Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Jesse Tyler Ferguson

The second episode of this season of Who Do You Think You Are? focused on the family history of actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson.  Not only was this another person I had never heard of, it looks like TLC is working hard on marketing to the gay demographic by having the first two episodes feature celebrities in same-sex marriages.  I don't know if this is a political statement by the network, but it caught my eye.  (And everyone who knows me knows that I don't have a bigoted bone in my body, so don't bother sending hate messages.)

Right from the beginning we know we're on the trail of a con man.  The teaser says that Ferguson will be following his father's family history and an ancestor who was in trouble.

The introduction to Jesse Tyler Ferguson tells us he is an actor on stage and screen but is primarily known for his work on Modern Family (another show I've never watched), which has earned him four Emmy nominations.  He lives with his husband, Justin (Mikita), in the Hollywood hills.

Ferguson's parents are Robert (Bob) Ferguson and Ann Doyle.   They divorced when Ferguson was 18 years old.  Ferguson grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and both of his parents still live there.  He considers his family to be stable, mundane, boring, and with no drama whatsoever.  His parents are strong-willed, which he thinks they passed along to him, and he's a little stubborn.  He was very close to his paternal grandmother Jessie, for whom he was named, and he says she was a great lady and hilarious.  She died six years ago.  He is excited to be researching his father's side of the family.

Ferguson starts his research by visiting his father, who still lives in Albuquerque.  He tells Bob that he wants to find information on his side of the family and about Grandma Jessie.  They talk about how far back he might go.

Bob has some photos that the two of them look over.  There's a photo of Jesse as a baby with his parents, and one of Grandma Jessie looking very classy.  Then there's a photo of Jesse Wheat Uppercu, Grandma Jessie's father.  He's dressed in a nice suit, and Bob says he was a lawyer.  Ferguson says he looks like Bob.  Bob says his mother told him Uppercu was born in Maryland.  The next photograph of Uppercu looks like a studio seating and is dated Christmas 1923; a handwritten note on the back is addressed to Uppercu's wife Elizabeth, Bob's grandmother.  Uppercu wrote that the photo was a "token of affection" for his wife; it sounds very understated.  Bob says that's where his knowledge ends.

New York Times,
August 28, 1872, page 2
They wonder if they can find anything online and decide to use Google.  Ferguson starts by searching for <Jesse Uppercu law Maryland> but doesn't find anything.  Bob suggests he refine the search and mentions that the name was sometimes spelled Uppercue.  They find a New York Times article about a murder in Baltimore on August 27, 1872.  (What?  Ancestry allowed someone else's Web site on the program?  Heaven forfend!)  Mrs. Amelia Wheat was the victim.  Her nephew, Jesse Uppercue, was accused of the murder.  Ferguson asked his father, "Did you know about this?", and Bob says, "No,  I didn't," but Bob, not being an actor, had more trouble maintaining a straight face.  Uppercu was 22 years old.  Uppercu said his aunt called him because she was upset and he went to her room, then fell asleep.  He woke up to the sound of a pistol and a man ran out of the room.  Apparently the police didn't believe him.  Ferguson wonders whether Uppercu ended up in prison or not, and his father suggests he needs to talk to a historian and that he should go to Maryland to find out.

In the interlude Ferguson says if all of this had happened to a more distant relative it would be easier to deal with.  Since this was his beloved grandmother's father, it makes it more palpable and real.  The details about the murder aren't lining up for him.

Ferguson travels to the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis.  He says he's hoping to find some clarity about the "situation" (the only word he wants to use to describe it) with Uppercu.  Criminal justice historian David Wolcott meets him at the archives.  Wolcott says that he has asked the archivists to pull documents related to Uppercu.  (This sort of intro persists throughout the episode.  Ferguson says he has asked the researchers to find information, and/or the researchers tell Ferguson they've had documents prepared.  There's no question the information is being fed to Ferguson.)   Ferguson asks why Uppercu was arrested, and Wolcott tells him the police didn't believe him.  Uppercu had the means and opportunity to murder his aunt, so the focus of the investigation was on him.  Ferguson of course wants to know what happened, and Wolcott suggests they look in more newspapers.  They search through bound printed copies of the Baltimore Sun (so much for using someone else's online resources; the Sun is available through ProQuest, but I guess Ancestry and ProQuest couldn't work out an agreement?).

Since the first article was dated August 27, Wolcott suggests starting with August 28 for more coverage.  The August 31 issue has an article titled "Lombard Street Homicide" with a lot of very interesting information.  Apparently Mrs. Wheat had executed two wills on July 26, a mere month before the murder.  Uppercu had summoned Mrs. Wheat's lawyer on that day to draw up a will for her.  The original version of the will had left the bulk of her estate ($22,000, equivalent to approximately $400,000 in today's money) to Uppercu, with a few bequests of small amounts and some donations.  Uppercue had insisted on reading the will and didn't like the donations, so induced his aunt to rewrite the will, abandoning the small bequests and leaving everything to him.  Gee, I wonder why the police suspected him of the murder?  Along with the means and opportunity we already knew about, he now had a very strong motive.

Ferguson asks whether there are court documents, and Wolcott says they can look at the Baltimore court records the archivists have retrieved.  They start with the book for the September 1872 term, and Ferguson looks in the index; Uppercue appears on page 74.  In the case of State of Maryland v. Jesse W. Uppercue, dated October 4, 1872, Uppercu had pled "non culp", i.e., not guilty.  The book includes the lists of witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense, about an equal number for each side.  We were not shown the rest of the documentation, but Wolcott explains that though it was largely a circumstantial case, Uppercu did have means, opportunity, and motive.  He also mentions that Uppercu's character would be a deciding factor.  On December 16, it was noted that the jury could not agree and the case was discharged, essentially the equivalent of a hung jury.  But the prosecution decided to retry Uppercu!  The second case followed very quickly, in the January 1873 term.  Ferguson asks why they would bother to have a second trial.  Wolcott says that the prosecutors must have thought they had a good enough case.  The archivists bring out the next book, and on page 9 we learn that on March 6, 1873, the jury rendered a verdict of not guilty, and the judge acquitted Uppercu.  After that the matter was finished, and Uppercu could not be retried (though not stated, this was due to the principle of double jeopardy).  Ferguson wonders whether his great-grandfather ever received the inheritance, and Wolcott says he has not been able to find any documentation of it.  (That sounded odd to me.  Did Baltimore City have a burned courthouse after 1873?  Wouldn't the estate have gone through probate, especially after the trial?  Are books missing?)

Ferguson is a little uneasy about his great-grandfather (who can blame him?).  He next asks what happened to Uppercu after the court case.  Wolcott says to find out where he shows up they should find him in the next census, which is 1880.  And of course he says they should look on, but this is one instance where I agree.  It really is the best place to search the U.S. census.  They find Uppercu in Evanston, Illinois, aged 30, and married to L. I. Uppercue with three children in the household.  Uppercu was free at 23 and the oldest child is 6 years old, so he must have married very soon after the trial.  Ferguson is surprised to learn his great-grandfather had a family before his great-grandmother and wants to know how he can learn about this other life.  Wolcott tells him he'll need to go to Evanston.

Ferguson says it was terrifying to read the articles about his great-grandfather and that he has mixed emotions about the man.  He's afraid to find out what happened next and admits it's hard not to judge Uppercu.  He says things are gray and he's looking for clarity.  (Personally, they didn't seem very gray to me.  I am not the type to rush to judgment, but I have to admit I am leaning heavily toward thinking Uppercu probably was guilty.)

In Evanston, Illinois (the home of Northwestern University), Ferguson says he will be speaking to cultural historian Scott Sandage of Carnegie-Mellon University, whom he has asked to research Uppercu's life after his acquittal.  He meets Sandage at the Evanston Public Library.  Sandage says he has prepared a timeline of Uppercu's life based on information from city directoreis, censuses, and newspapers.  The first item we see is information reiterated from the 1880 census, where we learn that Uppercu's wife's name was Laura, no longer simply the initial "L."  The next item is dated February 20, 1884, when Uppercu is mentioned in the St. Paul Globe newspaper as being on trial in Fargo, North Dakota Territory, for embezzling the sum of $,1800, worth about $50,000–60,000 today, from the First National Bank.  (Hmm, going for money again ....)  Lots of money was around in this period, but good procedures to track it were lacking.

The narrator pops in and talks about the Gilded Age, the last decades of the 1800's.  The United States experienced huge economic growth accompanied by political corruption and worker exploitation.  While magnates such as John Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, and Leland Stanford amassed empires, ambitious men such as Jesse Uppercu tried to make their own fortunes.

So Uppercu said he had dropped the money and lost it.  Somehow he was acquitted again.  Apparently the public's sympathy lay with Uppercu, who presented himself well.  Ferguson and Sandage banter back and forth about how "dropping" the money was a good enough excuse and that it was possible he had actually lost it, but you could tell neither one of them was buying it.  (I didn't either.)

Our next timeline highlight is May through August 1886, when Uppercu was in St. Louis.  While there, he sued Laura for divorce and said that she "complains too much" about the dirty streets and water in St. Louis.  Nothing else was said about the divorce, kind of leaving me to wonder whether he had decided she was dead weight for some reason.

Still in St. Louis, Uppercu was arrested on September 29, 1886.  Ferguson is upset and says, "I need a moment!", then asks if there is more information.  (Of course.)  The Missouri Republican newspaper reported on the arrest of lawyer Uppercu on another charge of embezzlement.  He had been working as a "collecting attorney" (not a term with which I am familiar).  He "lost" another $200, but the charges were dropped when he came up with the money and reimbursed the firm.  They weren't able to prove intent, so there was no prosecution.

Apparently deciding St. Louis was just not working out for him, Uppercu was in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1893, where he married Sadie Canta, wife #2.  Obviously, this was another marriage Ferguson's family had not known about.  In 1897 Uppercu appears in a Philadelphia city directory listed as a lawyer, residing at 1009 Mt. Vernon.

Bridgeton Evening News,
February 17, 1898, page 2
Ferguson comments on how much Uppercu had moved around.  Sandage adds that exclamation points seemed to follow him everywere he went:  Murder!  Embezzlement!  Ferguson (justifiably) has to admit that he has drawn the conclusion that his great-grandfather was "a bit" of a con man.  He asks what happened after 1897 and whether Uppercu had stayed in Philadelphia.  Sandage says that's as far as they have taken the research (yeah, right) and "suggests" that Ferguson try looking on (owned by Ancestry) for the period 1897–1900 to see what Uppercu might have been doing.  Ferguson searches for <J. W. Uppercu> and finds an 1898 article, "Gold-Seekers Begin the Journey" in the Bridgeton (New Jersey) Evening News.  The article said that lawyer J. W. Uppercu of 504 Walnut Street was leading a group headed to the Alaskan gold rush.

Ferguson asks how in the world Uppercu would know to go to Alaska in the first place.  Sandage tells him he'll have to go there to find out (cue our next location!).  Where in Alaska?  Wrangell, which Ferguson says he has never heard of.  Sandage says while Ferguson is gone he will continue to research and if he finds anything he'll send it to him in Wrangell (yes, that was another cue you heard).

Ferguson says he wants to fill in the details about his great-grandfather.  Between the murder and the two embezzlements (I wonder if there were more the research team missed?) he has little faith in Uppercu and that he really wants him to have some roots.  Alaska just doesn't seem to be the way to do that.  He also comments that he himself is more of an "indoor" kid; he sounds a little suspicious about all that open country.

Driving through Wrangell, Ferguson is amazed at the gorgeous scenery and glassy, clear water.  He says he's allergic to how clean the air is (no snarky comments about Los Angeles, please!).  He arrives at the Irene Ingle Public Library and meets Terrence Cole, a history professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.  We get an overview of Wrangell as the entrance to the Klondike and a short synopsis of the 1896–1898 gold rush.  Cole explains that Uppercu was the "organizational genius" who put together the entire trip.  He was also the fundraiser and financial manager, who tracked money and resources for the group.  Ferguson latched onto that and wondered if history had repeated itself.  Cole goes on to say that Uppercu would have held onto the money, put it to good use, and even chosen the route.  The enterprise rested on the trust and faith the group had in him.

Ferguson starts to go beyond the money question and comments on the physical labor that would have been required.  Uppercu was about 48 years old at the time, and it would have been very wearing for him.  Ferguson then asks whether there's more about the journey that Cole can share.  Cole says that the secretary of the party had written a series of letters to his hometown newspaper, which apparently had been published as articles.  Several of the letters were collected and bound as a book, which Cole hands to Ferguson.

The first letter we are shown, written by B. (Benjamin) F. Parker to the Bridgeton (New Jersey) Evening News, was dated March 9, 1898 in the paper.  (Only the early part of 1998 is online at, which I'm sure is why they did this part in print; all the referenced articles are available at GenealogyBank, but I guess they didn't work out an agreement for this episode.  I don't understand why they showed the articles as plain text, though.)  The party had just started out with its equipment and machinery.  Cole talked about how Uppercu's expedition was unique in its size and complexity.  There were more than 60 people, a huge amount of machinery, a portable sawmill, a gold-digging machine which they hoped would be able to produce 100 tons per day, and more.  It was a very large-scale operation, far beyond what anyone else had tried.  Cole suddenly says they should follow the trail that Uppercu had gone on.

Even though a little earlier Ferguson had said he was an indoor kid and allergic to the fresh air, now he is excited to be going on the boat.  He starts to wonder whether his great-grandfather had had the skills needed to make the trip and says Uppercu must have been pompous (not exactly the word I would have used) to think he had the ability to lead the expedition.

Cole describes the route that the party had planned to take:  Departing from Fort Wrangell, they would have gone up the Stikine River to Telegraph Creek, then taken all the equipment overland to Lake Teslin.  From there they would have gone downstream to the Yukon River and followed it to the boom town of Dawson, Yukon Territory.  It would have taken several months to complete the 700-mile trek.

Bridgeton Evening News,
October 1, 1898, page 1
The two men head out to the harbor and board the boat (Breakaway Adventures' Ocean Pro; the cameramen worked hard at not showing the complete company name, so it must not have paid for placement).  We get some beautiful eye-candy shots of the boat traveling up the Stikine.  I wasn't sure if they actually went all the way to Telegraph Creek, which is supposed to be about 140 miles up the Stikine, but they stopped at a shore and offboarded.  Then Ferguson read more of Parker's letters from the book, starting with, "And now our troubles began."  Published on September 13, 1898, Parker's letter (written August 23) talked about men catching colds and one man dying.  The party had a lot of trouble making progress up the river.  The second letter Ferguson read from, published October 1, 1898, and written by Parker on September 12, talked about the party being "blocked out" because they were not able to use their sleds to travel.  It also mentioned the decision to give all men who wanted to leave permission to do so, and how the expedition required a strong leader but did not have one.  According to Parker's letter, Uppercu left August 6, resigning as manager before he did so.  (The letter published in October went on to say that Parker himself had also left the expedition.)

Ferguson's first reaction is to say that his great-grandfather must have have been upset to have had to leave the party and that his pride must have been wounded.  Cole tells him that those who stayed behind didn't end up finding any gold.  Uppercu might have left just to cut his lossess, as the expedition seemed to have bad luck.  On the other hand, Cole points out that only 30,000–40,000 of the hundreds of thousands who tried actually made it to the Klondike.  Of those, he says that only a few hundred made any money.  Uppercu's group making it as far as it did was still an accomplishment.

In the interlude before returning to his room, Ferguson says it must have been devastating for his great-grandfather to have failed and also spoke of the barriers that had existed for the attempt.  He admitted, however, that he wasn't surprised that Uppercu had quit, because the man generally had looked for easy, fast money, which the Alaska expedition decidedly was not.  Ferguson then repeated what he had said about his family at the beginning of the episode — that they were stable, secure, boring — and yet here was this history that was full of drama.  Definitely not what he had been expecting!  He's been told a package from Sandage is waiting for him at the hotel, and he hopes it has more information.  He's particularly curious when Uppercu married his great-grandmother Elizabeth.

In his room, Ferguson opens the envelope from Sandage and reads a letter on Carnegie-Mellon letterhead.  The research team had indeed found more information about Uppercu.  He had returned from Alaska in 1898.  In the 1900 census he was in New York with his wife, Sadie, and a daughter, Muriel.  Uppercu and Sadie divorced in September 1907.  As an aside, Ferguson remarks that makes two ex-wives and four children so far for Uppercu.  Also in 1900, Uppercu was a respected speaker for the Republican Party in New York City and was scheduled to speak at a parade to welcome Teddy Roosevelt.  Sandage wrote that Uppercu was a good speaker and charismatic, the best things they had discovered about him.

Finally, Elizabeth enters the picture.  She and Uppercu married in July 1914 in Suffern, Rockland County, New York.  Uppercu was 60 years old; Elizabeth Quigg was 26 and a widow.  (That could mean that Quigg was her married name, but the program didn't address that point.)  Uppercu adopted Elizabeth's children, Grace and Dorothy, from her first marriage, and Ferguson's great-grandmother Jessie was born after that.  But Uppercu and Elizabeth divorced in November 1925.  (Boy, does this man have a track record!)  Surprisingly, in the 1930 census Uppercu was found in Rockland County with all the children — Grace, 21; Dorothy, 18; Jessie, 14; and Elizabeth, 11.  No wife was present in the household.  Ferguson wonders where Elizabeth was but is happy that the girls were with their father.  It looks like the first time he stepped up to his responsibilities, and Ferguson is proud of him.  (Three interesting notes about the census:  First, Jesse is listed as widowed, not divorced.  The program did not discuss Elizabeth after the divorce, but two family trees on Ancestry say Elizabeth died in 1973; it's likely that Jesse simply didn't want to admit he was divorced, as it wasn't really socially acceptable at the time.  Second, Ferguson listed four daughters, but there are five in the household.  Why he didn't mention Irene, who was six years old, is mysterious to me.  And third, I noticed that the original transcription of the name was Uppecca [gotta love that Ancestry quality] and that Uppercu has been added an an "alternative" reading; I wonder how much trouble that mistranscription caused the researchers when they were looking for Jesse ....)

Uppercu family, 1930 census, Rockland County, New York
In the wrap-up, Ferguson says there are still unanswered questions about Uppercu.  He feels that Uppercu got away with a lot (I don't think there's much question about that!).  He talks about getting a blueprint of where you came from and how learning about his great-grandfather has filled in information for him.  He feels his drive, creativity, and strong will came from this side of his family, and maybe even his ability as an actor can be attributed to Uppercu.  Whether or not he was guilty, Uppercu became an honorable man at the end and apparently made roots for his family.

Ferguson then reminisces about his grandmother, one of the greatest people he has ever known.  He's glad that Uppercu raised her but wishes he had known this information while Jessie was alive.  He feels he knows her better now but wishes he could have shared the discoveries with her.

I got a bonus after this episode aired.  TLC purchased the rights to air ten of the NBC episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?, and they've been showing them before and after the new season episodes.  After Ferguson came the Rob Lowe episode from NBC season 3, one I missed due to my erratic schedule that year.  I really enjoyed the episode and was impressed by several of the intelligent questions Lowe asked.  I have to admit I guessed the big surprise ending almost immediately, though.

Something I noticed while watching the intro to both the Cynthia Nixon and Jesse Tyler Ferguson episodes was that only five celebrities are being shown:  Nixon, Ferguson, the McAdams sisters, Kelsey Grammer, and Valerie Bertinelli.  I knew I remembered the original publicity mentioned six episodes, so I hunted around and found this post on the blog, dated July 5.  What happened to Lauren Graham?


  1. So, are we going to get a Robe Lowe WDYTYA post soon?

    1. Somehow I figured that two years after the fact might be considered a little late.

  2. Never too late to post your thoughts and opinions on something. And it might be interesting to see what new stuff might have dropped onto the Internet since the first airing. You can always start the post with "I missed this the first time around, but now that I've seen it...."

    1. Thanks for the support! I will put it on my list of things to do. ;)

  3. I am a researcher of aviation history and Jesse Wheat Uppercu's offspring is of particular interest to me. JWU's son, Inglis M. Uppercu became a pioneer in the aviation industry in the early part of the 20th Century. Inglis started Aeromarine Airways in 1920, which became the largest seaplane airline in the world at that time (before Pan American Airways). He also started the first US international air mail route to Cuba in 1920. He had many notable firsts in the aviation industry. He also was a mechanic, automobile racer, and bicycle racer. Inglis owned a very popular velodrome in New Jersey prior to his aviation enterprise and became the Cadillac dealer of New York City, selling cars to some of the wealthiest celebrities of NYC. Interestingly enough, Jesse Tyler Ferguson bares a very strong resemblance to Inglis Uppercu.

    1. How interesting! Did you learn anything helpful from this episode to further your research?

  4. The episode gave me greater insight into the Inglis Uppercu's father and the timelines their movement around the country. Inglis Uppercu was a child of JWU's second marriage.

    1. I'm glad you found it useful. A great example of how looking at collateral relatives helps your own research.


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