Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sunday's Obituary - A Little Bit of the Luck o' the Irish

Uncle Tommy's tombstone
Benjamin putting flowers at Uncle Tommy's grave

A few months ago I posted a Tuesday's Tall Tales about my great uncle, Thomas Brown Jr.  There were many rumors about uncle Tommy including one that he was run out of Hazleton, PA during prohibition for gambling, that he eventually settled in Elmira, NY and ran a whorehouse.

During my summer vacation I went up to Elmira to look for his obituary in the local papers (hoping to find scandal in his death) and visit his gravesite which I was fairly certain hadn't been visited in a long time, if ever.

That morning I packed my little ones up in the car making sure that their DSi's were charged, DVD players working, and we drove north from Greentown, PA to Elmira.  I had offered to take some pictures for a fellow geneablogger at a location on my way to Elmira.  I had the absolute worst luck that morning.  I found the cemetery (or at least I thought I had), but there was no caretaker.  The cemetery was a pretty good size, but the boys and I started looking.  We eventually figured that we should head down to what appeared to be the older section of the cemetery since the graves we were looking for should have been there.  After 45 minutes of not finding even one surname (let alone the right person), I jumped on my iPhone and went to  The picture of the cemetery sign didn't look like the one out front and the map was slightly off.  I cursed my Garmin and jumped back in the car with my boys just as it started to rain.

I enlarged the map that was posted on FindAGrave and plotted the nearest intersection to the cemetery.  Good.  It was only about 5 miles away.  I let my Garmin lead me to what I hoped was the correct cemetery.  I ended up in an industrial park.  Now I not only cursed the Garmin, but FindAGrave's map.

OK, I thought.  This kind of sucks.  Looks like the cemetery isn't going to happen, so I figured I'd find the old stomping grounds for her.  She had wanted a picture of a sign for the place and I was hopeful, but had no luck finding anything on Google before my trip.  I tried my cursed Garmin and hoped that it would do better this time.  I did several different searches to no avail and then at least found a road that matched.  It was a long shot, but I set my Garmin to get to the road and I hoped that I would find a sign that matched what she was looking for there.  It was absolutely beautiful farm country and the drive was enjoyable, but I never found the sign.  The road was only a few miles long and the best I got was a picture of the street sign.

By now I was feeling more than a little disappointed.  I know that sometimes searches don't work out, but I had made the offer and thought that I would at least come back with something.  It was almost noon and I knew I needed to head to Elmira if I was going to research my great uncle at all that day.  The sun was starting to come out, but it didn't reflect my mood at that point.  We were hungry by now and the kids were starting to get grumpy without food so I set the Garmin to the Elmira library and hoped it would take me there.

We arrived about 30 or 40 minutes later to a construction filled area.  I missed the library entrance and was just in such a foul mood by now that I did something that my straight and narrow mind wouldn't normally conceive of...I parked in a neighboring parking lot, ignoring the signs that it was for their use only (I know...I'm just sooo bad!).  It was time to forage for food and there was supposed to be a pizza joint a couple blocks away.  New York and pizza...I had to go.  I grabbed the kids and we headed down the street.

I saw the pizzeria...a hole in the wall.  That's not a bad thing when were talking pizza in New York so I wasn't deterred at all.  As I crossed the street I noticed that the strip mall-ish building that it was in had a marker in front of it.  Apparently Mark Twain's house used to stand on this site.  Oh how depressing!  Seriously?  Mark Twain and Elmira, NY?  I had no idea...but the thought that his historic (or should have been, historic) home was now a strip mall.  Holy heck!  OK.  This day was just...well...not what I had been expecting or hoping for.  I wasn't feeling as hopeful at what I would find in the library.

The only thing left to mark the Twains' home!
Strip mall where Mark Twain's home used to be

We sat down to some Cokes and our slices of pizza and ate.  We had finished our pizza and were just relaxing and sipping our Cokes when I heard one of the guys at the pizzeria ask a co-worker, "Hey you latched the back door, right?  Because that doesn't look good."  I followed his gaze.  He was staring out the front door.  I turned and saw a rather ominous sky.  I whipped out my Weather Channel app and opened it up.  Yep...Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Elmira.  Checked the radar.  Crap!

Severe weather added to the day

I live in Texas.  It's been nasty-hot for the entire summer and I was happy to be visiting up north, but when I came it got 100+ degrees nasty hot up there too.  Today wasn't quite at 100 degrees in Elmira, but it was in the upper 90s.  As a result of the heatwave, the a/c was broken in the library and it was pretty unpleasant in there.  I was in luck in finding an obituary, a funeral notice and burial notice in the Elmira Star Gazette.  I checked the paper during that time frame for anything sensational about uncle Tommy and didn't find it.  I made copies of the information I did find, but it wasn't a lot.

Elmira Star Gazette, 07DEC1957, pg 2
"Thomas J. Brown of 114 W. First St., Friday, Dec. 6, 1957.  Survived by brothers, Edward Brown of Hazleton, PA., Walter of Philadelphia.  Body at O'Dea Funeral Home.  Funeral announcement later."

Elmira Star Gazette, 08DEC1957, pg 10

"Thomas J. Brown of 114 W. First St. Today at O'Dea Funeral home.  Funeral there Monday at 11:45 a.m., the Rev. Eldred Simpkins.  Woodlawn National Cemetery."

Elmira Star Gazette, 09DEC1957, pg 9

"Thomas J. Brown of 114 W. First St. Funeral today at 11:45 at the O'Dea Funeral Home, the Rev. Eldred Simkins.  Pallbearers:  Abe Mills, Toni Turchio, Charles Forgensi, Russell Hamilton, Charles Lawrence, and Donald Tarantelli.  Woodlawn National Cemetery."

Talk about a whole lotta nothin'.  I knew that uncle Tommy was the black sheep of the family, but not much had been put in the paper.  Heck, they were barely complete sentences.  It was disappointing.  I packed up my stuff and let my boys play with the huge floor chess set on the ground floor of the library.  I hoped I would find something more in the Hazleton, PA paper where he was born.  I consoled myself that way.  Maybe even figure out who the pallbearers were.  They weren't family.  Why weren't they family?  Not a single family member.

Boy the trip felt wasted.  As the boys and I went back to the car it was only drizzling out.  They buckled up and I sat there for a minute...114 W. First Street...what the hell, "Boys we're going to see where uncle Tommy used to live."  They didn't really care one way or another, but I wanted to see if it was still standing.  I wanted to try to salvage something out of the trip and it was too late to head to the courthouse for records on the property.  A picture (if it was still there) would have to do.

I plugged the address into the Garmin as I sat in my illegal parking space.  It thought for a moment and then it showed me the map, asking if I wanted to go there.  I selected "GO" and watched as the highlighted map to uncle Tommy's appeared on the screen...I was sitting across the street from it!

Well, not directly across the street.  That was a fire station.  It was technically the house next to the fire station...and it was still there.  All brown and big.  I was seeing the back entrance to the building (although I didn't know it at the time).  I saw that most of the windows were boarded up and painted green.  Was it abandoned or was this just how it was supposed to be?  Why would you board up windows?

My first glimpse of Uncle Tommy's residence
I took some pictures and then decided to drive around to the front.  There really was nothing else on this entire street block except the fire station, 114 W. First Street and a CVS Pharmacy, so I cut through the pharmacy parking lot.  I realized I had been in the back of the building and that the front of the building had a business sign in front of it...

The sign in front of Uncle Tommy's house
Holy cow!  The Green Derby Irish pub/cafe.  I was tickled!  Had it been like this when uncle Tommy owned it?  I didn't know and it was too late for the courthouse.  More to do next year.  I went home elated.  A pretty disappointing day felt better somehow just because I had found that the place where the "whorehouse" would have been was an Irish pub.  Yeah...that sounds like a good front.  Or maybe it wasn't a whorehouse at all and he was just into gambling and booze.  Sounds like it would fit with the stories.  Maybe I should look for some arrest records.  Hmmm.

A few days later I went to Hazleton to see the Greater Hazleton Historical Society and visit the library for some microfilmed newspapers.  I found most of the obituaries I was looking for and a better one on uncle Tommy.

The Plain Speaker, 07DEC1957, pg 10

"Thomas J. Brown

Thomas J. Brown, 53, 116 West First Street, Elmira, N.Y. died yesterday of complications following a six-week's illness.

He was a native of this city and lived in Elmira for the past 30 years.

Surviving are two brothers: Edward J. Brown, vice principal of Grebey Junior High School, and Walter H. Brown, a teacher in the Philadelphia public schools.

The funeral will be held Monday morning from the late home in Elmira."

The address was a bit off, but I wasn't too concerned about it.  I knew from my mother that uncle Tommy actually owned the building he lived in and I doubted it was the CVS pharmacy.  Being the Irish pub just makes too much sense.  Could I be wrong?  Sure.  I won't know for sure until I can find other information to fill in this bit of family history.  Now I knew approximately when he moved to Elmira.  This will undoubtedly be helpful.

Sometimes, even when your day seems to suck, you get a little bit of Irish luck!

The front of the Green Derby Cafe

The side of the Green Derby Cafe where Uncle Tommy lived

The back of where Uncle Tommy lived


  1. Wow, I love that you found Uncle Tommy's house!

  2. It definitely turned around a very disappointing day! I drove home with a smile on my face. :)