The Mysterious Melissa
Since I was a little boy, I’ve loved this photo. It’s epic, and if you’re part of my immediate family, odds are you know it well. Mounted on a thick cardboard backing, it shows members of the Anthony family of Ohio outside their farmhouse in Rockport, Cuyahoga County, on Thursday, Oct. 21, 1897.
Representatives of three generations stare from this photo — the children of my great-great grandparents Edward Mason Anthony (1826–1891) and Sophronia Lurania Tyler (1834–1916), with a couple sisters-in-law and a couple of grandchildren in the mix. The widowed matriarch, Sophronia, at age 63 a formidable center of familial gravity, sits in the middle, presiding.
My grandfather, Edward Mason Anthony Sr. (1894–1954), is the little blond toddler at the lower left who is holding his father’s hand, and who moved just enough to blur his face for posterity. His brother, John Bradley Anthony, would be born the following April; their mother, Ada M. Bradley Anthony, pictured in a black dress with her hands interlaced and a wisp of dark hair coming down her forehead, was pregnant with him already in this photo.
My grandfather, at some point, listed the people in this photo on the cardboard back of it, making it a Rosetta Stone of sorts for the Anthony family. So many other photos are identifiable because of this one.
But there is one person in the photo whose identity I’ve never been able to nail down, despite some substantial efforts over the years. My grandfather identified an elderly woman in the back row as “Melissa” — something of an uncommon name back then — but did not write down any surname, presumably because he did not know.
I’ve long wondered who this Melissa might have been, and only more so since I married one.
Was she a servant or beloved housekeeper invited to pose with the family? A neighbor who had been asked over for lunch? Both seem unlikely — the housekeeper theory because of how nice her clothing was, and the neighbor theory because the image is so obviously a full-on family portrait.
It remained a mystery — until, perhaps, last night.
Prowling around online on Ancestry.com as I do here and there, I followed a Find-a-Grave link to the grave of Edward Mason and Sophronia Tyler Anthony in Coe Ridge Cemetery on Lorain Road outside Cleveland, which I have visited many times. I then clicked on her parents, David Miles Tyler and Polly Farrell. Though I knew their names and dates, I had never seen photos of their graves, a bit farther west in Ohio. Suddenly, here they were.
Intriguingly, it listed among their children not only Sophronia, but a “Melissa Eunice Tyler Redington” (1822–1905), who married the wonderfully named Ransom Nathaniel Redington. When I clicked on her link, it showed not only a grave but a photo that looked as if it was taken in about 1860.
You can see her here, at left: a dramatic-looking woman, jaw square, beautiful but also clearly formidable, captured staring intensely in an early Tintype-era photo that could well have populated the background of a horror movie. I like her already, and even more so after learning that she named one of her children Horace Greeley Redington after the founding editor of the New York Tribune and the popularizer of the phrase, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.”
Melissa Redington, it turns out, died in 1905 in Amherst, Ohio, just over into neighboring Lorain County, where her sister had been born eight decades before.
Let’s take stock, then, of what we have:
- a unidentified woman named Melissa who appears in a family portrait in 1897 of which the centerpiece is Sophronia Tyler Anthony.
- the fact that Sophronia’s sister was named Melissa, which was an uncommon name at the time.
- the fact that the dates of her life match the appearance of the woman in the photo’s age.
- the fact that Melissa Redington could have quite plausibly been there for the family get-together because she lived just a few miles west. (Strengthening the notion that it was indeed something of a momentous get-together, two of the Anthony sisters-in-law, shown at the right, Martha Anthony Peck and Sarah Anthony Lord, were living in Colorado at the time).
- the possibility that there exists a resemblance between the Melissa Redington in the early photo and the “Melissa” in the family portrait, though about half a century separates the two images.
Let’s examine that final point a bit more closely.
It’s hard to avoid confirmation bias when you’re looking for a resemblance between people in two old photos. Yes, there are differences. But the hair part, the tilt of the mouth, the prominent cheekbones, the jawline and the close proximity of the eyebrows to the eyes all lead me to believe that this is indeed the same person — that the Melissa in question in the 1897 family portrait is, in fact, Sophronia’s sister, and that she came from her home a few miles away to attend a family reunion that involved her sister’s two sisters-in-law visiting from faraway Colorado.
I suspect that my grandfather, in writing down the names, had a dim memory of this woman named Melissa — she would have been his great-aunt — but did not know any more than her first name. After all, his branch of the family had, years before, moved 10 miles west into the city of Cleveland so his father, Hubert Mason Anthony (drooping mustache and glower, above), could run a grocery store and eventually become a streetcar conductor. So while my grandfather was of course aware of his Anthony ancestors, he may not have been quite as aware of more distant former Tylers who lived even further west into Lorain County.
Here are the photos placed side by side. The visual evidence, I concede, is far from overwhelming. But alongside the other stuff, it starts to feel pretty convincing.
Mystery solved? You be the judge.
- “Memories as strong as brick and mortar,” a column about saying goodbye to my childhood home (which I never actually ended up doing).
- “Internet helps families discover genealogical, personal ties,” a now very dated piece I wrote waaay back in 1998 using my family research as a way of exploring how the internet was changing genealogy.
Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand, has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.
©2015, Ted Anthony