Alef is a unique name. According to a popular book of baby names, it means “Oneness with God.” Despite its noble meaning, though, Alef is not a name I have encountered outside the maternal branch of my mother’s family tree. It has clung to that branch for more than 190 years, getting resurrected every couple of generations.
While filling some gaps in the family tree, I found some distant relatives named Alef (or Aleff, as an alternate spelling) whom I had not been aware of previously and it made me wonder where this name started and why it became so entwined on my mother’s maternal branch. After some searching, I determined that the earliest bearer of this name in my family was Mary Aleff Cooper (1822-1893) who married John Pearson Smith, the youngest brother of my 3x-great-grandfather, Samuel Smith. Samuel and another brother both named one of their daughters after Joseph’s wife, and this homage was repeated in subsequent generations, as diagrammed in the chart below. But why would John’s brothers name their daughters after a sister-in-law? Selecting a brother- or sister-in-law as a namesake is not common. Surely, there must have been something exceptionally admirable about Mary Aleff Cooper. As it turns out, there was, and it came with a wildly unexpected side-story to boot!
The “Family Tree Book”, published in 1922 by William Alexander Smith and W. Thomas Smith, is an invaluable source of written history and anecdotes about the Smith Family of Anson County, North Carolina. The authors, at least one of whom knew Mary Aleff personally, had glowing words in regard to her:
“Mary Aleff [Cooper] Smith was a handsome, finelooking woman, tall and stately, of elegant manners and a collegiate education… In [her] home she reigned as queen – her gracious manners lending a distant charm to her stately appearance. Her naturally strong intellect, developed by education, gave effect to her refined conversational powers. She dispensed hospitality in a gracious manner, in accordance with the true ideas of a Southern woman to the manor born; mingling with the genial society of the [prestigious] families… “Primus interpares”; first among equals. With her elegant form, handsomely gowned, she walked a queen among her sisters.”
On the slight chance that more information might be available about her, I performed a simple Google search of “Mary Aleff Cooper”. The resulting links unveiled, click by click, an unexpected story that quickly became far more extraordinary than anything I expected to find.
The story begins with the birth of enslaved conjoined twin girls in Whiteville, North Carolina, in 1851. The girls, named Millie-Christine and referred to as a single person in the contemporary records of the day, were born to slaves owned by Jabez McKay. Mary Aleff’s husband, John Pearson Smith, purchased Millie-Christine, their parents, and all seven of their siblings when the girls were two years old. The purchase was obviously made for commercial reasons, as John immediately sent the toddlers on an exhibition tour under the care of a parter who was a professional showman. However, Millie-Christine was kidnapped from the partner in 1853 in New York and disappeared for a time. John Pearson Smith hired a private investigator to track them down, spending a large amount of money to chase several false leads before finally locating the twins in England. John, his lawyers, and Millie-Christine’s mother, Monemia McKoy, traveled to England where they went to court to regain custody of the girls. The entire ordeal took about four years, but Smith was successful and returned to North Carolina with Millie-Christine in 1857.
Upon their return to North Carolina, Mary Aleff took the twins under her wing, educating them, and eventually managing their career. She taught them to read and speak five languages (both of which were illegal in slave-holding North Carolina), play music, sing, and dance. John Pearson Smith died of sudden illness five years later, in 1862, while the Civil War raged. With Union troops pressing into southern North Carolina, widowed Mary Aleff hid the twins at a friend’s home in South Carolina. When the war ended in 1865, Millie-Christine was 14-years-old. They and their family were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Rather than move away, though, the twins chose to remain under the care and mentorship of Mary Aleff, who they called their “white ma”, and their career took off. At the zenith of their touring career, Millie-Christine, earned more than $600 a week, a considerable sum of money in the economy of the late 1800’s, performing songs, dances, and recitations in forty-six states and a variety of far-flung destinations. Queen Victoria of England was one fan of particular notoriety. The income enabled Millie-Christine’s parents to purchase the McKay Plantation where their family had previously been enslaved. There, they built a ten-room home where Millie-Christine lived between tours and training, and eventually inhabited permanently upon retirement. Unfortunately, the house burned down three years before Mille-Christine’s death in 1912, destroying a trove of treasures and keepsakes they had collected from across the globe.
Mary Aleff Smith was an integral part of Millie-Christine’s success. She loved them like daughters and help manage their career for almost 30 years, before her own death in 1893. Her and her husband’s compassion for the twins and their family was a reflection of their broader compassion for friends, family, and those in need. So admirable was Mary Aleff’s character that her name was bestowed upon three nieces and a granddaughter during her lifetime, thus planting the seeds from which it would re-emerge in subsequent generations.
The brief chronicle of Millie-Christine’s life presented above touches on only a few highlights of their remarkable story. Many websites and several books are devoted to the twins’ lives and, for readers interested in learning more about them, I would be remiss not to single out a particularly-enjoyable book entitled Millie-Christine: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made by Joanne Martell, published in 2000 and available to read or order online.
Alef Namesakes: Mary Aleff Cooper, Nellie Aleff Johnston, Mary Aleff Cooper Fowler, Mary Aleff Cooper Weisburg, Sarah Alef Smith, Sarah Alef Sutton, Martha Alef Smith, Alef Carolyn Baker, Rebecca Alef O’Neal, Alef C. Lindsay