A brick wall provides a very concrete image in a person’s mind. You can run into it, try to climb it, or you can huff and puff on it all day long, but the perceived strength of the immense structure overrides any attempt to conquer it. The wall keeps you from getting somewhere you want to go, possibly prohibiting you from achieving some goal that you’ve spent a lifetime trying to attain. From a distance, the brick wall keeps you from reaching your dreams.
The brave, patient person understands that the wall is never going to admit its weaknesses unless a perception changes. And for perception to change, perspective must change also. Our brave soul must walk up to the wall and study it from within three inches, and from there she sees the inconsistencies that lie between the bricks, the weaknesses in the mortar, and the plan develops to overcome the obstacle.
The lone figure standing at the base begins to scrape away the mortar around one brick of the monstrous wall with any object she can find, natural or man-made. After a few painstaking moments, the bonding material begins to crumble. A few more scrapes around the rectangular form cause the brick to wiggle. Human hands wrestle the brick out of the wall and the figure immediately basks in the stream of sunlight shining through from the other side of the wall. Progress is made.
One by one the bricks fall and a pathway leads to the other side. Once through, the view might be everything the person had hoped. Or, perhaps, another brick wall looms in the distance, twice as large as the first.
Enough of the corny imagery. It was tough for even me to write. Yet, there is a very good reason why a genealogist uses the term “brick wall” to describe a problem which she cannot seem to solve. Some researchers spend years and years scouring documents, traveling to distant lands, interviewing descendants, yet the answer to the essential question driving the research remains elusive. Until, of course, perception and perspective changes.
It just might be a random phone call, letter, or email that sparks the renewal of passion, the will to continue scraping. Or maybe the chance meeting of someone sharing a similar interest generates new enthusiasm. Genealogists often refer to serendipity to describe the implausible intersection of two events occurring at the same time.
Whatever the case, brick walls in genealogy can be overcome. A researcher simply needs to have the fortitude to get so close to the issues that surround the problem that she might just feel overwhelmed by the immensity of it. Then, she must find the determination to begin scraping away at the data that seems most insecure. Finally, she must willingly accept inspiration in any form that comes her way with renewed vigor. It may take months, years, or even most of a lifetime to reach the other side. Yet the journey is definitely worth the wait.
I’ve mentioned a few genealogical brick walls that I am currently sizing up in a previous blog. My great, great, great grandfather, Turner Dunnington Martin, is probably the most frustrating at this time. I haven’t changed perspective, and I need to. Yet there have been other brick walls that I have tackled and made significant progress. Understanding the events that shaped the early life of my husband’s grandmother, Valeria Murphy, is most notable.
To make a very long story short, no one in the Murphy family is truly confident about the chronology of Valeria’s childhood. Valeria, herself, didn’t remember, as she was too young. What we do know now is that Valeria traveled by ship with her Aunt Maria Gallo from their native Hungary in 1905 to be reunited with Valeria’s biological parents, Alojos and Wilma Kumery, in Chicago. Maria’s husband, Stephen, was also in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, in February 1906, Valeria’s brother, Joseph, was born. Then, in December 1908, a tuberculosis epidemic took the life of Valeria’s 26-year-old mother, Wilma.
The details of Valeria’s life after this tragic event are clouded and undocumented. However, we surmise that Maria (Mary) and Stephen Gallo became the guardians of Valeria and Joseph. We also believe that Valeria kept in contact with her biological father in Chicago for some period of time. Yet, there is no primary source to prove any of these direct and indirect relationships. A birth certificate does not exist in the United States for either Valeria (since she was born in Hungary) or Joseph (was not required in Illinois when he was born.) So many immigrants were dying of tuberculosis by December 1908 that obituaries were not written for most, and the death record for Wilma heeds no information about her children. There are no court records, wills, or adoption papers. For all intents and purposes, Valeria and Joseph became the children of Mary and Stephen Gallo beginning in 1908 and no one ever questioned their relationship.
Sorting out these details has been an interesting journey and the subject of a project I undertook as part of my Board for Certification of Genealogists portfolio. I hired a researcher in Valeria’s hometown in Hungary (now part of the Czech Republic) to do preliminary searches for birth records, but that became very complicated and expensive. I was left with an abundance of seemingly unrelated information to piece together to form my final opinions. The most compelling came from the 1930 Chicago census that lists Joseph as “nephew” living with the Gallo's, and then Joseph’s World War II army documents that states Valeria Murphy is his “sister.”
There are still many details to the story of Valeria Murphy’s childhood that still need to be discovered and sorted out, but I no longer feel it is a brick wall. I chose to take this project on as part of my BCG portfolio forcing my perception and perspective to change. I had to dig in, become overwhelmed with the situation, and look for weaknesses in the information. I was fortunate to have help from family members, and there were more than a few serendipitous moments along the way. Finding the primary sources that will “prove” my theories of this story may be on hold for a while, but rest assured, I will come back to it.
The moral of this story is that brick walls are made of sand and water. With time, patience, and a little bit of luck, the structure that once seemed so immense and impenetrable can be broken down.