A Distant Family Tragedy

People wrote differently a century ago than we do today.

I do not mean the mechanics of writing, though yesterday’s manual typewriters and and fountain pens worked differently than today’s word processors and predictive text and text-to-speech. We write faster than our ancestors did because our technology has improved.

What I mean is that the style differed. There’s a precision to the words used a century ago that isn’t as common today.

Take the lede of an article in the Baltimore Sun from July 30, 1902: “Mrs. Susie A. Gardner, 62 years old, and living at 1630 South Charles street, died very suddenly of an attack of heart disease shortly after 6 o’clock last evening at the home of Mr. Coleon White, 1634 South Charles street, where she fled following an attack upon her by Mrs. Laura Meldrumm, a half-sister living with her, who is said to be demented.”

Look how precise that is. Sixty-three words, encompassing the who (Susie Gardner), the what (her death), the where (Baltimore’s Federal Hill), the when (early evening), the why (a heart attack), the how (an attack by her half-mad half-sister). A complete story is told in a single sentence. There are wasted words, but they are few and due almost entirely to conventions of style (such as titling each name); I’d have struck the “very” and the “upon her,” and the final clause feels stiff and awkward. The rest of the article — an additional four paragraphs — elaborates upon the story, but the first paragraph tells the reader everything crucial.

Susan Gardner — Susie — is my great-great-grandmother; I left flowers at her grave, shared with six others, last weekend when I was in Baltimore running errands. Her youngest son, Allyn, was my great-grandfather and the ancestor whose first name I bear.

I found the newspaper article on Tuesday on Ancestry.com. It had been there for years. I simply hadn’t looked at it. Headline: “Death follows blow.” Subhead: “Mrs. Gardner expires suddenly after half-sister strikes her.” I read the article. I read it three times. I formed a conclusion about it quickly. I didn’t know how I felt.

In short, my great-great-grandmother was killed by her sister.

The details are these.

In the early evening of Tuesday, July 29, 1902, Susan came downstairs for dinner in the home she shared with her daughter Isabelle and her second husband, William Krauch. She asked her half-sister Laura, who had been institutionalized at Bellevue in New York City in the “insane pavilion” and now lived with her in Baltimore, about her health. Laura then, angrily and without warning, attacked Susan, striking her in the chest. Isabelle came to her mother’s aid, separated the sisters, and told Susan to go to a neighbor’s house while she calmed the raging Laura. Susan went to the nearby home of Colin White, a pipefitter, and died there of a heart attack when Isabelle came to retrieve her not more than ten minutes later.

(The Sun newspaper article gives the neighbor’s name as “Coleon White.” R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, in both the 1901 and 1903 editions, gives his name as “Colin L. White.” The latter spelling makes more sense to me, which is the spelling I will use going forward, and it’s from those books that I gleaned his occupation as a pipefitter.)

The newspaper account, told mainly in the words of Susan’s daughter Isabelle, left me with the distinct impression that Susan, my great-great-grandmother, was killed by her sister. Laura almost certainly did not intend to kill her sister, yet had she not attacked her that evening Susan would not have suffered the fatal heart attack.

Then my writer mind began to fill in the gaps in the story with information I had gained from a decade of genealogical research.

What time did this happen? The article tells us that Susan was “[coming] downstairs to supper” and she died shortly past 6 o’clock. Laura’s attack on Susan must have come no earlier than 5:30.

Who else was in the house? Isabelle had several young children, including possibly a newborn. (Isabelle give birth to a daughter, Pearl, in 1902.) The only children that I can say definitively were likely to be there (in that I know they survived until at least 1910 per census records) were her son Irving (aged 12) and daughters Mary (aged 7) and Ida (aged 6), but there is the chance, including the possible newborn, that there were six children in the home. Isabelle’s husband, a brakeman for a railroad, doesn’t give a quote in the Sun — the story is largely told in Isabelle’s voice — so we can safely conclude that he was not in the house that evening.

The picture fills in. Isabelle has prepared supper. Her children are gathering for the imminent meal or running around the table and the house on Federal Hill as children are wont to do. Laura is already downstairs. She has not been feeling well. Susan comes down the stairs. A polite word from Susan inquiring after her health provokes Laura into a rage. Laura screams and charges at her sister. All attention turns to the sudden and unexpected excitement. Some of the children witness their great-aunt attack their grandmother and their own mother intercede. Deeply shaken and breathing heavily, Susan leaves the home while their mother calms their aunt down. The younger children are cowering in fear from what they just witnessed. The older children, like Irving, try to corral and comfort the younger ones. Little do they realize they have seen their grandmother alive for the last time, for when Isabelle leaves a few minutes later to fetch her mother from Colin White’s home Susan dies. Half an hour earlier, the family was getting ready for an ordinary evening meal. Now, the evening has turned to tragedy.

Go back far enough in time, and every family has its inexplicable tragedies. The baseball writer Craig Calcaterra recently published an ebook about a tragedy in his own ancestry: his great-great-grandmother murdered his great-great-grandfather with an axe. I read the book; it’s quite brief. I’m not sure how I feel about the events described. But neither does Calcaterra, as he writes in the book. And, as I said, I’m not sure how I feel about these events.

I began researching my family history in 2005 for what I admit is a silly reason — Where, I wondered, did my name come from? My great-grandfather, obviously, but why did he have that name? Where did it come from? How did his parents, whose names I did not know, pick that name? I had been told that his family was German, so why did they give their son a very English name with a very odd spelling? These are all good and interesting questions, but they are also questions that can never be answered. The people who had the answers died a very, very long time ago. And when I started my researches, I didn’t realize quite how long ago.

My grandfather was a late-in-life child; his parents were in their forties when he was born. But my great-grandfather Allyn was also a late-in-life child; his mother Susan was thirty-nine when he was born, while his father William was fifty-four. I would learn in time that Allyn had nieces, daughters of his half-sister Margaret, older than he was. The problem with being the product of two successive generations of late-in-life children is that I was incredibly remote from my ancestors; my great-grandfather was born ninety-four years before I was, my great-great-grandfather almost 150 years. Generational spans such as that, and the family lore is forgotten, the history lost.

The first thing I discovered was the census record for the Gardner family in 1880. It was full of information, names of people I had never heard of. Brothers, sisters, an aunt, possibly even a grandmother, all living in a single house in Washington, DC near the Navy Yards. There were almost certainly cousins out there that I had never met, never even realized were out there. For the first time I knew the names of my great-grandfather’s parents — William and Susan. None of these names sounded the least bit German to me. It was exciting, and I had no idea where to go next or how to find the next pieces of the puzzle.

One of the puzzle pieces from that 1880 Census record was William’s sister-in-law, Laura Fenhagen. I drew some quick conclusions — William’s mother-in-law Anne Atwell could not possibly be Allyn Gardner’s grandmother as she was born in 1800 while William’s sister-in-law Laura was born in 1860, so if Susan and Laura were sisters then Anne had to be the mother of William’s first wife. Allyn was only six months old at the time of the 1880 Census, so Laura must have come to Washington to help her sister with caring for the new infant. A picture was forming.

Eventually, I would be able to build on this Census record and increase my understanding of the family. There were additional children — a daughter for William, two sons for Susan from their previous marriages — that had left the fold by 1880. I would discover some of these people were buried in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, and in 2012 I went there for the first time and looked for the graves of ancestors and relatives that, only five years earlier, I hadn’t even known existed.

Grave of Laura and William Meldrum, Congressional CemeteryOne of those relatives was Laura. In my researches I had learned that her life appeared to have been a sad one. She married a man named William Meldrum, and they had a son, Howard. She outlived her son. She was also institutionalized at St. Elizabeths (no apostrophe) in Washington, south of the Anacostia, for the last twelve years or more of her life. She lived into the 1930s, and her husband outlived her, into the 1940s. I wondered sometimes how he must have felt, his wife confined to a hospital while he lived alone in his twilight years. They are buried together at Congressional Cemetery, near John Philip Sousa. William’s grave is marked, Laura’s is not. I’m wry enough that it amused me to no end that a distant aunt was buried a hundred feet, give or take, from the writer of the Monty Python theme music.

I pitied Laura. I made the assumption, and not an unreasonable one, that whatever caused her to be institutionalized happened late in her life, in her fifties. When I visited Susan’s grave at Loudon Park for the first time in May, though there was no one there that would have recognized who I was or understood me if they did, I put my hand on the ground, not even sure how the eight people buried there are configured in the plot, and said something to the air like, “I visited your sister in Washington. She had a sad life, and she’s at peace now. I thought you should know.”

I didn’t know that Laura had killed Susan, that Susan knew all too well that her sister had had a sad life. The realization that Laura was responsible, quite directly, for my great-great-grandmother’s death frankly staggered me.

The things I know about the people in this drama of the events of July 29, 1902 are dry facts. Most all of them have passed beyond living memory. (My mother has dim memories of Ida; she was a friend of her father’s, and she remembers having tea in Ida’s kitchen with Ida and my grandmother.) Dry facts — marriages, births, deaths, street addresses — say little about a person. They lack the color of life.

The things about Susan that I knew that added the color to the dry facts were few. Three things. Three.

First, Susan spoke fluent German, because her children spoke fluent German. Susan was born in Baltimore, but her family came from Hamburg in 1817, and the family name von Hagen was anglicized into Fenhagen. (Her father preferred Feenhagen, but that spelling did not stick.) The Fenhagens of St. Mary’s are relatives.

Second, Susan’s favorite child was her son Henry from her first marriage to a man named Henry Hardy.

Third, after the Gardners moved from Washington to Baltimore circa 1886 (for reasons I do not know but for which I have formulated a theory), my great-grandfather Allyn walked across the frozen Baltimore harbor and bought her flowers with the money he earned from his job. This would have happened in 1895, when my great-grandfather was fifteen. From the first volume of Baltimore: Its History and Its People, edited by Clayton Colman Hall: “The ‘February Freeze’ of 1895 recalled the severity of the blizzard of 1888, and nearly equaled that of 1893. On February 7 a furious snowstorm, with extremely low temperature, fell upon the city, and till the 21st navigation was hardly practicable. The harbor of Baltimore was frozen from shore to shore. All the rivers of Maryland were frozen over.” Normally he gave her half the money that he earned at his job. (William, a tinner, died of a brain tumor two years earlier.) He also bought her flowers.

To these I can now add a fourth thing that adds color to my great-great-grandmother’s life. She cared enough about her mentally ill sister to look after her, and that care ultimately took her life. In the words of Susan’s daughter Isabelle, “when my mother came downstairs to supper and addressed a query as to [Laura’s] health, Mrs. Meldrumn made some angry reply and struck her in the breast.” (The Sun newspaper article uses two different spellings for Laura’s married name, neither of which, as far as I know, based on the headstone at Congressional Cemetery, are correct.) A few minutes later, at Colin White’s house, Susan died.

Susan Gardner died 115 years ago. I doubt there are any more stories of the life of my great-great-grandmother to be found, making this story, the story of her death, the last story of Susan as a person I will ever learn.

The aftermath intrigues me, but that’s lost, too, in the mists of time.

I don’t know if Laura was ever charged with a crime in Susan’s death. I only learned Tuesday of the circumstances of Susan’s death and I’ve not had the opportunity to delve further. Considering the mitigating circumstances of Susan’s “delicate health” and Laura’s “fits of insanity,” I doubt a manslaughter charge would have been brought, especially in light of this line from the Sun article’s final paragraph: “The blow dealt Mrs. Gardner is said to have been insignificant in its effect, the death having been caused by excitement due to the attack and the feeble condition of her heart.” Still, I wonder how aware Laura was of what she had done to Susan and how she felt about that. Did she feel remorse? Did she carry guilt with her until the end of her days? And her husband, William Meldrum? How did he feel about Susan’s death and Laura’s role in it?

The witnesses, Isabelle and her children? Did Isabelle feel any guilt for opening her home to Laura, a woman who had recently been in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue? Did she feel any responsibility for focusing on dinner and her children that evening? What memories did the children carry of witnessing their great-aunt assault their grandmother, followed by their grandmother’s death?

What sort of relationship, if any, did Laura have with her Gardner relations after her sister’s death?

Every family has its tragedies. I have orphans and accident victims among my ancestors. I have veterans of the American Revolution and North Carolina slave owners, too. The death of Susan Fenhagen Hardy Gardner is one of my family’s tragedies. I don’t know how to feel about it. I don’t know what to feel. She is remote enough in time as to be a complete stranger, and yet without her I would not be here writing this.

Each of us is shaped by our parents, and our parents by their parents, and their parents by their parents, and so on and so on. I never knew Susan, never could know Susan, but she shaped my great-grandfather, and he shaped my grandfather, and he shaped my mother, and my mother shaped me, and so in some small way, even though I don’t know who Susan was as a person beyond those few small facts, I carry something of her within me every day.

More directly, though, I carry a monument of her — the name, Allyn. For whatever unknown reason, Susan and William bestowed my great-grandfather with the name Allyn, and now I have that name. It meant something to two people in 1879, and while there are no artifacts of Susan and she has been largely forgotten, something that she decided one nearly hundred and forty years ago lives on.

That will have to suffice.

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