Finding Blair's Bride
Blair Doland Howell. A handsome name for a handsome guy. I love researching someone that I have a picture of!
Blair was born 18 August 1887, the third child of Millard and Sarah Howell. When I first started collecting records for the Howell family, Blair seemed an easy subject. He registered for the World War I and II drafts and lived in his parents’ house in every census but one from 1900 to 1940. By 1920, Blair was listed as a widower. The only unusual thing I found was that he was born in Pennsylvania even though the family was living in New Jersey. What sent Sarah to Pennsylvania when she was heavily pregnant? Did she go there to give birth? Was Blair's arrival an unexpected adventure? We’ll probably never know. But whatever the reason, Blair would be the only child in his family born outside of the Garden State.
At this point in my family history research, I pretty much moved on to the next person. With no identified spouse and no children, there wasn’t much else to discover, right?
Wrong. Of course I was wrong!
When researching Millard and Sarah’s family again, this time as part of a comprehensive professional research project, I needed to delve much deeper into Blair’s life. This meant reviewing every record I’d already attached to his file and searching for sources that would fill out the details of his life. The first question to answer was, if Blair was a widower, who and when did he marry?
I knew that the marriage and his bride’s death would have had to take place sometime between June 1917 (Blair is “single” on his draft card) and February 1920 (Blair is “widowed” on the census). No wife was named in any records I’d already seen. No female Howell of the right age was buried near Blair in the Hanover Cemetery. It was time to start digging.
The amazing group “Reclaim the Records” has worked tirelessly to require New Jersey to make its death and marriage indexes publicly available (something they’re required to do according to the state constitution). I used these indexes to look for Blair as a groom. No luck. Also no luck in other online New Jersey marriage databases.
What about the piles of letters, indentures, pictures, notes, receipts, scrapbooks, and a myriad of miscellany that had been handed down for generations and provided to me for review? I’d leafed through and sorted every single piece. I knew there were some letters from Blair. Maybe he’d mentioned something, somewhere?
First there was his 1906 letter from college in Ada, Ohio. No girlfriend or fiancée mentioned, just the lonely thoughts of a homesick boy writing to his brother.
Second, an itemized list from 1910 of every penny he owed to his family after college graduation, including acknowledgement that it was "a pretty big sum." No girls, though.
Finally, I landed on a postcard, “soldier’s mail,” sent to Blair's brother Evert in April 1919 saying he was “spending the day in Bordeaux.” Exciting evidence of Blair serving in World War I! But no evidence of a marriage.
Somewhat stymied, I looked at a second WWI letter I’d set aside for future research. This time, it was a letter written to Sarah Howell, apparently from her nephew Abram, a few months earlier in February 1919. Abram wrote, “Myrtle … told me about Blair wife isnt it to bad it surely will be hard for him when comning home," and then, "I dont know where Blair is I would like to write to him we may not be far apart It is hard to tell I am near Verdun."
My breath caught in my chest. I was stunned. Poor Blair. It sounded to me like his new wife had died while he was serving in France, and yes, it would sure be hard for him to come home. Who was she? What had happened?
I turned back to indexes and online databases, this time for 1917 or 1918 death records, both in New Jersey and Ohio (a college sweetheart maybe?). Either far too many or no results at all. In the Livingston library I found a sweet story about Blair’s high school baseball career, and saw that the library also held newspapers. The adorable Chatham Press (or as I call it, Facebook for early 1900s Essex County) filled in the blanks from 1910 and let me know he’d graduated from college and was returning home that March. I even found his obituary, which told me he’d taught high school math for 33 years. But still, no mention of a wife who'd died years earlier.
It was time to turn to the vast, somewhat confusing, and often nonsensically-organized world of military records. Since Blair likely served in World War I, there had to be records to find. First I discovered the application submitted for his military headstone. I learned he served in Company F, 312th Engineers, 87th Infantry Division, US Army. I also got his service number. This led to his Veterans Affairs master index card, but no new information.
There she was.
Mrs. Hazel Howell.
The Ancestry database was the "U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939,” and the record was a passenger list for the RMS Caronia departing from New York in August 1918, and it included an emergency contact for each soldier.
Immediately, I searched cemeteries in Edinboro and found her, Hazel L. Howell, born 1893, died 1918. I found her Pennsylvania death certificate (despite its being incorrectly indexed), with parents named Sam McLardy and Lillie Randall. Hazell, it said, had died from uremic convulsions, with pregnancy as a contributing factor.
Our Hazel had been pregnant.
My search turned back to the Edinboro cemetery for her parents, who may have been taking care of their daughter while her husband was overseas. I found an entry for Lillian M. Randall McClaughry, her mother, and the correct spelling of Hazel's maiden name.
With this information, I began an extensive search for a Pennsylvania marriage between Blair and Hazel, needing just one more piece of evidence to show that this truly was our Hazel, our wife of Blair. But once again, nothing. Back to New Jersey, and even New York. No results. Then, finally, back to the Chatham Press.
There I found this treasure from 14 December 1918. It was titled simply, “A Memorial”:
The poet, Wordsworth, speaks of the ‘pathos and sublime of human life.’ Seldom has this characterization been brought home more vividly than in the death of Mrs. Blair Howell.
Hazel McClaughry Howell was tenderly beloved of our townspeople. In the few short years of her life she left a memory that shall always be a sublime inspiration to all who knew her…
And to life she gave her all. Her’s is that supremest crown that only they shall wear who know the ‘greater love’ that is willing to lay down life for others. That she might bring life to the world she died — a wife who offered her husband to humanity, a mother who gave her life for her child, and the mother and child have gone home together.
After the loss of Hazel and his unborn child, Blair never remarried. He died 23 Aug 1953 at the age of 66.
When I first set out to learn about Blair, I only collected — I collected names, dates, and places. When I faced a bit of a challenge or a mystery, I moved on. There is always something else to do when you’re building a family tree, always an easier branch to grow. But returning to Blair’s family with a professional requirement to search, study, observe, and dig, I not only found Blair’s bride, but I uncovered a story of love and sacrifice. It’s a story that I hope will be remembered by the family that continues on, even though he lost the chance to be a father, a grandfather, and an ancestor.
Blair and Hazel are “last leaves” on the family tree, people who have left no descendants to search after them or honor their memories. I’m grateful I have the privilege of paying this tribute to them.
Blair Doland Howell
Born 18 Aug 1887 • Pen Argyl, Northampton, Pennsylvania
Died 23 Aug 1953 • Livingston, Essex, New Jersey
Married 1917 or 1918
Hazel Irene McClaughry
Born 4 Sep 1893 • Edinboro, Erie, Pennsylvania
Died 30 Nov 1918 • Cambridge Springs, Crawford, Pennsylvania