Veterans in My Family Tree

Inspired by Veterans Day, here is what I know about the veterans of the American military in my family tree.

I use the term “veterans” loosely, instead of getting into a debate over who officially is or isn’t supposed to be recognized on the federal holiday. I’m regarding this as a family history piece inspired by Veterans Day, not praise for everything my ancestors did or an official Veterans Day roster. In other words, I’m including Confederate veterans because they’re in the family tree, even though there are debates about whether those who took up arms against the US should be honored on Veterans Day. This list also includes slave owners, a deserter, and a convicted killer. I take a “warts and all” approach to family history, finding what it was instead of pretending it was something else.

Mostly, I’m focusing on my direct ancestors and their siblings. I’ve included a few others. However, I’ve left out a lot of Nth cousins M times removed, to keep this list from getting really big. And because it’d be a lot more work. I have my limits.

For privacy reasons, I’m omitting the birth years and photos of living relatives. I’m including birth and death years and a few photos only for the deceased veterans.

Veterans of the Iraq War

My niece Charlotte Brock (living) served in Iraq as a Marine officer. She was interviewed on NPR because of the essay she had contributed to the book Powder: Writing by Women in Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq.

Veterans of the Vietnam War

My cousin Pat Sharpe (living) served as a Marine in Vietnam. He received a Purple Heart.

Frank Giddings (1945-2009), ex-husband of my cousin Maureen, was also a Vietnam vet. My recollection is that he was in the Army.

Veterans of the Korean War


Earl Becker

My father, Earl Becker (1930-2005), was a Marine during the Korean War. He received a National Defense Medal for enlisting during a time of war. Dad never got shipped out, and stayed stateside the whole time. He served in the Marine Corps Reserve for several years after his regular service.

My uncle Herman Becker (living) served in the Army, and I understand he did go to Korea.

Between WWII and Korea

My uncle Bob Becker (1927-2009) was a U.S. Navy veteran. He enlisted in 1945, after WWII had ended. He wasn’t old enough to have joined up any earlier. He left the service three years later, which was before the Korean War started. He spent at least some of his service stationed in Hawaii.

Veterans of World War II

I’ll count Dad as a WWII vet in a sense. As a teenager, he was a volunteer in the Army’s Aircraft Warning Service. These civilian volunteers were stationed at posts along the American coastlines. They were trained to identify enemy aircraft. This service existed because of concerns that long-range bombers might attack U.S. soil. The AWS volunteers were expected to be at their posts regardless of adverse weather conditions. The service was closed down shortly before the D-Day invasion, in order to divert full resources to that.

My late father-in-law Henri Soudée (1906-1996) was a veteran of the French military, not the US military, but I’m including him here because he was part of the French diplomatic team that came to the US during the war as supporters of Charles de Gaulle, not Vichy France. That’s how he wound up living in the US and raising a family here, which is how I met my wife.


Peggy and Johnny Sharpe

Mom’s brothers-in-law (and my uncles) Bill Schulz (living) and Johnny Sharpe (1921-1984) were both World War II veterans. Uncle Bill was in the glider service. Uncle Johnny was a sailor on the USS Alabama, among other ships. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Peggy (Mom’s sister) met at a USO dance.

Mom’s cousin Billy Shepherd (1924-1945) was a sailor, and a war casualty. He was on a destroyer, the USS Evans, for Operation Iceberg, the Battle of Okinawa. The Evans and another destroyer were escorting landing craft at Okinawa when they were swarmed by Japanese aircraft. Billy was among those killed. The crew of the Evans was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation and Billy was awarded a Purple Heart. Mom was 8 years old when they got the news that her cousin Billy had been killed.

Joseph M. Miller (1921-1996) was another of Mom’s cousins. He served in the Coast Guard during the war. That’s all I know.

William Charles O’Connell (1919-1992) was yet another of Mom’s many cousins. He fought for the Army in Italy and North Africa.

Veterans of World War I


William Miller

My maternal grandfather, William Miller (1891-1943), was in the Army. He was stationed at Camp Meade (now Fort Meade, Maryland). A family story says that when he heard his unit was going to be shipped out, he walked the 25 miles from Camp Meade to his fiancee’s (my future grandmother’s) house in Washington DC to let her know. However, the war ended before his unit shipped out, so he never saw service “over there.” I never met him, but from all the stories, I think I would have liked him. I still remember my grandmother Nora, his wife, from when I was little.

Will’s brothers Edward Miller (1889-1931) and Joe Miller (1891-1973) registered for the draft on the same day as Will. I assume his brother Alfred (1895-1976) also registered, but I haven’t found any record of it. Edward’s draft registration card noted that he had to take care of his mother and his “crippled sister” (Aileen). I believe he was exempted from duty. I don’t know what sort of service Edward and Joe saw.

William James “Stoney” O’Connell (1887-1938) was Mom’s first cousin, twice removed. While Stoney was in France, he was the victim of a gas attack. He survived, but came back unwell. It was the eventual cause of his death.

Great grand uncle Walter Becker (1892-1971) was in the 68th Artillery.

Spanish-American War

I’ll mention Sister Brendan (Mary O’Connor, 1863-1921). Maybe including her is a bit of a stretch for my list here today, because she wasn’t in the military and she’s a somewhat distant cousin. However, there’s a story here, and besides, I don’t know of any other family veterans from the Spanish-American War.

Mary was my second cousin, three times removed. She became a nun (as Sister Brendan) with the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She was also a nurse at Mount Carmel Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. In 1898, the governor of Ohio, Asa Bushnell, asked Mount Carmel for help bringing Ohio’s sick and injured soldiers back from the Puerto Rican Campaign. Sister Brendan and one other nun went to Tampa, Florida, by train and then to Puerto Rico by ship. After a couple of months, they returned with 1300 troops, plus other doctors and nurses. She was directly supporting the military, so I’m including her.

She later wrote of her time there: “We worked hard all day and at night we were entertained by lizards, fleas, bedbugs, and mosquitoes, large enough to beat a drum…. They were fat enough to fry after feasting on us.”

After the Civil War

Miles Carter (1840-1867) was my second great grand uncle, on Dad’s side. He had been a captain in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry during the Civil War, fighting for the Confederacy, but he made the transition to the U.S. Army after the war.

Veterans of the American Civil War – U.S.

All of my ancestors who were Civil War veterans, both North and South, were on Dad’s side of the family. Those who fought for the North were on his father’s side. Those who fought for the South were on his mother’s side. There’s no reason to think the two branches ever met during the war, in battle or otherwise. Dad’s parents were the connection. His father’s family had been in Illinois and Indiana for generations. His mother’s family had been in Virginia since colonial days. The connection between the two families didn’t happen until Dad’s parents got married in 1925.

One of my third great grandfathers, John Harmon (1834-1865), fought for the 140th Indiana Infantry. He saw action at places like the Siege of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He was in Clifton, Tennessee, when he contracted pneumonia. He died of pneumonia at a military hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. A nurse who had been taking care of him wrote a letter to his wife. She said John “passed away as gently as the snowflake melts into the flowing stream.”

Three of John’s brothers – my third great grand uncles – also served. Two of them survived the war.

Samuel Harmon (1831-1912) was identified as a Civil War veteran of the Union Army in one record, but I haven’t found any other particulars about his service.

Archer Harmon (1842-1863), was in the 93rd Indiana Infantry. He was apparently at the Siege of Vicksburg, among other actions. He died a few months after the siege, shortly before his 21st birthday, in Missouri, but I don’t know what the story was.

Michael Harmon (1844-1927), the fourth Harmon brother to fight, was in the 3rd Indiana Cavalry.

A few more of Dad’s ancestors might have fought for the North, but I’m leaving them out of this list for lack of evidence.

Veterans of the American Civil War – Confederacy

My second great grandfather, Abner Walker (1824-1894), enlisted in 1863 at the age of about 39, two weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation. The war had already been going on for almost two years, so one might speculate that the Emancipation Proclamation had something to do with his decision to enlist. He was a slave owner, like so many of my Virginia ancestors. At the time, many southerners worried that the Emancipation Proclamation would lead to a slave rebellion or race war, so maybe that’s what drove him to join up. His unit, the 53rd Virginia Infantry, saw action at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, but Abner wasn’t at those battles. He spent the war in Richmond, alternating between hospital stays and detached service at the Ordnance Department. The diagnosis I found in one record was “rheumatism,” so it seems likely he was deemed unfit for combat duty.

My third great grandfather, Overton G. Slater (1828-about 1875), served in Tomlin’s Battalion in the Virginia infantry. He was another slave-owner.

John Henry Blayton (1827-1896) was my 3rd great grand uncle. He served in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry Regiment. A later newspaper account said he was reputed to be fearless in battle. Before and even during the early part of the war, before he enlisted, he raised a family with an ex-slave and made sure the kids were educated, which was unusual at the time for mixed-race children. Mixed-race marriages weren’t legal in Virginia until 1967, so they weren’t legally married. Years later, he got a legal marriage to a young white woman, but eventually he shot and killed her for having an affair. He took the insanity defense and spent his final years in a mental institution.

Another third great grand uncle, William F. Garrett (1823-?), was in the 1st Virginia Artillery. At the end of the war, he was held as a prisoner at Point Lookout in southern Maryland. Point Lookout had no barracks for the prisoners. It was five feet above sea level, so it was subject to flooding. It housed twice as many prisoners as it was designed for, which led to disease and hunger. Many of the guards were from “colored regiments,” which led to tensions between the guards and the prisoners. I don’t know when William died, but he at least survived Point Lookout. He was released after two months, as prisoners swore their allegiance oaths to the U.S. and went home.

My third great grandfather Pinkethman (“Pink”) Garrett had three sons in the James City Artillery in Virginia: John Garrett (1832-1899), Richard Minor Garrett (1834-1900), and Pinkethman Garrett Jr. (1845-1905). Pink Jr. was listed as a deserter in early 1865, not long before the end of the war. I don’t have any info on why he deserted or what happened as a result. At that stage of the war, many Confederate soldiers realized the war was almost over, so many of them abandoned their units to return home. Pink Sr.’s youngest son, my great great grandfather Benjamin Franklin Garrett, was too young to serve in the Civil War.

My 6th great grandfather John Goddin had four wives (not at the same time!), and 28-32 children, according to various sources. His son John Goddin (1804-1864) was my half 5th-great grand uncle. John Jr. wasn’t a Civil War veteran himself, but he had a role to play. He owned Goddin’s Tavern outside of Richmond for about 20 years. Virginia lawmakers often stayed there when visiting the state capital, because it was cheaper than staying in the middle of Richmond. When the Civil War started, John sold the place to a Catholic order, apparently the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. That order sent their nuns as nurses to various locales in the North and the South. When the hospital first opened for business, they ran this ad in the Richmond Dispatch: “INFIRMARY OF ST. FRANCIS DE SALES. BROOKE AVENUE, RICHMOND, VA. – Conducted by the SISTERS OF CHARITY. Patients of all denominations, not having small-pox or any other contagious disease, are received. Any physician may send his patients to the infirmary and attend them. White persons, in private rooms, pay from $7 to $12 per week, and in wards $6. Colored persons $5 per week.” It was variously known as St. Francis, St. Francis de Sales, the Goddin’s Tavern Hospital, the Catholic Hospital, and the Brook Hospital. It served as a hospital for the duration of the war.

Another of John’s sons, Norman Goddin (1828-1892), was also my half 5th-great grand uncle. He was a Methodist minister and a physician. He joined up very early in the war, and became the captain of G Company, 5th North Carolina Infantry. That lasted about a month, and then he resigned his commission when his wife became gravely ill. She died a few months later. I have no info saying whether he did or didn’t return to military service after that.

Veterans of the War of 1812

John Blayton (1780s-1840s) was my 4th great grandfather. He and his brother Haley Blayton (?-?) served in the 52nd Virginia Militia.

William Walker (1791-1874), my 3rd great grand uncle, was in a Virginia artillery regiment. He wound up moving to Kentucky, where he founded Walker’s Chapel Methodist Church. He was a slave owner, but a family history says that when the Civil War broke out, he told his slaves to “go fight for their freedom.” When they returned from the war, he gave them land to live on.

Veterans of the American Revolution

John Goddin (1738-1830), my 6th great grandfather mentioned above, served in the Virginia Militia during the Revolution. A couple of histories say he was a lieutenant in the militia and participated in the Siege of Yorktown. A 1923 family history says that when Cornwallis surrendered at the end of that siege, John served hot coffee to General Washington and General Lafayette, among others. He kept the coffee pot as a souvenir.

William Blayton (1757-1800), my 5th great grandfather and the father of John and Haley Blayton mentioned above, served in the Virginia Militia.

That’s my list of veterans, in one sense or another.



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The “Agoraphobia” of Ménière’s Disease

A year ago today, I was in the hospital because of severe vertigo and hearing loss. My Ménière’s Disease had gone from unilateral (one side only) to bilateral (both sides).

An episode of Call the Midwife included a character suffering from agoraphobia because, as the fictional doctor explained, she had Ménière’s Disease. The character took the view that it was a normal effect.

I’ve never heard of agoraphobia being associated with Ménière’s Disease in any other context. But I can see why it could be.

One of the effects of Ménière’s Disease is fluctuating hearing loss and tinnitus, which the (non-fictional) doctors tell me will probably stabilize into permanent hearing loss and tinnitus of some degree. That already happened to my right ear several years ago, leaving it mostly useless. My left ear is the fluctuating one now, with effects anywhere from mild to severe hearing loss and tinnitus on that side. However bad they are now, they could turn better or worse in a few hours or a few days.

At my best times, a one-on-one conversation in a quiet place isn’t much of a problem, but a noisy space is a lot harder to hear in than you might imagine. At my best times, then, it’s Ménière’s-induced introversion. I’d much rather talk to one or a few people in a quiet place, and I find it very taxing to be out in a crowded, noisy place. (I score roughly halfway between extroversion and introversion on the MBTI, so Ménière’s is making me more introverted than I’d normally be.)

At my worst times, even a one-on-one conversation in a quiet place is difficult, and the hearing aids don’t help. Turning up the volume doesn’t turn up the clarity.

Another effect of Ménière’s Disease is intermittent vertigo. Just like the hearing loss and tinnitus, whatever state it’s in now could last for a few hours or a few days, and then it’ll change unpredictably. At the best times, I have no vertigo (woo-hoo!). When it’s relatively mild, I can walk about, but sudden head turns or direction changes can make things worse. Reading up close can make things worse. I don’t drive in this state. I minimize computer usage in this state. When the vertigo is more severe, walking becomes difficult. The room swims. Reading becomes all but impossible, because my eyes can’t lock onto one spot. I don’t dare drive like that. All I can do is lie down until it passes. After it passes, I’m usually wiped out, and I need to sleep. Fortunately, the doctors predict that the vertigo will probably taper off, eventually.

As a result of these effects, all my plans are tentative, because I won’t know until a few hours ahead of time whether I’ll be able to walk, drive, or hear. It makes me reluctant to go far from home. I might need to cancel plans at the last minute, or leave early if I do show up.

Agoraphobia? No, not quite that. But going out into the world is a bigger challenge than it used to be.

One other effect of Ménière’s is that it can play havoc with your stress levels and attitude. It seems that the research hasn’t pinned down how much of this is a direct physiological effect and how much of it is the constant uncertainty about what each day will be like.

For me, the best cure for stress and attitude is spending time with people I like. Because of the hearing issues, it needs to be in a quiet place with no more than a few people. We can talk about whatever we’d normally talk about and do whatever we’d normally do (as long as I’m still able to do it). Being in the company of people I like works wonders in draining off the stress.

There’s the unfortunate irony, though. Ménière’s gives me a greater need to spend time with people I like, while also making it more difficult to do just that.

That episode of Call the Midwife had an unspecified magic pill that made the Ménière’s patient’s problems go away quickly. No such luck in the real world, but at least I’m not agoraphobic.

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July 2016: 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, 5 Sundays

As a curiosity or with claimed mystical significance, people have noted that July 2016 has five Fridays, five Saturdays, and five Sundays. Various claims have asserted that this is extremely rare or extremely common. It turns out there’s an average of one such combination per year. Most years have one of these combinations per year. Some have none, and the rest have two.

The Gregorian Calendar has 14 possible calendars: a common year starting on each day of the week, and a leap year starting on each day of the week. Let’s call them A through N: A starts on Sunday in a common year, B on Monday in a common year, and so on through N, starting on Saturday in a leap year.

The Gregorian Calendar repeats on a 400-year cycle: a leap year in every year divisible by 4, except for century years that aren’t divisible by 400. In a 400-year cycle, there are 97 leap years, which means there are 400*365 + 97 = 146,907 days. That’s also an exact multiple of 7, which means that every 400-year cycle starts on the same weekday. January 1, 2001, was a Monday (Calendar B), so January 1, 2401, will also be a Monday (Calendar B). Whatever pattern we find, it will repeat every 400 years.

A month with five Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays can happen only in a 31-day month that starts on a Friday. If the month starts on Sunday through Thursday, there won’t be five Sundays. If it starts on Saturday, there won’t be five Fridays. If the month starts on a Friday but it doesn’t have 31 days, there won’t be five Sundays.

A 31-day month that starts on a Friday happens only in the following cases:

  • Calendar A, December
  • Calendar C, March
  • Calendar D, August
  • Calendar E, May
  • Calendar F, January and October
  • Calendar G, July
  • Calendar I, March
  • Calendar J, August
  • Calendar K, May
  • Calendar L, October
  • Calendar M, January, July
  • Calendar N, December

In other words, in any given year, there might be zero, one, or two months that have five Fridays, five Saturdays, and five Sundays.

How often does each of these calendars show up? Calendars A, B, D, F, and G come up 43 times each in a 400-year cycle. Calendars C and E, 44 times each. Calendars H and M, 15 times. I, L, and N, 13 times. J and K, 14 times.

Calendars B and H have no 5-Friday/Saturday/Sunday combos, and they make up 58 years in a 400-year cycle. Calendars F and M have two in the same year. They also make up 58 years. The remaining 284 years have one combo each. In other words, in 400 years, there’ll be 400 months that include this particular combination. That’s an average of one per year, but 14.5% of the time, there’ll be two in the same year, and 14.5% of the time, there’ll be none in a given year.

The verdict: Months with five Fridays, five Saturdays, and five Sundays are pretty common, averaging once per year.

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Deal With Your Windows XP by April 8, 2014

If you still have Windows XP at home, deal with it by April 8, 2014. That’s the end of security updates for XP. It’s also the end of security updates for Internet Explorer version 8 (the last IE version for XP). It’s the end of security updates for Microsoft Office 2003, including Word, Excel, and the rest of Office.

Why does it matter?

  • New, unpatched attacks: Attackers have known about this date for a long time, and they know a lot of people still have Windows XP. Most likely, they’ve been saving up some attack forms, because they know Microsoft won’t be issuing any more patches.
  • Lack of software: It’ll get harder and harder to find software that runs on XP. Software providers will stop bothering to make sure their stuff runs on XP. Microsoft will stop offering downloads that work on XP.

What should I do with XP?

The best thing you can do is to update it, replace it, or disconnect it from the Internet.

If you want to upgrade XP: Run the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant to find out if your PC can be upgraded to Windows 8. Take a look at the Microsoft page Upgrade to Windows 8.1 from Windows Vista or Windows XP. Be warned, you’re in for some changes. There are differences between Windows XP and Wincows 8.

If you want to replace your PC: This automatically gets you the latest version of Windows, and you’ll probably wind up with a faster computer. Take a look at the Windows Easy Transfer tool to help you move files from the old computer to the new computer. If you also wind up with a new version of Microsoft Office, read up on the differences between Office versions. If you haven’t seen anything newer than Office 2003, the interface is different.

If you don’t need network connectivity and you want to keep XP: If you don’t need network connectivity at all, the lingering security flaws in Windows won’t matter. Unplug network and phone cables from the computer, and disable the wireless connection if it has one. (There’s usually a button or slider for disabling wireless.)

What if I want to keep XP and still use the Internet?

Staying on XP isn’t the best idea, but here are some things you can do to stay as safe as you can.

  • Run Windows Update and make sure you’ve got all the security updates available from Microsoft.
  • Run Secunia Personal Software Inspector to make sure all your installed software has been patched too. I recommend this tool for any Windows user, but it’ll be especially important to make sure you’ve patched your XP computer as well as you can. Secunia PSI is free for home, non-commercial use.
  • Make sure you update your anti-virus software regularly and run scans regularly. Be warned: The anti-virus people will eventually stop making software that runs on XP. Tick tock.
  • If you use Internet Explorer, which can’t go past version 8 on XP, switch to Chrome or Firefox. So far, they still run on XP and still get security updates. Some day, however, they’ll also stop running on XP. (I don’t have religious preferences on web browsers, but Chrome and Firefox are about to be the only web browsers that will continue getting security updates on XP.)

In addition, the usual ways to stay safe online become especially important on XP:

  • Use a non-administrative user ID except when you absolutely need to be an administrator. On any computer and any operating system, a lot of vulnerabilities become irrelevant if your user ID doesn’t have administrator privileges. In XP, click Start / Control Panel / User Accounts. You want an “administrator” account for when you need privileged access (like installing new software), but a “limited” account for routine day-to-day use.
  • Visit only trustworthy, reputable sites. You might want a free tool like K9 Web Protection to help steer you away from risky sites.
  • Be very picky about downloading any more software.
  • Don’t click on email attachments and links unless you were expecting them.


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Family History: My 2G-Grand Uncle, the Hobbit

My great-great-grand uncle, Charles Albert Becker (1848-1926), was born in Germany, but he probably had no recollection of it. At the age of two, his parents, his four older siblings, and his mother’s half-sister sailed across the Atlantic to the US. His mother didn’t survive the Atlantic crossing. I imagine he had little or no recollection of her.

The family soon found themselves living in Illinois, along with lots of other German immigrants. They became farmers. They were Catholics.

In 1872, at the age of 24, Charles decided to head off to the wilds of Kansas to hunt buffalo. He relocated almost 600 miles westward to Logan, Kansas, which had been established only two years earlier. Even now, Logan has a population of less than 600.

This was about when the song “Home on the Range” was written, in the next county over from Logan. The song became an anthem for people like Charles, who had headed west to build new lives. It eventually became the state song of Kansas. The Little House on the Prairie series (published 1932-1943) was set in Kansas at about this same time.

Charles didn’t build a little house on the prairie, however. He built a dugout on the bank of Cactus Creek a couple of miles outside of Logan. This hole in the ground would be his home for years to come.

In 1878, after six years of living in his dugout, he got married to Emily (“Emma”) Elizabeth Walton. A probate judge performed the ceremony. At some later time, a Catholic missionary priest was passing through, so Charles and Emma got married in a Catholic ceremony. The first-ever Catholic Mass in Logan was at the Becker dugout.

Charles and Emma continued to live in the dugout after the wedding. Their first child, a daughter, was born nine months later.

They’d have three more daughters while living in their dugout. Charles continued to hunt buffalo, and he also trapped smaller game for food and hides. He did some farming, too.

Charles Becker and family

In 1883, the Beckers had fallen on hard times, along with everyone in the area. Food and work were scarce. The aid arriving by train from the eastern states wasn’t enough, apparently. Charles, Emma, and their four daughters left their dugout for Washington County, Kansas. I’ve got no info on what they did there, but apparently they were successful. They returned to Logan in 1885 and began building a house, which was completed the following year.

They started having kids again, eventually reaching nine children, one of whom lived to the age of 100.


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A Story from My Family History

Sometimes, when you’re doing family history research, you get more than just a list of names, dates, and places, and you find out “what happened.” For me, the facts themselves can be fascinating, but it’s even better when you can find the story behind the facts. You hope to find out that some ancestor was a good person with a good life, but sometimes you find out they weren’t so great. Sometimes, you find someone who had highs and lows.

Enter John Henry Blayton, who lived from 1827 until the early 1900s. The information below comes from a variety of sources. The facts come from various civil and military records and dozens of contemporary newspaper articles. The story behind the facts comes from the newspaper articles and family stories shared with me by one of John’s direct descendants.

John’s Heritage

John’s father, also named John Blayton, was my great, great, great, great-grandfather, on my father’s mother’s side of the family. That’s the branch of the family tree that has been in Virginia since the early colonial days.

The elder John was, like so many of my Virginia ancestors, a slave owner. He owned anywhere from 3-6 slaves. He lived in Charles City County, between Richmond and Jamestown. He might be the same John Blayton who served during the War of 1812. John senior’s parents were also Virginia slave owners. His father, William, fought during the American Revolution. John’s mother, Maria Saunders, had a similar story. She, too, was the child of Virginia slave owners. Her father, Archer Dennis Saunders, also fought during the Revolution.

John’s Early Life

John Henry Blayton is my great, great, great grand-uncle. He was born in about 1827. He had an older sister Mary (my ancestor), and he’d later have a younger brother James and a younger sister Maria. As a child, John lost an eye, because of “a cancer.” He became known as an adult as “one-eyed John Blayton.” A later newspaper article described John’s reputation in his younger days. “When young he was rather wild, and given to gambling. He had a high temper, and made a reputation as a fighter. He did not invite difficulties, but took little trouble to evade them, and usually came out first best.”

Susan Allen

John had a long relationship with Susan Allen, who might have been a former slave, and who was of mixed race. They had seven children together, born in the years 1846 to 1862. The stories that have been passed down say they lived openly as a loving family, although that didn’t go over well with the rest of the community, black or white. Whites were not allowed to marry other races in Virginia back then. John and Susan couldn’t get married, and the children were legally required to take their mother’s surname. (Mixed marriages wouldn’t be legal in Virginia until over 100 years later, after the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case.)

In a move that was unusual for mixed-race children, John ensured that their kids got an education. One or more of them went to the Hampton Institute. Their youngest son, Bob, became good friends with Booker T. Washington at Hampton, even serving as the best man at Washington’s wedding.

The Civil War

John enlisted in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry Regiment when the Civil War broke out. He held the rank of private, in Company F, the New Kent Cavalry. He had a reputation for being fearless in battle. The regiment participated in many of the war’s major engagements, including Gettysburg.

April 9, 1865: The 3rd Virginia Cavalry surrendered to Union troops, along with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

April 24, 1865: John appeared on a “Report of Paroles of Prisoners of War given by Col. D. M. Evans, 20 N. Y. Cav., in the month of April.”

After the war, John returned to his de facto family. The 1880 US Census still found John and Susan living together with some of their children. By this time, John and Susan had been together for at least 36 years.


Either John decided he wanted white children or he was pressured into having white children. He found a young white woman to marry him, but first, he took care of his de facto family, deeding his property over to them. Susan and their kids had a place to live for the rest of their lives. At least one of their grandsons became a millionaire.

April 18, 1882: John married Virginia Esther Jones. She was 25. John was 55 (or 52, depending on the source). Newspaper articles described Virginia as “a rather pretty woman.” They lived in New Kent County.

May 4, 1883: Virginia made out her will, leaving everything to her husband and naming him as her executor.

John and Virginia never had any children. The plan to have white children didn’t work out.

May 17, 1892: John and Virginia moved to Richmond, bringing Virginia’s niece, Lula Crump, with them. John ran a grocery store out of their house. They also took in George Bell, who was about Virginia’s age or a little younger. Bell worked for them as a grocer. He had left his wife and child in Washington, DC, because, he said, his wife had been unfaithful to him.

John and Virginia often played cards with their boarders and neighbors. John and Virginia normally played as partners, but one time Virginia wanted a change of pace and said she wanted to partner with someone else. John became furious, and that was the end of the card-playing.

February 6, 1894: Bell bought out the grocery business from John.

Leading Up to Murder

April (or so), 1894: According to John, he had complained to Virginia before that she and Bell had gotten too chummy, like sitting too close together. He  sometimes found Bell sitting on Virginia’s lap. Virginia told him it was “only fun” and he told her it was “too much fun.” She kept telling him he was crazy.

It was also around this time that Elmore Christian caught Virginia and Bell holding hands and standing very close together. She said Virginia hit her with a broomstick and washboard and threatened to have her arrested if she told anyone what she saw. Elmore was then a teenager; she had been raised by Virginia, and she had worked for Virginia.

A few weeks before the murder, a police officer came to John and Virginia’s house and spoke to Virginia. John became furious. I don’t have any info about the purpose or outcome of the officer’s visit.

April 29, 1894: John decided to visit New Kent County, and brought Virginia with him. They visited Lula’s mother.

May 1, 1894: Virginia returned to Richmond.

May 6, 1894: John visited the home of his brother James. James’s father-in-law, Richard Eggleston, said John was behaving strangely and claiming that someone wanted to kill him.

May 7, 1894: John came back to Richmond, telling Virginia that people were trying to kill him. He said he’d spend the nights running away from would-be killers and ghosts.

May 10, 1894: John stayed at an almshouse overnight, claiming that he hated to see his wife doing all the work. He showed up there in the evening, sat around looking “disturbed over something,” then went to bed. He left the next morning, skipping the breakfast offered by the almshouse. John returned home just as Virginia was asking his sister to help search for him. He didn’t offer any explanations.

May 11, 1894: George Bell visited the police station and asked to have John “taken up for lunacy.”

Around this time, possibly before or after the night in the boarding house, Anthony T. Mallet (around age 40) warned Bell that he should go away and leave Virginia alone.  Mallet was a neighbor and friend of the family who visited often. Mallet also warned John that he should keep his eyes open because of a possibly improper relationship between Bell and Virginia. Once Bell found out that Mallet had warned John, Bell threatened violence against Mallet.

One evening, John told Virginia he was going out for a walk. He sneaked back and peeked in through the windows. The news articles didn’t give details on what he saw, but whatever it was, it convinced him that there was an improper relationship between Virginia and Bell.

The Murder

Night of May 16, 1894: John stayed up all night with a pistol, convinced that someone was trying to kill him.

Virginia Esther Jones Blayton John H Blayton

May 17, 1894: At about 10 o’clock in the morning, John confronted his wife again. He told her he’d go away for a while because she didn’t like him, and she agreed she liked someone else better. She told him to mind his own business and she’d do as she chose, and told him to stay away as long as he wanted. She threatened that Bell would knock him around if he made any trouble.

John flew into a rage and shot her.

Mallet heard the shot and screams and came running. He found them in the upstairs bedroom as John shot his wife again. Mallet went to stop John, who fired further shots. Mallet wasn’t hit, and he managed to carry Virginia downstairs.

John tried to kill himself by chopping at his face with a hatchet, a knife, or both, depending on which report you read, but he wasn’t successful. News articles disagree on the extent of his self-inflicted injuries, but in any event they weren’t fatal.

Others arrived, and they managed to restrain John. Virginia died within minutes. The police and a doctor arrived, but not in time. John admitted to killing Virginia. Reports differ on how many times Virginia was shot, anywhere from two to five times.

John was taken to the almshouse with a police officer to stand guard. Doctors there said he suffered from “temporary flights of insanity,” randomly crying or talking incoherently. He told attendants that he was sometimes out of his mind and “not well balanced” at any time.

May 18, 1894: John’s brother James visited him briefly at the almshouse. Meanwhile, throngs of nosy people were crowding around John’s house to gaze at the crime scene.

May 30, 1894: Richmond held a parade and reunion celebrating Confederate veterans, almost 30 years after the war had ended. Around 3,500 veterans were present. John was unable to participate, of course.

May 31, 1894: John was brought to Police Court with the lawyers who were defending him, Richmond T. Lacy and D.C. Richardson. A Judge Critchfield was presiding. John’s lawyers said he “desired to waive examination and asked that the case be certified at once to the grand jury.” A few witnesses were called, including the police officers who went on scene, Anthony Mallet, and Elmore Christian.

July 7, 1894: John came up before a competency hearing. A doctor who had interviewed John said he was insane and suffering from Bright’s Disease, which the doctor said could have aggravated the insanity. John’s brother James added to the testimony that John was “a crazy man” who thought people were trying to kill him. The jury took five minutes to reach its decision. John was “adjudged insane” and sent to the “Insane Hospital at Williamsburg.” John’s oldest son by Susan Allen, George Washington Allen (now in his forties), held a power of attorney for acting on John’s behalf.

July 23, 1894: Virginia’s will went to probate. Her estate was worth about $1000. That’s equivalent to about $25,000 today. John had been designated as the executor of Virginia’s estate, but he was now ineligible to serve in that role.

September 24, 1894: John’s former home was partially damaged by fire. The news articles reporting it didn’t name a cause, and identified it only as John’s former home. Fire fighters extinguished the flames before the house burned down.

Final Years

In the 1900 US Census, John is listed among the inmates at Eastern State Hospital, a mental health hospital. Presumably, John spent the rest of his life there.

Susan Allen also shows up in the 1900 US Census, living with her youngest son Robert and Robert’s wife Elviry and their four kids. Susan would die a few years later. Her family lived on. All of today’s descendants of John H. Blayton are also descendants of Susan Allen.



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Why Speeding Doesn’t Help: Math for Everyday Use

Some like to claim that math isn’t useful in everyday life. I offer up a little math for a practical situation: Does speeding really get you there faster?

By the way, I’m showing rounded results below, but I calculated the results before rounding.

Case #1: Local Road

A local road I often travel has a 45 mph speed limit and plenty of traffic lights. On a recent drive, I gathered some numbers. I drove 7.7 miles on this road, passing through 17 traffic lights. Other cars were on the road too, but traffic wasn’t heavy. The weather was fine for driving. My only delays were the traffic lights. I went 45-50 mph when I was rolling.

It took me just over 15 minutes to cover 7.7 miles. My average speed was only 30 mph (average speed = miles traveled / hours traveled), because when I’m stopped at a light, I’m going 0 mph. If I could have gone 45 the whole time, I’d have covered 7.7 miles in just over 10 minutes. In other words, those 17 traffic lights made my travel take 50% longer (15 minutes instead of 10 minutes).

What if I wanted to get my travel time down to 10 minutes instead of 15? How fast would I have to go?

Speeding in the car doesn’t make the traffic lights cycle any faster, so let’s guess for the moment that I’d still have 5 minutes of delay due to traffic lights, no matter how fast I went. That means I’d have to cover 7.7 miles in 5 minutes. Miles / hours = mph. 5 minutes = 5/60 hours = 0.083 hours. That leads to: 7.7 miles / 0.083 hours = 92.4 mph. I’d have to sustain a speed of 92.4 mph, more than double the speed limit! That’s impossible on that road, and it would be insane to try.

What if I could sustain 55 mph? That would have been hard on this trip, because of other cars. I’d have had to weave aggressively to get through, and I still probably would have spent some time behind cars going under 55. But if I could have done it, it would have taken 8.4 minutes to drive 7.7 miles. Add in the 5 minutes of delay for traffic lights, and I’ve gotten my 15-minute drive down to 13.4 minutes. In other words, aggressive driving would have saved me only a little time.

In fact, the delays due to traffic lights might have gone up if I went 55 mph. Those 17 lights weren’t all for major intersections. Many of them were for little side streets; most of those lights were green when I got to them. If they’re sequenced for 45 mph traffic, speeding just means I rush to the next red light, which won’t turn green until the 45 mph traffic catches up. Aggressive driving might not save me any time at all, if every red light means the slower drivers catch up with me again.

Case #2: Beltway

To get to one brother’s house, I use the Capital Beltway. According to mapping sites, the drive should take 29 minutes to travel 17.3 miles. That’s realistic. Average mph = miles / hours, and 29 minutes is 0.483 hours, so 17.3 / 0.483 = 35.8 mph. That’s slower than one might expect, considering that over half of the distance is on a 55 mph highway, but it’s correct.

Let’s say, though, that this time I’m leaving the house 5 minutes later than I intended. I want to make up for it by speeding on the Beltway. The mapping site says I’d have 9.5 miles on the Beltway. At 55 mph, I’d take 10.4 minutes to cover the distance. How fast would I need to go get that down to 5.4 minutes? 5.4 minutes = 0.09 hours. Mph = miles / hours, so 9.5 miles / 0.09 hours = 105.6 mph. I’d have to average over 100 mph on the Beltway, just to get to my brother’s house a few minutes earlier. If you’ve ever driven on the Beltway, you’d know it’s insane or impossible to go that fast. And that’s just to get there at 2:00 instead of 2:05. Not worth it.

Case #3: Interstates

Now I want to drive to Williamsburg, Virginia, so my wife and I can have a nice weekend getaway. We’ve picked out a hotel. The mapping sites tell me it’s 171 miles of driving, and it should take 2 hours and 49 minutes. Most of the driving will be on interstates, where the speed limit will be 55 mph and up.

Let’s take a closer look at the directions and see how much time and distance will be on the interstates. I’d travel 3.9 miles (10 minutes) before I get to a highway. At the other end of the trip, I’d spend 2.8 miles (7 minutes) off the interstates. Everything in between is on interstates. That leaves 171 miles – 3.9 miles – 2.8 miles = 164.3 miles on the interstates, and 2 hours 49 minutes – 10 minutes – 7 minutes = 2 hours 32 minutes of traveling on the interstates. Traveling 164.3 miles in 2 hours and 32 minutes gives an average speed of 64.9 mph on the highways.

How much time can we gain by speeding on the interstates?

If we travel 10% faster, the 64.9 mph would become 71.3 mph. Could we average that much speed on over 150 miles of highway? I’m not so sure, but if we could, the 2 hours and 32 minutes would drop to 2 hours and 18 minutes. By averaging more than 70 mph over a long distance, we could save a mere 14 minutes. Would an extra 14 minutes open up new opportunities for enjoying Williamsburg? Nope.

Besides, what are the chances of averaging that much speed? Pretty low. If you’ve ever driven on I-95 between DC and Richmond, or I-295 around Richmond, or I-64 between Richmond and Williamsburg, you know that traffic jams are a very real possibility. We’d have to average more than 70 mph. In other words, if we’re stuck at slower speeds for some of the time, we’d have to go way faster than 70 mph to make up for it. Occasionally hitting 70 wouldn’t be enough. And this is all to save a measly 14 minutes. It doesn’t seem worth it.

Do the Math: Speeding Doesn’t Help

There you have it. Three different situations, and speeding makes no significant difference in any of them. Speeding might feel like you’re making better progress, but when you factor in traffic lights, traffic volume, and the fact that speeding is really only a few percentage points above the speed limit anyway, the math shows that speeding doesn’t make a big difference in travel time. Thank you, math.



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The Great Questions (and Some Less-Than-Great Answers)

Call it a Giggle Search. Type a question word (who, what, when, where, why, how) in Google’s search box, see what questions Google suggests, and offer your own silly answers.

“Who unfollowed me?” This is a new extreme in paranoia, not just wondering who’s following you, but who’s not following you. That creepy-looking guy behind you seems to be following you, but look at all the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people around you who aren’t! Happy unbirthday.

“What does my name mean?” Well, ya know, it’s kinda hard to answer that since you haven’t actually told me what your name is. But I’m in IT, so I’m used to questions like this. Or maybe your name spoke some nonsense to you, and you’re trying to make sense of it. Hmm.

“Where is Chuck Norris?” Really? People need to track his location at all times? We need a new smartphone app that shows you Chuck Norris‘s current whereabouts on a map, with directions and recommendations for advantageous viewing. Chuck won’t have to ask who’s unfollowing him, because he’ll be too busy looking over his shoulder, and asking shopkeepers to hide him. But at least we know what Chuck Norris’s name means.

“When is Labor Day 2012?” Sorry, dude, you missed it. Maybe you were too busy unfollowing Chuck to notice.

“Why is the sky blue?” This has been answered many times over, including some silly sciency answers and Mr. Bean’s cogent summary, but I’m more interested in a different question: “Why isn’t the sky blue?” And anyway, why is blue the only sky color anyone cares about? Poor gray! Poor nighttime! But if you’re staring at the sky, you’re not following Chuck Norris, so maybe he’s the one wondering who’s unfollowing him.

“How do you know?” You’ve come to the right place.



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My AncestryDNA Results

AncestryDNA genetic ethnicity

Jim’s AncestryDNA results

I got my results from the AncestryDNA test, which offered a few surprises and a few non-surprises. In brief: my DNA is 52% British Isles (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales), 46% Scandinavian (Norway, Sweden, Denmark), and 2% uncertain (but still Earth, presumably).

What can I conclude from these results, which look back “hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of years ago” (according to the report)?

Not surprising—British Isles: I was expecting to see a British Isles heritage. Three of my great-grandparents were born in the British Isles (Ireland in particular). Another four are known or strongly suspected to have English ancestry. That leaves only one great-grandparent with no known British Isles ancestry. I could have had a very high percentage of DNA matching the British Isles.

Conclusion—British Isles on both sides: The fact that I’m more than 50% British Isles proves that both of my parents have this ancestry. If one of my parents never had this in their heritage, my British Isles percentage couldn’t have been more than 50%. I can’t tell how much I got from which parent, but I can be certain I got some from each.

Surprising (at first)—only 52% British Isles: With a British Isles heritage in 7 of 8 great-grandparents, why is my British Isles DNA “only” 52%? That was surprising at first, because 7/8 = 87.5%, but that’s now how DNA works. You get half of your DNA from your father and half from your mother, but you don’t know which half each parent contributes. Each child gets a different DNA mix. The half of my father’s DNA I received could have included very little of his British Isles DNA, or lots of it. Likewise for my mother. In other words, having 52% British Isles DNA is completely plausible.

Surprising—Scandinavian: Where did I get 46% Scandinavian DNA? Looking back through the last several generations, I don’t find a single Scandinavian in my family tree. I have some far-reaching branches of the family tree that find Scandinavians born over 1100 years ago, but a) there are some iffy genealogical connections between now and then, so I’m not entirely certain they belong in my family tree at all, and b) if I have to go that far back to find any Scandinavians, it seems unlikely that almost half of my DNA would be from IKEA.

Conclusion—got Scandinavians: I’ve probably got Scandinavian ancestors I don’t know about, probably within the last 1000 years. I could have gotten all of my Scandinavian ancestry from one parent, because it’s less than 50%, but the test doesn’t tell me how much came from one parent or the other. Possibly, the Scandinavian connection is a false positive, meaning it’s a mistake in the AncestryDNA data and I don’t have Scandinavian ancestors after all, but I’m not going to assume they blew it without further evidence.

Surprising—no German DNA:The DNA results didn’t show any German ancestry. The Becker surname is German. My Becker great-great-grandfather and his wife were born in Germany, and so were their parents. (To be precise, my great-great-grandfather was born in the Grand Duchy of Hesse — Großherzogtum Hessen in German — before there was a Germany. It was part of what would become Germany.) Why don’t I have any German DNA?

Conclusion—lack of German DNA is not a lack of German ancestors: Does my lack of German DNA mean I don’t really have German ancestry? No. This sort of DNA testing can prove what’s present in your ancestry, but it can’t prove what’s missing. My German great-great-grandfather Valentine Becker married Anna, a woman who was probably German. Their son Edward probably had lots of German DNA. Edward married Ethel, a woman with no known German ancestry. Their son Lester probably had 50% or less German DNA. Lester married another non-German, Mary. Their son Earl (my father) could have anywhere from 0 to 50% German DNA. Dad married a non-German too, so it’s completely plausible that I received no German DNA despite the fact that I have German ancestors.

Not surprising—my cousin is my cousin: The AncestryDNA site says my cousin Ellen appears to be my cousin! Our mothers were sisters, after all, and Ellen did the test too, so this accurate AncestryDNA match lends credibility to the results.

Surprising—my cousin is just like me: The AncestryDNA match say Ellen is 54% British Isles and 46% Scandinavian — very close to my results. We’re first cousins, so some DNA overlap is possible and likely, but I’m surprised our results were that close. Two of my grandparents have no connection to two of Ellen’s, so I would have expected some non-matching elements too.

Speculation—Scandinavian on Mom’s side: The similarity of our results raises the possibility that our Scandinavian DNA came from the grandparents we have in common. It’s something to pursue, but we’ve hit some genealogical dead ends in that part of the family, so I’m not sure how we’re going to solve this puzzle. However, it’s also possible that our Scandinavian DNA is a coincidence, if Ellen’s father and my father just happened to have Scandinavian ancestry, even though they weren’t related. It’s also possible that we each got a mix from both parents. Basically, while the Scandinavian ancestry could be in our common ancestry, it might not be.

Comparison to Other DNA Tests

This AncestryDNA test is in particular an autosomal DNA test (atDNA). A few years ago, I did the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test and the Y chromosome (Y-DNA) test. The mtDNA test placed my maternal line in Haplogroup H, which showed up in Europe during the Stone Age. This group spread all over Europe. The Y-DNA test looks only at the paternal line, and it put my paternal line in Haplogroup R1b, which also came to Europe from western Asia during the Stone Age. They wound up all over western Europe and the British Isles.

The results are consistent. Based on the mtDNA and Y-DNA tests, which look back tens of thousands of years, it’s no surprise that the atDNA test, which looks back centuries instead of millennia, found European ancestry. It’s official: I’m European-American.



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My Mixed Results with Pandora

I finally took the Pandora plunge. My results have been mixed. I’ve created four stations so far, liking and disliking my way through the selections Pandora picked out for me.

Here’s my imaginary visit to the Pandora Shoe Store on the best station so far:

Me: Hi, I’d like a pair of shoes similar to the ones I’m wearing now.
Pandora: Okay, let me see, here’s a selection of shoes that are similar in style, color, or brand.
Me: Good selection, thanks. You’ve got my business.

Here’s my visit to the Pandora Shoe Store on the most frustrating station:

Me: Hi, I’d like a pair of shoes similar to the ones I’m wearing now.
Pandora: Okay, here, I picked out a shirt for you.
Me: No, I said I want shoes — similar to what I’m wearing now.
Pandora: Okay, how about this other shirt? By the way, I’d like you to meet some 50+ women.
Me: No. Shoes, please, similar to these loafers I’m wearing. Anyway, that shirt looks just like the last one. (And how do I give a thumbs-down to the 50+ women? I’m already happy with the one I’ve got!)
Pandora: Ah, okay. Here’s a nice pair of sandals.
Me: Wrong again. I might like those when I’m shopping for sandals, but I’m not shopping for sandals.
Pandora: Can I interest you in some stiletto heels? By the way, I’d like you to meet some 50+ women.
Me: Nope.
Pandora: Oh, alright, here’s a pair of loafers.
Me: Thanks. Thumbs up.
Pandora: Now try these on. By the way, I’d like you to meet some 50+ women.
Me: That’s a pack of cigarettes.
Pandora: I’m sorry, you’ve turned down too many things already. Right now it’s the cigarettes or nothing. Come back another day and we’ll do this again. By the way, I’d like you to meet some 50+ women.

My two stations that have worked out best are:

The most frustrating station is my “Frank Zappa” station, which I’m tempted to rename to “Frustration Station.” First, Pandora decided that what I really wanted was lots and lots of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix — not what I want if I feel like listening to Zappa. Eventually, it decided that what I really wanted was lots and lots of King Crimson — also mostly not what I felt like listening to if I was after a Zappa sound. Currently, it hasn’t completely let go of its King Crimson obsession, and it has latched onto Jeff Beck. I like a lot of what Jeff Beck has done, but it’s not always what I’m after on this station. Pandora still slips in the occasional Frank Zappa or those with somewhat similar sounds (as if anybody really sounds like Zappa), but I might give up on the station if it doesn’t shape up.


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