“To get a blueprint of where you came from definitely starts to color in some questions about yourself.” —Jesse Tyler Ferguson

Actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson is part of a quirky family on TV, but his own family was fairly stable and he sometimes longed for drama. He finds plenty in the life of his great-grandfather.

Jesse was named for his paternal grandmother, Jessie Uppercue Ferguson, and it’s her family he wants to learn more about. He feels that when his beloved grandmother died six years ago, “history shut down” because he had no one to learn family stories from.

Jesse’s search starts with a photograph of his great-grandfather, Jesse Wheat Uppercue (whom he calls “JW”), a lawyer. A Google search brings up a shock: an 1872 newspaper article that names JW as the suspect in the murder of his aunt in Baltimore.

JW blames the murder on a burglar, but between old issues of the Baltimore Sun and court records, Jesse learns that the case included two conflicting wills—one drawn up at JW’s insistence that left everything to him—and two trials. The first ended in a hung jury. In the second, he was found not guilty.

An 1880 census search finds JW on the move and turns up another surprise: a wife and three children in Illinois that Jesse had never known about. And here, a pattern begins.

In early 1884, JW is in Fargo, Dakota Territory, charged with embezzling $1,800. Once again, he is acquitted. By May, he has moved on to St. Louis, Missouri, where he sues his wife for divorce and is arrested for embezzlement in 1886. He manages to repay the money, and the charges are dropped. But Jesse is beginning to suspect his great-grandfather is something of a con man.

By 1893, JW has gone east again and married again, to Sadie Canta in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s the second family Jesse never knew about. Soon, JW’s wanderlust strikes again, and he becomes the promoter of an ambitious expedition to the Klondike gold fields, with 90 tons of machinery and more than 60 participants. When the venture turns out to be a bust, the participants decide that all who want to pull out can do so. JW, the expedition’s organizer, is among the 24 who leave. Jesse feels let down by his great-grandfather’s failings.

Despite his troubles, nothing seems to stick to JW, and he becomes a prominent Republican speaker. Then, after a second divorce, 64-year-old JW marries 27-year-old Elizabeth Quigg, Jesse’s great-grandmother.

And here, JW finally seems to “step up.” He adopts Elizabeth’s two daughters, and even though JW and Elizabeth divorce, the 1930 census shows JW living with five daughters, including Jessie.

Despite JW’s shortcomings, Jesse feels that he redeemed himself and became an honorable man, even wondering if he may have inherited JW’s drive, creativity, and acting skills.

As Jesse reflects on his journey he feels that knowing his great-grandfather has helped him know his grandmother a little better and wishes he could share what he’s found with her.

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