A Fatal Scratch: The Death of a Pioneer Woman

Anna_Margaretha_Poesch_Thoma_Obituary“After almost a week of extreme suffering, caused from blood poisoning, Mrs. Margaretha Thoma, one of Garnavillo’s oldest residents, passed away at 4:00 o’clock last Saturday afternoon. About two weeks ago the lady accidentally scratched the back of one of her hands with a pin. The scratch at the time was a mere trifle and was given no further thought by her until a few days after when the hand began to swell and cause more or less pain. A physician was called and found it necessary to lance the hand, but desired results did not follow and twice later the lance was employed, and still no relief came to her sufferings, but instead the wound continued to grow worse and the swelling commenced extending into the arm. Everything possible was done to allay the pain and comfort her in her unendurable suffering, but nothing could be administered that would combat with the situation and the result was death came as a relief after nearly a week of incessant torture.”1

Anna Margaretha (Poesch) Thoma was born in Weißenstadt, Wunsiedel, Bavaria, the daughter of Wolfgang and Barbara Poesch.2 She came to Iowa with her family at a young age, and was later deemed “one of the venerable and loved pioneer women of Clayton County.”3 Margaretha married William Henry Thoma, a local merchant, in 1857, when she was still in her teens.4 They had eleven children before his death in 1876; Margaretha never remarried, and in fact continued to operate his mercantile in the years following his death.5 Perhaps it was this role in her community that brought her the recognition to be remembered so fondly in the years following her death from blood poisoning on 9 November 1907.6

Margaretha’s unfortunate plight might remind some of Caroline Ingalls’ encounter with a rusty nail in a particularly drama-filled episode of Little House on the Prairie. Indeed, albeit tragically, little could have been done to relieve Margaretha’s suffering at this time and place. Her age, estimated at near seventy, might also have contributed to her susceptibility to infection, whether she in fact suffered from sepsis or tetanus. Although not soon enough for Margaretha, it would be just a matter of time before the use of penicillin – and the tetanus vaccine – would become widespread. 

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A Paper Moon

When I began researching the topic of paper moon photography, I was surprised to find that these crescent moon photo booth props are making a comeback by way of trendy, vintage-style wedding decor. In case you didn’t know, flappers are big these days, and the popularity of this era has influenced a new generation to pose for classic shots with a smiling man in the moon. However, paper moon photo booths got their start even before the days of Gatsby, likely around the turn of the twentieth century.1

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Melanie (Lutz) and son Gerald Adam, Sioux City, Iowa, ca. 1912; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

This particular paper moon photograph was printed on a real photo postcard circa 1912. The moon backdrop itself is not one of the more elaborate, with an obvious break in the night sky for seating purposes. In fact, what looks like a wheel to roll the seat into place is also visible, and a small “magic carpet” conceals the primary seating area. The crescent moon smiles, and the stars, as is typical among paper moon photography, are present even within the crescent – where, realistically, they would be blocked by the moon in shadow. A shooting star can be spotted at the upper tip of the crescent, and a planet appears below the moon.

The mother and son posed here are Melanie (Lutz) and Gerald “Jerry” Adam of Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa. Both are dressed in long fur coats, Melanie’s of a fashionable collared design while Jerry’s is fastened simply with three large buttons. A glimpse of Melanie’s leather gloves is visible, and a stylish plumed hat is atop her head. Jerry wears a practical stocking cap and high button boots. His curls are long, to his shoulders, which was not atypical among young boys of the era.

Given their attire, it is obvious that this photograph was taken on a cold winter’s day. Perhaps the paper moon photo booth was set up outdoors or in an unheated (or under-heated) space as a temporary attraction; this mother and son may have simply stumbled upon it and decided to surprise Jerry’s father with their fun souvenir. As Jerry was born in the summer of 1908,2 it seems most likely that this photograph dates to the winter of 1911-1912, or, at the latest, the winter of 1912-1913. January 1912 in particular was a cold month, with Sioux City registering a record low of −35°F on 12 January.3 However, even beyond such extremes, Sioux City was no stranger to weather that would have required one’s warmest winter coats for a visit to the moon!

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Remembering the Children’s Blizzard

Even seventeen Dakota winters could not have prepared the Danish immigrant family of Jens Madsen and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt for what they faced in 1888.

January 12 dawned bright and clear in southeastern Dakota Territory. The weather was so pleasant that many children set off to school wearing only light jackets and wraps.1 In the Schmidt family, just twelve-year-old Mads was still in school; while he settled in with his classmates, his mother and older sisters, Mary and Christine, tinkered eagerly with the new sewing machine that had been delivered to them just that morning.2

Within a few hours, however, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon, bringing with it a wind so powerful that it roared as it whirled snow and ice into the air. The temperature dropped abruptly, and the snow and ice, said to be as fine as flour, made it impossible to see. Those unfortunate enough to be caught on the open prairie – or even in their barnyards – had little hope of making it to shelter.3

Through the remainder of the day and into the night, the Schmidt family waited in agony, a lantern burning in their window. They had no way of knowing whether Mads had taken shelter at school, or whether he had tried, in vain, to run for home. To search for him would be futile until the storm had ceased.

The next morning, which dawned bright and beautiful, Mads trudged home over the sparkling drifts of snow. The joy and relief that he, his sisters, and his parents must have felt at this reunion can only be imagined. As it turned out, the schoolteacher at the Breezy Hill School had managed to convince all of the children to stay in the shelter of the schoolhouse overnight, which, thankfully, had been sturdy enough to withstand the winds and had had enough fuel to keep them from freezing.4

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Schmidt Family Homestead, near Tabor, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, ca. 1888-1889; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015. From left: Inger Marie “Mary,” Mads, Christine, Jens Madsen, and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt.

Others had not been so lucky. Remembered as the “Children’s Blizzard” for the high number of school-aged victims, the storm tore apart some of the flimsier schoolhouses, forcing the teachers and children to flee into the storm, often in insufficient clothing due to the balmy weather of the morning.5 Others thought that they could beat the worst of it home, but on the open prairie where some children walked miles to reach school, many became disoriented in the storm or were forced by the wind in different directions. It became impossible for them to spot familiar landmarks either because of the fine and blinding snow or because their eyes had frozen shut.6

Later, two sewing machine salesmen, who had made their last stop at the Schmidt family homestead in Bon Homme County, were found huddled in the box of their bobsled just three miles to the west. They had frozen to death; their horses, tied in a grove of trees, survived. For years, locals referred to the area as Dead Man’s Grove.7

The Children’s Blizzard claimed an estimated two hundred fifty to five hundred lives across the Midwestern prairie, with the majority of the casualties in southeastern Dakota Territory.
8 As reported by historian David Laskin, “The pioneers were by and large a taciturn lot, reserved and sober Germans and Scandinavians […]. Even those who never wrote another word about themselves put down on paper everything they could remember about the great blizzard of 1888. Indeed, it was the storm that has preserved these lives from oblivion.”9

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…and a Happy New Year!

George Fenton Thoma, the son of George Hiram and Anna Leota (Fenton) Thoma, was eight years old when he scrawled these holiday greetings to his cousin, Glen Hoffman.1 Glen, the son of Joseph and Minnie Bell (Fenton) Hoffman, was one year Fenton’s senior.2 Whether the boys – Fenton in Nebraska, Glen in Iowa – had actually met or were merely pen pals at their mothers’ urging is unknown, as the sentiments expressed on the postcard are not of a particularly personal nature:

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George Fenton Thoma school postcard, Decatur, Nebraska, 1911; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

This postcard is another piece of the puzzle of the Thoma family. A decade prior, Fenton’s father, George Hiram Thoma, had married under the alias of George A. Neilson, and he proceeded to use the Neilson surname along with his wife and children at least until 1909. The family moved frequently throughout Iowa and Nebraska; according to the postmark here, they may have resided in or near Decatur, Burt, Nebraska, as of late 1911. It is also possible that they were guests in the home of Leota’s mother during the holiday season and in fact lived elsewhere.3 Unfortunately, Fenton did not sign his full name – so it is up for debate whether he was a Neilson or a Thoma at the time!

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George Fenton Thoma school postcard, Decatur, Nebraska, 1911; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

The reverse of this postcard shows a school photograph. Fenton can be spotted in the first row of students, third from left, in a collared striped shirt and dark trousers. The gathering of students is casual – there are untucked shirts, fidgeting hands, smiles and scowls. Fenton, his expression eager, has his eyes directly on the camera and seems to edge forward as his head partially obscures that of the boy behind him.

While I have in my collection many postcard-style photographs, this may be the only one that was actually addressed and mailed as a postcard. At some point thereafter, it was apparently returned to the Thoma family, as it was found in the collection of Fenton’s younger sister. Perhaps it was returned after Fenton’s unexpected death at the age of forty-four, as it is likely one of only a few photographs of him as a child.4 The cost of the one cent postage was likely well worth it to Fenton in exchange for the chance to show off his class picture and his painstaking penmanship as he wrote to his cousin, “I wish you a Merry Xmas and happy new years.”

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Tombstone Tuesday: Mathias and Elizabeth (Hoffman) Noehl

At the tail end of the nineteenth century, two German immigrants made the decision to forge their lives together in America. Mathias Noehl was born to Michel and Magdelena (Hoffman) Noehl on 22 April 1868 in the village of Holsthum, Germany,1 and Elizabeth Hoffman was born to Mathias and Anna (Marbach) Hoffman on 16 September 1869 in the neighboring village of Prümzurlay.2 They never met as children, and both made their own ways to America, Mathias in 1886 and Elizabeth in 1890.3

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Grave of Mathias Noehl (1868-1950) and Elizabeth Noehl (1869-1957), St. Aloysius Cemetery, Calmar, Winneshiek County, Iowa; digital image date unknown, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

Elizabeth soon found a place for herself in North Washington, Chickasaw, Iowa, where she kept house for a local priest, Father Probst. According to her husband’s memoirs, it was during this time that Mathias, who had recently made his way from unfruitful ventures in Minnesota in search for new opportunities in Iowa, happened to pass by Elizabeth’s home. He wrote:

“I was in a neglected condition: My suit of clothes appeared to have seen better days. A hailstorm seemed to have come over my hat. My blond hair lay around my temples unkempt like dried up flowers of the cemetery. When she heard that I had come from her neighborhood village, Holsthum, she said to herself, ‘That is a disgrace to the whole valley of Prüm. He must be hidden from the streets of North Washington, even if I have to marry him.'”4

Marry they did on 22 September 1896, by the same Father Probst who had been Elizabeth’s employer.5 Mathias later wrote of the “joyless” early years of their marriage, during which time the couple struggled to make a living in Alberta and Minnesota before finally returning, poverty stricken, to Iowa. He wrote, “Although children are not always a blessing for parents, they help to lead many a marriage through the inevitable storms between two persons, whose different characters must be adjusted to each other.”6 Whether his statements were sincere or tongue-in-cheek is unknown, but the couple would, indeed, go on to celebrate the births of nine children: Leo, Helen, Kathryn, Elinor, John, Aloysius, Francis “Frank,” Frances, and Joseph Noehl.

Although Mathias once dreamed of relocating with his family to Oregon, in the end they farmed for many years near New Hampton, Chickasaw, Iowa. In 1946, a year after their retirement from farm life, Mathias and Elizabeth celebrated fifty years of marriage surrounded by their children and grandchildren.7 Mathias died in Calmar, Winnishiek, Iowa, on 31 January 1950; Elizabeth died seven years later on 9 February 1957. Both are buried at St. Aloysius Cemetery in Calmar.8

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A Turn of the Century Danish Confirmation

Like most young Danes, Kathrine Christensen was just about fourteen years old when she was confirmed as a member of the Lutheran church.1 This ceremony, which took place on 22 April 1900, would also have signified the conclusion of her formal schooling, making it, in a sense, a graduation ceremony as well.2 Kathrine, the youngest daughter of Laust Christensen and Ane Nielsen of the rural community of Taabel, was confirmed at the imposing Vestervig Abbey, said to be the largest village church in all of Scandinavia.

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Kathrine Christensen, 1900, Hurup, Thisted, Denmark; digital image 2013, privately held by Nicole Kilanowski, 2014.

For Kathrine, this occasion may have warranted posing for a formal portrait in her elegant confirmation dress, as this photograph is believed to have been taken in honor of her confirmation. The photographer, A.B. Hansen, was based in Hurup, a railroad town about seven kilometers east of Vestervig. Perhaps Kathrine ventured there for her portrait, or else an enterprising photographer may have seen reason to take advantage of the confirmation crowd by setting up a temporary studio in Vestervig.

This cabinet card portrait features Kathrine standing before a painted backdrop and behind a high back chair, upon which she rests her arms in a way that hides her fingertips but displays a wide ring on her left hand. Perhaps this was a confirmation gift, as despite what its placement suggests today, it is certainly not a wedding ring. Kathrine’s brown hair is pulled into a braid or bun, with a few soft curls loosely framing her face. Her dress is of a popular pigeon-breasted style and appears to be white. It has sweet eyelet lace trim at the high neck and long sleeves, which are slightly puffed on the upper arms. Kathrine’s expression is serious, even cautious; although her attire is sophisticated, she still looks very much like the thirteen-year-old she is.

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Vestervig Parish (Vestervig, Denmark), Konfirmerede Piger, Kathrine Christensen (1900). Record courtesy of Janet Walsted.

In addition to acknowledging the completion of schooling, at one time, confirmation records in Denmark also typically included a notation of whether the individual had received a smallpox vaccination. This practice, started around 1814, must have been the most feasible method of ensuring that all were vaccinated in order to prevent the spread of disease.3 Today, certainly, medical records are maintained apart from the church, and of course, Danish youth attend school beyond eighth grade. While confirmation ceremonies remain significant in Danish culture, as a whole these affairs are commonly celebrated in a traditional sense and are more secular than in the past – if not entirely secular, as “nonfirmations” have also become part of the norm. Danes honor their coming-of-age with family, friends, a formal dinner, and lavish gifts.4

At the time of Kathrine’s confirmation, several of her siblings had already immigrated to America. This photograph was found among the possessions of one of their descendants, which suggests that it was originally sent to those who might have liked to have seen how their youngest sister was growing up. In fact, another photograph in this collection shows Kathrine as she neared her twentieth birthday, shortly before she, too, said farewell to Denmark.5

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Getting Organized with the Historical Research Planner

When Tara Cajacob of The Historium asked me if I would like to try out her new Historical Research Planner, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I often find that the most difficult aspect of genealogical research is not the research itself – no matter how many brick walls I may encounter – but rather taking those first decisive steps to organize a massive amount of research material into a cohesive end result.

The Historical Research Planner is sold currently as three separate packs designed to meet a researcher’s needs. Together, they break down the daunting task of organization of both the actual research and the end result into bite-size pieces that can be easily applied and tailored to fit a specific research goal. Check out Tara’s video below to see just how the planner packs can serve as a guide through the research process:

The Calendar Pack is your friend whether you’re gearing up to tackle a big research project or are simply ready to define your research goals for the year ahead. The former 4-Her in me loves the structured opportunity for goal-setting that the Calendar Pack has to offer, as well as the helpful tips for reaching milestones through short-term goals and manageable tasks. As a bonus, the goal-setting worksheets and weekly and monthly calendars have charming yet subtle backgrounds and borders, and are organized as PDFs with handy fillable form fields.

The Genealogy Pack is designed especially for the family historian and includes all of the familiar genealogical forms, such as pedigree charts and family group sheets, as well as a surname index and source index. What is most clever is that these resources, in addition to featuring, again, beautiful backgrounds and borders and fillable form fields, are color-coded based on the branch of the family tree. While I’m on a first-name basis with many of my ancestors (hey there, George and Sarah!), I have to recognize that not everyone who peruses my written family history will be on that same familiar level. Thus, color-coding the branches as blue, green, pink, or yellow (for one’s paternal grandfather, paternal grandmother, maternal grandfather, and maternal grandmother, respectively) will make it much easier to immediately grasp the bigger picture when looking at an individual in the family tree.

The Filing Pack lets you keep on color-coding your research materials with four colors of tabs, labels, and title pages, all compatible with specified Avery office products. How much fun is that? Organizing printed research materials for presentation in a binder is a laborious and time-intensive task, but thanks to this colorful and practical format with thoughtfully developed materials, it has never been this appealing to take the plunge and complete that research project!

My favorite thing about the Historical Research Planner packs – aside from the high level of organization they offer? They are just so pretty! Tara has a great eye for fresh patterns and sophisticated color palettes, and I only hope she will come out with an expansion pack to offer even more designs for her color-coded charts and labels. Tara believes that there’s no reason that genealogy should be black and white, and I couldn’t agree more. The Historical Research Planner packs, available for purchase and immediate download at The Historium, are a great way to get organized, add some color to your research, and give your ancestors’ stories the attention they deserve.

Disclosure: I received this product free of charge as compensation for my time spent reviewing it. All opinions expressed are my own.