The Mystery of Reuben Moore, Part I

Note: I appreciate the kind words folks have said about my previous post, “Into the trenches.” I’ll return to Stephen Joseph McNally’s story when I can fill in more — probably when I get either his militia service records from England or his death certificate from Alberta. And at some point, we’ll look for evidence of his time as a constable in what is now the ghost town of Coal Creek.

When I go into the museum, one of my first tasks is to walk the museum, making sure everything is appropriately set for guests. Yesterday morning, I noticed a bench had been moved. When I checked with my manager, M., to see if this was a new set up or whether I should move it back, he laughed and said he’d moved it when he was snapping some quick shots of a bunch of portraits that were in the closet in that room and had neglected to move it back. Then he said, “Oh, you should look at these!” and sent me the images.

Two of them were Henrietta Durants — two women, three generations apart. On the left is the younger Henrietta Durant (complete with reflection of M. in the glass), and on the right is the older one. As it turns out, both are in the same line: The woman on the right is the great-great-aunt of the woman on the left, descending from Ned Durant, privateering son of Edward Durant III. Ned was lost at sea, but that’s a story for a different day.

[Portraits in the collection of Historic Newton.]

These ladies were easy to figure out, particularly because they belonged to a line I’d done some work with already. The image on the right may be the earliest Durant likeness we have, but I’d have to do some further checking into that.

What we couldn’t immediately identify was who this dude, labeled “Ruben Moore,” was:

Ruben Moore Cropped

[Portrait in the collection of Historic Newton.]

He didn’t otherwise appear anywhere in the family trees of the Durants, Kenricks, or Dewings, at least not as far as I’d sussed them out (which is pretty far). If he was family, he would have had to have entered by marriage, but due to the particular history of who owned our historic house, when, and for what purposes, we also have in our collection some miscellany with little or no connection to the families that lived there. So there wasn’t an obvious origin story for our wannabe Napoleon.

I put the name “Ruben Moore” into Massachusetts Town and Vital Records and got a handful of results in various parts of the state, including Middlesex County. Then, I tried, where I found a few other matches in Middlesex County. But I had to look twice before I spotted it — a burial in Newton’s East Parish Burying Ground that didn’t identify the birth or death years or include a picture of the stone. But knowing that a Reuben Moore went into the ground in Newton was a start. That led me to a Newton death record from 1837, which I in turn crossed with the US Censuses from 1800-1830 to identify the household of my likely Reuben. Downside? Those years just list head-of-house, so I still didn’t know much about who he was. That’s when I looked at the portraits a little bit differently.

The matching style told me these were the same artist. The matching frames told me either the artist had a standard or, more likely, these were intended for display together. That presented the following conundrum: Henrietta (1762-1855) didn’t live at the house past about 1782 (her family sold it), and Reuben (17??-1837), as far as I could tell, had never lived at the house. So how did these two matched paintings end up in a house where only one had lived, particularly when they’d been done in an era (early 1800s, by the clothes and death dates) when the house belonged to a different family (Kenricks)?

It seemed from the 1800-1830 censuses that Moore and the Kenricks might have been neighbors. Maybe that was how his painting ended up there? Was this the work of some prominent local painter who did all the town’s great residents and had a particularly recognizable style?

I figured Reuben Moore’s children were the answer. I could see his family grow across five censuses, including the 1790 US Census entry I suspected was our Reuben Moore, even though he was living in Cambridge. If I could correlate the approximate birth years of his children and his name as the father with entries in Massachusetts Town and Vital Records, perhaps that would tell me more. I also planned to visit the burying ground to see who was buried with/near him.

Then, suddenly, I figured him out.


Into the trenches.

I was talking to my brother the other week about the notion that how far one can trace back one’s family roots has a lot to do with when/by whom it was deemed appropriate to start keeping records of ordinary people. But it’s also true that for most of us, it’s access to those records that matters.

For some time now, Canada has been working on digitizing its WWI service records. To say that Canadian service in WWI was widespread is putting it mildly. Over 600,000 Canadians enlisted, and over 400,000 of them actually served overseas. I don’t know when the project of digitizing it all started, but it was apparently this January that they finally got around to the “M” names. I hadn’t checked in a while, so when I discovered yesterday that they had indeed gotten as far as “McNally,” my day got very interesting.

I’d had Stephen Joseph McNally’s enlistment papers for a while — in a previous post, I examined what his marriage license and his enlistment papers, matched by a signature and a few other datapoints, could tell us. His full service record opens up some more details, and it gives us a window into the life of a Canadian soldier in WWI. You can find the full record here. (Note: The file includes references to traumas of war, as will the rest of this post.)

If you know a thing or two about WWI but would like a little more context on Canada’s participation, here’s Indy Neidell’s “The Great War” with a special on Canada’s participation.

Most of the 78 pages of the record deal with pension and medical records, and it is the latter I find most interesting… and most awful.

Private McNally enlisted in August 1914 and, after training, was shipped to the western front. It turns out he was kind of a scoundrel, going AWOL for something like two weeks in England before being shipped to the continent. His records reflect punishment and docked pay for that. But in November 1917, he was given a medical discharge for chronic bronchitis:

SJM Gassed and Buried.png

WWI buffs will recognize the first date as the Second Battle of Ypres, the first time that the Germans deployed chlorine gas (168 tons) in the field. The Canadians were on the French flank on 22 April 1915, including Stephen Joseph McNally. This is the same battle (April 22-25) that prompted the famous John McCrae poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

Just a month later, he found himself in Festubert, amid furious shelling. On 23 May 1915, it would seem that a falling shell buried him alive in mud and, presumably, the bodies of his mates. Small wonder that two days later, his medical record reflects the following diagnosis:

SJM Shock Serious

Shortly after that, it appears he returned to England, where he was under varying levels of convalescent care and worked, I think, with training squads bound for the continent. In 1916, he was still based in England, where he continued to have respiratory problems. His doctor’s notes from an October 1916 exam:

SJM 1916 Doctors Notes

One of the things I find most interesting about these notes is that family lore has him as an abusive alcoholic, but note under “Habits,” his ale consumption habits are listed as pretty normal, and he’s noted as “never” drinking “to excess.” It also notes that he claims he “did not suffer much at the time from being gassed,” even though it clearly became a problem after that. It notes that the shell-shock “after being buried by a shell” lasted for “2 months or more” — Yeah, I bet. The final note is telling, too — “Nerves got out of order + he seemed to break down.” Yeah, that sounds like a man who’s still got some issues more than a year after being gassed and buried alive in a matter of weeks.

But part of my mission is and long has been to reclaim my people, particularly in my father’s line, who were poorer, more mobile, and less likely to talk about family, for various reasons. The other thing the file provided me, which I’d been missing, was a death date: 2 February 1939. The file had given me his story (or more of it), but that one datapoint gave me something else — the man himself. As soon as I had the date, there he was, in the Edmonton Municipal Cemetery.

SJM Gravestone

Rest in peace, man. We found you.