Wednesday, April 21, 2010

James Nicholas Ryan


This is one of my favorite family photos.  The first time I saw it, I recognized his face right away.  If I show it to family members and ask them who it reminds them of, they all see the likeness of my nephew, Christopher.  That's pretty amazing, since James would be a gg-uncle to Christopher -- hardly a close genetic relative.

James was the first of nine children born to James Hugh and Rose Ryan.  He was born on April 28, 1889 and baptized at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral.  James' story has always intrigued me because he died tragically of diphtheria on May 1, 1911  -- just days after he turned 22 years old.  Family notes say that he died aboard the U.S. Ship "Virginia" while it was docked in the Boston Navy Yards.  As I stated in an earlier post, his father was so devastated that he insisted on verifying that it was, in fact, his son inside the coffin when it was returned to Elmwood Place.  He just couldn't believe that his first-born could have died in the prime of his life.



The family story surrounding James is quite interesting and one I hope to investigate further.  Our version goes something like this. James dreamed of joining the Navy.  He was so interested in joining that at the age of 17, before he was old enough to volunteer, he used his father's name, James H., to sign up early.  (I question this, but that's the story).

While in the Navy he was apparently at sea in a fleet of three ships when the propeller on one of the ships broke.  With one of the ship's disabled, the fleet could no longer continue on its mission.  Somehow the commanders of the ship became aware of the fact that James' father was a "brass molder" and that James N. knew something about the process.  They were able to remove the damaged prop and James was able to use materials aboard ship and mold a replacement blade.  This enabled the fleet of ships to continue on their mission.

As a result of this there was a change in Navy policy and all new ships had a "foundry" aboard ship to enable them to do onboard repairs.  In addition, "the story" is that a building was named after James, but it was called the "James Hugh Ryan" building vs. James Nicolas since he had signed up using his father's name and that's how he was known in the Navy.  He was also honored with a flag from the ship.  My mother had that flag and when she was going through things before her death, she asked me if I thought we should keep it.  Not understanding what it was, or its significance, it ended up on the pitch pile.  Oh how I, and my cousin Mike, regret that decision now.

Now my curiosity is overwhelming.  There must be some truth to his lying about his age because I located James' Death Certificate in Massachusetts.  This is the information from it:

Name: James N Ryan
Death date: 01 May 1911
Death place: Boston,,Massachusetts
Gender: Male
Race or color (expanded): White
Age in years: 25
Estimated birth year: 1886
Birth date: 1886
Birthplace: Cincinnati, Ohio
Marital status: Single
Father's name: J H Ryan
Film number: 2393942
Digital GS number: 4283225
Image number: 00801
Reference number: 738
Collection: Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841 - 1915

The estimated birth year seems to support "the story's" claim that James falsified his age in order to join the Navy early.  Today I plan to submit a records request to the National Archives to see what parts of the story can be supported by his actual file.  It's difficult for me to accept that people in the prime of their life could die from something we vaccinate for and prevent today.  How nice it was to even have to look up diphtheria as it is not something that is part of our 21st Century lives.  I'll keep you posted on what I find out after I get the file from the National Archives.

Note:  Based on the NARA records and some newly-found cousins, this post has been updated.  Please refer to posts on this topic that begin on January 31, 2011.

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