A few years ago, I came across an old article about my grandad’s uncle Joe being attacked in his house by a man with a knuckleduster and two young women who had concocoted the plan because they knew had a bit of money and, well, he wasn’t best liked in the area. They would, they said, being doing a ‘charity’ to take it from him.
I’d mentioned this to my granny and at the start of July, 2020, she asked about it again. She wanted to see a copy and show it to her son, my uncle. She also said something about wanting to tell her hairdresser about my great, great uncle Joe getting his teeth knocked out as he lay on his sofa in his house in the working class Donegall Road in Belfast on New Year’s eve, 1946. Why, I did not ask.
I never imagined in trying to find that article again, I would end up with Abraham Lincoln writing letters to what seems to be my 4x great grandfather about my 5x great grandfather, a man known in his time as Thomas Jefferson’s ‘protégé’ and someone who had served under George Washington in the Revolution.
The only problem was that to get from me to him, I would have to pass through an apparent bigamist who seemed to skip across the Atlantic in the late 1800s and early 1900s like he was popping from London to Glasgow with what looked like a quite unbelievable story.
Surely this must be a mistake along the family tree.
The story was too weird.
Nobody in my family had ever spoke of anyone hailing from America. Then again, nobody knew that my grandad’s dad had at least two other babies (and we suspect a third) until one, then in his 60s, sat down randomly beside my mum in a café in 2014. He was back from Australia to visit his ill sister. Another sibling my grandad didn’t know he had, and she’d lived in the city, like him, her whole life.
Could it be like father, like son? Could William snr really have been a dual-continent bigamist that connected our family to such a history? Or was he a reliable family man who got mixed up with another William somewhere along someone’s way?
I needed to find out.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve checked that the mistake has not been at my end when compiling my family tree, and it doesn’t seem to be at the end of the American trees that led me this far.
In fact, most of those trees have the key man in this mystery, born 1865, falling off the face of the planet. Nobody seems to know where he went, how he died, or even when. Not even my granny, and she knew him.
It wasn’t even him who threw this whole door open, but his wife. Before, I’d only been able to find out she was called Elizabeth, but when I opened up Ancestry.com for the first time in a few years, she had a hint by her name.
This Elizabeth, Ancestry was telling me, was married to a man of the same name and age, had three children all of the same first, middle and last names and dates of birth as the ones from my family, born in Belfast.
This Elizabeth, however, had been born in New York.
This is the start of my search. By the end, I hope to discover I was a direct descendant of a man Abraham Lincoln called one of the ‘’pioneer leaders in the cause of freedom’.
If not, for the time I am researching it, I can at least believe it might be so.
I’ll update as I go, but for now, below is the letter from Abraham Lincoln. If you’d like to help me on my search by keeping me topped up with caffeine, you can use this link with my eternal thanks:
Springfield, Illinois. March 2, 1857.
Rev. James Lemen,
Friend Lemen: Thanking you for your warm appreciation of my views in a former letter as to the importance in many features of your collection of old family notes and papers, I will add a few words more as to Elijah P. Lovejoy’s case. His letters among your old family notes were of more interest to me than even those of Thomas Jefferson, written to your father. Of course they [the latter] were exceedingly important as a part of the history of the “Jefferson-Lemen Anti-Slavery Pact,” under which your father, Rev. James Lemen, Sr., as Jefferson’s anti-slavery agent in Illinois, founded his anti-slavery churches, among which was the present Bethel church, which set in motion the forces which finally made Illinois a free state, all of which was splendid; but Lovejoy’s tragic death for freedom in every sense marked his sad ending as the most important single event that ever happened in the new world.
Both your father and Lovejoy were pioneer leaders in the cause of freedom, and it has always been difficult for me to see why your father, who was a resolute, uncompromising, and aggressive leader, who boldly proclaimed his purpose to make both the territory and the state free, never aroused nor encountered any of that mob violence which both in St. (p. 51) Louis and Alton confronted or pursued Lovejoy, and which finally doomed him to a felon’s death and a martyr’s crown. Perhaps the two cases are a little parallel with those of John and Peter. John was bold and fearless at the scene of the Crucifixion, standing near the cross receiving the Savior’s request to care for his mother, but was not annoyed; while Peter, whose disposition to shrink from public view, seemed to catch the attention of members of the mob on every hand, until finally to throw public attention off, he denied his master with an oath; though later the grand old apostle redeemed himself grandly, and like Lovejoy, died a martyr to his faith. Of course, there was no similarity between Peter’s treachery at the Temple and Lovejoy’s splendid courage when the pitiless mob were closing around him. But in the cases of the two apostles at the scene mentioned, John was more prominent or loyal in his presence and attention to the Great Master than Peter was, but the latter seemed to catch the attention of the mob; and as Lovejoy, one of the most inoffensive of men, for merely printing a small paper, devoted to the freedom of the body and mind of man, was pursued to his death; while his older comrade in the cause of freedom, Rev. James Lemen, Sr., who boldly and aggressively proclaimed his purpose to make both the territory and the state free, was never molested a moment by the minions of violence. The madness and pitiless determination with which the mob steadily pursued Lovejoy to his doom, marks it as one of the most unreasoning and unreasonable in all time, except that which doomed the Savior to the cross.
If ever you should come to Springfield again, do not fail to call. The memory of our many “evening sittings” here and elsewhere, as we called them, suggests many a pleasant hour, both pleasant and helpful.