Mystery of graveyard pictures solved!

A few weeks ago I was given a vintage camera that turned out to have a film hidden inside. On developing, I found the entire roll was dedicated to pictures of an old gravesite.


Who was Edward Langan? Why had he been added to a grave with a man called James Ryan? And why (as the film dates from 1973) is the grave covered in flowers when the pictures were taken several years afer their deaths?

All these questions, and more, answered after the fold.

Outfoxed, I turned to the Liverpool & South West Lancs Genealogy Forums for help. They proved to be absolutely incredible at tracking down people through the mists of time. In a little over 24 hours, they were able to reveal Edward's entire family history, from ancestors to living relatives! But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Using the information on the tombstone to start her off, Ivy McAllister scoured the England & Wales Death Index for 1916-2005 to find that Edward Langan was estimated to be 75 years old when he died. Meanwhile, selvascura discovered a James Ryan, 78 at time of death, in the Liverpool North register. Given that the camera had been purchased from the 69A antiques shop in Liverpool, it seemed that the grave must be close to the city.

Over on the genealogy forums, Hilary's keen eyes identified this as a Catholic cemetery, narrowing down the number of possible locations. User Jan discovered a marriage record joining Edward Lanigan [sic] to Agnes Ryan in 1923. If this was our Edward, it seemed he dropped the i from his name. Also, it would most likely make James Ryan his brother-in-law.

Jan also noted a birth to the couple the following year, a bouncing baby boy named John, and then a daughter in 1936, recorded as Norma B Lanigan. We now had everyone who appeared on the tombstone, but still no idea where it was, or who took the pictures and when.

i-84a0410a1b811046bb9957d76869d921-69.jpgUser Colette picked up a few details of Edward's early life. Around 1911, a twenty-year-old Edward lived with his mother Catherine and two brothers, Michael and Thomas, at 10 House 2 Court Mill St in Toxteth, Liverpool, and was working as a newspaper vendor.

Then MaryA hit the jackpot, using Hilary's suspicion to locate the grave: Yewtree Cemetery - Section 1B plot 256. Mary also discovered the answer to the mystery of the flowers. Agnes had died in October 1977 and been laid to rest in the family plot, alongside her husband and brother. The grave had been photographed at this time, soon after the funeral but before her name had been added to the tombstone.

Or at least, that was what we suspected. We wouldn't know for sure until I'd been to see the grave with my own eyes. Enter Reef, an old pal from my days of roofpunking and an accomplished urban explorer. The story had caught his eye and we arranged to meet up on a sunny weekend for a little adventure. Yewtree Cemetery is on Finch Lane, West Derby, a short train ride out of Liverpool city centre. (Interesting side note: nobody is sure why yew trees are associated with cemeteries, though most have one. It's thought to be a pagan thing).

On Saturday I shook off a hideous hangover and met up with Reef and his girlfriend. We jumped off the train at Roby rail station and trekked across the worn out streets of outer Liverpool. Seems the credit crunch bit some places more than others.

And then, we arrived.

Here I look remarkably human for someone who'd drank their own weight in alcohol the night before. Consequently, I forgot to bring flowers, and was very disappointed in myself for that.

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Yewtree Cemetery. Bigger than I thought. Thank goodness for Reef's preparation, my plan was to simply turn up and wander around until I found the grave.

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That looks familiar...

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We found it!

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And here it is, framed as closely as possible to the original image.

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Things to notice - firstly, Agnes is there, as expected. The stone has shifted slightly, and acquired a lean, probably as a consequence of time and its removal to be inscribed with a new name. You can also see the tree has grown, and new tombstones have sprung up. I took some pictures with the original camera, just as someone had done before me over thirty years ago. I'll share those images as soon as they're developed. Thanks to Reef for taking all these pictures.

So there it was. Starting off with nothing more than a picture, I'd traced it to the original location, drawing a line that spanned three decades. I felt good, like I'd closed a chapter that had been left open for a long long time. But there was one more thing to do. Find out who owned the camera.

Edward and Agness bore two children, John and Norma, so most likely it was one of them. With nothing to go on for John, the single thread that would tie this all together was Norma. The dedicated genealogists found that she'd married local boy Stan Stirzaker in 1960, and had since emigrated to Jacksonville, Florida some time ago. She will be 74 this year. I was also given a phone number. I wrestled with that. Would she want to see pictures of her parents' grave? Perhaps there was a good reason that the images were never developed. Was it all better left alone? After a long contemplation, I fired up Skype and dialled the number.

But that, as they say, is another story, for another day.

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Interesting detective story. I don't find these 'graveyard' stories all that morbid though, as I sometimes think about the dilapidated state of many graveyards through neglect and other factors. Edward Langan et al. would be tickled pink if they could see so much interest generated in their graves.

You should tell the story of what happened over Skype.

Fascinating. I'm looking forward to the rest of the story.

I think yew trees were planted to keep livestock out - as they're poisonous, it was good incentive.

It is a good story though!

I nearly flipped when I saw the name on the tomb stone! Agnes Cecilia is the name of one of Sweden's most famous children's books - and it's about a ghost... :-)

This whole tale is fantastic. It reminds a bit of Amelie and the box of toys. I love little mysteries. Looking forward to the final installment. (Unless it is "...but nobody answered the phone.")

Great story. It has made its way around he world via Twitter.

By Bill Drew (not verified) on 12 Mar 2010 #permalink

Good skills!

My Gt. Grandfather was buried in West Derby in the mid-20s; not sure whether it's this particular cemetery. He fell off a plank whilst wallpapering a wall, aged 36, after having survived fighting in WWI.

Dangerous business decorating.

Anyway, I've been meaning to go on my own mission to West Derby to find it. No one alive in my family has ever seen it. I know that it's been flattened on orders from the council - a lot of the old graves I hear are being flattened, on litigious H&S grounds sadly.

Your story strikes an interesting coincidence.

Oh, wow. I'm really interested in hearing how the phone call went, and what the results are. And also seeing the new photos with the vintage camera.

Ok, you asked;
Church land was just the best place for yew trees. All parts of the plant are toxic not just to humans but to grazing animals, cats & dogs, & I assume, also pigs but can't find a ref. Like little kids, livestock don't understand this & won't avoid yew. Churchyards had walls or fences, some form of enclosure for the graveyard, on practical, as well as status grounds - when you turn your pigs out in autumn, you don't want them digging up Auntie.

Yews inhibit plant growth around themselves through shading other plants & outcompeting them for water. Have been told many times that yews secrete an inhibitory substance to prevent an understory establishing, but that could be a gardener's tale. It's a very slow-growing tree so putting it in a churchyard is a good plan as the land's unlikely to be needed for anything else. Equally, putting a church on land where yew grew was a lesser problem than establishing a home or farming under yews. Yew is the traditional material for longbows as well as being a great wood to use where moisture is a problem as it is very resitant to rot, so there was also income from the cultivation of yew.

By Hildegard (not verified) on 12 Mar 2010 #permalink

I'm going to add to the chorus, I want to hear the story of the phone call!

As for yew trees -- I suspect it has less to do with paganism per se and more to do with the fact that yew trees are extremely durable, both extraordinarily long-lived and able to stand up to horrible weather. If you are looking for something which won't die in a few decades or get taken down by winter weather and dumped on top of the gravestones, not even oak trees can equal yew. Being very slow growing, as they are, also lends an illusion of unchangingness which might go well in a graveyard too, but beyond that it also means that the tree roots are considerably less likely to be obviously disruptive of graves.

There is probably some sort of symbolism about immortality and incorruptability lurking in there, but I would be surprised if there weren't some aspect of practicality to them as a windscreen/shelter/monument.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 12 Mar 2010 #permalink

Wow! I had stumbled across your original article a few days ago, and I'm glad to see there was at least some resolution to it. Can't wait to hear more about your experiences.

Kids these days...

Lets call someone to reinform them that their parents are dead and ask them if they have ever seen their parents grave.

Instead of being a curious little annoyance, leave them to their peace.

By Gordon Lightfoot (not verified) on 13 Mar 2010 #permalink

This is a really neat story.

i think it's nice you called to offer the photos back. as a person with ancestors myself i would love to see photos of graves of previous generations. my family have photos of graves we don't live close enough to visit, and it isn't as if we pull them out at every opportunity, but they're nice to have.

One of the most interesting blog posts I've read in a long time. And I think it's great that you reached out to the daughter - it's would be awfully easy to simply give into inertia and do nothing. Real, genuine human-human interactions are too few in an increasingly automated world.

Great story. Would be interesting to find out what Norma thinks of it.

please dont stop it here??? What happened on the skype call???? is there a follow up story??? please share :) :)

I suppose if you look hard enough, you can find coincidences in most any observation. After finding this posting (quite by accident), I had to smile. My father, who passed away in 2002 in the US was Edward Langan. His uncle was Dan Ryan who had a sister, Anna. My mother's sister was Norma and her husband, was John. Not exact, but close enough. Thank's for sharing.

What a great story...but you left us all hanging in the air.
Please tell us about your phone call to Florida.

By Soreofhing (not verified) on 20 Jul 2010 #permalink

Langan. His uncle was Dan Ryan who had a sister, Anna. My mother's sister was Norma and her husband, was John. Not exact, but close enough. Thank's for sharing.

One of our members just reminded us of this, hoping you will update us about the phone call please, it was a great story.