Photo Detective: Orphan’s Mother?

Photo Detective: Orphan’s Mother?

How can our reader find out if this is really her grandfather's biological mother?

Don’t you love happy endings? Little did Pat Daniello know what family history awaited her when she decided to learn more about her grandfather’s past. In order to add to her story, she recently submitted this simple cameo portrait. “My grandfather was orphaned at age 3,” she wrote. “We have been told that this is a photo of his mother and I would love to confirm the time period.”

From a portrait of a woman to the world of 19th-century adoption, the story of Harry Bayliss Harrison is an example of tying photography and genealogy together. By diligently researching this one individual, Pat uncovered evidence of an informal adoption, child abuse and possible abandonment. She used all the tools in a genealogist’s toolbox from oral history to document research and now photography. Unfortunately, she discovered few details about Harry’s early life. In 1897, his maternal Aunt Mrs. Jennie Leese turned him over to the Washington City Orphan Asylum for unknown reasons. According to a letter to Harry, their records showed a birth date of Aug. 1, 1891, and that one of his brothers removed him from the asylum in 1901. Unfortunately, repeated attempts to open these 100-year-old documents still held by the asylum have been refused. Generally, adoption records more than a century old are public documents. She should try again to view the material, since the admission papers might unravel the confusing history of her grandfather’s life.

If this portrait is Harry’s mother then she is possibly Mary Luckett. She married John Harrison and they had several children: John (b.1877), George T. (b.1879), William (b. 1881) and Harry. There are no birth, marriage or death records for John. Pat pieced together the family information from census documents and family lore. Mary Luckett’s parents Walter and Georgeanna (Bowie) lived in Charles County, Md., at the time of her birth in 1848. If Mary’s tentative birth date of circa 1848 is correct, then she was 43 years old at the time of Harry’s birth. A little old, but possible. Family legend states that John Harrison did not live to see the birth of his last son. Since there are no death records for either parent, it is difficult to know the reasons surrounding the children’s fate. Were they orphans in the 19th-century sense of the word or was Harry removed from his parent’s care due to negligence? Today, “orphan” generally refers to the loss of both parents. In the 19th century, however, the Oxford English Dictionary definition is more appropriate: “One deprived by death of either father or mother, generally both.”

Interviews with a great-aunt revealed that Harry’s other siblings survived on the streets of Washington, DC, while Harry either lived with his aunt or mother until 1897. When he was 10, his brother George and his wife May brought Harry to live with them. George and May also became custodians for his brother, William’s daughters Pearl and Florence. The reasons for Harry’s stay with his aunt and eventually his brother may appear in the asylum records. According to family members, George and May used Florence and Harry as servants, making them clean spittoons and making Harry sleep in the chicken coop. A former co-worker of George described him as a violent individual.

Mary (Luckett) Harrison confidently wears her hair with a center part, pulled away from her face in a snood. In the early 1860s, women held their hair neatly in place with a hair net, also known as a snood. A comb visible in the photo securely fastened the hair and net to her head. The chain around Mary’s neck is probably for her watch. While most women wore their watch at their waists, some chose to use a longer chain. It is difficult to see many of the details in the image other than dropped shoulders with a bow and a broach at the neckline. There might be a small black collar on the dress.

This is a copy of an original photograph owned by another relative. Working with a tentative date 1860-1868, she appears to be in her late teens or early 20s. The presence of all black accessories could indicate mourning. Since Mary didn’t have children with John Harrison until 1877 it is entirely possible there was a first marriage. Given the proximity of the photograph to the Civil War, 1861-1865, searching war records might reveal the cause of her solemn dress. This young woman could be Harry’s mother. Additional research on her life before marriage to John Harrison might uncover new details. Since John worked for a railroad, occupational records might also reveal what happened to him.

Then again, Mary Luckett may not be Harry’s mother, nor John Harrison his father. Little evidence exists to verify those facts. A single baptism record for 1907 lists Harry’s parents as Harry B. and Mary Harrison. Either Harry was his father’s nickname (entirely possible) or the person supplying the data provided erroneous information. Thinking Bayliss was a family name, several generations now use it, but without proof of its origins. Pat continues to search documents for the full story.

The happy ending? Miraculously, all three children survived their ordeals to marry and raise loving families. Here’s a snapshot of Harry and his wife “Minnie” Wilhelmina Engel. They had five children. Harry died in 1938, two years after the birth of one of his children.

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