Last week Newspapers.com announced its partnership with the Brooklyn Public Library to complete a full digital archive of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle by digitizing negative microfilm of the paper provided by the Library of Congress. There is now a full run of the newspaper online covering the years 1841-1955.
I thought with the new newspapers that were available, I’d revisit some research I did about eight years ago on a photograph of young man in a sailor’s uniform. On the back was the sailor’s name, “H.P. Kirk, May 1891,” and my great-grandfather’s had added his own name, R.F. Dyer. Why did he have that photograph? Was he a relative?
I located Henry P. Kirk in the 1900 census. He was single and his relationship to the head of the household (Mary, widowed) is listed as son (along with six other sons and daughters). His age was listed as 28 and his occupation was Fireman.
My 2nd great-grandfather Edwin Dyer was a policeman in that same area, and it was his son whose name was on the back.
Perhaps the most dramatic article I found was from 05 March 1896, titled, “Kirk’s Life Saving Record.” The sub-title reads, “He Never Gets Rattled and Knows Not the Qualms of Fear.” The first part of the article was full of biographical information and clues.
It went on to reveal some pretty amazing stories, including one that noted his military service, which explains the uniform in the photograph.
“ . . . The first striking instance of Kirk’s bravery was when he was a Yankee tar on board of the United States steamer Tallapoosa, which was lying in the harbor of Buenos Ayres, Argentine Republic. It was on the afternoon between 3 and 4 o’clock of December 15, 1890. The French steamship Belgrano was passing by the Tallapoosa when one of the seamen, who was engaged in what is nautically called ‘fishing the anchor,’ dropped overboard. Immediately all was excitement because the man could not swim. In the twinkling of an eye and with his wits about him, Kirk jumped overboard and swam to the assistance of the almost drowning man. . . The harbor was frequently full of man eating sharks, which were nearby always waiting and watching for just such an opportunity. Nothing daunted however, young Kirk made his way through the water in safety, and catching hold of the French sailor, who was about to sink for the third and last time, brought him alongside the Tallapoosa, where both men were taken on board, and the Yankee tar became the hero of the hour.”
But that wasn’t all. That same article went on to tell more heroic tales from his two and a half years on the fire department. On February 3rd of that year, he rescued a 71 year-old Mrs. Griffin from her fourth-floor apartment, cutting his hand as he broke the window to reach the now unconscious woman and carried her to safety.
In another life-saving incident outlined in the newspaper of 26 February 1896, he rescued Mr. Gallagher, a paralyzed man, from a fire in the five-story brick building at 158 Prospect Street. Mr. Gallagher was seen calling for help from a fifth floor window. The fire escape wasn’t close enough so he climbed to the roof. He told the newspaper, “I swung over the coping and lowered myself down to my arms’ length and, reaching over with my right foot, kicked in the top part of the window. My foot was then about half a foot over the lower sash when I let go my hands, as I did so my foot struck the lower sash and that stopped my hold long enough to let me catch hold of the inside of the window. Then I drew myself in and kicked out the lower half of the window.” He pulled the paralyzed man who was now overcome by smoke to the window and his fellow firemen, who had by now gotten to the roof, lowered a rope that was tied to Mr. Gallagher and he was raised to the roof, followed by our hero, who was pulled out just as he too blacked out from the smoke.
If there are any movie producers out there, I think we’ve found the next action hero. I wanted to learn more about Henry beyond his fire department adventures.
Henry’s mother was widowed in 1900, so backtracking in city directories I found that she first appears as “widow, Thomas,” in 1884. So it appears his father died when Henry was still relatively young. On 1 April 1885, Henry enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an apprentice at age 15. Mary signed for him in the space for parent or guardian by leaving her mark.
That 1884 directory that first listed Mary as a widow, also gave me a clue to how that photo came to be in our family. The Kirks were living at 127 Tillary, and my Dyer ancestors were living at 119 Tillary. Raymond and Henry were roughly the same age and may have been friends. While I don’t currently see a familial relationship between the Kirks and my family just now, I don’t regret my little journey into the Kirk family history, and in fact, may dig a little deeper as time permits. Henry’s story was one that was just waiting to be told. Who are the heroes in your tree?
 H.P. Kirk Photograph, 1891, digital image, original privately held by Loretto D. Szucs, Lockport, Illinois.
 1900 U.S. Census, 5th Ward, Brooklyn, Kings Co., New York, population schedule, enumeration district 46, p. 2A, Mary Kirk household, line 20; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=7602: accessed 24 April 2014); citing National Archives microfilm publication T623, roll 1044.
 “Kirk’s Life Saving Record,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 5 March 1896, page 4, column 6; digital images, Brooklyn Newsstand (http://newsstand.bklynpubliclibrary.org/: accessed 24 April 2014), Brooklyn Public Library and Newspapers.com.
 “Fatal Prospect Street Fire,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 February 1896, page 1, column 3; digital images, Brooklyn Newsstand (http://newsstand.bklynpubliclibrary.org/: accessed 24 April 2014).
 “U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989,” Ancestry.com (http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=2469: accessed 24 April 2014); Kirk, Mary, page 664 [image 371], Lain’s Brooklyn [New York] Directory for the year ending May 1st, 1884.
 “Weekly Returns of Enlistments at Naval Rendezvous (“Enlistment Rendezvous”) Jan. 6, 1855-Aug. 8, 1891,” database, Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com: accessed 24 April 2014); Henry P. Kirk, shipping articles on ship Minnesota; citing National Archives Record Group 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, M1953, roll 66.
 “Lain’s Brooklyn [New York] Directory for the year ending May 1st, 1884,” Dyer, Edwin, p. 339 [image 204].
About Juliana Smith
Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.