Family Myth 1: Peter and Elizabeth Collins

My sister and I are the remaining members of our immediate family.  Usually she remembers what I have forgotten and I do the likewise for her.  Sometimes we remember the same event differently, based upon many different factors–family placement, what impacted one or the other individually or our emotional baggage at the time.  It is valuable to have another viewpoint to flesh out an event.

For all the family history I did not witness on the maternal side of my family, I have over forty years of family letters written by my grandmother and saved by my aunt.  My grandmother lived in Denver and my aunt lived in New York.  Fortunately, they were skilled and avid letter writers, so when my aunt passed away, my mother brought the letters back to Denver and now I have them.  My aunt  and my mother were intrigued by our family’s genealogy and they encouraged my curiosity.  I have inherited their work and I am building on it, with a firm  resolve to complete the family tree as best I can, as well as write a family history to go with it.  So, let me begin with this story.

Mary Egan Horne Rockfield in a studio pose 1890s

Mary Egan Horne Rockfield

My maternal grandmother was a great storyteller.  My sister and I would sit down on either side of her begging,  “Tell us a story, Grandma!”  Sometimes she would share a fairy tale memorized from an old book that I now cherish.  Other times she would launch into a family story.  We were very young children then, so we never thought of writing down the stories or asking pertinent questions when we didn’t understand something.

At times Grandmother’s stories included people we didn’t know, only discovering later on that she was sharing tales of her husband’s raucous childhood.   My grandfather died four years before I was born, so anything I know about him came from his wife (Grandma), my mother (his daughter) and the few letters preserved by my aunt.  Other stories came from my grandmother’s childhood.  They were intriguing as well, giving my sister and me a glimpse of the olden days.

I realized later on in life that my grandmother tended to exaggerate or embellish her stories.  She did it in her letters too,  as well as her oral storytelling.   At times I wish I was more like her!  One of the reasons I don’t write fiction is that I am very grounded in the truth,  even if it is boring compared to a lovely embellished detail.   Great storytellers and stand-up comedians know the value of  shaping a tale into something funny, interesting or tragic—even if it doesn’t exactly match the events as they actually unfolded.

Two years ago I made a discovery that explained where my maternal grandmother may have inherited her bit of the ol’ Irish blarney–her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Collins.  Peter and Elizabeth Collins were my second great-grandparents.  The emigrated from Ireland before the potato famine and eventually settled in Columbus, Ohio.  My mother and I knew very little about them except their names and the fact  they were the only Catholics in our very Protestant lineage.  In 1950, my Aunt Louise wrote to her mother, requesting information about the family.  Here is the reply she wrote concerning the Collins grandparents.

Edward Pearson Horne & Mary Agnes Collins

Your Grandfather Horne’s people came from Cincinnati, Ohio, and were what you term well-to-do people.  He was born in Philadelphia.  His father died when he was very young and his mother was counting on making a fine, educated lawyer out of him, but he ran away.  He lied about his age and joined the army and when he married a Catholic girl, then she was through with him and it broke her heart.  Also, my Grandfather Collins was wealthy.  He owned a large brick yard and did contracting work.  He built many of the largest homes in Columbus, Ohio.  He died during the awful epidmic of cholera where people dropped by the dozens hourly and he came home for his noon meal, finished eating, went out to sit under a tree in the backyard to rest before returning to his office and was seized with an attack and died before a doctor could arrive.  Their home was a beauty, a 14 room brick house with great white marble mantels in up- and downstairs rooms and great stone steps in front with a high iron picket fence.  It was a show place all on its own.  Grandmother Collins sent her three daughters to a private girl’s school in Cincinnati.  There were none in Columbus good enough for her.

A little over two years ago I was able to visit the genealogical library in Columbus to research the Collins family.  Searching church records, city directories and indexes, I finally found information about Peter Collins.  He had died in 1855, but was buried in the Irish and Polish Catholic cemetery, not the wealthy German Catholic church.  I was directed to a court case involving Elizabeth Collins and her children.  Her husband was not the owner of a brick yard–he worked in one making bricks that went into all the fine houses.   He died destitute.  Bankruptcy proceedings were brought against the Collins family and they were evicted from their home.  It was not on Naughton Street.

Further research revealed that the Edward P. Horne family was living on Naughton Street in the 1880s, in a boarding house managed by Elizabeth Collins.  The house with the marble mantels, great stone steps and iron picket fence had fallen in status and become a multi-family living establishment.  Was my grandmother lying? Was her grandmother lying?  Was my grandmother remembering differently, based on her emotional state of mind or her youth when she heard this story?  The fact that her story and the facts I discovered were so different from each other became the most interesting aspect of this piece of family history.   It explains so much about my grandmother, my aunt and my mother: their firm belief that they were so much better than their circumstances.  The pretensions on the maternal side of my family lasted into my generation, until my sister and I both ran headlong into it as teenagers. Part of our story is the many ways in which we broke free.

Sadly, my second great-grandmother lost her life on the iron picket fence that surrounded the grand old house on Naughton street.  A quail startled the horse she was riding and threw her on to one of those iron pickets.  When she died, my grandmother was eight years old.  What I know of the  circumstances of Mary Agnes Collins Horne’s death are based on a story told to me by my grandmother.