What the Records Can and Can’t Tell Us

Thomas Charles Gaffney (1874 – 1937)
Cora Alice (Terrill) Gaffney (1879 – 1951)
Agnes Evelyn (Gaffney) Johnson (1902 – 1977)

Second of a four part series


When we examine the lives of our ancestors, we depend on records to give us the facts about them and shed some light on why things turned out the way they did. Unless we are lucky enough to find some narrative or know some story about a person, we can be left with more questions than answers as we seek to know him or her better. This is one reason it is so important to record and preserve stories about the people we love.

Thomas Charles Gaffney in a photo strip.
Conneaut, Ohio, circa 1910 – 1920.

When I first saw this photo strip of my great-grand uncle Thomas Charles Gaffney, I was intrigued.  It was in a scrapbook that belonged to my grand aunt, Benita (McGinnis) McCormick.  Her jovial comment, “Madcap Lover!” next to her uncle’s pictures and the silly expressions on his face in the various poses suggested that this was a man with a story. Determined to learn at least some new detail about my great-grand uncle Thomas Gaffney, I have been combing Ancestry.com and quite a few other tried and true genealogy sources, including local newspapers, for some small mention about our mystery man. 

You would think it fairly easy to find something beyond the small bread crumb census records that showed him living between Conneaut and Cleveland, Ohio.  After a few red herrings and false starts, persistence paid off.  (If you are able to view Ancestry.com, you will be able to see some of the records mentioned here.) t turns out that there had been a big detail left out of the meager accounts about Tommy I had heard from my relatives.  
He had a daughter.

Sometime around 1900, Tommy, as everyone knew him, met Cora Alice Terrill of nearby Monroe   Township. In that year, 21-year-old Cora lived in a rented house where she looked after her two younger sisters, ages 17 and 15.  Though one might surmise that the sisters were orphans, that was not the case at all.  


In fact, their parents, Nancy (Goss) and Nathaniel Ellery Terrill, had divorced over a decade earlier.  Each of them had remarried and started new families, in 1891 and 1896, respectively.  Nathaniel, his new wife Mary and their two children lived on a farm in Monroe.  Nancy, her second husband Joseph Frick, and their two sons lived on a farm in Ashtabula.


One wonders whether Nancy (Goss) Terrill, now Nancy Frick, had much of a relationship with her daughters if she did not have them living at home in that era. In 1900, the United States Census asked women how many children they had given birth to and how many were surviving.  Nancy apparently told the census taker that she had a total of two children, both of whom were still living. Given that she and her husband, farmer Joseph E. Frick, were listed in the census with their sons Wilson and Walter, Nancy’s answer begs more awkward questions:  Why did she exclude her three daughters from the count, and how did that attitude affect them and Cora in particular?

And who was awarded custody of Cora and her sisters after the divorce? The records may give us clues to the who, the what, the when and the where, but they stop short there, ruthlessly leaving us to wonder about the hows and the whys behind the clues.  And because we care about these people and want to understand who they were, we keep seeking answers. 

We have no idea what Nancy and Nathaniel were like or why their marriage failed. I am unable to find the divorce papers but know that Cora was not more than 11 years old when the marriage ended; her youngest sister would have been no older than 5.  

Neither do we know how the parents viewed bringing their children with them into a new marriage.  Did they shuffle the children back and forth during that time until they reached the turbulent teen years? What were the circumstances behind the girls living on their own? Were Nancy and Nathaniel afraid their adolescent daughters would be too much for their stepparents to handle? Maybe evidence will turn up someday that will paint a rosier picture of this family.

Divorce takes a toll on all members of a family, even today.  In an era when divorce bore an added stigma for the separating spouses and their children, the Terrill sisters’ independent living situation – with or without family support – must have been challenging and emotionally difficult, to say the least. Considering Cora’s young and impressionable age and the heavy responsibility she shouldered, it is easy to imagine that she could have felt overwhelmed and uncertain of her future.  She probably was so busy being a breadwinner and mother to her sisters that she had precious little time for herself.

So when she met Tommy Gaffney, maybe she was flattered by his interest and attentions and charmed by his good looks and sense of humor. Maybe she saw in him a way out of her situation, or as a brief distraction from her burdens.  Maybe she was starved for love and was happy to find someone who cared about her.

And Tommy?  Photos of him and his relatives’ good-natured comments make him out to be a funny romantic but utterly charming man with a good heart.  When he met Cora, did he see a damsel in distress he could rescue? More simply, did the two of them genuinely fall in love?  These are questions that records can’t always answer.

There is one record, however, that tells us that Cora Terrill gave birth to a daughter, Agnes Evelyn Gaffney, on May 19, 1902, in Pierpont. The entry in the Ohio Births and Christenings Index of 1800 – 1962 listed Thomas A. Gaffney of Conneaut, Ohio, as the father.  

It also marked Agnes’ birth with the letter “I,” labeling her as an illegitimate child, the  sobering term in those days for a child born out of wedlock.

For the benefit of our younger audience who may be shaking their heads at this label right now, let us interrupt this narrative for the following 21st century editorial opinion:   No matter how or when they are born, babies do not break the law; and there is no such thing as an illegitimate child.  Every child is legitimate.  Period.  

Unfortunately, society a century (and even half a century) ago did not see it that way, and this label caused many innocent children to suffer social stigmas as a consequence of their parents’ choices or even circumstances beyond their control. Moreover, their mothers  could be thought of as less than respectable women. So Agnes E. Gaffney made her entrance into the world with two strikes already against her, especially in a small community where tongues wagged, stories were embellished, and reputations were all-important.

Life was hard for a single mother and her baby. City directory listings and census records of the time indicate that Cora raised Agnes by herself and that they lived in at least three different towns over several years.  It would be nice to know that Tommy accepted the child as his own and offered financial and paternal support during this time, but we cannot say for sure.  

As for family, it looks like Cora stayed in touch with both her parents during this time. A newspaper clipping of the time mentions  that “little Agnes Gaffney” visited some of the Fricks in Pierpont in 1904.  Other records and a later photograph we will see shortly allude to a congenial relationship with the Gaffneys, on Tommy’s side.  This would make sense, as Agnes’ given name  suggests she was named after her spinster aunt Agnes Gaffney, Tommy’s sister and a well respected lady in her own right.


Cora lost her mother and her sister Nora within two months during early 1906. After their deaths, she moved with Agnes to her hometown in Cumberland County, Tennessee, where her mother’s relatives lived. We find mother and daughter in the 1910 U.S. Census, living with relatives Albert and Lora Norrod. The still-single Cora was working as a cook by then.
By contrast, the Conneaut City Directory of the same year reveals Tommy still lived at home in Conneaut with his mother, Bridget (Quinn) Gaffney and sisters Elizabeth, Delia, and Margaret. It would seem from all intents and purposes that he and Cora had broken up.


Cora and Agnes eventually returned to Ohio, and the next two censuses (1920 and 1930) reveal that Cora and Tommy  married in 1919.  The 1920 U.S. Census is the only evidence that the the family of three finally was living together, in a rented home at 327 Sandusky Street in Conneaut.  By now, Agnes was 17 years old.  Things seemed to be looking up for the family.


Sadly, the marriage was not to last.

In case you missed it:

Part One:     Mystery Monday:  More than Meets the Eye
Part Three:  Wishful Wednesday:  Happy and Not So Happy Endings
Part Four:    Thankful Thursday:  The End of the Breadcrumb Trail

Copyright ©  2013  Linda Huesca Tully

3 Thoughts to “What the Records Can and Can’t Tell Us

  1. What a difficult story. You are right that there are only so many details that can be pieced together, using documentation. Others, like the hows and whys, can only be surmised by reading between the lines. Certainly not stuff that you'd want to find in a newspaper story, no matter how much we want to know.

    Still, so glad you can piece together this explanation, Linda. Each of these people has left a legacy, intangible though it might be through these untold stories.

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