Friday, 2 January 2015

The Kerrs - Calling from the Grave

This morning I was certain that the Kerrs had called out to me. James Kerr and his Sproule wife were not at all vital to my research but still I had become strangely obsessed with finding them. They had lived in the early 1800s, but they were constantly interrupting me in 2015. I kept trying to work on a particularly complex Sproule story from that era, but the urge to stop and to go hunting for the Kerrs dominated everything. 

At 4.30 am this morning I finally found my missing Kerrs. What had seemed like an irrational addiction and a total waste of time, suddenly had meaning. The Kerrs had wanted me to find them.

James Kerr and his Sproule Wife

I first came across James Kerr of Ardstraw, County Tyrone,  in the 1807 Will of Robert Sproule the Nabob, where he is named as the Nabob's cousin. 

James Kerr appears again in letters written in the early 1800s between the Nabob Sproule’s two nephews,  Robert Sproule of Ohio and his brother Samuel of Bridgehill, County Tyrone. We discover in these letters that James Kerr had married their sister and that the Kerr family had moved to live in Philadelphia in 1815.

The Obsession Begins

My search began innocently enough - what was the name of the Sproule sister who had married her cousin, James Kerr?  The sister is mentioned several times in the letters, but there was a bit of confusion as to her first name. In a letter dated 12th October 1802, Samuel Sproule of Bridgehill tells his brother Robert in Ohio that “James Kerr, Isabella and the family are all well”. However, in a letter to Robert of Ohio in 1817, another relative who met the same sister in Philadelphia seems to refer to her as ‘Nan’.  

The hunt for the first name of James Kerr’s wife quickly grew into the Kerr obsession and it made no sense right  from the beginning. Her own brother had said she was called ‘Isabella’. Could I not accept that? Apparently not.  I began by tracking down all the Kerrs in the passenger records  from Derry to Philadelphia between 1814 and 1816. I found several ‘James Kerrs’ but no wife ‘Isabella’ or variants of ‘Nan’.

Hunting Pensylvania

There are many James Kerrs buried throughout Pensylvania, and I meticulously checked every single one. I kept telling myself that this was ridiculous, and there was really nothing to be gained - but on I went. I  had moments of excitement when I seemed to be getting somewhere.  A James Kerr would match up with a wife ‘Anne’, or another had an ‘Isabella’ as his spouse. But none of these felt right.

I read and re-read the letters between Ohio and Bridgehill  looking for another clue. One mentioned a son of James Kerr, and another had told me that James Kerr and his Sproule wife had a daughter called ‘Sallie’.  An 1831 letter reports that ‘Sallie Kerr writes that uncle and aunt are both well’.  

The Kerrs Found

I was so tired by the time I found them at 4.30 am this morning that I am even not sure how I did it. Before me appeared the beautifully written document  of the Register of Interments of Mount Moriah Cemetery of Philadelphia.  As soon as it opened, the two  names leapt off the page, James Kerr and Isabella Kerr. They were there together, buried on the same day, and I knew straight away that they were my Kerrs:

Kerr, Isabella  age 93 years interred May 5th 1858
Kerr, James  age 97 years  interred May 5th 1858

Two people in their nineties must have been very unusual in those days. What I found even more strange was that I had looked at so many Kerrs and I had rejected them all, yet as soon as I saw these two old folk there was instant recognition. This was definitely my Kerrs.  All I needed now was the proof. 

The Proof

I didn’t have far to look, it was four lines up on the same page.  The burial record of my two old Kerrs gave the plot number where they both lay, plot number 8 grave 1. Four lines up from their entry I found exactly the same grave number, plot 8 grave 1. It was their daughter Sallie Kerr. She had died exactly one month before her parents:

Kerr, Sallie age 56 years interred April 5th 1858 – Typhoid Fever

The Story Told

This was proof indeed and it told its own sad story. Sallie Kerr had been living with her old parents in Philadelphia, both of them in their nineties. Sallie had succumbed to typhoid fever and was buried on April 5th. One month later her parents, James Kerr and Isabella Sproule, were both dead. Did they die of the fever? That is one possibility. A worse thought occurred to me. Could it be that the two ninety year olds had no-one to care for them, and they simply starved to death?

Rest in Peace

With that awful thought, the strange Kerr obsession now all made sense. They had wanted to be found. After all these years, the two old folk were still calling out.

You are found now, my Kerr cousins. Let us all be at peace.

James and Isabella Kerr travelled from Londonderry to New York arriving on November 14th 1815 on the ship the Marcus Hill. Ulster Ancestry. Ulster Ancestry


  1. Kate my great great grandfather James Kerr from townlands Meaghy married Sarah 's in November 1948 in Castlederg. Is this another link to your James Kerr mentioned here

  2. Sarah Sproule the daughter of Joseph Sproule and Isabella Brown