I took this photograph of the Keniston Square marker on Cabot Street in Beverly, Massachusetts, last spring, and posted it on Flickr with this comment: “I wish these markers had more information about who is being honored: especially a full name and a birth and death date.” Memorial square signs like this are a pet peeve of mine — it’s not much of a memorial if it only gives the last name and no other information. If the person died in World War II, Korea, Vietnam or more recent conflicts, there may be people around who knew him and still miss him and know that memorial sign is there, but for those who died in earlier wars, the sign may be disconnected from anyone’s personal memory. Without details, descendants and other family members may never know that it’s there.
It turns out that Beverly city officials share my concern, and are making an effort to upgrade the markers with ones that are more informative. According to an article in the Salem Evening News, “Mike Collins, commissioner of public services and engineering, wanted to research the history of each veteran and tell their stories, some of which were missing or incomplete.”
One of the markers simply said “Healey Square.” Collins and Veterans’ Agent Jerry Guilebbe checked a memorial listing Beverly veterans killed in action and found a Joseph E. Healey who died in the Civil War. They made the logical but erroneous assumption that this was the Healey for whom the square was named. On Veterans Day, the city held a rededication ceremony, showing off the upgraded marker which includes the full name and date of death of Joseph E. Healey, Navy Seaman, killed in action in 1862. Joseph Healey’s great-great-great-granddaughter, who had been unaware that she had an ancestor who died in the Civil War, came down from New Hampshire for the event.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong Healey. Healey Square was dedicated in 1976 in honor of Frederick D. Healey Jr. Square, who served in three wars and was commended for his bravery under fire during the Korean War. The original marker his initials on it, but it was replaced in the 1990s with one like the Keniston marker, with only the last name. A little more research would have saved the city from some expense and embarrassment here, but as librarians and family history researchers both know, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’ve found the answer and moving ahead without adequate verification.
The best part of this story is the gracious response of Lois Healey, the widow of Frederick D. Healey, Jr. According the Salem News story, she called Collins a “lovely, lovely man” and said “There are no hard feelings on my end…It’s just a mistake that happened.” The city plans to replace the Healey Square sign with a new one properly honoring Frederick D. Healey, Jr., and to dedicate a square near where he lived to Civil War seaman Joseph E. Healey.
Equally gracious is Heather Wilkinson Rojo, the descendant of Joseph E. Healey who attended the dedication. She’s a respected genealogist and blogger who has written about this event in a positive and educational way, as an example of how we sometimes need to revise our family stories has new information becomes available that proves our earlier assumptions wrong.
The moral of the story is to check multiple sources and avoid confusing assumptions with facts. Also, document everything, and whether you’re creating historical markers or working with family photographs, be sure to provide enough information for others to follow: full names, places, dates, etc.
And when confronted with a mistake of your own or someone else’s, try to be as positive and gracious as everyone involved here seems to have been!