Pompeii wall painting Eacini "Eruption" There have been many disasters in this world, but few which have given so much delight to posterity. There have been many disasters in this world, but few which have given so much delight to posterity.

A Bumpy Ride Down the Genealogy Trail
by Judith Harris

Publisher: American History Press, Franklin, USA, 2012

When Rome-based journalist and author Judith Harris set out on her roller coaster ride deep into the past, she had barely a handful of names, and nothing more. She ended up discovering pirates and Puritans, steamy sex exposed in a l7th century court in New England and even a close family connection to Abraham Lincoln. Arriving from England in the early 1600s, the Harrises were among the earliest settlers in New England.

In the early l9th century a descendant became a successful Manhattan manufacturer before setting out for the prairies of Illinois. Thanks to land grant purchases he was a founder of Tremont, a town near Peoria. This prairie pioneer's young grandson built his own airplane and became a barnstormer at county fairs. A pioneer in American aviation, he was a pluri-decorated major who fought the world's first air war in World War One France. In civil life he was a prestigious architect in the steel-rich Cleveland of the Van Sweringen brothers, and helped to build one of America's most handsome suburbs, Shaker Heights.

Very little of this fascinating detail was known to anyone in the author's family. But the Age of the Internet has made the search for family roots possible as never before. Volunteers everywhere are scanning distant church records and the minutes of town meetings held centuries ago. Magazines of genealogy churn out advice. Websites introduce complete strangers across continents who may turn out to be distant cousins. Professionals are there to keep the amateur on track.

Today's post-pedigree genealogy, which is among the world's top hobbies and the second most popular among all Internet searches, goes beyond the personal. While providing an exciting and personalized gateway into history, the electronic portal has sweep that extends beyond the personal into the shared past.

Journalist and author Judith Harris was born in Bay Village, Ohio, and is a graduate of Northwestern University. During a long career as a free-lance reporter in Rome, Italy, she worked on investigations into the Mafia and terrorism for NBC News, BBC TV and Time magazine, and traveled into Pakistan and Afghanistan in a probe of the international heroin traffic. Here her investigation is into a family mystery that carried her back four centuries and from the West Coast of England to Boston, New York, Peoria and Shaker Heights, Ohio.



Introduction: Icarus in Shaker Heights

The crash when (metaphorical) wings of wax melt

At the funeral, vapor trails in the sky

The face of the mad monster resurfaces

Chicago museum suspects Nazi loot

Timid entry into the labyrinth of the past

1. Hats

How I became the archaeologist of my own life

Get your very own crested coffee cup

Betty finds the family's missing silver teapot

But can a family history also be fun?

The 1800s: twice prisoner of war, twice swapped

From boy apprentice to riches in Manhattan

Nothing mad about John the New York hatter

Canny land speculators convene in Manhattan's finest mansion

When "Westward ho!" meant wolves and wilds

2. Prairieland

From Wall Street to New Orleans sailing on the "packet"

Through the tall-grass Illinois prairie on horseback

"A distant wolf stood in relief against the snow"

Mother Slough opens Peoria's first hotel

"All nations and kindred and people and tongues"

The "Winter of the Sudden Freeze"

Laying out a brand new town in the 1830s

An Eastern lady's diary of life in a prairie village

The hatter donates a courthouse

3. Puritans

Oprah Winfrey and mitochondrial DNA

1600s, when Catholic soap burned Puritan hands

John Winthrop invests in ships for the New World

A Puritan family flees from the Cotswalds

Massachusetts and the "Mynes of Gould and Silver"

A thousand set sail in England's "Great Migration"

"Supplies bought in England had been left behind"

All the goats in the hold are dead

Let's call it "Charlestown|, on the Charles River

4. Winnowing

Sailors fined for getting drunk at Mr. Maverick's tavern

"Harris hath undertaken to set up a ferry"

Hurricane strikes just as the ferryboat lands

For Native Americans, red cloth, wine, hoes and catechism

Nearly killed in battle for his king, Edward Lake is knighted

Margaret Lake sails away from husband and stately home

A stylish marriage for Tom, the fisherman's son

Puritan Tom is promoted to religious sheriff

"Drag the Quaker female preachers through the streets"

5. Kidnap

Colonists swarm into the Connecticut River valley

Dutch forts are attacked and conquered

Gifts to Native Americans: smallpox and yellow fever

"Payment for the land: 12 coats, 12 hoes, 12 knives, 4 kettles"

"Sacrifices offered, and it is supposed sometimes human"

Daughter Martha inherits a gold ring and a mantle

A diplomat on an island plantation in the river

For each unwed daughter, one cow

The first society in history when grandparents were common

6. Fornicator

1701, the brutal tail end of Salem witchcraft trials

Death sentences for blasphemy, gay sex, stubborn children

Connecticut Catholics conduct "filthy ceremonies"

Robert Harris convicted of fornication

Robert the Fornicator becomes Bob the Bigamist

New riches from Bob's tidal saw, fulling and grist mills

Fight for America, get paid in acres

Carrying on the milling trade with 14 children

Full circle: middle child John, the Manhattan hatter

7. Lincoln by candlelight

Riding the Amtrack in search of John the Hatter

A stroll down Harris Road in Tremont, Illinois

Meet Robert Mazrim, the archaeologist of the prairieland

Lincoln's two decades on the road for the Eighth Circuit

"I had studied law, and removed to Springfield to practice it"

Cases Lincoln tried for John the Hatter in Tremont

Honest Abe fights on behalf of Harris hogs

Lincoln battles judge in a pillow fight

A challenge to a duel in Tremont

The big case: Illinois Supreme Court, Abe and John the Hatter

8. A wonderful life

A sorrowing letter to a soldier in the Civil War

"Stick faithfully to your bargain, as I do mine"

Gentleman farmer tends his fields and the post office

Where grass still grows in the streets

One hotel, three saloons, a dozen churches

Widow Bradley invents a university in Peoria

In Chicago, architects build the world's first skyscraper

Prairie houses with medieval accessories

With Barney Oldfield at the Indianapolis Speedway

Build your own airplane and barnstorm in 1910

9. Steel

Ancient glaciers dig a port for Cleveland

A compass spinning in 1844 begets a boomtown

Big steel sings the grace notes

"This will be an air war"

Inventing U.S. military aviation for World War I

In France, beauty and the beast of war

The Flats in the quintessential factory town

From gaslight to Rockefeller's Standard Oil

How to get filthy rich from dirty mortgages

10. In the Valley of God's Pleasure

Mother Ann Lee founds the "Shaking Quakers"

Shaker convert donates vast East Cleveland settlement

No sex, no children - the Shakers die out

Cleveland wheeler-dealers snap up 1,400 acres

The selling of Shaker Heights, "home of the happy family"

Architect-inventor Allie Harris back from the war

County fair amusement becomes commercial aviation

Moreland Courts, "A narrative of English architecture"

Mail fraud and jury fixing send mortgage mogul to prison

Cleveland as bellweather of the American economy

11. Afterthoughts: Armchair genealogy

Post-pedigree genealogy

Just who do you think you are?

Celebrity ancestry hunts

Fishing for family history on the Internet

"Discover the skeletons and scandals in ancestors' closets"

Let your family story retell American history

The future in a shared past


Harris digs into America's past

‘Judith Harris outs the Monster in the Closet in an exhilarating time travelogue that takes us into recent and past history. With engaging immediacy her writing gives an overview of American life with telling accounts that range from the Puritans’ arrival through an unusual portrayal of Lincoln, and on to the fate of her family’s romantic English painting rediscovered in the Art Institute of Chicago.’
Milton Gendel, art historian


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  American History Press