Past Times

Discovering the true story of a great-grandmother

Connie and Mattie Howard are pictured with Lisa Lisson’s maternal grandfather James Lester Howard.
Connie and Mattie Howard are pictured with Lisa Lisson’s maternal grandfather James Lester Howard. Courtesy of Lisa Lisson

Guest blogger Lisa Lisson shares stories from her genealogical research.

As a child, I frequently visited grandfather’s attic. It was always lots of fun to see the Christmas decorations stored away or the knick-knacks my grandmother put away for another day. But always, I studied the portrait of my great grandmother Mattie Howard stored up there.

I wondered about her. Perhaps if I stared at her portrait long enough and concentrated hard enough, she would tell me her secrets....

Mattie didn't tell me her secrets in that attic, but her portrait did spark a curiosity that years later started my pursuit to discover who my great grandmother really was. What was she like as a person? Few who knew and remembered Mattie are still with us. Those relatives that do remember her were young children at the time of her death and their memories are from a young child’s perspective and centered around her death at a young age. Those childhood memories, oral history, photographs and historical records were all used to uncover the story of Mattie’s life.

Oral History

Oral histories and distant cousins were the starting point for research into Mattie Maddox. For any family history research project, finding out what others already know is the best place to start.

Mattie Maddox Howard was the mother of my maternal grandfather James Lester Howard. The Maddox family lived in Chatham County, on the Cape Fear River. She died at the age of 46 leaving behind a husband and four children under the age of 12. Family stories reported Mattie died after having brain surgery. Brain surgery?! Mattie did not live in a time when this was commonly performed.

I was able to track down the last surviving nephew of Mattie’s. Otis Kelly was older than Mattie’s children being 15 years old when she died. He had vivid memories of his “Aunt Matt.”

“Aunt Matt was a good woman. She was always first to arrive when a family fell ill or needed some help.” He knew no story of “brain surgery,” but was able to tell me in the last few months of her life, Mattie was not able to be left alone to care for her young children. He simply knew she was ill and went to the hospital in Raleigh.

Vital Records – Hatched, Matched, and Dispatched

After exhausting oral history and other information other family members already knew, searching vital records was the next step into learning more about Mattie and her life.

Mattie was born prior to the use of birth certificates, so her birth date of 22 March 1881 was determined from her gravestone certificate and family knowledge.

Mattie’s Lee County, North Carolina marriage certificate provided information on her husband Connie M. Howard. Mattie married Connie M. Howard on 8 March1914. Connie was a young man, 10 years her junior. The Howard family lived close, only 2-3 miles from the Maddox family farm. Interestingly Mattie was quite a bit older than her husband. According to some standards, the 32-year-old Mattie was approaching spinsterhood by the time she married.

Reading Mattie’s death certificate is where things got really interesting.

Mattie’s death certificate provided the first illuminating and intriguing clues to the last few months of her life.

▪ Birth date – ~1882

▪ Death Date – 30 July 1927

▪ Place of death – State Hospital, Raleigh, NC – Dorothea Dix Hospital. Mattie was listed as an “inmate.”

▪ Her parents – James Maddox and Martha J. Lett

▪ Cause of death – “Exhaustion with psychosis - type undetermined”

▪ Spouse – No spouse listed though she is listed as married.

▪ No operation preceded her death

The death certificate supports Mattie’s birth and death dates as known in the family, and disproves the family’s story she underwent brain surgery.

U.S. Census Records

U.S. census records are an excellent source to learn the make-up of the Howard family unit.

Mattie married Connie Howard in 1914, so the 1920 census is the first and only census record the couple appears in together. Their Chatham County household included two young children: Lester J Howard (age 4) and Walter B Howard (age 2). The couple had two more children prior to Mattie’s death. Connie was a farmer, a typical occupation in rural Chatham County. Mattie was a homemaker, and the small family lived in close proximity to extended family members.

All in all, Mattie was leading the normal life of a homemaker until the summer of 1927.

Putting The Facts Together

Mattie’s story ends in July of 1927. Her life spanned over 4 decades. Much changed in the world during that time period. She witnessed such events as WWI and the flu epidemic of 1918-1920. Motion pictures came into being in 1893 when she was just 12 years old, and sound movies came to be in 1926 when she was 45. Mattie also saw women get the right to vote in 1920. Living in rural North Carolina, what sort of impact did these events have on Mattie’s world or that of her family?

Several facts surrounding Mattie’s death stand out. Mattie did not have brain surgery prior to her death. She did not die at home, but rather in the State [Mental] Hospital in Raleigh. Her cause of death was listed as “exhaustion with psychosis of unknown origin.” Family members remember her husband Connie later saying Mattie probably had some type of cancer. Likely Mattie died from a type of brain tumor or a cancer that involved the brain. This would certainly would account for the mental status changes she experienced such as not recognizing her children or being able to care for them. Unfortunately, the end result was the same – a young husband lost a wife and four young children lost a mother.

I still on occasion find myself studying Mattie’s portrait. The difference is that I now know her story. I still have questions, and that’s okay. (At the end of a search, every genealogist and family historian does.) That search, sparked in my childhood, to know my great grandmother?

Definitely, a success.

Lisa Lisson is a genealogist, blogger and educator based in Raleigh. her blog, “Are You My Cousin?” can be found at

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times,

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or