Monday, September 17, 2012

Identifying Unmarked Family Photos: Charles and Anna Schmidt

The photo below is Charles Schmidt (1860-1942) and his wife Anna Mueller (possibly Miller) (1864-1956). It was probably taken on their wedding day, judging by the flowers on his lapel. Charles Schmidt was the brother of my great-grandfather, Frank Schmidt, and the photo was given to me by Frank's daughter, Agnes, who was my grandmother. Charles and Frank were raised in Greenville, Wisconsin, which is not far from New London where, judging by the photographer's mark, the photo was taken.

I know the above photo is Charles and Anna Schmidt because my grandmother, who knew them well, told me; perhaps more importantly, she also wrote it on the back of the photograph. I probably would not have remembered their names when I rediscovered the photo in a box some years later - after Agnes had died.

The photo below did not come to me from immediate family. This was in the album owned by a distant cousin - who did not know anything about her family history, and thus, the names that were written on some of the pictures were meaningless to her, making identifying the photos from her scans and emails very challenging. 

Before trying to identify anything from the album, I took a look at the lineage of the woman who originally owned it - my grandmother's first cousin, Mary. Mary was descended from Charles A. Schmidt, the elder brother of my great-grandfather Frank Smith; both were the sons to Anton Joseph Schmidt and his wife, Theresa Kommer. An album belonging to a descendant of Charles would also likely contain images of Anna's family - the Mullers. Depending on who originally owned the album, it could potentially contain images of other, more distant relations, as well.

The photo below is the first one Mary's daughter sent me, and I realized very quickly it was not the one I was looking for - the children were all wrong. I was looking for, I believed, a family group that included my great-grandfather, Frank - but Frank had two older sisters, which immediately ruled out this photo. There were also not enough children - the blended family of Theresa and Franz Joseph Kneisel was huge.

In looking more closely at the photo, though, I noticed that the order and ages of the children, based on census records, was entirely correct to the Charles and Anna Schmidt. Their children were: Frank (B. 1886), Emma (b. 1888), Edward (b. 1889), John (b. 1892), and Elizabeth (b. 1894). 

I noted also that the photo was taken at a studio in Appleton, not far from where Charles and Anna lived (in New London, according to census records). Holding up the two photos side by side, it certainly appears as though it could be the same couple, aged about ten years - which would be about right, as the wedding photo and family photo are about ten years apart.

I had the good fortune to have yet another photo in my own collection:

This one is also from my grandmother. The woman on the right I know to be her sister, my great-aunt Emma Smith. The photo is is marked on the back "This is Emma Smith and her cousin on her father's side." I had long suspected that the cousin in question was Emma Schmidt - and looking at the woman on the left, and comparing her to the little girl in the family picture, it seems likely it is the same girl. Their fathers were very close, and the girls - both named Emma - were born within a year of each other.

I am confident that the family group is the Charles Schmidt family, based on the source of the album, the comparison to a known photo of the the family, and the census records for the family. It was nice to get confirmation of my suspicion that the cousin in the second photo was who I thought it might be.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: The Genealogist's Internet, by Peter Christian

We live in an era when genealogy has become much more accessible to the masses, due to fact that so many records are being indexed and digitized, and now are available online - and with more coming available each day. There's a downside to this, of course: It can be overwhelming to know where to start, or where to go next. For those researching in the United Kingdom, though, there is a helpful guide to online resources:  The Genealogist's Internet: The Essential Guide to Researching Your Family History Online, by Peter Christian.  The book was produced by the National Archives, is now in its fifth edition, and is primarily focused on records from that area. It is an excellent resource for anyone researching in that part of the world.

The book is broken into chapters focused on the different types of resources (military, census, church, tax). Each section includes an explanation of the types of records you can expect to find, and how to interpret and use those records. It then explains the various online record repositories broken out geographically, with useful information on the strengths and weaknesses of each collection, as well as cost information where needed. 

Those who are new to UK and Irish research will find this book an invaluable tool. There are explanations of numerous types of records that are unique to the United Kingdom, such as:
  • Civil registrations - when they began, how to locate them, and what may be found in them
  • Records related to England's colonial period, such as those related to transportation of convicts
  • Occupations, including both an explanation of the various terms and where to look for company and trade union records  
  • The unique problems posed by Irish records, such as the anglicization of names
I found the explanations of the different records types to be full of information that would help keep research focused and productive. The section on church information explains why many collections are incomplete or unavailable; however, it also goes into things like church courts - a record type I would never have thought to look for because I never knew such a thing existed. They sound like interesting records, too: matrimonial disputes, and disputes between clergy and parishioners, often about tithes.

The book  also has sections that discuss general difficulties encountered in using technology to conduct genealogical research, such as indexing errors, how to conduct different types of searches (wildcard versus Soundex, etc), and recommendations on how to handle various file types one might wish to download and store. There are even chapters covering internet etiquette and privacy issues. 

Finally, the authors thought ahead: Since  The Genealogist's Internet  provides hundred of web addresses, all of which can change in the blink of an eye, they have created a website of all the links in the book - which will be updated as links change. 

The Genealogist's Internet is much more than a collection of links, though: It is a well-researched,  comprehensive, accessible research aid for anyone who wishes to conduct genealogical research in Great Britain and Ireland. Recommended.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Generous Genealogy: Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness - Again

I adored Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. For those of you who never experienced it, it was a genealogy site full of volunteers who charged no more than gas and copying costs - and many times, not even that - to retrieve records someplace that they had access to ... but you did not.

It was a simple site - nothing fancy - but those of us who used it didn't need anything fancy. We needed a trip to the courthouse or an archive or a cemetery that was too far away for us to get to. The volunteers were often more than helpful: since they knew the area, they would direct you not only to things you were looking for, but quite often suggested things that you might not have been aware of.

The site disappeared a while back when the person who organized it died. I was sad to see it go.

Someone should do something like that again, I thought - and so they have: A website called Generous Genealogists has sprung up, and put out a call for volunteers. Modeled on the original Random Acts website - but a touch more elegant-looking - the site is free to use.

If you have the time or ability to help them out - please go volunteer. It's almost as much a thrill to help someone else break through their brick wall, as it is to break through one of your own.

I wish the team at Generous Genealogists every success, and I'm excited to follow their progress and development.

Have you volunteered for Generous Genealogists? Please share your story in the comments.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Identifying Unmarked Family Photos: Theresa Kommer Schmidt Kneisel

I wrote previously about my frustrations in trying to identify a photo from an old album of unmarked family photographs. I was so disheartened by the experience that I stopped researching that part of the family for nearly two years.

Only on my recent discovery of an error I had made on Theresa Kommer's death date did I decide to revisit that part of the family. I ran across a very old post on the Fox Valley Genealogical Society website that provided me with the clue I needed to finally begin tracing Theresa's line back to Europe. I contacted the woman who had made the post, who was descended from Theresa's daughter Elizabeth - my great-grandfather Frank's older sister. The original poster offered to send me a copy of her research folder, and I requested "any photos she might have of that part of the family." I received a thick sheaf of documents, and an assortment of family photos, including this one:

Theresa Kommer and her second husband, Franz Joseph Kneisel. 
Photo taken about 1890.

She also included photographs of Anna Kneisel, the daughter of the couple above, and Elizabeth Schmidt, from Theresa's first marriage.

Elizabeth Schmidt Melzer Bauer (1854-1931)

Interestingly, when I went back to the photos I had received from the unmarked album, one was a duplicate: A wedding photo of Anna Kneisel was in both sets.

I put the the photo that I knew for sure was Theresa and her second husband, next to the photo I believed might be Theresa and her second husband, to see if I could make a final determination:

Are these the same people, aged ten years? 
(Left: FJ Kneisel and Theresa Kommer; Right: Scan #5.)

I'm still not sure. It is especially difficult to compare the two as neither of the pictures is an especially good quality scan. There is nothing super-obvious to link the two pairs, no matching jewelry, clothing, photo studio, etc.

I asked my cousin Linda her opinion, and she compared both photos and said she wasn't sure, either. She did, however, make another side-by-side comparison:

The resemblance is striking, is it not? I see two possibilities: First, that the photo on the left is of a much older Elizabeth Schmidt; or, that the photo is, as I think, Elizabeth Schmidt's mother Theresa Kommer. The unidentified photo was taken in Appleton, and both women lived there.

The problem with the idea of the photo on the left being Elizabeth Schmidt and one of her husbands is this: She wasn't very lucky in her marriages. Her first husband (Bernard Melzer) died not long after they married; and she divorced her second husband (Anton Bauer) after a brief marriage - the 1905 census shows them living in separate households. She did not marry a third time, so it is unlikely there is a photo of her in her old age with a husband.

It seems very likely to me that The Unidentified Couple of "Scan #5" really is Franz Joseph Kneisel and Theresa Kommer. What do you think?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Brick Wall Breakthroughs: Theresa Kommer Schmidt Kneisel

For a long time, my storied ancestor Theresa Kommer Schmidt Kneisel has represented a brick wall in my research: No death certificate or obituary that I could locate, no indication on the ship's manifest as to her town of origin, and the added problem of having a husband named "Schmidt" - hardly an unusual name. But recently, I noticed that I had her death date incorrect in my records. I had a date of 1900, but noticed she was listed in a town directory as late as 1908, and a biography of her son Charles published in a town history gave a death date of 1908. I realized that if I had made an error with such a simple fact, I had not even begun to do my work on Theresa, and decided to go back and start pulling together more facts about Theresa.

I decided to start with the most interesting place: The trial of Joshua Wilson, the Stockbridge Indian who murdered Theresa's husband Joseph, my great-great-grandfather, in 1863. I contacted the Cofrin Library Area Research Center, which I have worked with in the past to retrieve old wills and divorce records. The Archivist told me that yes, there were still court records from that era, but asked if I could pin down the trial date more precisely as those early records were not indexed.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Identifying Unmarked Family Photos: Theresa Kommer Schmidt Kneisel

Many years ago, on my annual Wisconsin Christmas visit, my grandmother took me to visit a cousin in Appleton - a woman whose exact relationship to us was always a little fuzzy to me. This cousin, Mary, had a large photo album filled with ancient photos, and we paged through the album slowly and carefully. Some of the photos I recognized - my great-grandparents, Frank and Anna. One of the photos was of my great-great-grandmother, Theresa Kommer.

It was quite astonishing to see a picture of a woman with such a compelling history. It is easy to conjure up visions of the hardship of her life: Theresa grieving for her murdered husband, far from her homeland and family, being forced to remarry out of necessity, and living out the rest of her life in great sadness. I don't recall thinking she looked sad though. I do remember wishing I could stare her picture for hours.

I wanted to make a copy of the photo, but Mary refused. This was in the days before scanners, and I imagine she did not trust a 16-year-old girl to safely return her family treasures. I promptly forgot about the whole thing until a couple of years ago.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Thriller Thursday - Wisconsin Death Trip: Theresa Kommer Schmidt Kneisel

Theresa Kommer has an extraordinary story. She was born 24 June, 1827, according to her gravemarker; in 1858, she and her husband Anton Joseph Schmidt and their first four children emigrated to Wisconsin from Bohemia, according to a passenger list for the Adler that I located on Ancestry.

Anton Joseph Schmidt and wife Theresa came to America from Bohemia aboard the Adler in 1858. They left via the port of Bremen; sadly, the Bremen records were destroyed.

Upon arriving in Wisconsin, the family settled in on a farm in Greenville and had two more children, the youngest of whom, Frank, was my great-grandfather. The new life they came for, however, didn't last long. On January 2, 1863, less than five years after their arrival, Anton Joseph Schmidt was shot and killed by a drunk Stockbridge Indian, Joshua Wilson. The murder caused quite a bit of excitement in the town; the events were all preserved for posterity in highly emotive Victorian prose in the local newspapers.

 From the Appleton Post-Crescent, 1863. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tech Tuesday - Transcript Transcribing Software

One of my least favorite tasks in my genealogy is transcribing old handwritten documents. To begin with, there are the difficulties reading the old quill-written longhand, understanding much of the language (chains and rods, anyone?), and then doing battle with the often poor quality of the scans we must work from. But then you must either:

  1. load the scanned image on your computer in an image-viewing program, and toggle back and forth between windows - read and interpret in one window, toggle to word processing program and type, and back again.
  2. print out the scanned old document and prop it up next to your monitor while you type. Usually this is accompanied by a problem, for example, the hard to read text shrinks down to fit the size of paper you are printing on, which is much smaller than the original book.

What you really want is to have a split screen, so that you have both the image and the word processing right there on the monitor screen together. I guess you could open two windows at the same time (one for word processing and one for image viewing) and re-size them on your monitor, but even that doesn't quite work right.

Anyway, you don't have to, and the best part is, it won't cost you.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Wisconsin Death Trip: Gladys Wright, 1907-1923

The death of a child is wrenching, even nearly a hundred years later, and even to those who never knew the children or their parents. There is a always special kind of heartbreak that goes along with a young life lost. Although the obituary of Gladys Wright, age 16, tells a sad story, there is only a hint - easily missed - of the whole story: "She is survived by her parents and one brother." 

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Family Business: Electric Motor Service Co., Appleton, WI.

I have submitted this post for inclusion in the Carnival of Genealogy, sponsored by The Creative Gene. All contributors' posts can be seen by August 4. The topic for this edition is Business and Commerce.

That handsome fellow in the photo is my grandfather, Howard Herrman (1901-1978), and the business behind him is the one he owned and ran: the Electric Motor Service Co., in Appleton, Wisconsin. I was only in his shop once, in the mid-1970's, when it was being cleared out and shut down. I asked my mother for her recollections:
Dad's business was located at 116 N. Superior St., between College Ave. and Lawrence St. near the entrance to Jones Park. His main business was repairing electric motors, but he also sold new and used motors and parts.
It was a rather greasy place, since all motors require oiling, greasing, etc., so Dad always warned us to be careful where we moved, and what we touched, because Mom would yell at him (and at us) if we came home with grease on our clothes. Nevertheless, we all loved the place. It was calm and quiet and the only place to have a private conversation with Dad, since at home Mother always listened in. If one of Dad's friends happened to be there, we also could hear more adult conversations about politics, local issues, business problems, etc. -- topics that were rarely discussed at home.
(My three sisters and I)  learned to type as we entered high school, and Dad "hired" us to work in the shop once a week or so, preparing invoices and typing business letters. It was good experience, preparing us for jobs in offices when we finished school and helping to prepare me for college.
We frequently dropped in at the shop when we were downtown shopping or running errands and needed a ride home. No matter how busy he was, Dad always seemed happy to see us and would chat as he worked.
Dad rented the little building his shop occupied for many years -- before he met and married our mother, until I was away at the university. Apparently the elderly owner of the property died, and the new owner wanted to raise the rent beyond what Dad wanted to pay, so he then moved to South Superior St., the store now occupied by a bicycle shop.
The photo above must have been the original shop, because I found an ad for the second location in a 1958 Appleton newspaper through

That appears to be the address on the picture below, which was from my grandfather's collection. He was an avid amateur photographer and kept a darkroom in the basement at the house.

It was interesting to hear my mother describe her father's business as the place where she could have a private conversation with him, and I know the reason why: Howard's younger brother told me that Howard did not allow his wife to set foot in his shop. He considered it his domain, and "no wife of his was going to interfere" there. Apparently, that rule did not apply to his four daughters.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Identifying Unmarked Family Photos: Hanna and Isak Hakel

We've all run across them: those unmarked family photos - old ones, of sometimes beautiful people. Sometimes they are mixed up with our own, known ancestors' photos; some sit in antique shops, their eyes trying to tell us their stories, now lost, along with their names.

But sometimes there are clues, and with a bit of luck, we can give that face a name.

My aunt lives in Johannesburg, South Africa; my father (her brother) lives in the Los Angeles area; while I'm up in Seattle. I wanted family photos, which my aunt had. But she didn't know how to get them to me and none of us wanted to take our chances with 100-year-old photos and the international mail. My aunt is - how shall I say this? - not a computer person. My father arranged for someone in South Africa to scan the photos - page by page from the antique albums. 

Since I knew that the photos were going to come to me digitally and were in many cases had no identifying marks on them, I requested that I receive scans of the full page from each scrapbook, in addition to the individual pictures. This would allow me to see what was grouped together and the relative sizes of the pictures. I also requested that for loose photos, no borders be cropped away; this would help me where there was a photo studio name or other detail that might identify two photos taken by the same camera.

When the pages came back, the photos we were most easily able to identify, obviously, were of people we knew. This photo, for example, is of Hanna Hakel:
My father was able to identify her easily, as she was his grandmother, and lived with him and his family when he was growing up. Hanna (Bot) Hakel was born in 1882 in Vekshny, Lithuania. On 16 March 1901, she married Isak-Faibusch Hakel, in Libau (Liepaja), Latvia. Isak-Faibusch was born 9 December 1872 in Riga, and died 15 September 1927, in Libau. He is buried in the Liepaja Jewish Cemetery. 

Here is the picture as it is in the album, on the page*

The photo of Hanna is at the top right, with another photo of her below it. Below that, though, is a photo of a man. It appears to be the same size, and mounted to a nearly identical mat.

Here is the individual scan of that photo:

Without seeing the two photos together in the album, and without seeing the surrounding mat, it would be hard to see the similarities between the two photos - but they are still there. 

If you look behind the subject of each photo, the background has variations to it - a light-colored moon-shaped area to the right. It is identical in both photographs.

So, without having any writing on the photos such as names of people, places, or photo studio, we were still able to determine that these two photos were likely taken at the same photo studio, probably around the same time (given the similarity of the mat) - if not the same day.

It was a reasonable conclusion that the unnamed man was Hanna's husband, Isak-Faibusch Hakel.

I was able to ascertain with more certainty when I asked my aunt about the picture. Before I told her who I thought it was, I asked: "Do you have any idea who this man is?"

She replied, "I know he is one of my grandfathers, but I don't know his name. I never met either of them and don't know their names."

Once I told her his name, she remembered another detail: Isak-Faibusch Hakel, her grandfather in the photo, died of tuberculosis.

*of the magnetic-page album whose glue is eating this photo to death as I write this. Ugh - it hurts.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Long Lost Cousins: Pretty As A Picture

Note: This was originally published on my companion blog, Desperado Penguin, on April 25, 2012.

Last summer, I wrote about my late cousin Isak Hakel, who died, taking his sad history with him and leaving me with memories only of a joyful man.

At the time of his death, I was working with the Latvia State Historical Archive to retrieve the history of the Hakel family, and specifically to retrieve photographs of any family members. One of the most amazing things I discovered the Archives holds is old passport photos - apparently, it was necessary to have a passport for identification purposes, and so nearly everyone had one taken in the 1920s and 1930s, and many of these photos still exist.

I had sent Isak all the photos from my grandmother's collection - photos of his mother, father, sister, and grandparents. There was one large wedding photo that Isak was in, and he told me, he knew all the people in the photo. He treasured them and was obviously, in spite of our difficulty communicating, grateful to get them.

But there was one photo I did not have, and it troubled me: Ruth.

Ruth Hakel was Isak's little sister. She was born in 1939, two years before the German Army invaded Liepaja and destroyed the majority of the Jewish inhabitants. She died on November 3, 1943, according to a Yad Vashem card filed by her father that I found online. A short life, for which only a name and some dates remain - and even the death date cannot be stated with certainty.

I wanted to give Isak a picture of his sister, but the archive moved slowly, and it took over a year to receive the records I requested, which arrived just this past week. There were many treasures among in the packet, but the one I hoped for was not to be found.

I began to enter the data into my family tree, and sort through records, and cross-check new information against things I had learned before, from other sources. When I got to Ruth Hakel, I went back to the Yad Vashem website, and looked up the Page of Testimony that was filed for her by her father and brother. The website had been updated recently, and to my amazement, I discovered that along with the Pages of Testimony were now photographs of those who perished.

And there she was.

Ruth Hakel
 Born 1939, Libau, Latvia.
 Died 1943, Auschwitz.

The card and photograph were placed in the museum by her surviving brother, Isak Hakel.

I asked him many questions, yet it never occurred to me to ask him for a photograph. He got it to me anyway.

My Great-Grandmother Hanna Hakel (1882-1957) with
(left) Isak Hakel 1930-2011.
 (right) Romy Hakel 1933-1943.
from my grandmother's albums.

Monday, July 23, 2012

When You Least Expect It: Long Lost Cousins

Note: This was originally published on my companion blog, Desperado Penguin, on August 1, 2011.

It was eighteen months ago that I began my genealogical research that discovered that I have an elderly cousin in Israel. If genealogy is about anything, it's about people and history, and this man was not only a link to my family and its secrets, but also living history: a survivor of a Jewish ghetto in Latvia, then of Auschwitz, then of the cold war era Soviet Union.

I learned about him quite by accident, through a historian whose website documented the destruction of the Jewish community in Libau, Latvia - he guided me to a source for records on my family, but also mentioned that there was still a family member living, and led me to someone who provided me with an email address for my cousin, Isak Hakel.

I knew of Isak Hakel, because I had copies of some old photos that belonged to my grandmother, Rachel Hakel - who was his aunt. There was a part of me that was vaguely aware that I had this cousin, and that he might still be living. His father was Schmuel Hakel, known to me as "Uncle Samuel" from Israel, and unfortunately my only interaction with Uncle Samuel was a card he sent me as a child, which I still have, tucked away in my closet a box of treasured letters and cards. He signed his name.

Standing: Schmuel and Ida Hakel (died in Auschwitz), Beno Hakel (shot by SS)
Seated: Isak Hakel and brother Romy (died at Auschwitz), Hanna Hakel, Joseph Hakel.

The general outline of the family history is this: My grandparents, Harry and Rae, were originally from Libau, Latvia, but left sometime in the mid-1930's, emigrating to South Africa. World War Two came along and swept away my grandfather's family in its entirety - so complete was the destruction that he could never say their names again. Granny Rae's side of the family had better luck - if Jews in Latvia in 1941 can be said to have any luck at all - two of her three brothers survived the war. A quick look at the history of Libau tells how extraordinary this was: Of Libau's total pre-war Jewish population of 7,000, fewer than 200 survived.

Schmuel Hakel and his family - wife Ida, sons Romy and Isak, and daughter Ruth - somehow survived the roundups and mass executions in Libau long enough to be documented among the 800 or so residents of the city's Jewish Ghetto. After that point, it is hard to know precisely what happened: The family lore is that Schmuel was sent to Auschwitz and had to choose which of his two sons he could keep with him. He chose Isak, it is said, even though Romy was his favorite; but he believed Romy was smarter and had a better chance of surviving on his own.

If this sounds a little Sophie's Choice to you, it does to me too. The facts are straightforward: Schmuel and Isak survived. Schmuel's wife, Ida, and children Romy (age about 10) and Ruth (age four), perished.

Of course I was extraordinarily curious to learn the truth of the matter, and find out what really happened to my family. How had Uncle Schmuel managed to keep his family alive in Libau for so long? What really happened at the gates of Auschwitz? What happened at Auschwitz? And after the war, under the communists?

I wrote to Isak and was disappointed to immediately discover that he did not speak any English - most unfortunate for doing any research, or doing much of anything really, particularly by email. He seemed to speak a dialect of Yiddish, but even my efforts to communicate with him through interpreters ran into difficulty: his replies to me were short, often badly typed, and the dialect he spoke was evidently quite an obscure one.

I emailed him my grandmother's old family photos. He thanked me for the "bilden," and sent me an assortment of seemingly random emails: A powerpoint of elaborate topiaries in Florida was one that stood out. I wasn't sure what to make of them but it pleased me nonetheless to receive them - he seemed to want to communicate as well. Every email I sent received an email in return - just not a reply to my writing in particular.

I took a chance and contacted one of the people mentioned in one email, as she seemed to have constructed some outlines of our family tree on a website, and I was thrilled when she replied, in English, and offered to interpret. She was the cousin of Isak's wife, and through her I learned that Isak, too had questions - starting with how I was related to him, and what had happened to his cousins, his Aunt Rae's children, and so on. I answered his questions and sent him more photos - of me and my family, and my cousins. I asked my own questions, and he replied with the facts about the War: Uncle Joseph, Schmuel and Rae's other brother, fled to the USSR ahead of the Nazi invasion, and so there was some family there, and Isak was in touch with them.

He did not answer my questions about Auschwitz, his mother, his sister - even the simplest questions on the subject received no response.

Receiving little of what I was looking for, I was glad of the information I received, but gradually gave up on getting anything useful - by my own standards - from Isak Hakel.

Then my father came along. Eager to connect with me, he went to great lengths for obtain copies of old family photos that still remained with his sister in Johannesburg - having numerous albums scanned, page by page and picture by picture. He brushed up on his Yiddish and wrote to Isak Hakel, a cousin whose existence he had been completely unaware of.

So there we were - an elderly man in Israel, a computer programmer in California, an amateur genealogist in Seattle, communicating with pictures and intermediaries and, on one occasion that thrilled Isak, Google Translator.  We were a family, albeit with none of the shared memories that generally helps define the relationships. Instead, we had a tremendously sad shared loss - a searing pain that can still be felt across the generations.

But Isak was the only one with any true knowledge of what actually happened in 1941 and 1942, and it did not matter what language he was asked in, he simply did not care to discuss it. Instead, he filled my inbox with links to funny Hanukkah videos on Youtube. He sent photos of him and his wife, enjoying some ice cream in the sun.

He looked happy and healthy, which I found extraordinary given the incredible tragedies that define his childhood, the unspeakable loss he experienced and I imagined him carrying with him: an unbearable great weight. I do not know what his memories were or how he bore them; what was fascinating history and a subject of great interest to me was just that: his private memories of his family and his own childhood. It was none of my business, although he did not say so.

Isak Hakel.

I tried to learn about my family and my history and what I learned was this: You can choose to be happy and enjoy your life, no matter where you start from or where life takes you.

The stream of email forwards from Isak Hakel stopped abruptly in May, and I got a bad feeling. I emailed and received no reply. I emailed his wife's cousin and learned he had died, age 80.

When someone dies, there will always be something we wish we had said or done - something more, whatever that something is. I don't know what else it was I wanted to do for Isak Hakel, as I was only just beginning to understand who and what he was - and then he was no more. He did not give me what I wanted; instead he gave me something far greater. And yet, I never met the man.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On The Fritts - or, Ode to a Brick Wall, Part 2

Note: This post was originally published on my companion blog, Desperado Penguin, on May 15, 2011.

It's a hard thing to abandon a line of research without an answer, especially when one has so many tantalizing clues; specifically, I have Susan Fritts's parents names - but I can't work out exactly which John and Mary Fritts they were. I've effectively run out of ideas on what to search, and I've gone in so many circles and smacked my forehead against this brick wall so many times, that even say for sure what I know and what I don't know about Uriah and Susan anymore. I gave up and resumed working on other lines.

Over at the family history center, I ran across an odd situation: I requested a microfilm, but they inform me that the film is "restricted," meaning that I have to go to the main library in Salt Lake City to view it. As luck would have it, my DAR chapter has a professional genealogist who makes regular trips to that library, so I shoot Janice an email inquiring if she can look up this one document for me. Since I'm writing to her, I mention that I have this brick wall that I'm stuck on, and explain the situation, and inquire if she has any ideas. She explains that there are reasons Susan might have been left out of the will of that Otsego John Fritts - maybe she was given money before she moved, for example. I pull out my entire Fritts file and mail her a copy of it. She reviews it.

She thinks that my first instinct was correct: The John Fritts who lived in Sempronius in 1830 and 1840 was my Susan's father. She comes up with a birth date of about 1770 for John based on those two censuses - meaning that the will I have for a John Fritts of Cayuga County, who died in 1869 with no children, could not possibly be the same man.

How did I overlook that?

She's hired. I'm energized!

I have some time before Janice actually goes to Salt Lake City, so I go back over some of the things I know about "R" and "E" Fritts, because I have long realized they might be helpful, but have never quite seen the connection or known what to do about it. I locate reference to Edward Fritts in a DAR GRC record, so I write away and it arrives just before she leaves: The 1815 baptism record for Edward Fritts in Milford, NY - son of John and Mary Fritts. Edward Fritts, who arrived in Sheboygan a year before Uriah and Susan, and according to the 1850 census. Edward, who lives right near John Fritts on the 1840 census in Sempronius, Cayuga Co., NY.

Janice heads off to Salt Lake and begins reviewing land records, church books, will indexes, but she, too, is confounded: Where was John before Cayuga County? Which John Fritts is he? She thinks perhaps it is the John Fritts who lived near Henry Couse and John Couse in Delaware County in 1820, and even retrieves a land record for John and Mary Fritts of Milford in 1815 - significant because we know that our John and Mary were in Milford, baptizing son Edward that year. But how is it possible this John Fritts owned land in 1815 - rather valuable land according to the deed - and yet there are no land records for him in Cayuga, and he left no will? It is oddly consoling that my Frittses have managed to confound not only me, but also a professional.

I feel like I've got a good solid lead, even if it doesn't entirely make sense, and as I'm uploading everything to a file sharing site to show my cousin Linda, who beat her head against this wall in similar fashion for many years, I run across some news articles that Linda had located over a year ago, for John and Mary Fritts - specifically, that they defaulted on a mortgage for a property in Milford, purchased in 1813, and that the property was to be sold at auction.

Legal announcement from 1817 Otsego Newspaper,
announcing John and Mary Fritts' property is to be sold at auction.

And a light bulb goes off. I email the articles to Janice, who replies, "Aha!" Because what I have is a series of notices for John and Mary Fritts - showing where they lived over a ten-year period in between censuses. I also know from the deed that on this piece of property, John Fritts had a tannery.

Janice suggests I read Dorothy Kubik's A Free Soil - A Free People, about the Anti-Rent War in Delaware County, New York, which I promptly ordered and am currently reading. Already I've discovered a few things: apparently the abuses by large landholders in that part of New York at that time were considerable - one could own a property but still be required to pay rent on it for one thing; for another, the original landholder retained mineral and water rights, sometimes denying the purchaser water access necessary for, say, a tannery. It's a fascinating and rather sad bit of American history that I was certainly unaware of.

It's a funny thing when you really nail it with a link in a genealogical chain: all the pieces suddenly fit together in a way that makes a person suddenly come alive. I know this John Fritts, or at least I know the second part of his life, when he was raising Susan, was quite an unhappy struggle. I have a glimpse into Susan's childhood.

And I have some ideas about where to look now, to fill in the missing pieces.

On The Fritts - or, Ode to a Brick Wall, Part 1

Note: This post was originally published on my companion blog, Desperado Penguin, on May 11, 2011.

If you do genealogical research, unless you are very lucky and probably royal, you eventually hit one: a brick wall - that ancestor where you stop, confounded - unable to move further up the tree.

My own brick wall is a married couple, Uriah Couse (1810-1887) and Susan Fritts (1812-1891). I connect up to them through their daughter Emily, born 1834; the family genealogy put together by my late cousin Leonard Schmidt gives Emily's place of birth as Ledyard, Cayuga Co., NY, possibly because her parents appear there on the 1840 census with their first five children, all girls. We follow the family from there to Sheboygan Co, Wisconsin, where, according to a county history, "U. Cous" arrived in the town of Scott in 1847 as one of the first residents, a year after "brothers R and E Fritts."

1875 Plat Map of Mitchell, Sheboygan Co., Wisconsin, shows "U Couse", upper left.

Uriah and Susan appear in Sheboygan Co. on Federal censuses from 1850-1880. Eventually Uriah sold his farm to one of his younger sons and moved to Orchard, Iowa, where their daughter Julia lived with her family. According to Iowa Cemetery records collected by the WPA, they are buried at Stillwater Cemetery.

It seems pretty straightforward, and of course, how hard could it be to find Uriah Couse? It's not likely there were too many by that name, especially at that time. Relatively quickly, I was able to locate an abstract of their 1829 marriage announcement: "Married - In Otego, on the 9th ult by David Blakely, Esq., Uriah Couse of Davenport, Delaware County, to Miss Suzan Fritts of Sempronius, Cayuga County." So far, so good - Sempronius is right near Ledyard, so Uriah must have moved up there following the marriage, although I took note of the fact the Davenport and Sempronius are not near each other at all - two hours by car, assuming you have one, which I'm guessing in 1829, Uriah did not.

Poking around on, I locate a baptism record for "Susannah Fritts," daughter of John and Mary Fritts, born Sept. 15, 1812 - very close to the birthdate I have for Susan (Sept 12) from Leonard's (unsourced) genealogy* and the church is located in Schoharie, NY - right across the border from Davenport.

Dutch Reformed Church in Schoharie, New York, from a vintage post card. The church was founded in 1712 by Palatine Germans who settled the area.

This genealogy stuff is easy! I heart genealogy.

I don't have too much else to go on for Uriah, but I have parents' names for Susan. On the 1830 census in Sempronius, the year after Susan was married, there is indeed a John Fritts - I am thrilled. I am more thrilled when I write off to the County historian's office to inquire about retrieving records for this man, whose will doubtless will confirm he is Susan's father, name her siblings (presumably the R. and E. Fritts who also appear in Sheboygan), and then I can make my way up the line.

The Cayuga historian, however, returned with some unfortunate results: John Fritts did leave a will in Cayuga Co, in 1869, and it explicitly leaves everything to his brother, because he leaves no children. She provided information on Christian Fritts, who also lived in Cayuga and as it happens, also had a daughter named Susan - but she was born in 1818 and rather inconveniently (for me, at least) married a Mr. van Vleet. She included some other random items including a note that listed the parents of an Ira Fritts as "John Fritts and Mary Couse," with no further information or source.** 

She then suggested I look at John Fritts of Otsego Co., which was close to where Uriah lived, and who, according to censuses, had a daughter the right age to have been my Susan.

Oh, and by the way - their office has no mention of Uriah Couse anywhere except on that 1840 census.

I take a look on for "John Fritts" on the 1830 census and discover, to my dismay, that there are quite a few of them floating around the various areas of New York State where Uriah and Susan are known to have lived. But that's okay, because there will surely be a will that will explain it all and convincingly tie my Susan to one of them.

At the family history center, I review the handwritten indexes and for Otsego Co, and find that, indeed John Fritts left a will, having died in 1860. I'm especially excited about this John Fritts as, according to the 1850 census, he does indeed have a wife named Mary. But his will names four sons and two daughters, and, rather touchingly, one granddaughter who, together with her mother, appears to have lived with Mr. Fritts until his death. None of these children is Susan, though, and there is no "R" and no "E". And there are no other wills for any other John Frittses. 

I check land records in Cayuga and Otsego: Nothing. I search through the Schoharie baptism records, looking for other children of this John and Mary: Nothing. I write to Schoharie County, who tell me to write to  Montgomery County, who tell me they'll happily look at each and every will they've got for $90 apiece (um, thanks?). I lose track of how many counties I've looked in and what exactly I've looked at. 

I remember a sage piece of advice that I was given about how to research genealogy effectively: Start with the present and move backward - or in a case such as this, start with the deaths and work earlier into the lives. I note that I am missing two key pieces of information: Gravemarkers and death certificates for Uriah and Susan.

I go to both Random Acts and Find A Grave and put in requests for pictures of Uriah and Susan's gravemarkers from Stillwater Cemetery, Mitchell Co, Iowa. I receive no response from Find A Grave, but a very kind volunteer from Random Acts emails me to let me know she walked the length and width of Stillwater Cemetery on my behalf and could not locate any gravemarkers. I have slightly better luck with Mitchell County, who do have death certificates on file and only want $5 apiece for copies - which they tell me up front do not contain any parents' names.

I move earlier in their lives: I contact the library which houses the newspaper from which their marriage announcement was culled for that book of abstracts, and receive in the mail a copy of the newspaper page, which contains no more information than the abstract did, but is still nice to have. Another $40 gets me a search of all the library's remaining resources, which turns up nothing. DAR library: same result. 

I stop tracking what resources I've checked, and try to block out what this is all costing me. I stop writing letters. I begin to accept that some questions to not have answers, and some lines simply cannot be tracked. I start telling people that some of my ancestors sprung from the head of Zeus, fully armed. 

In short, after 18 months of beating my head against a brick wall, I give up.

(Yes, there's a Part 2 ... )

*Not to put too fine a point on it, but please - cite your sources. Someone, someday will thank you profusely for it.
**I really just can't stress the whole "cite your sources" thing enough. 

The Missing Grave Markers of Frank & Anna Smith

Note: This was originally published on my companion blog, Desperado Penguin, on June 16, 2010.

My amazing maternal grandmother, Agnes (Smith) Herrman, originally sparked my interest in genealogy. I used to visit her over the holidays and we'd spend a lot of time talking - well, I listened and asked questions and then listened some more. Mostly, she talked about family, and when I was in my Someday I'm Going to Marry Prince Andrew* phase, I started asking about family trees, because when you read about royalty, there seem to be lots of them (generally with branches intertwining in a less-than-wholesome fashion).

She knew a lot about our family tree, and could recite it from memory. I have pages and pages of handwritten diagrams from that time, all my notes taken from her extraordinary memory.

When I discovered that my line - her line - traces back up to a revolutionary war patriot, and I was thus eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, I knew I had to. I met with the local chapter registrar, Pat, and walked her through the lineage, and she told me what sorts of additional documentation would be needed for each generation from me back to Lieut. William Woodworth. One of the requests was for pictures of gravemarkers for my great-grandparents, Frank and Anna Smith.

Here's the thing: the grave markers have been removed. I know this because I once asked my grandmother if we could go to her parents' graves, and she told me about how she had gone to the cemetery, and they were no longer there. She became very angry that the markers had been removed not even fifty years after her parents' deaths, and launched into a diatribe about the evils of the Catholic Church that they would do something like that, and she was sure somehow there was a monetary reason for the removal.

Pat suggested I call the cemetery anyway, as "they may still have the cemetery plot card or other records; you'd be amazed what falls out of those files. Call them."

She was very insistent, and once I discovered the letter that fell out of Clara Herman's cemetery file, I thought maybe Pat was on to something, so I called.

A fellow by the name of Dick answered the phone at the Catholic cemetery in Antigo, Wisconsin, and I inquired if he had any records for Frank and Anna Smith. The gravemarkers had been removed, I told him, but might they have other records?

Dick became rather indignant. "We would not have done that."

"Well," I told him, "My grandmother was there maybe 20 years ago and the headstones had been removed."

"No," Dick insisted, "We would not have done that. I'm going to go take a look, I'll call you back in five minutes."

So I waited for Dick to call me and sheepishly admit what the evil Catholic empire had done for fun and profit.

He did call back, within the hour. "I think I know why your grandmother thought what she did."

Apparently the markers, which were originally placed in the 1930s, were of the flat variety: they lie flush to the ground. These markers had sunk over time, and Frank's in particular was barely visible. It is entirely possible that the day my grandmother went to her parents' graves, they were overgrown, and she thought that since she could not see them, they were no longer there (and from there, obviously, it's a short leap to a vast Catholic headstone-removal-for-profit conspiracy**).

Dick offered to mail some photos of markers, so I could see what had happened, and so he did, about a week later. He also included cemetery records that showed four of my grandmother's brothers buried in the same plot, two of whom died as infants and had no markers.

In his letter, Dick offered to dig up, raise, and restore the gravemarkers, and quoted a price I thought was reasonable, so I mailed off a check and requested he begin the work. When he dug up Frank's marker, the cement "collar" was broken into several pieces, so he mailed me photos of that and suggested replacing it.

And earlier this week, I received photos of the completed work:

This is Frank and Anna on their wedding day in 1886:

Is it weird to go around replacing gravemarkers of people who died even before my mother was born? Probably. But if you look closely at the wedding photo, you can see Anna is wearing a pin at her collar. That pin was given to my grandmother Agnes (the ninth of Anna's eleven children), who later gave it to me - the youngest of her four grandchildren. A gift from Anna, passing through time. The least I can do, I think, is return the favor.

*This was, obviously, long before he married that interesting red-headed lady.
**For the record (in all seriousness), I have nothing against the Catholic church.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

When Genealogy Meets Reality TV: The Blackest Sheep, Part 2

Note: This post was originally published in my companion blog, Desperado Penguin, on May 24, 2010.

After discovering where my great-grandfather Wenzel Herman was definitely not buried, I made it my business to find out first, why he inspired so much animosity among those who knew him, and second, when and where he died and was buried.

Since I had exhausted cemeteries to look in, Wisconsin death records and indexed obituaries, and the post-1930 censuses are not yet available, I decided to poke around my local library for some clues. It's hard for me to leave my house to spend extended periods at the library, but the King County Library System has very kindly put several genealogy databases online for my at-home, oddball-hour researching pleasure.

I thought for sure there must be an obituary somewhere for Wenzel, so I started with the Newspaper Archive Database, and simply entered Wenzel Herman into the search box.

Several hits immediately came up, all from the Oshkosh NorthWestern newspaper. From the newspaper I was able to construct the following series of events, all in 1939:

March 22: Death of Emily Frank, daughter of Wenzel's second wife, Clara Herman, by her first marriage. As far as I can work out from the obituary and census records, this was Clara's only child.
April 11: Wenzel Herman pleads guilty to one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor girl and is sentenced to six months in prison.
July 5: Clara Herman dies "after a long illness."
July 6: Wenzel Herman is granted early release from County Jail to attend his wife Clara's funeral, apparently having been well-behaved whilst in prison.

From the Oshkosh Northwestern, 1939.

If there is a Blacker Sheep than Wenzel on my family tree, I don't want to know. Still, I was curious if court records might reveal anything further, possibly earlier brushes with the law or something that might give me a bit more insight into why my great-grandmother Hulda divorced him years before Clara had the misfortune of marrying him.

Also, I don't have a single photo of the man, and I'm kind of curious to know what he looks like. Might there be a mug shot, I wondered?

I contacted someone on Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness and inquired if she could check the courthouse for me. I was very upfront about what records I was looking for and what Wenzel was arrested for, figuring it might make someone uncomfortable and they should have the right to decline - it's a favor for a stranger after all.

The woman who replied was happy to assist and even eager to learn something new. Unfortunately, when she checked with the courthouse, she was told that the trial records prior to 1959 had been destroyed by the county as they were "of limited genealogical value."

Yes, well, maybe in other families, but for mine? It's kind of a bummer, Winnebago County.

She did offer a very helpful suggestion, though - she directed me to the Green Bay Area Research Center, which houses, among other things, divorce decrees from about the time Hulda would have divorced Wenzel. For $5.00 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, I got my answer: Hulda was granted a divorce on the grounds of non-support and since she "did not know Wenzel's whereabouts."

The date of the divorce was just a few days before she remarried in a Catholic church, listing Wenzel as "deceased."* So, after all that, where did Wenzel go? His wife was gone and his son wanted nothing to do with him. But I could not turn up a Wisconsin death record or an obituary anywhere for him.

I reflected back on what my grandmother had originally told me, that Wenzel had gone to Illinois because his wife had family there. I had discarded that as incorrect, since Clara's family was clearly in the Neenah, Wisconsin area, where she was. But, since I was out of other ideas, I ran a quick Google search for an Illinois death record database, and found what I was looking for almost immediately: An index entry for Wenzel Herman, 1946.

I mailed in the paperwork and $8 check, and two weeks later, I had a death certificate for Wenzel Herman, including his correct parents' names and birthdate (the year was off but the month and day were correct). 

The person who provided the information was his third wife, Bessie. It listed a cemetery in Chicago, so I once again got on the phone, but this woman was not as helpful as the woman at Oak Hill, simply confirmed that Wenzel was indeed buried there but providing no further information.

I went to FindAGrave and created an entry for Wenzel, then posted a request for a picture of his headstone. It took only a day or two for a very nice gentleman to get to the cemetery, locate the grave and discover that Wenzel was buried there, but even though his third wife outlived him by 13 years, in all that time, no one put a marker on his grave - and she was buried not with Wenzel but with her first husband.

The man that helped me with this turned out to be a Chicago police officer*, and he also took a picture of the grave of Bessie Herman. I set up a findagrave entry for her as well and he added the picture of her grave marker (unlike Wenzel, Bessie has a very nice one).

I feel kind of strange and awful being the person who "owns" her online memorial, given the facts of how we are connected. I want to somehow apologize to her, and to Clara's family, all of them,from Wenzel's family, all of us. I want to tell them that Wenzel's only son was a truly decent man, and his children and grandchildren are also truly decent people - quirky, yes, but decent.

I also feel sort of guilty: now I know why my grandfather wouldn't talk about his father, and why he turned Wenzel away when he came to the house. I'm sure my grandfather didn't want me dredging all this up, after he hid it away from us all so well, and for so long. But on the other hand, having the knowledge gave me a much deeper understanding of my grandfather, and a much greater pride in him (as though that were possible) for having been such a warm and loving man after having experienced such loss and shame.

*Wishful thinking?
**Wenzel, if you can read this, they're still keeping an eye on you.

When Genealogy Meets Reality TV: The Blackest Sheep

Note: This post was originally published in my companion blog, Desperado Penguin, on May 23, 2010.

Since my husband and I are both genealogy geeks, we frequently discuss our latest discoveries or roadblocks at the dinner table.

In case you are wondering: Nine-year-old girls do not find genealogy interesting, even their own.

So I decided to liven things up for her with a contest, something along the lines of what would happen if Who Do You Think You Are? runs out of actual celebrities and goes the reality-tv route. Whose tree has The Blackest Sheep?

Not to spoil the ending, but I won, and it's probably the one time any of his descendants was ever proud to be connected to The Blackest Sheep, Wenzel Herman. I'll take life's little victories where I can get them, I'm not proud - how could I be?
Wenzel was my maternal grandfather's father, and my mother and her sisters never knew much about him. As a child, I asked my grandmother about Wenzel, and was told: Wenzel and my great-grandmother divorced, Wenzel remarried, and eventually he moved to Illinois because his wife had family there. She related a story about how Wenzel once showed up at the door, wanting to see my grandfather (his only child), and my grandfather sent him away. Wenzel left, looking sad, and was never seen again.

This tale sounds rather hard-hearted and isn't in keeping with my grandfather's character: He was a very loving man. So I always wondered about it, and then I started to research.

The first item I found was a census record, using an on-line search: in 1930, Wenzel lived in Neenah, Wisconsin, with his second wife, Clara. Since 1930 is the last available census, I could go no further with census records.

I searched the area libraries and although there was no obituary for Wenzel in the Oshkosh library's on-line index, or in the nearby Appleton library, there was an entry for Mrs Wenzel Herman, who died in 1939. I ordered a copy of her obituary through the library service and discovered that Wenzel was listed as one of her survivors, and she was buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Neenah.

The Oak Hill cemetery also has an online index, and I found Clara buried there, but again, no listing for Wenzel.

I called the cemetery thinking perhaps Wenzel might have been buried with Clara but for some reason he was not included in the index. The woman who answered the phone was friendly as could be when I explained what I was looking for, and went to pull Clara's card from the file.

"Was your great-grandfather's name Wenzel, by any chance?" she asked when she returned.

"Yes! Is he buried there?" I asked.Oh Yes! She shoots, she scores!

"No," she replied, "He's not here - someone made sure of that."

*lengthy pause*

"I've never seen anything like this, actually."

Attached to the Clara's card was a notarized letter from her brother, Alfred Klein, which read: "I, Alfred Klein, lawful owner of cemetery block xyz at Neenah Cemetery, Winnebago County, Wisconsin, hereby order S.E. Kurtz, caretaker of said cemetery, not to bury Wenzel Herman, husband of my deceased sister Clara, on said cemetery lot." The letter was signed and dated less than three weeks after Clara's death.

She kindly offered to send me a copy of the letter, which I received a week later and added to my Wenzel file. So now I know a few things:

  • Wenzel had two marriages that ended badly (first to my great-grandmother, and then to Clara Klein).
  • He was still living in 1939.
  • He was not buried with either of his wives (as I have been to my great-grandmother's grave).
  • My grandfather was not the only man who didn't like Wenzel. A picture has formed, and it isn't a pretty one.

My next research will focus on trying to answer two questions:

Where is Wenzel buried?

What on earth did he do to that prompted Mr. Klein to send that letter? Here is what I found.
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