Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Every Record Tells a Story

Recently, as I previously mentioned, a bunch of death certificates I'd ordered months ago finally arrived and as I gleefully analyzed them, I found them to be full of revelations, one of which was actually a little emotionally moving.

As I've mentioned before, my grandfather, known to me as "Pop", grew up without his own father in his life. According to Pop, after his parents divorced, his father (James Edward Bauer I) remarried to a woman who did not want anyone in her family or social circle to know her husband had previously been married and even had children. Divorce was still taboo in those days (the 1930s) so she forbade her new husband from seeing his children, at least in public. Pop recalls that he was told not to acknowledge his own father if he happened to run into him in a public place. Of course, James didn't have to go along with this, he could have told his wife that he was going to be a part of his children's lives whether she liked it or not. He chose to abandon them instead. 

By 1940, Pop's mother had remarried and moved to Philadelphia with her children. This probably made having a relationship with his father, who was still living in Reading, all the more difficult even after he divorced the evil stepmother sometime around 1950. It wasn't until after James remarried for the third and final time to a kindly woman named Alma in 1951 that the gap between father and son began to bridge. Apparently, Alma was the driving force behind their reconciliation but despite this, Pop and his father never grew particularly close and so we didn't know much about this branch of our tree. Some bridges just can't be rebuilt.

Some time ago, I discovered that James' abandonment of his family had deeper roots. Thanks to census records, I had found that James' own parents, Edward William Bauer and Anna Jane Russell, had separated but this time it was the father the children stayed with. This prompted all sorts of questions with unknown answers. Why did they separate? Why did the children stay with their father Edward? Did this somehow impair James' ability to be a good husband and father? I tried to remind myself that separation and divorce were not completely unheard of even in the very early 20th century and that it could have just been "irreconcilable differences" that drove Anna and Edward apart. It didn't necessarily mean Anna wasn't still involved in her children's lives. But in my experience it's usually difficult to find a woman who would so readily give up custody of her children unless something much darker drove or force her away. 

Today, I finally got a look at Anna's death certificate. I actually had to order two because I wasn't sure when she died and the Pennsylvania Department of Health Death Indices don't give you much information to go on. I was actually worried neither of them would be the record I was looking for but when I saw Anna's father clearly listed as Robert Russell on one of them, I knew I had the right Anna. 

And then, there is was . . . cause of death: Acute Alcoholism. She was 31 years old.

Acute Alcoholism as cause of death for 31 year old Anna.
A sad death following her sad existence living alone in a
boarding home for the last 4-5 years of her life.
Poor James. The poor family. Anna's drinking must have been so severe that either her husband banished her from their home or she left on her own accord, knowing she was no longer fit to be a good wife or mother.  Of course, it's possible her drinking began after the separation, in her loneliness and anguish over the loss of her children. During this time period, it would not be unusual for the courts to rule in favor of the father regarding custody, which is probably why so many women stayed in unhappy marriages, so they wouldn't lose their children. And acute alcoholism I believe refers to alcohol poisoning, not organ failure due to long term consumption of alcohol, so she may not have necessarily been drinking for very long. However, a key factor is in the contributing cause of death on Anna's death certificate. It's hard to read but my mom and I worked out that it was probably menorrhagia nonpuerperal and that she'd be suffering from it for 42 days. Menorrhagia refers to menstrual bleeding and nonpuerperal means it was unrelated to pregnancy or giving birth. In other words, she was having a 42 day period which my mom, an RN, explained could have been happening because the alcoholism was making it difficult for her blood to clot. This supports the idea that she had been drinking for some time.

Another supporting factor on the record is that the informant was Anna's stepmother. By this point, her father was still alive and she was technically still married to Edward. Legally, he was her next of kin and often it is the next of kin who reports the death. Yet neither her husband or father were willing to report it. Could it have been that they were too grief stricken to serve as the informant? Yes, it's possible. But combined with the fact that Anna had been living on her own in a boarding house for the last 4-5 years of her life, it is certainly indicative that neither of the men in her life wanted anything to do with her.

This was further supported by the fact that I later discovered there was never a headstone erected at her burial place in Homewood Cemetery (it was not stolen or deteriorated, it just never existed). Her family were not so destitute that they could not have afforded a small, humble headstone so it must have been that they simply didn't care enough to pay for one. It's clear that by the time she drank herself to death alone in a boarding house, she had already been dead to her family for some years and it seems mostly likely the reason for that would be her drinking.

And when I realized all this, I think I sat here for a good five minutes and just contemplated what that meant for each member of the family and how it can't be a coincidence that the child of an alcoholic mother who abandoned her children by drinking herself into an early grave would grow up to abandon his own.

I have never thought very favorably of my great grandfather for his utter failure as a father to my Pop but I do now have some sympathy for him. It doesn't excuse what he did but it does make it a bit more understandable. He wasn't just a deadbeat dad, he was also the child of a deadbeat alcoholic mother and the two are inseparable. However, I don't think I'll be crying him a river anytime soon. After all, my Pop was also the child of a deadbeat dad and he turned out to be such a devoted husband and father, he was actually in danger of smothering his family!

Every record tells a story. Though not every record tells a story with quite the impact of one like this, it will give you some insight into your ancestor's lives and sometimes perhaps even of those closer to you. 


  1. Your story is beautifully written, with compassion, for all the families where the effects of the disease of alcoholism travels through the descendants in one way or another .