Arecent front-page article in USA Today noted that Americans have become obsessed with the question “Who am I?” Via pay-per-swab genetic testing, ordinary folk can find out whether or to what extent they share genes with, say, Neanderthals or Denisovans. Or they can take a more conventional path by signing up with a genealogy website to learn if all those stories about their weird great uncle are true. They can also watch Genealogy Roadshow on PBS and go to their local public library’s history room to crank microfilm in hopes of solving the identities of ancestral figures posed in a cache of old photographs found in the detritus of a house-moving episode. Why do we care who those sepia wraiths were in life? Because we suppose they can answer that basic question about ourselves.
It seemed that way to me, anyway. During the past decade, most of the members of my parents’ generation have gone to their respective rewards. Only then, it seems, did my two brothers and I realize how little we knew about them, about their immediate forebears, or, in a way that was hard to define, about ourselves. We three are very much alike in some ways but not others. Hair color, small hands, artistic ability, and bad knees are not equally shared among us, for instance. Beyond the physical, however, are the temperamental and the cultural, where we’re more alike than not. Why? How? And what about those tales dusted off by relatives at odd moments, never to be explained or repeated? That husband who ran off to the gold rush, never to be seen again: Was he really, as some claimed, “hanged for a horse thief in Texas”? We three were particularly intrigued by mention of the imperious mother-in-law, my paternal great-grandmother, who insisted on being addressed as “Ma’am” at all times, even by her own children.
One of the photographs that came to light in the basement of our father’s boyhood home was carefully framed in an elaborate 1920s style. It answered the description of the formidable “Ma’am” in her mature prime. She was glossy and big—broad of beam, ample of bosom, with an open gaze, a knowing smile, and strawberry blonde hair that might have matched my own. But her costume is the extraordinary feature of the picture, with its alternating fields of richly embroidered flowers and its lush variety of translucent and opaque fabrics, all set off by an impressive brooch at the high neckline. This was a woman who knew fine clothes and wasn’t afraid to wear them.
Starting from the address of the basement where Ma’am’s picture and several others turned up, we worked backward through the city directories of Rochester, New York, to Alice Veronica Gilligan Marling’s birth, in 1859, to the numerous and highly adaptable Gilligan clan of St. Joseph Street in Rochester’s old Sixth Ward. The U.S. Census data for 1860 note ten little Gilligans in the household of the Irish-born John and wife Mary. Alice Veronica, the Ma’am to be, was just four years old when the government enumerators called. But Alice’s life, along with the adventures of John and the rest of the family, vividly conveys the emerging character of a cosmopolitan, industrial city created in the wilderness of western New York State by the coming of the Erie Canal in 1825.
John Gilligan was something of a surprise to me. Who knew we were Irish? Born in Boyle, in Roscommon County, Ireland, blue-eyed, dark haired John arrived in the United States after several years in Canada. (The border was porous as late as the 1960s, when I hitchhiked back and forth with impunity.) John’s own father, Owen Gilligan, also harbored conflicting allegiances to his native soil and the valley of the Genesee River. According to his obituary, he came to America to fight alongside the Americans in the War of 1812, but went home again with a Quartermaster’s rank in 1815. For the last 14 of his ninety years, however, Owen Gilligan lived with his son John, a tailor, and his growing family, in the St. Joseph Street house. Until recent times, clothing was a key industry in the local economy, centered in the city’s northeast quadrant in a residential neighborhood for cutters, stitchers, and pressers, many of whom were German and Jewish immigrants. Less often remembered is the large Irish contingent of “tailors” and “dressmakers”, which included John Gilligan and several of his children.
Like most of his age cohort, John Gilligan got caught up in his generation’s watershed event: the Civil War. Last year’s observances of the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg aroused particular interest in Rochester because of efforts to win a posthumous Medal of Honor for Colonel Patrick O’Rourke, another Irish-born Rochesterian and commander of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry. (O’Rourke died in a valiant charge at Little Round Top.) No such honors were contemplated for John Gilligan, who at the time of his death in 1877 was described as “a tailor by occupation but a politician by choice.” He was an “ardent” Democrat, the Deputy Collector at the Port of Genesee, a friend of Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward of Auburn, New York, a party organizer in the 6th Ward, and a sometime school commissioner. But in August 1862, in his mid-forties, John Gilligan enlisted in Company K of the 140th as a mature private.
Truth to tell, he was not much of a soldier. His good nature, wit, and gift of gab kept his comrades entertained as the troop train crept toward Washington, but slight of build and just shy of five feet and six inches, he could barely hold a rifle to aim it. In war stories trotted out later to amuse his friends in local taverns, John freely admitted that long sitting on the tailor’s bench had increased the size of his rear quarters far beyond those of the average Union private. On the story went, describing the torrent of sweat dripping from his face as he struggled to keep up with the line of march. Finally, collapsed beside the campfire, he sang this little ditty: “Bechune Ha-a-arper’s Ferry and Schnicker’s Gap fo-r-rty pounds of poor Gilligan’s fat were worn away.”
In October 1862, Lieutenant Ira Clark, adjutant of the 140th, compiled a list of deserters subsequently published in Rochester’s Daily Union and Advertiser. John Gilligan’s name was among them, and not until December did Clark correct himself. Gilligan and a companion had indeed slipped out of the ranks to scrounge up something to eat; Gilligan was arrested and detained at Harper’s Ferry as a suspicious straggler. But it was all a big mistake, Clark told the papers: “I am happy to be able to say that” John Gilligan was “really guilty of nothing in the shape of desertion.” The tale of his dereliction of duty and ultimate exoneration came uncorked for years to come at gatherings of John Gilligan’s friends and his numerous family.
A portrait of the current members of the clan taken during the late 1890s, long after John’s demise, shows five of the surviving Gilligan sisters (Alice at the upper left, with Ellen, Winifred, Amelia, and Elizabeth) and their handsome brother, Tom, a professional entertainer cut in the pattern of their garrulous pa.
The visual center of attention is clearly Thomas Michael, one half of the celebrated stage duo of Gilligan and Gilday. Known throughout “the West as a theatrical producer . . . minstrel . . . dancer . . . and comedian”, according to the Rochester press, Tom became a local celebrity by virtue of regular bookings at some of the best-known theatrical venues of the day. Beginning his career in New York City’s Atlantic Garden, Tom went on to headline at the Bella Union in San Francisco and the American Plaza in San Antonio. “The Two Mikes”, as Gilligan & Gilday were known, presented a program of vocal numbers in the Irish style, an acrobatic pantomime, and a barrage of one-liners alongside other notable acts of the era, including Miss Lottie Elliott in her great “skipping rope” specialty and a skit called “Somnambulism” featuring the famous actor John Gilbert and assorted members of the company.
The Bella Union opened in the mid-19th century as a gambling den and saloon that also fronted minstrel shows. Until it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, the very roughness of the place was part of its appeal. The atmosphere was ribald and pungent. A bevy of handsome women only added to the allure. By the 1880s, however, variety or vaudeville shows began to reform themselves. In New York City, for example, impresarios advertised “clean” shows and barred liquor sales on the premises. In Rochester, the “Two Mikes” entertained at local theaters offering “good” variety only.But show business in general continued to carry with it more than a whiff of naughtiness and flimflam. Retired from the stage around 1910, after the death of James Gilday, Tom Gilligan atoned for his wayward youth by doing benefits drawn from the old act, accompanied by himself on the piano, in parish halls across the Catholic diocese of Rochester. He died in 1925, after a reminiscent celebration of his wedding anniversary at which Tom had uncorked the old act for one last performance. The happy actor bid a fond goodnight to his family, went off to bed, and died in his sleep.
With Tom’s last, rollicking party, a family history with some depth and verve began to take shape. It is a history that seems more than a little exotic to a 21st-century, newly retired ex-academic (namely, me) who never marched off to war, insisted on titles of respect, or became a star of stage and screen. Nevertheless, bits and pieces of the Gilligan story correspond to para-genetic, or at any rate family-wide, propensities for storytelling, public speaking, and an outré fashion sense. These qualities are distributed liberally among the current generation of Gilligan offspring raised on Rugby Avenue in Rochester during the 1950s. What’s missing from the story shared by my siblings and very distant cousins is context: specifically, how Rochester played its role in all this.
Rochester, the little city on the shores of Lake Ontario, was the 20th largest in the United States in 1862, the year of John Gilligan’s enlistment in the Union Army. When I was a child, the placid and prosperous corporate home of Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb graced the town. It was also a place where nothing interesting ever happened. At any rate, that was the premise of Smugtown USA, a cautiously satirical analysis of the city self-published in 1957 by Curt Gerling, a gadfly of respectable local stock whose quarrel with Rochester was the well-heeled conformity that subdued a colorful and not-quite-respectable past.
“Where were the Gilligans?” he might have been asking. What had become of Rattle Snake Pete’s bar/museum/snake pit on Mill Street, where their like gathered to tell tall tales of past adventures? Gerling’s critique of my hometown’s colorless present impressed my teenage self, and shortly after reading it with great delight, I decamped for school and didn’t come back for more than forty years. In the meantime, however, Rochester was shocked out of its complacence by a race riot in 1964, the demolition of a trendsetting downtown mall built to stave off the flight to the suburbs, and, as of this writing, the demise or flight of its major trademark industries.
Perhaps I’m in flight, too, into the past, wondering whether there is anything left of the Gilligans’ Rochester. How did they fare in this place that holds their graves and the merest hints of their personalities? I live where they once lived. I walk the same streets. I occupy the same kind of four-square American house in which they once raised their families. I’m here now, asking: Who am I?
Rochester boomed in the years after the Civil War. Before that watershed event, the city had developed first along the falls of the Genesee River and the viaduct of the Erie Canal. The water of the falls ran the machinery for more than thirty flour mills. And when the Canal itself helped to shift the nation’s wheat fields into the west, in the 1870s, Rochester still managed to export a million barrels of flour a year. But other industries soon competed for prominence in the business district. Rochester supplied the shoes for the Union troops. Some 42 tailors and dressmakers flourished, too, and when the sewing machine arrived clothing became a major source of paychecks for hourly workers in factories, and for pieceworkers, laboring at home, who often brought finished collars and cuffs to the clothing factories in baby carriages.
The four-story, skylit Reynolds Arcade, built in 1828, was an architectural marvel of the age and was for several decades the largest and most costly building west of the Hudson River. It was here that fresh casualty listings were posted during the Civil War. The Arcade was also the headquarters of Western Union, a consolidation of various telegraph operations under the guidance of Hiram Sibley, the leading Rochesterian of his era and founder of the first important industrial monopoly in the United States.
A sort of Victorian-era internet, the telegraph spurred the growth of railroads and financial markets and brought news (and a single standard of time) to every corner of the nation. The operators themselves heralded the birth of a new social class soon to be typical of large corporate bodies. Many of them Irish-American offspring of blue-collar workers, telegraphers rose near to the status of white-collar professionals, the earliest members of a nascent lower-middle class. Most of them were young, unmarried, and speedily educated in short courses at for-profit business schools. Their average wages were no higher than that of their fathers, but telegraphers were expected to spend much more on fashionable clothes and polished shoes; they aspired to genteel office manners, often learned from mail-order etiquette pamphlets.
The ideal telegrapher was a modern Adonis in spiffy duds who was well versed in the latest diversions, from palm reading to the doings of vaudeville luminaries to new crazes in ballroom dancing. The rising social status of telegraphy soon created a chronic oversupply of labor, however, particularly when women gradually filtered into the ranks. Falling wages led to early unionization. Operators in pursuit of better jobs became chronic nomads; telegraphers acquired the reputation of here-today-gone-tomorrow types, decorative but prone to flightiness. Perhaps not surprisingly, telegraphers became heroes and heroines of fiction and film; one popular serial was titled “The Hazards of Helen.”
Enter Thomas Vincent Marling, in a velvet coat, a floppy poet’s tie, and a bat-wing collar. He, or someone close to him, thought enough of his gentlemanly good looks to have his tintype portrait colored by hand. That, anyway, is how he presents himself as a gentleman of fashion in his formal wedding portrait, taken in the 1870s, in a bower of artificial flowers, with Alice Veronica née Gilligan at his side. The date of the marriage is unclear, as are most supposedly hard facts about T.V. Marling himself. He first appears in Rochester city directories between 1873 and 1877, described as a telegrapher working in the Arcade and living in a nearby boarding house. The 1878 census shows him “removed from the city.” Baptismal records from St. Bridget’s Church state that Alice was baptized there as an infant in 1856. Judging by the birthdate of the eldest of her five children (Marie, born in 1877), Alice’s wedding seems to have taken place in 1876 or 1877; in 1900, she claimed to have been married 23 years before.
What happened between the wedding and Alice’s sudden appearance in titillating stories splashed across the headlines of newspapers from Rochester to New York City in 1890 is largely a matter of conjecture. Alice, presumably, was tending to a growing family. Marie, Thomas Austin, Margaret, Anthony Clarence, and Joseph Vincent were each duly listed by the census takers as they joined her household. In the meantime, however, Thomas Vincent became just plain Vincent—and more than his first name disappeared.
Although the records are sketchy, it seems that Vincent Marling simply moved on down the line. In 1881, he was in St. Louis, listing his telegraph office as his place of residence. In 1915, he turned up as a single man living in San Diego, where he died in July 1940. Between his exit from Rochester and his demise, there are hints of his presence in Iowa and Ohio, where at least one of his sons thought he had been born.
Alice moved, too, from one rented dwelling to another in the low-rent district to the north and east of the burgeoning Rochester downtown, with her brood in tow. She sometimes boarded with her brother Tom or her mother. On Holland Street, Mark Street, East Avenue (rear), North Street, Meigs Street, and, finally, in a tiny hovel at the back of the lot at 99 Gibbs Street, she steadfastly described herself as Mrs. Alice Marling. And her profession, she insisted, was “embroiderer.”
Now, embroidery, the decorative needlework that was a necessity of 19th-century women’s fashion, was not a lucrative calling. Alice’s daughter Margaret, my father’s “Aunt Marge”, who identified herself as a “seamstress” in official documents, patiently taught me the finer points of the art for a Girl Scout merit badge (and a lifetime hobby). Indeed, most of the female members of the family were self-described tailoresses or seamstresses and many of the men, including American founder John Gilligan of course, were tailors. There were fifty or more custom apparel shops in business when Alice’s father joined the Union Army, along with an equally vigorous trade in mass-produced leather goods. Until World War I, when the demand for luxury sewing of all kinds dried up, embroidery was the chief handmaiden of the tailoring trade. And, as already noted, the production of fine clothing was one of Rochester’s leading industries.
The trousseau of a wealthy bride was a needlecrafter’s bonanza of tiny rosebuds and curlicue patterns scattered over nightgowns, lapels, pillowcases, and household linens. Even young women of the lower orders prized bits of handmade embellishment for their collars, handkerchiefs, and “best” tablecloths. But embroidery was piecework, sweated labor most often performed in the home. It took patience, skill and good eyesight, yet it seldom did those paid by the tiny pink rosette make a living wage. Their pay amounted to what was called “pin-money” or pennies for days of drudgery. Jacob Riis, in his famous expose of the conditions facing the “working girls” of New York City in the 1880s, singled out Irish immigrant women on the East Side—girls who had learned embroidery at their mothers’ knees—as victims of an outsourcing system that often forced children (like my Aunt Marge) as well as adults to work from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. to make ends meet. With an absent husband and many mouths to feed, Alice Marling was a one of Riis’s victims, a poor woman and, in the parlance of the day, a “grass widow” whose involvement in a violent incident with an amorous charlatan must have seemed altogether fitting for one in her precarious social position.
The principal Rochester daily of the period, the Democrat and Chronicle, was never one to pass up a lurid tale. In 1900, amid notices of a forthcoming speech by local women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony and a student production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the University of Rochester, were strewn red-meat stories of mayhem and bloodshed. There was the “sensational tragedy” in Syracuse, where a man slaughtered his wife at the door of a church. There was that unfortunate fellow in Batavia “roasted to death” in an industrial accident. A lynching in New York City, a suicide who jumped off the new Brooklyn Bridge… it never ended. All these features and more, from April and May 1890, paled before the pistol-whipping of Alice “Marvin” in one of “the most brutal assaults added to the criminal record of Rochester.” “HE LEFT HER TO DIE!”, blared the upper case headline of April 22. The “he” was one Louis Kircher, and of course the “she” was Alice Veronica Marling, a self-styled widow, living with four of her children at 99 Gibbs Street.
The attack, however, took place in a professional office and residence on Joseph Avenue to which Alice went in the dead of night with her assailant. Her own home was described in the story as “a tumble-down rookery that stands back in the yard and presents a forbidding appearance.” It mattered to the anonymous journalist who followed the case that Alice and family had moved there from North Street; the detail alerted the reader to her descent into the lower reaches of society. Surviving photographs of Gibbs Street show a dismal row of multiple dwellings linked by festering alleyways. The city fathers issued periodic calls for a “clean up” but, providentially, most of the buildings were destroyed in a great fire in April 1909 that displaced more than 300 souls. Gibbs Street in 1890 was not a charming neighborhood, either. In a statement to the police, Alice said that on Friday night, April 20, she went to the house next door to care for an aged woman who had taken ill. Kircher called for her there and insisted that she to come to his place “to see some pictures.” Although she at first demurred, the pair finally set off on foot toward the north, arriving at his Joseph Avenue rooms close to 11 p.m.
Once there, she stated, Kircher resumed a familiar demand: “Will you marry me or not?” he cried. Alice temporized. “I will tell you some other time; not now”, she replied. Enraged by her answer, Kircher beat her savagely about the head with an instrument later shown to have been a 32-caliber revolver. He fled, believing her dead. Alice lay “insensible” until 3 a.m. She came to her senses covered in blood. She then leapt from a window, leaving behind a trail of gore behind her, and roused a nearby resident. The neighbors summoned the police, a doctor, and, finally, an ambulance from the Homeopathic Hospital. Examined there the next morning, nurses found a gaping bullet hole in her cheek, powder burns, and seven other serious head wounds. The prognosis was grim: skull fracture, and an uncertain future.
The first reports of the tragedy dwelt upon the woman’s awful injuries and the flight of the perpetrator. But the facts surrounding the life of the victim and her relationship with her attacker soon took center stage. “Mrs. Marvin is known as a widow”, the first report continued, “but it is said that her husband left for Alaska three or four years ago and has never been heard of since, so it is believed by his wife that he met a prospector’s death.” In her putative widowhood, young Louis Kircher, age 23, became a frequent caller at her house and an ardent suitor.
Within days, however, the tone of the articles changed markedly. Although Alice told the authorities that her name was “Marvin”, she was soon unmasked as Mrs. Marling, age 36. It turned out that Kircher had known Alice very well indeed for several years; he spent much of his time in “very close intimacy” with her in the Gibbs Street “rookery.” As the days passed and search for the now-missing Kircher expanded, “it is learned beyond question that Mrs. Marling and Kircher were lovers, and it is quite plain that the two quarreled on the night of the assault. The cause of this quarrel was undoubtedly a child, the father of whom is said to be Louis Kircher.” The terms of a bizarre deal struck between the two then unfolded. Alice was to keep her love-child until February 1, 1902, upon which the baby was to be turned over to Kircher, forever. If it was a boy, he would be called Louis Kircher; if a girl, Alice Kircher.
About a week after these revelations were published, and the New York Times had printed an expurgated version of the story, Louis Kircher’s body was found floating in the Genesee River two miles south of Lake Ontario. A coal barge churned the water and up he popped, to be pulled to shore by an astonished lad. The general assumption had been that Kircher simply eluded capture by hiding somewhere along the river; there had been several sightings of the young man with the sandy mustache and the bowler hat near the local brewhouse. The coroner’s jury judged him a suicide, absent evidence to the contrary. But the inquest disclosed a widespread rumor that Kircher had vowed to “put her out of the way”, and his own mother took the stand to recall her son crying that, “if Mrs. Marling did not keep away from him he would kill her and then do away with himself.”
What proved more interesting than Mrs. Margaret Christian’s maternal recollections of Louis’s demeanor (and Alice’s contrary insistence that she rejected his proposals because of the difference in their ages) was the characterization of “Doctor” or “Professor” Louis Kircher, a self-styled magnetic healer and “artist”, as a phony. Despite a kind of harness for magnetic treatments discovered in his rooms, those who followed the inquest could barely contain their skepticism of his hocus-pocus. Kircher was no doctor. And he was no professor. He was, however, an accomplished liar, born in Germany, and barely 21 years of age at the time of his death.
In Rochester, not unlike telegraphers who learned their trade quickly in for-profit schools, Kircher studied hypnotism, “personal magnetism”, and “occult healing” through a series of correspondence courses. Armed with this training, he took up faith healing in earnest and advertised in small-town newspapers, offering cures for all manner of afflictions by mail. He also published a booklet, sent to prospective “patients”, called: The profession of magnetic healing and what it cost to learn it by Dr. L. Kircher, originator of the Kircher Method of magnetic healing. Some of the journalists who followed the case observed that a boy who lived with his parents in an apartment above Kircher’s “apparatus seemed to be under some strange influence and acted in a peculiar manner.”
By accident or happenstance, young “Dr.” Kircher had chosen the right town in which to ply his peculiar trade. In the late 1840s, in a small hamlet near Rochester, two little girls, Maggie and Katie Fox, claimed to be in communication with the dead by means of rappings made in response to their questions. Neighbors soon gathered to marvel and to pray. By the end of the decade, joined by several additional sisters and cousins, the Fox Sisters had established themselves in Rochester and were giving public demonstrations on the stage of Corinthian Hall, the city’s major venue for both civic and theatrical events. On the very spot where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass had issued passionate appeals for human rights, the Fox girls submitted to various “tests” of their veracity. Sometimes, trustworthy witnesses tied their hands and feet and watched as they summoned up the spirits regardless. Sometimes, well-known religious persons would denounce them loudly for tampering with secrets known only to the Almighty; it was all part of the evening’s entertainment. But their rappings and colorful fits of hysteria became instrumental in the spread of spiritualism, a quasi-religion that insisted on the reality of a world beyond the ken of ordinary life.
Spiritualism, of course, was a fervent rebuke to the rationality of the mundane Rochester of mills and canals. In time, luminaries ranging from Arthur Conan Doyle to Harry Houdini to Thomas Alva Edison embraced a realm of fairies and ectoplasms. In time, the little Foxes—oh so aptly named—revealed that they had made the spirit noises with their double-jointed toes. In the meantime, however, their performances at Corinthian Hall helped to enhance the reputation of upstate New York as the core of a “Burned-Over Region” in which souls glowed with fervor and new religions popped up like mushrooms after rain. They also fostered the popularity of entertainers who could pluck bouquets of paper flowers out of thin air and make sober audience members cluck like chickens. Kircher, the so-called “Professor of Magnetism” and “well-known artist”, who promised in newspaper ads to perform his occult healing via mail order, seems to have fallen somewhere between being another stage hypnotist and an outright fraud.
From the time Alice Veronica left the Homeopathic Hospital until her wake, held in October of 1928 in the parlor of the half-house at 224 South Goodman Street, where she lived with her devoted son Tom (a Kodak employee and the spitting image of his grandfather, John), her dutiful daughter-in-law Louise (a.k.a. Lucy), her grandson Raymond (13 years old, a freshman at Aquinas Institute, and my father), and the baby of the family, Anthony Clarence (Uncle Larry, a musician), she seldom appeared in public. In 1898, a suit she brought against the city “because of a sidewalk accident” got no results.
In 1903, Vincent (or Joseph Vincent) Marling, another son, was arrested with a crony on charges of burglary and petit larceny for robbing a candy store on East Avenue. Their haul? Six bottles of grape juice, seven bottles of Moxie, four other bottles of pop, and eight coconuts. Seven years old at the time of the heist, Vincent died suddenly in 1907, at the age of 12 or 13, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery next to the plot reserved for his mother Alice. Was Vincent the mesmerist’s love-child? Was Anthony Clarence? Did the shadowy Thomas Vincent Marling of the Yukon make brief appearances in Rochester in the 1880s and again in 1890s to sire one or both of them? If anybody knew, nobody told.
Alice kept her secrets and ruled the house on Goodman Street with an iron hand. Tom’s wife Lucy always called her Ma’am and seems to have had little say in the household arrangements so long as Alice lived. After she died, on a blazing autumn afternoon when the builders were banging away on the steel superstructure for a new apartment building rising a couple of doors down the street, she is said to have appeared to Lucy one night, standing by the dresser in her bedroom. “Everything’s all right”, said Ma’am. “Don’t worry.” She took her curiously eventful history with her and vanished back into the darkness.
What is one to make of my ancestress’ chaotic life, lived in a patch of time when Rochester moved from frontier status to the edge of a new industrial culture, a time when immigrant tailors and seamstresses suddenly became cogs in a machine that made camera film in always darkened factories? When Western Union telegraphers dropped in on settled lives and just as quickly dropped out again? When comic stories about a man’s adventures on the field of battle gave way to professional jokesters traveling a national circuit with their stock of skits and patter? When the mother of five (or six) could be mesmerized almost to death by a performer on the fringes of religious hysteria? When a Ma’am might be a Mrs., a great lady, a wage slave, a damsel-in-distress straight off the vaudeville stage, a slum-dweller, a victim, a vampire—or all of these and more, by turns? More like Lady Astor or Theda Bara? I can’t really say. In the end, she’s my great-grandmother, a complicated and unknowable woman, who made a life for herself in a city of great and constant change.
Alice’s surviving children provide the best clues to her character, influence, and personality. I knew them all. Marie, the oldest, always called Doll or Dolly, played honky-tonk piano, giggled as she played, and often toured with Uncle Larry, the youngest, who played the piano, too, and the drums. In later life, Larry traveled with local black musicians and, following his friends into restrooms and lunchrooms in the South, became a genial but totally unwitting freedom rider. He was something of a sentimentalist, too. He gave me my first grownup gift at age 12: a beautiful hand-tooled jewelry box, which I still use today. Aunt Marge, when I knew her, had an invalid husband; her only child had been stillborn. But she, like the rest of her siblings, was always smiling, singing, and dancing. Thomas, Alice’s eldest son and my Grandpa Marling, died when I was young, leaving me only the smell of pipe tobacco and the vision of him in a three-piece suit when he wasn’t at work, as if to symbolize his role as father, grandfather, and respectable head of the Marling branch of the Gilligan clan.
They were, all of them, gentle, funny, generous people who loved one another openly and never failed to amuse the little ones who visited them. In their excellent company, we wandered back in time to hear old Tom Gilligan’s song-and-dance act and John Gilligan’s outrageous yarns. There was no mistaking the vitality and resilience of the Gilligans and of their mother, Alice Veronica Gilligan Marling—their Ma’am.
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