A Woman for All Ages

Families come in all shapes, sizes, configurations and membership. It’s my understanding that my job as a genealogist is to trace my lineage to others who share a bloodline with me. It’s a way, I guess, to study my own evolution.

I continue to answer the call from 52 Ancestors in 52 Days 2019 to put flesh on the bones of an ancestor with its second prompt, Challenge. I choose to step outside the traditional confines of genealogy with this prompt to tell the story—what I know of it—of my great aunt, Ellen A. Sullivan. We don’t share a bloodline. That’s where, the purists may argue, I breach the borders of genealogy by including anything other than her vital statistics and her place on the family history as my great uncle’s spouse.

On a personal basis, I knew Aunt Ellen from the time I was born until she died, when I was 34. The question around her age was always the talk of the family. She married my great uncle, Bart Lavelle, in Minneapolis in 1937 when he was 35. From that day forward, her family of non-origin purported she was older than him. Much older. This woman with flaming red hair from childhood until the day she died dodged any questions about her age, except to say she was younger than Bart.

Bart & Ellen Sullivan Lavelle's wedding day, May 1, 1937. Bart is tall man on far right in back row. Ellen is to his right in the back row.

After marrying, Ellen and Bart made their home with Bart's brother, Ed, and his family. Bart and Ed's parents, Winifred McMullen and James Lavelle, also lived in Ed's home in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1940. Ellen was working for a government agency as an operator and Bart was a salesman.

Before 1950, Ellen, Bart, Winifred and James bought a home in Minneapolis where they all lived for the rest of their days. Ellen and Bart never had children, but they provided a home for many nieces and nephews who came to work or go to college in the “cities” after graduating from high school and leaving the farm where they grew up, which had been homesteaded in Erin Prairie, Wisconsin in 1855 by James’ father, Patrick Lavelle.

But all of that will be saved for another family story. This is Ellen’s story. One that has been and continues to challenge me to go beyond vital statistics.

Ellen A. Sullivan—I still don’t know what the A stands for—was born May 13, 1893 to Michael Sul­­­­livan and Phenia Brimhall in Lake, Price County, Wisconsin. She was the fourth of six daughters the couple would have. By 1905, the family would settle in Park Falls, Price County, Wisconsin, just a stone’s throw away from where Ellen had been born.

The 1900 census reveals that Mary D., 13, Cordelia, 11, Kate F., 9, Ellen A., 7, Elizabeth, 5, and Nora, 3, were all living at home. Michael and Phenia, who had been married for 14 years, were renting their home. Michael was working as an edgerman in a sawmill, which meant he would use a device called a lumber edger, which was equipped with saws used to straighten and smooth rough lumber or bowed stock by making a cut along the sides of the boards to create four sides. There is no occupation listed for Phenia, so I presume she is at home. Both could read, write and speak English. Only Mary and Cordelia were in school at this time, according to the census.

This census shows that Michael Sullivan was born in Ireland in May 1858 and migrated to the U.S. in 1875 with his father, who was born in Ireland, and his mother, whose birth place is unknown. Michael was a naturalized citizen, but I am unable to find his naturalization papers. Phenia was born November 1864. Her mother, Cordelia Wright, was born in Pennsylvania and her father, Sylvanus Brimhall was born in Indiana.

The 1905 census shows the Sullivans as homeowners, carrying a mortgage, in Park Falls. Michael was 50 and Phenia was 39 at the time the census was taken. There was no other new information about the family in this census.

 The 1910 census shows that Phenia has been widowed, has her own income and her home is mortgage-free. This census also notes that eight children were born to her, but only six are living—the same six who were listed in the 1900 and 1905 censuses. All of her children live at home. Mary and Cordelia, 23 and 21, respectively, are both employed as public-school teachers. The other four daughters, ranging in age from 19 to 13, are not noted as being in school or employed. A 23-year old woman working as a central girl in the telephone office—an operator, responsible for connecting calls, which all came through the main telephone office—is a roomer in their home.

A Find-a-Grave search takes me to Nola Cemetery in Park Falls where I find Michael’s and Phenia’s gravesites in Block D, Lot 17. I learn Michael’s middle name is Joseph and that he was born in 1856. He died in 1907 at age 51. I learn Phenia’s middle initial is B, but have no idea what it stands for. She lived from 1864 to1914, reaching only age 50. No other family members are buried there. I don’t know the cause of death for Michael or Phenia, but life expectancy for white males when Michael died was only 50 and for white females was 53.

I lose track of Ellen after the 1910 census and don’t find her in another census until 1940, when she is married and living in St. Paul with her in-laws. That 1940 census noted that she had also lived there in 1935. I have some hints as to her whereabouts in those 30 years. I assumed she was still living with her mother in 1914 when her mother died.

After Ellen died, family stories unfolded saying she had performed on Broadway in New York and was also part of the Broadway touring cast that performed in Chicago. Perhaps that’s where she was between 1914 and 1935. There was little evidence. Photos of her on stage and in ballerina attire lend truth to that story. My mother told me that Ellen’s sister-in-law threw away her Broadway playbills. I found over 3,000 playbills from the Chicago theater community digitized on the Chicago Public Library website, but have not had the time to sift through all of them looking for Ellen’s name.

Undated photo of Ellen Sullivan who looks like a dancer in this photo.

Ellen Sullivan playing a Red Cross nurse. This undated photo was taken by Theatrical Studio in Chicago, Illinois

Another undated photo of Ellen Sullivan shows her playing a dancer on the left. Photographer and place are unknown.

There are two pieces of strong evidence that put Ellen in New York at one time. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) shows that Ellen applied for a social security card before 1951 in New York. I am waiting for her application to arrive to see if there is information on it that will supply more details about her time there.  

I also have carbon copies of two letters that were among Ellen’s papers that led me to believe she was in New York in 1931. The originals of these letters were written to the program director at WNYC radio on April 29, 1931 regaling Ellen’s April 28 singing performance on that station. Below are transcriptions of Ellen's carbon copies of those letters, using their exact format, spelling and punctuation.

The unidentified sender of this letter caused me to check the 1930 New Jersey census on a hunch that Ellen may have written this letter herself, in an attempt to get a call-back. I didn’t find her in New Jersey, but still suspect Ellen was behind the letter.

This letter led me to find an entry in the 1930 Federal Census for Herman J. McCarthy that showed him as a single, 26-year old attorney living in Manhattan, New York. Did Ellen know him and charm him into writing this letter for her? She would have been 37 then, but perhaps represented herself as ten years younger than that, as our family believed she did to my uncle. And they were right.

The SSDI shows her birthdate as 1893, matching the early 20th century censuses I found for her. However, in the 1940 census, she reports her age as 36 and her Minnesota death certificate shows her birthdate as 1903.

Did vanity cause her to lie about her age? I don’t think so. I speculate it had to do with survival. Both her parents were dead by the time she was 21. She didn’t marry until she was 45. She was on her own, likely attempting to make it in the entertainment industry, where women have always aged-out more quickly than men.

And even after marrying my uncle, she continued to work much longer than her contemporaries. He was a delightful man but was unemployed more than he was employed. It wasn’t just the entertainment industry that preferred younger women over older women in those days—and often, still, in these days. In addition to declaring to be 36 on the 1940 census, which I know is an outright lie, she also reported her highest level of education as the second year of college. I suspect that was part of the script she was writing for potential employers.

She eventually worked as a ticket agent for the Saint Paul Union Depot, an elegant passenger train station. And she pulled off her on-the-job-performance with pizazz, always dressing—as they said in those days—“to the nines” and using her theatrical experience to stay in character with flawless make-up, that flaming red hair and a youthful spirit that kept her audience enamored with her.

No, Ellen and I don’t share a bloodline. But, in many ways, I have discovered that we are kindred spirits, which is a connection that is often thicker than blood.


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