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The Search For Yesterday

Solving family mysteries can be the greater than the best soap opera (like "The Search for Tomorrow") for genealogists. Untangling the web of marriages, "illegitimate" births, and bigamists can make life worth living for some of us! This week for our genealogical sojourn, I am noting the 156th birthday of my great-grandfather, Charles Thurber Dow and his mysterious life.

Charles Thurber Dow first enters known historical records in the 1880 Census for Killingworth, Middlesex. CT as the 12 year old adopted son of Ensign Dow, age 55 of Maine, and Mary J. Dow, age 50 of Connecticut. Later records state that his date of birth was April 19, 1867 in Deep River (formerly Saybrook), Middlesex, CT. I have been searching for any birth or adoption records for over 30 years.

Have you ever tried to research someone whose first name was the same as a military rank? I don't wish this upon anybody! Ensign Dow was born in Wiscasset, Lincoln County, Maine into a very large and reputable family headed by John Kennedy Dow (1795-1872) and Hannah Boyington (1797-?). In 1850 he is shown to be working on the 1200 acre family farm belonging to his father. In 1860, he is off the farm, living amongst seamen in Wiscasset, but no profession is listed on the census.

navy anchor

Did you know that you could pay someone to fight in the Civil War for you? In 1863 the US Government was so desperate for fighters, it drafted legislation that you could pay somebody to serve for you rather than be conscripted. Making his first name ironic, Ensign Dow (who did register for the draft as a single merchant) paid one Samuel E. Groves to go join the Navy in his place per this record at FamilySearch and additional remarks from a record at

Civil War Service Record Samuel E Groves

But to make up any undue hardship to Seaman Groves, Ensign Dow married his widowed mother, Arletta Seavey Groves, in January of 1867, and became stepfather to Samuel and his younger brothers. At the time, he was a licensed liquor dealer in Wiscasset, his business opening not long after the ending of prohibition there. Ensign Dow seems to be quite the opportunist!

Before you know it, he turns up in Deep River, Middlesex, CT appearing on land records in 1874. Arletta, back in Maine, divorces him in 1875.

section of map of Deep River, Middlesex, CT

The 1880 Census shows that he is renting 33 acres and seems to be doing well raising crops and livestock with his new wife and adopted son (remember Charles Thurber?) compared to the owners of land around him, with the obvious exception of the cemeteries.

Our subject, Charles Thurber Dow, has moved out in 1890 and is living in Meriden, CT and working for the Meriden Electric R.R. Co. as a (streetcar) conductor per the city directory. Mary J. Dow, his (adoptive?) mother disappears from all records after the 1880 Census and is never heard from again. Ensign Dow passes away in Oct. 1895, but no mention of Charles or Mary is made in any obituary.

Charles marries Agnes Jane Carroll (1867-1957) in 1891, and they go on to have six children together (including the infamous Gladys M. Dow in my earlier blog "Gossip! News! Fame & Infamy!"). He changes careers briefly around 1900 and works for the predecessor of the American Hardware Corp. as a lathe operator. Family lore has it that he had developed an addiction problem, and they were forced to move frequently, but by 1903 he had landed a new job with the New London - Niantic Railway as a street car conductor.

All appears well in the population records, their last child is born in 1907, and he is still a conductor in 1910. But one night, again per family lore, there is a knock on the door and they open it to find an Irish priest. He demanded that Charles divorce Agnes, and make an honest woman of his sister, Mary Cochrane (1888-1959). One has to assume that Charles must have been quite the charmer to seduce a woman 21 years younger than himself.

Charles and Mary skipped town, their son was born in July 1911 in Poughkeepsie, NY and Agnes is unmarried. Charles and Mary had two more children and he remained a streetcar conductor until around 1930 when they moved to Bridgeport, CT. She is listed in the phone directory as his "widow" (the less scandalous title for a divorcee), and he is living with a niece from Maine and working as a machinist. He is now 55 years old.

Hillside Home,  from UConn library
Hillside Home, from UConn library. No date - 1960's VW?

By 1936, he is listed as living in the Hillside Home in Bridgeport, which until 1915 was called "The Almshouse." Charles stayed at this city-owned facility for the indigent until 1953 when he relocated to the Twin Pines Convalescent Home, a "chronic care" nursing home, in New Milford, Litchfield, CT. He died there at 86 years of age in 1954.

DNA testing has gotten me down to two or three possibilities for birth parents, but birth reporting was not required in CT in 1867. Mary Jane MNU Dow might have been his mother, but she would have been 38 at the time, and that seems rather unlikely.

I have reached out to the half-siblings of my ancestors who are on Ancestry, and I received very polite responses that they had no interest in researching the Dow side of the family, and would not be willing to help me. In fact, one of them skips over the whole first marriage in his tree! How sad to think of the number of people that were affected by this man's addiction, no? Some of them are not using the Dow surname. And no one left alive seems to know or care about the circumstances of his birth but me.

You should be happy to know that Agnes Dow did go on to live happily ever after, at least after her children grew up. They did well in life, and she took particular delight in tormenting one of her sons in law with shenanigans such as having a new bright red Cadillac delivered to the home she shared with him and her daughter. I hope it looked like this one! It went back to the dealer immediately.

red cadillac coupe from E&R Classic Cars

Sometimes genealogy is all about just the dates and the "begats" and that's just fine. But helping a family put together a narrative about their collective memories and the data that can be collected is very rewarding!

Family history research is, indeed, full of surprises and drama, good and bad! What have you found? Do you have a "Peyton Place," or "One Life to Live," or is your tree more like "Dark Shadows?"

DNA double helix

Don't forget next Tuesday, April 25, is DNA day wherein we celebrate the discovery of the double helix and the decoding of the human genome. Check your favorite family research sites for testing deals, and there are several DNA experts offering bargains on learning programs.

Hope you made it through Tax Day 2023 in the US and that all your genealogy dreams will come true soon! Don't forget, always a free quote on how I might help you when you send me an email to the address below.


Leslie Ryan

If you or someone you know, has an addiction/dependency problem, here is the Wikipedia link for all kinds of programs in the US:

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