03 March 2014

#9 52 Ancestors: Blended Families

#9—52 Ancestors: Blended Families

Cynthia (Leavitt) Newton Gormley (1842-1929)

There is an instinct in a woman to love most her own child — and an instinct to make any child who needs her love, her own.  — Robert Brault --  Quotes by Robert Bault    

Death touched the lives of our ancestors often in the 19th century. Diseases and accidents wiped out entire families and ravaged the ranks of many others. Few families escaped. Women especially seem to die early, often in childbirth, leaving several young children. The fathers then were faced with finding a wife — and quickly — to care for the little ones, run the household and toil at the enormous, never-ending chores necessary to feed, clean, clothe and nurse everyone while they labored in the fields and ran the farm. There was not much time to grieve the loss of a spouse or waste months in frivolous romantic pursuit.

Widows, especially those who lived in the agricultural regions of America in this time period, needed a husband to support them and their children for there were few alternatives for earning a livelihood available to them. No doubt such harsh necessities are responsible for the quick re-marriages of many of our ancestors and the frequent blending of families. This blending often complicates the genealogical research as we are confronted with numerous names to sort out and unclear relationships. Some family histories contain sad tales about mean stepmothers, abusive stepfathers, or uncaring foster parents. Among the family stories are sad chronicles of being left an orphan and sent to relatives who were less than kind, farmed out to neighbors, or put in orphanages and poor farms.

Any of these sad tales might have been the fate of Claude Pierson had not his path crossed Cynthia Gormley’s. This stepmother of three had no child of her own, but she had a heart as big as the Missouri prairie farmland where they lived. She took this orphaned boy when he was about two years old and gave him unconditional love for more than 40 years.

Caldwell County, Missouri
Crossing Paths. Matthew Gormley, the son of Irish Catholic immigrants to Jefferson County, New York, was a blacksmith who served during the Civil War. He wound up in Caldwell County, Missouri and in 1871 married Catherine Benson, who died about six years later. Matthew married secondly Jane Taft in 1877 in Caldwell County, Missouri. They had four children in about seven years and she died, evidently in childbirth with a fourth child who did not survive. Matthew was left with three young children. The family story goes that Cynthia Leavitt Newton, a childless widow, who lived nearby, saw that these children desperately needed a mother and even though she was of the Baptist faith, she decided to marry Matthew Gormley, a Roman Catholic, and take care of them. Matthew and Cynthia agreed to go their separate ways, religiously. They married 1 March 1885 in Hamilton, Caldwell County, Missouri.
Meanwhile not far away in that county, in July of 1887, another young mother in the tiny hamlet of Hopewell near Polo, died of typhoid, leaving four little sons, the youngest of whom was Claude V. Pierson.

Precisely how the lives of Claude Pierson and Cynthia (Leavitt) Newton Gormley became entwined, is not known, but it might have been via the Baptist Church. Cynthia, the eldest daughter of a Baptist minister, the Rev. William Ashley Leavitt, was born in Saint Lawrence County, New York in 1842. She did not marry until she was 40 years old and the marriage only lasted a few months. Married in October 1882, she became a widow in May 1883. Her brother, the Rev. Franklin J. Leavitt, also was a Baptist minister and had a long record of church, prison and welfare work. He served as chaplain of the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. Some of the Piersons of Caldwell County also were of the Baptist faith. Regardless of how it came to be, there was a strong beautiful bond between this orphaned son and his loving foster mother. She was the only mother he ever knew and he adored her.
Claude V. Gormley ca 1918

In 1917 Claude, who by now was using the surname of Gormley, was “out West” working in Montana, and enlisted in the Army. His unit became part of the American Expeditionary Force that saw action in France. An article in Missouri newspaper (not identified or dated, but preserved in a scrapbook) tells the story:

Claude Gormley is Over Seas
Landed at Liverpool Christmas Day—
Ship carried 8,000 Soldiers and
400 Red Cross Nurses

Claude Gormley has written his mother, Mrs. Mat. [Matthew] Gormley of Hamilton, regarding the trip across the Atlantic. Claude is a member of M Co., 163d inf. 41st Div., American Expeditionary Force. He volunteered while in Montana last summer. His letter, written on Y.M.C.A. paper Christmas Day, is as follows:

 "We arrived at Liverpool, England feeling fine and had a dandy trip across. We left New York on the 14th day of December and landed here today. I enjoyed the trip and never got seasick. The boat we came over on is one of the biggest government transports: 950 feet long, 125 feet wide and has 17 decks. It has 48 boilers and requires a crew of 1,800 men.

American troops landing in Liverpool, WWI

“Well, mother, I haven't seen much of England yet. We came to this camp, six miles square, last night and it was dark when we left Liverpool and got in camp at 4:30 this morning. The weather is damp, but warm. We expect to cross to France in about a week. We are living in barracks and have lots of bedding to keep us warm. I hear there is a bunch of 700 men going over to France in the morning to fix up barracks for us to live in.

“There were 8,000 soldiers and 400 Red Cross nurses came over on the boat. I was on kitchen detail all the way over and we fed 500 men to each mess hall. We had a big turkey dinner last Sunday and all we can eat all the time. And we are going to have Christmas dinner tomorrow, 160 pounds of turkey to each company. Uncle Sam treats us fine, don’t you think?

“Mother, those socks you sent are sure fine, good and warm. I have ten pairs now, which will last me for a year. The English people are fine to talk to, but after we get to France I don't know about the talking.

The uniform of the English soldier is about the same color as ours, but is made differently. You cannot expect to hear from me now like you have been, but remember I am well and feeling fine so don't worry about me."

 Based on Claude’s description of the ship and the dates of departure and arrival, he must have sailed on the USS Leviathan.

USS Leviathan





USS Leviathan, a 58,000 ton (displacement) troop transport, was completed at Hamburg, Germany, in 1914 as the German flag passenger liner Vaterland. Laid up at Hoboken, New Jersey, when World War I began, she was seized when the United States joined the conflict in April 1917. The Navy took custody of the ship soon afterwards, placing her in commission as USS Vaterland in late July 1917, while she was being refitted for service as a troop transport. In early September the ship was renamed Leviathan, an appropriate name considering that she was then the largest ship in the U.S. Navy, and in the world.
The Leviathan's seagoing naval career commenced in November 1917, when she made a trial trip from Hoboken to Cuba and back. In December she took troops to Liverpool, England, but repairs delayed her return to the U.S. until mid-February 1918. A second trip to Liverpool in March was followed by more repairs. At that time she was repainted with the British-type "dazzle" camouflage scheme that she carried for the rest of the war. With the completion of that work, Leviathan began regular passages between the U.S. and Brest, France, delivering up to 14,000 persons on each trip. In all, she transported nearly 120,000 servicemen to the combat zone before the November 1918 Armistice brought the fighting to an end.
Claude Gormley was discharged from the Army at Fort D. A. Russell, Wyoming 21 March 1919 and evidently headed back to Missouri soon thereafter. A step-granddaughter of Cynthia  relates, “I remembered vividly when Claude came home after World War I. Grandma Gormley and I were coming home from prayer meeting one Sunday night and as we neared the house we saw a lamp burning, Grandma started to run calling "Claude, Claude!" He heard her and came out to meet them. She was very partial to Claude."

Claude and Cynthia Gormley 1920s

Sometime after 1920, Cynthia went to Bremerton, Kitsap County, Washington to live with her youngest sister and probably to be near Claude, who was then working in a saw mill in Port Angeles, Clallam County, Washington.
Cynthia Gormley died in Washington 31 May 1929 at the age of 87.  Her stepchildren and grandchildren called her “Saint Cynthia."
Her foster son adored her.  What a loving legacy this kind woman left to so many.




  1. What an amazingly loving woman. Thank you for sharing her story.

  2. Thank you for the kind words. I would have loved to have known her.