Before our regularly scheduled programming, a distant cousin inadvertently helped me break through a brick wall this week. She sent me a link on familysearch.org to the probate records of my great-great-grandparents. This got me thinking I might find the records for my other great-great-grandfather as well. And I did. 30 pages worth, including his hand-signed will. In it he named his legatees, and they included the Smith cousins I despaired of ever finding. As I mentioned here, they were the only descendants of my great-great-grandfather James except for our line. Turns out there were three, not two, and I was able to trace them all up to the present day. Only one had children, and one of her sons (now 91) is still living in New Jersey. Very exciting.
OK, now for today’s real story. It’s in part a story of World War I, a rare war in which virtually nobody in my family served. As I look around my tree, one generation was too young and their parents too old. This week’s subject, my great-grandmother’s cousin, was an exception.
As far as I know, the first of my Irish ancestors to come to America was Matthew Ennis, my 4x-great-grandfather. He arrived in New York, with his aunt, cousins, and siblings, on a ship from Belfast in 1825. He was about 13 at the time and presumably (or at least effectively) orphaned. About ten years later Matthew married Anna Doyle, who also had come from Ireland to New York as a child. They settled in an Irish neighborhood on Manhattan’s East Side (in the 30s), where Matthew was a liquor seller.
James Ennis, from what I have seen, graduated from City College of New York in the 1860s. That would almost certainly make him the first college graduate among my Irish families. He also served in the Navy during the Civil War (his brothers served in the Army) and in the late 1860s married a woman, seven years older, named Elizabeth Seferen. Her parents had founded Seffrensville, Nova Scotia, where she was born. It seems her father, William, was English-born. He fought at Waterloo and was then sent to Nova Scotia by the British Army. When he mustered out there, he stayed and established a village.
James and Elizabeth Seferen Ennis bought a brownstone near Gramercy Park, then as now a fashionable neighborhood, and operated it as an upscale boardinghouse. They had two sons, named Matthew and James Seferen Ennis, and a daughter named Elizabeth for her mother, followed by three children who died just after birth. Their older son, named Matthew after James’s father, became a lawyer. He never married but lived to be 75 years old, spending his whole life in Manhattan. They named their second son James Seferen Ennis, the first name presumably being for his father and the middle name for his mother’s family.
James Seferen Ennis and his wife Katherine eventually settled in a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, not far from Central Park and on the site of today’s Lincoln Center. There they had four children, three boys and a girl, in a span of just four years (1894-1898). During this time James Seferen Ennis’s mother, the original Elizabeth Seferen, died and James S. signed her death certificate himself. All of the children were given the middle name “Seferen” in her honor. The firstborn son was named James Seferen Ennis Jr., the youngest child, the girl, named Elizabeth Seferen Ennis, which was exactly the same as her grandmother’s married name.
James S. Jr. had plenty of prominent company at Yale. In his class were future Secretary of State Dean Acheson and writer Archibald MacLeish. MacLeish would spend much of the 20s as an expatriate in Paris, and in the late 1930s was named by FDR to run the Library of Congress, with his specific task to spearhead intellectual defense of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s plan to seek a third term in defiance of tradition. Another classmate was Douglas Moore, who won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for music. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who had received a Bachelor of Divinity from Yale in 1914, received a Master’s degree in 1915. James S. Jr. had two fictional 1915 classmates: Tom and Nick from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Those just ahead of him included C. Montgomery Burns of The Simpsons fame (Class of 1914, pictured below), but also real people like Averell Harriman, the future diplomat and New York governor, and musician Cole Porter (both Class of 1913). Just below the Class of 1915 was future General Richard K. Sutherland (MacArthur’s chief of staff during WWII) (Class of 1916). The Class of 1917 included Charles P. Taft II (future mayor of Cincinnati and son of President William Howard Taft), Prescott Bush (future Senator from Connecticut; father of George H.W. and grandfather of George W. - thanks for ABSOLUTELY NOTHIN'), and Cassius Marcellus Clay. This Cassius Marcellus Clay was one of a long line with that name at Yale. His great-grandfather was a prominent Kentucky abolitionist for whom Louisville natives Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., and his son Cassius Marcellus, Jr. - later to take the name Muhammed Ali - were named. (The most recent Cassius Marcellus Clay dropped out of Yale in 2010 to be Kanye West’s personal fashion adviser. Times change.)
His passion seems to have been literature. After graduation he returned to his parents’ home in New York, taking courses at Columbia (where his brothers were undergraduates) and teaching a course in the English literature and poetry. He also served as a private tutor in New York City and (during the summer) Southampton, which had replaced Long Branch as the beach resort of choice for well-heeled New Yorkers.
In late 1916 James S. Jr., who spoke French and loved France (we have that in common), enrolled in a Master’s program at the Université de Toulouse. The north of France was embroiled in bitter trench warfare, killing millions, but this sunny southern city was far from the front. James S. Jr. did, however, have a young French friend who was fighting for his country. That friend wrote him, “Oui, sans doute, je sens profondément que je porte une mission dans la vie. Mais il faut agir à chaque instant comme si cette mission se remplissait immédiatement.” (“Yes, without a doubt, I feel deeply that I have a mission in life. But I must act at each instant as if that mission were being carried out immediately.”).
James S. Jr’s choice of service was unique: he enlisted as a private in the aviation brigade of the signal corps. Remember, this was only thirteen and a half years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk. Nobody had yet flown nonstop across the Atlantic, and Lindbergh would not fly solo across the Atlantic for another decade. The first use of airplanes in war had taken place only six years earlier, in the Italian-Turkish war fought in Libya. The planes used in World War I were very flimsy compared to today’s fighter planes, and most technological improvements in aviation had taken place only in the previous five years or so.
Perhaps the poetic James S. Jr. was inspired by flying aces like the Red Baron, who were viewed almost as modern-day knights. Perhaps he knew as a child the first American flying ace, Francis Peabody Magoun. Magoun was a fellow New York City native, born seven months after James S. Jr. He graduated from Harvard the year after James S. Jr. graduated from Yale, and talked his way into the British Royal Flying Corps, where his exploits became legendary. He managed to get in by saying he was Canadian but the records had been lost in a fire.
In any event, from August to October 1917, as the Bolsheviks were seizing control in Russia, James S. Jr. attended the School of Military Aeronautics at MIT. He graduated near the top of his class and was sent to Nova Scotia, his grandmother’s birthplace, to train with the Royal Flying Corps. In early 1918, he was sent to complete his pilot’s training at Camp Hicks in Fort Worth, Texas. There, in late April 1918, James S. Jr. was commissioned as a Lieutenant. He longed for an assignment to France, where his younger brother Frank already was serving as a flight commander, but it was not to be. He was named a flight instructor instead and remained in Fort Worth.
On May 2, 1918, only one week after receiving his lieutenant’s commission, Lieutenant James Seferen Ennis, Jr. died at Camp Hicks when his plane went into a nose dive from 150 feet in the air while he was coming in for a landing during a training exercise before visiting military dignitaries. He was six weeks shy of 24 years old. His student, 32-year-old Cadet Paul Herriott of Oakland, California, also was killed. Herriott, who had played football at Cal Berkeley, was a well-known former assistant to the Progressive Republican U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson. He had only been at flight school two weeks.
I am consoled in many ways, but principally in discovering that aviation affords one of the most painless as well as satisfactory means of exodus that there are. There is nothing fearful about it—no horror, no nastiness, no “long-drawnoutedness.” It is as splendid as the fall of Icarus, as golden as the wildly careening chariot of Phaeton, as gentle as the death of a swan. In it “the great gift, sleep” has no harrowing prelude.Perhaps, as his plane fell from the sky, he recalled and believed the words he had written after his earlier crash. But the thought brings me little solace. Today there is little trace of James S. Jr.: a granite grave marker, a few newspaper articles, an obituary or two in books about Yale men in the Great War, and a collection of his letters to his parents and brothers held in Yale’s Sterling library.
James Seferen Ennis Jr. too might have become a great scholar and a father, but he never had the chance. Like that of his sister Elizabeth, his was a promising young life cut down far too soon in a freak accident.