“Who Do You Think You Are?” has been on hiatus for a few weeks, so I’ve really been jonesin’ for the NBC family history hit. And Steve Buscemi’s episode delivered a one-two punch of drama and mystery that had me on the edge of my seat.
Buscemi, a native New Yorker, began his genealogy journey by meeting with his parents. His family wanted to know more about his mother’s ancestry because Amanda Van Dine, Buscemi’s mother’s mother, took her own life in 1928, leaving a void on in the family tree.
The death certificate of Amanda Van Dine’s mother, Jane Van Dine, reveals her parent’s names, Julia Vanderhof and Ralph Montgomery, as well as her address when she died. Coincidentally, the address is now a restaurant Buscemi frequents.
The 1880 census lists Jane Montgomery as an 11-year-old live-in servant in Camden, N.J. A researcher explains to Buscemi that it was common for children to enter the workforce, especially poverty stricken families.
Buscemi then searches Ancestry.com’s user-uploaded family trees to find more on Jane Montgomery’s parents. Another user has posted a tree with information about Ralph Montgomery, who was born in 1834 in Milton, Pa. Buscemi contacts the person who made the tree, to get more info from them.
In the mean time, he heads to Harrisburg, Pa., to visit state archives. Ralph Montgomery is listed as a dentist in tax records, but the 1860 census indicates he was a grocer and married to woman named Margaret with two young children. Buscemi is stunned to learn his great-great grandfather had a family before he married Buscemi’s great-great grandmother Julia Vanderhof.
Buscemi then takes to microfilmed copies of the Pennsylvania Telegraph to try to learn more. He discovers a small snippet about a suicide note signed by Ralph Montgomery found near the Susquehanna River. Clearly, he did not complete suicide, but this must have been a particularly trying time for Ralph Montgomery.
Court records reveal Ralph Montgomery was charged with assault and battery in 1859, but the charges were later dropped. He disappears from tax records in 1861, the year the Civil War began.
This leads Buscemi to search military records. Muster cards reveal Ralph Montgomery enlisted in Pennsylvania’s 91st regiment. He deserted June 1962 in Alexandria, Va., a common occurrence for a citizen army, and returned August 1962. He fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg, a bloody loss for the Union. After fighting another battle, he deserted for the last time. (For more on the war between the states, see Life in Civil War America.)
The special Civil War veterans schedule of the 1890 Census lists Ralph’s first wife Margaret as a widow; she assumed Ralph was dead when her husband never came home.
Buscemi then get a hold of Ralph Montgomery’s New Jersey death certificate. The document indicates he was a dentist and died of tuberculosis. He was buried in strangers row, where indigent or unknown people were buried in unmarked graves.
Buscemi then returns to Brooklyn to meet the person who posted the Ancestry.com family tree. Carol Olive, Buscemi’s third cousin, reveals Julia Vanderhof, Ralph Montgomery’s second wife, remarried to Charles Brandenburg. Her children who were working as servants, including Jane, are again living with their mother in Brooklyn in the 1892 New York census. (For more on Empire State ancestors, see our on-demand webinar.)
“WDYTYA” airs Fridays at 8pm EST on NBC. Check the Genealogy Insider blog for a brief recap of each episode.