A message in a bottle that tumbled out of a 112-year-old wall that was torn down during renovations of College Hall has proven an irresistible genealogical treasure hunt, leading to the descendants of one of the men.
The lives of the two bricklayers – William Hanley and James Lennon – were all but forgotten until the note’s discovery earlier this year. With the help of family historians and a Montclair State alumna who is also an ancestry expert, family trees have unlocked some of the mysteries of the two skilled craftsmen from Newark, New Jersey.
Descendants of James Lennon now understand more about the man they knew only through a single photograph. The fate of William Hanley is poignant and best understood through the newspaper account of his young wife’s funeral just a few months after the co-workers built and left a note in the wall.
Message in a Bottle
With the bricklayers’ personal histories linked to their note dated July 3, 1907, among the oldest ever discovered, fascination over finding family piqued interest around the world.
“This is to certify that this wall was built by two bricklayers from Newark, N.J., by the names of William Hanly and James Lennon, members of No. 3 of the B.M.I.U. of America.”
That message, written in fanciful script, was placed inside a beer bottle; the pieces of the mystery coming together from clues to their roots in the note and broken glass. The bottle was manufactured by the Consolidated Bottling Co. and made for pale ale or porter and was broken when a worker started tearing down the wall.
“I can imagine what they were doing the day before the Fourth of July, kicking back, having a couple of beers and deciding to write a note and put it in the wall,” says Robert Kanaby, the demolition laborer who made the discovery.
Finding their families has provided a lesson on the tremendous interest in genealogy, and the popularity of online sites to discover ancestors and television programs that trace family roots.
Story Goes Viral
A feature story on the discovery was first published in the Fall issue of Montclair, the Magazine of Montclair State University. Spreading on social media, local and then national media outlets picked up the story, sending out an SOS to long lost family. It traveled as far as Russia and Thailand, was front-page news and had millions of views.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, cousins, nieces and siblings connected to Lennons, Hanleys and Hanlys, began reaching out to each other. They had seen the story in People or CNN or locally in New Jersey and wondered, “Could that William Hanley be Uncle Bill?” “Is James Lennon the same man as my grandfather in this old family photo?”
Family historians contacted Montclair State to share mementos, with a photo of James T. Lennon in his 40s setting the search on the right path.
With the pieces of the puzzle coming together, Lorraine Arnold, a buildings archaeologist/ genealogist and founder of Legacy Roots, a company devoted to legal, historical, genealogical and biographical research, visited the campus to look over the clues. The BA in Jurisprudence she earned from Montclair State in 2011 has opened a professional career finding missing evidence and people who have gone incognito.
This message in a bottle makes for a good mystery, she says. “When you have very little information, that’s what makes the plot intriguing and interesting.” And with a 112-year-old note signed by men with common last names – with possible different spellings of Hanly and Hanley – “we have very little information to go by.”
But what seemed like “little information” when the search began turned out to be quite a lot. “By moving beyond face value, gleaning and researching the facts that are listed, multiple doors open that ultimately bring the story to life,” Arnold explains.
Census Data Provides a Clue
The message in a bottle was found during the restoration of a campus centerpiece – an original mission-styled building erected to train teachers.
Concealed in a space within an 18-inch thick wall, the note was meant to remain hidden for a very long time, perhaps forever. The message could only – and then only possibly – be found if and when the wall was torn down.
“Back then, blood, sweat and tears went into building this wall. When we found the bottle, a little bit of tears were shed,” Kanaby says.
Historians and family members have gathered primary sources, including newspaper articles, birth and death certificates, directory and census records, which point to James T. Lennon, the youngest child of a bricklayer named Thomas, as the most likely Lennon to have worked on College Hall in 1907.
Genealogy is not an exact science, but researchers can make reasonable conclusions. “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith based on the overwhelming documentation that you have available to you,” Arnold says.
Connecting the Dots
The U.S. Census provided leads to the craftsman, beginning in 1900 with the occupation of James T. Lennon of Newark – mason. Later in life, at the age of 43, James, and his wife, Otillia (Bakker), 39, had their only child, a daughter, Eileen, born March 30, 1914, according to the New Jersey certificate and record of birth.
A marriage certificate shows that on April 1, 1939, Eileen married Charles Richard Moore. A Moore family historian shared a meticulously organized binder of old records and photos she has researched and collected over the years that trace the roots of not only the Moore side of the family but the families they married.
Eileen and Charles had two children who survived infancy. Their daughter, Nancy Foster, is a teacher who lives in Florida. A son, Jon, died in 2005. An indexed section of family keepsakes records Eileen’s parents and her life. There are a few photos – Eileen’s mother, who was known by her nickname Tilly, as a girl; Eileen as a toddler; and Eileen’s father, James, seated in formal attire in a photo believed to be taken in 1917.
“This opened a door for me,” says Foster, noting the remarkable connection of her teaching career and her grandfather’s role in building one of New Jersey’s early teachers’ colleges.
James died on Oct. 27, 1942, two years before his granddaughter was born, and is buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in East Orange. Neither Tilly or Eileen passed down family stories, Foster says. Pieces of James life in particular remain a puzzle – his travels between Newark and Ohio, where he died, his burial in the sprawling New Jersey cemetery and his wife in another. It’s a broken story, that begs as many questions as it answers.
The act of signing his name and taking proud ownership of a job well done, resonates with his great-granddaughter Ali, who is retired from the Air Force and lives in Alaska. (She asked that only her first name to be used to protect her privacy). “They did good work, so that means I now know where I get my work ethic from,” she says.
Looking deeper into the life of William P. Hanley reveals a strong relationship between the two bricklayers.
“The camaraderie between union members and laborers, bricklayers, masons, carpenters is very tight,” Kanaby says. “Once you make a bond with someone, it’s almost a bond for life.”
Hanley and Hanly are common names. Census records point to the family of Patrick Hanley, a mason, and Bridget Fleming and their sons, William and David, who were also working as masons. William married Mary O’Mara on April 15, 1897; her funeral when she was just 29 confirms the close relationship between her husband and James Lennon.
Mary Hanley’s death was sudden, according to an article in the Newark Evening Star on November 20, 1907. “Last Saturday she apparently was in the best of health. In the morning, she washed and dressed her children, whose ages are one to ten years, and sent them off to play. In the afternoon, she complained of pains in the region of the heart.”
James Lennon, the article notes, was a pallbearer at the service held at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newark.
It’s difficult to trace what happened to William after his wife’s death. The 1910 Census shows their daughters living in orphanages and a son William Jr. being raised by a widow. A daughter, Estelle, died at the age of 19 and the son died at age 26 while living in California, according to death certificates. William P. Hanley’s date of death is unknown.
Renovation and Dedication
College Hall opened in September 1908 as the New Jersey State Normal School at Montclair. Over the decades, generations of students have passed through its doors as the school itself has grown into Montclair State, now New Jersey’s second-largest university.
“We knew we had something special with this building early in its renovation,” says Shawn Connolly, vice president of University Facilities.
Workers found notes on the attic walls to students heading to World War II wishing their safe return, Connolly says. Other mementos have also been discovered: A 1940s business card belonging to C.H. Little, a business representative for the craftworkers labor union, BMIU of Montclair, No. 11, with “offices at 617 ½ Bloomfield Ave., Montclair, NJ.”
The message in the bottle notes that P. W. Lynch “was also working on the job.” A review of Newark City directories finds a Philip W. Lynch, bricklayer, who likely helped Hanley and Lennon by bringing in batches of cement and brick as the project’s “hod carrier.”
“It’s interesting that the workers identified themselves by their membership in a craft union,” says Nancy C. Carnevale, an associate professor of History at Montclair State. “We know that Irish immigrant workers were concentrated in such unions, which fostered a greater identification by specific trade or job.”
The families will be invited to a ceremony being planned after the renovations are complete and the note and artifacts exhibited.
“We’re not sure the masons who placed the message in the bottle ever thought it would be found. But it’s a time capsule of sorts, giving us a glimpse of the men who constructed the building,” Connolly says. “Now they and their families will forever be a part of our history.”
Story by Marilyn Joyce Lehren.
Research contributed by Lorraine Arnold; James Lennon family tree and photos were shared by his granddaughter’s paternal cousin, the former Phyllis Moore.
Photography by Mike Peters.
Video by Christodoulos Apostolou.