Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Jim Parsons

The good thing about having a lot of work recently is that I can keep paying the bills and feeding the birds and cats.  The bad thing is that I get behind on things like blog posts.  But I'm finally catching up.

This was the last episode of the first season of Who Do You Think You Are? on TLC.  I haven't heard anything about the numbers, so I don't know how well the eight episodes did for audience share, but the program was renewed for a second season, so it couldn't have been too bad.  Perhaps what appeared to be skewing to a younger audience helped draw more viewers.

Jim Parsons was the celebrity who closed out the season.  The first voiceover told us that he would be researching his two French lines of his paternal ancestry in honor of his late father.  Then we learned that he is a classically trained actor who has acted on Broadway and the "big screen", but his breakout role was on The Big Bang Theory (some friends used to tell me that I'm just like Sheldon, which is kind of scary).  He has won two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, and was working on the HBO film adaptation of The Normal Heart at the time of the taping.

Parsons tells us he is from Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston.  His parents are Milton and Judy, and he had a good childhood.  He started acting in the first grade and pretty much got hooked on it, including going to graduate school for more theater.  His father was positive about his choice of acting and was supportive, loyal, and hard-working.  Family and friends were extremely important to him.  He died in 2001 in a car accident at the age of 52, when Parsons was only 28.

Even though his father is gone, Parsons is comforted to feel like he's still along for the journey.  He thinks his father would be very interested in family history.  What you come from is fascinating, and people are the sum of their parts.  He is doing the research in honor of his father's memory.  He knows little of his family's history; he has always been curious but doesn't know of any other artist in the family (ah, we have a theme).  He's been told his father's family was French and believes part of the family came through Louisiana, but doesn't know who those family members might be.

Parsons starts by talking to his mother to get family stories.  Judy travels to New York and brings some documents with her.  We first see a photo of Parsons' great-grandmother Jeanne (that's a French spelling!) Hacker, who married Thaddeus Parsons.  Judy has Jeanne's death certificate, which says she was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on January 24, 1882, and that her parents were Adele Drouet and Charles P. Hacker.  There's also a photo of Adele at age 90, which might have been taken in Louisiana.  Parsons and his mother decide that his next step should be to go to Louisiana to see what he can find there.  Parsons says that now he has "proof" of his Louisiana roots.  (After all, it isn't like anyone ever made a mistake on a death certificate before, right?)

In New Orleans, Parsons begins by saying that it's nice to have his French ancestry confirmed already.  Whether he goes to France or not, he's already happy with what he's learned.  (C'mon, we know you're going to go to France.)  At the Louisiana Historical Center (part of the Louisiana State Museum; in the "small world" category, my daughter is the executive director of the Louisiana Museum Foundation) he meets genealogist Judy Riffel.  He says he has contacted her to ask for information on his Hacker and Drouet family names.  Riffel tells him that Hacker is French, even though it might not seem so, and Drouet is definitely French.  Parsons asks, "Where do I go from here?"  (Calm down, you just started!  At least he looks a little sheepish.)  So Riffel tells him, "Let's do a little bit of digging on"  (Did you see that coming?)  They find a Charles Hacker in the 1850 census in Iberville Parish, Louisiana.  He is 5 months old and born in Louisiana; his father, J. B. Hacker, is a physician, also born in Louisiana.  (This, of course, is not the way you should do research.  They should have shown Jeanne with her family, so we could have some context for Charles having been born about 1850 in Louisiana.  But remember, this is entertainment, not a research class, and only the sexy parts make it on air.)

Riffel explains that it was rare at that time for a doctor to be in as rural of a parish as Iberville, and he was probably the only doctor there.  Parsons asks again, "Where do I go from here?"  (Well, we know he isn't doing the research.)  Riffel says he should look into the Hackers, and that she has found someone familiar with 19th-century Louisiana history to help him.  She'll look into the Drouet family.  As he leaves, Parsons says that he is surprised to find three generations of his family in Louisiana, as he and all the relatives he knows are from Texas.

Parsons next goes to Tulane University, where Jeanette Keith, a professor of history at Bloomsburg University, greets him.  Parsons has asked her to look into Dr. Hacker's medical practice, and Keith has several documents ready.  First is a list of medical graduates from the Medical College of Louisiana.  The list includes Jno (short for John or Jonathan) B. Hacker of Louisiana, who graduated in 1842 at the age of 32.  He was the 55th graduate from the school, which was one of the best medical schools in the South.  Established in 1834, it was only the second medical school in the South.  (The medical college eventually became what is now Tulane University, the only state public university ever to convert to a private one.)  Keith explains that at the time it was not necessary to get a medical degree to practice medicine.  The profession had little regulation, and anyone could hang out a shingle and start a medical practice, with or without the appropriate education.  So Hacker put in extra effort for his profession.

Next Keith showed Parsons a book with Hacker's name and a reference to other degrees, honors, etc.  A note refers to an article published in New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal (still being published today).  Dr. Hacker wrote about "Yellow Fever in Plaquemine" (Plaquemine is the parish seat of Iberville), which was published in volume 10 of the journal in 1854.  He wrote about the 1853 yellow fever epidemic (8,000 died in New Orleans alone) and documented it for other doctors.  At the time people did not know how yellow fever was transmitted.  Parsons likens Hacker's experience to that of doctors working with HIV patients in the 1980's.  He is impressed with Hacker's commitment to his work and to humanity, to be willing to work closely with patients suffering from the disease when he didn't know if he would catch it himself.

courtesy of GenealogyBank
Parsons asks Keith, "Do you have more that takes us even further?", and in one of the most honest lines I've ever heard on this program, laughs and follows immediately with, "Of course you do."  Keith has Parsons go online to (this is the second or third time I've seen GenealogyBank shown on the program; they must have paid a healthy "product placement" fee) and search for "Dr Hacker" in the time range of 1810–1900 (well, that's pretty specific, isn't it?  I guess she knew there was something that didn't include his given name).  Up pops an article titled "Loss of the Steamer Gipsy" (which came up as the top result once I sorted by oldest articles first) from the New Orleans Times-Picayune of December 8, 1854.  Parsons exclaims, "I'll be damned."  (I was surprised that wasn't edited out.)  The article reported that Dr. Hacker, his daughter, and his nephew died in a fire on the Gipsy.  Parsons says, "I just figured out who he is and now he's gone."  He talks about how Hacker died in the prime of his work and how Hacker was only four years older than Parsons is now.  Now he wants to find out what happened with the steamer to cause the fire.  He's very impressed with Hacker and realizes that even though he's researching his own family, it's connecting him beyond that.

To learn more about the Gipsy, Parsons visits Robert Gudmestad of Colorado State University, an expert on 19th-century Mississippi River steamboats, at a tourist boat named the Natchez, which Gudmestad says is a rough approximation of the 19th-century Gipsy.  Gudmestad explains that one difference is that a 19th-century boat was made all of wood and was powered by steam generated on the boat with live fires.  He also shows Parsons an 1853 painting of the Gipsy.  Parsons asks if Hacker and his daughter and nephew would have been traveling on the Gipsy for pleasure, but Gudmestad explains it was the normal and fastest way to travel in 1850's Louisiana.

The boiler room on a steamboat was in the middle of the boat.  The day of the Gipsy's fire was very windy, and someone opened the door to the boiler room; the wind blew fire onto the deck.  The men's cabin, where Hacker was, was above the boiler room.  He probably didn't realize there was a fire until it was too late.  Gudmestad has a copy of the Plaquemine Southern Sentinel newspaper of December 23, 1854, which has an obituary for Dr. Hacker.  The obituary shows that he was well loved. Members of the Cannoniers, a local civic group, were going to wear "black crape" on their left arms for 30 days in remembrance of him.

Parsons finds it touching to learn about the reach of Hacker.  He compares Hacker to his father and the number of people who came to his funeral, which surprised him at the time.  He feels a sense of pride and says it isn't a far reach to think that the admirable qualities of Hacker were passed down through the family.

After leaving Gudmestad, Parsons visits Riffel again to learn more about his French roots, but this time at Hill Memorial Library of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.  Riffel tells him that she tried to find more information about the Hacker family but was unable to do so.  For the Drouet family, however, she has prepared a pedigree chart for Parsons to look at.  It shows that Adele Drouet's parents were August Drouet and Anaïs Trouard.  They then follow the Trouard line.  Anaïs' parents were Prosper Trouard and Eliza Delery Chauvin (Parsons' fourth great-grandparents); Prosper was born in La Rochelle, France.  Prosper's parents were Alexandre-Louis Trouard, born on March 15, 1761 in Paris, and Anne Marie Louise Gome Lagrange (Parsons' fifth great-grandparents).  Interestingly, they had all those names for Anne Marie but apparently couldn't find when or where she was born.  But Parsons now has a family line that goes solidly back to France.

Parsons says he's going to extend his journey and travel to France, to the French National Archives.  He loves the idea of traveling to France with these ancestors and wants to see what they were doing in 18th-century French history.

Parsons lands in Paris and goes to the French National Archives.  He had asked Professor Drew Armstrong of the University of Pittsburgh to "sift through the archives" for him.  Armstrong found the baptismal record of Alexandre-Louis Trouard and after letting Parsons stumble through trying to read it presents a translation.  (I liked the way they showed the original French writing overlaid on the translated text.)  It says Alexandre-Louis was the son of Louis-François Trouard, which takes Parsons back to his sixth great-grandfather.   It also says that Louis-François was the architect to the king, which it turns out was Louis XV of France, blowing Parsons away.  The godfather shown on the baptismal record is Louis Trouard, Parsons' seventh great-grandfather.  Louis was a marble supplier to the king, which would not have been aristrocratic but was still middle class and a good position.

Armstrong says Louis-François was groomed as a professional and that Louis would have positioned his son to become a member of an elite artistic circle.  Parsons wants to know how one became an architect to the king, as it couldn't have been easy or common to do so.  Armstrong shows him an 18th-century register and a transcription of an official document from September 20, 1754.  The translation says that Louis-François had "great aptitude" and had studied hard and in 1753 won the first prize, a scholarship to school in Rome.

Louis-François studied in Rome from 1754–1757, then returned to Paris.  As evidence that he had been cultivating supporters (his father wasn't the only one working on his professional improvement), Armstrong produced a letter dated February 26, 1769, when Louis-François was 40 years old (the same age as Parsons now), that says that the king had elected him to become a member of the second class of the Royal Academy of Architecture.  The Academy had thirty-two seats, with two classes.  One had to wait for someone to die for a vacancy.  It was the greatest honor possible for an architect, so Louis-François had to have been extremely good and very talented.

Parsons asks whether Louis-François had lived in the palace.  Armstrong says no but that Louis-François had an apartment in a chateau near Versailles Palace.  He suggests that to get a feel for Trouard and his work, Parsons should visit Versailles.

As he is leaving Parsons is still excited about what he has learned and says, "Damn it, we found somebody!"  (Again not edited out.)  He feels his own father was like Louis.  Even though he's not on the level of a royal architect, each father had supported his son in his academic endeavors.  Parsons says his father found a way to help him do the work he wanted to.

Cathèdrale St-Louis
(La Chapelle de la Providence)
Versailles, which is just outside of Paris, is absolutely beautiful.  Parsons goes to La Chapelle de la Providence, where he meets Ambrogio Caiani (now at the University of Kent, but apparently still at the University of Oxford when the episode was filmed).  The on-screen credit says he is a specialist in 18th-century French architecture.  Parsons says he wants to learn more about Louis-François Trouard and his work.  Caiani tells Parsons that Louis-François designed the church they are standing in and it was one of his masterpieces.  Parsons describes the church as elegant and classy, but inviting.  Caiani tells Parsons that in 1787 Louis-François was named an Architect First Class of the king, when he was 60 years old, and only two years before the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was sparked by the Age of Enlightenment.  The monarchy was abolished and King Louis XVI was beheaded (along with his wife, Marie Antoinette).  Many people associated with the king were also killed.  Even architects were executed or put in prison.  They were considered to be corrupt and associated with the old regime; their designs were part of the French court tradition and were ornate and heavily decorated.  Louis-François could have been executed, but he was a key figure in the redesign of churches.

Parsons of course wants to know what happened to him.  Louis-François was friendly with the liberal thinkers of his age.  He was also friends with Abbé Raynal, a forward thinker who was very radical for the time and was even against slavery.  Raynal used to stay at Trouard's apartment in Paris.

Caiani hands Parsons a book written in French.  Parsons is able to pick out some names and nothing else, but sees "John Adams" and "Mr. Franklin."  Parsons asks if it's Benjamin Franklin, which it is.  Caiani finally feels sorry for Parsons and hands him a translation.  It's a letter dated February 2, 1779 and addressed to Benjamin Franklin.  The letter is an invitation to Franklin to get together with Raynal and John Adams at the "House of Mr. Trouard."  Parsons was surprised to learn that all of them would have stayed there and asks why they would have been meeting.  Caiani suspects that Franklin and Adams were interested in Raynal's ideas about slavery.

Louis-François knew some of the greatest thinkers of his day.  Parsons comments that now he is learning about his ancestor beyond his architectural career.  Louis-François' thinking was not in line with the regime.  Caiani tells Parsons that Louis-François was not executed but died in 1804.  Apparently people didn't think he was corrupt or part of the old regime.

Parsons asks if Louis-François ever visited America.  Caiani says no, but that his children did.  Alexandre-Louis went to the French colony in St. Domingue, now known as Haiti.  His younger brother transferred to Louisiana.  This brought everything in a full circle back to Louisiana.  Parsons thanks Caiani for all of the information, and Caiani leaves him to look around the chapel.

In his closing monologue, Parsons talks about how both Hacker and Trouard were hard-working.  He thinks his father would have identified with that aspect of the two men.  Louis-François' father helped him achieve the highest level in his profession.  Now that Parsons himself is older, he has realized how much his father helped him.  He doesn't know what he would have become without his father's help but knows he would have been much less happy.

It was particularly enjoyable in this episode to see how sincere Parsons was when he thanked all the researchers.  He really seemed to appreciate all of the information he had learned.

Something I found interesting was how Parsons kept focusing on how old Louis-François was for each of the events that was discussed.  I figure he was thinking about Louis-François' age in relation to his own age or maybe his father's, possibly because his father died young.


  1. I didn't see the episode, but I'm curious - is the old French script that difficult to read? Is it that different from modern script? I'm thinking of German Fraktur and how it takes some time to decipher it if you're not used to reading it.

    1. I didn't find it hard to read. It was just handwriting, nothing like Fraktur. I'm still not used to reading Fraktur.

  2. I just saw the program. I am now in Kazakhstan working but live in France.
    Louis François Trouard is my direct ancestor on my mother's side (Luminais) through Achilles Trouard who went to Louisiana. Became the first Judge of St. John the Baptist Parish. But it was speculated that Franklin and Adams were at Louis-François' house. It wasn't mentioned that the original Treaty recognizing the United States was signed in the Trouard home, now the hotel Crillion and next door to the US Embassy in Paris. So the connection was not anti-slavery but funding the war against England and supporting the proxy war that France's ally Spain would conduct in Louisiana and on the Gulf coast, which is why Achilles-Marie Trouard went to Louisiana and became a Major in the Spanish Militia in Louisiana.

    1. Thank you for the additional information! I'm surprised they didn't find a way to work that into the episode, but maybe they tried and it was edited out for length.

  3. they recently showed the 1st TLC series in australia, and I found this episode probably the most interesting episode of the that series as it went a different direction than other episodes.

    The US/UK and Australian episodes often go down the same English/Irish path which does sometimes get a bit monotonous.

    Scott - Sydney, Australia

    1. Scott,

      I suspect that there's so much English/Irish simply because of how North America was settled by Europeans. But you're right, it is definitely interesting to have them research other countries.


  4. I found your article after watching Jim Parson's episode this morning on YouTube. I have a virtual cemetery called "River Travel" on Findagrave and wanted to include someone from that Steamer in it as Findagrave allows memorials for those who might have died through an accident such as this that wouldn't ordinarily have a tombstone. I didn't find anybody on Findagrave, but enjoyed reading your article.

    1. Thank you very much! I'm sorry to hear you were unable to find information from the deaths on the steamer; you would think it would be online somewhere.

  5. What was a surprise for me, is when they showed his ancestry tree and Scrolled over Eliza Chauvin de Lery,.. Knowing for a fact that's my extented Family..I descend from Gilles Chauvin, "Sho Vhann"...Joesph Chauvin de Lery's older brother..Eliza's Father or grandfather, who lived on the ,.."Chapitoulas concession",.. and later the Son ends up in Plauquimine Parish,.. "Mary Plantation" in Braithwaite, On the Miss. River..

    1. I think it is so cool when people find some of their own family history on one of these episodes. Do you still pronounce your surname the French way? That's how I automatically read it.


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