Just because you can nostalgically list everything from your childhood in metro Detroit doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Not unless you have a good story, anyway.
Absent that, I give you something more national in scope. And something far more mysterious.
The story begins (and seemingly ends) in San Francisco.
Specifically, this story begins with an object free of context or backstory. The Friends of the San Francisco Public Library has a permanent store in Fort Mason. It’s a hidden gem with a great little cafe right on the water; used CDs, DVDS, and books for sale; places to sit and read; and a few bins of interesting images that they’ve pulled from old books.
In the past I’ve bought prints from old books on fruits and vegetables, figures on academic attire, and maps from water-damaged atlases that they can’t sell anymore. By the time they reach the bin, no one seems clear on where the original images came from, which is exactly how I came across the artifact in question.
About five years ago I found and bought a very odd handwritten document, seen below:
It’s hard to describe the intimacy you feel when holding this document (which I bought for $2.) The author of this note—a mother, Isabella Williamson—filled out this pre-printed form for her son, William Williamson, who was just shy of 14 at the time, 1892.
The paper is still crisp, but slightly torn where it has been folded in deep, worn creases. The paper is just barely yellowed at the edges, but not much for a document that is over 120 years old; it was probably held between pages in a book or other dossier to protect it. It doesn’t smell musty so you get the feeling that it’s still new in some way despite its obvious age.
When viewing it in person, you can feel the mother’s care and protection not only in her perfect penmanship (written apparently in a very light black ink) but also in her description of her “fair” complexioned, “dark brown” haired son who stood at 5’1”. The document was signed by a C. L. Hunt of Clinton Massachusetts, apparently the superintendent of schools where young William was born and raised.
The document itself, titled “Form 3: Age and School Certificate - Law of 1888,” as much as I can tell, was a form printed out and required for a child under the age of 14 to be able to work. Judging by the date it was signed (May 3 1892) and when it expired (September 8 1892), we might assume that this was filled out so that William could work during his summer break.
This is as much as we know with any certainty. Everything else I provide below is conjecture, and based in a motivated interest in solving the mystery behind this innocuous document.
The search has led me to desperately answer the following questions:
- Who was/is Isabella and William Williamson? What happened to them? How did this paper come to be preserved and transported between Clinton, Mass. and San Francisco, CA?
To try to answer these questions, I tracked down, and provide for you here, the following information.
1. Who was/is Isabella and William Williamson?
Unfortunately the Williamson surname is so common that it’s hard to answer this main question with any certainty. We know, based on the information on the form, that William was born in Clinton, Massachusetts, and so we can assume that he and Isabella lived there for some time, and perhaps died (and were buried) there, too.
There is one major cemetery in Clinton, MA, Woodlawn Cemetery, and an Internet search doesn’t reveal an Isabella or William Williamson buried there (though admittedly my search has been hasty and incomplete, so relevant information might still be out there.)
This photo shows the cemetery, and is contained within an excellent portfolio of shots of the place in question:
An Internet search for “William Williamson” reveals either too many links to count, or none that seem directly relevant. Interestingly, though, there does appear to be a William Williamson still living in Clinton, Massachusetts; he’s in his 60s and his phone number is easily available.
Likewise a search for “Isabella Williamson” returns a lot of hits, many of which seem to point to similar names coming not from Massachusetts, but from England and Scotland. One such return brought me to an Isabella Duxbury Williamson from Padiham, England. As will be explained in the section below, this discovery may provided some insights not found on American soil.
However, Duxbury (like Williamson in America) was a popular surname in 19th century England, and there were no less than three girls named Isabella Duxbury born in Lancashire in 1847, which is the year that she may have been born.
If she was indeed born in 1847, that would make her 31 when she gave birth to William, admittedly older than the norm of the time, but not impossible.
Guessing at Isabella’s maiden name and origin changes the search completely, and so I hold off on going too far down the rabbit hole without more information. The Isabella Duxbury Williamson in question, however, was married to a William Williamson (father to our young William?) but without further information we can’t guess with any reasonable conviction beyond that.
2. What happened to them?
Without further information about their lives and deaths, we don’t know what happened to the two people at the heart of this search. However, there are some interesting clues to the people around them if we’re willing to make some small leaps in circumstantial evidence.
The most compelling of such evidence comes from searching the available graves in Woodlawn Cemetery online. Though I wasn’t able to locate an Isabella or William Williamson, I was able to find an Alice Isabella Williamson Maybury buried in Clinton, MA.
In addition to the two names—Isabella and Williamson—being placed on the same tombstone in a relevant cemetery where “Form 3” originated being particularly interesting, the full inscription on the stone leads to an exciting possible discovery. Beneath Alice’s name and birth/death dates (1884, making her six years older than William; and 1954) are the names of her parents:
William Williamson and Isabella Duxbury
Is this the Isabella Duxbury born in 1847 Padiham and her husband, whose name was passed onto a young boy looking for summer work in 1892?
In addition to her parents, her information also reveals the husband’s name (George Atkinson Mayberry) and one son, Donald Williamson Mayberry (1912-1998.) This would make Donald Isabella’s grandson and William’s nephew.
And this is where things start getting particularly interesting.
A search for Donald Williamson Mayberry eventually leads us to the Rev. Dr. Donald Williamson Mayberry (likewise born in 1912), a product of Hobart College and the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA. He went on to run several churches, be a chaplain in the Navy during WWII, and be the rector at St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square, across from the White House in Washington D.C.
A further search leads us to a Princeton Alumni Weekly announcement from 1948 that a Dr. Donald Williamson Mayberry married an Amoret Chapman Bissell. The two were wed on August 14, 1948 (see under announcement 4 below.)
Searches for Amoret Chapman Bissell (who later became Amoret Bissell Mayberry) reveal that she graduated from Bryn Mawr in the same year she wed Williamson Mayberry, 1948. I’ve tracked down her senior portrait from the yearbook:
A page from her senior yearbook reveals her original address, 214 E. 72nd St. New York City, and what can still be seen today as a stately house in the Upper East Side (the brown one below):
We know that Amoret was still alive as late as 1999, as a New York Times obituary lists her a surviving sister to Tallman Bissell who died that year. Another search reveals that she may have later died in 2002.
3. How did this paper come to be preserved and transported between Clinton, MA and San Francisco, CA?
Rev. Donald Williamson Mayberry died in San Francisco in 1998, and is buried in the Golden Gate National Cemetery located a few miles south of the city in San Bruno (all but one of the city’s cemeteries were relocated following the 1906 earthquake.)
According to one of the books cited above, he moved to San Francisco around 1966 to be a rector at St. Peter’s until 1978 (though I’m still unclear on which church this refers to in SF.)
According to the information provided on on Find-A-Grave, Mayberry remarried in 1969 to a woman named Natalie Dolores Hubbert. Quick searches for her turn up a possible match for a woman born in Alameda, CA (directly across the Bay from SF), and the presence of a Natalie Dolores Hubbert in a 1956 yearbook for Lowell High School in San Francisco (which would make her no less than 36 years younger than Donald.)
Does this mean that Donald and Amoret divorced, but that she kept his name? Does this mean that Donald married a much younger woman after he moved to San Francisco?
There appears to be at least one woman named “Natalie H. Mayberry” who has lived in San Francisco and Healdsburg, CA. Some searches show that she’s still alive, age 84 (which means she would have been born in 1929; closer in age to Donald, but an impossible age to still be in high school, unless—of course—she worked there), and living in the city. One result even shows that this same Natalie H. Mayberry was married to Donald W. Mayberry, which seems more than coincidental.
Online searches also show that this 84 year old woman has several children with easily searchable names. However, at some point this search becomes too personal and probing, and I don’t plan to bother them lest one of my aforementioned cookie crumbs crumble.
This does, though, lead us to our final set of questions that remain unanswered at this point:
- How did my possession of this century-old form move from family artifact to found art for sale?
- How was it kept in such pristine condition for so long?
- How did it make its way from Massachusetts to California and end up for sale?
- If Donald Williamson Mayberry is the grandson/nephew, why did he have this obscure document in his possession? And why did he hold on to it throughout his travels through the East Coast, WWII, and California?
And, ultimately, after this long search we’re still back to the very basic, but very essential, question: Who were Isabella and William Williamson, and what happened to them after this very mundane application for a summer job in 1890s Massachusetts?
I end the mystery here as all good mysteries should: open-ended. I’d love to know more, and invite whoever is reading this to help me in the search.
It doesn’t seem fair to even tack on a review of Frontier Ruckus after this exposition and invitation, so I’ll simply say that I love this band and this album despite the fact that they too have a tendency to list every nostalgic thing about their childhoods even when the music behind the lyrics is so capable and so compelling that it almost doesn’t need words at all.
But who knows? Maybe they’re just sowing the seeds for future Internet sleuths like me, interested in some future everyday occurrence that time has passed over and made exceptional just by its very endurance. In that case, god bless the references to highways, box stores, and grandparents that (like it or not) come to define us all.