Just because we can’t “prove it,” doesn’t mean it isn’t true . . .

One of the enduring genealogy myths is that of the “three brothers.” It generally goes along the lines of three brothers emigrating to America, each one heading in a different direction once here, with one of them never heard from again. While it conveniently explains brick walls in our trees, there’s really no basis in fact. Yet, it persists!

My Meintzer line does have three brothers, but only one ends up in the United States. That would be my great grandfather, Christian (Colorful). The next younger brother, Heinrich (1834-1909) remained in the Alsatian village of Dehlingen. His descendants continued to live in the area, with some still living in the family homestead.

The youngest brother was Philippe. He never married, and died relatively young. The legend surrounding him is that his mandatory military service was done in Rome “at the Pope’s.” Supposedly he walked to and from Rome, and later died from a disease he got while there.

The parents of the three boys were Christian Meintzer (born in Volksberg in 1806) and Catharina Christina Isel (Jesel), born in 1809, in Dehlingen. There is a four year gap between Christian and Heinrich, and six years between Heinrich & Philippe. It’s possible Christina may have had miscarriages in those intervals. We know she gave birth to a daughter, Christina, 3 February 1840, who lived only 4 days before dying 7 February. The “tables décennales ” (10-year tables—an alphabetized index of a decade’s worth of births, deaths, and marriages) don’t point us to any other children for this family.

But back to Philippe. We find his birth documented in the civil records the day he was born, 13 December 1841 (no. 29).¹ I can’t post the image here, but the link will take you to that image on the “Archives Departmentales” (Department Archives) of Bas-Rhin website. You need to click the “accepter” button towards the bottom to accept their terms of use and see the image. It’s in French. His parents are listed, along with their ages, birth places, residence, and occupation. Similar information is recorded for the required two witnesses, with signatures for them, as well as the maire (mayor) who recorded the event. No real surprises are in the entry.

The only other vital record in the village was for his death, 28 April 1871 (no. 6).² Philippe didn’t make it to his thirtieth birthday. His occupation was “cultivateur” — one of many terms that could be used for someone working in agriculture. He was not married, and his parents’ names and ages confirm we have the right man. Both parents were still alive at that time. His father, Christian, and brother, Heinrich, also had the occupation of “cultivateur,” and reported the death to the maire.

No mention was made of Philippe’s cause of death—or for any of the other deaths on the page. That’s consistent with what I found with Elisabetha Weidmann Meintzer’s death record, and that of her son, Christian, Jr. (Cause of Death). Apparently it still wasn’t considered important to record, six years later. It’s very inconvenient! You would think the civil authorities would have been more concerned about something like that. It seems he arrived home and was able to work for at least a period of time. If he arrived home so sick he couldn’t work, I doubt they’d have included an occupation for him.

Supposedly, France has excellent military records. Unfortunately, they aren’t easy to locate if you aren’t on-site. Some are coming online, but it’s random as to which Departments have them digitized. It takes time. All young men were required to serve in the military. According to the French Military Records³ site, young men needed to register between their 20th and 21st birthdays. Looking at my great grandfather’s (Philippe’s oldest brother) discharge papers, Christian served about 3 years—from 1854-1857. That doesn’t mean he didn’t report between 1850 and 1851, they simply may not have needed him right then.

So presumably Philippe reported between 13 December 1861 and 13 December 1862. He is, in fact, still at home for the 1861 census,4 but is missing in the 1866 census.5 The next available census is 1880—nine years after he died. While we are fortunate to have reproductions of my great grandfather’s discharge papers, with no descendants, I don’t imagine anyone thought it necessary or important to keep Philippe’s. Until I can manage a trip to Alsace, with a visit to the archives, I can’t pinpoint his service dates better than that. I see no reason he would have been able to escape the mandatory military service, however.

What about the rest of the story? When I think of “military” and “the Pope,” the Swiss Guard immediately springs to mind. Unfortunately, Philippe was neither Swiss, nor Catholic. That branch of the family has a long history of being Lutheran. I doubt the Swiss Guard would have made an exception for him!

Digging a little deeper, one learns there were other military forces associated with the Vatican. One difficulty is that some of them disbanded, or morphed into a different structure, so it’s difficult to nail down who he would have been assigned to. Wikipedia mentions (under the”Papal Military” heading) the Papal Army (1860-1870), containing Italians, Swiss, Irish, plus “artillery and dragoons” (not specifying where those men came from). An international Catholic volunteer corps (Papal Zouaves) was another group formed in 1861 to defend the Papal States. It had a strong French influence, despite the many other nationalities participating. That could be a possibility.

No, I haven’t forgotten that he wasn’t Catholic, but the Second Empire still favored Catholicism, so it’s possible he was sent to Rome, regardless of his beliefs. Unfortunately, unless or until I can obtain access to the military registers, I cannot be more specific than those suggestions. It’s possible there were other, smaller units that simply have been forgotten about.

What about the walking? The distance from Dehlingen to the Vatican is 725 miles. That’s 250 miles longer than the Camino de Santiago—which people walk regularly, and about 1/3 of the Appalachian Trail—another busy route. Google maps tells me it takes 249 hours on foot, so it might be doable in about a month? While an undertaking of that sort rarely crosses our minds, today, back then it was probably more common, particularly for the infantry!

While I am unable to confirm all the details of this legend, nothing I discovered left me with the impression it was impossible, or even unlikely. I can’t imagine my Alsatian cousins would make up a story like that, or get the story so wrong. Philippe’s brother, Heinrich, lived until 1909. While most of Heinrich’s children were born after Philippe died, or were very young, it seems like Philippe was talked about and remembered by that family. Here in the States, we didn’t hear the story of him until 1994, but obviously someone had kept his memory alive! For that, I am grateful.


¹”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Dehlingen, Registre de naissances (Birth Registers) 1841, p. 8, no. 29, Philippe MEINTZER, 13 December 1841; accessed 4 July 2019.

²”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Dehlingen, Registre de décès (Death Registers) 1871, p. 3, no. 6, Philippe MEINTZER, 28 April 1871; accessed 4 July 2019.

³Morddell, Anne. 2010. “French Military Records – Les Recensements Militaires”. The French Genealogy Blog. https://french-genealogy.typepad.com/genealogie/2010/04/french-military-records-les-recensements-militaires.html.

41861 census of France, canton Saare-Union, arrondissement de Saverne, Bas-Rhin, p. 5, no. 39, family 48, person 215, Chrétien MEINTZER household. Chrétien MEINTZER, age 54; accessed 4 July 2019; digital image, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin, (archives.bas-rhin.fr).

51866 census of France, canton Sarre-Union, arrondissement de Saverne, Bas-Rhin, p. 5, no. 40, family 50, person 213, Chrétien MEINTZER household. Chrétien MEINTZER, age 59; accessed 4 July 2019 [Philippe absent from home]; digital image, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin, (archives.bas-rhin.fr).

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