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As I’ve learned more about my ancestors I’ve also taken some time to follow the branches of the tree down, learning about their siblings’ descendants. I’ve come across some interesting stories; this is part of a recurring series of diaries about distant cousins I never knew.

I hesitated to post this diary because it's a sad Christmas story. I'm posting it in memory of the people concerned, and to remind everyone of what is most important at this time of year, and always: life, health and family. We should all count our blessings and remember to persevere when bad things happen. I'm posting it today since I'll be away the rest of the week, and since today is the anniversary of the events described.

Before starting the story, a brief tangent. A couple of weeks ago, GFHC member Lady Libertine made an excellent suggestion: that GFHC run a diary about asking older family members about their lives and their knowledge of the family while they're still here. I heard a lot of stories from my grandparents, but got into serious genealogy research too late to ask any of them about all the new things I've discovered.

This year I've found old cards, letters, address books, etc. in my grandparents' house (which for now is still in the family) that contained information it took me weeks of research to locate. Had either of my grandparents been around to ask, they could have saved me a lot of time, broken through many of my still-remaining brick walls, and told a lot of stories to bring the people to life.

The older relatives I still have around have done just that. My mother's oldest sister is the only of my great-grandmother's grandchildren who knew her. By asking her for her stories, I've learned a lot about this previously mysterious figure.

I raise this now, though not in a full diary, because so many of us will be seeing relatives this week for Christmas. If you do, take advantage of the opportunity to talk to family members, especially the older ones. In many cases they will love being asked. You - and everyone else present - will learn a lot. We never know when it's going to be too late, so I encourage you to take the time now if you haven't done so already.

And to everyone, Merry Christmas!!!

Last week I wrote about <Darwin Vaughan, my great-great-grandmother’s second cousin, who died at Gettysburg, and his young widow and baby daughter who lived together for the next six decades. This week’s story is about Darwin’s youngest brother Earl and his family.

Earl Vaughan, named after his father, was born in Taftsville, Vermont on February 4, 1847. Darwin and Earl’s mother, Hannah Perkins Vaughan (a first cousin of my 3x-great-grandfather Lyman Perkins) was nearly 40 at the time Earl was born. She and her husband had had six prior children, though not any in the previous six years.

Earl was ten years younger than Darwin, and in his teens when Darwin married in 1861, moved to upstate New York, and died at Gettysburg in 1863. When Earl was about 20, he moved to southern New Hampshire for work. There he met Lela Brown, whose father was a carpenter. Earl and Lela married in New Hampshire in 1868, when he was 21 and she was 19. With her family, they moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts. (Lela’s parents, originally from Groton, Mass., had moved back and forth across the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border several times).

On September 23, 1870, they had a son in Fitchburg and named him Darwin Vaughan in honor of Earl’s fallen brother. The next five years brought two more moves between Fitchburg and southwestern New Hampshire, and two daughters: Lela was born in Fitchburg on Nov. 9, 1872, and Edith in Winchester, New Hampshire, on Nov. 10, 1875. By 1880 the Vaughan family was back in Fitchburg, but in 1888 they lived in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts
The Vaughans' home in 1888, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
Jamaica Plain is a neighborhood of Boston, but when the Vaughans moved there that was a fairly new development. Only in the mid-1870s had the separate town of West Roxbury, of which Jamaica Plain was a part, been annexed by the City of Boston. Today the neighborhood is very diverse and one of the most liberal in Massachusetts; a large gay and lesbian population and a growing number of young professionals live alongside the area’s traditional Irish-American community and large Puerto Rican and African-American population. It’s a place where I have friends, lived briefly myself, and generally spend a lot of time.

In 1888 Jamaica Plain was a quiet “streetcar suburb” populated mostly by native New Englanders moving out from Roxbury and Boston’s South End. The only non-Yankee residents then were a handful of Irish down near the horse car barns and gas company plant on the southern end. This is where the neighborhood’s first Catholic parish, St. Thomas Aquinas, was built in 1869 (Mayor Kevin White was baptized here and it was James Michael Curley’s parish in the last years of his life). The Vaughans lived at the other end of the neighborhood, near Jackson Square.

December 24, 1888 should have been a very happy day for the family. Not only was it Christmas Eve, but it was Lela and Earl’s 20th wedding anniversary. Instead, unspeakable tragedy befell them. Young Darwin, their only son, and Edith, their younger daughter, were drowned while ice skating on Jamaica Pond, a brisk 15-minute walk from the family’s house. Darwin was only 18, Edith only 13.

Jamaica Pond, Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts
Jamaica Pond in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts
Young Darwin's death record, Boston City Hall
Young Darwin's death record, Boston City Hall (cont'd)
Their bodies were not recovered from the pond until December 26, meaning the family spent Christmas Day waiting in horror. In the meantime, another young man, William Fischer, was drowned ice skating in the Back Bay neighborhood four miles away, on Christmas Day. Ice skating seems to have been a dangerous proposition in Boston that holiday season.

Darwin and Edith were laid to rest in Leominster, almost 50 miles northwest, where their mother’s family had a plot.

Darwin & Edith Vaughan grave marker
Darwin & Edith's final resting place in Leominster, Massachusetts
The Vaughans, who had moved so many times before, didn’t move away this time. In 1900, over a decade later, they still lived only a couple of blocks from where they lived at the time of the tragedy. Like many Americans, they periodically moved farther out from the central city, first to the next-door Boston neighborhood of Roslindale, and then to the woodsy suburban town of Westwood. But Westwood is only ten miles from Jamaica Plain.

Their only surviving child, Lela Mabel, was sixteen when her siblings drowned. She married just after 1900 and had two daughters, so Earl and Lela did get to see grandchildren. Earl Vaughan died in 1915, 26 and a half years after he buried his eldest and his youngest children. Their mother, Lela, lived almost another 20 years, dying at the age of 85 in 1934.

Lela Mabel, the only child who survived, had many grandchildren of her own (both daughters married and raised families) and died in Westwood in 1950. As I understand it, a fair number of descendants still live in that area today. Darwin and Edith’s parents, and their sister Lela Mabel and her husband, all were buried beside them in Leominster.

I can’t imagine how Earl and Lela found the strength to carry on and I wonder if they ever were anything close to the same. I can only surmise they never again had the same feelings about Christmas or their anniversary. Losing a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a parent, and to lose two children at once, so young and so suddenly, on what was supposed to be a happy occasion, must have been awful. I wonder if Earl thought about his brother Darwin, for whom his son Darwin was named, who also died too young in tragic circumstances.

I also can’t imagine how Lela Mabel, who suddenly found herself an only child, felt. What was the reason she didn’t go skating with her brother and sister? What were the ripple effects down through the generations? Were her parents overly protective of her after their tragic loss?  Was she overly protective of her own daughters? Did she feel guilty? Lucky to be alive? Both? I have a brother and a sister, and though I might have wanted them gone at times when I was 16, I would have been devastated by anything like this happening.

Next week we will look to the future as we celebrate another new year. But this weekend I celebrated the past. I went over to Jamaica Plain and looked at the pond, around which I used to go running. I thought of those two young lives that ended there, that never were completed. I walked past the house where the family lived at the time. It’s more than 130 years old now, but was a brand new house when they lived in it. And as I walked the last route Darwin and Edith would have walked, I offered a silent prayer for them. They are not forgotten, and I hope they and all those who loved them are at peace.

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