The Boy Tenor of New England

I wrote the following profile of my grandfather, James P. H. Roane (1895-1960), as a contributor to WikiTree and, I decided to share it (slightly edited) in honor of the 120th anniversary of his birth.

James PH Roane circa 1911James Patrick Henry Roane was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on August 8, 1895, the fifth child, and fourth son of John F. & Mary J. (Donahue) Roane. His mother died as the year 1900 ended, and his father never remarried, leaving James and five siblings to grow up motherless.

His sister Mollie, the firstborn and only girl at 10 years, raised her brothers and kept house for her father. At least one year, 1902,  when school let out, James and his brothers were sent to Baker Farm in Tyngsboro, apparently, a summer camp where boys could experience the natural world, fresh air and clean water (not found in the factory city of Lowell).

Young James played school sports and made his mark as quarterback for the Lowell High football team, following in the footsteps of his older brothers, who were also noted athletes. The amusing nickname, “Roundy Roane” was applied to various brothers, including James, and probably was descriptive of the short, muscular frame which ran in the family.

All the Roane men had excellent voices; their names turn up regularly in newspaper accounts of church choirs, and featured singers at public entertainments and private events. James, however, was the only one to have gone professional. As a teenager, he was a member of a touring company (perhaps, on a vaudeville circuit) and billed as, “the Boy Tenor of New England.” (The photo below may have been taken for publicity purposes.)James PH Roane circa 1907

James also performed close to home, as The Lowell Sun noted on May, 2, 1912:

…riding the crest of a popular wave, scored a tremendous hit in minstrelsy at Associate Hall. Patrons thought the program was the best ever presented by this talented group. Interlocutor was Charlie McKenzie, with Tom Salmon, Ed [?]andley, Joe Clarke and James Roane as end men.

In the 1920s and 1930s, James lent his voice to local broadcasts, which included vocal performances, according to his son. James, Sr. He was also an announcer for sporting events, however, cryptic newspaper comments suggest his style wasn’t popular with all listeners.

James had enlisted in the US Army by 1915 and served until 1919. Returning to civilian life, he was employed as a stock clerk at a machine shop and grew close to another Lowell High alum, Edna Mae Keirstead, a bookkeeper at Union National Bank.

Edna’s parents were Canadian immigrants, and she wasn’t Irish or Catholic, but the young couple shared a common vision. They married in the family’s parish at St. Margaret’s church on May 31, 1921, and left promptly for Lakewood, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland). James had arranged a sales job with the May Company, and Edna got position with the Union Trust Company. The newlyweds’ initial plan didn’t last long, as they returned to Lowell that same year, likely precipitated by the death of Edna’s father in August.

After settling back in Lowell, James thought about becoming an attorney, and earned a degree from Suffolk Law School in 1923, – the year his first child was born, a daughter, Edna Mary Roane. Whether the outlook for earnings from a law practice looked poor, or whether he decided law didn’t suit him, James studied medicine at Harvard University, and in 1924, the year his son and namesake was born, his credentials won him a teaching position in Lowell public schools. His passion for physical education and sports sustained him in a 30-year career, from phys ed instructor at Charles Morey School, to Athletic Director for the Lowell Public Schools at his retirement in 1952.

In the family sphere, James shared his delight in travel, culminating in an episode his daughter described by his daughter more than 60 years later, as their “famous trip” to Texas by automobile.

James also took the wife and kids, every summer for a week or two (some years longer) to New Hampshire at Lake Winnipesaukee, where they swam, fished, played, and socialized, with the scent of pine wafting through the air. Lake.Winnipesauke.c1928 His daughter never forgot those lovely, happy summers.(Above c. 1929: James, Sr. Edna, James Jr., and Edna Mary Roane at Lake Winnipesaukee, NH )

Back home in Lowell, James was member of fraternal organizations that included the Elks. He led or worked on committees that supported a variety of organizational and community undertakings, through which he built life-long friendships.

To his grandchildren lucky enough to have been born before his passing at age 64, in the spring of 1960, James Roane, Sr, was “Baba.”  He left us with memories of his warmth, his sense of fun, and his love.

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Of Cofflins and Rohans

A few years ago I got an email from cousin John O’Connor who had recently cleared out his elderly mother’s Florida beach house. In the process, he came across an index card that most folks would have tossed away without a thought, and, fortunately, John  thought about it. He scrutinized his mother’s  faded and cryptic notations and realized he had 3X5 inch version of 19th-century Iowa family history.

ROHAN-J.OConnor.mom

Image of faded original doctored to make it easier to read.

When he emailed me to see what I could make of it, I was intrigued to learn about the Galway trio of Larry Cofflin, Pete and Rohan! But I was frustrated, too.  This information failed to resonate with anything I knew about our shared ancestry.  John’s forbear was Patrick Roane, the brother of  my John P. Roane. Both men married in Lowell, Massachusetts, but while John stayed, Patrick struck out to obtain newly available government land  in Iowa.

Since my initial confusion, I’m happy to relay, I’ve learned a lot.  I discovered more descendants of the Midwest families, and resources that enabled me, at last, to interpret the notes made by John’s mother, Joanne Rowan O’Connor (1931-2013).

In 1950, a book came out that was written by Leo Ward,  a Monroe County, Iowa native and priest, titled, Concerning Mary Ann. It is a fictionalized account  of the life of his grandmother, Mary Ann (Coughlin) Murray (1859-1957),  and the Irish Catholic settlement known as Staceyville. Ward wielded elements of history, language and character to evoke a unique time and place, – and tells a good tale with authenticity.

However, the first name on the card about Rowan history, is “Larry Cofflin,”  who was Mary Ann’s father. Then, though I’ve found documents using Roane, Roan, and Rowan variant spellings, the only place I’ve found “Rohan,” is in Leo Ward’s book. I believe the excerpts below show that the first lines came straight from Concerning Mary Ann.

            “ON a lovely Autumn day in 1857, the sun hazy in the sky, Larry Cofflin…was en route from Boston to Iowa… as his train of an engine and two coaches steamed and puffed its way out of Chicago and across the top of Illinois and went with the sun toward the Mississippi…

“In his native County Galway, the Potato Famines had hit hard. No fooling about it, no escaping it. The Famines hit people in the stomach. All over Ireland, when it was averaged up, half the people died during and following the Famines of 1846-48

“He had good companions, too, …two sandy-haired, neat-set-up men of his own age were Pete and Ed Rohan. …they were from the same townland with him in Ireland, townies of his…so alike were they in the firm square shoulders, the loose-built bodies, the florid round faces, alike even to the snore. “Brother and brother, twins for it,” thought Larry… With Larry Cofflin they were of one mind, headed west with him to take up land in golden Iowa.”

I believe that well researched fiction can inform us about lives and times of our ancestors. However, even if we know real people inspired characters in a book, it is a mistake to accept those accounts as fact, without careful examination. We are lucky today to have online records easily available that help sort truth from fiction.

Ward’s book describes bachelors traveling together in 1857, but we have documented that Patrick Roane married in 1853 and came to Iowa with his wife and daughter.  But we have strong evidence that Lawrence Coughlin, Patrick Roane and Edward Roane were in league together for on June 3, 1856, each received patents on parcels of abutting land from the Chariton Land office. Census records from 1870 until 1900 show Lawrence Coughlin and Patrick Roan families occupied neighboring farms, but Edward Roane is absent.

However, it is not surprising that Mary Ann Coughlin remembered the names, “Pete and Ed Rohan.” They belonged to her generation of immigrants’ children. The book describes times she shared with the same-age friend, Rose Anne Roan. She was Patrick’s daughter and had brothers, Peter (1863-1942) and Edward (1868-1928). There was also, a set of twin boys, Edward and Lawrence, born to the younger Edward in 1905. These fellows just happen to be brothers of Pierce “Pete” Rowan, whom Joanne O’Connor identifies as her father.

The index card is decoded as part truth and part literary legend, with some mysteries yet to plumb (Were the two Roanes were really twin brothers? What happened to the elder Edward Roane?). And thus did Joanne Rowan O’Connor succeed in passing on a priceless bit of tradition for her children and grandchildren.

When Quitting Solved a Mystery

My father taught us that Irish Americans should be proud and sing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” every St. Patrick‘s Day. Because  the genealogy bug me didn’t bite until long after his death, I hardly knew more than that about my Roane roots. For help, I wrote the only elder Roane I knew, “Uncle Paul,” who was, unbeknownst to me, my dad’s cousin. Paul Roane, Senior graciously provided all the names and dates he knew. He even created hand-ruled trees. So I learned the founder of my paternal line in Lowell, Massachusetts was John P. Roane, who  died on November 28, 1869 when he was 38 years old.

Armed with sketchy facts in living memory, I dove in and harried city clerks and librarians in places far and wide. I fleshed out the Lowell families. I contacted and reconnected with “lost” cousins.  However, I was confused by my inability to document that precise date of John P. Roane’s death.

I pictured my ancestors as typical specimens of the 19th-century poor and struggling who were drawn to the world-famous mill city. In 2003 I made a pilgrimage to the consecrated ground of St. Patrick’s Cemetery that held so many weary Irish bones. I prepared myself for the possibility there was no Roane marker to see, knowing stones were (and are) expensive, but after making inquiries, an administrator marked a map, handed it across the counter, and waved me cheerily out the door.

Two minutes later, I stood flabbergasted. An embarrassingly immodest granite monument rose up from the Roane family plot (photo below). Okay, I’ll push  aesthetics aside; the discovery must be assessed within its historical context. During the Victorian era, ostentatious displays told beholders you were successful. Though my Roanes always lived in working-class dwellings (some still stand), – in death, they communicate a powerful desire to be remembered as people of substance and importance. But I digress.

Photo of the Roane monument at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Lowell, MA

Roane Monument at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Lowell, MA

Beneath a crown with a cross thrust through it, carved into the polished stone, you can read:

JOHN P. ROANE

DIED NOV. 28, 1869

AGED 38 YRS.

ERECTED BY

MARY O’NEIL

DIED MARCH 24, 1919

AGED 83 YRS.

Here was the reason John P. Roane was not forgotten, but he wasn’t buried here. This plot was purchased in 1894, 25 years after his death. Frustration flooded over me. I’d searched in Lowell, other towns and cities, in state repositories and online databases with no result.  I still had no death record, no funeral notice, no obituary. I burned to know exactly where he came from, what happened to him, and why. But that day I couldn’t think of a place I hadn’t already looked. John P. Roane’s end and origins were lost to history and it was time for me to move on.

I shifted my research focus to John’s widow, Mary Hurney. She moved on with her life by marrying a Civil War veteran named Patrick O’Neil in 1873. The remarkable Mary out-lived him, too. (In fact, Mary out-lived all but one of nine children and every one of her 13 siblings).

Head shot of Mary (Hurney) Roane O'Neil (1836-1919) from a group photograph taken in Lowell's Marion Studio around 1913.

Mary (Hurney) Roane O’Neil.

Patrick O’Neil suffered a myriad of debilities arising from his military service. Doctors declared him unable to work and he collected disability payments in his last years. After he died in 1896, Mary applied for her widow’s benefit.

The federal government used fill-in forms for these applications, so when I ripped into the NARA* file, I was surprised to find pages of handwritten testimony. Like any claimant, Mary had to prove that a US soldier was dead and that she had been his wife. Mary produced death records for Patrick O’Neil, his two former wives, and a marriage certificate. Legal difficulties arose because Mary had no death record for first husband, John Roane.  She needed sworn witnesses to the facts surrounding John Roane’s death. Then WHAM! it felt like a lightning strike** when I recognized the surnames, JONES and HILLARY. I read…

I was a cousin of the John Roane who was the first husband of the above named Mary O’Neil and went to Ireland with him…

Bits of information I’d collected over years, but could never tie in, began falling into place…. Witnesses at baptisms were often relatives…  There was no death record, because John did not die here.

…That before leaving Lowell he was in ill health and the physicians recommended a sea voyage and… that he did not meet with the health that he thought he would derive from the change and constantly grew worse…

Tuberculosis (TB), also known as consumption, or phthisis, was the scourge of the Roane family and remains a potent killer. Before Robert Koch discovered its cause in 1882, treatments included the ‘work cure’ (eating basic food and performing manual labor in the outdoors). And if you had money enough, you might take the ‘travel cure’ to experience a restorative change in climate.

I can’t know that John Roane had TB, but he was treated for an ailment like it. Though a grocery store owner since 1859, at the birth of daughter Sarah in 1868, John gave his occupation as mason ( hard labor). Then the cousins’ testimony that  they accompanied him to Ireland in the of spring 1869 fits the pattern of TB ‘cures’ of the time.

These facts we know because we were intimate with him and with him constantly until he breathed his last…and was buried in Colmanstown, Galway Co. Ireland.

Lastly, a cousin told me Aunt Mollie said the Roanes came from Athenry…  When I searched online for  Colemanstown, it turned out to be a tiny settlement. The nearest town to it is Athenry.

And so a genealogy mystery was solved in a way that reminds me of a stargazing trick. If you stare straight at some celestial objects, you cannot see them at all.  However, when you avert your vision, that is, look slightly side-wise, – they magically pop into view.

——-

*This cemetery was referred to as the “Cath yard” by Yankee record keepers.

**National Archives and Records Administration

***Lightning did strike Patrick O’Neil, – but that’s a story for another day.