Sometimes the Wall Wins—The Search for John T. Larkin


Elizabeth Reid (1871–1905) had a hard life. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 17 Jul 1871, she was the first of four children of Michael Joseph Reid (c. 1852–1877) and Elizabeth “Ellen” Lawless (1851–1917). The youngest child, Michael, was born 2 months after their father, a fisherman, drowned in the Mississippi River after a night of drinking. That was 21 Sep 1877. HIs body was found several days later.

Times-Picayune 26 Sep 1877


Ellen, only 25 at the time, seems to have held her young family together with the help of her parents, Christopher Lawless (c. 1825–1878) and Eliza Reed (c. 1829–1879). However, on 28 Oct 1878, Christy, as he was called, failed to return home after work.

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 3 Nov 1878. A “screwman” was a highly skilled tradesman who packed cotton into the holds of ships.


His body, too, was found floating in the Mississippi.

New Orleans Item (New Orleans, Louisiana), 4 Nov 1878, p. 1.


Having lost the two most important men in her life to the mighty river within a year of one another, Ellen was forced to place her two oldest children in the St Alphonsus Orphan Asylum on 17 Jan 1879, 2 months after her father died. Elizabeth (called Lizzie at the time) was 7 years old, and her brother John (1873–1932), was only 5. Each would spend more than 3 years living with the Catholic Sisters of Mercy and the other children in the orphanage. Their grandmother, Eliza, died in July of 1879, adding to the family’s woes.

St Alphonsus Orphan Asylum, New Orleans, H503 Box 13; the original record book is in the possession of the Sisters of Mercy Heritage Center, 720 Heritage Center Place, Belmont, North Carolina 28012 (see facing page of the register below).


By June 1880, Ellen and her two toddlers, Alphonse and Michael, were living on Prytania Street with her younger siblings, John and Henry, and her sister-in-law, also named Ellen. (The census taker mistakenly swapped the relationships of the two Ellens to the head-of-household, John. Ellen Reed was his sister, and Ellen Lawless neé Nelligan was his brother Andrew’s wife.)

Year: 1880; Census Place: New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: 464; Family History Film: 1254464; Page: 259C; Enumeration District: 083


Lizzie was censused in the orphanage:

Year: 1880; Census Place: New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: 464; Family History Film: 1254464; Page: 187A; Enumeration District: 081


Sometime around 1882, Ellen remarried to a James Cunningham and retrieved her two older children. John returned home from the orphanage on 16 Jul 1882 and Lizzie on 8 Oct 1882.


They did not live happily ever after. In May 1888, Bessie, as she was then known, eloped to Galveston, Texas, to marry John T. Larkin. She was 16 years old.

Marriage certificate for Bessie Reid and John T. Larkin, 19 May 1888, Galveston County, Texas. USA.


Why did they elope? Her mother must have disapproved mightily of John, because, you see, Bessie was already pregnant. Under the circumstances, a wedding would normally be encouraged. Bessie and John’s son, Thomas Patrick Larkin, was born in Galveston 4 months after the wedding, on 28 Oct 1888.

Baptismal register, 2 Dec 1888; St Patrick Church, Galveston, Texas, USA. Thomas Patrick Larkin was born on 28 October 1888 and baptized “Patritium” (the Latin form of Patrick).


Thomas was my great grandfather on my surname line. Tracing his lineage has been challenging, because he was raised by his grandmother Ellen. In fact, he never appears in a census with his mother, Bessie, and she never appears in a census with Ellen. Bessie was born in 1871; in 1880, she was in the orphanage; the 1890 census was lost; in 1900, Thomas was living with Ellen and Bessie is nowhere to be found; and Bessie died in 1905.

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 22 Apr 1905.


Prostitution in New Orleans was semi-legal from 1897 to 1917 in “Storyville”, a redlight district designated by city alderman Sidney Story to try to control vice. He failed. Alcohol flowed, brothels flourished, races intermingled-oh, the horror!-and jazz got its start. (Story was not amused by the nickname chosen by the neighborhood’s denizens, although I imagine they were amused that he wasn’t.)

Bessie was either missed by the 1900 census or she gave a fake name. Her address at her death in 1905, 211 Marais, was skipped by the 1900 census taker. Then again, she might not have lived there then. Marais Street wasn’t where the fancy brothels were; those were three blocks away along Basin Street. The houses of vice on Marais were probably “cribs”, or cheap rooms with beds that were rented to women by the hour. Although prostitutes were legally required to live in Storyville, she could have been anywhere.


Believe it or not, this post isn’t about Bessie; it’s about John. Remember John? Here’s what I know about him: His name was John T. Larkin, and he eloped with Bessie to Galveston in 1888.

Yep, that’s it. My father’s one yDNA match at Family Tree DNA is also a Larkin, so there’s that. But I don’t know when or where John T. Larkin was born, when or where he died, or who his parents were. Bessie’s death certificate says she was married (not widowed) so he may have still been alive in 1905. Then again, maybe that’s what they put on the death certificates of women in her position. John does seem to have wanted contact with his son, as Thomas told his granddaughter that John had come to see him when he was a boy, but Ellen forbade John from the house.

John T. Larkin is why I did DNA testing. No luck. Whether at AncestryDNA, 23andMe, or Family Tree DNA, roughly 90% of my DNA matches are maternal to me, and the paternal ones I’ve been able to identify are either through my grandmother or through Thomas’ wife, Adelia Weicks.

To identify John’s parents, I compiled a list of every Larkin, Larken, or Larkins in New Orleans in the 1800s. All 300-something of them. Most were Irish, and there weren’t a lot of given names to go around-James, John, Patrick, Richard, Robert, Thomas-so piecing together family trees was challenging. None of the John Larkins present in New Orleans in 1900 seemed like good candidates.

There was one in the 1880 census, though, who looked promising. A 13-year-old boy named John Larkin was living in the St Mary’s Catholic Orphan Boys Asylum with three of his brothers: Richard, Robert, and Patrick.

Year: 1880; Census Place: New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: 462; Family History Film: 1254462; Page: 137A; Enumeration District: 061


After a few exchanges with the New Orleans Archdiocese archivist, I was able to obtain the baptismal records of three of the four orphan brothers. Their parents were Thomas Patrick Larkin and Marie Elise Martin.

Thomas Patrick Larkin-that was my great grandfather’s name! Perhaps he had been named for his grandfather. And Bessie had spent 3 years in an orphanage herself, so there was a shared experience that could have brought Bessie and John together. An amusing twist to this hypothesis is that, if true, it would mean that my father is part Cajun, through the Martin line, and my parents were 7th cousins.

How to test the idea? Ideally, I could find a direct descendant of Orphan John who would be willing to test. Finding one was impossible, however. John was discharged from the orphanage in 1883 to the care of a Mrs. Pourceau of Pointe Coupée Parish northwest of New Orleans, and I could find no record of him after that.


I needed to find a descendant of one of Orphan John’s siblings. That also proved difficult. His parents, Thomas Patrick and Marie Eliza, had moved from the small town of Thibodeaux “on the bayou” to New Orleans shortly after John’s birth and anglicized the names of their children. John had actually been baptized “Alphonse”, and the boy listed as Richard in the orphanage began life as “Joseph Willie Clomise”. An older sister originally named “Eldaah Aspasie” had become “Mary Elder”.

Elda Aspasie/Mary Elder proved to be the key, although I had one more name change to deal with. Mary married a Chinese man named Wing Sing (or Sing Wing; records vary) in 1884. She was censused as Mary Wing in 1900, but sometime after that, this family, too, Americanized their surname to Vincent. I later learned that the family had lost all knowledge of an Asian forebear until someone started doing genealogy.

I tracked down a great grandson of Mary Elder who was willing to test. If I was right, he would be my 3rd cousin once removed. If he matched me at AncestryDNA, it meant that Mary and John were siblings. If he didn’t match me, they might have been siblings or they might not have been. Terry and I could be among the 25% or so of 3C1R who don’t match by chance.

Guess what: Terry didn’t match me. With his permission, I uploaded his DNA to GEDmatch, where I could compare him to my father, who tested at 23andMe. No match there either. There’s about a 10% chance that true 3rd cousins won’t match, so even this wasn’t conclusive proof that “my” John and Orphan John were different people.

Well, shoot.

Then, I started to play around with Terry’s matches to see how they were related to him. Turns out the Vincent family is really into testing. Seven of Terry’s top matches are descended from Mary Elder and Wing Sing/John Vincent, and not one of them matches me. One of the seven is also at GEDmatch, and she doesn’t match my father. It’s statistically possible that Mary and John were siblings and one or two of my 3C1R or 4C don’t match me, but it’s highly unlikely that seven don’t match. I have since tested my father’s first cousin, and they don’t match her, either.

I still don’t know who John T. Larkin was, but I know he wasn’t the orphan John Larkin in St Mary’s Orphan Boys Asylum.

Sometimes, the brick wall wins.

UPDATE: An upgrade to my father’s yDNA test provides more evidence that John T. Larkin really was a Larkin.

14 thoughts on “Sometimes the Wall Wins—The Search for John T. Larkin”

  1. Leah, Lawless is one of my family names and DNA project.
    Can you tell me more about your Elizabeth “Ellen” Lawless?
    Ill be more than happy to search for her family

    1. Ellen’s father was Christopher “Christie” Lawless born c. 1826 in Ireland and died 28 Oct 1878 in New Orleans, Louisiana. I don’t know where in Ireland he was from. He married Elizabeth “Eliza” Reed on 3 Mar 1848 in St Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. She was from Balbriggan, Ireland. Thanks for any help you can provide!

    2. I can understand your frustration in tracing the surnames as well as the DNA lineage. Remember that even common names or simple names like Larkin were subject to spelling variations then. I have an ancestor whose surname is Lassen and I’ve found it spelled at least five different ways in New Orleans records.

      1. Thanks for the feedback. I’ve definitely seen spelling variations, especially Larkins and Larken. I recently solved this brick wall with two matches at 23andMe … haven’t had time to write it up yet!

  2. I just wanted to say ‘like’ but there’s no button for that! All that work and time with your fingers crossed, but sadly that’s what happens. I know only too wel from some of my own hypotheses and tests! Hopefully someone new will emerge down the track. Good luck! Love your blog.

  3. The project has some Irish Lawless members, Ill share your info with them.
    Who knows..ive paid for some and would like to see if money was well spent for They dont match my line..
    Ill check if any other Lawless show up in NO in his time period. Would be nice to find a male today…
    Thanks !

    1. The connections would be near the edge of what autosomal DNA can do reliably, but I’m happy to compare. I’m in all the databases, plus I know of a few other descendants from this line who have tested (scattered among databases).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.