My genealogical “coming of age”

The Rhodes children, summer 1915. In front: Cousin Edna Sylvia, Marion, Jack, Lois [Nana], Harry, and Walter Rhodes. in back: Amos Chase [partially concealed], Aunt Belle (Sylvia) Chase, and Grandmother Mary (Paine) (Delano) Sylvia.
Long before the shock and bewilderment of DNA evidence, some of us can pinpoint moments when we found family secrets profoundly disturbing. In April 1980, at the wake of my Nana’s brother Harry Rhodes of Wareham, Massachusetts, I overheard this aside: “Harry’s mother died having a back-room abortion.” These words stunned me because I thought I knew all the elements of the turbulent childhood of Harry and his siblings: Following the death of their mother Marion (Sylvia) Rhodes from “influenza,” her oldest child, Walter, age 9, went to live with grandparents and the other four children were placed in a New Bedford orphanage. When their father remarried in 1917, his new wife Mae created a home for the Rhodes children, except for Walter who chose to remain with his grandparents. Mae also erased all ties to the Sylvia family. On the marriage records of her step-children, including Nana, they gave Mae’s name – not Marion’s – as their mother.

My mother had never heard a whisper of this troubling disclosure. Dare I ask Nana, who lived in Florida, for further clarification? I saved my bombshell for a personal visit: “Nana, what was your mother’s cause of death?” Her eyes instantly dilated: “I have told you many times – she died of the flu.” Conversation abruptly ended.

Two years elapsed before the question resurfaced. On Memorial Day weekend in 1982, while exploring old cemeteries, my mother asked to visit Evergreen Cemetery in Marion, Massachusetts, where her grandparents were buried. My great-grandmother’s grave had gone unmarked until her husband died in 1966. Contemplating the brevity of her grandmother’s life, my mother asked, “How can we know for sure how she died?” We sought an answer at the Marion Town Clerk’s office. The clerk carried the over-size ledger from the vault, set it on the counter, and ran her finger down the column. “Here is a death record for Marion Rhodes who died in New Bedford.” “Her cause of death?” “Puerperal Septicemia.” No mention of influenza. My mother concluded halfheartedly that dying of childbed fever did not prove her grandmother had had an abortion.

Nurses could do little to break their patient’s high fever except give her strychnine and brandy.

I surmised Marion Rhodes’s place of death meant she died at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford. We enlisted the help of my father, then in medical practice, to obtain the chart of Marion’s hospitalization, if one still existed. When the thick envelope arrived from medical records, my heart pounded as I deciphered the handwritten dozen pages printed from microfilm. Nurses could do little to break their patient’s high fever except give her strychnine and brandy. The chart’s final  entry matter-of-factly recorded Marion’s last day: “Patient’s general condition was slightly better last night, but today suddenly turned much worse. Pulse very weak & hardly pulpable. Practically unconscious the whole day. Expired at 8 PM. September 14, 1914.” How ironic I read this on the same day, sixty-eight years later!

Marion (Sylvia) Rhodes, 1887–1914, in a photo taken in 1903.

Perhaps intuiting I had discovered some pieces of this heart-wrenching story, Nana, near the end of her life, lamented she had no picture of her mother. Fulfilling her wish led me to Walter Rhodes’s daughter Shirley Hartley, who gave me this studio picture of Marion Sylvia at 16.

When I presented Nana with the picture, she said, “It’s my poor little mother. Aunt Belle took her to get fixed and that was the end of her.” In the gentle conversations that followed, Nana confessed that as an eavesdropping child, she listened to adult conversations when she was supposed to be upstairs sleeping. Her mother nearly died having her fifth child and was told not to have any more babies. Pregnant again within a year, Marion Rhodes went “out of her mind.”

My Nana, Lois (Rhodes) Tobia: In her 40 years as a registered nurse, she always proudly wore her cap and uniform.

Among Nana’s painful but cathartic revelations the one that moved me most of all was the image of her as a child of five standing at the bedside of her dying mother in St. Luke’s Hospital. Nana resolved, there and then, to become a nurse: she never forgot the kindness of the women who tried to save her mother.

Learning the complex circumstances of my great-grandmother Marion’s death defined my watershed as a genealogist. I experienced not only the enduring power of past events but also the necessity for empathy and compassion in interpreting past lives.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

26 thoughts on “My genealogical “coming of age”

  1. Thank you Michael. Thank you for exposing an ugly truth about the lives of women, our great grandmothers, mother, and aunts, who suffered for a lack of control over their own life in very real ways due to other’s decisions/beliefs. Keep in mind that early Egyptians used limes, so the basic knowledge was there. My own grandmother told me that in her day [1930s-1940s] there was a lady who went door-to-door discretely selling birth control. Birth control and the unfettered right to use it changes everything for women AND the children they already have.

  2. What a sad and yet lovely story. Thank you. My great aunt tole me that her sister, my maternal grandmother died months after childbirth for a similar reason Evidently she had survived the Spanish flu after her first three children, but was told it damaged her heart and that she should have no more. Baby Lorraine was born 6 years later, leaving her mother so weak they put her to bed until September, when they allowed her to get up – and she died the next day – probably an embolism. We forget that, today, when women and babies leave the hospital in 24 hours, how dangerous the process once was.

    1. Thank you for your response. A chilling statistic that I used to share with my students: less than a century ago, one out of every five women died in their child-bearing years.

  3. Michael, your tale is bittersweet. I so feel for the ladies involved, and the genealogical process of discovery that you went through. Indeed, as Led Zepplein would say…”All will be revealed.” Great read, sir –

  4. Echoing others comments. Thank you for bringing this to light. My mother and aunt contended that my grandmother had many abortions.She was a career woman, college educated so perhaps it is true.

    1. You’re welcome. Sometimes causes of death were way off the mark. We know that one great-grandmother died in a mill accident when machinery broke., yet his death certificate says “heart disease.”

  5. A touching but all too believable tale. Your Nana looks like one determined lady – determined to take good care of her patients with a vengeance!

  6. Wow – what a story. Your poor great-grandmother…and her children. And no wonder your grandmother kept it in all those years – must have been so traumatic for her. The photos are lovely.

  7. Michael, this is a very sad, but all too true story. Thanks for your careful research and wonderful description of part of your family’s history. The article helps to support why I have a “We won’t go back” sticker on my refrigerator. Thanks so much for sharing. Jane

  8. What a touching story. As a genealogist I am committed to the truth as it can be found not necessarily as sanitized by subsequent generations. My grandmother refused to tell me about her mother’s three marriages because she didn’t believe in divorce.

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