Monday, April 8, 2013

Laight St.: How my sister's boyfriend accidentally solved a genealogy mystery

In December, my cousin got married in Hoboken, NJ. Rather than get a hotel room, we had planned to take the PATH train back to NYC afterwards. However, NJ's transit system was still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and we had to drive home instead. On our way to Queens, we dropped off my sister and her boyfriend in Brooklyn.

This is all relevant only because we ended up taking a trip we had never intended to take, driving a route we'd never driven before and don't expect to ever have to drive again. My husband's iPhone had died, and my sister and I have phones that think T9 texting is high-tech*, so my sister's boyfriend Cayce was reading the directions off of his phone in the back seat:

"Continue onto Late Street," he read.

I whirled around. "Onto what street?!"

"Did I say it wrong? It's L-A-I-G-H-T. "Lite" Street, maybe? It should turn into Canal Street."

"It turns into Canal Street?!"

At this point, I'm sure it seemed that I was having an extraordinarily difficult time understanding some fairly simple directions. Luckily, I was not behind the wheel, because though I was thinking about roads, my thoughts were not on the road.

"That's it! Cayce, you just solved a mystery!"

I have in my possession a semi-anonymous account of the history of the Mulcahy family, transcribed on my blog here. It says that my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Madigan, "was born on Lake St. in Manhattan." This was always a stumbling block for me, because there isn't a Lake Street in Manhattan. As best I could discern, there had never been a Lake Street in Manhattan. The only address I've ever actually found for the Madigans in Manhattan is 482 Canal Street. It had occurred to me that someone had confused two bodies of water and said "Lake" where they meant "Canal," but that seemed an unlikely mistake.

Although the account I had, written by an unnamed cousin of my grandmother, is not perfect, it has proved to be relatively accurate over the years. The only things that appear to be incorrect are the assertion that James Madigan was the youngest child in his family (he seems to have been in the middle) and the spelling of Loretta Madigan's married name as Rickett instead of Rickert. That last one is key, because it means I already knew that someone was writing things as they sounded, not looking at the names on documents and transcribing them accurately. (I've been told that the research was done by this cousin's wife, so either she had collected stories from people who were still alive without having them clarify spellings, or she had read out pieces of her research to her husband so he could write out these notes for his cousins, and he wrote what he heard.)

I had been aware for some time, since discovering the proper spelling of Rickert and confirming that there was no evidence that there had been a Lake Street in Manhattan in the 19th century, that "Lake" could have been a phonetic spelling of a different street name, but I had no way of figuring out which one, and it clearly wasn't similar enough that Google would return it when I searched for "Lake Street."

When Cayce read us the directions late that winter night, it all became instantly clear. Not only did Laight Street sound very much like the Lake Street I was looking for, but it also is in the correct neighborhood, only blocks from the address where I've confirmed the Madigans lived a few years later. I still use qualifying language when I talk about it, because I have no proof, but I can also tell you that I really have no doubts. I'm about as certain about Laight Street as I can be about something for which there is no definitive evidence.

If not for the fact that all 4 of us in the car that night are too "frugal" (cheap?) to spring for a hotel room when we're only 30 minutes from home; if not for the unfortunate storm damage to the transit infrastructure in northern New Jersey; if not for the fact that none of us are familiar enough with that neighborhood to be able to navigate it without directions; if not for Ben's failure to charge his iPhone, so he wasn't reading directions silently to himself but having them read aloud; if not for Cayce's innate knowledge of how to pronounce "Laight,"** I might still have absolutely no idea where my great-great-grandmother was most likely living when she was supposed to be on the nonexistent "Lake St. in Manhattan."

*by choice
**I've since looked it up; it seems that "LATE" is the correct pronunciation, but I think I'd have looked at Laight and said "LITE," and maybe never made the connection.


Nancy said...

This story just warms my heart - to think that everything just popped into place because of several coincidences! Wonderful!

Michelle said...

What a great story!