I had been a reluctant genealogist most of my life until I realized genealogy’s power to unlock family secrets and make sense of the stories Mom told me about her family. Such was the case with my great-grandfather, Philippe Metthe. (“Metthe,” a French-Canadian surname, is pronounced in English as “Metty”). Mom told me that he had left his wife, Graziella, which caused her to go insane. By looking at her patient record from Norwich State Hospital, I learned that this was not true. Philippe visited Graziella after she was committed, and when he couldn’t, he wrote letters inquiring about her condition. Mom also said that Philippe had gone back to Canada, but beyond that statement, she had no more details. When finally I took up the role of family genealogist in my mid-fifties, I suspected there would be some family myth busting involved.
Searching for My Prodigal Great-Grandfather
After his wife died in a mental institution in 1910, Philippe left his four children in the care of his in-laws, Pierre and Azilda Bonneau. I wondered where Philippe might have gone after leaving his home town of Danielson, Connecticut. Still assuming it was somewhere in Canada, I tried to locate Philippe in the Quebec church records. Perhaps he remarried since he had become a widower. I could not, however, find a marriage record for him. It seemed as if searching for my prodigal great-grandfather was a dead end.
One day, while looking for other Metthes in the 1920 U.S. Census, I came across a Philip Metthe who lived in Maynard, Massachusetts with his wife, Marie E. and son, Charles D. This Philip had the same year and place of birth as my great-grandfather Philippe (1877, Canada) and a similar occupation (working in a textile mill) as well. This find was so unexpected, that I initially doubted it could be my Philippe. I decided, however, to give the record a closer look anyway. I was surprised to read that in the census, Philip was listed as single, but Marie was listed as his wife. Their son, Charles was the same age as one of Philippe’s children. What could that mean? Did Philippe have a secret second family or were these two different men? The answer I found was a third option I hadn’t considered.
It was only by looking back at the 1910 census that I figured it all out. I already knew where Philippe was in 1910. He was still in Danielson living with his parents. His wife, Graziella, had not yet died at the time the census was taken, and was enumerated with the patients at Norwich State Hospital. I decided that if I searched that census and found the Massachusetts Philip Metthe with the same family members, then these two men, Philip and Philippe, were probably two different men.
When I couldn’t find Philip D., Marie E., and Charles D. Metthe living together as a family in 1910, I was momentarily puzzled. Then I got the idea to search just for Marie E. and Charles D., and got a surprising result. Philippe’s brother George had a wife named Marie Eva and a son named Charles. His wife and child were the same ages as the two who were listed in 1920 census with Philip. After pondering this unusual turn in my research, I realized that this could only mean one thing. I had stumbled upon one of the family secrets — evidence that my great-grandfather Philippe had not returned to Canada as I had always been told; he’d run off to Massachusetts with his brother’s wife and child.
At first I thought, such scandalous behavior! No wonder Grandma, as a little girl, was told a cover story that her father had gone back to Canada. Pierre and Azilda probably thought it was better to shield their grandchildren from the truth. However, either way they told the story, the sad fact was that the Metthe children, including my grandmother, had been abandoned by their father.
There’s More to the Story
I became curious about George Metthe, the wronged husband. I searched for stories about him in the digitized newspapers at the Library of Congress, and what I found shocked me. George was a violent man and a pervert. In one report, he broke the jaw of man with whom he had been playing cards. In another, he exposed himself to a couple of women who passed his house on the way to church. In the latter case, George was sentenced to ninety days in jail.
Marie probably felt unsafe around her husband and was worried for the welfare of her son. It’s likely that while George was incarcerated, Marie took it as an opportunity to ask her brother-in-law for help. Philippe’s solution was to run away with them to Massachusetts. In a way, it was a clever move. Since they all had the same surname — Metthe — they could easily pose as a legitimate family. My feelings about Philippe were mixed. On the one hand, he appeared be a hero, helping his sister-in-law escape an abusive husband. On the other, he looked like a cad for deserting his own children.
Why I Needed to Dig Up the Family Secrets
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Mom’s stories about her family were brief and often inconsistent. She had researched her family tree for decades, but nothing of what she learned through genealogy changed her stories one iota. After I turned up this unseemly story about her grandfather Philippe, I wondered if Mom had ever come across the 1920 census record showing that Philippe had been in Massachusetts. Perhaps she saw it in her search results, too, but decided to dismiss it without investigating it further. Mom may have had reasons, perhaps unconscious ones, for wanting to stick to the story that Philippe had deserted his family and returned to Canada, causing his wife’s mental illness.
It’s stories like Philippe’s which explain the addictive power of genealogy. Knowing more about my family’s past contributed to my having a fuller sense of where I came from. This is a good thing, even if it means that some of my ancestors weren’t the fine, upstanding citizens that I had hoped for. Grandma was traumatized by her father’s abandonment. It affected her marriage with Grandpa through her intense and unreasonable possessiveness (granted, she was also suffering from paranoid schizophrenia). Mom grew up with a distrustful attitude toward men. She trusted Dad, of course, but when she shared her wisdom about men with me while I was growing up, she expressed doubt that I’d be as successful in relationships as she felt she had been. I’m sure you can imagine what that did for my confidence around the opposite sex.
Mom never wavered in her opinions about what her family stories meant, and she could get testy if I pointed out a discrepancy. For that reason, I went through life thinking that her family history belonged to her alone, and not to me. It was part of the reason I was reluctant to research genealogy. When I finally began to explore the past on my own, I realized that she may have held onto these skewed family tales as a way to cope with the family trauma. The more I invested time and energy doing genealogical research, the more I came to believe that her family history was my family history, too. It was an empowering feeling — I had a right to know what had really happened and had a right to decide for myself what it meant.
This post is a condensed version of one of the chapters in my memoir, Secrets of the Asylum.