12 October 2012

Stephen R. Barnes (1942-1947) - Never Forgotten

Stephen R. Barnes
(1942-1947)
 "East Boston Boy Playing 'Holdup' Killed by Trolley,"
Boston Globe, 17 Dec 1947, p. 4, cols 3-4, photo inset.
I have a sad story to tell, but though it entails much sorrow, it ends with healing and hope. It is of a rather sensitive nature, but I want to write it down for my family, so that Stephen will not be forgotten.

Tomorrow will be a solemn but special day for our extended Barnes family members and for one little boy whose fifth birthday was his last. Just before Christmas in 1947, Stephen Russell Barnes, like his three brothers, like most kids, was very wound up in anticipation of a visit from Santa Claus. So when his mother sent him and his older brother David outside at dusk the boys wandered down the street to a busy Boston intersection. David, only seven himself, could not have prevented what happened next. According to witnesses, Stephen, forming his little hands into imaginary pistols, began to play 'stick 'em up" with the trolley driver. I imagine he thought he was a cowboy holding up a train in the Old West. Tragically, the driver did not even see him and the child was crushed to death, almost instantly.

From that moment a huge rift was created in our family which was so deep that many of us had never even heard about it. Being a genealogist, I had of course asked about the children of my grandfather's brother. I knew one personally––my mother's Cousin Ruth, and I had asked her a few times to share the story. Finally, on June 12th, 1995, she phoned me, specifically to talk about her mysterious brother, Russell. I was surprised that she shared a bit of the story, though she was very sad and hoped I would keep it confidential. [Forgive me, Cousin Ruth!] She said only that Russell was a "black sheep" had led a somewhat bohemian lifestyle, and that he and his wife had lost a child due perhaps to negligence, perhaps to alcoholism. She thought Stephen had been killed by a trolley car and that the family had lived in Boston, but she couldn't recall the date. Following the accident, her parents and siblings fought among themselves and her brother disappeared. I noted the story in my genealogical files and left it alone.

Thanks to the distinctive name of my great grandfather, Israel Merritt Barnes II, descendants of this lost branch have reconnected with the main Barnes family. One of my second cousins appeared at her uncle's funeral (Israel Merritt Barnes IV) in 2005, and another wrote to me in 2009 in response to a blog post about my Barnes ancestors.

In 2010, partly to welcome to these new relatives, we held a family reunion in Scituate, Massachusetts, and for the first time I met some of my long lost cousins. The details of the tragic aftermath of Stephen's death started to emerge from what had been a hazy story. The surviving children were removed from the home and sent to separate foster care homes. They saw their mother maybe one more time and their father only rarely. They had no knowledge of their ancestry except that they were related to an Israel Merritt Barnes. Russell went on to marry again and had three more children.

I wrote a blog post after the reunion which yet another cousin found. His dad is one of the three sons given up to foster care, and while his dad sat next to him we chatted on Facebook. I determined right there the ancestry of his mother, Margaret, and he described the tears running down his father's face as he learned about his family. They provided me with the name of lots more relatives and I had more fuel for research.

So I found Stephen's death certificate, then a newspaper account of the accident, and much later, another account of how his mother sent the children outside because she was expecting delivery of a Christmas bike. The family story, though vague, was pretty much true. And Russell and his wife Margaret did the best they could. I never found what became of Margaret, but haven't really spent a good deal of time in pursuit. I certainly did not find her in the Massachusetts deaths. Her father and brother died in Vermont, and one family member said she may have gone to Maine. But that will be for another time.

Barnes Family Reunion, 4 August 2012, North Scituate, Massachusetts
Turns out our black sheep has lots of descendants! When we held another reunion just a few months ago, the same young man I had talked with on Facebook traveled up from Texas! Children and half-siblings of the other brothers attended and shared their stories and you could almost hear the pain dissipating with every sigh.

So we are reunited as a family. And without exception we mourn the loss of little Stephen, who, in the turmoil after his death, was almost forgotten. Except in the minds of his three brothers. When our Texas cousin went to Mt. Hope Cemetery in Mattapan to visit his uncle's grave, he found no headstone. So the family has raised funds to have a gravestone carved. And tomorrow on what would have been Stephen's seventieth birthday, we will gather for a small ceremony at his graveside where it will be installed. I hope that Stephen will rest in peace and that his close family members will also find peace in knowing that he is not forgotten.

Gravestone of Stephen R. Barnes, photograph courtesy of Ruth Yarborough