I’ve always had ambiguous feelings about genealogy. Throughout my childhood, “genealogy” was a field of study responsible for long and tedious lectures, primarily at the whim of my maternal grandfather. He eventually wrote a book about my family’s Tennessee roots, compiled from material painstakingly developed before his audience of me and my brothers. I admit I never read it, having had the displeasure of experiencing the endless series of rough drafts first hand.
On the other side of the familial gulf, my maternal grandmother, also held in thrall by the curse, didn’t fare much better. Her one saving grace, however, was creativity. If you ask her, we’re related to The Beatles (all of them), Elvis, the Kennedys, and Marilyn Monroe.
Perhaps it was out of sheer nostalgia that I decided to end the ten-year genealogical void in my life with a exploration of my paternal grandfather’s shadowy bloodline. My initial findings were what you’d expect: a mundane chain of salvaged letters and portraits leading back into oblivion. It wasn’t long, however, before I stumbled across great-great-uncle Charles and an apparently nonexistent town called Chasm.
Charles Burnett was born on March 3rd, 1887 in West Virginia. My grandfather never met him personally, although vague references to a family delinquent sometimes surfaced in his father’s conversations. His memory survives in scant written material, including a marriage certificate indicating an early union to a woman he quickly abandoned.
According to rare correspondences with his step-sister, Margaret McDougall, with whom a scandalous but quite secret liaison seems strongly indicated, Charles was a wanderer, eschewing the settled life in order to satiate a passion for photography. His letters each bear a different address scrawled in a surprisingly meticulous hand. Atlanta, Pittsburg, Knoxville–although he never dwelled long in one place, he remained rooted to the Appalachians, hauling along his Butcher & Sons, quarter plate camera.
None of this would be worthy of mention if Charles hadn’t stumbled across Chasm. Where is Chasm? I would happily tell you if I could. Charles omitted the return address on every letter after 1912. Google searches turn up nothing, and no map, current or otherwise, recognizes an American town of that name. In his last known letters to Margaret, Charles describes pine-covered mountains that surround the town; to place Chasm somewhere in the Appalachians is pure speculation on my part.
What seems more certain is that Charles remained in Chasm. He lavishly praises the “quiet” town, “filled with the righteous fear of the Lord” to Margaret, who responds in justified bewilderment at Charles’s uncharacteristic mention of the Christian God. He sends her photographs, none of which are available in the public archives, over the span of a year. He seems to gain steady employment at “the mines,” although it is never indicated what material they are designed to salvage. “This year,” Charles writes at close of the summer of 1913, “has been the best of my life.”
Charles never penned a letter to Margaret following up on his successes. Apparently, he continued to send photographs, since Margaret addressed a desperate letter to “Charles Burnett, Residence: Chasm” in 1926 imploring him to stop. “I can bear these haunting images no longer,” she writes, “they only make me fear for you all the more. Why don’t you write me, dear Charles? Is it so impossible to allow your love this one small comfort?” Two months following the post date, Margaret’s letter was returned unopened.
I continued to search for another glimpse of Uncle Charles. A death certificate bearing his name was issued in 1944, appended by a description of a “private” burial plot in the middle of the Appalachians, “some fifteen miles from the nearest general store.” As useless as this information was, it was the only additional evidence of Charles I was able to recover. The only evidence, that is, until I contacted Gladys Barnes.
Having no survivors in my own family to query, I turned to Margaret’s. Margaret had married a man named William Barnes in the thirties, so I promptly wasted, hoping against hope, a dozen phone calls to various West Virginian Barnes households. On the verge of frustrated surrender, I finally stumbled across Gladys. Gladys, an unmarried woman of 90 years, fondly recalled her mother, Margaret, although she had never heard of Charles.
As I described the enigma of my uncle and the mysterious town of Chasm, the bubbly old woman grew quiet. Mistaking her silence for boredom, I hastily drew my narrative to a close. To my surprise, she asked me for my mailing address. “I have a file of some old family photos that belonged to my mother,” Gladys explained. “They’re copies of the originals, which largely vanished in the estate sale. There are some… odd ones that I always thought were kept by mistake.” I thanked her, and a week later a package arrived from West Virginia. Inside were four reproductions of old photographs. They are posted below.
Is this the elusive town of Chasm? Are these Charles’s photographs? While answers don’t appear forthcoming, I am determined to investigate further. If there are any future findings of interest, I will certainly share them here.
–Justin A. Burnett