In my family tree there are two Caroline Thomases whose lives were, to some degree, intertwined. I’m going to put all the facts here in this article in an attempt to untangle them to the degree that it’s possible, however, there are certain paradoxes which make this a more difficult task than it might seem.
The first Caroline Thomas was my 3x great-grand aunt, the daughter of James S. Thomas and Sophia Ransom. She was the sister of my 3x great-grandfather Charles H. Thomas, and (supposedly) the aunt of Charles Franklin Thomas. The issue here is that there is a Caroline Thomas living with Charles Franklin Thomas at the time of her death, and there is some question in the records as to whether she is his mother-in-law or his (supposed) aunt. We’ll try to determine the truth of it using all the available documentation.
Note: I will mention at this point that there was a family story told to me by Dave Momot, that Charles Franklin Thomas was actually Caroline’s son and not her nephew. Supposedly she had him out of wedlock about 1854, and the child was given to her brother Charles H. Thomas to raise to avoid the social implications of unmarried motherhood. Only when Charles H. Thomas and his wife Louisa Pond both died did she reveal to Charles Franklin Thomas that she was actually his mother and not his aunt. This story might explain some of what’s to come.
The first mention of this Caroline Thomas is in the 1850 census. The Thomas family was living in Burke, Franklin, New York with a woman named Catherine Mott. Caroline is listed as 16 years old (b 1834), born in New York, and her father James is listed as a “Shoemaker”. Since this is the first record, I tend to take the birth date more seriously for this record since 16-year old women don’t usually fib about their ages.
In the 1860 Census, Caroline is living in the home of her brother Joel Wells Thomas with her parents in Burlington, Chittenden, Vermont. Her age is 26 (b 1834), and the birthplace listed is New York.
In the 1870 Census for Burlington, Vermont, Caroline is listed as “Caroline C. Thomas”, age 33 (b 1837), born in Vermont. She is living in the home of Burlington Police Chief Nobel Hanagan where she is listed as a domestic. Her brother Beriah W. Thomas and her niece Hattie Thomas are living with her.
Caroline’s brother, Charles H Thomas (b 1821), died on 7 Dec 1873 in Canton, Saint Lawrence, New York. He was listed as a blacksmith, and was only 52 years old.
St. Lawrence Republican and Ogdensburgh Weekly Journal, 16 Dec 1873, p3
On 5 Jun 1875, there is recorded a marriage between “James Nite” and “Caroline Thomas”. Caroline is listed as being 43 years old (b 1832), born in New York, and it being her first marriage. Her parents are listed as James Thomas and Sophia, which matches perfectly. The year of birth doesn’t really match up with the 1834 we’ve seen previously, but it starts a trend of her birth year creeping backward, opposite of most women who tend to say they are younger than they are when asked in census and other official records (assuming they are not accurate.)
Thomas/Nite Marriage 1875
The groom’s card for the marriage lists him as 53 years old (b 1822), a clerk, and born in Scotland. It was the groom’s second marriage.
Wedding card for James Nite (Knight)
I’ve also obtained the original church record for this marriage which says James was born in Glasgow, Scotland. It says that Caroline was born in “Troy, NY”.
Burlington Methodist Church record
I have been able to find no other mention of this James Nite (spelled Knight in most documents) in Burlington. Neither in the Census records for 1870 or 1880, nor in the City directories for the years around 1875. I can find neither James nor Caroline in the 1880 Census records. So far I can find no mentions of him in the newspapers of the time. There are some entries in the New York City Directory in 1882 and 1884 for a James Knight who was a clerk. In 1886 his wife Caroline is listed as a “Widow”. So that James Knight seems to have died about 1885. We have no way to prove at this point that they are the same James and Caroline who got married in Burlington, however.
I’ll switch gears at this point to talk about the other Caroline Thomas.
One year after Caroline Thomas and James Knight were married, Caroline’s nephew Charles Franklin Thomas married Mary “Polly” Thomas.
Charles Franklin Thomas, his son Charles Jr, and wife Mary “Polly” Thomas c1890.
The documents show the groom’s parents as Charles H Thomas (brother of Caroline Thomas) and Lois Pond.
Mary, on her record, is listed as the daughter of Henry Thomas and Caroline Smith. Mary is listed as 21 years of age (b 1855) and having been born in Burlington, Vermont.
Obviously Mary’s mother Caroline Smith was Caroline Thomas after her marriage to Henry Thomas. So what do we know about Caroline Smith Thomas?
Mary Polly’s death record from 1902 lists her parents as “Henry Thomas” and “Caroline C. Thomas. Despite her marriage record saying she was born in Burlington, Vermont, Mary’s death record says she was born in Burke, NY on 19 May 1854. No Henry and Caroline Thomas have been found in Burlington, VT or in Burke, NY in the 1860 census (when Mary Polly would have been about six years old, and presumably living with them).
Mary Thomas Death 1902
We need to keep in mind that it’s very possible she was estranged from her parents (she is, after all, living alone in the 1870 census at the age of 16, working as a servant), and thus upon her death nobody was around who could give reliable information about who here parents were or where she was born.
In the 1880 census, Charles Franklin Thomas is in the census for Canton, NY with his wife Mary (listed as being from NY with both parents being from NY), and their son Charles F. Thomas Jr. As stated previously, I can find no mention of Caroline Thomas or her husband James Knight in the 1800 census.
Louisa Adams Pond (b1823), supposed mother of Charles Franklin Thomas, died in Canton, NY on 8 Aug 1896. She was 73 years old.
Death announcement. From “The Palladium”, Malone, New York, Thursday August 20, 1896.
Again… according to family rumors, this is when Caroline Thomas came forward and supposedly told Charles that she was his mother. Records after this point do list her as his mother on multiple occasions.
In the 1900 Census for Brattleboro, Vermont, Charles Franklin Thomas and his wife Mary “Polly” Thomas are listed as living with a Caroline Thomas. This Caroline was born in Oct 1832 in New York, and is listed as the widowed “mother” of Charles F. Thomas. She is listed as the mother of one child total and one living child. She is also listed as having been married since 1854, which unfortunately is the birth year for both Charles and his wife Mary Polly, so not a distinguishing characteristic. We don’t know that Caroline Thomas (the aunt) was ever married apart from her 1875 marriage to James Knight, but it’s possible that either she was briefly married, or that she was saying she was married at the time of Charles’s birth for obvious social reasons.
Note that the birthplace of Mary Polly Thomas’s parents are both listed as “unknown”. If the Caroline living with her is her mother, why would this be the case? In the 1880 census Mary Polly Thomas said both her parents were born in New York. Then again, whoever answered the questions from the census-taker could just have not known the answer, whether the person living with them was the aunt or the mother-in-law.
Thomas Census 1900
Next, on 11 Apr 1902, Mary Polly Thomas dies of cancer of the uterus. There are a couple of death notices in the newspapers of the time. The first says she “leaves, beside her husband, one son, Harold (Wilmer) Thomas”. No mention of a mother still being alive, much less living with them.
St. Albans Messenger, St. Albans, Vermont, 17 Apr 1902
The second simply says she used to live in Burlington, that she died in Brattleboro, and that she would be buried in St. Albans. It also mentions that my 2x great-grandfather Horace Luther Thomas is the brother of her husband Charles Franklin Thomas.
Burlington Weekly Free Press, Burlington, Vermont, 17 Apr 1902, p3
The next record chronologically is for the death of the above Caroline Thomas on 22 Apr 1902. She is listed as 67 years old (b 1835), widowed, and having parents Henry [no last name, which might indicate Thomas] and Maria Ransom.
So right away we can see that the father’s name listed is the same as the mother-in-law’s husband (Henry), but the last name of the mother is the same as mother of the aunt (Ransom). Once again this feels to me like someone living filling out a death record who didn’t have all the right details.
There are several obituaries for this Caroline. They have contradictory information, which makes things more difficult. The first obit from the Brattleboro Phoenix (25 Apr 1902) lists her as Caroline C. Knight, “mother of Mrs. C.F. Thomas” (i.e. mother of Mary Polly Thomas). It says she was born 19 Oct 1831, that she was buried in Burlington, Vermont, and that she had a brother in Burlington in 1902. Aunt Caroline had living two brothers in 1902, Beriah Ransom Thomas, who was living in St. Albans in 1902, and Joel Wells Thomas, who was living in Burlington in 1902.
Brattleboro VT Phoenix, 25 April 1902
The next obit only adds that she died of cancer. The death record says an “ulcer of leg”. I’m sure such ulcers can be cancerous.
The last obit says that Caroline Thomas was the mother of C.F. Thomas.
Burlington weekly free press., April 24, 1902, Page 5
So what do we make of this? Two of the obits list her as Caroline C. Knight, and the Caroline Thomas which married James Knight clearly said that her parents were James Thomas and Sophia Ransom. The death record also lists her mother as “Maria Ransom”, and the mother of Caroline Thomas (the aunt) was Sophia Ransom. Several articles and other documents list her as the mother of Charles Franklin Thomas, while a couple list her as his mother-in-law, including one that mistakenly says her maiden name was Knight when that was her married name.
Looking over what we have, I’m not convinced any of these records have anything to do with Mary Polly’s mother. I feel like most of what we see could plausibly be explained by Caroline Thomas coming out as Charles Franklin Thomas’s mother after the death of his parents, and the other non-aligning facts being due to bereaved people putting the wrong information on forms, or having their words misinterpreted by the press in the local news papers.