc of Bessie’s life migration, albeit in reverse. Bessie was born in England, of a family she was convinced was of French extraction. In her mid teens she relocated to Canada. Five years later she moved to America to marry my grandfather, and spent her adult life there.

By contrast, the Parker Pen Company was born in America (in 1888, three years before Bessie), established one of their plants in Canada, and moved their company headquarters and manufacturing operations in the late 20th century to England. In 2011 the company again moved its headquarters and pen production, this time to France. This reverse arc can be seen as complementing or even closing the circle of Bessie’s own journey through life.

So now that I have Bessie in hand, how does she stack up with other pens in my collection? Well, given that the Parker Duofold falls into about the same price range as the Pelikan M800 series pens, and that its length and girth are similar to the M800, and that they both have 18 caret gold nibs, I’ll limit my comparison to those two pens.

Bessie fits well in the hand as does the Pelikan M800, which many people consider to be an ideal size. She has a longer grip section which gives her a bit of an advantage over Pelikan’s surprisingly short section, though both are comfortable for writing.

Bessie is an eye-catching color and gets points for splash. She’s engraved with old-style Parker Duofold branding on the barrel that echoes predecessors from the 1920s, giving her a retro, classy look. Between her color and her styling she has both sass and class, much like her namesake. The Pelikan is more classically styled by comparison, but is the epitome of refinement and design. Looks wise, I call it a toss-up.

Bessie has a cartridge/converter ink supply system. This is where she looses points to the Pelikan, which uses a piston-fill ink system. The converter holds less ink, is noticeably lighter in weight than a piston filler, and doesn’t have the same robust construction as the Pelikan. Some people might like a lighter pen, but I like the heft of the Pelikan and the balance the extra weight provides. I also find the Pelikan to be easier to fill.

Pens are not normally rated on sound, but I can’t help but notice the difference in both pitch and volume when capping and uncapping the pens. Weird, huh? Bessie sounds metallic and tinny when waking her up or putting her to bed; the Pelikan is extremely quiet, and what little noise it makes is low pitched when threading or unthreading the cap. Bessie’s high-pitched voice may lead to the impression she is less solid and uses lower quality materials than her avian brother, though I have no way of knowing if that’s true.

The 18-karat gold nib, made in-house by Parker, is a smooth writer and worked well right out of the box, something that not all of my pens have done. (Two of my three Pelikan pens required some polishing and tuning to achieve a good writing experience.) The Parker’s broad nib lays down a wet, smooth line with absolutely no pressure required. It rarely skips or hard starts, making it a solid writer. Pelikan pens also make their own nibs in house, and they too are reliable writers. On the whole, the nibs are very similar, both in size and performance. The Pelikan’s broad nib makes a somewhat finer line and provides a bit more feedback than the Parker, making the writing sharper and cleaner. Whether the smoother, wet line of the Parker or the sharper, drier line of the Pelikan is preferable is a matter of personal taste. I like them both.

Bessie’s nib has a unique profile: the feed on the back of the nib doesn’t have fins like other pens in my collection. This gives Bessie a slimmer, flatter nib profile, something that the human Bessie would have envied. (Does this nib make me look fat? No? Whew!) The lack of fins doesn’t affect ink delivery to the paper—it’s a juicy writer. Her profile is another way Bessie stands out from the crowd.

The pen is expensive, commensurate with it’s flagship status, but can be obtained from overseas sources at about two-thirds of the U.S. asking price. I bought mine at Appelboom  (in the Netherlands) on Fountain Pen Day and received a 17% discount. During the rest of the year one can use the “friend” discount code to get a more modest 10% off. Another benefit of buying overseas is that the nib selection is wider, coming in Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, and Broad points whereas American retailers offer only Fine and Medium nibs. I got the broad nib to make my Bessie unique from her American cousins and to give my writing some flair. After all, I wanted to keep the pen’s personality in line with my grandmother’s.

The pen is a nice addition to my collection, something to pick up when I’m looking for a little color in my hand or pocket, or if I just want to think about Bessie and break out in a smile. It’s my “ace up the sleeve.”

(As an aside, I recently came across an email in which my cousin recollected Bessie “telling her that in the orphanage in London [where Bessie spent six years] they ate oatmeal for breakfast, got a cube of brown sugar to put on top, and that she would wrap the sugar in her hanky for a treat later in the day.” I like that story. A child can find comfort and happiness in the simplest of things, even in the face of adversity. I need to embrace the child in me more often.)

PDFill: A Useful PDF File Editor

I’ve found an editor that makes working with PDF (portable document format) files a snap. The free, downloadable program is PDFill.

The screen shot below shows the many functions this editor can perform. I particularly like its ability to add, delete, and rearrange pages in a PDF file, and to convert JPG images into a PDF or vice versa. I also like its ability to add source information or other notes into PDF file properties/descriptors.

I download a lot of image files from sites such as Ancestry.com. Many of them, such as related pages in a book, census, or directory, need to be combined into a single file.  PDFill makes that task fast and easy.

A couple of tips that work for me are:

• If there are a lot of images to combine, store them in a separate subdirectory (folder) on the computer since PDFill has an option of importing all images in a folder.

• Click the “Use Image Size to Decide Page Size with DPI:” button to create pages that automatically resize for different sized images or for documents that include both portrait and landscape modes.

The program (for Windows operating system only) can be downloaded at the PDFill web site.  I’ve had no issues with adware or spyware.