23 October 2010

What I don't know about my immigrant ancestor...

There’s a lot I don’t know about my immigrant ancestor, Johann Hinrich Lübker.

Let’s start with who he was and where he was born. There seems at least to be agreement about the “when”: 1804. And according to just about every source that lists it, the “where” is Prussia. But given the German penchant for grabbing up land, that covers a fair amount of geography.

For the last couple of years, I was convinced he came from Fehmarn Island, a place that kind of sticks out in the Baltic Sea at the base of the Jutland Peninsula, off the northeast coast of Schleswig-Holstein—close enough that it’s been connected to the mainland by a bridge since 1963.

But let me back up and set the stage a little.

In the mid-1800s, the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were essentially the rope in a tug of war between Denmark and Prussia that had been going on in various forms for centuries. By the mid-1840s, Schleswig was controlled by the Danish crown, Holstein by the Prussian-dominated German Confederation. But there was a popular movement (at least among the German majority living there) that wanted the two duchies unified and made part of the German Confederation.

The story I’d been told had it that Johann Heinrich Lübker was a member of the shoemakers’ guild, an organization that got caught up in the excitement as the movement morphed into an uprising. He threw an ax at a local (Danish) official, missed, and had to get out of there in a hurry.

As Dad told it, both Johann Hinrich and his brother got out on Danish passports, supplied by a “Danish nobleman” for whom they’d worked. Johann Hinrich went to New York. His brother—unnamed in the tale—was said to have gone to South America, maybe Brazil.

So imagine my surprise when, while trolling through Ancestry.com, I discovered my ancestor in someone else’s tree, and with a brother listed and named!

There were some things that looked strange: For example, it said he was born in “Iceland.” But after getting in touch with the tree owner, it turned out someone had mistranslated or misunderstood “Fehmarn Island,” which was, in fact, the place she believed both had come from.

Fehmarn Island fit Dad’s story perfectly: Part of the disputed territory back in the 1840s and ’50s, occupied by Danish troops and returned to Danish jurisdiction, like the rest of Schleswig and Holstein, at the end of the First Schleswig War. In the end it was incorporated into the German province of Schleswig-Holstein—the Confederation ultimately prevailed, but not without having to hold a second war, and then some. If you think political machinations are complicated today, go read about the “Schleswig-Holstein Question.”

Dad had told me many times—more frequently when he was encouraging me to go to Canada or try to get British citizenship during the Vietnam War and thereby avoid it—that one of the reasons our ancestor had to come to America was because he didn’t want to be a soldier in a war (although I guess he wasn’t averse to attempting an assassination). The records bear out that he emigrated in 1846, two years before the First Schleswig War actually began.

One of the attractive things about this other tree is that by connecting Johann Hinrich with their ancestor, Hans Hinrich, it also connected the Luebkers of Wisconsin/Minnesota/Indiana with the Lubkers of Nebraska—the former descended from Johann Hinrich (who anglicized the spelling of the name by converting Lübker to Luebker) and the latter descended from his supposed brother, Hans Hinrich (who just dropped the umlaut and spelled it Lubker).

It also seemed telling that no photos seemed to exist of either Johann Hinrich or Hans Hinrich—both of whom could have been considered political fugitives, and might not want have wanted any photos floating around out there to make finding them any easier if, in fact, anyone was looking.

The brother-to-Brazil business was easily explained by someone confusing Sao Paulo with St. Paul (even though neither brother actually lived in the Minnesota city) and the two sides of the family simply losing touch in the pre-Internet, pre-telephone days.

On the other hand, I never could find any source besides that other family tree that made the connection, not in Ancestry, not in any other family trees (although a bunch of them picked up the info from me), not in any of the LDS records or even in a Danish database I stumbled across a year or so ago.

Then recently, I got in touch with my second cousin, Kathryn Hillert Brewer (each of us is descended from one of Johann Hinrich’s grandchildren), and she had some very different info—info that apparently came from my dad’s research.

She had a whole gaggle of siblings listed for Johann Hinrich: Hans Joachim, Engel Margarethe, an earlier Johann Hinrich (who died as an infant), Margarethe Elisabeth, Detlef Hinrich, and Wilhelm Asmus, Lübkers all.

But no Hans Hinrich Lübker.

That probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that she also had a different set of parents listed for Johann Hinrich. The other tree had his father and mother listed as Casper Friedrich Lübker and Malen Christin Bohnoff. Kathryn had them (from my dad) as Detlef Hinrich Lübker and Katherina Elisabeth Beck.

She also had a different point of origin for our ancestor.

Instead of Fehmarn Island, she had Niendorf, kirchspiel Zarpen, landkreis Storman, amte Reinfeld, Schleswig-Holstein. I had to do a little digging to figure out what and where that is.

  • Niendorf turns out to be a Prussian area incorporated into Hamburg by the Nazis back in 1937, and is now a “quarter” in Eimsbüttel, one of the nine boroughs of the city.
  • Zarpen kirchspiel (parish) is a municipality in the district of Stormarn.
  • Stormarn (note the extra “r” in there) was the Prussian landkreis (county or district, which is now part of Schleswig-Holstein) from which the Nazis took Niendorf, among other Prussian pieces.
  • An amt is a "collective municipality." Reinfeld, in the district of Nordstormarn (North Stormarn), is the seat of the amt, but not part of it—kind of like the District of Columbia is not part of a state, but is the seat of our national government.

But enough of the political geography lesson.

The point is, THAT location fits my dad’s story about Johann Hinrich, as it probably should, since it’s based on his research. But it’s also close enough to Fehmarn—a little less than 100 miles—that it’s not impossible that we might be related to the Fehmarn Lübkers. I just need to look closer at some of the folks on the two branches, dig back a little and see if the lines connect someplace earlier on.

As a postscript, there’s one other thing that bothered me: Germans of that era tended to go by their middle names, not their first names. So it would be odd for brothers to have the same middle name: Hinrich.

On the other hand, I’ve run across many German immigrants, first-, and sometimes second-generation descendants whose birth records list the first and middle names in one order, and reversed in subsequent records as they adopted the American style. So it was easy enough for me to imagine brothers actually named Hinrich Hans and Johann Hinrich, the former going as Hans, the latter Hinrich. And from what’s in the census records, it’s pretty clear that the former DID go by “Hans” and the latter “Hinrich,” even though my dad often referred to him as “John Henry.”

But they probably aren't brothers.

Of course, as I mentioned elsewhere, it’s also possible that my ancestor got out on a Danish passport as Dad had it, and the name on THAT was “Johann Hinrich Lübker,” a name he just kept using after arriving here. His real name could have been something entirely different. And there's no way to know if his brother left on a passport with the same surname or something completely different. In which case I have another, even bigger mystery on my hands!

20 October 2010

Another mystery—solved?

I’ve been digging back into our family history for the last few years—something my dad was passionate about, but that didn’t particularly interest me until after I had kids of my own.

What piqued my interest was a photo I came across of my great grandfather and his wife and kids. I received it as part of a packet from the current pastor of a church where he’d served back in the early years of the 20th century. I’d come across a reference to the place online and, on a whim, sent a note asking if they had any info about and maybe a photo of my great-great-grandfather, Gotthilf F. Luebker.

I’d never seen a picture of the guy because there weren’t any hanging on the wall when I was a kid, as there were some other ancestors. I later discovered that my dad had many pictures of him in his files, but when I got that photo from the church, I felt like I was I “meeting” him for the first time.

It had a particularly strong impact because it showed him surrounded by his wife and kids—as a husband and a father—like me. And standing to his right was my grandfather—whom I recalled only as a white-haired old man holding me on his lap and letting me play with his pocket watch—here, as skinny teenager, with his whole life still ahead of him!

Anyhow, something clicked, and suddenly these people became real to me, more than just names or dusty, disconnected relics (like Gotthilf’s hat) that my dad kept in his study when I was growing up.

The only problem was that Dad had been gone for 15 years, so I couldn’t go ask him to repeat all of the stories I’d half-listened to when he was still alive. His family history records were scattered around the old house up in Pine City where he’d been living when he died, but not organized or even consolidated in any significant way. I felt bad about that: I’d made him a promise during his final months that I’d gather up that stuff and take care of it, but moving around as much as we have, I never quite got around to it. It remained in what I came to call “the Dad Museum.”

Then, last November, my daughter and I went up to Minnesota to do a college visit and were able to spend a couple of days at the old place, where I packed up and shipped as much as I could back to Arizona. There were some things I couldn’t locate—files that supposedly had info that tracked our family tree back into the 1600s, and some old photo albums that belonged to my great aunt—but in talking to my brother and my nephew, it sounded as though those might already be in the care of my sister, who also has been researching family history.

Among the stuff I shipped to Arizona were a number of framed family photos I’d never seen before, including one of Johann Hoefler, my great-great-grandfather, my Grandma Luebker’s immigrant ancestor. I scanned the photo, posted it on Ancestry, and didn’t think much more about it. (That's him, below.) There was just one thing that seemed odd—I couldn’t find a date of death for him, and he didn't seem to be buried alongside his wife in Pine City.

Flash forward to this year. I’m up in Pine City again, helping my other daughter get set up in the house up there, and I get in touch with Jerry Hoefler. His grandfather and my great grandfather were brothers, which makes him my second cousin once removed, if you’re keeping score.

I asked Jerry about Johann, and it turns out that Johann was the ancestor my dad often described to me as having been “assassinated.”

The story—or one version of it—was that a Hoefler ancestor sold the family linen mill back in Bavaria and used the proceeds to kind of tom-cat around for a while, maybe fathering an illegitimate child or two. Eventually he emigrated to the United States where, in dad’s story, one of this ancestor’s “bastard” off-spring from Germany tracked him down years later and shot him to death on the porch of a whorehouse near where the St. Paul Civic Center eventually would be built.

My problem was that I hadn’t associated Johann with that story or as being that guy. I hadn’t made the connection that the guy who’d settled in Pine City, the guy who had six kids with Catherine Wölfinger (with whom he’d arrived in the United States along with a pair of daughters—Barbara, two years old, and Margaret, only six months—in 1866, when he was 28 years old) was the same wastrel who’d met the colorful end in my dad’s story.

Jerry had some different information. It seemed that Johann actually had started another family back in Bavaria, then abandoned them to start the second family with whom he came to America. So that would mean we're the “bastards,” and the family he left behind back in Germany would be his "real" family. And as Jerry had it—apparently from my dad, as well—it was the youngest son of that left-behind family who’d been sent over here to—well, I’m not exactly sure—to avenge the family’s honor, I guess.

Jerry also shared a couple of letters with me that my dad had sent starting back in 1953 when Dad was stationed in Germany.

One was asking his aunt for more info about whether any of the older generation of Hoeflers recalled a visit by a German relative circa 1898 or 1899—he’d been in touch with the German Hoeflers, and one of them mentioned traveling to visit relatives in the States around that time.

Apparently none of the surviving American Hoeflers recalled such a visit, leading dad to formulate the hypothesis that there may have been a visitor who came to visit just one person: Johann, to shoot him dead.

In a later letter, Dad transcribed the newspaper accounts from the St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Pioneer Press that indicated Johann had shot himself. But Dad discovered what he believed was a significant discrepancy: one article said the pistol was found in Johann’s right hand, but the wound was below his left ear.

That seems to have been the genesis of the “assassinated ancestor” story. That it was a shooting is certain. But Dad’s question was, “Who actually pulled the trigger?”

The answers came as a result of another letter Jerry shared with me, from another cousin who’s been researching family history. In it she mentioned another article about the shooting in the St. Paul Daily Globe, a newspaper I’d only recently discovered on the Library of Congress’s “Chronicling America” website. Turned out there are two articles. Here’s what they say:

From the Saint Paul Daily Globe, Tuesday Morning, December 30, 1890:



John Hoeffer Lies at the Hospital, His Head Horribly Mutilated.


Tired of Life, He Attempts an Exit by the Well-Worn Pistol Route.


He Cannot Possibly Recover From the Self-Inflicted Injuries.


John Hoeffler lies the city hospital with a bullet hole through his brain. He will die. Last night at 9:30 o'clock Mrs. Ryder, of 122 West Sixth Street, was engaged in household duties in the rear of the house, when she was startled by a flash, followed by the report of a pistol just outside the kitchen window. The report was also heard Amelia Ryder, daughter of the lady mentioned, and a roomer in the house named George Regelsberger. The latter ran out to the spot from which the flash had seemed to proceed and there found the prostrate body of a man. Blood was flowing from a wound in his head. He was unconscious. Mr. Regelsberger at once hurried to police headquarters, a block away, and gave information of the facts. Lieut. Schweitzer proceeded to the scene, and found the man as described. Mrs. Ryder. having recovered from her fright, identified the man as John Hoeffler, formerly a roomer at the house, and latterly fireman at the Ryan Hotel. He had shot himself near the base of the brain with a .44 caliber navy revolver. The ball had penetrated the brain. Hoeffler’s hat, a black slouch hat of Stetson manufacture, was bespattered with the brains of the suicide. Hoeffler was removed to the city hospital after a brief examination of his wound by Dr. Ancker. An operation was postponed on him there, but it is impossible that he can survive.

In one of the man’s pockets was found a memorandum book. On one of the pages was written in German: John Hoeffler, Dec. 29. Did he shoot himself?

Hoeffler came to St. Paul nine years ago from Pine City. Mrs. Ryder, on whose premises the shooting occurred, also came from Pine City about that time. The Hoeffler and Ryder families were neighbors there. Mrs. Hoeffler died in Pine City eleven years ago, and since that time Hoeffler has made threats against his own life, which, however, were regarded as meaningless until the affair of last night occured. Hoefler leaves six children. One of them is Mrs. Henry Kruse, of Pine City, who has charge of three younger children. A son, John Hoeffler, resides in St. Paul on Canada street, and a daughter, Henrietta Hoeffler, is employed as a domestic by a Summit avenue family. Hoeffler is addicted to drink. He was discharged from his position at the Hotel Ryan nearly a month ago. It is thought his action was due to despondency.

From the St. Paul Daily Globe, Friday Morning, January 2, 1891:



But It Failed to Give John Hoeffler His Life

John Hoeffler, the man who shot himself in the head last Tuesday evening in the yard of Mrs. Ryder’s residence, at 122 West Sixth street, died at the city hospital yesterday. That death has ensued in his case is less surprising than that he survived for so long the injuries of such a nature. The revolver with which Hoeffler shot himself was a forty-four-caliber, navy pattern. The ball entered his skull at the base of the brain, made a circuit of the inside of the cranium, and lodged just above the ear on the left side. Dr. Ancker probed for the bullet, but was unable for some time to trace its course. Having at length located it, a piece of the man’s skull was cut away from the region of the bullet, and it was removed. Hoeffler was unconscious during the operation but rallied, subsequently regaining his senses, and discussed with the attendants his chances for life. These up to yesterday morning seemed tolerably good, despite the nature of the wounds and the intricacy of the operation performed. From that time, however, the man became rapidly worse, and he died at 3:30 in the afternoon.

DATES: The first thing I noticed is that the actual year of the shooting doesn’t match up with the supposed dates of the travel by the German relative that made my dad curious in the first place. Back in 1953, he was looking at the years 1898 and 1899. Turns out Johann’s death was nearly a decade earlier.

WOUND LOCATION: While I don’t reproduce them here, the articles in the Dispatch and Pioneer Press, were the source of the “gun in right hand/wound under left ear” discrepancy. But in the Globe accounts—and one can infer from the detail that the reporter talked to the doctor or the “attendants”—it’s pretty clear that the shot entered at the base of the skull on the right side and the slug traveled around inside the cranium and came to a stop below the left ear.

It seems likely there was trauma to both sides of his head. And even if there was no exit wound on the left, it seems likely there could have been swelling and bleeding (or worse) from the ear that might lead a reporter to assume that’s where the shot entered and that the open wound on the other side was the exit, assuming the reporter actually saw the injured man. Maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he just got it wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

WEAPON: There’s also disagreement between the Dispatch and Pioneer Press and Globe accounts on what type of revolver was used. The Dispatch and Pioneer Press say it was a “.44 bull dog revolver” and the Globe says a “.44 caliber navy revolver.”

Here, I tend to believe the Dispatch and Pioneer Press version. The .44 bull dog—based on the British Webley—was a fairly common (and inexpensive, if you bought an American-made version) “pocket gun,” a far more likely weapon for a man in Johann’s circumstance to have and be carrying. A navy colt is much larger—nearly three pounds, and more than a foot long—and actually was a .36 caliber weapon, although the Army version was a .44.

And the navy revolver probably would have done significantly more damage, with a muzzle velocity of about 900 FPS, compared to only about 600 for the bull dog.

REGAINED SENSES: Before reading the Globe article I had no idea that Johann ever woke up after the bullet entered his head. But apparently he did. While not definitive, it seems that he might have told his attendants if someone else had shot him, and the article only mentions his discussion of his chances to live. You could chalk that up to traumatic amnesia, of course. But the rest of the evidence seems to point in another direction.

CIRCUMSTANCES: The articles hint that Johann moved to the St. Paul with Mrs. Ryder, his former neighbor in Pine City. Her husband was still alive at the time of her leaving (and was through 1893) but not living with her in St. Paul. So it’s easy to imagine that after his wife died in 1879, a guy who once sowed wild oats across Bavaria, may have run away to St. Paul with his neighbor's wife.

But in the news account, Mrs. Ryder identifies him as a “former roomer” at her boarding house, indicating that if they’d had a relationship, it most likely had ended and he'd moved out (or been asked to move out).

The article also states that he’d been fired from a job at the Hotel Ryan a month earlier, he had a history of threatening suicide since his wife’s death (the eleventh anniversary of which had passed less than a week before, on Christmas Eve), he was “addicted to drink,” and was suffering from “despondency.”

And it was Christmas time—prime time for depression and suicides. It sounds like his holidays hadn’t been particularly happy.

That he chose the backyard of a woman who probably was his former paramour, a house where he formerly lived, is consistent with the mental state of someone wanting to draw attention to his act and to punish the person he probably felt had done him wrong somehow. One can imagine him looking through the window and making sure she was nearby before he pulled the trigger.

So with all of that, I have a hard time inserting a stealthy assassin into this scene. From the article, it sounds like George Regelsberger was outside within seconds, hardly time for an assailant to put the gun in his victim’s hand and flee.

For me it’s difficult to see anything more than a man whose life had collapsed around him, who thought he had nothing left to live for, who believed a bullet would end his pain.

And the saddest part—for me, anyway—is that if he’d lived a hundred years later, someone probably would have picked up on his symptoms and got him the help he needed, long before he reached this sad end in a cold back yard.

But some questions still remain:

  • What was the purpose of the note in his pocket: “John Hoeffler, Dec. 29. Did he shoot himself?” It would be interesting to know whatever happened to that, whether it was in his writing, and why he got the date wrong.
  • What was the eventual disposition of the gun, the hat, the memorandum book and the rest?
  • Mrs. Ryder’s maiden name turns out to have been Mary Schweitzer. Was the police Lt. Schweitzer who “proceeded to the scene” a relative of hers? Could it have been a murder for different reasons, a murder that was covered up, just not the murder my dad suspected?
  • And where is Johann Hoefler buried?

I don't know whether those are questions I'll be able to answer. It would be interesting to try to locate descendants of the Ryders and find out whether any stories have come down through their family about the events of December 30, 1890 in that back yard on Sixth Street.

But that’s a project for another time.