Photographs: Truth and Deception


Photographs are a Primary Source: evidence taken at the time of an event. They are wonderful for raising questions to provoke further research. But one has to be careful not to jump to conclusions.

This photo is of my paternal ancestry, descendants of the Lisys who came over from Bohemia right after the Civil War. This generation consists of six siblings who included my grandmother. The relative who supplied in suggested the date as c. 1918. They were all gathered at one of the farms several kept on the edge of the city. Had I not known that, I might have guessed they were still in Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) because they are in farming clothes of a European style.

So I am lucky to have a date, and I can verify it in a couple of ways. I identify my dad, the boy third from the left. He was born in 1910 and seems about 8 here. My grandmother behind him holds my Aunt Margaret, born in 1916. So from birth data I can affirm the likely date.

It is easy to assume these people were all farmers. But Census data indicate otherwise. My grandparents lived in Cleveland, where my grandfather worked in a skilled craft. My great grandmother and her two unmarried children lived there as well in a beautifully-crafted home. In a few years they would move to Bretenahl, the exclusive suburb on Lake Erie for the city’s elite. I visited the custom home there on the Lake Erie shore.

I never understood how that branch of the family could afford to live in such a location. Much later in my research I discovered why.  Their ancestors who first settled in the city bought land from the Shaker Community. Over fifty years later their land was required as part of the development of Shaker Heights. The family received a windfall around the time this photograph was taken. Even before then they had used land for development.

When my great-grandmother Anna Marek Lisy moved to Bretenahl, she shocked her neighbors by raising chickens and growing her own food. What this photo reveals is the family’s continued Bohemian love of the land and being in nature. This value system persisted into the third generation. Three of her daughters married descendants of Bohemians who worked in the city as craftsmen. By the 1920s they were farming once again, which proved beneficial for everyone when the Depression hit.

This small piece of history relied upon constant questioning. I eventually connected the photo to birth certificates, Census data, Sanborn maps, one obituary, an oral history written by a Great Aunt, and probate records.

I’m happy to note someone identified most of the people in pencil on back. Do this with your family picture, but add the date if the camera hasn’t done so. Maybe a note as to the event itself.







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