The Shetland - JFK connection

Published: 24th May 2020

Nestled by a lake in the north end of Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City’s Bronx sits a number of modest gravestones, dwarfed by large pillar adorned with an angel. Carved on the base of the pillar in large block capital letters is the The Davies family plot The Davies family plot name “DAVIS”. A white-stone grave stands out among its seven neighbours.

It may be the last stone that will join the Davis family plot. The man buried beneath is John Hagy Davis, who until his death aged 82 in 2012 was the last living man of this Davis line. Davis, an author whose works include histories of the Gambino crime family, the Bouvier’s and the Kennedy’s, is the best known individual out of the eight gravestones that sit in the shadow of the pillar.

There is another older gravestone in the Davis plot that links Shetland to the American President John F.  Kennedy (JFK) in a complex web of family and marriage. This is the story of the singer, the millionaire and JFK.

In 2009, I started researching and adding the outcome of local election results in Shetland to an online database. The information is still freely available online and can be found here.It contains the results of hundreds of elections to the Lerwick Town Council, Zetland County Council, Shetland Islands Council and our national elections, as well as over 400 profiles for those who held council positions with photos where I have them. Sievwright family headstone Sievwright family headstone

Although I am now a software engineer, I graduated in Politics from Aberdeen University in 2010 and worked in that field for 6 years, three in Westminster (for Alistair Carmichael) and three in a role in Glasgow. The database was something for my CV relevant to my degree, but it became a passion project and something that I still work on to this day. None of it would have been possible without the help of the Shetland Archives staff, the Shetland Family History Society and the Bayanne family history site.

In Shetland, we’re familiar with certain surnames: Peterson, Anderson, Halcrow etc. These names, in some way, feel quite unique to Shetland, even if they are not. While working through the early 19th century Lerwick Town Council elections, I came upon a surname that I thought very unfamiliar: Sievwright.

Laying in rest at the Knab Road cemetery in Lerwick is William Sievwright, born in 1791 in Nesting. He was the son of Aberdeen man Peter Sievwright and it’s thought that the Sievwright name, meaning ‘sieve seller’, originated in the Tayside area. William was a significant feature in Shetland’s elite and public life. First joining the Lerwick Town Council in 1829, he served for 27 years, spending his final nine years as the Town’s Chief Magistrate (Provost). His son, William (pictured), was a solicitor and also a councillor in Shetland from 1874 until 1879, following in his father's footsteps by becoming the town's Chief Magistrate from 1874 to 1876. He subsequently moved to New Zealand, where William Sievwright William Sievwright he married New Zealand activist, feminist and community leader Margarate Home Richardson.

William Snr’s oldest son, Basil, was born in Lerwick in 1835, is where our complex link between President Kennedy and Shetland truly begins. Like his brother William, Basil was a solicitor in New Zealand. In 1871, he went into business with Sir Robert Stout, a Shetlander who later became the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Basil and his wife Mary had seven children, but sadly only one lived beyond the age of 48. That child was his 3rd daughter and 5th child, Ada Therese Sievwright.

Ada seems to have been an accomplished singer in New Zealand. One can find endless articles about her performances in the late 19th century. In 1893, she moved to Paris where she continued her studies and performances, before arriving in London in 1896.

Reading about her performances in London, her talents clearly gained her access to some of the elite in London, and it was most likely through her exposure to the upper classes in London that she met her future husband.

It was through the excellent and free New Zealand newspaper archive, PapersPast, that I was able to gather this information. While searching for information about William Sievwright Jr, I found various articles, like this one from the 9th October 1902 edition of the Wanganui Chronicle, with headlines like “A MILLIONAIRE MARRIAGE”. Ada had married New York stockbroker John Davis, and left London to settle in New York City, 9,000 miles from her Dunedin home.

Back in the Bronx and on the immediate left of the Davis cemetery pillar in the sprawling cemetery, a gravestone reads:

Thersa Sievwright's memorial stone Thersa Sievwright's memorial stone Therese S.

Beloved wife of

John H. Davis

5 Nov 1871

23 Dec 1950

After further digging, I was able to learn about her husband John Hagy Davis. Born in 1843 in Pennsylvania, he was a stockbroker in New York, and Ada was his fourth - or fifth - but final wife. The couple lived at 24 Washington Square in Manhattan, in a beautiful three story townhouse. They lived there for the rest of their lives, which was until 1926 for John and 1950 for Ada.

I have unfortunately been unable to track down any photographs of Ada Therese throughout the years. Getting any information on the pair has been surprisingly difficult. They may have simply been private people, but given their wealth I John H. Davis John H. Davis am confident there will be a photograph out there somewhere of Ada. There does exist a photograph of her moustachioed husband which I’ve included in this article.

It’s through John where there is a line that connects JFK to Ada. It follows as such:

John Davis and his third wife, Ethel Jackson, had one son, John Ethelbert Davis. John E. Davis would go on to marry socialite Maude Reppelin Bouvier. Maude’s brother John had a daughter, Jacqueline, who in 1953 married John Fitzgerald Kennedy, also known as JFK.

When it comes to family history, everyone has something they like to believe about their supposed famous ancestors. I tell people, without complete certainty, that our Stewart line descends from bastard lineage related to Earl Patrick Stewart. It was said that the Nelson family in Bressay were supposedly linked to the New York Nelson crime family. While the latter is nothing more than fantasy, there is a very real line that, through marriage and via New Zealand, connects JFK to Basil Sievwright, a Lerweigan.

At the start of this article, we discussed the late author John Hagy Davis. His sister, Maude Sergeant Davis, I understand is still alive and would be about 83 now. I had thought to attempt to reach out and try to get some further information about her grandfather’s wife, but there doesn’t appear to be any information available on her after her marriage.

It may well be that I never get a photograph or learn more about this Lerweigian’s daughter and singer whose marriage to a millionaire forever connected JFK to Shetland. That defeat is something that all historians and researchers have felt.

While writing this article, I was, to my great excitement, able to uncover a sketch of Ada, presented here from the Dundee Courier dated 25 October 1902.

My search for photographs and information about her life beyond 1902 continues.

When you reach back into human history, there are times when, at least for now, you must be content to love the questions themselves.

Can you shed any light on the Sievwright family? I’d love to learn more about them.

James Stewart

james@jastewart.co.uk