She gazes into the present across what to her would be the featureless plain of the next 160 years. Vilenda M. Gay could not know, in 1855, how many years would pass before her spectral, oval-cut image would tumble from a pile of heirloom family photos in 2015 that had arrived in my care perhaps twenty years earlier. I had never heard of her, but after a little research I was able to tie her indirectly to my great-great-grandmother, Mary Jane (Knowlton) Sweet, and directly Mary Jane Sweet’s cousin and best friend, Mary Jane (Gay) Ranger.
Framed for this story against the back of someone else’s better-conserved cabinet photo, is preserved what may be her only sitting for a photographer and what may be the only existing copy of her image.
The caption across the bottom, in letters that overlap the photo, states that this is “Vilenda M. Gay taken in 18th year of her [age]”.
I now know, in addition to her name, who she was and how the preservation of her picture became my responsibility, although I didn’t suspect she had ever existed until I began to dig diligently into the history of her brother-in-law. Neither of them is my ancestor, but there is a connection.
MARY JANE and MARY JANE
In 1845, Jason Knowlton and Rachel (Presson) Knowlton, of Farmington, Maine, had a daughter they named Mary Jane. In 1850, Jason’s sister, Rebecca (Knowlton) Gay and her husband, Eliphaz Gay, had a daughter whom they named Mary Jane. By the time Mary Jane Gay and Mary Jane Knowlton had grown up they apparently had become the best of friends.
Here are Mary Jane Knowlton (1845-1913), on the left, and Mary Jane Gay (1850-1922), on the right, each at around the age of 20.
The two Mary Janes were first cousins. In 1880, when she was 35 and he 43, Mary Jane Knowlton married Andrew Jackson Sweet. They had one child, Goldie May Sweet, born in 1882. Here is Andrew Sweet at about 20, and a family photo when Goldie was a child.
To complete the photo section, (well, almost), and so I can get on with the story, here are two more photos: Goldie at 18, clearly a lucky girl not to resemble her mother too awful much, and below that, a photo of her mother, Mary Jane (Knowlton) Sweet, at age 61, on the left, along with Goldie’s daughter with husband, Ralph Hines, whom they named Clarice Augusta Hines, at age three in the photo. To Clarice’s right is Mary Jane’s sister, Augusta (Knowlton) Mossman, wearing the glasses.
Aunt Gustie or Gussie, as Augusta was known, (I’ve seen it both ways), was 63 in this photo and two years older than Mary Jane. At this point, for those not aware of it: Clarice Augusta Hines was my grandmother, my father’s mother. Goldie was Clarice’s mother, and I was well-acquainted with both of them. I was 18 when Clarice died in January 1969. Goldie, whom my father brought to live with our family after Clarice’s death, died at our house four months later.
MABEL GERTRUDE GILMAN RANGER
Mary Jane Gay married George Warren Ranger (1843-1911) in 1876, four years before her cousin married Andrew Sweet, my great-great-grandfather. Mary Jane (Knowlton) Sweet, my great-great-grandmother, had but one child, Goldie, who, incidentally, had but one child herself surviving to adulthood, Clarice, born in 1903. When Goldie Sweet was born in 1882, George and Mary Jane Ranger were still childless. In fact, when Mabel Gilman came into their lives, they still had no children of their own and so it remained for the rest of their lives. Of these just mentioned, George W. Ranger died first, in 1911. Goldie’s mother, Mary Jane (Knowlton) Sweet, died in 1913, leaving Goldie, my great-grandmother, as her only survivor. Mary Jane (Gay) Ranger never did have any biological children, and when she died in 1922, her family photos went to Goldie, who was 40 at the time.
Mabel Ranger’s arrival as an adopted child of George and Mary Jane Ranger, roughly around 1898-1899, brings with it the saga of Charles E. Gilman. Here is the note that I have attached to Mabel’s record in my own genealogical database:
Mabel Gertrude Gilman (1886 Michigan – 1973 Rhode Island), born to Charles E. Gilman (~1850 Maine – 1889 Maine) of Anson, Maine and Amelia A. Mosier (~1863 Michigan – 1950 Michigan) of Leland, Michigan, was adopted (when?) by George W. Ranger and Mary Jane (Gay) Ranger of Farmington, Maine. There are records to show that Charles Gilman was born and died in Maine and that Amelia (Mosier) Gilman was born and died in Michigan. Their marriage date (found at iWhipple.org) is November 22, 1881. They had three children in addition to Mabel: Charles Leonard Gilman (1883 Michigan – 1957 prob. Michigan), Sylvia Josephine Gilman (1884 Michigan – 1983 Michigan), and George William Gilman (1889 Maine – 1972 Massachusetts). In 1892, when the youngest child was two and a half, Amelia (Mosier) Gilman married Calvin E. Hilton (1867 Maine – 1941 Michigan). From this data the following sketchy story emerges: Charles Gilman, having traveled west in his younger years, brought his wife and first three children from Michigan to Maine after Mabel was born in 1886 and before George was born in 1889. Amelia became pregnant with their fourth child while en route or after arriving in Maine. Charles died January 26, 1889, but I can only speculate how. Was it soon after they arrived in Maine? Did he fall through the ice while crossing a river? Did he succumb to a fatal illness? Did he injure himself severely while cutting firewood? Mabel was two and a half when her father died. Six months after Charles E. Gilman died, Amelia gave birth to a son, whom she named George William Gilman, June 13, 1889, in Mercer, Maine, not a great distance from Farmington where George and Mary Jane Ranger lived. Had the Rangers already befriended them and thus the youngest Gilman child was named for George W. Ranger? In January 1892 Amelia (Mosier) Gilman married the aforementioned Calvin E. Hilton, and together they had two more children, Ella Frances Hilton (1893 Maine – 1998 Michigan – yes, she lived to 105!) and Lewis Morris Hilton (1895 Maine – 1985 Florida). How many of Amelia’s children were let go for adoption, if more than one, is not clear. However, given that Amelia, her second husband, Calvin Hilton, and at least one of the two Hilton children all died in Michigan, it is likely that some time before 1900, Amelia persuaded the family to return to Michigan with her. The oldest two Gilman children, in their mid-late teens by then, would have been reaching their majority and may have stayed in Maine for a time, although their place of death is given as Michigan. Mabel would have been age 9 when her youngest step-sibling was born and perhaps no more than 11-12 when the remnant of her family, minus her birth father, elected to move to Michigan. She may have pleaded not to go and was suitably enfolded into the Ranger household. George and Mary Jane Ranger were otherwise childless, and the apparent close relationship between the Ranger family and the Andrew Sweet family could only have thrust Mabel and my great-grandmother Goldie together as friends, their difference in age being something over three years. This story is plausible and, in the absence of a documented history of the family, may as well serve as an explanation. (Information about Gilman and Hilton individuals was gleaned chiefly from http://iwhipple.org/getperson.php?personID=I137560&tree=whipple.)
I wish I knew more than I do about George Ranger. Besides turning up his month, year, and place of birth (Hollis, New Hampshire), researching his genealogy has proved fruitless. Except for his adopted daughter, Mabel, I have discovered no descendants. Mabel, however, carried on. In 1912, she married Dr. Lucius Albert Whipple, of Smithfield, Rhode Island. They were the parents of Dorothy Sayles (Whipple) Burgess (1914-2005). With her husband, William Wallace Burgess, Jr., Dorothy owned and published The Observer, the weekly community newspaper serving northern Rhode Island. Observer Publications remains in the family of her descendants, grandchildren of Mabel Gertrude (Gilman Ranger) Whipple.
VILENDA M. GAY
So, returning to the opening photograph, who was Vilenda, and what became of her? She was Mary Jane Gay’s older sister by a different mother. Vilenda was born in 1838, twelve years before Mary Jane. Their father, husband of Rebecca (Knowlton) Gay, was Eliphaz Gay. He was the son of William Gay. I have no photo, that I know of, depicting Eliphaz Gay. Here, remarkably, is William Gay’s photo, captioned with his name and the inscription: “Taken in the 83rd year of his age”. William was born September 17, 1772. Yes, this is the photo of a man born before the Revolutionary War. I like his quietly triumphant expression mixed with obvious skepticism about this miracle of photography. Some 243 years after his birth, his portrait falls out of a handful of mostly unidentified photos, and thanks to someone’s foresight in attaching his name, he is recognized.
It is worth noting the way his age is expressed: in the 83rd year of his age. Americans now commonly speak of one’s attained years; the way we count it now, you’re not 83 until you have attained your 83rd birthday. In other parts of the world, and in earlier times here, as soon as you have attained your 17th birthday, for instance, you’re in your 18th year.
There is also the variation that occurs when, if you had lived more than 150 years ago, you might not know the date of your birth but only the year. In that case, if you were born in 1838, which is the first year of your age, then all through 1855 you would be in your 18th year. The way we express it now, you’d have been 16 until your 17th birthday in 1855, and then from that birthday you’d be in your 18th year, culminating in your 18th birthday in 1856.
Let’s assume that the photos of William and Vilenda were taken on the same date, as surely it was a serious occasion to have one’s photo taken — in Maine! — only a decade after photography became publicly available to those few who could afford to purchase the equipment. In the case of William Gay, the photo almost assuredly was taken some time very early in 1855, after his birthday the previous September. By our modern counting he would have been 82 but in his 83rd year. He died November 12, 1856, shortly after his 84th birthday.
Vilenda’s photo says it was taken in her 18th year, meaning either that she had turned 17 before the photo session, or that it was taken some time in 1855, which was her 18th calendar year. There is one powerful argument that she had not yet attained her 18th birthday, and possibly not even her 17th: She died February 7, 1855. There is no month and day attached to her 1838 birth year, but if she were already a full 17 in the photo, her birthdate must have been somewhere between the first of January and the first week of February. Her little sister, Mary Jane, was not yet five years old and has left no record to tell us. The girl you see in the haunting portrait may be posing for the only photograph ever taken of her. The one I have may be the only remaining copy of it, but if not, it may be the only copy that is fully documented, all others being relegated, if they still exist, to other people’s piles of mystery relatives.
Stumbling onto Vilenda Gay’s picture with her name across the bottom reminds me of these lines from Ecclesiasticus 44:8-9 in the Apocrypha —
Some there are who have left behind them a name to be commemorated in story. Others are unremembered; they have perished as though they had never existed; as though they had never been born; so too it was with their children after them.