Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Newspaper Articles Flesh-out the Life of Ambrose Weeks

In my opinion, the difference between calling oneself a genealogist or a family historian depends on what information you are gathering about your family. A family historian wants the stories. Filling in the names, dates, and location of life events on a chart is all well and good but if you don't invest some time in learning about the people and their stories what are you really doing this research for? What do all those names and dates and places mean to anyone if you don't glean a few good stories from your research?

Newspaper articles are some of the best resources to add some color to the family characters. If you have not spent some time searching historic newspapers for stories on your ancestors you are really missing out.

For some time now I have been fascinated with a man in my tree; Ambrose Weeks. What a great name, right? Ambrose.

Ambrose was the brother-in-law of my 4th great-grandmother, Lydia Smith-Losee. He was married to Lydia's sister, Elizabeth Smith-Weeks. It's a distant relationship but still one of great interest to me.

In the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Ambrose is listed as 41 year of age, married to Elizabeth, living in Brooklyn, and employed at a furniture store. In the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, Ambrose and Elizabeth are living in Port Washington, Long Island, New York working as an undertaker. 

Now some might think that is a considerable jump in occupation but back then it wasn't all that far fetched. Furniture makers were often cabinet makers and coffins are nothing more than big cabinets. Making coffins could lead one to working for an undertaker; and that could lead to learning the funeral business.

It seems to me Ambrose was climbing the social ladder pretty quickly. In ten years to go from working in a furniture store to filling such an important role in the community as undertaker is pretty impressive to me.

However, I found a mention of Ambrose Weeks in the New York Times on November 24, 1873 in a section of the paper called City and Suburban News. Under a portion headed Long-Island it reads:
"Ambrose Weeks, of Roslyn, a cabinet-maker, made a desperate and deliberate attempt to commit suicide on Saturday morning by cutting his throat with a razor."
My God, how sad. 

Note that Roslyn is a neighborhood very close to Port Washington on the North Shore of Nassau County, New York.

The report of his attempted suicide was also reported in Newtown Register, The Brooklyn Daily Union, and The New York Tribune. The worst of which was the one I found in the Newtown Register. It read as follows: 
Ambrose Weeks, a cabinet-maker, attempted self-destruction by cutting his throat with a razor, Saturday. He inflicted a deep wound, but lives to try again.
To try again?? Really, Register, really?
Ambrose survived, though Register, as is apparent by another article found in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from October 30, 1885 on page 6 which states that "Ambrose Weeks, of Hempstead, has sued August Belmont, Jr. to recover $35.33 for labor."

August Belmont, Jr. as in the man who built Belmont Park Racetrack here on Long Island; a very well-to-do gentleman of distinguished birth.
Photo of August Belmont, Jr. Taken 1904. From the Library of Congress.
One has to wonder if Ambrose ever got that money in light of the next article I found in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from May 4, 1900 on page 11, it reads as follows:
Died in the Almshouse
Ambrose Weeks, Once a Wealthy Merchant, a Pauper, Deserted by Friends

Hempstead, L.I., May 4 - - Ambrose Weeks, who was at one time one of the prominent merchants of this section of the Island and who is connected with some of the best Long Island families, died yesterday in the almshouse at Hempstead.

He was at one time quite wealthy and was engaged extensively in the furniture business in Hempstead. Misfortune and reverses overtook him in his old age, when his relatives and friends also deserted him, he was compelled to seek refuge in the Town Almshouse in Uniondale, where he has been for some years.

Mr. Weeks was over 80 years of age. His funeral service will be conducted by the Rev. Henry B. Bryan, canon of the Garden City Cathedral.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Garden City Cathedral, or more correctly the Cathedral of the Incarnation, here in Garden City, Long Island, it is indeed a quite spectacular Gothic-style, Episcopal Cathedral.
This photo was taken in about 1885. Image is owned by the Cornell University Library, NY.
The saddest of all the articles though I think is this one appearing in the June 30, 1898 edition of the Newtown Register; a year before Ambrose's death. The mention was extracted from an article that appeared in the Hempstead Sentinel  on June 23rd. It stated:
Ambrose Weeks was 79 years old last week. He has been spending the winter on the farm and Saturday he was in the village "renewing old acquaintance." Shortly after the death of his wife some five years ago, he purchased a tomb-stone and had it erected beside that of his wife's grave in Greenfield Cemetery. It is lettered requiring only a date of death to complete it.

Oh Ambrose, I imagine you a sad, heart-broken man but I don't really know that. These articles do not clearly speak to whether Ambrose's own actions brought on his circumstances; maybe he was a miserly, cruel man unworthy of friends and affection or perhaps he was simply suffering through depression and misfortune and deeply misunderstood by those around him. Regardless, he certainly suffered in his final years alone, destitute, and estranged from friends and family; poor Ambrose. His sad story awakens in me an awareness of the harsh reality of existence. I imagine that had I know him I would have tried to adore him.

If not for these various newspaper articles, Ambrose Weeks would have just been another name on the tree; the husband of a 5th great-aunt who never had any children; no heirs to pass on stories of his character or experiences.

If researching your own family tree, do not disregard the importance of newspapers. They can fill in much of your family's story; bringing these names and dates to life again. If researching in the New York area, I recommend searching the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online and the Old Fulton New York Post Cards website  for starters.

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