Back somewhere around 1990 my Aunt Ruth moved out of the apartment she’d been in as long as I could remember, and into one that was easier for her to get around in; I think it was only a couple years later she moved into a nursing home for the last years of her life. The disposition of her property fell to her brother, and he kept some things in the family but mostly sold the contents of the apartment as a lot to some buyer. What was sold I don’t know. I do know it included a family Bible. I didn’t know about any of this until several years later, when I started researching my family history, and when I found out I was pretty angry. But it was too late to do anything about it.
Apparently the sale also included the diaries of my great grandfather, Jerome Holmes, who led a long but hard life. Born in Madison County, NY in 1834, he joined the 189th New York Infantry near the end of the Civil War. The 189th was present at Appomatox when Lee surrendered, but not Jerome: he spent most of his service time in a hospital in Washington, D.C., with ailments that more or less persisted for the remainder of his life. Two of his children were born before he went into the 189th, while the third, my grandfather, was born more than ten years after, in 1875. By then Jerome’s ill health had pretty much stopped him from being able to work on a steady basis, and instead he got along on whatever odd jobs and sources of income he could manage: overseeing hops picking, shooting and selling partridges, picking ginseng and selling it for shipment to Chinatown in New York City. He was extremely poor, and to make matters worse Jerome’s daughter was not entirely in her right mind and was a burden on the family. My grandfather pulled himself up out of poverty (“hard work and perseverence, grim determination of the soul…”) and took care of his parents in their old age.
And Jerome kept diaries. I saw them once when I was young, and I’m not sure I’d really thought about them since, until a few weeks ago someone emailed me to alert me to the fact that two were being sold on eBay.
My reaction was a combination of annoyance that pieces of my ancestor’s life were being sold to the highest bidder and happiness that some of the “lost” materials had come to light. The annoyance passed. I don’t really mind a family outsider selling stuff to another family outsider — that’s just business. It’s the initial sale to a family outsider, instead of keeping the stuff in the family, that I object to, and that’s ancient history by now.
I did some searching and discovered several other diaries had been sold already; I also found something to suggest all of them had previously been sold as a lot. I wrote to the seller and to as many of the buyers as I could track down letting them know I was the great grandson of the diaries’ author, that I could not afford to buy all of them up even if they were all for sale, but that I would like to arrange to get information from them if possible. I put a bid on the two diaries that were up for sale but was outbid. The seller offered to send my contact information and message to the remaining buyers. I heard from about four or five buyers, all of whom expressed some degree of willingness to share information. However, all but two of them didn’t reply when I offered to pay for scans or photographs of the diary contents.
There were two who were willing to resell their diaries to me — and they were the ones who paid the least money for theirs, so I could afford it. Both said they’d send the diaries and trust me to send payment. One of these diaries arrived today. It’s for 1893. I’ve only glanced at it, but there appears to be at least a paragraph for nearly every day, in fairly legible pencil handwriting.
I rather doubt there will be anything in it to help verify my unproved theories about my Holmes ancestry, though it’s possible. It’ll help shed some light on my great grandfather, though. But I wish I had access to the other twelve of them.