Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The all-too-short life of Emory Dale Dickson

In my research into my wife's ancestors, I came across an interesting relative - an older brother of her Grandma Charmaine named Emory Dale Dickson.

Emory was the second child and first son of the marriage of Charles Dickson and Valda (Honold) (Camper) Dickson. He was born in LaPorte, Indiana, on 10 April 1929, just six months before the stock market crash later that year. He is listed with his parents on the 1930 and 1940 censuses in Indiana, with nothing remarkable in either one. He was just an ordinary kid, as far as those records show.

However, on 26 May 1947, just a month and a half after his 18th birthday, Emory passed away. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was congenital heart disease. What struck me was the duration of the illness - "life." He had been born with heart problems, and those problems eventually killed him. That put a completely different spin on his life - instead of being just a normal kid, maybe there had been hospital visits, or sleepless nights for mom and dad, or worries about when he went out to play. Open heart surgery wasn't available during his life (the first successful open heart surgery was in 1951), but I'm sure doctors did all they could for him at the time.

One cool thing I found was some actual pictures of him from 1940 and 1941. He would have been about 11 or 12, and was a student at Star City High School (which apparently included kids from a lot younger grades than 9th). They're not the best quality, but they are pictures of him. He has a goofy kid's grin, much like I see on my own sons' faces all the time. I wonder if he knew about his heart problems then, and had any premonition that his life would be so brief. I kind of hope not, so he could just enjoy being a kid, making the same memories and doing the same things other kids did.

You think you know someone, or Why one record isn't enough

I've focused a lot on some of my thornier lines the last few months, I wanted to try something a little different today, and look at some of my wife's relatives. My documentation on them is pretty sparse, mostly because I know her family is researching these lines. But that's no excuse to be lazy, so I set about getting some proof for these names, dates, and places in my files.

I started with her dad's maternal grandparents, Charles Dickson and Valda Mae Honold. I had a couple censuses with them, 1930 and 1940, showing the couple with their children, including two children of Valda's from a previous relationship. The 1940 census lists them both with the last name Dickson, while 1930 census lists them as Jacqueline and Ardelle Benford, leading to a normally reasonable conclusion that Valda's previous husband was a Mr. Benford. But I couldn't find any records for Valda marrying a Mr. Benford. So what was the deal?

I went after more records on Jacqueline and Ardelle, both of whom passed away years ago. Aside from that census record, the name Benford had no connection to Jacqueline that I could find. And for Ardelle, it showed up as his middle name, but never again as a last name. Instead, both of them showed in multiple records as Jacqueline and Ardelle Camper. Apparently their father was a man named Clarence Kyle Camper! For the 1930 census, my guess is when the household member gave the names of the children, the census taker heard Ardelle Benford, and assumed Benford was his surname, and hearing that Jacqueline was his full sister, gave her the same name, instead of their original surname Camper.

Once I had that bit of info, things fell into place. I found some newspaper articles about Valda requesting a divorce from Clarence Camper, on grounds of "extreme cruelty." I've often wondered what constituted cruelty in earlier times, and one article about Valda and Clarence's divorce provides interesting insight. The examples of cruelty Valda provided included refusing to pay household bills, contribute to the support of his wife and two children, but mostly it was his refusal to sleep or stay in the house with Valda. Instead, he slept in his car or on a chair in the kitchen. Valda filed for divorce in March 1927, and was granted the divorce on 24 October 1927. The timing of the divorce is very interesting, as both Charles and Valda's obituaries stated they were married on 29 October 1927, just five days after the divorce, and neither obituary mentions Clarence Camper or the Camper surname at all. This marriage must have been a better fit, because they remained married until Charles' death in 1985.

Clarence Camper went on to marry at least two more times, to Edna Montgomery in 1951, and Elma Montgomery in 1964. He gained a stepson named Burton Montgomery from one of those marriages, and apparently had another daughter named Hazel. Interestingly, his obituary also names Jacqueline and Ardelle as his children, but gives Ardelle the surname Camper (Jacqueline was listed as Jacqueline Easthan, and I still don't know where that surname is from, as the only spouses I've seen for her are Prosser, Metcalf, and Hedstrom).

It just goes to show the importance of collecting as many documents on our ancestors as we can. Getting one document is a good start, but there may be errors (like this Camper-Benford mixup), or it may tell only part of the story.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The lost history of Rosie Sitzman

Several years ago, DNA testing and a mailing list helped me bust through one of my most solid and unyielding brick walls - identifying the ancestry of my great-grandmother, Rose (Sitzman) (Wagner) Morris. It was an amazing breakthrough, and being able to finally identify her mother's place of birth and hundreds of years of her ancestors was and is one of best moments (or series of moments I guess) in my genealogical career. Best of all, I was able to share that info with my grandma Blossom, Rosie's daughter, just a few months before she unexpectedly passed away. Even with those discoveries, something always bugged me - who was Rosie's father? And could I find a birth record for her that might give me some clues?

According to my grandma Blossom, when Mary Sitzman came over from Europe, she told her girls they were making a clean break from Europe - no speaking German, no talking about where they were from, nothing. Rosie would have been a toddler or maybe a kindergartner at the time she entered the US, so I'm not sure what she could have revealed anyways. But she never said anything to my grandma about her origins, so grandma had no info to pass on. Since it seems Mary wanted a clean break from Europe, it makes sense that she might have changed some info for her daughters' births, either with or without their knowledge. And it seems she might have actually done so.

Rosie's Social Security Application

Rosie's Social Security application, filled out by Rosie herself, gave her date of birth as 20 August 1903 in Germany, and named her parents as Mary Sitzman and Chris Schmidt. Her sister Mary's card (dated the same day as Rosie's, it turns out) names the same parents. Obviously Rosie and Mary wouldn't have come up with this information themselves, so they probably got it from their mother. Their mother Mary's death certificate (with info provided by her granddaughter Ellen Richter) says she was born in Germany, which she may have told her family, or they may have inferred it from the fact she spoke German. Once I learned Mary (the mother) was not from Germany, but from a little town in what was then the Austrian Empire, and now sits in the Czech Republic, I thought maybe Rosie and her sister Mary had also been born there too. The birth records for that area were not publicly available for the years I needed, so I searched for an alternate way of searching them. The chance came up when a coworker of mine mentioned an onsite researcher he used for researching German ancestry in the western Czech Republic. I hired that researcher to look for the birth records of Rosie and her sister, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It turns out, onsite research in this area is SLOW. The government moves very slowly, the mail moves very slowly, and the process of obtaining records is measured in months, not weeks or business days. But eventually, I received a transcription and then an electronic copy of both birth records. And the information was worth the wait.

Rosie's birth reocrd

Rosie's birth name was Rosina Zitzmann, probably named after Mary Sitzman's sister Rosina (who was actually Rosie's godmother). She was born on 27 July 1902, more than a year earlier than Rosie's stated birthdate. She was born in Zirk, a tiny little village in Bohemia near the Austrian Empire's western border with Germany. Her birth record names her mother, Maria Zitzmann (her mother's original name), and her mother's parents, Johann Zitzmann and Theresia Dorfler, but unfortunately says nothing about the identity of her birth father.

Mary Sitzman's birth record

Mary's birth record was likewise illuminating. She was born on June 23 1899, over a year earlier than the 17 July 1900 date she put on her Social Security application. Like Rosie's birth record, Mary's birth record names her mother and maternal grandparents, but says nothing about who her father was. However, there was one tantalizing clue - her godmother. Mary's godmother was Maria Schmidt, daughter of Mattheus Schimdt from Brandhauser in Bavaria, Germany. Brandhauser was only 12-15 miles away from Zirk, just over the border into Germany. As Mary's reported father was Chris Schmidt, I am very interested to see if Mattheus had a son named Chris or something similar. There are no records for Brandhauser available online, so I'll probably have to rehire that onsite researcher to see what he could dig up on the Schmidts of Brandhauser. Identifying Mary's birth father won't directly help me identify Rosie's father, as DNA testing has revealed they had different fathers, but it would be great to solve at least one half of this outstanding family history mystery.

So it feels like I am getting closer and closer to unraveling my great-grandmother's story, perhaps even parts she may not have known completely. Thanks to my dad and his siblings all testing at Ancestry, I've some preliminary leads on genetic connections that may link to Rosie's father, which is fantastic because it looks like that's how this mystery is going to have to be solved. If the identity of her sister's father is any indication, I may have to cast the net a little wider than I originally imagined. But if I can identify Mary's father, it may give me some idea of who and where to look for Rosie's when I get to that point. It's been a bit of a challenge to get this far, but I am super happy with the progress I've made so far, and I am totally up for the challenge of figuring this guy out.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Kathleen Rose Gibson - the girl who lived

Today I had the opportunity, with my wife's help, to show my kids how to use the FamilySearch app. They're both really into using wireless devices, so the chance to play on an iPad was too good for them to pass up. :) Plus my daughter has done some family history with me in the past, so she was excited to do a little more.

I had them going through the tasks for any Gibsons they could find, when my son found something interesting - apparently my second-great-granduncle, George Gibson, and his wife Catherine (McDonald) Gibson had had a second daughter I didn't know about! Her name was Anna Gibson, born on 7 February 1902, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. I did some extra searching, and her birth record is the only thing I can find for her - she missed the 1901 census by a few months, and she wasn't in the 1911 census with her widowed mother and older two siblings. My guess is she probably passed away before 1911, though I don't know that for sure. She just disappears.

While entering Anna into my database, I realized I didn't have much info on her older sister Catherine. I knew she was listed as Kathleen in 1911, but I had nothing on her after that. That was odd, because I had death info for George and Catherine (McDonald) Gibson, as well as their son George Henry Gibson. George Sr. died of pneumonia just a few months after Anna's birth. George Jr. died of tuberculosis in 1918 at the age of 23. Catherine (McDonald) Gibson died in 1931 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Anna seems to have died before reaching the age of 10. But what happened to Kathleen?

I found her in the 1921 Canada census living as a boarder with a family in Fredericton, her hometown. She was listed as a student, though it doesn't say what school she was attending. So she seems to have gone on to some higher education, which is awesome. I'm not sure what opportunities there were for a young woman in Canada in 1921, but she seems to have set about  creating her own opportunities through education. The following year, she went to Boston, Massachusetts, where she apparently lived on her own - the US federal census for 1930 show she worked as a bank clerk, and lived by herself. She went back to Canada briefly in May 1930 (the border crossing record shows she was there for five days), then came back to the Boston. The border crossing also gives her physical description - 5'5", medium complexion, brown hair, and blue eyes. As her mother died in 1931, I wonder if that trip to Canada was the last time she saw her mother alive. After 1931, she was the last member of her family left.

Nine years later, in 1939, she declared her intention to become an American citizen. She was still living in Boston, working as a cashier. This may have been the same job that she was working in 1940, when the census listed her occupation as a saleslady in a department store. Then in 1942, she officially applied to be naturalized as an American. Her petition for naturalization is fascinating, as it gives her physical description - 5'5", 118 lbs, blue eyes, but her hair by that time had turned gray. She listed her address as 78 Carver St. in Boston.

Kathleen Gibson's signature from her petition for naturalization in 1942.

In 1944, Kathleen's name appears in a newspaper article asking for information on her whereabouts. Her aunt, Mary T. McDonald, had passed away in Butte, Montana, and Kathleen was one of her heirs. That is really interesting that her aunt (who apparently lived and died single, as Kathleen would herself do) who, according to her death certificate had lived in the US from around the time of Kathleen's birth, would list Kathleen as an heir to her estate. I hope somebody let her know, and that she was able to receive whatever her aunt left her. I wonder if I could find probate records for Mary and see what her bequest to Kathleen was? The fact that Kathleen was listed as a relative's heir leads me to hope she stayed on contact with her extended family back in Canada.

Twenty years later, she was still living at 78 Carver St., and worked as a clerk at the Trailway Bus Terminal. She worked there through at least the mid-1960s. By 1971, Kathleen had retired, but was still at 78 Carver St. Sometime between 1972 and 1977, she moved into an apartment on Boyle St. in Boston. I can't imagine what that was like for her - leaving the home she had lived in for more than 30 years, and probably downsizing to an apartment to live out her retirement years. She wasn't at the Boyle St. apartment for more than a few years, as she was in the Jamaica Towers Nursing Home in 1981. Kathleen passed away in Boston on 13 February 1983, perhaps in the nursing home.

Kathleen's story hit me for a few reasons. One, she outlived everyone in her family by more than half a century. That must have been incredibly lonesome for her - no siblings, no parents, just herself on her own, miles from where her family had passed away. Also, she never got the chance to be a sister-in-law, or an aunt, or a wife or mom or grandmother. I don't mean to say that her life wasn't fulfilling and happy, I sure hope it was. I just see what those relationships mean to my wife and the other women in my life, and it saddens me that she didn't get a chance to experience them.

Another aspect of her life that interested me was the changes in society from the time she was born until she passed away. When she was born, electricity and automobiles were still brand new. She would have seen the introduction of telephones, television, and space travel. She could have grown up in a home and town with little or no electricity, and near the end of her life gone to see Star Wars in the theater. That boggles my mind.

I'm glad I looked into Kathleen's life. If I'm ever in Boston, I would love to look up where she is buried and pay my respects. She seems to have lived a good life, worked hard, enjoyed the fruits of her labors, and stayed in touch with extended family even though she lived far away. That's an example worthy of emulation.