Granted, WDYTYA is sponsored by Ancesty.com, the premier genealogy research site, of whom I've been a loyal subscriber practically since it came online in the 1990s.
Still, how could NBC and Ancestry possibly come up with a celebrity family history format better than PBS's "Faces of America" hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.?
Well, I'm thrilled to report, they did.
One issue I've had with "Faces" is that every episode features the ancestries of several of the season's twelve celebrities. Rather than devote a segment to each, it jumps back and forth from one celeb to another and back again. Also, each celeb's tree is done by Gates and a team of researchers, then the findings presented to the celebrity in a scrapbook.
Not so in "Who Do You Think".
Each episode features only one celeb who, with the assistance of local family history professionals, follows clues to ancestral locations him/herself, making the discoveries infinitely more personal.
Friday night's celeb was Sarah Jessica Parker.
Although I'm one of the five people on the planet who's never seen "Sex & The City", SJ is the reason I faithfully watched all 25 episodes of her first foray into television, as Kay Ericson Gardner in "A Year In The Life", which aired first as a 3-part miniseries in late 1986, then as a weekly series in the fall of 1987 and spring of 1988.
Despite the series "A Year" being an instant hit and maintaining a 20 market share for the entire season (which today would put it in a network's Top Three), it came along at precisely the time cable was becoming popular and wasn't renewed. Many fans - myself included - never stop hoping those 25 episodes will become available on DVD!
But back to SJ's ancestors...
She followed a maternal line, first to the the gold fields of California where a great-grandfather, John Hodge, had been headed from Ohio in 1849. The family believed he died on the trip, but the 1850 census showed him and two mining partners very much alive in El Dorado County, Calif.
Naturally my first thought was that Hodge stayed in California and established a new family, just as many young men had abandoned wives back east in the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s.
So I was as surprised and saddened as SJ when an El Dorado County historian showed her a letter dated a few months after the census, telling how Hodge and a partner had succumbed to one of the diseases common in mining camps and were buried in an unmarked grave.
The surname "Hodge" was well known in early New England, so Boston was SJ's next stop.
I thought this set the wrong example for newbies to genealogy, who all too often latch onto an unrelated line because it happens to have the same surname, with no documentation for the crucial generations in between.
Not to worry - the historian who met with SJ in Beantown did have documents proving John Hodge's lineage to a Hodge born in Massachusetts in the 1600s.
The biggest surprise - one I should have seen coming - was another documented ancestor was Esther Elwell, who with two other women had been accused of witchcraft during the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
SJ's reaction on seeing her ancestress's name in the Witch Trials archives was the same as mine years ago upon finding my 8th ggm Elizabeth Gatchell (Getchell) there. First surprise, then horror that a relative may've been hanged as a witch.
My Elizabeth wasn't one of the accused, however, but merely one of dozens who signed a petition attesting to the innocence of Mary Bradbury.
But still, I was as relieved as SJ to learn Esther Elwell and her friends had escaped the gallows...but only because that session of the Court of Oyer and Terminer had ended a week earlier and never revived thanks to the intervention of the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Coincidentally, by the end of summer 1692, witch "sightings" had stopped altogether, lending credence to the claim of Prof. Linnda R. Caporael (right) that the original accusations were the result of hallucinations and physical manifestations caused by convulsive ergotism, which itself was the result of eating bread made from rye infected with the fungus ergot (Claviceps purpura).
Ergot-infected rye was already known in Europe to cause hallucinations and "insane" behavior but, unfortunately for the twenty souls killed during the Witch Trials, this fact was unknown in Salem.
To give you an idea of what the accusers were experiencing when they saw or felt "witches" attacking them or others, the hallucinogenic lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is also a derivative of ergot and some of their visions mirror those reported by LSD "trippers" in the 1960s.
Ergot will only attack rye under damp conditions. The rye believed responsible for the witchcraft hysteria had been planted in the damp spring of 1691, matured during the equally damp summer, then milled into the flour used by Salem residents to make bread the following winter.
Oddly, ergot fungus is rather fickle - it may attack a field of rye but not the field next to it. This would explain why only members of certain Salem families experienced symptoms of ergot poisoning; not all the rye used that winter came from the same field.
The following spring and summer were dry, hence the rye crop of 1692 wasn't infected.
For more information:
- Ergot poisoning - cause of the Salem Witch Trials
- Prof. Linnda R. Caporael on Ergotism
- Were Salem villagers drugged?
- Salem Witch Trials Archives
- Index to names in the Salem Witchcraft Papers
- The case against Esther Elwell (page 1 of 2)
- The case against Mary Bradbury
- Web site for "Who Do You Think You Are"
- Sarah Jessica Central, with clips from WDYTYA
Have a great day!