Tracking Down Lost Lives: A Family For Sale on eBay
By Michael Stillman
It may not be you, but there is probably some one of your kin who has kept a family album. It may take different forms, photos, letters, news clippings, anything that recounts the story of a life or lives. At one time vibrant and alive, eventually they and the lives they recorded fade away. What then becomes of these personal and family histories, these pieces of ephemera recording ephemeral lives? If only I could provide an answer worthy of such questions of mortality and immortality. Unfortunately, I cannot. But, for one man and his family, I can. They ended up on eBay. Fifty dollars bought the rights to the most cherished memories and remembrances of William P. Rudd and his family.
Who is William P. Rudd? He is not a great celebrity or historic figure. Nevertheless, he was not unimportant either. He was a prominent, respected man, who lived along the edges of influence and power in the capital of the largest state in the Union. He sat next to a President for dinner, received an audience with the Pope. He served on the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Most of his career was spent as an attorney in private practice, and his most important client was one of the major railways of the era, where his father had worked as a conductor. Not bad for the son of a railroad conductor. And still, here is what it comes to in the end. Fifty dollars for a collection of his, and his family's, lives.
When the album arrived, I opened it with much anticipation. There is nothing quite like the thrill of discovering some artifact of another time, whether it be in an attic, a yard sale, a bookshop, or....eBay. This one had an extra bit of relevance to me personally, as William Rudd lived his life in Albany, New York. All of my grandparents lived most or all of their lives in the Capital City. My parents grew up there; I visited often. In time, we moved to warmer climes. We were part of that great migration which explains why New York is no longer the most populous state in the nation. But, during the first half of the twentieth century, New York was a political powerhouse. From 1880-1948, New Yorkers would be elected President 7 times, finish second in the voting 8 times, and ascend to the presidency through assassination twice (but not one New Yorker has even been nominated since). This was the New York in which William Rudd lived.
The Rudd family album now in my possession is almost entirely a collection of newspaper clippings. William P. Rudd is the central character, but not the only one. What remains something of a puzzle is who compiled this album? We'll get back to this question after examining it, as being a sleuth is much of the fun in discovering old papers. While to some extent chronological, at times it is a bit haphazard. And while many articles are taped to the pages, there are at least as many loose ones floating around. They may provide some clues to the album's keeper.