Shake the branches of family trees—you never what you might find…
When writing about crime and serial killers, I usually delve into the characters’ family, upbringing and environment to discover the root of their evil. In my books, I like to have a link to their past. I’m fascinated by heritage and family tree’s and I’m always wondering about those people who have gone before us. To me, family heritage is both interesting and arresting, and it can form the basis for building up interesting fictional characters.
As far as I know, there’s no serial killers hanging from the branches of my family tree. But then again… one never knows, so I can only chart their births and deaths, children and marriages and of course their travels. The rest I can make up and be creative!
I love visiting New York. The shopping is great , especially when you can get a good rate for the dollar against the Euro. I have an affinity with the city and I think I found the answer to that fascination, after my borther, Gerry Ward, researched our family history.
The story is not unique to people of Irish extraction living in the States but it is the story of my Great Grandmother, Elizabeth Watson, and my Great Grandfather, Hugh Boyd, both from County Roscommon, who found each other in Newark, New Jersey. They originated from nearby Roscommon villages. However, it is fair to say that they probably did not know each in their home country, as there was an eight year age gap, and travel in the west of Ireland was most likely limited to a horse and cart at the turn of the twentieth century.
Roscommon man, Hugh Boyd, was born in 1881, in a thatched cottage on a small farm. He was blue eyed and fair haired, fond of adventure and always up for a challenge. He had a liking for racehorses which may have led him to gambling and in turn, into trouble. In May 1912, he headed off for a horse fair. There was tension in Ireland at the time and money was scarce. It is likely he either received a large fee for the sale of a horse, though whether he owned said horse is debatable. Or maybe he won a few bets, or perhaps, and here is my imagination at work, he committed some crime, because he ended up in Queenstown in Cork, a long way from Roscommon. On 5th May 1912, he paid his fare out of his own pocket, and boarded the RMS Carmania to sail to New York.
Ellis Island records tell me that Hugh had seventy nine dollars in his pocket which was a considerable sum in 1912. A loaf of bread cost five cents, so Hugh was not about to go hungry any time soon, once he didn’t gamble it away, that is.
Immigration documents show that he was heading to stay with his cousin Willie Elewood at 448 Sixth Street, Newark, New Jersey. I’ve no idea if Willie was a real person or a figment of Hugh’s imagination, but he settled in Newark where he secured a job as a freight haulier on the railways. Tough, hard work for an adventurer and gambler.
Elizabeth Watson, fondly known as Lizzie, was born on 27th July 1889 in Toberdon, County Roscommon. Two years before Hugh Boyd set off for distant shores clouded in mystery, twenty one year old Lizzie boarded The RMS Caronia, a sister ship of the Carmania, and arrived in Ellis Island on 5th May 1910. The ship held up to 1550 people, 300 in First Class, 300 in second class and around 900 in third class. Lizzie wouldn’t have had much money so she was more than likely consigned to third class for the seven day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. I think I’ll take seven hours on an airplane any day.
Ellis Island Immigration documents state that Lizzie intended to live at 504 North Brerard, Elizabeth, New Jersey. There, she worked in hotels as a cook for five years until she met Hugh Boyd .
Two Irish people made a seven day, six thousand mile journey away from home, two years between their travels, and met up and married in a distant land. Why? How did it happen? It would make an interesting story to weave a tale around all of this. I think I might write it, modernize it, and throw in a grisly crime before their travels.
When she was twenty-five years old, Lizzie Watson married Hugh Boyd on 7th April 1915. It is not known how they met but they were married in Newark by a Rev Meaney, and lived at 127 Custer Avenue. Their first two daughters were born in the next three years and they would have five daughters in total. One of these girls was my grandmother, Catherine Ward, born in Newark. It is known that Hugh was anxious to return home as he was adverse to the long hours and hard work, whereas Lizzie enjoyed the excitement of her new country. This must be where I inherited my love of the buzz that New York offers. But, four years after her return to Ireland, Lizzie suffered a stroke and died on Christmas Day 1927, aged just thirty eight. Oh, I really have to write this story!
Another interesting fact is that the ships they travelled on were sister ships, Cunard liners. The Carmania was one of nine ships to rescue 521 people from the burning emigrant ship the Volturno in 1913. The following year the Carmania was requisitioned as an armed merchant cruiser and sank the Hampburg-Amerika liner Cap Trafalgar (also a converted liner) in waters off Trinidad in September 1914 before being returned to the Liverpool-New York service in November 1916.
Her sister ship the Caronia was also requisitioned as armed merchant cruiser at the start of World War One and in 1916 she became a troopship for the remainder of the war.
With a few threads of fact, an interesting mystery can be woven around a family tree. I think it is important to give characters a history as it makes them real to the reader and more relatable. When you clear the wood from the family trees, I’m sure there are plenty of skeletons waiting to be found hanging on the branches.
Patricia Gibney is the million-copy bestselling author of the DI Lottie Parker series. She yearned to be a writer after reading Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keene and even wanted to be Nancy Drew when she grew up. She has now grown up (she thinks) but the closest she’s come to Nancy Drew is writing crime!