While researching a relative of mine—we’ll call her “Aunt Ann”—I came across the story of Otto and Elsie Iversen (his name changed). They were Ann’s birth parents, but they were not the ones who raised her. I figured there was a story there…
Otto Iversen was a sailor. He was born in Bergen, Norway in 1898 and found his calling on the sea. In this photo, Otto is the big man on the right. He visited the port of New York, in 1920, and he must have liked what he saw. In 1921 he came to stay, and in 1927 he became a naturalized citizen in Chicago. It was said in the family that Otto was over six feet tall, big enough to eat a whole pie at a time, and strong enough to lift a cow over his head.
Elsie was an immigrant, too. She and her sister came from Germany in 1923 when they were in their twenties. The passenger list says their destination was Chicago.
Somehow Otto and Elsie met, and they married around 1923—but it was far from a fairy tale ending. Elsie had a baby who died, then another baby who died, and then a third baby in 1929—a little girl they called “Ann.” In the 1930 census little Ann lives in Chicago with her father, mother, and a boarder. But apparently neither Otto nor Elsie wanted to raise a child. According to the family, Elsie tried giving the baby to her sister-in-law in Iowa, but that didn’t “stick”—the family just didn’t need another mouth to feed.
But Elsie’s sister and her husband had no children of their own, and they took Ann into their home and raised her as their own. Ann grew up first in Chicago, then in the suburbs, and then in the country. Her uncle was a successful tailor who provided well for his wife, niece, and a nephew they also took in.
And what happened to Otto and Elsie?
Elsie ran a boarding house in Chicago for many years and never took much interest in her daughter, although the two of them had a relationship when Ann was older—in fact, Ann actually cared for her mother in her own home as her mother’s health failed. Elsie died in 1989 in New Jersey at age 93.
Ann remembers having visits from Otto as a child. She was always rather frightened of her father, due to his size and the fact that he was always rather shaky. By the 1940 census Otto was a resident at the Chicago State Mental Hospital, also known as “Dunning Hospital.” According to the family, one Sunday afternoon in 1943, he took a streetcar to visit his wife. As he stepped off the car, he had a massive heart attack and died in the street. He was only 44. Ann had very few positive memories of her father, and mental illness was much misunderstood in those days.
I wondered if he was a drinker; it seemed like that would explain a lot. So I ordered his death certificate—but it told a different tale. It corroborated the heart attack story; the cause of death was “chronic myocarditis” and he died ten minutes after the heart attack. But it also stated that Otto had suffered from post-encephalitis for fifteen years. I looked up the side effects of post-encephalitis, and sure enough—a shakiness that mimics Parkinson’s. Also common? Mood disorders, personality changes, and mental deterioration. Otto was the victim of a disease far beyond his control. I was glad to be able to share with Ann a little more about her father that might explain why he couldn’t be there for her when she was young... It’s never too late to have some closure.