By Alison Booth
Why did I stumble on Martha Laurens Ramsay? I need to remember. It was an hour ago, when I was trying to resolve the issues concerning a collection of short biographies of women entitled Famous Irishwomen (a608 by Katherine A. O’Keefe O’Mahoney, published in Massachusetts in 1907). I’d already spent an afternoon interconnecting some interesting women born in Ireland, some of them in the Diaspora. In the omnibus chapter (18) in this collective biography, “Literary Irishwomen Who Died in Other Lands,” I came upon Kathleen O’Meara, whose pen name was Grace Ramsay.
Naturally, we need to disambiguate people, and I searched our database for “Ramsay.” Which derailed me, as historical attention is always derailed. Martha Laurens Ramsay: somehow we had four unique id numbers for identical name constructions, plus one “Mrs. Ramsay.” Intake of breath. Imagine the radiating errors in a database when entities with their arrow-like swiftness point to the wrong relationship. Were the biographies (chapters) tied to these various numerically-keyed persons actually about the same woman? I think, after much ferreting, that Kathleen O’Meara is unrelated to the prevalent Ramsay. I judged by the publication dates of the books that had included a biography. I tracked down various digitized books to read. And I duly drew upon Wikipedia, which helped me to move from Martha Laurens Ramsay to husband David Ramsay, one of the first major historians of the American Revolution. “In 1787 Ramsay married [third wife] Martha Laurens (1759-1811), daughter of Charleston-born Huguenot merchant, planter, and Revolutionary War statesman, Henry Laurens.” As to the “Mrs. Ramsay,” I was able to track her down in a digitized edition of “The Mothers of the Wise and Good.” This Mrs. Ramsay’s “biography” consists largely of a letter from Mrs. Ramsay to her son; other evidence, including dates of publication, make me convinced that this is the Martha Laurens Ramsay.
Two inches wide of ivory on which I paint with so fine a brush as to produce very little effect after much labor. The dismay of quintuplet identity keys for the same person can be obliterated with the result of this labor: to reassemble Martha Laurens Ramsay, at least as a site for further research: once so well known, so important as an “American,” Southern counterpart to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century wives and mothers who left behind exemplary writing (memoirs, diaries, letters). We make the database slice away those multiple records and produce a list of six entities (biographies) properly associated with their respective books and with the unique woman. I think the triumph in its small way must be what some gamers feel after conquering the most transcendent levels in a video game. Or perhaps it’s more like the little joys of detective work in composing a full-length biography of one person.