I remember Noah Wyle from his days portraying a wide-eyed medical student on “ER.” Last night on “Who Do You Think You Are?” we saw him tracking down his third-great-grandfather J.H. Mills, who served the Confederacy in the Civil War and fought in the bloody Battle of Shiloh.
Later, in Mississippi, newspaper articles show J.H. was a prominent, well-liked citizen. But he killed himself when he couldn’t make a premium payment for his life insurance policy, which under a then-common “deferred dividend” scheme, meant that he would lose his entire life savings. His suicide before the policy lapsed allowed his family to receive benefits.
Unfortunately, Wyle’s third-great-grandmother, Mary Emily, still became destitute and had to rely on J.H.’s meager military pension. She died in 1928 in a home for soldiers and widows at Beauvoir, the former home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Something that struck me in this episode was how the experts’ social history knowledge enhanced the story. Wyle learned the backstory of the Crescent regiment that J.H. joined in New Orleans—mostly comprised of the city’s educated elite, who would’ve been neophytes in battle.
Another historian shared information on J.H.’s deferred dividend life insurance policy (called a “tontine”—read about it here), a practice that was outlawed after the Armstrong investigation in 1905. In light of her explanation, we gain insight into J.H.’s motivation for taking his own life.
And exploring social history to learn more about your family is the whole idea behind Family Tree Magazine‘s History Matters column, which you’ll find collected in our Best of History Matters e-book. You also might find our How to Research Your Ancestor’s Daily Life Online video class helpful as you search for details on everyday lives of your forbears.
Noah Wyle’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” episode is online but “locked,” so you have to log in with a TV subscription to watch it (I’ve missed a couple of episodes so far for that reason).