Sunday, December 10, 2000

One of the most enduring mysteries of the Forty Fort Cemetery is this: Why do the bodies of two teenage sisters from a working-class Welsh family lie in the plot owned by the family of 19th-century governor of Pennsylvania, Henry M. Hoyt?

Ruth Ann Bagley of Colorado grew up with this genealogical problem. The girls - Mattie and Ida James - were two of the many children of her ancestors William P. and Mary Rees James.

``My grandparents, now deceased, began researching this family more than 80 years ago,'' she said. ``As a child, I overheard their frequent conversations about wanting to learn more about the James family. My first cousin took up the search 40 years ago. I began searching in earnest about four to five years ago.''

But now, after all these decades, the mists seem to be parting. The cause? Nothing more than hard work and some readily available research materials here in Wyoming Valley.

Let's take a walk through the community's history and try to reconstruct the long-ago days of the James family from those sources. Our trip should be instructive for all genealogists.

Here are the facts of the matter, drawn from Bagley's family lore and supplemented by articles in old editions of the Wilkes-Barre Record.

Both James girls died in disasters. Mattie was killed Oct. 18, 1883, when the Kingston squib factory in which she worked blew up. Squibs were ignition devices for the dynamite used in coal mining, and their manufacture was notoriously dangerous. The unregulated ``factories,'' usually just sheds or barns, frequently exploded, with heavy loss of life. The work forces tended to be made up largely of young women and teenage girls. Mattie, at 18, was an assistant foreman.

Ida died in May 1885, at 13. A brief in the Wilkes-Barre Record several days before her burial said she had been taken ill with typhoid fever. That disease was then raging in Plymouth, just a few miles to the south of the James family home along Kingston Street (later Slocum Street and now Zerbey Avenue), Edwardsville. Dozens of people would die before the outbreak ran its course.

But blasts and plagues hardly touched the Hoyt family, one of the most prominent and powerful in the area. Numerous local histories tell how the clan grew and prospered in the 19th century after patriarch Ziba Hoyt came from Connecticut and purchased farm land in Kingston.

Their family plot at Forty Fort is a who's who of achievers. Ziba's son, Henry M. Hoyt, was governor of Pennsylvania from 1872 to 1876, and Henry's son, Henry Jr., became the solicitor general of the United States. Henry Jr.'s daughter, also in the Hoyt plot, was Elinor Wylie, a world-famous poet and novelist in the 1920s.

So, to return to Bagley's quest, how did young Hattie and Ida James end up buried among these titans?

The family's search has been a trying one. ``You cannot comprehend what I have gone through,'' said Bagley. ``I pursue any lead I can find. I've gone up and down many roads.''

The key might lie in the little 1885 newspaper note about Ida's fatal illness. Her attending physician, the article says, was Kingston resident Dr. Frederic Corss. It would be easy to pass over that name as irrelevant. But if you follow up on it you find an intriguing entry in Jordan's Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography. Corss was not only a leading citizen in his own right, but was also strongly connected to the Hoyt family.

In particular, Corss' mother was Ann Hoyt Corss and his father-in-law was John D. Hoyt, brother of the governor and owner of the Hoyt cemetery plot. Corss, his parents and other relatives are buried among the Hoyts.

So might Corss be Ruth Ann Bagley's long-sought connection between the James and Hoyt families, the person who arranged the burial at Forty Fort? Could this public-spirited man who served on the Kingston School Board, and for whom a Kingston school was later named, have taken pity on two young girls who went directly from childhood to work - and then quickly to death?

Certainly the Corss/Hoyt connection is not final proof of why young Mattie and Ida ended up at Forty Fort. At best it is a good probability. What is important to all of us is that, like other vital connections in other people's genealogies, it is retrievable a century and more later by following up on every possible lead.

Here is the lesson: The dead cannot speak, but if we listen hard enough we might still hear what they would tell us.

Update: Edith Brower's delightful memoir about 19th-century Wyoming Valley life, ``Little Old Wilkes-Barre as I Knew It,'' is available for purchase at the Luzerne County Historical Society, 49 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre, PA 18701. Stop by or write for the cost. Thanks to Jackie Sigethy of Fairfax, Va., for pointing that out.

Local History Moment: Don't be surprised if you hear a lot of Luzerne County references in an old movie on one of the TV cable channels over the next couple of weeks. ``The Miracle of the Bells,'' a 1948 tear-jerker, is as common around Christmas as eggnog - and even more sugary. Fred MacMurray plays a jaded Hollywood publicity agent who travels to the Glen Lyon section of Newport Township for the funeral of a promising actress, played by Alida Valli, whose movie about Joan of Arc is to be left unreleased because it has become tainted by her untimely death. Aided by a kindly parish priest, played by Frank Sinatra, the MacMurray character gets churches throughout the area to ring their bells all night - as a publicity stunt. But then a ``miracle'' occurs, and movieland cynicism gives way to religious faith.

News Notes: Researchers should note that the Luzerne County Historical Society library will be closed from Dec. 23 through Jan. 1 in observance of the holidays. Note also that the society has a new e-mail address of

The opening of the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg has been delayed from mid-December to mid-February, according to an Associated Press story. Officials cite contractors' delays in building the exhibits.

The U.S. Library of Congress is making a big push to preserve recordings of the radio programs our ancestors (and also some of us) listened to. The library ``is allocating about $833,000 for a project to restore tapes of the endangered programs,'' the Associated Press reports. The tapes and cylinders are said to be deteriorating. ``A law signed by President Clinton last month promises an additional $250,000 a year to create a register of sound recordings already in the library and to select outstanding ones for preservation.''

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has received a federal grant of more than $188,000 to help with its records preservation program. Among other uses, the money will help train groups and organizations in archiving, the Associated Press reports.

Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer at Then click on ``Generations.''

Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

Tom Mooney, The Times Leader, 15 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18711. Email is