Finding Mary MacCadden Burns

My Trip to Holy Cross Cemetery

Brooklyn, New York

For many years, my family knew very little of its Burns roots. The furthest we could go back was to my great-great grandfather Henry Edward Burns (the son of Charles Burns), and his musings that we were a “little Irish, a little German, a little French Canadian, and even some American Indian.”

Turns out we are definitely Irish, we are definitely German, and I’m pretty sure we are French Canadian too. The Native American part I think was just thrown in for fun. Nevertheless, it was a start.

After unearthing the birth certificate of my great-great grandfather last year, I was finally able to move back another generation and either prove or disprove the stories that Henry Burns had told my grandmother when she was a child. What my grandmother could recall is that Henry Burns went by the nickname Harry and his father had immigrated from Ireland to Canada and finally to New York. She also recalled that he had a sister named Teresa.

Below is a 1900 census record from Brooklyn that I found that HAD to be my ancestors. There was a Harry, there was a Teresa, and there was a Charles and a George (which were names that were constantly circulated in the Burns family over the generations). Not to mention, Harry and George were both listed as Cabinet Makers. Not only was my great-grandfather a carpenter, but Henry Burns was also a carpenter. This was definitely my family. As you can see, there was also “a little bit of Irish, and even a little bit of French Canadian” shown in this census record as well.

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Charles Burns (my 3x great grandfather) was listed as widowed though in 1900. At the time, I wondered what had happened to his wife. When exactly did she pass away? Where was Mary MacCadden Burns buried?

The next couple of records that I found had shed some light on these questions and gave me a better look at the makeup of the family of Charles and Mary Burns.

This New York State census record from 1892 shows the entire family in Brooklyn again (this time with a few more children). You can see Charles and Mary Burns with their 6 children (Mary, Sophie, Charles Jr, Harry, George, and Teresa). The next record I found though gave an even more clear picture of the family.

1892-census

This 1880 census record from Brooklyn shows Charles Burns (at age 24) with his wife Mary (at age 34) and their two children Sophie (age 3) and Charles Jr (10 months). Mary’s mother Margaret McCadden (my 4x great grandmother) is also listed as living with them in addition to Maggie and Mary Sweeney (Charles’ stepdaughters). So, going from 1880 to 1892, you see a bit of discrepancies. First off, you discover that Mary Burns had at least two daughters from a previous marriage. And secondly, you see a rather large difference in age – Mary is 10 years older than Charles in 1880 whereas she is listed as only being 3 years older than Charles in 1892. We get a better sense of her true age later, but still Mary had an entire life before Charles came into it. I’d be interested to learn the circumstances of their meeting and hope to one day uncover a marriage certificate.

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After completing a little bit more digging though, I was able to obtain the death certificate of Mary Burns.

Mary Burns passed away on May 22, 1900 from Bright’s disease and was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Her father is listed as Patrick McCadden and her mother as Margaret McCadden, both of whom were born in Ireland. As you will see, her true age will remain a mystery. However, I think it is more than safe to say that she left her family still too young.

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On a nice overcast day in November of last year, I decided to make the journey into Brooklyn to Holy Cross Cemetery. In fact, Mary Burns was the last of my ancestors (out of the ones where I knew where they were buried) that I had yet to visit.

Unlike my experience at Calvary Cemetery, the employees at Holy Cross were incredibly generous in providing information about where she was buried. For sure, I thought that she would be buried with my great-great grandfather’s twin (the one that he “kicked to death”). However, it turned out that she was by herself. The employee confirmed that and had no record of another infant that died in the year 1881 by the last name Burns.
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Ironically though, a headstone opposite the headstone of Mary Burns caught my eye. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.

sweeney-headstone

I have to do more research into this, but I find the fact that there are Sweeneys buried so closely to be a sign that perhaps Charles Burns wanted her to be as close as possible to her first husband and any children that she may have had with him. Or maybe that was her request? Who knows? Hopefully, one day I am able to shed some more light on that.

Finding a birth record for Mary MacCadden would be nice too. That way we can actually figure out if she was 47 or 53 (as indicated on her headstone). Either way it was awesome to find my 3x great grandmother, Mary T. Burns.

If you know anything about the MacCadden family or the Burns, please leave me a comment.

Until next time, keep digging!

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The Donnelly Discovery

My Trip to Calvary Cemetery

Queens, New York

One of the things my grandfather used to always tell me about his family tree was that both of his grandparents were named William and Catherine. There was the German William & Catherine, and the Irish William & Catherine.

Recently, I visited the Donnelly Family Plot in Calvary Cemetery. Getting there was no easy feat. In fact, this was the cemetery that was next on my list to visit after getting the flat tire that started this blog.

To begin this story, I want to backtrack a few years ago to when I first started making inroads on the Donnelly branch of my family tree.

My great-great grandfather William J. Donnelly was born on July 25, 1881. I knew this because my grandmother had an original copy of his baptismal certificate from the Church of St. Teresa in Manhattan. Aside from asking members of your family to recite the family legends and lore, you should always go through old collections of documents because you never know what gems you will end up uncovering.

william-donnelly-baptism

What else did I know about him? At the time, I was only able to locate him in one census record, which was from 1910.

1910-census

From the record, you can see that William (at age 28) was living in the Bronx with his wife Catherine and their two young daughters Veronica (my great-grandmother) and Abigail (known in my family as Aunt Abby). William was listed as working as a mechanic and they are listed as being married for 3 years. This was the last census record I had for William though. As I found more information on my great-grandmother Veronica, Aunt Abby, and my great-great-grandmother Catherine, there was no sign of William. In fact, by 1920, Catherine is listed as widowed, left to raise two daughters by herself.

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I could not imagine what it must have been like for Catherine. Back then, women stayed at home and a big reason for that was motherhood. Catherine now had to do it all – raise her two daughters and financially support a household of three.

What happened to William though? For the longest time, I had no clue.

The only other document I was able to easily hunt down was his and Catherine’s marriage certificate.

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To the non-Irish, Donnelly may not sound like a common last name but as I like to frequently describe it, it might as well be the Irish version of Smith. There are so many Donnellys.

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The tail end of the Donnelly’s listed in the 1899 NYC Directory

There are 4 men named William J. Donnelly alone on this directory page. So, finding the correct Donnelly can be quite the task. Not to mention, I don’t think any of these Donnelly’s are mine as he would’ve only been 18 at the time. Plus, the Michael Donnelly that is listed as an engineer is his father and none of the Williams listed are at his address. But this just goes to demonstrate the difficulty in researching the Donnelly surname.

A breakthrough eventually came after years of trying to identify William’s death date. I even bought the wrong death certificate at one point. To understand my pain, see the below search results from ItalianGen used to whittle down the William Donnellys that died during the timeframe my great-great grandfather did.

Italian-Gen-Search

Since he was living in the Bronx at the time, I figured I could whittle it down further by searching only for the William Donnellys that died in the Bronx.
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Donnelly-Bronx

BINGO! I thought I had my guy. In 1919, at 38 years old, he would have been born in 1881. I thought for sure this was my guy. The death certificate came in the mail, but it wasn’t him. I’ll have to get around to uploading the certificate for this William Donnelly to hopefully save someone else 15 bucks.

Anyways, my next option was to go back to the original 22 search results and see which Williams lined up near the 1881 birth year. Perhaps, he didn’t die in the Bronx, I thought.

Luckily, at some point, I didn’t have to do that becauseĀ FamilySearch.org started including more details on the death certificates in their search results. See below.

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This was my guy!

The only difference was that the birth year is 1883 instead of 1881. So, either his death certificate is incorrect or his baptismal certificate was off by two years (It was dated in 1923 – 8 years after his death – so it could be that the copy of the baptismal certificate was incorrectly transcribed).

Making this connection in addition to finding the birth and death dates of some of William’s siblings, I was finally able to locate him and the rest of his family in the 1900 census.

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According to this census, Michael and Catherine Donnelly had been married for 35 years and had 9 children together, 5 (or 6) of which were still living. Uncle Daniel Gilmore (Catherine’s brother) was also living with them at this time. You should always remember to look for “boarders” with other family surnames to help identify if this is indeed your family, particularly for those with common surnames like Donnelly. Turns out Gilmore isn’t as prevalent as Donnelly.

As you can see here, William lived with his 3 older sisters, Elizabeth, Annie, and Louise. His birthday is also listed as July 1881. So, my guess it that he was born in 1881 instead of 1883.

Now, the death certificate…

death-certificate-william-donnelly

On May 25, 1915, William J. Donnelly, my great-great grandfather, passed away at his parents’ house in Manhattan from complications with pulmonary and laryngal tuberculosis. He is buried at Calvary Cemetery at the Donnelly Family Plot with about 15 other relatives that includes his parents, his siblings, and his niece Marjorie E. Calamia, and her husband James Thomas Calamia (the last two that were buried at this plot).

In fact, after speaking with the employee at Calvary Cemetery that helped me locate this grave, I discovered that Catherine Donnelly (William’s mother – not wife – both were named Catherine), was the original owner of the grave. According to the cemetery’s records, if I am recalling it correctly, there are 15 people buried there, many of whom were moved there from other graves. To use the employee’s words, “a lot of bodies were moved when this plot was first bought.”

donnelly-family-plotI hope to learn more about all of the people that are buried here. If you are related to me through the Donnellys, I would love to connect with you. Calvary Cemetery charges a substantial fee (over $100) to provide all the names and death dates of each person buried in family plots. So, again please support my endeavors. Share this with friends. Book a genealogy trip with me. All of my proceeds from this are going to be reinvested in preserving the memories of my ancestors and I hope one day in the future I can do a follow-up to this post including all of the names of the people buried here as well as hopefully giving each one of them a headstone.

All in time. Keep digging!

More Than 100 Words – The Story of John William Achnitz

My Trip to Kensico Cemetery

Valhalla, New York

One of the many things I remember my grandfather always telling me that I will never forget was, “If I ever said more than 100 words to my father, it was a long conversation.”

Suffice it to say, they were not close.

Despite having a rough childhood, and I mean rough childhood, my grandfather always loved his father even though there was plenty there to hate him for.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it because my grandfather wasn’t the type to be overly affectionate or sentimental. He was a man’s man. However, despite his rough exterior, I will also never forget the glowing nature of how he spoke about others. My grandfather would never tell you that he was proud of you to your face but you could bet your bottom dollar that he would tell the rest of the world.

I remember hearing my grandfather speak with pride about how his father was a respected police officer for the New York Police Department. I remember him bragging about how his father was the President of the NYPD Holy Name Society. I remember him talking about how his father would host bigwigs for dinner, from the respective realms of the good, bad, and the ugly.

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From: Spring 3100 – A Magazine For Policemen

I also remember that there wasn’t much more than that. The stuff he didn’t speak about was painful to even think about. I heard bits and drabs over the years from my grandmother, my father, and my aunt. However, my grandfather’s disdain for his father was more than apparent.

“If I spoke more than 100 words to my father, it was a long conversation.”

At this point, you’ve read 275 words.

I think you can get the picture.

As a kid, my image of my great-grandfather was purely negative. He was described to me numerous times as a drunk, a womanizer, and a violent man…someone to not be proud of. In fact, the only story my father really recalls about his grandfather John William Achnitz is that he tried to give him a hug at the time when his wife (my father’s grandmother) passed away. John said, “Billy, I am your grandfather.” My dad replied, “No, my grandfather died 4 years ago,” referring to his other grandfather on his mother’s side.

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My father with his grandfather Martin Burns – circa 1974-75

Naturally, I understood why my father didn’t like his grandfather and in reality why he didn’t even recognize him as his grandfather. My dad hated seeing his father hurt. And like any son, he was going to stand by his father. In a way, my grandfather was robbed of that same opportunity. He never really got the chance to stand by his father although I know deep down my grandfather always loved his father.

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My Grandpa with my Dad – circa 1983

Despite all of John’s faults and indiscretions though, I came to see him in a much different light by learning more about him through genealogical research. In fact, I can distinctly remember the day that my grandfather discovered a New York Times article from 1902 about the death of John’s half-brother William Achnitz just by googling his own name. At the time, he had no clue who this William was and I don’t think John ever knew about him either.

This tragic event, which I’ve posted about before, was the key to John’s existence. It is the key to my existence. In fact, everyone alive today that is descended from John is only alive because of William’s death.

I know that sounds like a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. John’s life, and hence my own is predicated on this one event taking place, for after that event, John’s father, the very first William Achnitz, not only lost his youngest child (at the time) to a tragic train accident, but his wife with their 3 remaining children and a coworker of William’s all disappeared. Turns out they all went to Australia and there is no telling whether William ever figured that out. For all he knew, they could have all died.

Nevertheless, he lost it all. He lost his business, he lost his wife, he lost his son, and he lost his other children. He lost his entire family and potentially he could have lost his sense of self and purpose too.

He went from owning his own industrial-scale bakery on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan to working the rest of his life as a janitor. He did remarry though. In 1905, he married my great-great grandmother Katherine Achnitz. In 1906, they had their first and only child together John (although he was born with the name William, which he later used as a middle name). I’ve often wondered if John did this as a result of finding out the real story behind his father’s first family. I could definitely understand the possibility that he may not have liked the fact that he was clearly named after his half-sibling that had passed away 4 years before he was born.

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John Achnitz was actually born William Achnitz on February 18, 1906 in Manhattan, New York. He later used the name John with William as his middle name.

Wondering how John became the father that he was, I often wondered what John’s relationship was like with his father, William. It was certainly short-lived as John lost his father in 1923 at the young age of 17. Did William losing his family and his business turn him into a monster of a person? Was he already a monster of a person and that’s why his family left him in the first place? Whatever the answer is, John was clearly not prepared to be the best father that he could have been.

Perhaps, John thought that it was best for him to be as absent as possible. In a way, thinking that this would be the best way that he could be a father to my grandfather and his brothers. Certainly, he wouldn’t have been the first father to ever do this.

Whatever was going on in their heads at the time, I like to think that John did the best he could given the cards that he was dealt with as a child. The analogy that I like to use to describe the Achnitz men is that each Achnitz generation has been dealt a better hand over time. And as an avid poker player, I know that my grandfather would really appreciate that analogy. He was certainly dealt a slightly better hand than John. My father was definitely dealt a better hand than my Grandpa. I’ve definitely been dealt a better hand than my Dad. And it is my hope that my kids one day will be dealt a Royal Flush.

I honestly never thought that I would end up visiting my great-grandfather John. And I don’t think anyone in my family has ever visited him. In fact, they didn’t even know that he had died at first. My grandfather found out several months after the fact after his second wife Blanche had told one of my grandfather’s brothers. This absolutely tore my grandfather up inside. I don’t even think that my grandfather ever even got to visit his dad’s gravesite.

So, in a way, I felt like this was my opportunity to make amends and forgive him for any and all mistakes that he had made in his life not to mention, pay my respects.

I sat down in the grass right next to his headstone for about 30 minutes and just prayed.

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John William Achnitz died on October 26, 1985 and was buried with his second wife Blanche in Valhalla, New York.

I prayed that he was in a better place and I prayed that he was somehow able to be the father to my grandfather that he always wanted him to be. I remember the sun shining brighter in that moment and I remember getting a warm sensation throughout my body. It’s moments like that that have made me believe in something deeper than life.

I told him about myself. I told him about how I was on my way up to Buffalo to watch my wife graduate with her Master’s degree. I told him what I knew about him. I told him how I was the only one that had figured things out about him that perhaps no one else had figured out. I asked him to always be a part of me, which after thinking about it further, I realized he’s always going to be a part of me.

I just hoped that in some way, both him and my grandfather were truly at peace. Sons may end up having issues with their fathers in life and all of us may have to live with the sins of our fathers. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make every effort to have the best relationship possible with them. That’s what I certainly strive for with my own father.

 

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Three generations of William Peter Achnitz – circa 1991

 

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John, his wife Veronica, and three youngest sons: my Grandpa (standing in back), Frank aka Spike (in middle), and Bobby (to the right). This photo was taken at their oldest brother Jack’s wedding on May 21, 1950.

This is why I love genealogy. You uncover stories and you can truly learn about yourself in the process.

If you are related to John William Achnitz, he is buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Until next time, keep on digging.