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Life Here: A Senator’s Office Helps Solve a Family Mystery

  • A World War I-era certificate issued by the state of Connecticut was the author's first clue that he had a long lost uncle. Sen. Patrick Leahy's office helped him sort out the details. (Courtesy Paul Keane)



For the Valley News
Friday, September 28, 2018

In a time where the average Joe or Joan feels politicians don’t really represent them, I have a story about Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office and how it went out of its way to help this Vermonter solve a family mystery.

In 1997, I found a rolled-up scroll from the State of Connecticut in my grandmother’s papers.

It said her brother, John Bristow Nugent, had given “Supreme Sacrifice” in “the War for Civilization.” The certificate bore no date and named no battle.

Nobody had ever told me there was a war hero in my family, and now everyone in the upper generation was gone and I had no one to ask. And if he was a hero, why was the scroll rolled up collecting dust, instead of framed and on a wall?

I had moved to Vermont in 1986 and Leahy was my senator, so I naively asked him — or his staff — to help me solve this mystery.

I doubted they could find records that far back, 80 years to World War I, which was called, among other names, “the War for Civilization” in its day.

I was wrong.

Leahy’s assistant Fred Kenney wrote me in June and October 1997 and Jackie Smith, Leahy’s staff assistant, wrote me in March and August 1998.

Leahy’s office discovered the State of Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs issued such certificates to the families of soldiers killed in World War I but said “unfortunately they do not keep any records for that era.”

Next Leahy’s office tried the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC).

David Petrie, the center’s director reported to the senator’s office:

“The enclosed documents show that the veteran was taken to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Mare Island, Ca., but died en route. Since it appears that the veteran died before he arrived at the hospital, it is unlikely that a hospital record was created for him. If a record was created for the veteran at the hospital, it would have been destroyed after 50 years, in accordance with the General Records Schedule. There are no records on file at this Center from the U.S. Naval Hospital Mare, Island, for 1917.”

The scant documentation also showed that he died of “carcinoma,” not in battle, and that he died April 17, only 10 days after he enlisted.

This is even sadder than I expected. But he died not in battle and not a “Supreme Sacrifice” as the certificate said.

I wrote back to Fred Kenney, on Nov. 9, 1997 thanking him for his researches on my behalf:

The records you uncovered say he died of “carcinoma” in ... his 28th year in 1917. Since I am treated annually for minor skin cancer problems, I have a compelling medical reason to obtain the medical records surrounding my great uncle’s illness and death. His wife is dead. Their only child, Raymond, died a bachelor without heirs. I am de facto the next of kin, therefore, and respectfully request that all medical records of his illness be made available to me or my physician.

At this point, I fully expected to be brushed off by the bureaucrats with the plea “Sorry, you are not next of kin.”

Instead Kenney pulled some strings that he never disclosed to me and in August 1998, I received heavy, fat manila envelope from Leahy’s office stuffed with 300 pages — every single record available on my uncle, including his marriage certificate and his baby’s birth certficate.

I was about to learn things that the good women in my family had kept from me.

Bristow was married in 1915 at age 26 to a 31-year-old Canadian woman in Fitchburg, Mass. The marriage ceremony was officiated by a Roman Catholic priest whose name was on the certificate. My family were fierce Protestants at the time and inter-religious-marriage was more than frowned upon; it was forbidden by family tradition.

I can imagine the commotion it caused with Bristow’s father, my great-grandfather, who was a pope hater.

Then there was the problem of the birth certificate. The baby was born after six months of marriage, a suggestion that Bristow’s wife was pregnant at the time of the wedding and that Bristow had done the honorable thing by marrying her.

This would be a terrible dilemma for Bristow: Inter-religious marriage vs. dishonor.

I would not be surprised at all if my great-grandfather had disowned him for marrying a Catholic. The fact that Bristow listed his mother, not his father, as kin to be notified in case of emergency on his enlistment papers, suggests such a family rupture.

And the hospital death record states he enlisted under an alias, “George Leon Young,” even though he listed his mother’s correct name, Christina Nugent.

Petrie’s letter, from the NPRC, states that “at the time of enlistment, Mr. Nugent indicated that he was single.”

I called Kenney at Leahy’s office, and we chatted by phone for half an hour. He had read the records also. I was mystified not only by “the supreme sacrifice” problem, but now by the alias.

Kenney had a theory: Perhaps Bristow knew he was not feeling well and wanted to ensure his wife and son had a pension, so he enlisted.

The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Navy Department Death Certificate states:

Cause of Death: Carcinoma

Origin: Not in line of duty. Existed prior to enlistment. At about 8:45 A.M. on April 17, 1917 deceased was discovered lying unconscious and in convulsions in a lot in Vallejo, California. Asst. Surgeon H. R. McAllister, U.S.N. attached to the Navy yard, Mare Island, California, saw the deceased at the time and placing him in a motor car rushed him to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Mare Island, California but he died en route.

An autopsy showed all the abdominal viscera infiltrated with carcinoma nodules.

Body shipped by U.S. Naval Hospital, Mare Island, California to next of kin.

His widow, 3,000 miles away in Fitchburg, was at first denied death payments. Later she received 240 payments of $25 a month for herself and $40 a month for support of her son, according to the records sent to me.

Eight years after Nugent’s death, his father, my great-grandfather, filed for and received $47, the total cost of expenses for Bristow’s burial.

He and my great-grandmother are buried in the same plot as their son, John Bristow, in Bellingham, Mass.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of John Bristow Nugent’s death. How times change. The taint attached to interfaith marriages and children born out of wedlock seem as antique as a typewriter.

Thank you Sen. Leahy and Frank Kenney for helping me understand the “Supreme Sacrifice” certificate’s mysterious place in my family.

A Google search for John Bristow’s final resting place found him listed on the Nugent tombstone as:

JOHN BRISTOW

U.S.S. SOUTH DAKOTA

DIED IN SERVICE

As far as his family was concerned, he had three strikes against him. In addition to fathering a child before marriage, and then marrying the child’s Catholic mother, he inexplicably ran off and enlisted in the Navy under a false name.

And there was a fourth strike: He died of cancer. In the 1950s, when I grew up, people whispered when they spoke of cancer. A cancer diagnosis was a death sentence back then and no one wanted to admit it ran in their family.

I hope my detective work here 101 years after his death does justice to John Bristow Nugent, the young man who ran away, the young man who died and was never spoken of again.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.