Who Is In Your Family Closet?



After 150 years, they finally made it to the mantel

The above picture and caption are from an ad campaign by Progressive Insurance which just tickles me: I love the idea of sorting through old family photographs and finding a picture of Great-Uncle Louie with his lover, or spinster Aunt Tillie dressed in very mannish garb. Here at my house, we do have lots of family photos and other memorabilia but to date, I haven’t found a picture of Great-Uncle Louie. Still, there is one man about whom I have a few suspicions.
Solomon Townsend Nicoll was born in 1813, son of Edward Holland Nicoll and Mary Townsend Nicoll. He’s my great-great grandfather. For years, his portrait hung in our dining room but the whole family believed that the man in the painting was his father, Edward Holland.

A few years ago, my parents made a gift of the painting to the Smith College Museum of Art, in honor of my sister, a graduate of the Class of 1983. When the museum received the painting, they had it cleaned and conserved. It was a revelation. Suddenly, the dreary old guy with the orange complexion was revealed to be a handsome young man. It was obvious that this was not Edward Holland, who at the time the painting was done (1848) would have been 64. Instead, we learned that this was his son, Solomon!

Solomon Townsend Nicoll, 1813-1864

Solomon's portrait before it was cleaned and conserved

What a fine and dandy man he was! Things we had never noticed before became obvious: his pinky ring and gold stickpin; his brocade vest peeking out from beneath his jacket. I love the curl of his hair in front of his ear, the cleft in his chin, and his pink cheeks. He has definite Nicoll features that I see in myself and my son, including full lips and a very long, straight nose.

The Nicoll’s weren’t shy about documenting their achievements and accomplishments, but somehow, Solomon managed to fly below the radar. Very little is known about him—he is described as a “successful East India merchant” who lived in New York City and then Bayside, Queens. Where did he go to school? Good question! In fact, when he died in 1864, he didn’t even merit an obituary in the New York Times, which was very unusual for my family, especially in that day and age.

He commissioned this portrait for himself in 1848. At that time he was 35 years old and still single. He married his cousin, Charlotte Ann Nicoll in 1851. A marriage of convenience? He was 38 and she was 24. He did attend to his fatherly duties and sired six children in ten years (children 4 and 5 were twins). He died in 1864 at the age of 50. No one knows how or why he died. In fact, I was the one who tracked down the year of his death in the archives of the St. Nicholas Society, held in the collection of New York papers at Cornell University.

His wife never remarried. She raised her six children with the help of various servants and governesses; all of them lived to adulthood. The three girls were quite predictable, marrying well and living good society lives in New York. The boys all went into law. My great-grandfather, DeLancey Nicoll, had a successful law practice and a short term as District Attorney for the city of New York. An interesting historical tidbit: he was asked to defend Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, in Sapiro v. Ford, which is considered the first hate speech case to come to trial in US history—the year was 1925. Depending on which version of history you read, there are two outcomes: my great-grandfather turned down the case because he refused to defend an anti-semite. Or, Henry Ford refused to hire my great-grandfather because he was a chain smoker. Not surprisingly, I prefer the former!

The most tragic end came to Edward Holland Nicoll, who was named after his grandfather. Unlike his father, who was not memorialized in the New York Times, Edward merited both an obituary and a lurid front page headline, after he was killed in an automobile accident. I suppose, in 1915, car accidents were still front page news.

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

My writing pen name, E. N. Holland is taken from my ancestor, Edward Holland Nicoll. The Vintage series of books was inspired by my love of old photographs and pictures. In the spirit of the season, one lucky winner can claim a copy of Hidden Conflict: Tales from Lost Voices in Battle (which includes a short novel by E. N. Holland) or Poisoned Ivy by Scot D. Ryersson, the first book in the Vintage series. Just leave a comment here, indicating which book you prefer and in what ebook format (PDF, HTML, prc, epub, or lit). Winners will be announced on Christmas day.

(You can learn more about each book at http://www.bcpinepress.com)
Thanks for reading and happy holidays to all!

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this – just save them up for Christmas Eve.)

15. What is another name for Hanukah? (No one right answer here, I’ll accept the variations)

19 Responses

  1. A fascinating story. I need to do more digging into my own family history. I like the look of Hidden Conflict too.

  2. What a wonderful boon to have so much in the way of family records! Like you, I’m intrigued by the idea of a “family closet.” (There’s one tintype of a great-great grandfather who was a trapper in Canada. I keep wishing I could go back in time and pick his brain…). Thanks for an interesting post!

    • Thank you, Lee. I love imagining conversations and I wish I had more details. How tall was Solomon? What color were his eyes? Dark, I think, from his portrait, but it’s not documented anywhere.

      Thanks for reading!


  3. Leslie, that’s fascinating!

    I come from a family that used to cut the faces of people out of favor from photos! Not always the most forgiving of people, my kinfolk. Lots and lots of family secrets from what my father will tell.

    Really enjoyed this post — and your detective work.

    • Thanks, Josh. Cut out the faces…hmmm. Yes, not too forgiving! There were definitely some racy Nicolls but their stories have become family legends, not sources of embarrassment. LOL. That’s why I wonder about Solomon who is so very much in the shadows of the family tree. What is his real story?

      The detective work is fun, especially when I can find things in old newspaper clippings and so on. I even tracked down my grandfather’s passport application from 1920!


  4. That portrait is amazing. The artist did a wonderful job of conveying so much about Solomon, his pride in his clothes and the details of his hairstyle.

    Family history has always interested me, mine as well as others. Like you, my family (southern) kept detailed family bibles which we still have, full of all of the details of family life, including the voyages here from Scotland and Ireland.

    If I win, I would love a copy of HIdden Conflict in pdf format. thank you.

    • Melanie, thanks for your comment. The portrait is amazing, especially since we all stared at it for so many years and never realized how dirty it was! Solomon clearly was a sharp dresser who cared about how he looked.

      We don’t have any bibles that I have come across, but I know in my husband’s family there are a few. Such a great source of information!


  5. Fascinating!
    Being from a long line of Smiths, I’ve never had much luck tracking family down!

    • Hi Syd,

      Thanks for your comment. It is nice to have a fairly distinctive name and a well documented overall history–it makes ferreting out the interesting details easier. I am still trying to found out how and where Solomon died.


  6. First, if you aren’t a subscriber to Ancestry.com, I am and would be glad to look these folks up for you!!

    I don’t have to go farther than the current generation to find lesbians. I know this is n’t the point of this post, but I just had to share it. My older sister came out to me just a couple years after I had left my woman lover for a man I met and was floored to fall in love with… so out of three sisters two were gay or bisexual. Then just this fall my little sister came out to me.. three out of three. My husband, bemused, refers to us as “those lesbian Haas sisters”.

    Oh how I wish my older sister was still alive to see what happened with my younger.. even more than that I wish my father had lived to see that the daughter he was afraid was gay.. was the one who would wind up just one of three.


    • Hi Nan,

      I did have access to Ancestry–that’s where I found my grandfather’s passport application. Nothing about Solomon was listed there, though. He’s listed on the 1860 census and gone in 1870.

      I like your family story. Thanks for sharing and thanks for your comment!


  7. Leslie,

    The records I found most interesting were the census. One year they listed who could read and who could,’t. Theoretically Solomon should show up on one of those… let me know if I can help. hawthorne at nanhawthorne dot com .

  8. I like the look of Hidden Conflict.

    My family history is rather elusive and no one bothers to look it up. If anyone of them were in the closet, I imagine it’d be quite the HUSH, since my two gay second cousins weren’t really spoken of at family reunions until recently. Families really are an interesting thing!

  9. Wonderful piece.

    When we started reseraching family history, my Aunt told my cousin, “Don’t do it, you won’t like what you find”. Well, apart from a sprinkling of illegitimate children (which I suspect is the scandal she referred to) there’s not been anything too shocking. Yet.


  10. Very interesting post. It is amazing what people can find out about their families just by going back to look at pictures with new eyes. I’m very thankful that my mom and her father have been doing a lot of family history for both sides of my family.

  11. It actually depresses the hell out of me that here we have these people to whom we owe our very existence and probably many other factors of our lives and yet go back just a few henerations and we know virtually nothing about them. I can tell you about my mother’s life but can tell you much less about her mother, and nothing much about hers.. forget hers! i am tempted to write one of those family sagas about them.. I have a colorful family.. my mother’s mother was a camp girl in Yukon.. read: hooker. Her father was a gold miner and fur trader. One of his brothers was there when Joe Hill was hanged and all but one of the brothers were Wobblies. And that’s just that side of the family.


  12. I like Hidden Conflict and I’d go for PDF or Sony Reader format.

    Wow. Some interesting family stories there.

    My only really interesting one is about my husband’s grandmother, who was named Frank by her father (exasperated at not having a son), so the tombstone for his grandmother and grandfather is rather interesting for the time period (Frank and Charles).

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