Monday, July 29, 2013

More Died From Flu Than Bullets

More died from flu than from bullets that year… That was the sad truth in America in 1918.  World War I was raging, but so was an influenza epidemic like the world had never seen.  Theodore Peterson—my great uncle Ted—was an engineering student at the University of Nebraska when duty called.  He never made it to Europe.

Although this photograph taken at his funeral is heart-wrenching to me, so too are the words of his sister Sara.  She wrote this letter to Sture, her sweetheart, on October 16, 1918—just days after Ted died of influenza at an army camp in Fort Grant, Illinois.  Their mother had lost her beloved husband Charles in 1917, and then her beloved son Ted just a year later.

“Mother is keeping up splendid, but the first few days are not near as hard as it is afterwards.  We girls have been talking of sending her out to California for the winter at least.  Carl (my brother) is in San Francisco, you know, and they have been wanting her to come for so long.  This winter will be so long and lonesome for her here.  If she gets out there she may be able to not think so much.  But I haven’t heard her complain—not once.  She is as brave a soldier as any.”

Sara wrote this a week later:

“Though I didn’t go to see the boys off today, I’ve been thinking of the day Ted went.  I don’t believe Ted ever felt happier in all his life than the day he went.  At last he was going to realize what had been his one wish and ambition ever since this war started.  And I can’t help but think, why oh why did he have to die, before he had a chance to accomplish some part of what he was so anxious to do.  It’s hard for us mortals to see the why of these things.  But it must be all to the best, for these things do not just happen, they are brought about by the Divine will.  It’s so hard to believe that is it the best, when we can’t see the why and wherefore.  But after all, surely I can be as brave as Mother, for surely to lose a son must be harder than to lose a brother.  And she says that after all and in spite of all, she wouldn’t had Ted done any other way than he did.  She is glad and proud that he wanted to go.

Sture, I said once about a year ago, that I would rather my brother would go, even if it meant that he never came back, than to have him take the stand of some of our other young men I know.  These words of mine have come to my mind so often these days, and while perhaps at the time I spoke them, I didn’t weigh them as I have since, I know deep in the bottom of my heart I meant them, and now I have come to the test.  And while it almost breaks my heart, dear, I can still say with all sincerity, that I am glad he took the course he did.  I would be unworthy of him and his sacrifice if I felt otherwise.”

For every soldier who died, whether on the battlefield or from the ravages of the flu, there were those who remained to mourn.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What Ever Happened to Agnes Goldberger?

My mother grew up in a household of five children—herself, her three siblings, and a distant relative named Agnes Josephine Goldberger—an orphan from Chicago. 

Agnes came to live with them at age six, after both her parents died, and she lived with them for about ten years.  What a change—from being the pampered daughter of a wealthy Jewish doctor in the big city, to being a farm girl, orphan, and foster child in rural DuPage County!  What was life like for her there?  Was she accepted at home, at school, in the community?  Was she an object of gossip?  Pity?  Or prejudice?  At any rate, at around age sixteen she left the Ericksons and returned to her Jewish relatives in Chicago, never to be seen again… and that’s all I ever knew about her, except that there were hard feelings in the Erickson family after she left.  

I wanted to know more—so recently I did a little research on Agnes.  It turns out that her father, Henry E. Goldberger, was a physician whose parents emigrated from Bohemia to Chicago.  Henry’s first wife, Mary Ingram, died in 1922.  Henry married Agnes Evatt in 1923, when he was 53 and she was 28. 

Baby Agnes was born to Agnes and Henry in Chicago on December 11, 1925.  By 1929, little Agnes’ mother was dead, and by 1933, so was her father, Dr. Goldberger…  Agnes was an orphan at age six.  Somehow she ended up on the DuPage County, Illinois farm of my grandparents, Robert and Clara Erickson.  It seems that Agnes wasn’t actually related to the Ericksons at all—but rather, her father Henry’s first wife, Mary, was a cousin of Clara’s—quite a stretch.  So how did they end up taking her in?  I don’t know.

I have a number of Erickson family photos with Agnes included.  I wonder if she was treated like one of their own, or if she always felt different, unwelcome, an outsider?  My grandpa Robert was a kind and loving man—but my grandma Clara, perhaps not so much. 

Mom always said that Agnes’ family suddenly wanted her back when she turned sixteen and she inherited her father’s money, and so Agnes left them without so much as a thank you—but my grandma Clara was no amateur when it came to holding a grudge, and I think my mother was just parroting what she heard at home.  I’ve always wondered if there was more to the story.  What happened to Agnes Goldberger after she left the Erickson farm around 1942?  Maybe someone out there knows the answer.

Postscript:  Some time after publishing this article here in July 2013, a granddaughter of Agnes found it in a google search. Her mother, one of Agnes' daughters, read it to Agnes. Agnes had changed her name after she left, and she had never shared anything about her childhood for the rest of her life. Sadly, she was still unwilling to talk about it, except to give her daughter permission to tell me that she was the person in my post, and that she was still alive.  

In 2015 an alert reader found a facebook post from a grandson of Agnes which was a memorial to Agnes' recent death. The photo showed her on her wedding day, and the resemblance to my photos was unmistakable. 

In September 2019 I was contacted by another of Agnes' daughters.  After Agnes left my grandparents' farm at sixteen, she went to live with distant relatives, changed her first name, and took on their last name. Eventually she married and had four children.  She never talked about her childhood with her children, and raised them with the belief that she was a natural-born member of the family she went to live with at sixteen.  Her reasons will always remain a mystery.

Agnes died in March 2015 at age 89 in New York.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Petersons - Sunshine and Shadow

My ancestors ran the gamut from black sheep to outstanding citizen.  But life isn’t fair…  Those who honor faith and family, who play by the rules, sometimes suffer plenty of tragedy anyway.  Consider my Peterson ancestors.

My great-grandparents were Carl Peterson (1861-1917) and Emelia Fryksdal Peterson (1861-1933).  From all indications they were a close and loving family—Carl’s obituary was titled “Another Good Man Gone.”  Eight children were born to them, all surviving to adulthood—but their adult lives were a mixture of sunshine and shadow, with plenty of heartbreak to go around.

Carl Jr. lived in California for a time before returning to his roots and taking over the family farm in Nebraska.  He and his wife had a daughter and a son; their baby boy died of whooping cough at 11 months.  Carl died young, at 53. 

Anna was a schoolteacher.  When her father died at age 57, she took care of her mother and sisters until they were settled with relatives or in homes of their own.  She married at age 37 and after a yearlong honeymoon, settled down to raise a family—only to die at 40, shortly after having her second son.

Theodore (Ted) was an engineering student at the University of Nebraska when he was drafted into the army.  He did not survive World War I; like so many other soldiers, he died of influenza in 1918, in an army camp in Illinois.

Emma lived on her own in Chicago, working as a nurse, and then bought a house in Montgomery, Illinois, where she worked at Copley Memorial Hospital until she retired at age 72.  Emma was very independent—she renewed her driver's license (for the final time) at age 91.  Emma never married, and she died at age 102.

Sara married Sture, her baseball-playing sweetheart, after a seven-year courtship (interrupted by WWI).  They lost their first child shortly after birth—a hidden sorrow that Sara never talked about.  They relocated to Illinois around 1940—Sture had a near-fatal car accident during the transition.  Sara outlived her husband and died in Illinois at age 91.

Signe was a schoolteacher and an excellent artist; some of her paintings survive.  She married a Nebraska farmer and had four children.  Their oldest son Jack died of a brain tumor at age 31, leaving a widow and young daughter.

Hilma, another schoolteacher, married and moved to Minnesota, where she and her husband Harold had three children.  Their only son, Harold Jr., drowned in a lake in Canada at age five.

Therese was bright and educated, but troubled.  After graduating as salutatorian of her high school class and becoming a schoolteacher, she died at age 30 in a mental hospital near Chicago.

This photo shows the four surviving sisters in later life—Emma, Sara, Hilma, and Signe.  They had seen much sorrow, including losing four siblings.  I lived near my grandma Sara and saw her often.  She had learned to take the good and the bad in stride, and was an inspiring example to me of surviving setbacks and appreciating the joys in life.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Passage to America

Once you become known as the Official Family Historian, a wonderful phenomenon begins to occur.  Relatives, especially older ones, begin to give you things, saying, “I know you’ll take care of this.  I don’t want it to be thrown out after I’m gone!” 

My Aunt Janet recently left a box with me.  One of the items in the box was this wonderful document—her grandfather’s ticket to America. 

Carl August Peterson (1861-1917) my great-grandfather, came to the United States in 1881.  He first settled in Chicago, where he had a brother, Theodore.  He married Emelia Fryksdal there, and later they went west to Nebraska. 

His passenger contract, written in both Swedish and English, gives these details: 

“The departure from here Goteborg/(Gothenburg, Sweden) will take place in a Royal Mail Steamer on 20 May 1881.  From Gothenburg the passengers are forwarded on steerage place to Hull, and further, never later than twelve hours after the custom house examination, to Liverpool, in third class carriages on the railroad.  With the first steamer belonging to the Cunard Line, the departure from Liverpool will take place never later than eight days from the arrival there.  In the above payment (30 kronor) is included:  Steerage place in the Steamers and third class carriages on the Railroads.  Forwarding of luggage viz: 10 cubic feet, half for children; also good and sufficient food from Gothenburg to the landing place in Amerika [and] free lodgings in Hull and Liverpool.”

Several things stand out to me:
  • Firstly, he traveled “steerage” class on the ship (the section near the rudder, which had the cheapest accommodations available) and third class (“emigrant’s class”) on the railroad, which would have gotten him a bench to sit on.  A long way from luxury... describes steerage as “a dark, noisy, smelly, stuffy deck of large bunk dormitories.”  Even so, a steerage ticket could cost the equivalent of six month’s wages for a laborer. (I wrote about "steerage" here.)
  • Secondly, he could take 10 cubic feet of luggage.  Everything else from his old life had to be left behind.  I wonder what he packed? 
  • Thirdly, he was provided with “good and sufficient food.”  Can I surmise that it was cold and minimal and plain?  
  • I am guessing that the “free lodgings” in Hull and Liverpool were nothing to write home about, either... I've read about those lodging houses in books.
The 1880s were a hard time in Sweden, with crop failures causing food shortages and lack of employment.  Leaving everything he had ever known must have been difficult, but staying where he was must have been the less attractive option.  So, he came to America at the tender age of nineteen, found a job in Chicago, got married, went west to Nebraska, bought some land, and worked hard… and his children became farmers and teachers and nurses and soldiers.  Carl August Peterson, an immigrant I am proud to call my ancestor. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Carl Peterson, Nebraska Pioneer

My great-grandfather, Carl Peterson, was an immigrant and a pioneer, as was his wife Emelia.  Thousands like them came from Sweden in the 1880s—due to massive crop failures there—to settle on farms in the American Heartland.  My great-grandparents’ story is not unique, but it’s no less precious to me for being common.  It’s because of their willingness to start a new life on a new continent that I can sing “God Bless America” today as I remember my debt to those who came before me.

Carl, who went by Charles or Charlie, came to America in 1881 and first settled in Chicago, where it is said he worked in a steel mill.  He married Emelia Fryksdal (another Swedish immigrant) in 1883; their first child, Carl, was born there.  But soon they headed west to the plains of Nebraska, as so many Swedes did, where they settled on a farm in Hamilton County.   

His grandson Robert Wallin recalled, “In 1885 he bought 160 acres from the Union Pacific Railroad for $6 an acre.  He put down $360 and had a $600 mortgage, which he renewed 10 years later for the same amount ($600).  They put up a temporary house.  Charles had two mules and a cow, and he used the mules to break up the land.  Halfway through, one mule died and he finished the rest with a mule and a cow...” 

A fine new house was built in 1903.  The historic Oregon Trail crossed right through their property; traces of the ruts could still be seen in the 1960s when my family visited the old homestead.  Carl and Emelia had eight children there, all of whom survived to adulthood, and he and Emelia remained on that Nebraska farm for the rest of Carl’s life.  

Carl became an American citizen on January 29, 1903, at the district courthouse of Hamilton County in Aurora, Nebraska; his citizenship certificate, a cherished possession, survives.  (Because of the “derivative citizenship” laws in effect until 1922, Emelia would automatically have become a citizen when Carl did.)

Carl never saw his homeland again.  He developed stomach cancer in his fifties, and died in a Chicago hospital in 1917.  But his wife Emelia and two of their daughters returned to Sweden in 1920.  Photographs survive from that trip, including a picture of the small cabin in Borgestorp, Sweden from which Carl came to America.

Carl’s obituary was a fine tribute.  It is titled “Another Good Man Gone” and reads, in part, “No man was held in higher esteem by his neighbors and the community generally than Charlie Peterson.  A man of strong conviction, he had the faculty of holding the respect of those who differed with him most radically…  The world can ill afford to lose in these trying times men such as Charlie Peterson, but the work he did and the example he set for unwavering loyalty will live long after his body turns to dust.  He fought the good fight and kept the faith.”

Monday, July 1, 2013

Justifiable Homicide

A few years ago I did an ancestry binder for an in-law branch of the family which shall remain nameless.  I discovered the story of a genuine black sheep—George Washington Coomes, who was shot to death on September 5, 1896.

George was born in McLean County, Kentucky, on January 16, 1861.  He married Cordelia Martin in 1887; she was 17 and he was 26.  During the course of their thirteen-year marriage they had three sons. 

But all was not well.  According to a newspaper article which ran in The Messenger after his death, George “for the past few years had been leading a very fast life and gained quite an unsavory reputation.”  The paper reported that “for the past year or two, he had almost deserted his family and had been devoting all his time and attention to loose characters.”  After going out drinking with his friends, he sometimes ended up at the house of Sarah Wall, a local lady of the evening. 

As the story is told in The Messenger, George and his friends had spent that day in town, “frequenting saloons,” and later proceeded to Ms. Wall’s house of ill repute at the edge of town.  The newspaper reported that the last time he’d stopped by, he “kicked the panels out of the doors, broke up the furniture, ran the inmates off the place, and slept through the night on the front stoop.”  Ms. Wall had warned him that if he ever returned, she would kill him—and she was as good as her word.  The paper reports that when George refused to leave, even at the urging of his friends, and then made threats to her, she raised a gun, fired it, and after he fell, cocked the gun to shoot again—but he didn’t rise.   Her shotgun had torn a hole in his side as big as a man’s fist.

Sarah Wall was briefly jailed, but released on grounds of self defense.  George was buried at St. Benedict Catholic Cemetery in Beech Grove, Kentucky—or rather, he was buried adjacent to it.  It is said in the family that he could not be buried in the churchyard due to the circumstances of his death, and therefore was buried on the other side of the cemetery fence—a common custom in those days.  There was no marker.

I can’t imagine the anguish of Cordelia, losing her husband in such a public and disgraceful way.  But she remained in McLean County the rest of her life, as did two of her three sons.  In the 1900 census she and her three boys lived with her widowed mother.  By the 1910 census she and the boys were on their own again, farming.  Cordelia never remarried, and she died in 1913 at just 44 years old.  She was buried at St. Benedict’s Catholic Cemetery, too—but most likely not beside her husband.