The face that you see above is the sole image that my maternal grandmother had of her mother, Minnie. And as far as any other tangible proof that she had of her mother’s existence, there was just Minnie’s name on my grandmother’s birth certificate.
Unfortunately, there was little talk of Minnie as my grandmother grew up. Probably because my great-grandfather found the topic too painful to discuss.
While watching the episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” with Rosie O’Donnell, I was intrigued by one of Rosie’s quests–to find out about her great-grandfather’s first wife, Anna Murtagh, who died in 1881 from injuries sustained in a kerosene lamp explosion. Anna left behind a baby girl.
That tragedy made me think of my great-grandmother Minnie, who suffered a similar fate in 1919.
The story goes that she was tending to a younger relative’s hair, when her dress caught on fire. She ran outside and was enveloped by flames, and died soon after. My grandmother was going on two months when she lost her mother.
I am haunted by Minnie’s story. She was only about 24 years old, and had just married and started a family…and a new life in Huntington, West Virginia, after moving with her husband from Virginia. Her short life gave us her wonderful daughter, but she never got to see her baby grow up. And my grandmother never got to know her mother.
By the 1920 census, my widowed great-grandfather and his baby girl had moved to Staunton, Va., to briefly live with his brother and sister-in-law.
It has been quite frustrating because my family has not been able to acquire a death certificate from West Virginia for Minnie. This could be due to a 1921 fire in West Virginia that destroyed many records. Or maybe in the midst of this tragedy, no death certificate was ever filed. We even tried Virginia to no avail.
When I got into genealogy, two decades after my grandmother’s death, I found the record of her parents’ marriage, and I found Minnie listed in the census—in 1900 and 1910. Thanks to an industrious researcher in Virginia, we learned that Minnie’s body was sent on a train back to her birthplace of Augusta County, Va., on Nov. 22, 1919, where she was to be buried in the family cemetery. (We were informed that the church cemetery still exists, but tombstones for my ancestors’ graves do not. The last ancestor buried in the family plot, based on information gleaned from death certificates, was Minnie’s brother in 1950.) I wish I could have shared these findings with my grandmother.
So many questions remain unanswered: Where did this family reside in Huntington? Could it be that Minnie died in another state? What exactly happened on the day of the fire? Did she go to the hospital, or did a doctor make a house call? How long did she suffer? When did she die? Was this incident reported in a newspaper? This year, I must get another piece to this puzzle.
It is my hope that I can track down an obituary for Minnie and find a baptism record for my grandmother. Stay tuned.