Two bad apples fall when our family tree is shaken

Capt. Will Harding of Harding's Station, East Brunswick, Maine, was the last of a long and prosperous family of Hardings. I never knew what Captain Harding was captain of. It may well have been a full-rigged ship, but the only boat of his that I ever knew about was a 28-foot power boat such as lobstermen use. And while he started to build her, he never finished. It was his whimsy to invite folks to the launch on the Fourth of July, but he never stipulated any particular year.

I mention Captain Will because he was proud of an ancestor whose portrait hung on the kitchen wall of the very pretentious Harding Home at Harding's Station. Yes, the family had its own railroad station.

This portrait was a handsome thing. The ancestor was portrayed with something of a florid countenance, suggesting a hearty appetite and a happy laugh, and with a lace stock at the neck, embroidered vest, and green velvet jacket. The frame was teak. It was so placed that anybody coming into the house by the family door saw it immediately and wondered who that elegant gentleman might be.

Captain Harding had a bit of a memorized explanation for those who asked. He'd say, "Ancestor of mine. Signed the Declaration. Pirate, you know." If you doubted him, or asked for particulars, Captain Harding had a book he'd take down and show you.

There's no reason I know of that kept pirates from being ancestors, and in a culture where everybody is descended from proper people only, Captain Harding took joy over many years in bragging about the family pirate.

That every family had a black sheep is customarily denied by genealogy buffs, and in our family we had one who believed all scalawags with our name were upright people falsely accused by uncaring offspring. Any suggestion that somebody among us may have been naughty was reprimanded by "Certainly not in our family!"

This defender of our noble name was an aunt, and she silenced me when I was a lad and found a distant John Gould who may have been a bit of a purloiner. I saw his stone one day in a cemetery and asked about him. Yes, they told me, he robbed a bank and absconded to Canada with a red- headed schoolteacher, and they made millions redeeming scrip when the Canadian Pacific railroad was built. They took a modest five percent.

I mentioned this to my family-tree aunt, and she scoffed a haughty scoff. "Never happened," she said. That was certainly that.

But I had a distant cousin, so distant we were merely "kin," and somebody told him that his several-great-grandsire had been convicted of a felony and had drawn seven years in Maine State Prison at Thomaston.

Being of perky mind, my kin found there was indeed something to go on. He began a search and had in mind a full exposure of this ancestor's peccadilloes to embarrass the aunt who thought only saints belonged to us.

It seems (he found out) that Henry Gould was a respected citizen of our Maine city of Belfast, and owned a hotel that was popular and prosperous. He was a family man; nobody could say too much for him. In a front room of his hotel he set up an office where he ran a real estate and insurance agency. A finer man never walked the earth.

My kin put together a laudatory brochure, singing the praises of this worthy gentleman. The thick collection concluded with a copy of the indictment when Henry reached the grand jury on a charge of embezzlement.

Henry had insured a great many good folks in the Belfast area, and had accepted their premium payments. But he'd neglected to forward the premiums to company headquarters. This was all right so long as nobody had a fire. But one day there was a fire, and the victim applied for his coverage. The insurance company was not amused.

MY KIN had all the papers, including a trial transcript, and the judge's committal to state prison. Henry took up residence in Thomaston. The warden signed that Henry had been safely delivered to him by the high sheriff and that Henry was in good condition. There was no way our family-tree aunt could disclaim old Hank with her simple, "Nothing like that in our family!"

There was, of course, more. Henry was a well-behaved prisoner and easy to get along with. The warden attested to this in periodical reports, and now and then Henry was cited for volunteer deeds to stimulate prisoner gentility. He was, for instance, an umpire at prison-yard baseball games. Once he turned the crank on ice-cream day.

He also used the prison library, and my kin was able to find the titles of some of the books Henry read, mostly Western novels. And then Henry seemed to decline, and with four years of unfulfilled incarceration still charged against him, he took his leave.

My kin found the papers that went with Henry, and used them to round out his collection. He then had everything printed in a loose-leaf edition titled, "A Sad Story," and the first copy went to our aunt, the family-tree lady.

I have a copy, and it saves me from going all-out about the respectability of our ancestors. Henry may not make us proud, but he tells us something, whatever it is. When you think about it, five percent on the transcontinental cost of the Canadian Pacific railroad isn't just chicken feed. Who needs pirates?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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