A Mystery photograph

A self-described compulsive historian, John Roberts, purchased this photograph at a tag sale in Vermont and began his search to reunite it with the ancestors of the individuals pictured.  He enlisted the help of the Ingersoll Library to aid in his efforts.

Reverse of photograph - Aunt Mary McLeod, sister of George MacKay Her sons — smallest drowned In mill-race at home in Ingersoll

John originally believed that the children pictured were both the sons of Angus & Mary [McKay] McLeod, who lived in Ingersoll at 59 King St. E, as indicated on the reverse of the photograph.  Angus and Mary had five children, Ruby, Neil, George Angus, and Catherine, Mary – as shown in the census of 1881, 1891, and 1901

We began by determining that W. H. Fowler, photographer, operated in Ingersoll between the years of 1888-1890, this small window of time served as a benchmark for ascertaining the identities of the children.

One of the first things John discovered is that a poem had been written about a near tragedy involving children of Angus and Mary McLeod by Ingersoll’s own poet laureate, James McIntyre, entitled ‘A Providential Escape’.  The poem indicates that both children escaped with their lives – contrary to the information noted on the reverse of the photograph.

A Providential Escape

by James McIntyre

A wonderous tale we now do trace,
Of little children fell in race;
The youngest of these little dears,
The boy’s age is but three years.

While coasting o’er the treacherous ice–
precious pearls of great price–
The elder Ruby, the daughter,
Was rescued from the ice cold water.

But horrid death each one did feel
Had sure befallen poor little Neil;
Consternation did people fill,
And they cried “shut down the mill.”

But still no person yet could tell
What had the poor child befel [sic];
The covered race, so long and dark,
Of hopes there scarcely seemed a spark.

Was he held fast as if in vice,
Wedged ‘mong the timbers and the ice,
Or, was there for him ample room
For to float down the narrow flume?

Had he found there a watery grave,
Or been borne on crest of wave?
Think of the mothers agony, wild,
Gazing through dark tunnel for her child.

But soon as Partlo started mill,
Through crowd there ran a joyous thrill,
When he was quickly borne along,
The little hero of our song.

Alas ! of life there is no trace,
And be is black all over face ;
Though he then seemed as if in death,
Yet quickly, they restored his breath.

Think now how mother she adored
Her sweet dear child, to her restored,
And her boundless gratitude
Unto the author of all good.

Swept through dark passage ‘neath the road,
Saved only by the hand of God,
No wonder Father now feels proud
Of little Niel McKay McLeod

from Musings on the Banks of Canadian Thames by James McIntyre

James McIntyre was a neighbour and perhaps friend of the McLeod family – Angus also being a Scots immigrant. McIntyre was likely a witness to the accident that befell the children — his undertaking and furniture business was located directly beside the mill-race.

After further research we now know McIntyre’s poem to be correct, both Ruby and Neil lived through their perilous accident – this was documented in an article in the Ingersoll Chronicle of February 21, 1884, shown below

A map of 1887 Ingersoll shows the area of King St. E. where these events occurred, below.

Upon further investigation of the Ingersoll Chronicle we discovered tragic news for the McLeod family.

The following is an excerpt from the Ingersoll Chronicle, October 2, 1884.

Discovering that Neil died in 1884, ruled him out as an occupant of the photograph, as the photographer did not begin trading in Ingersoll until 1888.

The McLeod’s second son, George Angus, born in 1885 then seemed to be a likely candidate for the younger child in the photograph, pictured in highland dress – who appears be between the ages of three and five.

We believe that the older child in the photograph is a girl, Ruby, the oldest McLeod daughter – according to our research boyish haircuts were often in vogue for girls during this era.  She was age nine in 1888.

Another tragedy was soon on the horizon for the McLeod family when fate took the life of wee George Angus, at the tender age of eight years.

An account appeared in the Ingersoll Chronicle, December 28, 1893, shown below.

Poor Georgie McLeod’s obituary, from the Ingersoll Chronicle, January 4, 1894, shown below.


The Next Chapter – Looking for Ruby

John became convinced that the smaller boy in the photo was George Angus McLeod.

Relative amnesia could easily take the phrase “One boy fell in a mill race, and one boy drowned.” to “One boy fell in a mill race and drowned.”  Since both boys died in childhood, having no heirs, he decided to seek Ruby’s descendants to in an attempt to reunite them with the photo.

Once again we turned to the Ingersoll Chronicle for a clue to Ruby’s future.

Ruby’s wedding notice appeared in the Ingersoll Chronicle, March 10, 1910, shown right.  The notice goes on the say that Ruby has been living in Collingwood, Ontario

In an effort to continue with the story of Ruby’s life, we found that her mother, Mary, died shortly after her wedding on March 17, 1910.  Ruby was listed among the survivors. “Besides the husband, she leaves to mourn her loss, three daughters, Mrs. David G. [sic] Manson of Collingwood and Misses Katie and Mary.”

Her father, Angus, died July 18, 1913.  Again Ruby was listed, “The deceased who was aged 67 years is survived by three daughters, Mrs. D. Manson and Miss Katherine, of Collingwood and Miss Mary at home.”

Ruby’s Aunt Jean MacKay, her mother’s sister, died February 28, 1933.  “Surviving are three nieces, Ruby McLeod of Collingwood; May [sic] McLeod, Erie, PA; and Kate McLeod, Erie, PA.”

This is the last trace of Ruby in Canada.


A Breakthrough

John Roberts enlisted the help of individuals at Forensic Genealogy.
He posted the mystery photograph and the details our search had thus far revealed.  American genealogists were able to consult the records for the border crossings into the USA, and as a result found that Mary McLeod (Ruby’s sister), moved to North East, Pennsylvania when she was age 17. On one of Mary’s (Ruby’s daughter) crossings, she listed her place of visit as her Uncle Fred Evans.  The 1930 USA census shows a Fred and Mary Evans and their children, a boy (George) and a girl (Marjorie), living in North East, Pennsylvania.

In 1943, David and Ruby [McLeod] Manson immigrated to the US (Pennsylvania) to live with their daughter Mary (Manson) Lee (born August 29, 1913). She and her husband Robert M. Lee lived in North East, Erie County, Pennsylvania.

The search continued through the line of Robert M. Lee [Ruby’s daughter’s husband], with the discovery again of a contact again at Forensic Genealogy that resulted in the name of a son, Robert D. Lee, born to Robert M. Lee and Mary [Manson] Lee.  This discovery allowed John to breakthrough to living descendants of Ruby.  It wasn’t long before he had a contact for Robert D. Lee’s daughter, living in Portland, Oregon.  Below is Kira’s response when John contacted her about the mystery photograph:

Hello John,

Wow. I found myself with goosebumps reading through some of the details you have found. It is fascinating and covers family history that I didn’t know anything about. I knew Rubene (my great grandmother), and I knew she came from Collingwood, but I didn’t really know anything before that. I talked to my dad (Robert D Lee in Colorado Springs) tonight, and read him your email and he was similarly moved. On the one hand, it is incredible the information and the references you have been able to fine. And on the other hand, it makes me sad that there is so much I don’t know about my family history. My dad was aware that Rubene had a brother that had died young (but only knew of the one brother – your research says there were two). He said that Rubene was the youngest of three daughters. I assume he only knew about the daughters because both sons died so young. Did you come across the other sisters in your research? Katie and… I can’t remember the other.  I have forwarded your email to my father and to a cousin of mine who has done some genealogical research, and even travelled back to Collingwood and Ingersoll.

I am looking forward to receiving the photo.

Thank you again, Kira

A satisfying conclusion to a mystery…


6 thoughts on “A Mystery photograph

  1. What a lovely story! John’s discovery of a photo leads to finding family tragedies and living relatives to pass the photo and research onto. It’s amazing that history can suddenly grasp our interest and before you know it you’re off on a puzzle-solving mission. Thanks John 🙂

  2. Imagine my surprise when I Googled McKay/McLeod to reference some research and found this write-up. I also believe the older child is Ruby, but I have historian friends of Scottish descent who believe both children are boys. I hope, one day, to find an expert in Scottish culture and traditions of the period who can identify both outfits and their meaning. Only then I can lay the gender question to rest. This article omitted the tireless efforts of librarian, Vicki Wahl, who was responsible for bringing the materials displayed above to my attention. She truly went beyond the call of duty for my benefit. Thank you for the pleasant surprise.

    1. I, too, believe the older child to be a boy. At that time and location, a girl would certainly not have had a side part. It is also very unlikely that she would have had hair so short unless she had been ill and had her head shaved to try to bring down a fever. I have several images of boys of nine, ten, or eleven in similar dresses. And look at that face!

  3. As a great-nephew of Ruby (and piano student of hers) I find it fascinating and very helpful in tracing my roots. My grandmother, Catherine, was born in 1888 and either was not yet present or too young to be included in the photograph. My mother had passed on the story of the two tragedies befalling the family but I did not recall the story of the mill race. Date details have helped fill in some missing blanks.

    Ruby’s middle name according to family records I have was McIntyre so I wonder if there was some additional family connection considering that her mother, Mary,was an accomplished and published poet herself.

  4. Only loosely related here but…

    Do you have (indexed) collections from any of your local late-19th and early 20th century photographers?

    I have had a couple family lines living in Ingersoll (Dynes and Watson), and it would be great to find any studio photos from that time.


    — Al Henderson

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