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Journey # 23: Instincts and Surprises

On the 1891 census, my great-great grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Connell, had a 16-month-old girl named Mary living in their household. She was listed as ‘daughter’ but I was suspicious. Their next child up in the chain was 8 years old, and while Bridget wasn’t definitely too old to be having a child that young herself, I had the feeling it wasn’t hers.

Their first child had been named Mary and there was no indication that she had died nor was there any indication of a family tradition of having multiple children named Mary. The couple had several children old enough to be having children of their own, at least two of which had moved out already and were probably married by then. I suspected that young Mary belonged to one of them and happened to be staying with her grandparents during the census.

In the next census in 1901, young Mary would have been 11 but didn’t appear in Patrick & Bridget Connell’s household. I hoped that she had not died and that she had, in fact, returned to her own parents, whomever they were. However, when I tracked the other children, she did not appear in any of their households. If she didn’t belong to one of them, then maybe she was Patrick & Bridget’s?

So I searched for her birth certificate under the assumption that her last name was Connell — and there was a Mary Connell born at the correct time. But this just caused me more concern. I was so sure that she was a granddaughter, but all of Patrick & Bridget's older children were female, which means that if she were a grandchild, she should have been born with a different last name (the married daughter's name).

My instincts told me that she was a granddaughter so much that I wondered if the Mary Connell I found in the birth record was her at all. And I had to know for sure, so I ordered the birth certificate. When the document arrived, I knew immediately that it was for the Mary Connell who appeared in the census in Patrick & Bridget’s household, and I was also correct in my assumption that she was a granddaughter rather than a daughter. But imagine my surprise when I saw the mother’s name. It was Margaret Connell, the only daughter who wasn’t married at the time of the census. Margaret, my great-grandmother, had this child out of wedlock, and they were both living with Margaret’s parents in 1891.

But when it came to young Mary, each question that was answered led to a new question. What happened to her? Margaret married in 1893 and began having children with her husband in 1894. She was with this family in the 1901 census and there was no Mary. Had she given her up for adoption? Possibly, but why would she have kept her for 16 months and then given her up then? Had he husband-to-be objected to taking in a child that was not his (or was it his, for all I knew?).

But I am a believer in the principle of Occam's Razor, which reasons that the simplest answer is usually the correct one. And in the 1890s, the most likely cause for a child to disappear from the records is death, so I turned to death records. I found a Mary Connell in the death records for the same year as the census where Mary first appeared to me, and her age matched. Young Mary, the love child, had not survived 1891.

I had come full circle on Mary Connell’s life, and it was a small circle. The child born out of wedlock, who was obviously loved enough by the family to keep in spite of the scandal that might have resulted, had died. But my instincts had been confirmed even if the mother turned out to be a complete surprise in the end.

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