Nearly nine years ago (!) I published a blog post here about my Simmons brick wall. I talked about my great-great-grandmother Mary Ann Belinda Simmons‘s mysterious parentage, how I had discovered from the 1850 census that her unknown father had died and that her mother Rachel had remarried a Charles Clark, but that I was still trying to trace that branch back another generation.
In the intervening years I have broken down that brick wall and branched out further with my Simmons ancestry – but only after realizing how dangerous assumptions can be. Here is the 1850 census record where Belinda Simmons appears:
The 1850 census does not identify the relationships among those in a given household (this question was not asked until the 1880 census), and censuses prior to 1850 list only the name of the head of household, so there wasn’t the option to find infants Belinda and Charles in 1840. What I had to go on was a household of adults and children with differing surnames, and for reasons which I no longer remember, I leapt to the conclusion that Belinda and Charles were the children of a remarried Rachel and her deceased Simmons husband.
Years later I happened to look again at Belinda’s Find a Grave memorial and found that a maternal link had been added – but to an Ann Simmons, not a Rachel Clark. My first inclination was to assume there was a mistake on the Find a Grave site, but I dug a little deeper and found additional records that disproved my earlier assumptions and led to a few new branches on the family tree.
Ann’s headstone, conveniently, lists her explicitly as “Consort of Samuel Simmons,” and shows that she died in April 1839 at the age of 21. I also found a marriage record1 for Charles Clark and Rachel Matthews dated November 29, 1844 in Hamilton County, Ohio. Thus it did seem that the parents of Belinda were Samuel Simmons and his deceased wife Ann, rather than Rachel and her deceased Simmons husband. But then who were Charles and Rachel (Matthews) Clark, in whose house Belinda and her brother Charles were living in 1850?
None of the records I had found for Belinda named her parents, so I turned to Charles Simmons’s records instead. I found a death certificate2 for a Charles H. Simmons, born 26 April 1839 in Ohio who died of apoplexy on 6 September 1908 in Philadelphia. His parents, both born in Ohio, were Samuel R. Simmons and Mary A. Clark. So Mary A(nn) was also a Clark! Then finally I found a 30 July 1837 marriage record3 for a “Samuel B. Simmonds” and “Amil Clark,” further confirming this theory. According to Find a Grave and other sources, there also appears to have been a third Simmons child, Charles’s twin Samuel Benjamin, who was not living with Charles and Rachel in 1850. After this additional detective work, it seems plausible that upon Ann’s death, leaving three children under the age of two, her probable brother Charles and his wife Rachel took in their niece and nephew. I also noted Caleb and Mary Clark (ages 73 and 69) living next door to the family in 1850. It seems likely these could be the parents of Mary Ann and her brother Charles, and the grandparents of Belinda, Charles II, and Samuel.
More questions remain, of course. Various sources show Charles II’s birthdate as 26 April 1839 and Samuel’s as 24 April 1839. This would be strange enough, but especially when their mother’s headstone lists her date of death as 20 April 1839. There is obviously a discrepancy (or two) somewhere! My assumptions this time seem based on better evidence, but I still need further corroboration regarding all these connections. And then, as always in genealogy, the inevitable: can I trace this branch back even farther?
1 Marriage Record of Charles Clark and Rachel Matthews. Ohio, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1774-1993 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
2 Death Certificate of Charles H. Simmons. Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates, 1906-1968 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data:Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1968. Series 11.90 (1,905 cartons). Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
3 Marriage Record of Samuel B. Simmonds and Amil Clark. Ohio, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1774-1993 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. Original data:Marriage Records. Ohio Marriages. Various Ohio County Courthouses.
For 2022, my goal is to post here weekly to share some of the interesting, tragic, and amusing stories I’ve discovered about ancestors and cousins on both sides of my family. In the past I’ve used both the 52 Ancestors prompts as well as the slew of prompts available at the Geneabloggers website, so we’ll see what will actually keep me blogging regularly this year.
Today’s post is inspired by this week’s 52 Ancestors prompt, “Curious.” I’ve always had a morbid streak (maybe it comes from growing up one alfalfa field away from a cemetery). I used to wander through said cemetery, jotting down tombstone inscriptions I found interesting. Usually “interesting” meant those where the deceased died at a young age, and, curious and wanting to learn more, I would drive down to the Caldwell Public Library (in Idaho at that time you could get a driver’s license at fourteen) and look up obituaries on microfilm. This same morbid curiosity continues now as part of my genealogical research. Thankfully there are now enough scanned newspapers available online that I am often able to find out how and why these ancestors and cousins met an untimely end, even when I am hundreds of miles away from a relevant public library.
One individual about whose death my curiosity was piqued was my second great-granduncle, Jacob “Jake” Slagel. The son of Samuel John Slegel (spellings of this surname are inconsistent) and his wife Mary Walty, and brother of my 2G-grandfather, Samuel Slagel, Jacob was born between 1850 and 1851 in Wisconsin. By 1856 Jacob’s parents had moved to Highland, Iowa; then by 1870 to Grove, Iowa. On October 7, 1877, in Livingston County, Illinois, where his brother Samuel had married two years before and would spend the rest of his life, Jacob married Katharina “Katie” Rapp. They would have a daughter Mary the following year, and a daughter Carrie two years after that. By that time the family was living in Morton, Illinois.
I knew Jacob had died young (though when I was 14, his age of 34 might not have made my list of “early deaths”), and scanned images of the Freeport [Illinois] Journal-Standard at Newspapers.com flesh out the story. Tragedy struck the Slagel family on 15 September1884 when Jacob and Katie had been married just shy of seven years. The newspaper article “Death in a Wagon Factory” tells us Jacob Slagel was an engineer manufacturing cider using a wagon factory’s steam machinery. The machinery’s boilers exploded violently, and then the remains of the factory caught fire and were completely destroyed. Jacob Slagel and “a boy named Briscler” died instantly, and two additional victims were thought to be buried in the building’s ashes. Several other individuals had suffered terrible injuries as well. The article states baldly that Jacob was to blame, as he allowed the boilers to run too low on water, then suddenly added cold water, “a mistake for which he paid with his life.”
I haven’t been able to identify the “boy named Briscler” any further, but one of the other severely-injured men was Christian Ackerman, who died three days later. According to the newspaper article, written while Mr. Ackerman’s life still hung in the balance, death most likely was a “merciful relief.” Even an article with this level of detail can’t satisfy all curiosity, however. Was Jacob supposed to be manufacturing cider in the factory and, if not, how serious was this infraction? What did happen to all the others injured in the incident, and to the families left behind by those who were killed? How did Katie cope with losing her husband and knowing that (apparently) he was responsible for his own death and those of several others?
I do know that nine years after Jacob’s death, Katie married William Voelpel, who had been born in Germany in 1842 (Katie had also been born in Germany). Katie died in 1910, and it appears that William Voelpel died in 1914. Both Katie and Jacob are buried in the Apostolic Christian Cemetery in Morton.
My blog has been dormant for a while now, and one of my goals for 2022 is to remedy that neglect. What better way to get started than to participate in the January 26 #MyGenealogyStory challenge?
My genealogy story began, appropriately enough, as stories. I can remember as a child eating at Great Western Pizza in Caldwell, Idaho, and asking my dad to “tell me more stories!” Later I made the same request of my grandparents and (thank goodness) took notes. I was also intrigued by the “green booklet,” a pamphlet written about my Hoffmann ancestors’ journey from Alsace-Lorraine to America in 1883.
Stories started to take on a more structured framework when I stumbled across a family history book my second cousin David Johnson wrote and printed for his grandparents’ 50th anniversary in 1989. This plastic comb-bound book traced our common ancestors back many more generations than I had imagined possible at fifteen.
While in high school I read all the genealogy books I could find in my public library and visited my local Family History Center. I wrote out pedigree charts and family group sheets in longhand and filed them in 3-ring binders, then eventually migrated that data over to genealogy software programs.
It wasn’t until I started graduate school and had consistent access to the internet that things really took off. I found myself corresponding with David Johnson and other newly-found relatives, writing away for copies of records, and continuing to expand my family tree. As technology advances, I continue to take advantage of what it can offer through DNA testing, accessing online documents, and viewing images of headstones and scans of newspapers that would be too distant (or too numerous) to see in person. That same technology then allows me to reach back out to relatives and strangers alike and share those stories that got me hooked over Great Western pizza in the first place.
Sometimes you uncover family history facts and immediately comprehend their significance; other times you write down the facts and only later realize how important or interesting they are. I had the latter experience recently when I discovered that my great-granduncle, Joseph Theodore Montgomery, was employed by a cult. But let me take a step back.
Joseph was the sixth son born to John and Mary Ann Belinda (Simmons) Montgomery. He was born 16 July 1872 in Olney, Illinois. His oldest brother was my great-grandfather, Charles William Montgomery. Some time ago I had seen a clipping of his 1945 obituary on Ancestry.com, dutifully saved it to my files and updated my records, but didn’t dig any deeper.
Then I got interested in podcasts. I haven’t started listening to genealogy podcasts yet (though I have a lot of them saved and waiting), so this is an example of two worlds colliding, more or less. Mostly I listen to true crime podcasts (any murderinos out there?), but I also listen to podcasts on other semi-morbid topics, like one called Zealot, by Jo Thornely, which digs into the stories of various cults. As with a lot of podcasts, a major colorful-language warning goes along with this one, and sometimes the impact these groups have had on others are pretty grim.
But in episode 19, the podcast discusses the House of David, a religious movement founded in 1903 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The group, among other beliefs, promoted communal living, prohibited cutting their hair, and operated numerous business enterprises, including an electricity plant, amusement park, musical groups, a cannery, and a barnstorming baseball team. I shared this story with my brother, who even purchased his own replica House of David cap and jersey. Here he is, modeling the hat last October (along with Ben and Dad):
So what does this have to do with Joseph Montgomery? I’ve been trying to do some major organizing and overhauling of my genealogy files, thanks in large part to the American Records Certificate from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies I am now pursuing. As part of this overhaul I ran across Joseph’s obituary again, and now the part I’d glossed over before jumped out at me: “Mr. Montgomery…was chief of the refrigeration plant of the House of David cold storage plant…”
Of course, I had to delve into this further. I learned that the House of David had the world’s largest open-air fruit and vegetable market (the Benton Harbor Fruit Market), and the cold storage plant, which was completed in 1937, enabled farmers to store their produce rather than having to sell it right away. So it’s no wonder Joseph’s position as chief of the refrigeration plant got prominent notice in his obituary. Unfortunately, the plant was demolished in the 1990s after it was heavily damaged by fire.
This was almost up there with discovering my connection to Lizzie Borden! Unfortunately, it does not appear that Joseph Montgomery had a long crazy beard or played baseball (his funeral was officiated by a Methodist minister), but he was definitely cult-adjacent, and now Matt has even more reason to sport his cool hat.