Family Secrets

Part one

Some of my fondest memories from childhood center around the many weekends I spent with my grandparents – Fred and Kathryn Merry. My family lived not far from them and “Pop” gave me my first job working in the small ham radio business he ran from his basement after his retirement from the phone company. For about three years, that job enabled me to spend most weekends with Nana and Pop. I recall so many Saturday nights with Nana. She would sit in her chair in the corner of the living room and we’d pull out the card table and the old family photo album and page by page, Nana would recite her stories about our ancestors.

Nana was a great storyteller and helped make these people come alive to me. While there are lots of interesting people in my family tree, it was Rose’s story that was the most intriguing. When Nana talked about Rose, I remember, of course, the part of the story where she ended up in the “nuthouse”. Nana also told me that Rose was a Silverstein and that she came from “Jew blood” and that her daughter, Alice, had a “hook-nose”. I was pretty young then and didn’t really know anything about anti-Semitism, but I do remember feeling a little uncomfortable. My good Catholic grandmother certainly made it clear to me that my Jewish heritage might well be a point of shame.

When I first started researching Rose’s life for this story, I had a suspicion that her heritage might have been an issue for her children, but I had no evidence of it. Just because my Nana was a bit of a bigot, I knew that I couldn’t assume that Rose’s children were. Since Rose’s life had been so misrepresented for all of those decades, I wanted to be careful with my telling of her story. I wanted to be able to back up my assertions with documentation. Since I had zero proof of her children’s intentions, I ignored my suspicion and left it out of the story.

All of that changed over the past few weeks. I finally located the marriage certificates of Rose’s children – Alice, Jen and Will. It’s amazing what information can be gleaned from these old documents. I now have three pieces of evidence to support my suspicions. Another chapter needs to be added to this story.

Part two

After Rose was committed to the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane in 1902, her children were finally free to start their own lives in a new country. After all, in 1902, Will was 30 years old, Jen was 27, Alice was 26 and Retta was 16. The three oldest were well into adulthood and now that their mother was no longer a part of their lives, they could start creating their own paths. Life had not always been easy in the Fielding household in Hamilton. The children were right to want a fresh start. Apparently, however, that included distancing themselves from their mother.

It has already been demonstrated that, in 1906, Alice claimed her mother had died “years ago” in the obituary she’d submitted to the Utica Observer for her father, James Fielding. Another event of that year sheds some additional light on the extent to which Rose’s children were willing to go to deny her very existence.

On a recent trip to Utica, I stopped by City Hall to get the record of Alice Fielding’s June 30, 1906 marriage to George Merry. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first looked at the paper. Finally! There it was – evidence that Rose’s identity was being misrepresented by her daughter.

Two things stand out on this document. First, Alice claims she was born in 1882, but in reality, she was born in 1876. Alice was six years older than George Merry, but she was never going to let him know that! Alice Fielding Merry carried that secret to her grave. Even her headstone has the wrong birth year on it.

Registration of the marriage of George Merry and Alice Fielding – June 30, 1906 (Record from Utica City Clerk’s office)

The second lie on this document is not as humorous. In the space reserved for her mother’s name, Alice wrote “Roselle Feltstaff”. This is the first time that I’ve found one of Rose’s children deny the name “Silverstein”. Sadly, it is not the last.

At the time of this marriage, “Roselle Feltstaff” had been confined to the Asylum for almost four years. She never had the chance to meet the Merry family.

********

By early 1910, Rose’s daughter Jane (Aunt Jen) met 23-year-old Henry Hurst. Henry was a metal worker originally from Syracuse, NY. They were each living in separate boarding houses in Utica, Henry on Blandina Street and Jen on nearby Park Avenue. I don’t know the story of how they met, but sometime in mid-1910, the couple moved to Youngstown, Ohio, likely to pursue a career for Henry in Ohio’s thriving sheet metal industry. On December 12, 1910, Jen and Henry married.

It has always been part of our family’s oral history that Jen and Alice lied about their ages once they’d met their mates. Jen stretched the truth the most, claiming on her marriage certificate that she was only 22 years old. In reality, “Jenetta” (as she refers to herself) was 35 years old when she married – 13 years Henry’s senior!  (I think today we would call Jen a “cougar”!)

Marriage License for Henry Hurst and Jane “Aunt Jen” Fielding

On this marriage certificate is another example of Rose’s children changing the name “Silverstein”. When asked to name her mother, Jen writes “Rosetta Martin”. I doubt it’s a simple coincidence that “Martin” was Henry Hurst’s middle name. Also, on this document, Jen claims that she was born in Toronto, maybe an attempt to sever any ties to Hamilton, where her mother was approaching her ninth year of confinement in the Insane Asylum.

******

By 1910, Will Fielding was living in Baltimore, Maryland where he worked as a driver/mechanic for the railroad tycoon, Isaac Cate. The Cate family also owned property in Maine. Sometime in early 1912, during a trip to Maine with Mr. Cate, Will met Magna Olive Nilsen – the girl who would become his wife.

Magna immigrated to the States from Norway in 1911 when she was 16 years old. She was working at the Homewood Inn and Cottages in Yarmouth, Maine when she met Will Fielding. The two travelled together to Baltimore, then on to Youngstown, Ohio where Will’s sister Jen had settled with Henry Hurst. At this writing, it is unclear how long Will and Magna lived in Youngstown, but it was there that the couple married on October 13, 1912.

It seems apparent that Will conspired with his sister Jen on how to deal with the question of Rose. Both siblings were living in Youngstown – it would make sense to be sure that their documents matched. On Will and Magna’s marriage certificate, Will also claims his mother is “Retta Martin” and that he was born in Toronto, Canada.

Marriage Record for William Fielding and Magna Nilson

Perhaps the bigger scandal documented by this marriage certificate is that Will Fielding also lied about his age. While he was actually 40 years old in 1912, he claimed to be only 32. Magna added a few years to her age, claiming to be 20. In reality, 40-year-old Will took a 17-year-old as his bride.

Magna and Will Fielding. Photo taken in Baltimore, Maryland circa 1912

Part three

Despite the efforts made by Will, Jen and Alice to conceal Rose’s maiden name, our family did eventually learn Rose’s identity and a little about her past. It was Rose’s youngest daughter, Retta, who finally spilled the beans.

My Uncle Jim remembers the night it happened. It was Christmas Eve – he thinks about 1952. Jim was an alter boy at the family’s Catholic church and was up late in order to serve at midnight mass. His mother, Kathryn Merry (my Nana) was sitting up late with Aunt Retta for their yearly Christmas visit. Retta was the only one of Rose’s children who never married. She spent many a Christmas with Fred and Kay Merry. Jim overheard the part of the conversation when Nana was pressing Retta for stories about Rose. And Retta finally told. She didn’t really know a lot. She was only 16 years old when Rose was committed to the Asylum. She had less time with Rose than her older siblings. But Retta “confessed” that Rose’s name was Silverstein and that she had grown up in a Jewish ghetto in London. Jim remembers that Retta seemed relieved that the truth was out. But, still, she swore them both to secrecy. That information was not to be shared.

I’m unsure of how long my grandmother held onto Retta’s secret, but by the time Nana was sharing this story with me in the early 1970s, it was definitely part of our family lore. I remember well hearing the story of Rose in the Asylum and that she was a Jew named Silverstein. I also remember the derogatory tone that Nana used when she told me about Rose’s “Jew blood”.

Of course, we can’t know what motivated Rose’s children to lie about her existence. I know that Alice feared that the Canadian government might come after her for the cost of Rose’s care. But changing Rose’s maiden name on a marriage certificate would not have made a difference to the Asylum. They only knew Rose as a “Fielding”. If Canada wanted to pursue the children for payment, they wouldn’t be looking for the name Silverstein.

I am certain that it would have been absolutely unacceptable to George Merry’s family had they known that Rose was indeed alive, but had been abandoned by her children to the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane. The Merrys were a large, tight knit group – proud of their family and its generations old history in this country. There are lots of family stories about how the Merry family took care of their elders over the generations. So, this explains why Alice claimed that Rose was dead prior to 1906, even though Rose lived until 1934. It does not explain why the children changed Rose’s maiden name from Silverstein.

Sadly, I think my original suspicion was right. I think that Rose’s children were trying to hide their mother’s Jewish heritage. Prejudice against the Jews has been a persistent form of bigotry for hundreds of years. I imagine that in early twentieth century America, most Protestant families were not marrying people of Jewish faith. Rose’s children were not immune to this. Even though they were raised Methodist, they were likely correct that the name “Silverstein” might concern members of their new families. Very sad indeed.

NOTE: Both Uncle Jim and I took a DNA test in 2015. The verdict? Jim is 9 percent “European Jew” and I am 5 percent.

Mazel Tov!!

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