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Feature Article: The Saga of Josephine Ormsby
Her life is not taught in history classes. No one is writing a book about her. Yet the saga of Josephine Ormsby reminds us of the power and allure of genealogy: discovering and preserving the stories of ordinary people—because those stories, those lives, those people, were remarkable in their own ways then, and are still full of meaning for us today.

Josephine Ormsby's story is preserved in seven short paragraphs of a newspaper article printed 110 years ago. In reading this article we learn the astonishing facts of what she confronted, and in gleaning this much information we also appreciate how invaluable newspaper articles are to family history research—just one article can be a goldmine of information.

Here's the entire article as it first appeared. We'll enlarge it and read it section by section to uncover her story. This article was printed by the Pawtucket Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island), 2 October 1901, page 4:

The headline and first paragraph present her immediate situation:

This woman, remarkably, bore 14 children in 7 years! The reason she was in the news on Oct. 2, 1901, was because she just delivered quadruplets—as we will find out in a moment, multiple births were not unusual for Josephine Ormsby. We also learn something wonderful about human nature: her neighbors are helping out, not only "tenderly" caring for her and her four new babies, but also running the small grocery story she owns to make sure her income is not interrupted.

We also learn some important genealogical information:
  • Her husband's name: Joseph K. Ormsby
  • Her address: No. 406 West Forty-third Street, Chicago
In the next two paragraphs we learn more of her story:

Not only has she been dealing with being pregnant, giving birth to, and caring for so many children over seven years—we find out her husband deserted her just six months before she gave birth to the quadruplets. Apparently he became obsessed with inventing a "perpetual motion machine," to the extent that he became somewhat crazed and finally left her and the children. One wonders how much attention he was paying to his family, or earning income, while he was laboring over this invention.

In addition to her husband losing his mind and running out on her, the second paragraph of this section gives a hint of how much tragedy she's had to bear. Although the text claims that her seven years of married life were (until her husband deserted her) "happy and comfortable," we learn that 7 of her 14 children have died. Think about the trauma of that: losing seven children in seven years! Dealing with the deaths of seven children, while all the time being pregnant, giving birth, and caring for other children, and your husband goes crazy and ends up running away—not exactly "happy and comfortable" years.

The next section gives us more details:

In her seven years of marriage, Josephine Ormsby gave birth to a single child three times. In each of her other four years of marriage, she had multiple births:
  • Nov. 1, 1896: twins born, both died
  • Sept. 19, 1897: twins born, one died
  • Sept. 24, 1899: triplets born, one died
  • Sept. 29, 1901: quadruplets born, all alive as of Oct. 2
Next we have this touching paragraph:

Those are the words of a strong woman who persevered. Despite having lost 7 of her 10 children in the preceding six years, living in a "modest" home and operating a small grocery store to survive, and a husband who went crazy and deserted her, Josephine can lie on her bed with three little boys in her arms, her little girl lying crosswise at the foot of the bed, and declare: "These are the dearest little things."

The next two paragraphs tell us something about Josephine Ormsby's character. "I should have had a much more remarkable family," she declares, "if all had lived":

We also glean some important genealogical information from her comments. Now we know more information about the triplets:
  • Sept. 24, 1899: triplets; Carter Harrison Ormsby died, Helen Gould Ormsby and George Dewey Ormsby survived
The last line of the article adds the final touch to this story:

Can you believe it? The mother of all these multiple births was herself "one of a set of triplets." Clearly fecundity ran in her family!

The Library of Congress has a wonderful collection of American history called the "American Memory Project." Contained in their archives, from nine years after Josephine Ormsby's quadruplets were born, we find this photograph taken of the family in 1910:

(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress American Memory Project LC
No. #ichicdn n005169)

Nine years later, all seven of her children in 1901 are still alive. The four quadruplets are in front, the two surviving triplets to the right, and the surviving twin in the rear. Combining the information from the 1901 newspaper article with the identities supplied by this photo's caption, we have a lot of valuable genealogical information about this family:
  • Nov. 1, 1896: twins; one died, Daisy Ormsby survived
  • Sept. 19, 1897: twins, both died
  • Sept. 24, 1899: triplets; Carter Harrison Ormsby died, Helen Gould Ormsby and George Dewey Ormsby survived
  • Sept. 29, 1901: quadruplets; Edith Viola Ormsby, John Studebaker Ormsby, Theodore Roosevelt Ormsby and William Hearst Ormsby.
After all the trauma Josephine Ormsby had experienced by September 1901, it is heartwarming to see this terrific family scene from 1910: she—and they—all surviving and apparently doing well.

And what an incredible story to have run across: a woman—herself one of a set of triplets—who gave birth to two sets of twins, triplets, and quadruplets; who lost seven of her first ten children in seven years; who had to manage the home, take care of the kids, and run a small grocery store because her husband went crazy trying to invent a bizarre machine and ended up deserting her...and somehow she had the strength, and the help and support of caring neighbors, to carry on through all of that.

No, she may not be in the history books, but her story lives on thanks to an old newspaper article. If Josephine Ormsby is one of your ancestors, you now have lots of clues to continue your family history research to find out more about this remarkable woman and her family.
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