Do we under-estimate the significance of serendipity in our research: those felicitous timings of people, place or discoveries? Or do our ancestors really want us to know something and make sure we find it?
Many years ago, one of my relations told me that my great-grandparents, Duncan McCorkindale and Annie Sim, had lost twins as infants from diptheria after being vaccinated. I dutifully pursued Jessie and Hugh in the records to follow up this information. I found Jessie, born 2 July 1891, and who died on 5 February 1892 at Stirling Rd, Glasgow, aged 7 months, of disease of the bones of the ear and bronchitis[i]. To my non-medical mind this seemed unlikely to be related to vaccination.Despite searching 1891-92 I could not find the birth or death of a son Hugh to Duncan and Annie. Hence I assumed (!!!) that the story of the twins was incorrect.
Scroll forward to these past weeks when my cousin Laurie returned from a trip visiting relatives in north Queensland. We hadn’t talked about the twins previously, but these cousins told her a story that Duncan and Annie had twins who died as a result of vaccination. Interestingly, this was from the same branch of the McCorkindale line that I’d heard it from – descendants of Jane Sim (Jean) McCorkindale. However, this time it came with an addition. Our great-grandfather had refused to have other children vaccinated and went to jail! Well that was news, and initially one I felt inclined to discount. Serendipitously, one of my genimates from the United Kingdom is doing her PhD on vaccination so I messaged her and asked if prison would be the sentence if a fine wasn’t paid.
Brainstorming via Facebook messenger she told me this was possible. So the search for Hugh continued by widening the timeframe. And there he was: Hugh died at 96 Abington St on 4 July 1885, aged 5 months from stricture of the intestine and had been sick for four days[ii]….poor wee mite. Once again, this cause of death seemed unlikely to be due to a vaccination. Reluctantly, we laid the family story aside as “just” another family legend.
Scroll forward a few days later and my geminate was working through copies taken for her PhD and what did she find? A reference to Duncan McCorkindale’s imprisonment in an Anti-Vaccination journal[iii] held at the Wellcome Library in London[iv]…not only that but the timings mentioned fitted exactly with what we knew of Hugh’s death and the child born after him….my grandmother Catherine (b May 1887). As you might imagine, there were happy dances in England and Queensland over this discovery as once again we messaged across the world. My family is totally indebted to Sylvia for this discovery – one I’d never have hoped to find myself. Serendipity meets genea-generosity indeed!
Next morning, I went into the British newspaper search option on FindMyPast[v]. Using “McCorkindale AND vaccination AND Glasgow” gave me a nil result so I deleted the surname and narrowed down the results to the timeframe mentioned in the journal above.
WOW! A letter to the editor from my great grandfather Duncan headed “Imprisonment for Vaccination in Glasgow”[vi]. Duncan wrote about being imprisoned as he could not afford to pay the 30 shilling fine. He would not have his child vaccinated because it went against his conscience having lost a child previously. He stated “the child was in perfect health when taken to be vaccinated. Four hours after vaccination was performed he took suddenly ill and went into convulsions, dying three days afterwards”. He went on to describe his imprisonment with felons, the sleeping and working conditions. It’s very clear that he felt diminished by being treated like this. The child he refused to have vaccinated? Based on timing, it was my own grandmother Catherine and yet I’d heard nothing of this, nor had my cousin Laurie whose grandmother was the eldest daughter of this couple. A sad story but a wonderful insight into my family’s lives. I wonder now, whether their next children, Jean, Jessie and Edith were vaccinated, or if he continued to object, and pay the fine. The children in the photo above with their mother are these three girls.
Of course at this stage my geminate, my cousin and myself were all happy dancing enough to merit a place on Dancing with the Stars!
Like I said – this discovery came about from the serendipity of cousins talking, knowing your network of friends, and their generosity in sharing their own discoveries. I think it can rightly be called a win-win as the family has now got proof of a family anecdote and my friend has a great example to use in her PhD presentations and research. There’ll be drinks to toast our success while at RootsTech in London[vii].
Letter to Editor (Transcription )
SIR – I beg leave to ask your kind indulgence to give the following lines publication in your esteemed paper, so that the public may know how our law affects civil prisoners. On Monday 12th inst. I was summoned to appear before Sheriff Balfour on a charge of violating the Vaccination Act. My reason for refusing to conform to the Act arose from the fact of having lost a child two-and-a-half years ago. The child was in perfect health when taken to be vaccinated, and four hours after vaccination was performed took suddenly ill and went into convulsions, dying three days afterwards, and its death in my belief arose through vaccination. In the present case therefore I would not allow my child to be vaccinated, as by doing so I would be acting against my conscience, and for this I was sentenced by the Sheriff to pay a fine of 10s and £1 expenses with the alternative of seven days’ imprisonment. One pound ten shillings may seem a small sum to many, but for a man in my position with a small pay and a family of eight to support, it was beyond my power to pay. Therefore, I had to go to prison to be treated like a felon – no distinction being made between a respectable citizen and thieves and housebreakers, all and sundry being dressed in prison clothes, put into a cold cell with a plank bed and scanty covering, also working in outside work with criminals, such as carrying coals, sweeping snow etc. Then I was ordered back to the cell to sit with wet feet on a stone floor picking spools. I was in this pitiful condition from Monday the 12th inst at twelve o’clock till Wednesday the 14th inst at three o’clock, when a party paid the fine and I was set free. I think this was a very severe sentence to be passed. Now, sir, it seems very strange that no report of my case (the first case of imprisonment in Glasgow under the Act, if I am correctly informed) appeared in any of the newspapers, and I hope in justice to myself and the public, you will find a corner for the above unvarnished statement, for I consider I have been most severely, unmercifully and unjustly dealt with. I am etc – D McCORKINDALE Glasgow, March 24, 1888
Since vaccination is hot-button topic, and our grandson was terribly ill as an infant due to someone else not being vaccinated, I think I should state that I belong in the pro-vaccination group.
[i] Birth 644/06 1095 District St Rollox, County Lanark. Death 644/6 161 District St Rollox, County Lanark
[ii] Death 644/9 712 District Kelvin County Lanark
[iii] National Anti-Vaccination League Magazine, volume 10, no 115, page 28
[vi] Glasgow Evening News, March 26, 1888, page 3.