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.