The Obituary of Tom Toy

By | 24 January 2015

The Census and vital records are critical to building the bones of your genealogy, supplying births, deaths, marriages, locations, and family relationships as you move backward in time. To add the flesh to these bones, you often have to turn to less accessible sources of information, such as wills and land records, bible records, biographies and newspapers. Today’s article is about the latter, and a recent breakthrough I made in my research of John Thomas “Tom” Toy while doing volunteer work for the Delaware Historical Society.

Newspaper Records for Delaware

There are three types of newspaper sources that you run across. The first and most desirable are the ones that are digitally scanned for the Internet, have been processed through optical character recognition (OCR) to make them searchable, and are paired with a capable search engine. Examples of these that I have used include the Google News Archive, and GenealogyBank. Google is the only one of the three that doesn’t require a subscription and the search features for all three are hit or miss. I suspect this is more the fault of the ability of the software to recognize characters than any fault of the search algorithms themselves, but you are in no way guaranteed that your ancestor is missing from a newspaper source just because the search returns no results. Another problem with all of these is that there are very few newspapers for Wilmington, Delaware included in their repositories, and the main papers (Every Evening, Evening Journal, Morning News) are absent from all three.

The second group of newspaper sources are the ones that have been digitized but are not available online. This group is available on microfilm and there are a great number of Delaware titles available at many easily accessible locations, including the Delaware Historical Society Research Library, the Delaware Newspaper Project at the University of Delaware Library, the Hagley Research Library, the Wilmington Library and Delaware Public Archives, to name a few. The key to using papers in this group is to start with an event date (birth, death, marriage or other event) and browse the the papers for a particular location that are within a few days of the date in question. The only drawback to using papers in this group is that it tends to be a bit tedious and is subject to the vagaries of individual microfilm readers and printers. You need to allow a few hours for each round of research.

If I can’t find a newspaper in the first group (digital and searchable), I prefer to use papers in the third group, which are bound copies containing the original newspaper. Generally, archivists won’t give you access to the originals if there is a microfilm copy available, but the Delaware Historical Society has a large collection of bound volumes that they are more than willing to pull out of their stacks for your perusal. It’s much more natural to turn the pages of a newspaper volume than fiddle with the forward and revers controls of a microfilm reader. Unlike many repositories of historical documents, the Historical Society allows you to photograph documents to your hearts’ content (for a small fee). Because theses are source documents, your resulting photographs are much sharper than what you get from printing a microfilm image of a scanned document. These are just a few of the reasons I love visiting the DHS Research Library in Wilmington!

Stumbling Upon Thomas

Star Masthead

A week ago, I served as a volunteer at the DHS Research Library helping folks who came to work on their family histories. Between customers, I discovered the bound issues of the newspapers and decided to look through random volumes of the Sunday Morning Star, which was published from 1881 through 1954 under several names. For much of the Star’s history, the Wilmington Evening Journal was published Monday through Saturday and the Star was a Sunday-only paper.

This wasn’t something I planned, so I was reading randomly, not using my rule of searching around a particular event date. In the issue for July 16, 1939, I found a column called ‘Looking Backward’, which discussed events from 20 and forty years prior. One of the items for 1919 read:

William Toy, 75, once active in politics, and at one time proprietor of the William Penn Hotel at Henry Clay died last week.

I was excited to see the Toy surname, but William?? I knew that the William Penn Hotel was more popularly known as Toy’s Tavern and that the proprietor was Thomas Toy. I needed the July 1919 copies of the Star from the stacks!

John Thomas Toy (February 13, 1844 – July 7, 1919)

Tom Toy Photograph

John Thomas Toy was the second son of James A Toy (1816-1881) and Ann Curran Toy (1824-1849).  He grew up in Henry Clay Village and attended local schools.  He initially worked for his father and later became a prosperous business man and politician.  In about 1867, he married Mary Elwood, daughter of Nicholas Elwood and Mary Welsh.

He had eight children, three boys and five girls.  The eldest was Annie who married William Gunn.  Annie was born in 1868 and died in 1893.  Lizzie Toy was born in 1870 and died as a child in 1871. Elwood Nicholas Toy was born in 1873 and died in 1931.  Elwood never married. Rose Toy was born in 1877 and married George Frizzell.  Rose died in 1957. Ida Toy was born in 1878 and married James Johnson.  Ida died in 1956. Daniel Henry Toy was born in 1880 and died in 1903.  Daniel never married.  The youngest was Charlotte Toy, who was born in 1886 and died in 1975.

From other records and oral family history, I suspected that Thomas Toy was a well known and respected individual in his day, but I wasn’t prepared for the effusive obituary and photograph I found in the July 13, 1919 issue of the Sunday Star. The obituary took up the whole first column on page 10 as well as part of the second column (and remember the papers were larger in those days). Most significantly, it included a photograph of Thomas, which is the first confirmed picture I’ve seen of him. I can see the resemblance between Thomas and his father (James A Toy), his brother (James F Toy) and several Toys that have come after.

The obituary confirms several bits of information that have turned up elsewhere, but also provides new details and a lot of insight into Tom Toy’s character, family, and place in the community:

…there were few men better known in Christiana hundred and throughout the upper part of the State. For during nearly forty years, in which he was proprietor of the William Penn Hotel, at Henry Clay, he made hundreds, perhaps thousands of warm friends, in whose minds the last fourteen years of Mr. Toy’s retired life could not efface the memory of the genial host, of earlier years.

He was the possessor of an unusually good memory and could recall clearly events that had happened ever since he was five years of age.

…pallbearers included: Milton Frizzell, Edward Johnson, Willard Johnson and Stephen Wilson, and the nephews, James Toy and Major James Toy of Washington, D.C.

His name appears as one of the commissioners on Market Street bridge over the Brandywine (I have to go look)

Old friends of “Tom” Toy first recall him driving a team in Hagley yard.

The obituary also provides new details on the Toy Tavern and its use for purposes other than serving alcohol:

“… also noted around the days of 1872 for its young folks’ dancing school.

Big balls were often held in the large room on the third floor of the building, which were attended by as many as 150 couples.

… run in later years, up until the time the county went “dry” by Pat Dougherty and of which Jeff Rogers was the proprietor before Mr. Toy’s time.

The third floor … was also used as the Odd Fellow’s meeting place.

The Evening Journal

Based on thJournal Obituaryis discovery, I also called for the Evening Journal for July 1919 from the Historical Society stacks to see what additional information might be had. The Journal reported a much shorter version of his death, although it was considered first-page 1 news. The full Evening Journal obituary from July 8, 1919 is shown below. I have managed to cobble together a copy of the Sunday Star obituary from a number of images. If you leave a request in the comments, I’ll send you a copy of what I have.


So remember to browse through those old papers when you have a few free moments, you never know who you will find.

Thomas Toy Signature

9 thoughts on “The Obituary of Tom Toy

  1. Nancy Van Dyke-Dickison

    Again, an excellent article. I would like to add another very good newspaper resource, I pay one month at a time until I feel I have all I need. I have found dozens of articles on James F. Toy. I will reproduce his obituary with photo in an e-mail and we can compare the looks of James A. and James F. Toy.

    Since you are a computer expert, I want to tell you I still cannot print your articles without the right side being cut off. My e-mail address is in the right place but the remainder of your articles are set far to the right and the right side is cut off. Can you fix? I want to save some of your gems.


    1. Rhys Post author

      I’m glad you liked the article!

      Also thanks for the tip on I’ll give it a look, but I haven’t been successful in finding many old papers for Wilmington, Delaware. I will appreciate receiving the obituary and photo of James F Toy!

      Regarding the printing problem – I think I have an answer for you. All of my articles can be downloaded as a pdf file and printed from there. Take a look at the bottom left of each article and you should see a little icon. If you click on the icon, it will download the article, which you can open with Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you still have a problem, let me know and I’ll walk you through the process in an email.

  2. Mike Toy

    Thanks for the post, really fills in some blanks. My uncle Jack Toy had the “Toy look”. Years after my grandfather James F. died, I told my father I saw grand pop siting on a wall on Market Street mall. Dad smiled and said you saw Jack. Wish I had spoken to the old man on the wall.

    1. Rhys Post author

      I just pulled up a picture of your Uncle Jack and really do see the resemblance between him and your grandfather. I think your nephew Jimmy is the one carrying on the ‘Toy Look’.

    2. marian Knowles

      Mike, That old man who as my father and was probably only about 48 When you saw him. He died at 51.

  3. Donald Archer

    Thank you so much for the advice and historry on “Tom” Toy. I am the great grandson of Eugene Toy, my uncle and godfather is Eugene III. He has a number of old photos. I have put some of them up on my ancestry toy family tree. Contact me and I can try to get them to you.

  4. Burton Ward

    Hi. Found your blog through my cousin Susan. I am Sam and Pauline Frizzell’s grandson. I visted Wilmington many times with my grandparents to visit his Aunt Charlotte on Broome St. He often talked about the Toys and Frizzell’s of his childhood especially Tom Toy. Love to chat with you.

    1. Rhys Post author

      Nice to meet you Burton! It’s always great making a contact with a new cousin. I’m glad you found the blog, and tell Susan I said Hello. I’d love to chat with you as well. I’ll follow this up with an email.


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