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. 

Although many members of the family state that Anton Joseph Schmidt never used the name Smith (although his children did), in all the news articles about the event, as well as the one census record on which he appears, his name is given as Smith. His grave marker, however, is written in German, and the name Schmidt is used. 

The townspeople were not satisfied with simply putting Mr Wilson on trial, however. They preferred to lynch him, an attempt which proved unsuccessful and which was reported in oddly facetious terms:  

Among the "frightful losses," the paper reported were: 
OUR CASUALTIES -- C. D. Foote -- Slight bruise on the head; S.P. Ming -- struck on head with scantling, not serious; Samuel Boyd, ditto; E. st. Mary, face ditto; George Ladd, forehead, ditto.
ENEMIES LOSS -- Several slight bruises, wraps, and a tremendous amount of scare. 
Evidently, the events were reported statewide, and the newspaper reporting elsewhere was somewhat exaggerated, which explains the bizarre tone of the article.

Theresa and her six young children didn't starve. The church took up a collection for them, according to an Appleton Post-Crescent article the following week,  titled Generosity:
About $200.00 in money and clothing has been contributed by our citizens, for the benefit of Mrs. Smith, wife of the murdered man from Greenville. To Mrs. Chas. Pfenning and Mrs. T. Conkey she is indebted for these results. In the Catholic Church alone, $30.00 was raised by collection Sunday last. The family, who was in the most destitute circumstances, are well provided for.
Using an inflation calculator, I learned that this is about $3600 in 2012 dollars - certainly a helpful amount, but also not a sum that was going to feed six children indefinitely.

Within six months, Theresa remarried to Franz Josef Kneisel, also a widowed German immigrant, and together they had three more children: Anna, born in 1864; Mary, born in 1866; and George, born in 1868. Mary died at age 11, while the only evidence of George's existence seems to be the 1870 census, where he is two years old. Anna alone of the three lived to adulthood. The census records for the family are remarkable: his children, her children, and their children. In 1870, there are 12 children in the house.

The combined family on the 1870 census in Greenville, Wisconsin.

I had a heck of a time finding the family on the 1870 census: Theresa is listed as "Rachel" and her stepdaughters are "Rachel" and "Letitia." The girls' names were actually Catherine and Elizabeth. Since Theresa also had daughters with those names, it is possible that the other names were used to distinguish them - but even that seems odd, as there are still two "Rachels" in the house.

Theresa and Franz Joseph lived to be fairly old; he died in 1900. I'm a bit confused about her death date, though - I have it given as 1900 in some sources, but the History of Outagamie County gives it as 1908; moreover, she appears in a town directory of 1908, living with her son Charles. On the 1900 census, they are both living with Charles Schmidt and his large family in Greenville, yet according to the History of Outagamie County, Theresa only moved in with her son in 1905 (remaining on the farm until then). It seems like the History must be right, but further research is clearly needed.

The information about Theresa in the Outagamie County history is actually included in a short biography of her son, Charles, and in spite of the great detail it goes into, one fact is curiously omitted: There is no mention of a second marriage or husband.

Theresa is buried with both of her husbands beneath a three-sided marker at St. Mary Cemetery in Greenville, Wisconsin. If you've ever been out to the Fox River Valley Mall, you've been to their farm and the spot where Joseph Schmidt's immigrant dreams ended.

I thought I'd found everything there was to find on this family, but when I finally noticed my error on Theresa's death date, I realized there was a lot of research that I had not even begun:
  • Contact the Area Research Center and see if court records exist for the trial. Although I do know the Indian was ultimately convicted of murder (in a court trial), who knows what else might be there? 
  • Request research on the family from the Catholic Diocese. Possibly I can locate a death date for George.
  • Since Theresa apparently died in 1908, there should be a death certificate on file for her, though I can't seem to locate it in any of the indexes. I've run into a lot of problems with the Kneisel name which may account for the problem and need a manual search.
  • Although I cannot locate an obituary for Theresa in the Appleton papers, it may have run in one of the German language newspapers instead.
  • See if there were more Kommer (possibly Komor) family members who emigrated, and if I can identify where they came from, try to trace the lines back in Europe. If there is a death certificate or obituary for her, I might finally be able to start tracing the line back and learn more about her early life.
Where else would you look?


  1. What a great job you've done of piecing all the evidence together. I really appreciate inclusion of the original newspaper columns, it makes it all comes alive. No pun intended.

  2. I have seen many of your pictures before. I have visited Theresa Schmidt Kneisels grave. It was one of those wow moments that you just can't put a price on!


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