A stamp collector recently listed an envelope on eBay for its postal cancellation. As a genealogist, I saw it more specifically as an envelope that happened to still have a letter from 1875 still inside. As serendipity usually has it with these things, the story told by a visitor to Northborough, MA has an intriguing plot, curious characters, and an ending that could only have been written this afternoon by myself and a willing fellow mystery-solver.
Mrs. Viola Holbrook, staying at the home of her Aunt Susan's husband Cyrus Gale, wrote to her own husband back home in New York City about such quaint things as slipper orders and glove sizes. She also recounted what she learned in several letters she had received over a very short time: that her Aunt Nellie's fiancé had cheated on her and called off the wedding that was to happen within the month. Nellie had fled to a hotel in NYC to escape her shame and hide her sorrow. Viola, having none of that, instructed her husband to find Nellie and console her in Viola's stead.
Who was Viola Holbrook and why was she visiting a small town in MA, so far from the social buzz of Manhattan? Who was Nellie and how exactly was she related to the Holbrooks? Did Nellie ever marry…and whom?
The strategy: (1) Read the letter. Many times. Make note of places, names, and possible relationships. (2) Sketch out the family trees of each identifiable person mentioned in the letter. (3) Research each person on the trees to locate correlating evidence and establish how the people are related.
Tips: (1) Nicknames (such as "Nellie") aren't always used in historical documents. Search using the more formal version of common nicknames for better results. (2) Family relationships (references to "aunt" or "Mother") may be for a spouse's family as well.
The bonus: Ask the question "What happened next?" to initiate another research plan. In this case, we found that the scorned bride-to-be took back her philandering fiancé to eventually live in North Carolina with their servants. Who knew a simple census enumeration could tell such a complicated story about betrayal, sorrow, forgiveness, and deep devotion?
Beth Finch McCarthy