Saturday, July 21, 2012

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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