Saturday, June 26, 2021

When research circles back to family history

This blog post discusses suicide so some readers may wish to skip over this piece.

My cousin Scott, who I learned today went by Brando for much of his adult life, was my favorite. He was seven years older than me and the oldest of all the cousins. For a time, I was the youngest and it made so much sense that we connected. More than anything, I remember his smile and his laughter. I don’t think I ever saw him frown but his family lived in Michigan so we only saw each other twice a year- at Christmas and during the summer when my folks would drive our old camper van to the suburbs of Detroit and park outside of their house.

I remember that he loved to snuggle with me and even when the thought seems slightly uncomfortable today as I am not a touchy-feely cuddly kind of person, I was always comfortable with him. I remember random things. He played football and once when he cut the grass, he asked me to paint his football number in sunscreen on his back so when his skin tanned while being outside he would have his number on his back even without his jersey.

I don’t remember him playing music as a teen but that could have come later. When my mother’s mother died, her brother died soon after, and then my mother stopped speaking to her entire family and I lost contact with all of my family members until much later when my grandfather passed and I went to the funeral. I’ve never reconnected with his family though or my cousins. Well, I did reconnect for a short time with a couple and then realized that there were some clear reasons my mother cut herself off from family. I used to think I would reconnect with Scott though, maybe in adulthood. He, like me, was an English major in college. He became a teacher too. Then, he died in 2010, or rather, he intentionally shot himself.

I wasn’t surprised when my dad told me. My one other male cousin attempted suicide unsuccessfully. He shot himself in the foot. It’s okay; you can laugh. I find it ridiculously funny too and he isn’t a very nice person. I’ve long suspected that my brother might also have the suicidal tendency gene ,whatever that may be called. That would mean that all the male cousins have it. 

This has come to mind perhaps because I never think about family suicides or suicide attempts. I think of friends having killed themselves. I even collect their death certificates online and carefully read the words, not to be morbid but to make sure that I have all the facts. Adults lied to me frequently when I was a teen and people love euphemisms surrounding death. 

They say: (Fill in name) died accidentally. 

I say: How in the world was that an accident?

I never think of Scott having killed himself and today I started reading some historical true crime, I guess you would call it that. The male cousin who had a romantic relationship with his cousin to the point of getting her pregnant, killed her and called it a suicide. The way she lived was as much on trial as he was. While he was in jail and on trial (he was a lawyer himself), he wrote a book about his ordeal. He even uses the line privilege in the first few lines. 

The book was published in 1887 here in Richmond. It's in the public domain and the scanned Google book image just happens to come from a library in Michigan.

Today I went out (again) to find her grave. I've been reading so many true crime stories about her and also listening to podcasts. They use the same picture from Find A Grave. Has no one gone out to visit the grave? 

Finding this one was a challenge because at first, I didn’t have the grave location and it turns out that the cemetery is 176 acres. Someone did not do her research before getting sunburn. I walked around the cemetery for a few hours earlier in the week going off a lead that the grave was under a tree. I think I went to every tree in the cemetery except this one where she is actually buried.

I called the cemetery yesterday to see if they could give me any information about her father’s grave, which is a larger stone and I figured that I would have a better chance of spotting it. Even with the lot number, the cemetery isn’t well marked so I wandered and wandered and when I had given up and decided to go look at something cool, there was her father’s grave… and there was her grave.

When I came home with plans to write, I researched my own family history in the newspapers. And here I am with two stories swirling in my head.  I'm going to tell her story another day. Right now, I found an old YouTube video that was posted of my cousin singing at someone's house. He's nearly twenty years older than I remember him but his eyes still sparkle when he smiles. He's surrounded by people and he appears happy, which doesn't mean that he was. But, maybe he was happy in that one captured moment. Certainly more happiness than what was captured in the newspaper article. I wonder if they ever set a record. It's funny that he was planning to be part of that in 2010 because I was part of the largest gathering of people dressed like vampires and we set a world record in 2011. Cousins aren't that different, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Lecture- "Cemetery Guidebooks and Forgotten Women" is this Sunday, June 6th at 12pm ET

Authoress written on tombstone

Many historic cemeteries include self-guided maps and visitor guides. These guidebooks are heavily focused on military heroes, founding fathers, political leaders, and the who’s who in that region’s history. I quickly scan guides to find the famous or infamous females who helped build a region’s history. More often than not, from the dozens of entries, there are usually only a few women mentioned rendering the majority of women invisible. In 2020, I made a point to create my own guidebook. 

My first presentation about my research, "Cemetery Guidebooks and Forgotten Women" is this Sunday, June 6th at 12pm ET. This FREE lecture is presented as part of The Life & Death Online Virtual Event, June 4-6, 2021. A unique event exploring matters of life, death and beyond...For more details about the LIFE & DEATH ONLINE VIRTUAL EVENT, visit:


My research showcases forty-four women writers buried in Virginia cemeteries who have had an impact on local American history. Gothic novelists, writers of Westerns, and African American poets, the women writers in this collection include those who were widely popular during their lifetimes, those whose work may not have lasted the test of time due to the nature or style of the writing, those who still show up in college anthologies, and those whose works were made into popular movies.

The profiles include a Pulitzer Prize winner, the first woman writer to be named Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the bestselling mystery author often called "the American Agatha Christie," the first woman to top the best-seller lists in the twentieth century, the first Virginian African American women to be included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, the writer so popular that when she died it was the first time that a court ruled that a deceased person’s name was taxable, one of the “Devil Diarists” of Winchester, wives of Civil War leaders who completely reinvented themselves after the war, suffragettes, authors of children’s literature, and even a poet who received praise from Edgar Allan Poe.

While my research is specific to Virginia, it is also universal in that I hope it inspires others to seek out the women who had an impact on their region’s history. A wealth can be found standing in the very locations where these women lived and were buried.

collection of cemetery maps
Part of my collection of cemetery maps and guidebooks