By J. L. Starkey
Just tell me how I got this far– Michelle Branch
Just tell me why you’re here and who you are
‘Cause every time I look
You’re never there
I didn’t want to think about brick walls on that glorious day when I found Melcena. I just wanted to celebrate the discovery.
Instead, I found myself staring at her obituary in disbelief. She was over 150 miles from her Chicago home when she died? But why?
Yes, my newest brick wall had a name, and that name was Pekin .
Melcena never should have been a brick wall. After all, my grandmother told plenty of stories about her grandma, and had even lived with that grandma for a time. Since Melcena was her grandmother, wasn’t she the person my grandma remembered?
According to her obituary, Melcena died in May 1914, when my grandmother was barely four months old. Obviously, there was no way that Melcena was the grandma in those stories .
Suddenly, nothing made sense anymore.
Errors, Omissions, and Disappearances
Melcena disappeared twice between 1897 and 1910, and since her first vanishing act occurred shortly before 1900, I rechecked census records to see what I had missed.
In 1900, Melcena’s husband William was a married saloon owner living with one lodger and two servants. His wife and daughters were not living with him .
“They probably lived with her mother,” my voice of reason suggested. Maybe money was tight, so William opened a saloon to make ends meet, while Melcena’s mother, Gabriella O’Neill, provided a home for her daughter and granddaughters.
In 1900, Melcena’s mother (then known as Ella Buckingham) was living with her husband and two siblings. However, according to the census, she was the mother of zero children – alive or dead . Was that number entered in error, or was Gabriella (again) attempting to hide something?
By 1910, William was living with Gabriella and a few other family members. According to the census, he was widowed prior to April of that year . How strange that I had just discovered Melcena’s 1914 obituary, which proved that she was very much alive in 1910. Was there an explanation for all of these errors?
Maybe the answers could be found hiding in a little town called Pekin.
Her Hiding Place…Finally Revealed
I searched Pekin area newspapers and found a second obituary. While that article provided some answers, it also led to several new questions . I wondered why the woman who was known as Melcena in Chicago was known as “Millie” in Pekin. I also wanted to know why “Chicago Melcena” had a husband and two children, while “Pekin Millie” had no husband, and only one child. Maybe the differences were just reporting errors, but given the family’s history of half-truths, I doubted it.
I hoped that a death certificate would provide clarity, and with a date and location (finally!) in hand, I narrowed the search to just one set of records. Sure, that one set consisted of 651 digital pages without an index, but who was counting?
Finally, on digital page 305, I found Melcena’s death record . The page-by-page search had been worth the extra time, and an index would not have helped much anyway, due to the document’s loopy cursive writing. I could imagine the discussion if the record had been transcribed:
“Can someone look at this one? Are those initials W and O, or N and E?”
“No way…that first initial is definitely an H! And maybe the second one is a C?”
“Hold on…maybe that surname is Saugh, instead of Baugh? So is it N. O. Saugh?”
Indeed, Mrs. W. E. Baugh, who died in Tazewell County in May 1914, would have been nearly impossible to connect with Melcena A. Baugh, who “died” in Chicago prior to April 1910.
A find like this one is what genealogy is all about, and the thrill of the search never gets old. We discover amazing things, and then we have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to tell our ancestors’ stories. Yes, everyone has a story.
Even Mrs. W. E. Baugh.
In the end, Melcena’s story was sad, and I almost regretted finding her death record. I wanted to believe that she lived a perfect life, because that was such a sweet story! But her life was far from perfect, and it was much too short.
Mrs. W. E. Baugh died of pneumonia shortly after midnight on 2 May 1914. At the time of her death, she was living at 120 Ann Eliza Street, a boarding house run by Mrs. M. Rasmussen (or Mrs. M. Moore, depending on which husband was in the picture at the time) . Mrs. Baugh was ill for a few weeks prior to her death, and though I wanted to believe that a family member traveled to Pekin to care for her, she apparently died alone.
The informant, Mrs. M. Moore (aka Mrs. Rasmussen), obviously knew very little about Mrs. Baugh. The record does not include a date of birth, parents’ names, or even the full legal name of the deceased. Had a family member been present, more of that information may have been recorded. As it was, the woman whose birth record had been lost to the Great Chicago Fire was leaving the world almost as anonymously as she had entered into it.
The story I had envisioned, the one of young love, of the perfect little family, of the happy life cut short, was not the life that Melcena lived. So it was that my first brick wall ancestor taught me a valuable lesson. She “showed” me that expectation very rarely matches reality.
But there was a bigger lesson to be learned. In researching Melcena’s life, I learned that even though we may discover the where and the how, the why is still the biggest brick wall of all. The why is a question that continues to taunt me, and one that remains unanswered…for now.
Pekin is just located seven miles from the notorious Bartonville Asylum. I suspect that Melcena was a patient there in the early 1900’s, which may explain the pattern of secrecy and lies among her family members. It is frustrating that I cannot prove or disprove my theory at this time. The facility’s records are sealed, and access will not even be granted to a family member with a court order.
Thanks to the work of Reclaim the Records, that accessibility may be changing. To learn more about the mission of this amazing organization, or to make a donation, visit https://www.reclaimtherecords.org.
- “Deaths,” Chicago Examiner, Chicago, Illinois, Vol. 12, No. 114, 4 May 1914, p. 15, col. 7. Retrieved from Chicago Public Library Digital Collections.
- “Illinois, Cook County, Birth Certificates, 1871-1940,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N7MQ-W8F : 18 May 2016), Mary Melema Hansen, 21 Dec 1913; Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States, reference/certificate 7530, Cook County Clerk, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL microfilm 1,288,306.
- United States Federal Census, 1900, Chicago Ward 34, Cook, Illinois; Page: 1; Enumeration District: 1093; FHL microfilm: 1240289. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- United States Federal Census, 1900, Chicago Ward 30, Cook, Illinois; Page: 15; Enumeration District: 0945; FHL microfilm: 1240283. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- United States Federal Census, 1910, Chicago Ward 31, Cook, Illinois; Roll: T624_277; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 1345; FHL microfilm: 1374290. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- “Death of Mrs. Baugh,” The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Illinois, 4 May 1914, p. 2, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Tazewell County, Illinois, Record of Death Reports, Vol. 6, p, 330, Digital image 305 of 651, 2 May 1914. Retrieved from FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-99V5-PJ5P?i=304&cat=120944.
- United States Federal Census. 1910, Pekin Ward 1, Tazewell, Illinois; Roll: T624_328; Page: 1A; Enumeration District: 0144; FHL microfilm: 1374341. (See also: Mrs. Mattie Moore, 1914 Pekin Directory, p. 145, col. 2. Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.)