Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Fantastical Family History

Searching through some old family albums, I came across several wonderful turn of the century portraits. As I find time I will post some on this blog and include any information bout the subject I can.

In this photo is my Uncle Ennis Givens. The photo was taken between 1899-1900.

Uncle Ennis was my great great (there may be another great in there, but I am not sure) uncle on my mother's side of the family. He was born on Nantucket to a single mother, his father having left a few years after Ennis' birth for fear of being drafted to serve in World War I some fifty years before it began.

Despite growing up with no father in a time when fathers often taught their sons the family trade, Uncle Ennis learned to care for himself and his mother by selling souvenir clam shells to tourists in the summers and jarring Atlantic Ocean salt water for export in the winters.

At age sixteen, on advice from his paternal grandmother, Uncle Ennis left home for New York City in the hopes of making his fortune as a shrimp boat captain on the Hudson River. Shrimp being turn of the century slang for New Jersey Sucker-eel. Unfortunately for Uncle Ennis, he learned too late that the Hudson River had not produced any "shrimp" since before the industrial revolution and that he had been lied to by his grandmother who wanted to be rid of him and his Sunday afternoon visits. Ennis fell into to a brief, but terrible depression upon realizing that he had been suckered by his own grandmother. He would later return to Nantucket to leave several large pales of Hudson River water on her front porch as an indication that he got the joke and he only found it a little funny.

Ennis eventually made his way to Boston where he arranged with a childhood friend to take over management of his friend's molasses factory, but instead decided he would rather become a patent clerk. Not realizing that patent clerks did not get to keep the items they helped patent, Ennis decided to become an inventor himself. Due to his lack of education, Uncle Ennis found it hard to invent much beyond new uses for rope and spare coinage. He focused his attention on finding a wealthy mate.

Around age thirty, Ennis met and courted a young lady from Florida who had been visiting family in Boston. He would later recall in his memoirs, which consisted of a few pages of notes and several pages of dirty drawings, that he only knew her first name and even then he couldn't pronounce or spell it.

Beyond this, Uncle Ennis' story gets a little spotty. What we do know is at some point in the late 1800's he founded an organization that championed the legalization of vagrancy in Minnesota and he lived on a houseboat in Maine for some time.

The photograph above shows Uncle Ennis hours before he was hanged for attempting to unlace a lady's shoe without her knowledge or prior written consent (an actual law in most states at the time). We don't know who the cat belonged to.


  1. Ok, so this is a great family story!! I love the picture and your story was written so well!! funny guy. sad that he had to die that way.

  2. Thanks, Nicole! I have a few more like this one, in that they are just too unbelievable. I have one about a cousin who farmed grasshoppers for secret government experiments. I mean you can't make this stuff up.

  3. Holy cow what a great story! Was he the inspiration to one of your recent paintings of the Sailor?
    This is a GREAT photo! Almost to good to be true! Well, now we all know where your love for BIG BEARDS began! :)

  4. I had no idea our family history was so well documented! Can't wait to flip through some of those family photos myself! And.... if I ever have a boy I shall name him Ennis, after our great and mighty uncle.