Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chasing Ghosts

"I see dead people."  Of course, that famous movie line is from the 1999 movie, The Sixth Sense.  However, after 2 1/2 years with Isaac and his Stafford County neighbors, I can identify with Cole Sear, the young man from the movie who lived with dead people as real to him as his flesh-and-blood friends and family. 
As I finalize my manuscript, I am making an effort to discover details about a few of Isaac's neighbors, and this week, I experienced the historian's idea of hitting the jackpot!
G. G. John is first mentioned in Isaac's journal when Isaac went in search of fertile eggs to use in the incubator he designed and built.  What he found at G. G. John's place instead were hens and chicks, saving him the trouble of hatching his chicks in the incubator.
However, my specific interest in G. G. John came from the Probate Records detailing the administration of Isaac's estate.  The last two years of Isaac's life were difficult, ending with Isaac receiving round-the-clock care in the homes of others.  The man who allowed Isaac to spend a few more months in his own home was G. G. John, who checked on Isaac every day, ran necessary errands for him, and built an invalid chair to help him move around his house.  When claims were submitted to the estate, John's claim for five months of attending to his neighbor was ten dollars.  In contrast, the couple who took Isaac into their home later claimed ten dollars a month board, plus $2.50 a day and $2.50 a night for his care!  This was during hard times when one young man was willing to work for thirty-eight cents a day and men in search of work rode the rails and could be arrested as tramps in many cities for simply having no sign of gainful employment.
I wanted to know more about the man who asked so little for helping a sick neighbor (in contrast to other neighbors who took advantage of an opportunity to cash in on Isaac's care!)

My first clue about G. G. John came from an undated newspaper clipping in my great aunt's scrapbook with the headline:  "Byers Author Is Remembered / Leaves Own Books in Farm Mansion."  A reviewer of the book was quoted in the article as calling John's book, Whose Son is This?, "socialistic is theme, but scintillatingly brilliant."  His home was described in the article as having 13 rooms, with a large library, an elevated music room, a large cold storage room off the kitchen, and two separate wings, each with its own staircase.  That would have been quite a country home for those times--in fact, for today!

Searching for a man who used initials (without knowing the names for which those initials stood) is challenging, and his last name of John created its own problems.  Search engines insisted upon adding an "s" to the end, or putting "St." at the beginning.  Even knowing the state where he was born and his approximate birth date had not allowed me to find him on 
Then, a friend told me about an 87-year-old man living in St. John who might be related somehow.  Crossing my fingers, I made a phone call.  Jackpot!  I spent a delightful couple of hours talking with Milton John about his Great Uncle George.  He shared wih me that George's parents had named all of their sons with double initials--O. O., E. E., and M. M.  Using G. G.'s newly confirmed given name and the names of his brothers, my search on succeeded, and I learned that George's father had an even more unusual pair of names.  His name was John John, a blacksmith and farmer born in 1831 in Virginia.
A few hours later I received an e-mail from Milton's sister sharing the birth, marriage, and death dates of George Griffith John!  I wrapped up my research with a trip to the court house deed records to confirm that G. G. lived on the land just to the west of Isaac's timber claim, making an easy walk for him to reach Isaac's house on his daily visits.
Neither his niece nor his nephew had a picture of G. G., nor of his Southern-style mansion embraced in porches.  Regardless, I can picture that house in my imagination, with a distinguished gentleman standing on the porch, holding a book.  How happy the kind, book-loving neighbor must have made Isaac each day when he visited those last five months Isaac lived in his own home.

So now you are wondering why I posted the picture of a group of men standing on the steps of the Stafford County Court House, aren't you?  Could one of those men be George Griffith John?  We can only guess...(unless someone out there discovers the real thing!  And, while you are looking for his picture, see if you can find a copy of one of  the books he wrote!!)


The Blog Fodder said...

People who take advantage of someone when they are down make my blood boil. I will not guess at the respective religious or political views, though in today's world, they could be very easily slotted.

Anonymous said...

Great segment Lyn. I'm enjoying the entire project and have forwarded your blog to several friends.

Glenn C

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Dear Blog Fodder, Perhaps I am being a little rough on that couple, since caring for Isaac in his final days was surely a huge responsibility. However, the claim does seem excessive given the times and wages elsewhere. I believe the Mrs. was motivated to care for him for other reasons, but the Mr. submitted his claim very quickly...although she probably did most of the work. Isaac probably saved her son's life and did many kind things for them, including helping the Mr. get his Civil War pension!

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Glenn, Thank you for your support. I know you've been a regular visitor!