Sullivan County Home Page

A Mystery Gathering

by Bob Sweeney
April 2011
Last Updated March 18, 2023

In December 2010, Ryan Whalen found something interesting at an auction held in a small town southeast of Rochester, Ontario County, NY. It was a collection of photos, source unknown, showing members of the Frawley and Sweeney families of Sullivan County, PA. How the photos got there is a matter of pure speculation, although we do know that one branch of the Frawley family settled in Rochester in the twentieth century. You can learn more about each of these families, and how they are related, at:

The Sweeneys of Ringer Hill
The Frawley Collection.

The latter source also discussed this photo collection in some detail. However, one photo in the collection stands out as a mystery. Here is the "mystery" photo, front and back:

Photos Courtesy of Bob Sweeney
Source: Photo Collection Found in Auction Lot
Ontario County, NY
December 2011

Who are these people? Why are they assembled, when and where? How did this photo end up in the possession of someone in the Rochester area in the early twenty-first century? Here is the invitation to his fellow genealogists and local historians--Joyce Ingerson, Larry Pardoe and Carol Brotzman--that Bob Sweeney issued on March 29, 2011:


As part of a group of photos I received last year from a contributor in the Rochester, NY area, I obtained the attached front and back photos. They were in with other photos showing members of the Sweeney and Frawley families, and the set was found at an auction with no known source.
The attached photo shows 17 people, 16 of whom, as far as I can tell, are identified on the back. You will see that two of the persons are also labeled by hand on the photo itself.
The only person I can identify for sure would be Ella Margaret (Secules) Sweeney (1872-1968), wife of Michael D. Sweeney (1863-1952), my great uncle. Ella was the daughter of Philip and Sarah (Flick) Secules.
I know that the Van Buskirk and Peale families lived in and around Shrewsbury, Penn Township and Eagles Mere. The Weaver, Upman and Neufer families were present in Columbia and Sullivan Counties.
The person who wrote the names down obviously knew the folks in the picture, since he or she used informal names and also did not bother to make sure she lined up the names with the order of people in the photo. Also, one person, possibly the child, is not identified by name. Finally, at least in one case, for the person labeled "Mary Cook" by hand on the front side, on the back she is called Mary Van Buskirk. Perhaps that is a useful clue.
If you care to join me in this adventure, my goal is to make our best educated guess about the identities of these people and their common interest. I am estimating, based on Ella's presumed age in the photo, that it was taken about 1895, but it could be a little off either way. The location is likely to be in the Shrewsbury, or Penn Township, area, or maybe Eagles Mere, in southern Sullivan County, PA. I would guess some sort of family reunion. However, I don't know that for sure. The Secules and Flick families were intermarried with many other local families.
If we can get anywhere, I will post the photos on the site with credit to the source of the information. Thanks for your consideration. Feel free to ask anyone else if you want to; this is not a "secret" adventure.

We will now summarize what this group of energetic historians were able to discover, based on their own records, contacts with others and their collective evaluation and discussion of the evidence.

Ella Margaret (Secules) Sweeney:

"Aunt Ella", as the handwritten note on the front of the picture identifies her, was recalled by Bob Sweeney's only living paternal aunt, Rosemarie Sweeney, as a warm, loving woman of short stature. This recollection was made in about 2005, and was based on events of more than fifty years passage. Michael D. and Ella (Secules) Sweeney married about 1909 and subsequently had two children: Carl Philip and Martin Earl Sweeney, indubitably named after their fathers, Philip Secules and Martin Sweeney. Martin Earl had "the mind of a child", according to his death record (1962) at St. Basil Church in Dushore. Based on research by Joyce Ingerson, we can establish that Ella worked as a hotel servant for several years before she met Michael Sweeney, a lumber camp foreman. In fact, Michael was at one time the camp foreman at the now abandoned ghost lumber town of Masten, just over the line in Bradford County, PA. Ella is reported as a hotel servant in the 1900 Federal census for Eagles Mere. The staff is listed as residing at the same address as hotel owner John Kirk and his family, and it includes Ella, Lizzie Black and Florence Weaver, also shown as being in the mystery photo above. However, in 1910, she is listed as living with her husband Michael in Barclay, the famous Bradford County ghost mining town. His occupation is indicated as "woods foreman". By 1920, they own their own farm in Albany Township, just north of the Sullivan County line; they lived there for the rest of their lives. What matters to us in this conversation is that Ella is known to have lived in and worked for hotels in Eagles Mere. That is a convincing piece of evidence for the argument that the mystery photo was taken in Eagles Mere and has something to do with hotel workers. Incidentally, you can see another photo of Ella in the Secules family reunion photo of 1907, taken just a few years before she married Michael Sweeney. The photo is at the top of Old Reunions of Yesteryear.

The Peales and VanBuskirks:

We are indebted to Joyce Ingerson for the full identification of the gentlemen in the photo. The man furthest to the left is William L. "Billie" Palmetier ("Palmeter") , of whom we will say more below. But let us begin with the other two gents--William VanBuskirk, age about 31 at the time of this photo, and, on the far right, Christopher T. Peale, Jr. (1853-1935) age about 43. According to the name list on the back of the photo, each of these men is also accompanied by his wife, Martha (Oyster) VanBuskirk (born in 1868) and Elizabeth (Tolan) Peale (1853-1917), respectively, aged 27 and 41. These wives are believed to be the two women dressed in black on the far right end of the middle row in the photo. Christopher Peale was the local postmaster and also a hotel magnate. William VanBuskirk (born in 1864), also a hotel keeper, is shown with his second wife, the first wife, Mary Tivoli (Taylor) VanBuskirk (born May 28, 1857), having died Aug. 22, 1889. We can generalize from the presence of these hotel owners, and the appearance of the background setting of this photo (e.g., lawn hammock, perhaps the edge of a tennis court at the top left), that the event very likely took place on the premises of one of the Eagles Mere hotels in the summer. Joyce even estimates the year to be 1895, based on the ages of several people in the photo. You can see a few photos of Christopher and Elizabeth (Tolan) Peale at an earlier date on page 5 of The Lambert Family Photo Album.

Billie Palmetier, age about 32 in this picture, is known to have been a career hotel worker and handy man. One of the very interesting things that comes out of the backgrounds of the individuals in this photo is the variety of direct and family connections with the others shown. For example, Palmetier was married on September 21, 1889 to Carrie Emmeline Little (born in 1870), daughter of John H. Wallace Little and Caroline E. Peale (born in 1843). The latter was a sister (!) of Christopher T. Peale, Jr., the hotel owner shown in this photo as well. Both Christopher and Caroline were daughters of Christopher T. Peale, Sr. and Mariah Haywood. By the way, in the 1910 Federal Census for Shrewsbury, Palmetier is listed as a hotel keeper, so apparently he used his experience to improve his station in life. An update from Tim Vargeson in January 2014 identified the final resting place of William L. Palmeter (1864-1953) as the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Canastota, Madison County, NY. His son, Charles W. Palmeter (1892-1951), is also buried there. Canastota is about 25 miles east of Syrcasue, NY. You can find images of their grave markers on Find-a-Grave.

Due to their positioning and age, we can also guess that the child is Mary C. VanBuskirk, age about 3 at the time. We are not sure at this point if this child is the same as the "Mary Cook" handwritten on the photo, perhaps to indicate a later married surname. Also, we know that Ethel V. VanBuskirk, daughter of William by his deceased first wife, is in the picture at about age 15 or so. I would offer that she is the young woman standing between William VanBuskirk and Christopher T. Peale, Jr. *


* Update (December 2011): In December 2011, we heard from Bill Harris of Montoursville, PA as follows:

I believe you are correct on the identity of Ethel Van Buskirk, daughter of William H. and Mary Tivoli (Taylor) Vanbuskirk in the Mystery Photo. Ethel was supposedly born in Mar of 1880 in Shrewbury Township Lycoming County. Ethel's mother, Mary Tivoli Taylor, was born 28 May 1857 and died 22 Aug 1889 in Picture Rocks. She was a daughter of George Washington Taylor and Mary Ann (Craft) Taylor.
We put this comment out for remarks by our contributory group and heard back from Larry Pardoe and Joyce Ingerson:
From Joyce: Bill Harris is very correct with his submitted remark. The facts we know from area census and cemetery records are as follows:
Indeed both Ethel VanBuskirk and Mary VanBuskirk appear in the same US 1900 PA Sullivan County Shrewsbury Federal Census entry. Ethel VanBuskirk first appears at only 2 months of age, in the 1880 US Census, with her father, William VanBuskirk, and her mother, Mary Tivoli Taylor. And, then in 1900, this same Ethel VanBuskirk appears with her father, William VanBuskirk, and her stepmother, Martha Oyster VanBuskirk, daughter of Joshua Oyster and Caroline Weaver, of Muncy, PA.
Next, Mary C. VanBuskirk, daughter of William VanBuskirk and Martha Oyster, was Ethel's half-sister. Mary C VanBuskirk's full sister, Kathryn VanBuskirk, was not born until August 1899. So, we know definitely that this photo was taken before Kathryn VanBuskirk was born in August 1899. Mary Tivoli Taylor Van Buskirk died in 1889, William and Mattie married about 1890 per the 1900 census, probably around the Muncy area. Where Mattie Oyster lived. I am still researching and seeking validation for William and Mattie's full marriage date and place.
Therefore, we still wonder about the identity of Mary Cook in this gathering photo. Was Mary C Cook actually Mary C.(Vanbuskirk) Cook? Or, was Mary Cook someone else? I have full notes for William VanBuskirk and his family.

From Larry: I spent a few hours online today working on some of the connections to the Van Buskirk family. This family is included in the Warn & Corson Tree by Margaret Haberman. Her tree doesn't include nearly all the information that Joyce has provided, but does have links to William's father, Martin Van Buskirk, and his ancestors.

The Hotel Staff:

We know from the various census records that Ella Secules and Billie Palmetier ("Palmeter") were hotel workers. What of the others, aside from the VanBuskirk family and the Peales? I am referring to the following (information added where known from the census or from the research efforts of Joyce or Larry Pardoe:
Hattie Neufer, age 22, believed to have never married
Florence Weaver, age 19, married Philo Keisinger
Lizzie Black, age 18
Dora Upman, age 20 [Editor's Note: Dora E. Upman (1874-1937) is buried with her parents at Mountain Ash Cemetery in Laporte.]
Cora E. Crawley, age 22, married Frank Magargel
Barbara Clark
Anna M. Rea, age 25, married Orr L. Davis
Iola Long

The census records specifically tell us that several of these were hotel workers as well. For example, the 1900 Federal Census for Eagles Mere has Lizzie Black and Florence Weaver working along side Ella Secules in the local hotel owned and operated by John Kirk. Hattie Neufer, daughter of Jacob J. and Anna (Flick) Neufer, shows up in the 1900 Federal Census for Williamsport, about 25 miles from Eagles Mere, as a servant in the Buck family private household--same category of work as a hotel servant, probably with better pay. Since the mother of Ella Secules was a Flick, then she and Ella are cousins of some remove--another family connection. Two years after this photo was taken, Cora Crawley, daughter of Samuel Crawley and Barbara Ann Little (and therefore related to the wife of Billie Palmetier) married Frank Magargel, a successful store owner in nearby Muncy Valley. Frank's father, Thomas Magargel, owned a hotel (!) in Davidson Township, not far from Eagles Mere. We also know that Dora Upman was the daughter of Henry and Louisa Upman *, and that Anna Rea was the daughter of George Eli and Margaret Ellen (Lorah) Rea. For Iola Long, at first, we drew a blank. However, in August 2013, Tim Vargeson made a suggestion worth consideraton. Perhaps the name on the back of the photo is "Lola" or "Lolla" Long. Does that open other doors to identification? Tim continues to look into the matter.
Per Connie Hatch in March 2013, the body of Henry Upman (1833-1897) was found floating in Lake Eaglesmere in April of 1897. She saw this information in the Sullivan County Coroner's Report for that year. His death was listed as suicide with a cord and a kerchief around his neck. The cononer also noted that he had recently purchased a new pair of shoes in Laporte!

Remaining Problems:

We have several remaining problems associated with this photo, which time and further effort may help resolve:

(1) Who took the photo? The only real clues we have in this regard are that the photo showed up in a collection of Frawley and Sweeney photos likely owned by a Frawley descendant (a Frawley branch moved to the general Rochester area, where the photo was found); the photo taker, or at least the photo keeper, knew Ella Secules ("Aunt Ella") and "Mary Cook". She also seems to have known Lizzie Black, since she identified her with her first name only on the back of the photo as "Lizzie". (2) Who is "Mary Cook"? Is it the same person as the child, Mary C. VanBuskirk? Or is Mary Cook a different person in the photo? If so, why is she not listed on the back? (3) There are 17 people in the photo, but only 16 names on the back? Who is missing? (4) Who was Iola Long? (5) Other than Ella, Palmetier, the VanBuskirks and the Peales, which names line up with which identities in the photo?


In July 2012, Tim Vargeson sent us the following observation:

The lady sitting in the front row far left is a sight on match for my sister Beverly Jean Vargeson, Spooky! This picture is perfectly clear. I asked some of my family if they recognized anyone in the picture; they also picked Beverly and thought it was a carnival reproduction . There is, however, at least 80 yrs difference to the time periods.
My grandmother's name was Elsie B. Dunlap born in 1898 in Hillsgrove, She had a sister, Minnie Dunlap ,that would have been the above lady's age born in 1876 and married to a George Boyles from Hillsgrove, at that time. The lady in the picture is wearing a wedding ring. I find that very interesting and they look way too much alike. Please ask your consulting group if these comments help at all.
In April 2014, Tim continued with further comments on the woman sitting at the far left in the front row. He makes a convincing argument, shown below, that this woman is Mary A. Diggan (1862-1934), first cousin to William VanBuskirk. William was the son of Martin (1826-1898) and Mehitabel (Diggan) (1832-1917) VanBuskirk. Mehitabel had a brother, Bethuel Diggan (1833-1917); married to Harriet Webster (1838-1865). Mary was a daughter of Bethuel, while William was a son of Mehitabel.
Tim argues that Mary is the individual in the far left bottom row of the photo and is also the UNNAMED 17th person from the list on the back. In addition to the family connection above, Tim points out that the individual he thinks is Mary A. Diggan is the VERY person who looks like a dead ringer for his sister Beverly (see above). Moreover, we know from history that an aunt of Mary A. Diggan, in this case Mary Diggan, married Benjamin Dunalap; they are shown as such in the 1900 Federal Census in Sullivan County. And now we get to the clinching part of Tim's argument....
Benjamin Dunlap and Mary R. Diggan had a daughter named Elsie B. Dunlap. Elsie married Onnie Vargeson--these are Tim's GRANDPARENTS via their son Gerald Vargeson. That could readily account for the striking family resemblance between Mary in the 1895 photo and Tim's living sister Beverly Jean Vargeson. Mary A. Diggan was Beverly's great-grandmother's niece.!! Since Mary A. Diggan remained unmarried, it would make sense that she appears alone in the 1895 photo.

Original Posting: April 25, 2011
Updated July 2012
Bob Sweeney

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