You may know actor Bryan Cranston from his roles in “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Breaking Bad.” The Bryan you’ll see on Who Do You Think You are on Sunday, August 23rd, on TLC is completely different.
Bryan Cranston describes his childhood growing up in Los Angeles as a happy one… until the day his father, an unsuccessful actor, left the family when Bryan was 11. Even though he eventually reconnected with his dad, Bryan has always been curious whether there are trace elements of men who don’t meet their familial responsibilities that have filtered down from generations.
Bryan travels to his father’s hometown, Chicago, and meets with a local genealogist to help him jump-start his search. A 1930 census reveals two things that Bryan did not know: his grandfather Edward was a World War I veteran – and his grandmother Alice was NOT his grandfather’s first wife!
Digging deeper, Bryan sees that on Edward Cranston’s WWI draft card, he indicated he had a wife and child – confirming he was not only married once before, but he had a daughter – an aunt Bryan never knew existed. To find more information on the wife and child, Bryan looks through divorce records, and discovers a filing for an Irene Cranston vs. Edward Cranston. Through this document, Bryan learns the name of his aunt: Kathleen. He’s saddened to see that Irene accused Edward of abandoning her and their 8 year old daughter – the first sign that this is indeed a pattern in the Cranston line. Curious about the fate of his aunt, Bryan discovers that Kathleen died of tuberculosis at just 16.
Knowing that Edward fought in WWI, Bryan heads to the Illinois State Archives in hopes he will find some more WWI documents pertaining to his grandfather. There, he pores over a copy of Edward’s Honorable Discharge Record from WWI. Bryan learns that Edward was not drafted, but enlisted; choosing to leave his family and go to war.
Edward served as an engineer and endured intense conditions as he constructed bridges while under heavy shelling and gunfire from the Germans. As Bryan peruses his grandfather’s record, a couple entries catch his eye. First, Bryan is surprised to see that under “vocation,” Edward’s profession states “actor”! Second, Bryan is taken aback to see his grandfather has listed himself as “single,” which he knows is not true. Bryan is disappointed to learn that Edward may have done this to prevent the government from automatically taking money out of his paycheck and sending it to his wife and daughter, which was standard at the time to provide for the families back home.
Wanting to know about Edward’s own roots, Bryan finds a 1910 census which shows his grandfather Edward at 5 years old living with Bryan’s great-grandparents, Daniel and Margaret Cranston. Bryan is relieved to see they were married for 41 years – a break in the cycle of desertion! Daniel was born in Canada and Margaret in Ireland. This confirms the rumor Bryan has heard that the Cranston clan came through Canada. But where in Canada did he come from? For more information about his great-grandfather, Bryan consults a 1937 Death Certificate for Daniel Cranston. Not only does Bryan see that Daniel was born in Montreal, but he also learns the names of he 2x great-grandparents, Henry Cranston and Sarah McLeod. The Irish in Montreal were largely Catholic, meaning it is very likely that baptismal records exist there for Daniel. Bryan heads to Montreal to find out more about the Cranston clan.
At the Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal, Bryan discovers the baptismal record for his great-grandfather, Daniel James Cranston, from 1849. The record is brief, but does tell Bryan that Daniel was baptized “of the legitimate marriage of Joseph Cranston, carpenter, absent, and Sarah McLeod of this parish…” Absent! Is this the right Cranston? It’s puzzling that Daniel’s father is listed as Joseph, but the historian points out that this is the only Cranston/McLeod family at the time with children, so it is likely this is the correct family.
Investigating further, Bryan looks at a 1861 Canadian Census and sees an entry for “D. Cranston” living in the “Ladies Benevolent Institution,” an orphanage. Orphanage records indicate Daniel was given to the orphanage because his mother had to go to work as a servant because his father was a “dissipated man.” Joseph had indeed abandoned his family, and was the 3rd generation of Cranston men to do so.
Next, Bryan finds a record for “1882 US National Home for Disabled Veterans Register for Joseph H. Cranston.” This lists Joseph, Bryan’s 2x great-grandfather, as having served in the Civil War, and then being admitted into the Veterans home in 1883 and passing away there in 1889. The military home in Dayton, Ohio still exists today, and Bryan heads there to see what Joseph’s life, and death, there may have been like.
At the Veteran’s Soldier home in Dayton, Bryan finds a newspaper article about his great-grandfather’s death. The article outlines Joseph’s final evening and reveals that Joseph and a pal from the Veteran’s home were on a night out, “becoming more or less intoxicated,” and paid for a hotel room. When they didn’t wake in the morning, the landlord went to the room and “found the room full of gas and the two men lying on the bed in a lifeless condition.” Bryan discovers that his 2x great-grandfather is buried opposite the soldier’s home and visits his ancestor’s grave.
In the cemetery, Bryan reflects on the Cranston men. Of the 3 relatives he’s found, only one seems to have stayed with his family, including his father. The others seemed to shirk all family responsibilities, and dedicated themselves to being a soldier instead.
However, Bryan can take comfort in knowing he was able to reconnect with his father, and in being committed to his own wife and children – something other Cranston’s weren’t able to do.
I really felt for Bryan in this episode. It’s difficult to find ancestors and find their behavior and choices so personally disappointing. Thankfully, Bryan broke that cycle. I do find it interesting that at one point, Bryan asked, “is there something in the DNA.?” I’ve wondered that myself on more than one occasion.