What a sad surprise I found one day when I was searching Ancestry.com for any records about my Great Great Great Grandfather, Thomas Donovan. Of course I knew he was long dead, but now instead of the benign image of the “good death” that I generally want to imagine: a quiet house, the family close by, final good byes have been said at a ripe old age, and a peaceful passing, I had the sad facts behind his actual death:
Body of Well Known Citizen found in Glove Company’s Waterway Sunday Morning. Thomas Donovan, for many years a resident of Naugatuck, who resided with his family on Church Street was found drowned yesterday morning at about 11 o’clock n the Glove company’s North Water street raceway. The body was first seen by Mr. Swanson, who is employed by L.D. Warner of Church street and Chief of Police Schmidt and Medical Examiner Tuttle were notified as quickly as possible. Both officials responded promptly but it was nearly 1 pm before the body was taken from the water. After making an examination of the body, Medical Examiner Tuttle permitted it to be removed to McCarthy’s morgue. The relatives of the deceased were notified and the body was taken to his late home on Church street. The body had evidently been in the water for several hours. There were no marks(?) upon it to indicate that the deceased had been a victim of foul play, and it is the general opinion that death was accidental.
Mr. Donovan was employed on _____ streets under Head Superintendent Pitcher and had the reputation of being one of the most faithful workman in the latter’s employ. So far as can be learned he was last seen in the ______ Saturday night shortly after 10 o’clock. He did not return home Saturday night and it is thought that his fatality occurred sometime during the night.
He leaves one son, William Donovan, and four daughters, Mrs. Patrick Rooney of Scott Street, Mrs. Michael Morris of Cherry Street, Mrs. William Ryan of Gorman Street and Miss Margaret Donovan of Church Street. The funeral will take place to-morrow morning at 8:30 from the home and then 9 o’clock at St. Francis church. The interment will be in St. James’ cemetery. Naugatuck Daily News July 22, 1901
Of course, as a family historian, I was just happy to find my ancestor’s name in print in any record, so there was a certain pleasure in finding the story. But then, just as I do today when I hear about some awful tragedy, I pictured the family. His wife had died the previous year. He lived with his unmarried daughter Margaret. I imagine she was expecting him home in the night, but probably went to sleep, and was immediately concerned when she discovered him missing in the morning. I imagine her questioning her family, (In 1901 did they even have a phone, or did she have to run to a neighbor or her brother or sisters.) Then the dread moment when they learned the truth. Did they save this newspaper clipping, or was their own heartbreak reminder enough? His youngest child, my great great grandmother Elizabeth was 27 years old, a year older than I was when my own father died unexpectedly, but she had the added sadness of having lost her mother already. Also, I learned from the paper, that after having sat in the water for hours, his body was sent to the morgue, then to his family home until the funeral the following morning. I’m sure the house was filled with neighbors, friends and family as they came to remember him – an Irish wake. But it’s rather different now, and I don’t think it’s necessarily better for us to be so removed from the process, (and the body) as we are in these days when we have a death in the family.
I never knew this sad story, nor did my great aunt Betty, who still lives in Connecticut and had shared many stories with me about the Donovan & Ryan families. Still, when I find out sad truths about my ancestors lives, I feel grateful for the chance to learn about their real lives rather than the blankness of not knowing. I think it’s because through this small trace left behind I was given the chance to share their experience, bringing me closer to them because I can imagine their lives more fully, even in grief.
Of course, once the shock of finding the story wore off, I picked it apart for shortcomings. Couldn’t they have mentioned his parents names? little more biographical detail? While writing this, I went back to Ancestry to look at the image, something I was not able to print years ago when I found it, although I transcribed it as well as I could. I no longer have access to the story, but now I see there was a follow-up story about his funeral a few days later! To be continued…