Sunday, February 6, 2011

James N. Ryan - Fact or Fiction

In the initial post about Jim Ryan, sailor, I referred to him as "St. James." This is because of the fact that over time, it's been hard to separate fact from fiction.  One of the biggest legends has to do with Jim "saving the day" on the USS Virginia by using his skills as a "moulder" to forge a critical piece that enabled the ship to continue its mission.  I believe the evidence suggests that there is truth to this legend.

In his naval career, Jim was promoted to "blacksmith"/foundryman. It is said that while at sea, Jim was able to "save the day" by forging a critical part that enabled the USS Virginia to continue on a tour.  From here the story becomes unclear.  My Uncle Jim Ryan told me that the piece in question was the ship's prop.  He said that Jim was able to dive down, remove the prop and make the critical repair.  Even as he told me the story, he agreed that this version was not feasible.  Pat Biederman told me that Alvin Wulfekuhl had been to the National Archives and verified the story.  I talked with Alvin and he claimed it was not him.  My cousin, Mike Ryan, told me that in a conversation with his Great-Aunt Rose (sister of the sailor) that she said because of Jim's success, a forge for the first time became a standard part of all ships moving forward.

This is a story that is going to require more investigation.  Apparently Jim told members of the crew that if they could get a hot enough fire, that he could make the repair.  Given the fact that he had worked with his father as a "moulder" before his enlistment, it appears that there has to be some factual basis to these commonly held
stories.  I've not yet figured out how to "prove" this, but should I or any of my readers solve this problem, I will update the blog.

I thought it would be fun to have a "snopes-like" question and answer about some of the things that have been said about James Nicholas Ryan.  So see how well you know Jim.

Claim:  Jim was 16 years old when he lied about his age in order to enlist in the navy.
PARTIALLY TRUE  Jim did "lie" about his age on his enlistment papers, but he was 18 at the time of enlistment
        -- not 16.

Claim:  Jim was a Junior, named after his father.
PARTIALLY TRUE  Jim has the same first name as his father, but his middle name is Nicholas (instead of Hugh).

Claim:  Jim died at the age of 22, a few days after his birthday.
Jim died on May 1, 1911.  His 22nd birthday was April 28th. (Some newspaper articles are incorrect).

Claim:  Jim died as the result of choking on tobacco.
 The cause of death was diphtheria.

Claim:  There is a building in Washington, D.C. named after Jim.
There is a building that houses students on the campus of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. named after James Hugh Ryan.  However, this James Hugh Ryan was a Rector at the university and later the Archbishop of the Diocese of Omaha.

Claim:  James N. Ryan is buried in an unmarked grave in St. John's Cemetery in St. Bernard, OH.
Not only is Jim buried in an unmarked grave in St. John's, but also his father, mother and six other relatives.  The family was very poor at the time.  When James Hugh died, he was buried in a single grave.  Rose Ryan was also buried in a single grave.  The others are in the same plot.  

Claim:  James and his father had a very close relationship.
UNDETERMINED  The letters between father and son and the "Father's Lament" published in the previous post suggest a very close relationship.  However, some family members were of the opinion that Jim enlisted to get away from his father. (I tend to think they were close).

Claim: At the time of Jim's death he was a blacksmith in the navy.
Jim was promoted to blacksmith/foundryman on January 1, 1910.

Claim:  Due to Jim's success in making a repair at sea, a forge was installed in all future battleships.
 UNDETERMINED  The evidence at this point is "oral tradition."  This is a question that also will require additional research.

To my Great-Uncle Jim -- You'd be surprised to hear of the impact that you've continued to have on your extended family.  Several family members still have your picture on display.  It is because of you that many of us hope to meet for the first time a week from Saturday.  Thanks for your story.

1 comment:

  1. Well done! I so enjoyed following your young sailor around the world, was touched by his too early death and the pain it caused his family. Best of luck on the forge story. I suspect that will be a tough one to prove or disprove.


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