Every Day I Learn Something New


March 2016

Ambrose, Part Deux

I have obsessions. Some rush in and bounce about my head in a frenzy and then disappear as fast as they came, leaving very little leftover thoughts in their wake. Others hang around for years and years and pop up every day or two to say “Hello, my pretty!”

My two main real obsessions have to be history and genealogy. (I have other obsessions like books, my kids, my dogs, traveling, scary things, the ocean, parks, caves, and the current OJ Simpson miniseries, but history and genealogy are probably my top two.)

As for genealogy, I love to investigate anyone’s. I don’t care. Strangers, friends, brother-in-law.

I was obsessed with my own genealogy for a very long time, but as it expanded and got larger and larger and stretched back so many generations, it became less personal and more like a bunch of sterile data. Unless there are interesting stories I can uncover, it just becomes an overwhelming mass of 10,000+ people that are crowded into a room that the fire marshal has posted: 300 PEOPLE MAXIMUM.

So, my obsession has turned to my husband’s genealogy. It’s perfect for me. It is nice, small, and sometimes hard to figure out—just like Carlos. *clears throat*

I mean it is strong, rugged, and intellectually challenging. Is that a little better?

Actually, it is a bit of both.

Before Carlos met me, I don’t think he gave much thought to his family history. He has some latent memories of what his father told him when he was young of long-ago-relatives—sometimes the memories are wrong and sometimes they are slightly right. Or the most frustrating of all, sometimes after I find out something through extensive research, Carlos will say “Oh yes, that’s right. I remember my dad telling me that.”

Can you see the murder love in my eyes?

Well, work on his mother’s side of the family has proceeded relatively well, but his dad’s side has been more of a challenge. Three things have made my detective work on this line somewhat difficult (but with difficulty comes great reward):

  1. The last name Smith. It sucks in the world of genealogy.
  2. Carlos not knowing even his grandparents’ names on his father’s side. Leave that to me, and
  3. African-American genealogy, especially prior to the Civil War. It can be frustrating.

But on the flip side, two things that have worked for me is my love for a great mystery to solve and the fact that the Smith family lived in Baltimore for generations. A fact that we never knew, but always makes me smile knowing that somehow Carlos found his way back home to Maryland.

So, yesterday when I was writing about Ambrose Bierce, it made me think of the other Ambrose that is front and center in my Smith family detective work.

Ambrose Smith.

My husband’s great-grandfather, and a man, who up until about a year ago, we never could have named nor claimed. Through a lot of digging and work online and at the Maryland State Archives, this is what I know:

Ambrose Smith was born in about 1845. Some records say in Baltimore, while others say Virginia or Snow Hill Maryland, which is on the Eastern Shore close to Assateague.

He married Laura Brown, March 16, 1876 (140 years ago this month) in Baltimore at what is now the Orchard Street United Methodist Church. Built in 1837, it is the oldest structure in Baltimore that was constructed by African-Americans.

Orchard St.
Orchard Street United Methodist Church

Ambrose and Laura had three children – William, James, and Mary.

Ambrose and his family lived in the area between the Raven’s stadium and the Inner Harbor for most of his life and was a laborer by trade.

Ambrose’s parents, which I am trying to confirm, may be Thomas and Jane Smith of Baltimore, MD.

That is all I know.

I want to know more. I will keep on searching. I know he has a story to tell.

Ambrose’s son, James is the grandfather Carlos never knew. Whose name he never knew. Whose name I found on Carlos’ dad’s social security application.

James Ambrose Smith.

James Ambrose Smith and Elizabeth Pembleton of Baltimore, Maryland who moved and raised their children in Philadelphia. And one of those children was my husband’s dad.

It is because of people like Ambrose and his wife Laura and their ancestors, who worked and loved and struggled and made it through some of the most difficult periods in American history, that I am lucky enough to have my nice, strong, rugged, intellectually challenging, and sometimes forgetful husband. I’m grateful for that.

Thank you Ambrose.


The Devil is in the Details

I was catching up on my reading over this past weekend, and the author of the book I was reading quoted from The Devil’s Dictionary. A dormant, tiny memory was plucked in my head when I read the words “Devil’s Dictionary”, but I didn’t know who wrote it or exactly what it was about. So I did some research and came across a quite interesting fellow (whom, you can guess, my overly intelligent daughter already knew all about):

His name is Ambrose Bierce. (Why don’t people name their sons Ambrose anymore? It is derived from Greek, meaning immortal/divine. And it makes me think of tiny marsh mellows, and fruit, and coconut, and summer. Go figure.)

And you guessed it, he is from Ohio.

He was a civil war veteran who became a famous literary figure, journalist, and satirist. He wrote short stories about the civil war that were highly realistic and psychological thrillers that were ahead of their time in writing style. I’m currently reading through his short stories and was entranced by one of his most famous, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. You can read it here:

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge


Ambrose Bierce and his mustache.

But he might be most famous for his work, The Devil’s Dictionary, where he humorously and slashingly (that’s a word, I swear!) defines common English words.

I worked my way through many of the definitions this weekend and was very amused, but one I read this morning made my daughter and I laugh:

GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.

             He saw a ghost.
It occupied—that dismal thing!—
The path that he was following.
Before he’d time to stop and fly,
An earthquake trifled with the eye
              That saw a ghost.
He fell as fall the early good;
Unmoved that awful vision stood.
The stars that danced before his ken
He wildly brushed away, and then
               He saw a post.

                         – Jared Macphester

Accounting for the uncommon behavior of ghosts, Heine mentions somebody’s ingenious theory to the effect that they are as much afraid of us as we of them. Not quite, if I may judge from such tables of comparative speed as I am able to compile from memories of my own experience.

There is one insuperable obstacle to a belief in ghosts. A ghost never comes naked: he appears either in a winding-sheet or “in his habit as he lived.” To believe in him, then, is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power inheres in textile fabrics. Supposing the products of the loom to have this ability, what object would they have in exercising it? And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk abroad without a ghost in it? These be riddles of significance. They reach away down and get a convulsive grip on the very tap-root of this flourishing faith.

This struck my daughter, KJ and I as hilarious:

KJ: “I never thought about this; why do all the ghosts on the TV shows and in ghost stories have on clothes? Because that is what they died in?”

Me: “Maybe so. But what if they died having sex? Shouldn’t they be a naked ghost? Or at least a ghost with only socks on if it was a man who died during sex?”

KJ: “Yeah! And what about the autoerodic asphyxiation deaths? Where are the ghosts floating around with a ball gag in their mouth? You don’t want to be that ghost. That would be embarrassing.”

Me: “You sure don’t. Maybe that why we haven’t seen David Carradine’s ghost…”

Makes you think, right? Or too soon?


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