The Family Portrait: My Genealogy Rabbit Hole No. 1

Normally, I would post this rather personal essay on my other blog, Remembered  Summers.  My interest in old photos had largely to do with dating them, since dated pictures of ordinary people’s clothing are important to fashion research. That’s how I fell into genealogy research. Caution: This one is long, personal, and sad.

“I was just trying to….” You know where that leads online: you start looking for a simple answer that will “close the file” on an unidentified photo or a distant relative you don’t really care about — and months later you emerge, a wiser but sadder family historian.

Seriously, I can’t say I am happier for the things I am learning. Today, I’m writing about a photo that took many weeks — spread over several years — to identify.

My Mystery Photo: Family photo with one person (at right) missing

I had a satisfying moment this week: my detective work was confirmed when I found a duplicate of my mystery photo in a historical collection online! It was an “unidentified family group” — and I was able to tell them who those people were. Finding it was especially gratifying because the copy in the San Mateo County Historical Society’s possession was complete, while mine had one person cut out of it.

But identifying that photo — with one person scissored out of it — couldn’t be done without also discovering why my mother, and my grandmother, and my aunt never talked about those relatives. It wasn’t a story you would tell a child; it is a story that makes me sad.

My great-grandmother, Catherine (or Katherine or Katharine) Kiernan (or Kernan) Lipp. Photo circa 1870s. She was born in New York City in 1852.

I wrote some time ago about “meeting” my maternal great-grandmother when my Aunt Dorothy identified her photo for me.

Dorothy seemed surprised — almost shocked — that I didn’t know who this woman was: “That’s grandmother Lipp!” she cried.

But how could I know? She died over two decades before I was born, and we didn’t have family pictures on the walls in my parents’ house. Dorothy herself died many years ago, but the photo she put a name to has enabled me to recognize Catherine Lipp (the spelling on her tombstone) as she ages in other photos.

Studio carte de visite. Her costume looks late 1860s to early 1870s to me.

Catherine Kiernan Lipp in old age.

Her voluminous skirt with straight waist and fabric pushed toward the back says “later 1860s” to me.

She married William Henry Lipp in the early 1870s, and her first child, William Henry Lipp, Jr., was born in San Francisco in June, 1873.

The photograph of Katherine with a group of her children was taken by photographer James Van Court in Redwood City, California, 27 miles south of San Francisco., where the Lipp family eventually settled.

Catherine with her youngest child, detail, studio photo by James Van Court, Redwood City. Catherine has a comb in her hair, but she was probably too busy — with six children — to do her hair in an elaborate style.

First Clue to the group photo: The name and location of the photo studio is on the back.

Back of Lipp family photo: “James E Van Court, Redwood City”

I found a marvelous book which can be previewed online: Pioneer Photographers of the Far West, A Biographical Dictionary. It said, “Van Court, James Edward (1841–1923) Photographer; active San Francisco 1864–84; Redwood City, Calif., 1884–95.”

That gave me a date range for the picture: “Redwood City, 1884 to 1895.” All I had to do was figure out when Catherine Lipp would have had six children whose ages and genders matched the children in this photograph.  BUT: what about that child who had been scissored out of the picture? The “coffin shape” of the missing piece seemed ominous. And I had learned that one of her sons died by suicide….

First: who was the boy in a grown-up suit (complete with watch chain?)

Her is dressed like a grown man, but he’s barely a teenager.

The number of Lipp family members buried in the Old Union Cemetery in Redwood City is extensive.

Boys born to Catherine Lipp were William Jr. (in 1873,) Charles (in 1888,) and Robert, born in 1901.  Robert was not yet alive between 1884 and 1895, so he’s not in the picture.  Charles would have been only seven by 1895. Therefore, the boy in the suit is William Henry Lipp, Jr. He would have been a grown man (over 20) by 1895, so this picture must have been taken in between 1884 and 1890. Probably closer to 1884.

Another clue is the baby on its mother’s lap: possibly not old enough to sit by itself.  There is another child, a toddler, holding a ball: Two children born less than  30 months apart.

But the clues that that really helped were the girls’ hats! The girl at top right and the girl beside Willie are holding identical wide-brimmed hats.

Two proper little ladies with their matching dark straw hats.

Finally I saw part of the third hat — which must have been in the hand of the missing child: another girl.

A third hat means a third girl!

In 1885, Catherine had 6 living children: William (born June 22, 1873;) Lillian (born July 4, 1875;) Alice (born Jan. 10, 1878;) Maud (born Nov 21, 1879;) Sarah Elizabeth (born Dec. 25, 1882;) and Fannie (born Nov. 10, 1884.) I think Summer or Fall of 1885 is the probable date of this photo.

The missing girlchild is my wonderful grandmother, Lillian! Presumably my mother or my aunt wanted to put a picture of their mother in a locket or separate frame, and cut out her image. The coffin shape that disturbed me was purely an accident.

Trying to verify that the Van Court photo was taken in the studio rather than the Lipp home, last week I scrolled through hundreds of Van Court photos at the San Mateo Historical Society’s online collection. And I found a perfect copy of my photo:

Photo property of San Mateo County Historical Society Museum. I have inquired about purchasing the blogging rights, but COVID closure seems to be causing a delay.

William Henry Lipp, Jr. as a boy. He would have been 12 in 1885.

Alice would have been seven going on eight in Fall of 1885.

Alice Clarissa Lipp, almost 8 years old in Fall, 1885.

Maud Adeline was born in November of 1879.

Maud Adeline Lipp would have been almost six in Fall, 1885.

Sarah Elizabeth Lipp, holding a ball, was born on Christmas day, 1882.

Sarah Elizabeth Lipp was not yet three in Fall of 1885.

Baby Fannie Louisa was born in November 1884.

Baby Fannie Louisa was almost a year old in Fall, 1885.

My grandmother, Lillian, born in 1875, is the one cut out of the picture.

My maternal grandmother, Lillian Lipp Barton. She’s about 10 here.

Why was someone so cavalier about ruining the group photo? Probably because seeing these other children made her sad. Or she never knew them.

My great grandmother changed from this clear-eyed beauty …

Catherine Lipp, about 20 years old.

… to this sad and exhausted woman.

Catherine Lipp in her sixties.

What I didn’t know, until this research, is that the worst thing that can happen to a parent had happened to her. And it happened over and over and over again.

Her two eldest children lived into their seventies. William Henry Lipp, Jr. took over his father’s ice business in 1898, when the older man retired.

William H. Lipp, Jr. with his niece Vera, whom he raised. After 1910.

Oldest girl Lillian, born on the fourth of July 1875, was my wonderful Grandma Barton.

Left, Lillian Lipp Barton in 1949 at my birthday party. She kept house, gardened, attended Whist parties, walked downtown for lunch with friends, baked a pie every Saturday and a cake every Sunday. Her home was a refuge for me — orderly and calm, where no one ever shouted or said cruel things.

But…. Only William and Lillian can be said to have lived happy lives.

Catherine’s family grew quickly. Alice was born in 1878,  followed by another girl, Maud, in 1879.

In October 1881, Catherine’s fifth child was born, but died at 2 weeks, without being named.

Sarah Elizabeth came along in 1882, followed by Fannie in 1884.  Those are the six children in the photograph, which I have dated to late in 1885.

On January 31, 1887, Catherine had twins, Blanche and Mabel.

On October 20th, 1887, Blanche died, and Mabel died seven days later. They were 9 months old.

On January 3, 1888, Sarah Elizabeth died. She had just turned 6.

Sarah Elizabeth circa 1885.

Five days later, on January 8, 1888, Maud died, too. She was 9.

Maud circa 1885.

[Those who don’t appreciate 20th century vaccines and antibiotics should think about how quickly those four little lives were lost — between October 20, 1887  and January 8, 1888.]

In August of that terrible year, Catherine’s next son, Charles Harrison Lipp, was born (Aug. 18, 1888.)

In 1891, a third son, Robert Edward Lipp, was born (April 27, 1891.)

In 1893, Lillian, the eldest girl, aged 18, married my grandfather, Clarkson Bigham Barton (who was usually called Charles.) Eventually four healthy children arrived — the youngest being my mother.

In 1894, Catherine had her last baby, Sarah Frances Lipp (July 8, 1894.)

In 1895, grown son William H. Jr married Barbara Miller; in time they had a baby boy, Everett. The marriage didn’t last. (Barbara remarried in 1904.)

W.H. Lipp, Jr. and his baby son were living with his parents and younger siblings in the 1900 census.

In September, 1900, Catherine’s grandson Everett died of scarlet fever. He was three.

William eventually married again, but had no children.

Catherine’s grief was not over.

Alice Lipp circa 1885.

Daughter Alice grew up and married August Moosbrugger, a Russian emigre who became a naturalized American citizen in 1904. Their daughter Vera had been born in May, 1902. In 1908, suffering from a serious illness and perhaps worried that he would be a burden on his wife and child, August went into a bar where he had formerly worked and shot himself in the head.

Alice struggled to find work, but by the 1910 census Vera was living with her uncle, Will Jr., and his Danish wife, Marie.

Marie and William Lipp, Jr. with his mother, Catherine, and her grand-daughter, Vera Moosbrugger.

Vera’s  mother, Alice Lipp Moosbrugger, died in Agnews State Mental Hospital in 1921.

Alice Lipp circa 1885. Died 1921.

Charles Harrison Lipp committed suicide in 1912. He was almost 25, and recently married.

Robert Edward Lipp worked for his family’s Ice Company.

Robert Lipp driving one of his family’s ice trucks in 1915.

In 1913, his quick thinking and bravery made the news:

San Francisco Call article, Feb. 17, 1913.

It was a shock to find Robert’s WW I draft card; he was exempted from service in 1917 because he was “Insane.”

WW I draft card for Robert E. Lipp. He was a patient at Agnews State Hospital.

Robert Edward died in Agnews State Mental Hospital in 1917. He was 26.

Catherine Lipp’s husband died in 1919. In the 1920 census, there were just three women living in the family home: Catherine (right,) Fannie (left,) and Sarah Frances, (center.)

The last three Lipp women at the family home.

Fannie Louisa was working as an accountant for the family business in the 1920 census.

Probably Fannie Louisa Lipp, photographed with her younger sister and mother.

But she died in Agnews State Mental Hospital in 1923.

Probably Sara Frances Lipp, before 1920. She was born in 1894.

Sarah Elizabeth was admitted to Sonoma State Hospital for “feeble minded children”  in 1921; she died and was buried there in 1928.

Of Catherine’s 12 children, two survived to a healthy old age. Five died in childhood. One committed suicide. Four died in mental hospitals.

And this is where my search gets personal. Discovering this information, which was never mentioned in my family, casts new light on my attempts to know and forgive my own mother. Her death, when I was nine, released me from years of misery. I have never grieved for her, never missed her. I remember her as a bitter, jealous, angry woman who poured her frustration and unhappiness into my ears from the time I understood language. She wanted me to love her, and only her. Everyone knew how much she loved me, how proud she was of her only child, born when she was forty, after twelve years of marriage. Everyone believed she would never hurt me — physically.  She drove me to tears almost every day, cursing, saying awful things about my father — which, I knew, she wanted me to repeat to him. Part of her frustration was that I refused. How could I say I loved only her, when I wasn’t allowed to lie? When I was very young, I once said to my mother, “I love Grandma.” From the shocked look on her face, I knew I must never say that again. Later, on the few occasions when I tried to hint to adults that being alone with her had been torture, they said, “It’s a shame that you never knew her when she was really herself.” I wasn’t sure what that meant.

Now that I know her family history — that many of her aunts and uncles suffered from mental illness — I have to consider that she may have been clinically ill, and unable to control herself. And if that is true, then it should be easier to forgive her…. I’m working on it.

My mother and me, 3rd birthday.


Filed under Uncategorized

25 responses to “The Family Portrait: My Genealogy Rabbit Hole No. 1

  1. Mary B.

    This touched my soul. I send you love and light from my heart. Thank you for this post, it’s important.

  2. lisa

    I just re-read your post on your father. You were so lucky that he was the surviving parent to give you so much support and love! Thank you for sharing how you tracked down your mom’s history.

  3. For some reason, I cant comment, but I hope this reaches you. My family genealogy search has had some similar findings. My mother is still alive…my father thankfully is long gone. So many people think that ancestors are just the happy stories. Telling the whole story, while difficult, is far more important. It let’s us know, I think, that we are not the first to suffer these maladies. I for one, am not only grateful for vaccines and antibiotics, but also antidepressants and mood stabilizers, which have allowed my generation to escape so much of the grief of the past. Laura Lake (When I have commented, it comes up as woolly woman, from a long ago knitting blog)

    • Yes, we live in an amazing age of medicine. I remember children and adults with “withered limbs”: polio. It’s also good that we can recognize mental illnesses as no more the fault of the sufferer than any other biochemical disease.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story. I feel a pain that may be similar. Beginning in my early twenties, I was a target of my mother’s anger and unhappiness. It was severe enough that I did not speak to her or see my parents for four years. I chose to end the separation, and she did continue to target me, though not as severely. Later in her life, I came to realize that she had most likely lived for much of her life with an un-diagnosed mental illness. As an only child with no cousins, I inherited all the belongings of all of her family, four of whom, including my mom, were compulsive hoarders. Like those on TV. (I, thankfully, am not, though I did learn habits of saving. I have a fabric stash!) Reading through family journals, I saw patterns of tortured thinking that ran through family members. A significant feature of my own journey is the way I am alone with it. I have no living family and they had all died before I could speak to anyone about this. It’s now 15 years since my mother died, and I am still wrapping my head around what it means to have been raised by a likely mentally-ill mother. I am also still working on forgiving her. For me, it sometimes helps to think that her mis-treatment of me may have been caused by an illness that she bore alone. I am sending love to you, witness2fashion.

    • The moving response to this post shows how many of us share memories that need to be dealt with… and mutual support even across the miles has been wonderful. I know forgiveness is a must. Understanding more helps. We can’t change the past but we can change the future. Love to all who have shared their stories and sent kind wishes.

  5. Lateboomer

    Sometimes there is much tragedy involved in discovering family history. I am glad you shared this post, thank you.

    • I’m grateful for your comment. I used to think most genealogists were hoping to find a famous ancestor, but I’ve learned to respect the painstaking local histories some restore to us. The folks who transcribe tombstones and type old records into databases are inspiring.

      • Lateboomer

        Absolutely agreed! I have been a genealogist for a couple of decades now, and two years ago broke down a shocking brickwall involving my great-grandfather, and several years before that was able to trace and document tragedies regarding a great-aunt, her daughters and granddaughters. That particular branch of my tree, now without any living survivors, was fraught with tremendous loss, and this post struck a nerve for that reason.

      • You must have done some work that requires great perseverance. Especially when you recognize that it’s leading you down a dark path. Congrats on breaking through those brickwalls.

  6. Thank you for this very moving piece which brought me to tears.

  7. a very moving piece – really thought provoking. I can see a look to Katherine, she reminds me of older ladies I knew growing up (in Ireland – but perhaps that is also that Kiernan is an irish surname) – she must have had a strong character indeed to endure so much.

    • Yes, i really knew nothing about her before. Her husband had a long, interesting obituary, but i dont have a reliably identified photo of him. His parents brought him to California during the 1850s gold rush. I think of them as “economic emigrants” . They returned to the East Coast, but he stayed in San Francisco.

  8. Very moving and I am sure hard to write. Two of my great great aunts were institutionalized in state hospitals too in New York state.

    • One of the disturbing things is — aside from limited treatment options — is that people might be institutionalized for things we would not consider mental illness today. Especially women…. thanks for telling me about your aunts.

  9. Susan, what a sad story. But it also brings hope that you can learn to forgive your mother.

  10. I was instructed by my mother to never look for her birth mother, who ‘ran off’ when she was a baby. My mother was raised by relatives who were emotionally abusive and only took her in to get money from my grandfather. My mom learned to be a kind human being on her own, though she was never very warm, she tried very hard to be so. I don’t know you personally, but given your generosity with knowledge on this website, I’ll wager it is hard won and well done. Thank you and know you are appreciated.

    • You are very kind. Sometimes we think everybody else had a TV sitcom childhood, but that’s just because we don’t know enough about them. Once we start to share stories we find a lot in common.

  11. Oh dear. How very very sad.
    I think, that even if your mother wasn’t actually mentally ill, surely this secret familiy history would have an impact on her as well as on all the members of your family. It is heartbreaking to think of Catherine, but the most terrible thing is, I often think, that children are so very powerless and at the mercy of their parents, who would try to get it right, but very often aren’t coping well at all. It is a comforting thought, that we all grow up. Of course, then the hard work of sorting it all out starts. All my good thoughts for you!

  12. ceci

    What a painful story and how brave of you to share it. You display such empathy toward your mother, its truly inspirational. Thank you.


    • You’re kind. The fact is, I have spent my life trying not to be like my mother in any way.. That led to some good decisions, and some very bad decisions. At best, I can try to be fair….

  13. You are strong to be able to unravel your family’s past, identify illnesses and confront it head on. I do believe that helps break the cycles, as you have committed to do. Thanks for all you share with your readers.

  14. Heidilea

    I read this a while ago, and it made me very sad for your great-grandmother all the way down to you. I remembered it when I recently went looking into my paternal grandmother’s history (because I knew very little and she died when I was a toddler), and found a very terrible tragedy of her parents when she was 6 weeks old, that basically set the tone for the rest of her life. Mental illness runs strong from that side of the family, it seems. She had a breakdown after her adoptive mother/aunt died, ironically when my father was 6 weeks old, and was institutionalized on and off for the next several years. My father and uncles suffered for it, and he has inadvertantly passed on the trauma to me and my younger siblings without even realising it. I have no children, so I can only break the cycle with myself, and perhaps help my younger siblings.

    Thank you for sharing your post. It helped me see that I’m not alone and neither are you.

    It’s also weird to be tabbing through newspapers in 1920, scrounging for bits of information, while admiring the fashions in the advertising. But, I guess that’s what happens when one is a historical fashion enthusiast. 😛

    • I am amazed and grateful to you and everyone who wrote to share their stories about generations of struggle. Some have pointed out that we can now treat many mental conditions that destroyed lives and families in the past. Good for you for choosing to be positive. Perhaps it’s true that “a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.” And it’s great to meet others who love old magazines and old advertisements and those glimpses into a different world!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.