NEHGS – Great People, Great Resources, Great Place!

New England Historic Genealogical Society

Last month, my husband and I had the good fortune to tag along with friends on an Urban Getaway. Denis went to the NCAA wrestling finals in Manhattan, and then Theresa attended a work-related conference in Boston. I think Tom went to find us the best places to eat!

My destination was the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in Boston to do some of my own genealogy research. I spend most of my time researching for clients whose ancestors lived in or traveled through Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Mine never made it to this neck of the woods. My mother’s side settled mainly in New York, Connecticut, and yes – Massachusetts.

One family that I am particularly fond of are the McMasters. John and Katharine (Ames) McMaster were Scots-Irish immigrants who arrived around 1720 – probably through Boston – and settled in Massachusetts. Their son, James, moved to New York by 1750. We know that he was married by the late 1740s, because that’s when the first of their nine children, David, was born. But this is also the BIG Question that my two fifth cousins, Jane from California and Terry from New York, have been working on:

“Who was the wife of James McMaster who was born c. 1712 in Ulster, Ireland and died bef. 1790 in Montgomery County, New York?”

Family tradition and an old partially documented manuscript suggest that her name was Sarah or Ann Gordon, but this has not been proven. The real purpose of my trip to Boston was to help and contribute to my cousins’ research by searching for information on the McMasters and the Gordons.

So what did I find at NEHGS?

  • First, a beautiful 7-story facility, exactly like what was described on the American Ancestors Website. I “visited” the Using the NEHGS Library page before leaving on my trip, in order to search their collections, determine what resources I wanted to look at, and locate what floor they were on.
  • But what I’ll remember is the friendly, helpful staff on every floor. Unlike some repositories that have (almost) armed guards, everyone was welcoming. Patrons are allowed to bring everything they need to do their research – lap top, back pack, camera, you name it. No lockers here.
  • The first thing on my list was a trip to the 5th Floor Stacks to request two histories of Leicester, Massachusetts and two original manuscripts – a bible record and a supplement to a family history, authored by a McMaster.
  • Next, I headed to the 7th Floor Reading Room to explore stacks and stacks of published family histories, town histories and published Massachusetts vital records. I think every book that was ever written on any McMaster family was there.
  • My final stop was to the Microfilm Collection on the 4th floor to check out New England vital records and the Massachusetts probate records that began in 1660.2016 NEHGS

So what new information did I find about the McMaster family?

What great contribution will I make to Jane’s and Terry’s hard work?

Well……nothing. Nothing new at all……..

But I don’t consider this a wasted trip. It took me a good day to get the lay of the land, and I only brought one Massachusetts family to research. There are plenty more where that came from – and I’ll be back. I may even hire an NEHGS expert to help.

As for the McMasters, the three cousins will keep searching – because the Scots-Irish are not quitters!

Franklin County at the Pennsylvania State Archives – The Conclusion

Tracking the Criminal in My Family Tree – Part II

By Michele R. Wade

Following is the conclusion to Michele’s experiences of researching her genealogy at the Pennsylvania State Archives with the help of Aaron McWilliams, their Reference Archivist. As you may recall from Part I, “Surprisingly we were just getting to the good stuff…”

Aaron, reading over the sentencing records, noticed a note at the bottom that said, “Dec. 29, 1944 See opinion filed in #208 March Sess. 1939 for change in sentence.”  He realized there was another sentencing record for Wayne. (Aaron obviously has had more experience with the criminal justice system than I.)  So he pulled the #208 sentencing file and found that Wayne was charged and convicted of “Escape”.  What?!?  Furthermore, this charge was in March 1939, which would have been after Wayne had finished his minimum sentence in October 1937.  Now I was really confused – he escaped after leaving prison?  However, at the bottom of the Escape sentencing record there are notes referencing a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by Wayne.  This led us to the Original Records files at the archives.

Up to this point to do research I just had to sign in to their entry book with name, date, and time, and I could use all the microfilmed records.  To use the Original Records (these are the original paper records) you must register at the archives.  This is just a one page registration form and you have to show a photo ID.  They go over the rules of handling the original files and making copies of them.  I was lucky as the original files for Wayne were a wealth of information about his criminal proceedings.

Eastern State PenitentiaryIn the original file there was Wayne’s Writ of Habeas Corpus petition, along with the warden’s response and the court’s verdict to the petition.  In September 1934, Wayne broke into a car dealership and stole a Ford sedan, plus automobile parts and tools.  He was caught and convicted of Larceny of motor vehicle, Larceny, and Felonious Entry and sentenced to 3 to 12 years at Eastern State Penitentiary.  Wayne served 3 years and 8 months and was released on parole June 1938.  His parole was for 8 years and 4 months.  In August 1938, just two months later, Wayne was involved in a hit and run accident in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania and taken to jail. This was the time period of the letter Wayne sent to try and get money for an attorney to defend him.  I guess he didn’t get the money or the attorney as he was convicted of “Failure to Stop at the Scene of a Motor Accident and Render Assistance” and sentenced to 6 months and 7 days in Dauphin County Prison.  On March 22, 1939, Wayne walked away from the Dauphin County Prison.  He claimed he finished serving his sentence on March 15th.  The warden strongly disagreed that Wayne was a free man and charged him with Escape.  The long and short of it was that Wayne had served his time for the hit and run but because of that, his parole was revoked and he was not at liberty to leave the prison.  On March 29, 1939, Wayne was returned to Eastern State to finish serving his paroled time of 8 years and 4 months.  This was where he was when he sent the postcard to his uncle.

In October 1944, Wayne petitioned the court for two main points.  First he claimed, repeatedly, that he did not escape from prison because he had served his time for the hit and run and was a free man being wrongly held.  The second point he claimed in the petition was that he had been advised that his maximum sentence was incorrect and should have only been 10 years, not 12.  The judge ruled that Wayne did escape from prison but that the 1 to 2 year sentence for Escape is too long and must be reduced to 6 months and 7 days. Punishment for Escape can not be longer than the original sentence the inmate was serving.  Additionally Wayne was correct – the maximum sentence allowed then for Larceny of a motor vehicle and Felonious Entry was only 10 years.  So Wayne’s sentence at Eastern State was reduced by two years.  However, when he was released from Eastern State he had to return to Dauphin County Prison to serve his time for his prison escape.

At the end of the day I can not believe the amount of information I found at the PA State Archives, largely with the excellent help of Aaron McWilliams.  If you are wondering what happened to Wayne after all this, I have to tell you, I can find no evidence that Wayne had any more problems with the law.  Wayne visited family in Chambersburg often and seemed to live a quiet life.  His obituary talked about his 17 years of employment at the Howard Johnson Restaurant at Lawns.  I hope you enjoyed my stroll down penitentiary lane.


Michele Wade is a graduate of the Chambersburg Area Senior High School and Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. She has been researching  her family’s genealogy since 1997 and volunteers in the genealogy library at the Franklin County Historical Society. Michelle lives outside of Chambersburg near Ft. McCord with her husband Jimmy, and sons Gus and Jesse.

Franklin County at the Pennsylvania State Archives

As a genealogist, you get comfortable with the repositories you visit often – the local historical society, the town library, the county courthouse. But few families stay in the same place their entire lives. That’s why a trip to the Pennsylvania State Archives was on my list. I needed to research original microfilmed Franklin County tax records for a client. To make the two-hour round trip to Harrisburg more interesting, I invited a friend, Michele Wade. As an added bonus, she agreed to let me post her article on researching at the archives. Below is part one of her ancestor’s story.

Tracking the Criminal in My Family Tree – Part I

By Michele R. Wade

My father is always bringing me various papers and photos that he knows will help in researching our family.  One day he gave me a postcard addressed to my great grandfather, from nephew Wayne.  The uniqueness of the postcard was because Wayne sent it from prison.  Due to the postcard we knew Wayne had spent time incarcerated, but I was curious about what he had done to end up in prison.  A few years later we came across an old letter from Wayne to his brother asking for money to hire an attorney to defend him in court.  He said that if he doesn’t succeed in his defense he would be returned to serve the eight years of his parole.  This led me to believe that it was a significant crime Wayne committed to have to serve eight years in prison.

Honestly, I had no idea how to research a criminal conviction.  I have to admit, thankfully, I am pretty clueless about the criminal justice system.  From the postmark on the postcard I did know Wayne was incarcerated November 9, 1943 in Graterford, Pa.  A quick search of the internet let me know there was a Graterford Prison, better known as Eastern State Penitentiary, near Philadelphia.  Built in 1929, it is Pennsylvania’s largest maximum-security prison.  That raised my curiosity even more…what did Wayne do?  The next clues came from the letter that actually was dated earlier than the postcard.  The letter is dated September 17, 1938, and Wayne sent it from Harrisburg, Pa.

PA State ArchivesIn February, Pam Anderson from Anderson Construction & Genealogy Services invited me along to tour the Pennsylvania State Archives, with some research time after the tour.  I checked out the State Archives website before we went and happened to see they have state penitentiary records.  On a Wednesday morning we met Mr. Aaron McWilliams, Reference Archivist, for a tour.  The tour gave us an overview of all the information available at the Archives and how to do research there – a very worthwhile tour.

[Thanks to Aaron for providing the photo, taken by Joshua Stahlman, an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.]

After the tour, Pam settled in with the microfilmed tax records and Aaron helped me start my research of Wayne.  Based on the letter dated September 1938, we pulled the microfilm of Eastern State Penitentiary’s intake records.  So while I looked through 1937-1939 intake records, Aaron looked to see if he could find any commutation records.  These are records of inmates petitioning the court to have their sentences reduced or commuted.  These records would have detailed information about Wayne’s sentencing. I had no luck finding Wayne in the 1937-1939 intake records.  However, Aaron came up with a copy of a card where Wayne asked for a hearing with the court. Unfortunately for him, the court refused the hearing.  Fortunately for us, the card gave us the date Wayne made his request which was May 1936.  This date was earlier than we were looking at in the prison records.  So I started hunting earlier on the intake records.  Bingo! Wayne arrived at Eastern State Penitentiary on December 29, 1934, and his inmate number was D-260.

Back to the microfilm to pull the sentencing records for Oct. 4, 1934. With each new find, we got more and more information about Wayne.  The sentencing records told us Wayne was convicted of “Larceny, Receiving Stolen Goods, and Felonious Entry”.  He was sentenced to not more than twelve years nor less than three years.  The earliest Wayne could leave prison was October 1937; he must serve the three-year minimum.  I was thrilled to finally know the how and why Wayne ended up in Graterford Prison.  I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my father.  Dad always wondered about that prison postcard.  I thought I had completed my research.  Surprisingly we were just getting to the good stuff.

(To be continued!)

Michele Wade is a graduate of the Chambersburg Area Senior High School and Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. She has been researching  her family’s genealogy since 1997 and volunteers in the genealogy library at the Franklin County Historical Society. Michelle lives outside of Chambersburg near Ft. McCord with her husband Jimmy, and sons Gus and Jesse.

Franklin County Genealogy Just Got Easier

Last week, the National Genealogical Society’s January-March 2016 NGS Magazine hit their members’ mailboxes. Included in this publication was an article by me, Pam Anderson! As my good friend and mentor, LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson described it, “Cameras in the Courthouse – a model for other courthouses and genealogists to use in developing a camera policy to assist with research!”

NGS Magazine Article 2016

Genealogists from everywhere encounter roadblocks to accessing genealogical records, and making copies of the ones they are lucky enough to find. So I decided to write up my experiences and submit an article to NGS. I enjoyed the collaborative process of working with our courthouse officials and staff to carefully craft a policy that could work for everyone. And they now have a better understanding of genealogy, its documentation requirements and standards. But the best thing was stopping by each office, showing them the final product, and thanking everyone for making it all happen.

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