For years, this picture had haunted my father. Two of the figures he knew quite well, one was his aunt, the sparkling and witty Fanny as a teenager standing next to her mother, his grandmother, but the other two were total strangers. The only clue we had was the phrase written on the back of the picture in his father's handwriting that simply stated, "Mom and Aunt Sara". He'd discovered the photos while cleaning out my grandmother's apartment after she had a stroke, long after his father had passed away. There were no other family members to ask, his aunt had passed away some years earlier, and his only cousin on that side of the family, just 12 hours his senior had also passed away the year before. One night as we were looking over the pictures and talking about family after I had moved back to Maryland, he brought this picture out and handed it to me with a request. "Please find out who Aunt Sara is." The resemblance between my great-grandmother and the mysterious Aunt Sara is a strong one, so it was obvious to us that this was a blood relative.
Tracing my father's side of my family has been a challenge from the beginning and is a blog entry unto itself. Of his father's family, he knew virtually nothing, aside that his grandfather died when his father was in his early teens. Of his grandmother's side he knew just a little more. That her father had owned a rather prominent framing company in Baltimore at the end of the 19th century, that she had one sister and one brother and had married her father's West Virginia Lumber Company's bookkeeper about 1901. He knew she had grown up in Relay, that her daughter had actually been raised by her sister Harriet after the death of her husband and that she had very little love for the 'foreign woman' aka my wonderful grandmother, who married her only son when he was 28.
Armed with only a handful of names, the deed to cemetery plot and a couple of letters that went back and forth between my father's great-grandfather and the War Department over repayment of his possessions lost when the picket boat he was serving on during the Civil War sank, I headed out the most logical places to look, the Census and Baltimore City records. It was literally an ordeal by fire as Baltimore pretty much burned to the ground in 1904, turning most of the city records to ashes. And we all know the pain of loss over the 1890 census.
Finding the Landons turned into quite the hide and seek search. They are an elusive family, appearing in only a a very limited number of censuses. George and his wife appear together in only the 1880 census, even though they were married in 1863. The Landon family plot holds a random assortment of relatives, in-laws and infants, but no siblings. It wasn't until I went over my grandmother's handwritten list of who was in this plot that I discovered my first big break, not only was George W. Landon's father buried there, but his mother in law and aunt in law were also interred there. Armed with the next generation back of names, I returned to the census and to the Baltimore city records. Hours of sitting at the microfilm machine trying to avoid motion sickness was finally rewarded when I found in the 1850 census, one Josiah W, Landon, his wife Alice and their four children. And there was George, along with his brother Joseph W, his sister Amelia and his sister Mary. And while I was thrilled to discover this additional information, I wasn't any closer to finding Aunt Sara than I had been two years earlier when my father handed me that picture. Finding Joseph's wife's name was ridiculously easy, he had been married just a year after his brother and they were both listed in the Baltimore Sun index. But her name was Margaret so once again, I was off on my chase. I turned my attention to Sarah Jennie Lynch Landon's family. It took another year of research, owing partly to the fact that Sarah's abrupt disappearance from the public eye after 1880 and the odd weaving of half truths and omissions based on the very sad discovery that Sarah Landon spent the last 24 years of her life at Mount Hope Retreat. Again. No other Sarah but Sarah Lynch Landon.
I put the search aside for a bit, hitting that brick wall can be painful. About a year later, I found myself again at the library in Baltimore and decided it would be nice to go back to the old City Directories and pull the ads for Landon and Kent for my father. It tickled him that the building his great-grandfather had his offices in was still standing and I knew he'd get a kick out of seeing those old ads. I was once again back at the microfilm machines and ran across the entry showing George W. Landon's home and noticed a name I hadn't seen before. Emmeline. Listed as Mrs. Emmeline Landon, living at the same address as George W. Landon. Sarah Lynch Landon was not listed and I now know that is because in 1890, she was at Mount Hope. Both my father's grandmother and his grand aunt Harriet were young girls at the time, so obviously this was a female relative that had come to stay and help him with his young daughters. Figuring it was worth a back track, I took the name Emmeline Landon and started back through the censuses once more, figuring she was an widowed aunt of George's. I'd already come to see that family was very important to George Landon, his company employed his brother, his nephews, his son and later his son in law. His eldest sister spent the last years of his life living with him and keeping house for him. By this time, I was a member of Ancestry.com so instead of sitting in front of microfilm machines I plugged in this tidbit of information into the Ancestry search and almost immediately, the name Emmeline Landon popped up, listed as the spouse of one Josiah Landon in the 1870 census. I felt kind of sheepish, I had not pursed Josiah Landon after my first discovery of him. Obviously he's remarried after his wife, George's mother had died. I clicked on the view image and grabbed my pen so that I could make some notes about this second wife to add to the history I was building for my father, never expecting to find anything more than Josiah and Emmeline listed. After all, this was the 1870 census, Josiah has been born in 1802 and I knew that he died in 1975. In 1870 he was a grandfather several times over. So I was totally unprepared for the list of four names after Emmeline's. Four little girls, Lydia, Emma, Laura and Sara
. I'd found her. The mysterious Aunt Sara. One of four half sisters that nobody had ever mentioned. Part of a family that we'd never known existed and had it not been for that single note on the back of a very old photo, she would have forever remained merely a name on a census page.