Cousin Connections Through Old Pictures

By Maureen A. Taylor

Never underestimate the power of a picture. A single photo can connect you with a missing piece of evidence, point you in a new direction or help you meet “new” relatives.

Last week’s picture brought two women closer together and solved a more than 60-year-old mystery.


Alice Broderick and her cousin Mary Ellen Gillespie arrived at Ellis Island in June 1906.

At one time the Gillespie relatives were very close, but as often happens, new generations create distance between cousins. Everyone means to keep in touch, but time and circumstances interfere.

Anne Hanlon has spent years researching her mother’s family history. A few years ago, Anne’s sister gave her a letter the family found in their mother’s belongings when she died in 1949. It was from a Mary Rupp, signed “your cousin.” Anne didn’t know exactly how her mother was connected to Mrs. Rupp.

Anne periodically Googled the name “Mary Rupp” to see if any new information came to light. One of these searches led her to Maureen Petrilli’s page. She sent Maureen a message. One query answered family history mysteries for both women.

Mary Ellen Gillespie Donelan Rupp

Anne, who owns the above photograph of the two women, thought one of the women on the postcard might be Maureen’s grandmother. The details in last week’s column verified when the picture was taken. There’s a striking resemblance between the woman in Maureen’s picture of her grandmother and the seated woman in the postcard.

Maureen’s paternal great-grandmother, Mary Rupp, wrote that letter to Anne’s mother. No one knows if Mary received a reply from her cousin.

Mary Ellen Gillespie Rupp’s first husband, Michael Joseph Donelan, (Maureen’s paternal grandfather) was crushed to death in a mining accident in Pennsylvania in 1921, just four months before Maureen’s father was born. Mary became a widow with four children to support and another one on the way. Once she remarried, the family didn’t really talk about her first husband. However, in the letter to her cousin, Mary mentioned that Michael was born in Galway, Ireland, a fact that Maureen didn’t know.

Anne, related to Maureen through Mary’s first cousin, sent her newly rediscovered cousin both the letter and the photo. There may yet another connection between Anne and Maureen: Anne’s father’s brothers married sisters with the same surname as Maureen’s grandfather!

Online reunions happen everyday. Do you have one to share?

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album