As my mom has often remarked over the past 18 months of researching her family tree, when we started out, all she knew was her two grandmother’s names and her maternal great-grandfather’s name (Sigmund Streebeck).
Our early research focused on her father’s family — the Ensmingers of Butler, Pa. — and it was during our first visit to the Butler County Courthouse that we discovered that Charlotte Venita Merriman had married William George Ensminger in 1897 and divorced in 1912.
While we have made tremendous progress in uncovering lost ancestors and reconnecting with living relatives, the circumstances that led to the divorce (certainly an uncommon occurrence 100 year ago) remain shrouded in mystery.
Here’s what we know:
- Charlotte was underage when she married William G. in Butler, Pa. We have a copy of the marriage license with Charlotte’s mother’s signature as her legal guardian.
- Charlotte and William had three children: Albert Charles (b. 1898), Mildred Aileen (b. 1899, d. 1899), and Arthur Merriman, my grandfather (b. 1901). All three were born in Butler.
- In January 1910, William’s father (William Henry Ensminger) signed Albert (age 13) and Arthur (age 8) into Tressler’s Orphanage in Tyrone (Perry County), Pa., about 120 miles east of Butler. The boys remained in the orphanage until each reached legal age — 16 years old.
- The 1910 Federal Census shows William living with his parents in Butler. We have not found Charlotte listed anywhere in the 1910 Census.
- Charlotte was in Butler in June 1912 when she was served with divorce papers.
We have several theories about the separation and divorce.
One is that William’s family didn’t care for Charlotte (his family was well-to-do and hers was not) and pressured them to separate.
Another is that Charlotte suffered from depression after losing her daughter and that caused a rift between her and William.
The third theory is that Charlotte was unfaithful and ran away with someone, leaving her two sons behind for William to care for.
Mom’s cousin Ruth — Arthur’s daughter — was 10 when Charlotte died. The only thing she remembers hearing about why her father and uncle were sent to an orphanage is that “Charlotte was sick.” Or course, that could mean just about anything.
That’s why mom was so excited when she received a box from her cousin Jon this week. Jon was in Ohio, cleaning up his late sister’s house in preparation for selling it when he came across a stack of about 50 postcards, most of them addressed to Charlotte with postmarks between 1905 and 1918.
This got me thinking — when was the last time someone wrote me a letter? Not a bank offering me a great APR credit card, or a national non-profit looking for a donation. A genuine, “how are you doing?” letter. It’s been a while.
It’s sad to think that, 100 years from now, our descendants won’t experience the thrill of reading a letter or postcard from the early 21st Century.
While the vintage cards are beautiful to look at, their true value to us is in the information they yield. Take this card, for example:
Here we have confirmation that Charlotte was living at this address at this specific date (March 9, 1909) and that her son Albert was still in the same household at that time.
As we poured over the stack of postcards, we found several from 1910 addressed to Charlotte; there are some sent to her in Butler in 1910, but we found several cards sent to her at addresses in Pittsburgh in early 1910, and all of them include invitations to come visit and vague references to feeling better.
Unfortunately, none of the messages include phrases like, “I’m sorry your husband kicked you out and your father-in-law dragged your two young sons halfway across Pennsylvania to incarcerate them in an orphanage.” I guess that would have been too simple.
I’ve spent the past few days pouring over the 1910 Census pages for the Pittsburgh Enumeration Districts to determine who was living at the addresses listed on these mysterious postcards. I got a hit on one address, but there was no Charlotte Ensminger listed there and the family name at that address was unfamiliar. It’s a tedious task, but I’m going to keep trying. I refuse to give up hope that we’ll solve the mystery of Charlotte’s whereabouts and why her marriage broke up.
In the meantime, while these cards have provided a number of answers…and new clues, they’ve presented us with a whole new mystery.
Mom and her cousins Jon and Phyllis were related on mom’s mother’s side of the family; their maternal grandmother was Eleanor Weaver. So how did a stack of postcards sent to Charlotte, mom’s paternal grandmother, at various addresses in Pennsylvania end up in Phyllis’s house in Ohio?
And that’s a mystery for another day, I guess.