Anyone Up for a Challenge?

Ok, this one is making me angry.

I’ll set the scene: I was searching for an ancestor to write about for Amy Johnson Crow’s “Namesake” prompt this month, and I eventually decided that it had to be someone on the Merrill side of my family tree. I mean, there’s my great-great-grandmother, Celestia Melvina, who was named after her aunt, Celestia Lurania; her father, William Oliver, got his name from a paternal uncle; and his great-grandfather, Nathaniel, was named after the first Merrill in America. I had a few options, luckily, and it was just a matter of choosing which story to tell. So I started with the local newspaper, and–well, it’s probably best if you just read the article for yourself:

A familiar figure about town, that of “Push-me-quick” or “Doctor Scissors” as he was known, is no more. The old man was killed by the flyer, No. 4, near Finck’s brewery west of town this morning at about half past seven o’clock. He was walking down the track, and appears not to have heard the whistle. He was struck behind, and thrown off the track. His hip, ribs and the back of his head were fractured and death was instantaneous. The train backed and brought the body down. It was taken to Coroner Blood’s morgue shortly after arrival.

“Push-me-quick” was a sobriquet given the deceased by the boys. His real name was Merrill, and his brother, Lyman B. Merrill, a teamster of Laona, is his only relative. Merrill had been in the poorhouse, and was a confirmed vagabond. He was well-known around the city, where he has had many reencounters with his adversaries, the boys, who teased him. He picked up what he could get, and lived on charity. When found he had only one shoe. He was between sixty and seventy apparently.

The inquest was held this afternoon, Coroner Blood having impaneled this jury: C.F. White, foreman; J.W. Perkins, John Hilton, Clark Bloss, A.S. Roberts, J. Thomas and O. Hiller. Dr. Smith and the officials of the train testified. It appeared that Merrill had got outside the rail when struck by the bumper.

William Merrill, a nephew of Laona, arrived in the city this afternoon. The deceased’s name was Allan H. Merrill. He was eighty last October. He has three brothers, one in Jefferson and one in Laona, and one in Yorkshire. (“Killed By the Cars: An Old Man Struck Down To-day,” Dunkirk Evening Observer, May 27, 1885)

I would like to know what constitutes “teasing” in this reporter’s opinion, and I would love to know how the town “confirmed” that Allen was a “vagabond.” I would also be interested in knowing why this reporter decided to start off with the “sobriquets” given to him by “the boys” before finally finding the decency to share his name in the final paragraph (he spelled Allen wrong, but at least it’s there?). And while it’s completely plausible that this was an accident–my great-great-grandmother was struck by a train in 1950, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault at all–I’m not convinced that “the boys” weren’t hanging around the brewery at the time, either.

See, I told you. Angry.

Main Street, Jamestown, New York, 1875

And now, I could use some advice, because Allen is proving to be very elusive. Here’s what I’ve found: he was born on October 5, 1805 in Fairfax, Virginia to Allen and Tamma (Smith) Merrill, the third of ten children. Within five years, his parents had packed up and moved to Johnstown, New York, and that’s where I’ve lost him. Allen doesn’t show up in the records again until the 1870 census, when he’s living alone and working as a stage driver in Pomfret, New York. By 1875, he was unemployed and living with his older brother (my 4th great-grandfather, Lyman Burton Merrill), and in 1880, he was serving a 60-day sentence in the Chautauqua County Jail for “vagrancy.” He passed away on April 5, 1885 at the age of 79; I don’t even know where he was buried.

Merrill, Allen
Allen Merrill is listed as serving a 60-day sentence for “vagrancy” in the Chautauqua County Jail // 1880 Supplemental Schedule 7, for the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes

There are two more clues that haven’t led me anywhere yet, but I’m hoping that they one day will. William Richard Cutter’s Genealogical and Family History of Western New York lists Allen’s name as “Alton,” and I’m wondering if he went by Alton earlier in life. The other? The 1880 census lists him as a “widower,” indicating that he was married before he moved to Pomfret in 1870–maybe he even had children of his own. All I know is that Allen deserves a better obituary than the mess printed in the Dunkirk Evening Observer on May 27, 1885, and I’m determined to write it for him. If you have any advice–or are up for a new challenge–I could really, really use the help.

Somehow I keep adding onto my list of summer projects. I guess we’re never really finished with our family’s story, are we?

15 thoughts on “Anyone Up for a Challenge?

    1. I’ve found him listed in a couple of them, but not in all. There’s gaps in his story that I can’t fill yet–I wish I knew where he was during those unknown years. I’ve only just started researching him, though, so I’m hopeful!


  1. Terrible article but it goes to show that “Yellow Journalism” has been around for a long time. In census recordings of the past, people without a prior home were sometimes listed as “widowers.” I’ll dig a little and see what I can find.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Well I hate the name of the Coronor ‘Blood’ – lol
    I was able to find an addional article on The Buffalo Commericial (buffalo, New York).29 May 1885, Fri . Page 4
    “Allan Merrill, eighty years of age, was killed Thursday morning by a train on the Lakeshore railroad, at the crossing of Finck’s brewery, about one mile west of Dunkirk. He had no wife, and usually spent winter at the county poorhouse, and during the summer months traveled about the county, begging his food from the farmers. Coronor Blood held an inquest, and the jury returned a verdict exonerating the railroad county from blame.” In addition there was one other small mention in the Buffalo Evening News that did not shed any more light. My question would be what led him to this state in his life. I hope the above mention sheds a bit more light on him for you. He seems to have been well known in the area. He was not married so I assume no children 🙂 Sharon

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Have I ever told you that you’re my favorite person?

      And Coroner Blood–I had the same reaction! What a fitting name.

      This helps so much, and I would love to know how he got there, too. I don’t know if that’s even possible, but I’ll keep looking! Maybe it’s in a family member’s memoir or something.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s so sweet jamie TY – I remember finding your blog when you first started and I knew then …now this is an exceptional family story teller and have enjoyed your posts ever since.
        I know you know what research lines to pursue – I would research and follow all his siblings and sketch out their whereabouts with a time line, overlap them all, find researchers/descendants, write to them all questioning if they know anything blah blah blah 🙂 What was the poor house back then and where? Goodness this is a mystery I would enjoy looking into also….most of all – have fun! Sharon

        Liked by 2 people

  3. My Great grandfather was hit by a train in Chicago in 1911. The inquest is available in the Illinois archives but got his name wrong. An August 21st Tribune article with a very colorful description of the event and disparaging description of my g-Grandfather did get his name right. It happened in an unincorporated part of Chicago and there is no death certificate. I have never found where he was buried but assume since he was from out of town he was buried as a pauper with no grave marker or record.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That sounds a lot like this story; some articles didn’t even mention his real name, and I can only guess that he was buried without a marker in the local poorhouse’s “cemetery.” It makes me sad that this story is so common.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s going to be a long slog, but have you dug through criminal records? Are there any still saved for those areas? If he was floating from place to place, at least the criminal records would locate him. Chances are he had run ins, like you said. But, none of them are on FamilySearch. I was comparing records on FS vs. those in a state archive for a county this last week and found that the criminal records were exactly what had not been filmed.

    If he was really homeless (or nearly so), then he’s not going to show up in property records or anything like that. Likewise tax lists, if such a thing exists for those places.

    Police and courts may be all you have left. And then if you find him there, you can move out from there.

    Good luck!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I didn’t even think of criminal records! At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to find him in there–whether it was his fault or not. It looks like he jumped between his siblings and nephews houses, but there are a few years unaccounted for. I’ll start searching with those; fingers crossed!

      Liked by 1 person

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