Friday, 29 May 2015

A Brick Wall Solved: William McRae, His Tragic Death, and What Else I Learned From It

Today was a very successful day research-wise.

Through my research, I have figured out that my great-great-grandfather James R. McRae had thirteen children. During his lifetime, ten of them passed away. Of those ten, I had been able to figure out when all but two passed away. Those who's deaths I could not figure out where his oldest son William (born circa 1866 in Nova Scotia) and his second oldest daughter Kate (born Feb. 24, 1872 in Boston). Both children are present in the 1880 United States Federal Census, living with their parents in Brockton, Massachusetts. After that, both William and Kate essentially disappear. All I knew is that both of them had to have passed at some point before James did on March 5, 1910 because neither of them were mentioned as surviving him in his obituary.

I've been trying to figure out what became of William and Kate off-and-on for several years. A few days ago, I decided to try again. I posted an inquiry in several genealogy Facebook groups regarding a William McRae who passed away in 1887 in Boston, hoping to figure out whether or not that was my William. He turned out not to be. After posting that, fellow genealogist Luanne Chapin messaged me, hoping to help me figure out when William died.

After providing her with a bit more detail regarding William, she came across the following article on GenealogyBank. The article was published on October 26, 1905 on page 7 of the Boston Herald.

(Special Dispatch To the Boston Herald)

   BROCKTON, Oct. 26, 1905. Undertaker Charles M. Hickey left today for Rochester, N. Y., to bring the body of William McRae to this city. Complications through the claiming of the body by the sister, Mrs. Kate Buckley of Hartford, Ct, who first went there and later by Benjamin McRae of this city, were smoothed away, only to find the Rochester undertaker stoutly refusing to give up the remains without the payment of $75. McRae was killed by a train Rochester last week. He had been here but once in 18 years.

Several things in this article stood out to me. 1) William was from Brockton. 2) William had a brother Benjamin McRae who lived in Brockton. 3) This incident took place in October of 1905, prior to James' death. 

I was already at Brockton Public Library while Luanne and I were going back forth. Feeling anxious and wanting to know for sure whether or not we had really found James' William, I grabbed the microfilm for both the Brockton Daily Enterprise and the Brockton Times for that time period. Having dealt with New York before when it comes to records, I knew trying to get information from his death certificate would be a process so I decided to search the newspapers for articles regarding William's death, hoping to find something in them indicating who William's father was. At first, searching was frustrating because any article I found simply referred to William's sister Mrs. Kate Buckley in Hartford, Conn. and any other family as "relatives in Brockton". But after searching a bit more, I finally found the proof I had been looking for.

The article, printed October 21, 1905 on the eighth page of The Brockton Times, starts the first paragraph with, "James R. McRae of Emmet Street received a dispatch from Rochester, N. Y., this afternoon stating that his son, William McRae, had been killed by a railroad accident there yesterday." 

The Brockton Times, Saturday, October 21, 1905, Page 8

I knew right there and then that the James R. McRae mentioned was my great-great-grandfather. Emmet Street was where he was living in 1905. And thus, I finally had proof that William McRae was indeed James' son. And I now knew that William McRae died on October 20, 1905 in Rochester, New York. 

Now having this confirmation, I set out on finding as many articles as I could regarding William's death and found several very detailed ones. The story of William's death was quite tragic. On the night of October 19th, William was run over by a train and his legs were severed from below the knee. He was still alive but unable to communicate what happened due to shock and loss of blood. Members of the crew assumed that William had been lying down on the tracks when the incident occurred. William was brought to hospital and despite surgical aid, he passed away at eight o'clock on the night of October 20th. Benjamin heard of William's death from the local paper and told James and his second wife, Bridget. They immediately sent a dispatch to New York to inquire about the body, trying to confirm if it was indeed their son. Their fears were soon confirmed but grieving would be an even more difficult task for James and Bridget due to the obstacles presented in getting their son's body back. James wanted to bring the body back to Brockton and bury William beside his mother Kate in Union Cemetery. However, before he could do that, James' daughter Kate went Rochester, New York and claimed the body, wanting to bury her brother in a cemetery for soldiers in Rochester. The matter was eventually settled and it was agreed that the body would be returned to Brockton. However, upon trying to claim the body, the undertaker holding it in Rochester told James that it would cost him $75 before he could take it. James refused and wound up retaining a lawyer. This matter was eventually settled as well and the body was returned to James. 

Below are the other articles I found regarding the ordeal:

Brockton Daily Enterprise, October 21, 1905, Page 10
The Brockton Times, Tuesday, October 24, 1905, Page 8
Brockton Daily Enterprise, Wednesday, October 25, 1905, Page 10
Brockton Daily Enterprise, Thursday, October 26, 1905, Page 4
Brockton Daily Enterprise, Thursday, October 26, 1905, Page 6
Through these articles, I also learned some very interesting bits of information:

1) James' daughter Kate was still alive at this point. Not only that but she was also married and living at 1470 Broad Street, Hartford, Connecticut. 

2) William was a part of the Spanish-American War, fighing in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, where he received a bullet to the right leg below the knee. (Interestingly enough, my great-great-grandfather on my mother's side, Edward Alton Garfield also fought in that battle. I can't help but wonder if Edward and William might have known each other.)

3) James' first wife, Katherine "Kate" (Morrison) McRae (mother to William, Benjamin, and Kate), is interred in Union Cemetery. Prior to reading this, I did not know where Kate was buried. One death record I found for Kate did not list interment at all and another one had it listed as being in East Stoughton. 

4) William was a table waiter by trade and he never married. 

One thing that struck me as odd when reading the "Two Claimants For Body" article was when the second paragraph described the McRae household. It was interesting because my great-grandfather was born in May of 1892 and would have only been thirteen when this occurred. He should have been living in the household and yet he is not mentioned. Nor are Bridget's two other children from her first marriage, Thomas and Edward McCormack, who I know where living with them at the time as well. 

With the mystery of William's death solved, now comes the task of figuring out what became of Kate. I know she was dead by the time James was because she was not mentioned in the obituary. But the question remains, when exactly was her death? And now knowing that she married arises another question, did she have children? Are there descendants of Kate out there somewhere?

Only time will tell.

Thanks again to Luanne Chapin for the help! Not having a GenealogyBank account, this would not have been possible without her!

Copyright © 2015, David J. McRae


  1. Congratulations on your breakthrough!

  2. The details in these articles really help to tell a story about the family at the time of such a tragic event. Have fun chasing down the answers to the new questions raised.