Sunday, April 26, 2015

Black Sheep Sunday: Falling Off the Wagon

Lately I’ve been working with a distant cousin to explore my Erickson roots.  (My mother was an Erickson.)  Recently I told the story of Great Grandpa Karl Erickson’s farm that became a church; this story is about Karl’s father, John Erickson.  He fell off the wagon—both figuratively and, at the end of his life, literally.

John Erickson was born Johann Erichson in Mecklenburg, Germany in 1838.  He came to America in 1868 with his wife Caroline and their two sons, Johann and Karl, on the clipper ship “Electric.”  I’ve seen a drawing of the ship, and it looks so romantic in the picture!  But in reality, crossing the sea in a sailing ship in steerage class was more like a nightmare.  I should write about that some other time.

The 1870 census finds John and Caroline living in Will County, Illinois with their two young sons and Mary Erickson, 73 (likely John’s mother).  John is a farmer with a couple of cows, according to the agricultural schedule.  He doesn’t own land and he is not yet a citizen, but he was naturalized in 1876—almost as soon as he could have been, since the waiting period was five years at the time.

John’s wife Caroline died in 1872, when the boys were thirteen and eleven.  Could that be when John’s life started to unravel?  By the 1880 census, both boys were working as farmhands on other farms, and John is nowhere to be found in the census.  He remarried around 1882, to the longsuffering Sophia Schultz, ten years his junior.  By the 1900 census John and Sophia are living in a rented house and he is a day laborer—tough work for a man in his sixties! 

By 1908, when John was 70, things had gotten bad.  The Joliet Herald News ran a short article on October 26 entitled “Sons Cited to Give Support to Father.”  Apparently John Jr. and Karl were called before a judge and asked why their homeless father was about to be declared a pauper by the courts, when he had two perfectly healthy adult sons who could support him.  The October 27 edition reported that “John Erickson Sr… for whom a petition was filed to have him declared a pauper, will be given a home with his son John, and another son will contribute to his support.”  The end of the story?  Not by a long shot.

The very next day, the October 28 Joliet Weekly News fed the flames by publishing a shocking exposé about “John Erickson, the aged Romeoville resident who with his wife were alleged to have had to sleep on the island at Romeo, driven forth into the cold by an unnatural son.”  The story went on to indicate that “the elder Erickson was a hard-working man, deserving of success, and his sons, though wealthy, denied him financial assistance.”

Two weeks later on November 9, the Joliet Weekly News was singing a different tune.  This time the headline said this:  “Aged Romeo Man Booze Victim – John Erickson’s Sons Not Heartless as Reported.” 

The story went on to say, “The father, it appears, is a victim of drink and had been living in a house belonging to the Romeo saloonkeeper.  He had worked a little garden and this, together with his earnings as an occasional worker in the neighborhood, and the efforts of his wife at washing, had supported them.  For twenty years, however, the old man’s surplus had gone for drink and in the evening of life when [his] earning capacity had been… ruined by alcohol, he became a dependent.”

John Jr. and Karl were exonerated.  “The old man’s sons were cast adrift at 15 to shift for themselves, never seeing their father except when in liquor…   When the old gentleman was without a home, he was taken care of on the farm [of one son] several miles west of Romeo.  The farm was so far from the saloons, though, that it was not satisfactory to the old gentleman… The rest of the story is known.  He was found on the island with his aged wife and all parties suffered the humiliation that booze had brought, not only to the old man, but to the family.”

Two years later at the 1910 census John and Sophia are living in a rented house and he is a “garden laborer.”   Perhaps the saloonkeeper allowed him to move back into his little house.

John managed to live to the age of eighty, but his luck ran out in November 1918.  I wondered if he died in the influenza epidemic—but when I ordered his death certificate, it told a different story.  John died of “shock and injuries” resulting from “falling from a wagon.”  He was buried at Lace Cemetery in Lemont, Illinois, in an unmarked grave.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Name That Child

I was digging around in a client’s tree last week, and I came across a couple who were very creative in naming their children.  When I come across one unusual name it amuses me, but when I come across a handful, that’s even better.

John Brittain was born in 1796 in South Carolina.  He took Sarah Lindsey as his bride in 1825, when he was twenty-seven and she was just seventeen.  Over the next 30 years they had at least twelve children, most of whom lived to adulthood and beyond.  Findagrave was a wealth of information on the children and their families, most of whom spent their entire lives in Indiana.

First was William Brittain, born in 1826, named after his paternal grandfather, nothing fancy there.  But then things got more creative. 

Jamima America Brittain was born in 1828.  She went by “America” so she must not have minded her unusual name.  She had nine children, all with quite typical names.

John Columbus Brittain – Named after his father John and Christopher Columbus, perhaps?  John named his son born in 1861 “Abraham” and his son born in 1865 “Ulysses,” perhaps after the Civil War heroes of the North.  (This was Indiana, after all.)

Mary Indiana Brittain went by “Indiana” all her life—her tombstone even gives that name.  So being named after the state of her birth must not have bothered her too much.  (I’m glad my parents didn’t name me “Illinois”!)  Her eight children all had common names.

Virginia Brittain – another state name.  Her mother’s parents came from Virginia, so perhaps that’s the connection.  She named one of her sons “Washington,” but the other seven children have more typical names.

Marquis (Marion) Lafayette Brittain – I wonder what caused John and Sarah to name their child after this famous French aristocrat and military officer who fought for the United States in the Revolutionary War?  Was it because the war hero had died two years earlier, in 1834?  At any rate, this Lafayette had eleven children with two wives, and although some of the girls had unusual first names (Phelda, Lola, Orpha), none of the names had political or geographical overtones.

Leah Frances and Sarah Catherine Brittain came next.  Both had ordinary names and as far as I could tell, ordinary lives.  I think Sarah might have died young, possibly after having daughters named Dora and Flora, but the records aren’t clear.

Theodore Hyson Brittain was a Civil War veteran.  His seven children had fairly typical names.  The youngest was a daughter named “Tillie Belle,” which I think is very cute.

Sidney Smith Brittain was married twice.  He and his second wife (pictured here) named their sons Simon Sidney, Orville Lee, and Orbra Ivan, and their daughters were named Bessie, Eutha, Lura, and Lenore.  Perhaps these were popular children’s names in Oklahoma, where they lived.

Taylor Adolphus Brittain had the dubious distinction of dying of scurvy at a time when that was rare.  He was unemployed at age 52 in the 1900 census; perhaps he was already sick.

Queen Victoria Brittain – What a name!  She was born in 1851, at the height of the reign of England’s queen (pictured)—before her beloved Prince Albert had died and turned her into a perpetual mourner.  Our Victoria had nine children, according to the 1900 census, but only two survived—daughters Artemesia and Estie May.  One son was named Algain.

Lovina Brittain died at age 24, perhaps in childbirth.  No children are recorded.

I love finding a collection of names like this, all in one family!  What's your favorite name in your family tree?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Black Sheep Sunday: The Greedy Priest


Well, now—it seems that my latest client is not the only one with a black sheep in the family!   After I posted “Inlaws and Outlaws” recently, blog reader Arlene sent in the story of her great-uncle, a priest who apparently didn’t take a vow of poverty.

Father Peter Gaborski (name changed to protect a certain elderly relative who might have a stroke if she knew about this) was a priest in a Lithuanian Catholic church in Chicago, Illinois.  The story opens in 1935, when an elderly man within Father Peter’s sphere of influence died.  The elderly man lived in a local flophouse—but as it turned out, he was no pauper.  He had sixteen bank accounts initially estimated at upwards of $90,000—which in today’s dollars would be equal to something like $1.5 million.  Later estimates more than doubled that number.

The man had a shady past, and according to a newspaper account (Alton Evening Telegraph, 3-7-1935), “Although he possessed a fortune, the ex-convict, James Thomas Kelly, 62, preferred to live in a west side flophouse at 25 cents a day.”  The proprietor of the flophouse, a Mrs. Butnam, figured out that her tenant was not the pauper he appeared to be.  She moved him from his 25-cent room (a price he had negotiated down from 35 cents) to her own home after she discovered that he was wealthy.  She then teamed up with an attorney and several others to draft a phony will.  In it, Mrs. Butnam became Mr. Kelly’s common-law wife, to whom he left nearly all his considerable worldly goods. 

Witnesses were needed—and that’s where Father Peter comes into the picture. The article goes on to say that there were two “witnesses” to the phony will—“Peter Gaborski, 48, who described himself as a priest and is a painter by profession, and John Dallyde, 54. The witnesses, police said, confessed participation in the plot, admitting that they signed the purported will after the death of Kelly.  They were to receive $100 each for their signatures.”

The undertaker also got in on the action, apparently to make sure his bill (an inflated $4,500 for a $98 coffin) was paid…  Altogether six people conspired to relieve Mr. Kelly of his estate.  But the forgery must not have been a good one; as the will worked its way through probate court, suspicion of foul play was strong enough that poor Mr. Kelly’s body was exhumed!  The Decatur Herald (3-9-1935) says that “Dr. Jerome Kearns, who examined the exhumed body, reported that Kelly did not die of cancer as the death certificate stated, but further examination will be necessary to establish the death cause.”  I’m not sure what came of that—but another article (Decatur Herald, 3-11-1935) said that Mr. Kelly—known in various newspaper headlines as the “Mysterious Miser,” the “Wealthy Hobo”, and the “Flophouse Midas of Madison Street”—was not the first lodger to die suspiciously under Mrs. Butnam’s care, and that toxicology tests were being run to see if Mr. Kelly had poison in his system.

Other beneficiaries included the attorney who drafted the will, who was to receive 6% of the estate, and the undertaker’s assistant, who was left 4%.  So, let’s review:  The landlady, the attorney, the undertaker, and the undertaker’s assistant, all beneficiaries of this man’s will…  Imagine that not raising red flags to a probate judge!

The two witnesses were the first to crack and confess to police, and after that, the plot unraveled quickly.  By May of 1935, all six were convicted on forgery and conspiracy charges.  According to the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger (5-9-1935), the landlady, the attorney, the undertaker, the undertaker’s assistant, and the two witnesses to the phony will each received a sentence of one year in jail.

So here’s hoping that Father Peter learned his lesson…  I’m guessing he did a lot more painting, and a lot less preaching, after this affair.