Skip to main content

Before our regularly scheduled programming, a distant cousin inadvertently helped me break through a brick wall this week. She sent me a link on 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.

Matthew Ennis, the first Irish immigrant in my family, in the 1857 New York City directory
Between 1837 and 1844 they had four children: Joseph, John, Catherine, and James. I am descended from their daughter Catherine, about whom I wrote briefly earlier. She grew up and married a butcher who, like her father, emigrated out of Belfast as a child. Like Catherine, her brothers each remained in New York City all their lives, but they had very separate paths. Joseph never married and lived with his parents. John, about whom I’ll write more in another diary, became a fireman. The youngest brother, James, did pretty well for himself, and this is the story of his grandson.

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.  

Calvary Cemetery, Queens, NY
The fading gravestone of Matthew and Anna Ennis, erected by their son James, in the old Calvary Cemetery in Long Island City, New York. Their eldest son Joseph, James's brother, also is buried here.
At the age of nineteen James Seferen Ennis graduated from Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. His specialty was laryngology and he would become a professor in that subject at Fordham University. James S., as I’ll call him, married a woman named Katherine Breen, whose parents had come from Ireland in 1863, only a few years before she was born. This young couple were somewhat socially prominent; in 1894 the New York Times reported their arrival at Long Branch, New Jersey in the society pages. Long Branch in those days was a beach resort favored by the well-to-do; only thirteen years earlier President Garfield, who like Grant summered there, had died in Long Branch after being shot in Washington.

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.

The young Ennis family in the 1900 Census. Two of the four children would not live to see twenty-five.
Tragedy struck this prosperous young family in the first days of 1902.  The children, then aged 3 to 7, were upstairs next to the Christmas tree on the 6th of January, playing with their recently-received presents. According to the New York Daily Tribune of January 11, 1902, their mother called them down for supper and the boys all came but little Elizabeth, the youngest, did not. She stayed behind to play with a new toy locomotive. To make it more like a real locomotive she forced a candle into the engine funnel and lit it with a match. Her dress caught fire and she screamed for help. Her youngest brother, James S. Jr. , was first to hear and ran to extinguish the fire, but not before Elizabeth was burned on her chest, arms and face. Her father treated her and thought the burns were not serious, and Elizabeth’s condition improved. Two days after the fire, however, she suddenly became very nervous and could not be calmed down. She died two days after that, in her father’s view more from the shock than the burns.
The New York Herald covers Elizabeth's tragic death, January 11, 1902
In the face of this tragedy, the James Seferen Ennis family persevered and continued its climb up the ladder. In particular James Seferen Ennis Jr. (“James S. Jr.”), born June 16, 1894, appears to have been an exceptional student. He graduated early from the public DeWitt Clinton High School in New York, then studied at the Clason Point Military Academy in the Bronx, then took preparatory classes at two Jesuit colleges (Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. and Canisius in Buffalo, N.Y.). Finally, James S. Jr. entered Yale in its Class of 1915.

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.)

Perhaps a friend of James Seferen Ennis, Jr., at Yale
This was not the crowd any of my other ancestors were frequenting in 1915. Not even the Sons of the American Revolution ancestors, who were all poor farmers in Vermont. My sense is that Yale in those days had less prejudice against Irish Catholics, while President Kennedy’s father Joseph (Class of 1912) was largely ostracized at Harvard. In any event, James Seferen Ennis Jr. appears to have done well academically at Yale. As a junior he was awarded second prize in Latin, and as a senior he was given honors and an oration appointment.

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.”).

Universite de Toulouse (Capitole), France
The Université de Toulouse, where James S., Jr., studied French literature in 1916 and 1917
On April 2, 1917, the United States entered the Great War on the side of France and Britain. James S. Jr. immediately presented himself at the American embassy in Paris, wanting to join the U.S. Army. He was told he could only do so by returning to the United States. Soon James S. Jr. was on a ship home, and in June 1917 he enlisted.

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.

The New York Times reports James's death, May 3, 1918
James's write-up in the Obituary Record of the Graduates of Yale University, 1917-18. The University held a service to commemorate its war dead on June 15, 1919. James would have turned 25 the next day.
James Seferen Ennis Jr. was buried with his Ennis grandparents and young sister at the Catholic Calvary Cemetery (“New Calvary” or “Calvary II”) in Queens, New York. In time his parents and uncle Matthew would be laid to rest there beside him. Shortly after he died, his commanding officer wrote his parents: “Your son was considered one of our best instructors and always had great success with his pupils. He was well liked by all who knew him, and his sudden death is deeply felt by all his comrades.” Saddest of all is that he might have died because he was too good a pilot: had he not been chosen to serve as a flight instructor, he might have survived the war in Europe, which ended only six months after his death.
Calvary Cemetery, Queens, NY
James is buried in Calvary Cemetery (II) in Woodside, New York, with his sister, parents, paternal grandparents, and aunts and uncles who died young.
Perhaps not, though. It was not the first time James S. Jr. had been involved in flight-related danger. Two months before he died, during his second week in Texas, James S. Jr. had been involved in a five-thousand foot freefall that broke his plane into splinters. Miraculously, he survived intact with no memory of the landing, and wrote his parents:
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.  
Yale University Memorial to those of Yale who died in World War I
Yale's memorial to its World War I dead. I used to work just down the street from this memorial, which is in front of the Commons, one of the world's most architecturally appealing cafeterias. The names of the Great War's major battles are carved into the facade.
Names of Yale war veterans inscribed where Commons and Harkness Hall meet.
Where the Commons meet Harkness Hall, near the monument, the names of Yale's war dead are carved on these walls. James's name is here somewhere but at the time I worked there I never had heard of James Seferen Ennis, Jr.
Both of James S. Jr.’s brothers survived the war and lived long, prosperous lives. They married and had children. But it is his fellow World War I aviator, the Harvard grad Francis Peabody Magoun, who reminds me most of what might have been. Magoun, like James S. Jr., loved literature. Shortly after the war he was named a professor at Harvard, where he stayed for more than four decades. Magoun married, had four children, and became a prominent scholar in English and medieval literature, as well as other topics like Finnish naming traditions (somebody here may be an expert as well!). He lived to be 84.

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.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri May 10, 2013 at 09:33 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Shamrock American Kossacks.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site