Hedwig Cichos—Hattie to those who knew her—was first widowed at the age of thirty-one. Her husband of twelve years, Joseph Lutz, had succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving her with four young daughters to provide for on her own. The oldest was just ten and the youngest not yet three; with so many mouths to feed, it comes as little surprise that Hattie remarried before the year was out. On 29 December 1887, not quite eight months after Joseph’s death, Hattie married Albert Rindfleisch, a fellow Silesian immigrant who was more than five years her junior.
Albert and Hattie made their home in Minnesota Lake, Faribault County, Minnesota, the same village where Hattie had settled with her parents when she had immigrated to America in 1873. In the years to come, Hattie would have five children with Albert: Edward in 1888, Agnes in 1890, Albert (II) in 1892, Elsie in 1893, and Frank in 1895. The 1895 Minnesota state census, recorded before Frank’s birth, indicates that only the youngest of Hattie’s daughters from her first marriage, Melanie, eleven, still lived under her roof. Her eldest daughter, Julia, had married at the age of sixteen in 1893 and moved out of state; the whereabouts of her middle daughters, Anna and Hattie (II), for the year 1895 are unknown. According to the census, Albert was a laborer and had worked for eight months of the previous year.
In the summer of 1899, everything changed for the Rindfleisch family. First, charged with “whipping his wife,” Albert, then thirty-eight, was jailed at the county seat of Blue Earth. He somehow managed to escape the sheriff, board a train, and travel one hundred miles west—but then his luck ran out. The Slayton Gazette and Murray County Pioneer reported:
Run Over by the Cars. Albert Rindfleisch, of Minnesota Lake, was run over by the west bound freight at this place Tuesday morning and had both legs taken off below the knee. He boarded the train here intending to go to either Hadley or Lake Wilson, and as the train pulled out he was standing alone on the front end of the accommodations car. He claims the cars gave a bump and he was thrown forward. He fell between the cars with both legs across the north rail and his body north of the track. The accommodation car passed over his legs and he was not seen by the train men. His cries attracted passersby and he was taken to the depot and from there to the poor house to be cared for. Dr. Morell, the railway physician, assisted by Dr. Lowe, amputated both his legs, one just above the ankle and the other just below the knee. A bottle containing a small amount of whiskey was found near him when picked up. He had thrown it away so as not to have it on his person. This has given rise to the suspicion that he may have been under the influence of liquor at the time of the accident. He claimed to have been looking for work. He has a wife and five children at Minnesota Lake.Slayton Gazette and Murray County Pioneer, 03 August 1899
Two months later, the same newspaper provided an update:
Sandy McDonald, sheriff of Faribault county, was here last Saturday and took back with him Albert Rindfleisch who had been an inmate of our poorhouse since he had his legs taken off by the cars here two months ago. Rindfleisch was in jail at Blue Earth for whipping his wife and escaped from the sheriff. While fleeing from the sheriff he had his legs taken off here.Slayton Gazette and Murray County Pioneer, 12 October 1899
It is not known whether Albert ever returned home to Hattie and their children—or whether Hattie would have let him if he had tried—but when the U.S. census was recorded in the summer of 1900, Hattie was reported to be a widow. It is possible that she may have been known in her heavily German-speaking community as a Strohwitwer, a term with the English equivalent “grass widow” that indicated that a couple was separated or that the wife had been effectively abandoned. Albert and Hattie—both Catholic—never divorced, and Hattie was not in fact widowed for the second time for another thirty years.
While Hattie remained in Minnesota Lake, Albert made his way to Wisconsin. Milwaukee city directories indicate that he may have eked out a living as a peddler for a period of time, but ultimately, he spent many years at the Milwaukee County Infirmary, an almshouse and poor farm in neighboring Wauwatosa. The 1920 and 1930 U.S. censuses both indicated that he was an inmate there, although whether alcoholism or the loss of his legs was the primary factor that brought him to this last resort for food and shelter is unknown. His final days were apparently spent in a rooming house in Milwaukee, as that is where he died on 08 May 1930:08 May 1930, Thu The Sheboygan Press (Sheboygan, Wisconsin) Newspapers.com
Alcoholism, domestic violence, disability—all played a part in Albert’s sad demise, his death ultimately garnering a headline only as an oddity. Hattie, for all the hardships she may have suffered in an unhappy marriage and as a single mother, was resilient. She supported herself and her children as a seamstress and through her own self-sufficiency, keeping a milk cow, chickens, and pigs on three acres of land. Her grandchildren’s memories of her industrious nature and of her home cooking and preserving—ham, bacon, sausage, braunschweiger, pickled pigs feet, sauerkraut—long outlived her. Of Albert, however, little was ever said.
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