Frightening

Being frightened can be fun, but sometimes . . .

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Last week I told you about Elisabetha Weidmann’s death, but I held back a bit of the story, knowing this prompt came right after. I left out the part about her oldest son, Christian (1860-1865), dying shortly after her. You see him on the tree snippet in last week’s post.

Christian Meintzer, Jr.’s death record immediately follows (No. 19) his mother’s on the register page. He was 5 years, 2 months old, and died eight days after his mother (13 December). As with her record, no cause is provided. It would seem likely he would have died from the same thing as his mother.

The family story is far more interesting, though, and we hear it from both sides of the Atlantic. Sophie Meintzer Kranz mentions it in her narrative, as does her daughter, Anna Kranz Schultz, retelling her mother’s stories. We also hear it from the relatives still living in Dehlingen—descendants of Christian Sr.’s brother, Heinrich.

Supposedly, after Elisabetha died, five-year-old Christian was hanging around the cemetery, watching while townsmen dug his mother’s grave.

Now, before you get outraged at that thought, those if you who are baby boomer and older (and children of early baby boomers) need to remember how we grew up: we were scooted out the door after breakfast, expected to be seen for lunch and dinner, and that was it. Hanging around the house, you ran the risk of getting saddled with extra chores—housework, yard work, or both!

I’m sure Dehlingen in 1865 was not much different. At age five, Christian probably knew almost everyone in town. Even if he didn’t, everybody undoubtedly knew him and who he belonged to. I don’t have my Dehlingen map handy, but there’s only a couple streets, and the cemetery is close by, so yeah, I can see him out there, watching.

Supposedly the guys digging the grave had the brilliant idea to give him a scare. They picked him up and put him in the grave (not the coffin, just the empty hole), with some comment along the lines of “trying it out” or “seeing what it was like.”

Nice guys, huh? Those of you who read regularly know I make a point not to pass a lot of judgement on ancestors mostly because I don’t know the whole story. I’m breaking that rule this time. Those guys were jerks.

I raised four 5-year-olds and have known many more. I know how they can pepper you with endless questions until you are ready to scream. I certainly don’t know if Christian was doing that, but even if he was, that’s no excuse. The kid’s mother had just died—cut him some slack! It was neither the time not the place to play a joke.

Anyway according to the family story, he died, days later, of fright from that incident. Did he really? Who knows? While people can die of fright, we usually associate it with heart failure caused by the sudden shock. That seems unlikely with a 5-year-old—in my mind, at least.

On the other hand, the mind is very powerful; it can heal us, or make us ill. A 5-year-old can have a very vivid imagination, so who’s to say that event didn’t put a worry into his head that shouldn’t have been there? Since this story can’t be debunked as easily as Napoleon (Colorful), we’ll keep it documented.

And I’ll throw out the caution: “Don’t try this with your kids or grandkids, please!”

#52Ancestors

Cause of Death

Sometimes the death we mourn is part of a bigger picture.

Elisabetha Weidmann is my great grandfather’s first wife. She’s not really related to me, not genetically, at least. But she is the mother of my grandfather’s half siblings—my half aunts—so I keep track of her. A snippet of her tree is above.

Thinking about it, if she hadn’t died when she did, Christian Meintzer probably wouldn’t have married Sophie Gaertner, so I wouldn’t be here. I guess she’s more important than I thought!

Anyway, this prompt made me think of her. My brain couldn’t quite recall if she died of typhus or typhoid, so I figured I needed to nail that down.

Before getting to that, I looked up what they both were. I was operating under the assumption they were different names used for the same thing—like consumption and tuberculosis. Wrong!

While the two share some similar symptoms, they are actually quite different and spread in different ways. This website: What’s the Difference Between Typhoid and Typhus? (republished with permission of Passport Health) can explain it better than I.

So I looked in my database and discovered I don’t actually have a cause of death listed for her. Hmm. So I checked my two Doris Wesner books, Alsatian Connections and Dehlingen im Krummen Elsass, finding nothing there, either.

Back to the Archives du Bas-Rhin website for Elisabetha Meintzer’s death record on 5 December 1865. You’ve wandered through those records before with me. Lo and behold, cause of death isn’t found there, either! At least, not that was easily discernable.

Maybe it is hidden in the record, but I did not have the time to do a full-blown transcription and translation of it right then. I’ve looked at enough of these records, though, to be familiar with the pattern and to know where to look. I could have missed it, so if someone sees it, please let me know!

I even checked nearby records, none of which seemed to have a cause of death. That’s when it hit me: a lot of people died that November and December! Dehlingen is a small town. Even at its peak, it probably didn’t crack 1000 residents. The earlier months that year seldom had more than one death—if that!

Then November and December show up with 5 and 6 deaths, respectively (plus one in late October) . . . something was ripping through the town, that’s for sure! There were 22 deaths that year, total, so the other 10 were spread out over 9 months.

So where did I get the mistaken typhus/typhoid dilemma from? Possibly from a handwritten narrative from my grandaunt, Sophie Meintzer Kranz. She wrote that her older sister, Christina (b. 1867, d. 1876), died of typhoid fever. Christina Meintzer’s death record doesn’t list a cause of death, either, but Sophie was 8 at the time—old enough to remember. Even if she didn’t know the specific illness right then, there was ample time for her to ask her parents later what her older sister died of.

As I go through my documents, organizing them so my children don’t curse me after I’m gone, I may find something else confirming Elisabetha’s cause of death. Until then, I’ll assume she caught whatever ran rampant through the town in late 1865. My guess is typhoid fever, again, since it seems to me to be more easily transmitted.

But whatever the cause, the last two months of 1865 were tough for a lot of families in Dehlingen.

#52Ancestors

Colorful

Looks can be deceiving . . .

My great-grandfather, Christian Meintzer, lived his life spanning two centuries and two continents. You met him (and this photo) early on (My Favorite Photo). Looking at him here, I wouldn’t peg him as a particularly “colorful” guy (despite my cousin Mark’s artful tint job to the original black and white!). He’s a farmer, just doing his thing. But his life had a little more color than that.

Meintzer200
Christian Meintzer and 2nd wife, Sophia Gaertner Meintzer, outside their farmhouse in the Riverwoods, Illinois, 1913 or earlier. Colorization by Mark Halvorsen.

He was born 3 April 1830 in Dehlingen, Bas Rhin, Alsace.¹ You all remember hearing about “Alsace-Lorraine” in school, but it’s not really a place. It’s like talking about “Illinois-Indiana” or “Michigan-Ohio.” But both regions got batted back and forth between France and Germany from 1871 until the end of World War II, and Germany lumped them together. Alsace is the “leg” part of the “sloppy 7” shape they make. His parents were Chrètién [Christian] Meintzer and Christine Isel (Jessel).

Nothing colorful happens until he gets older. France required its young men to serve a mandatory 2-year military stint. From 19 April 1854 to 31 December 1857, he served in the 6th Division, 8th Regiment, of the French Army. Luckily, we still have his discharge papers! He served as a Hussar–light cavalry (horsemen) and was apparently proud of his uniform and his fancy plumed hat. He was not married yet.

Family stories claim Christian fought a dual with Napoleon over improper care of a horse. That would be really exciting . . . except that Napoleon Bonaparte (the person I think of when hearing only “Napoleon”) was dead before Christian was born! Christian actually served when Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon–Bonaparte’s nephew) was emperor. Somehow I doubt Napoleon III was mingling with the troops. So what gives?

From all accounts I’ve heard, Christian was not large (light cavalry, remember?), but was strong for his size, and wiry. His horse, and the others, would have been hugely important to his–and his regiment’s–survival, so I can see him picking a fight with someone who didn’t seem to be taking proper care of his mount–probably not the Emperor, though!

His time in the army also enlarged his vocabulary. The everyday language in Dehlingen would have been Alsatian–a dialect based on German (I’m grossly oversimplifying it!). According to his children (my grandfather and his older siblings), when he was angry, Christian would swear in French! His children did not speak or understand French, so while they knew he was saying something bad, they didn’t know exactly what was said. I hope they knew better than to try and repeat any of it–at least not around their father!

Two years after his discharge from the army, he married his first wife, Elisabeth Weidmann. They had four children, but nine months after their youngest (Catherine–Favorite Name) was born, Elisabeth and their oldest son died. Six months later, he married his second wife, Sophia Gaertner. They had five more children, but lost two.

In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace was surrendered to the newly-formed Germany. Residents were given two choices:

  • remain French–and move elsewhere in France
  • remain where they were–and become German citizens

I’m sure it wasn’t an easy choice for anyone to make. According to Wikipedia, 10.4% of the residents chose French citizenship,² though only 1/3 of them actually emigrated. Christian decided to stay, at least for a while. One granddaughter, Anna Kranz Schultz, told me when his son, Jacob, was born in 1876, Christian decided he needed to emigrate to the United States. According to Anna, he didn’t want his son to serve in the German Army when he grew up. It took until May 1881 for them to sail on the Labrador, moving his wife, two daughters from his first marriage, and 4 children from his second marriage, to America.

Reaching the Riverwoods (north and west of Chicago), the family settled into farming again. Not very exciting or colorful! Christian was 51 years old, and still had three more children to add to the family. He remained on the farm until at least 1910–probably until 1913, when his wife, Sophia, died. At that point (age 83), he moved around to the households of various children. He still spoke only German (Alsatian?).

As he aged, Christian didn’t really slow down much. My 2nd cousin, Richard Jahn (now age 92), once told me his dad remembered Christian out in the fields with his sons and sons-in-law, helping bring in the harvest. It sounded like they all pitched in with whichever field was ready to harvest, knowing they’d later have help with their own. Despite his age, Christian kept up pretty well with the pace of the younger men. We also have this photo of him, out sawing wood. Clearly he held his own with chores!

Meintzer03
Christian Meintzer sawing wood. Date undetermined, but before 1922.

Anna also told a story about Christian rowing a boat out into the water and taking off all his clothes. He was living with her mom, Sophie, in Des Plaines at the time, very near the Des Plaines River. Did he go out to fish, and just got too hot? Was he going a bit senile? I don’t know. But at 83+, he was clearly still a colorful guy! He passed away 28 January 1922.

Most times we don’t know much about our ancestors’ lives. Social media didn’t exist. Photos are scarce–and sometimes tossed because they aren’t identified. Their stories, inconsequential as they may seem, disappear because no one takes the time to write them down. Making time to do that preserves these bits of color from their lives. It’s worth the effort.

#52Ancestors


¹”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Dehlingen, naissance [birth] 1830, p. 4, no. 10, Chrètién Meintzer, 3 Avril [April] 1830.

²https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alsace-Lorraine. Section 2.2 “From annexation to World War I,” paragraph 9 (“The Treaty of Frankfurt . . .”), citing reference 6.

Misfortune

Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them. –Washington Irving

Every extended family has misfortune of one sort or another, somewhere along the line:

  • failed crops/losing the farm or house
  • illnesses/accidents
  • women dying from complications of childbirth
  • infant/child deaths
  • marital discord
  • loved ones not returning from military service

The family lines I research are no different. As a researcher, it’s my responsibility to record and document what I find. Sometimes, though, the information is of a “sensitive” nature. I’ve learned to put on my “Sargent Joe Friday” hat to record “the facts” and keep my opinions and biases out of it–not get caught up in the drama, and hopefully not create any! It’s certainly not my job to judge. Hopefully I succeed.

But I am not merely a researcher–I usually am part of that family in some way. As such, I must be mindful of the people involved or affected by the event or situation, and not sacrifice feelings or privacy in my zeal for “the truth.” The need to temper how information is handled might be because

  • the event is very recent, and people haven’t healed
  • it might be embarrassing–and the people involved (or very close) are still alive and would feel hurt
  • it really isn’t my story to tell

On occasion I will put notes in a private area, so I don’t lose track of the information, but keep it out of general circulation. More often, I simply record it, but not draw attention to it. If it’s noticed by someone, I can discuss it with them, perhaps providing more explanation and context. Time and distance provide perspective, and as time goes by, the sensitive topic generally becomes less touchy.

While I can find at least one example of each of the misfortunes above, I’m going to drop back 300+ years to Alsace (NE corner of present-day France). That should give us LOTS of perspective! The year is 1673, and Alsace is still comprised of kingdoms, duchies, and whatnot. While my ancestors lived in Dehlingen, Lorentzen, Waldhambach, Berg, and other small villages in Bas-Rhin; Diemeringen was the location of the local lord. As such, it is where trials would have been held, and punishments meted out.

Genealogist Robert Weinland (an 8th cousin, once removed, I believe) put together a web page for his genealogy in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, my original link broke, though the information can still be accessed via the “wayback machine” at Internet Archive: (copy and paste this 2007 link)

https://web.archive.org/web/20070827184109/http://www.robert-weinland.org:80/sorc.php?lang=en

Though further searching turned up his current web page at this address (you may need to run Google Translate on it):

https://www.robert-weinland.org/sorcellerie/

In the section listing the people “beheaded and burned near the gallows” on 16 October 1673, three of the six listed are direct ancestors of mine:

  • Ottilia [Bach], widow of Carl Ensminger,
  • Margaretha, wife of Anstett Hemmert,

and (my favorite, but don’t tell the others . . . ),

  • Walburga/Walpurga [Eberhard], wife of Johannes Koeppel

Two 9th great-grandmothers, and one 10th great-grandmother. Why is Walburga my favorite? She was the first one I learned of. Just like a first kiss or a first love, the first witch is something special. I love Otillia & Margaretha, too, but they are just extra icing on the cake.

Their death record in Diemeringen (transcribed and translated at the bottom of Robert’s web page) simply records the deaths, giving no information regarding the charges against any of them. I don’t know if any court-type records survive in Diemeringen that could shed light on the events leading up to these people being accused and found guilty. All three were older (thankfully, or they would’t be direct ancestors!), and surprisingly had adult children, and husbands (except for Ottilia) alive at the time of their execution. Generally, those accused of witchcraft were more likely to be alone in life and not have close relatives who could protect them. It seems a little odd mine were singled out, despite having family. Interestingly, one of Walburga’s sons was the maire (mayor) of Dehlingen later on, so clearly it didn’t impact his reputation negatively.

The consensus now is the Salem, Massachusetts, witch accusations were baseless–caused by anger, fear, or jealousy, and “confirmed” by atypical behavior by the accused. Some of the behaviors could have simply been eccentricities (hey, some people like dancing naked in the woods during a full moon!), or physical (epilepsy?) or mental (schizophrenia?) illnesses that were unknown, not understood, or treatable at the time. It’s unlikely accusations in the “old world” were much different. I seriously doubt they were casting any spells on people or things.

Am I upset or embarrassed by my witches? Heavens, no! While I am not “proud” of them, I’m certainly not bothered by them, either. They had the misfortune of being out of step in some way with the rest of the local society, and suffered for it. So I love my witches–all of them. Hopefully at some future date, no 9th-great-grandchild of mine will be embarrassed by my eccentricities or (figurative) warts . . .

 

#52Ancestors

My Favorite Photo

I’m going to have to cheat on this one

Choose one favorite photo? That’s not happening. But I will limit myself to posting only  one!

One of my favorite photos is actually two: my four children taken 8 years apart. The first one was at my daughter’s wedding and was taken by her cousin, Ben. Their ages ranged from 11 to 20. Despite the wedding dress and tuxes, it’s a laid-back photo of them just hanging out with each other. The second one, eight years later, was taken by the official photographer. They are all gown up, and not quite as casual, but it’s still not the prim and proper pose my mother and sister would prefer. My daughter is to the side with a wonderful expression on her face as if to say, “See what I have to put up with!”

What I love about those pictures is that I see my kids in them–the REAL kids, not stiff models. Their personalities show through. You can see that, regardless of whatever squabbling they engage in, they care about each other and will be there for each other.

Another favorite photo is one of my dad, in his 80s, up on the roof to blow leaves off the roof and out of the gutters . . . connected to his oxygen concentrator. Yes, seriously, he was up there on oxygen for his COPD. Granted, it was probably better than if he’d been up there without oxygen. That could have been dangerous, if he’d gotten out of breath. But just seeing his determination not to let the COPD dictate his life is inspiring.

The photo I settled on, though, is one of my great-grandparents, Christian Meintzer and Sophia Gaertner. They are standing in front of their farmhouse on what is now Riverwoods Road, Deerfield, Illinois. The house was still there in the 1980s, but has since then been torn down. The photo was taken some time between 1881, when they emigrated from Dehlingen, Bas-Rhin, Alsace (then under German rule), and 1913, when Sophia died. Sophia was Christian’s 2nd wife. His first wife, Elisabetha Wiedmann, had died in 1865, along with their son, Christian, Jr. With 3 children to raise, he married Sophia in 1866 and had 5 children with her while in Alsace.  Elisabetha’s other son, Heinrich, died before they emigrated, as did Christian and Sophia’s oldest girl, Christina.

Meintzer200
Christian Meintzer and Sophia Gaertner in front of their farmhouse on Riverwoods Road, Deerfield.

The end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 put Alsace under German rule. When their first son, Jacob, was born in 1876, Christian realized his son would be required to serve in the German military–an idea he didn’t like. So in 1881, he packed up his wife and 6 children, and headed to the northern Chicago suburbs. Other relatives has settled there thirty years earlier, so it was good to have a few familiar faces in a strange land. Christian & Sophia went on (fortunately!) to have three more children in the US, the last one being my grandfather. Thank goodness they didn’t stop earlier . . .

The original of this photo is black and white. My 2nd cousin once removed, Mark Halvorsen, put the color on this image. While I’m not a huge fan of colorizing photos or movies (don’t get me started on the colorization of It’s a Wonderful Life!), Mark does a really nice job of being subtle with the tinting. He doesn’t get too intense, so the added color serves to help differentiate the various elements.

Sophia was born out of wedlock in 1842¹. We have found no records of who her father was, and likely never will. When another 2nd cousin once removed, Donna Gabl Bell, was working on her book of family stories, she wanted the few trees she DID have to be accurate. She also wanted to fill in more of Sophia’s back story. Donna and I tag-teamed our way through the Bas-Rhin archives, confirming Sophia’s birth and trying to determine her grandparents. We learned from the census records² she was raised by her grandparents–along with her two older brothers, also born out of wedlock³. Her marriage record³ told us her mom, Catherine, was living in Paris, and we even found Catherine’s declaration to remain French. When the Germans annexed Alsace, you had a choice: remain French (which required you to move OUT of Alsace), or become a German citizen. Even though Catherine wasn’t living in Alsace, she was apparently still considered to be a resident, so had to do the paperwork.

Sophia did not have an easy life. She married into a ready-made family, added to it quickly, and then was uprooted from all her friends. I’ve been told the letter in her left hand was a letter from Alsace, though I’m not even sure if she was literate. She never went back and we never knew she had any brothers until Donna and I dug deeper. I think this is the only photo I’ve seen (both in black and white and colored  versions) of Sophia, which is part of the reason I like it. I’m glad we have it to remember her by.

photo credit: color added by Mark Halvorsen

¹”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Lorentzen, naissance [birth] 1842, p. 7, no. 20, Sophia GAERTNER, 17 Aout [August] 1842. “fille naturelle”.

²1851 Census of France, canton Sarre-Union, arrondissement de Sauverne, Bas-Rhin, Lorentzen, p. 8. no. 193, family 45, Sophie Gaertner; accessed 12 January 2018. age 8; digital image, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin, (archives.bas-rhin.fr).

³”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Lorentzen, naissance [birth] 1837, p. 6, no. 14, Jacques GAERTNER, 14 Decembre [December] 1837. “fil naturel”.     and

“États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Lorentzen, naissance [birth] 1839, p. 6, no. 16, Pierre GAERTNER, 14 Septembre [September] 1839. “fil naturel”.

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