Breathing life into a family legend

Although there isn’t an early women photographer with a connection to  the photo of the 3 girls in my last post, Chris and I have uncovered some interesting information – and also a puzzle – about people in that photo.

L-R: unidentified woman; Louise Burke, Winifred Burke (date an place unknown) (photo provided by Lee McIntyre)
Louise Burke (center), Winifred Burke (right), with an unknown woman. Date and place are unknown) (photo provided by Lee McIntyre)

According to the handwritten notes on the back of the photo, that’s my grandfather’s “Aunt Win” – Winifred Burke – sitting on the right.  Win’s older sister, Louise Burke, is  in the center, and an unidentified person is sitting with them on the grass.

L-R: unidentified woman; Louise Burke, Winifred Burke (date an place unknown) (photo provided by Lee McIntyre)
handwriting on back of photo. L-R: unidentified woman; Louise Burke, Winifred Burke (date an place unknown) (photo provided by Lee McIntyre)

Winifred and Louise Burke are the daughters of Louise Hynes Burke, the woman in the Doolittle studio portrait I talked about in  my last post.

By the way, Louise Hynes Burke’s name is not written on the back of the other photo, but  Chris and I have Louise Hynes’ yearbook photo to compare it to. I think that it is definitely photos of the same woman, at different ages:

Louise Hynes Burke, 1847-1887. (photo by Lee McIntyre)
Louise Hynes Burke, 1847-1887. (photo provided by Lee McIntyre)
A high-school photo of Louisa Hynes, circa 1863

By the way, Louise Hynes Burke died  in 1887 at the age of only 40, leaving 5 young children.  Winifred, her youngest,  is barely 2 years old when her mother passes away. (In a turn of events that seems particularly tragic Louise Hynes Burke dies unexpectedly while off on a solo visit to Kansas to see her own mother, who was at that time sick and dying. )

But I digress… I really want to talk about Winifred and Louise. By 1900, we find Louise Hyne Burke ‘s widower, Andrew Burke, and  his 2 youngest daughters living with relatives in Chicago. Daughter Louise is now age 19, and Winifred is now 15.  They are living with Andrew’s sister, Catherine Burke Keeley, her husband and their 5 surviving children. The Keeley family includes 2 daughters who are about the same age as Win and Louise.  So, if I had to guess at the identity of the 3rd girl in the photo, I’d say it’s one of these Keeley cousins.

In any case, although it’s hard to pick up the trail until 1900, Winifred Burke’s story starts to take off later. though. Around 1904 notices pop up in newspaper that make is clear that young Winifred Burke has become an actress!

A January 1912 article  includes a photo of Winifred.   The article includes a clearly press-release style “interview”  with her about her thoughts on the nature of “luck.” It’s a cute  gimmick, since “Luck”  happens to be  the character in the play, Everybody, the she was appearing in at the time.

Jan 14, 1912, photo and interview with Winifred Burke, the Pittsburgh Press.
Jan 14, 1912, photo and interview with Winifred Burke, the Pittsburgh Press.

Winifred  seems to have had  a successful career, as she appears  in productions around the country in  the early 1900s. She even makes it onto Broadway at one point.

Then, in 1914 or so, she  starts appearing in [silent] films – mostly serials – that  were also  well-received in their day.

Somebody has added a publicity shot of Winifred on the Internet Movie Database website. There’s no date or photographer give for this photo, but here she is, looking every inch a silent film star:

Photo of a the young actress Winifred Burke that is in IMDB
Winifred Burke photo in IMDB

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much family lore passed down about “Aunt Win” or “Aunt Louise”, although I  remember hearing that neither sister ever married. The two sisters lived together for most of their lives, first in Chicago (which Louise apparently kept as her home base during most of her early theatrical career), and later in New York City.

I recall my mother telling a story of how she met her Great Aunt Win and Great Aunt Louise at some point, and how she was struck by how Aunt Win’s voice was “very dramatic and booming.” So at the time, my mother thought it made sense that she’d heard that Aunt Win had once taught drama and elocution, and maybe even been on the stage herself.

But no specifics were ever passed down in the family about Win’s life beyond that.

It was only after Chris and i discovered all the  newspaper clippings about Win’s stage career that we finally had any proof that Win did indeed really work as an actress, but it was easy to spot once we looked. Chris and I managed manage to piece together bits and pieces of Win’s professional career stretching into the 1920s. [I should note  that at least one of  the clippings makes it clear that Winifred Burke, the early 20th century actress, is indeed my ancestor, as it describes enough about her family in Rockton, Illinois, to make the connection clear.]

But what of Win’s sister Louise? Well, she remains a bit of an enigma. There’s a “Louise Burke” who shows up in the city directories in Chicago in the 1910s as a dressmaker, and that could be her. In the 1920 Census we find sisters Louise and Winifred Burke  living together in New York City at 145 W. 135th Street.  That 34-year-old Louise Burke is listed as a milliner working in a shop, and that 32-year-old Winifred Burke is listed as a student at “Columbia Women’s,   but it doesn’t say any more than that.  It is at least plausible that this  Louise and Winifred  Burke are my great-great aunts (even if their ages in the 1920 census are a little younger than they really should have been.)

The truly puzzling thing, though, is that just a few years later we  lose track of Winifred and Louise completely. They aren’t in the 1930 or 1940 censuses in New York City, but that’s where they should have been, I think. My mother mentioned meeting them there while she was growing up in New York City in the 1940s.  My mother’s youngest sister, who was born in the late 1940s,  also remembers visiting Winifred and Louise when she was a very young child on Long Island in the early 1950s.

Now, once the 1950 census  is  indexed and made available online later this year, we will have another chance to find track them down in New York City. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll also figure out where and when they died, since we haven’t managed to figure that out yet, either.

But it any case, a story I vaguely remembered hearing once upon a time — i.e. a story that claimed that  one of my great aunts had a life upon the stage — turns out to be true!  How fun is that, eh? 😉