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.