By J. L. Starkey
Spend all your time waiting for that second chance…for a break that would make it okay.
There’s always some reason to feel not good enough.
And it’s hard at the end of the day.
– Sarah McLachlan
“Her name was Katherine. And her last name was – um – Heebner? Maybe Hubner? I’m not really sure…but she was German, and she died around 1910,” said my grandfather. I was only six years old, but I remember staring at him in disbelief as he talked about his mother. He had several full siblings, his father lived until the 1950s, and yet nobody in the family knew this woman’s full name? How was that even possible?
Dad shared my skepticism about grandpa’s family, and summer vacations often included detours for family history research. Dad’s goal was simple: he wanted to visit his grandmother’s grave so he could pay his respects. But his research techniques were often…well, unorthodox.
Especially during those 1980s vacations.
“That’s the house – it’s right there! I remember that house!” Dad was so excited to take a family history detour to Altoona, Pennsylvania. He knew his grandfather’s old address, and he found the house based on what he remembered from childhood visits to the area. Road map or GPS? Not for my dad, thank you very much.
The house was still there, and apparently it had not changed much in the forty-plus years since dad had last seen it. I was happy that he found it…really, I was. But that emotion quickly turned to embarrassment when he stopped the car, got out, and…oh no! He was reaching for the Polaroid Sun 600 camera! Great, now the solar flash attachment was making that charging sound, and –
“Dad! You’re going to get in trouble for that!” My sister and I were mortified by that point. But things got absolutely bizarre when a neighbor (clad in a pink bathrobe and pink slippers) came out of her house to talk to us.
If I had tried something like that, I’d have been posting bail and facing a court date for trespassing on private property. But dad had a way with people. Once he explained what he was doing, the woman started telling stories about the old neighborhood. I’m surprised she didn’t invite us in for breakfast!
Some people have all the luck, don’t they?
Dad didn’t find what he was looking for that day. The location of Katherine’s grave remained a mystery, and the details of her life and death remained unknown.
A few years ago, as I was going through old vacation photos, I thought of that bizarre Altoona detour. Suddenly, I just had to know more about Katherine, so I decided to resume the search for her.
Technology has made some things easier for genealogists, and it didn’t take long to find the answers that dad could not find.
It took quite a while, though, to come to terms with what I found.
The Woman No One Knew
With a first name, a few dates, and a location, I searched for Katherine and found her in the 1910 census. At that time, she was living in Altoona with her husband George and their five children . According to the census, George and “Katie” had been married for thirteen years, so next, I searched newspapers for 1897 marriage announcements.
According to news reports, George Lilly married a woman named Katie “Hibner” in February 1897 . A search of vital records led to George and Katie’s marriage license application . Finally, this search was going places!
Not so fast. The trail for Katie Hibner ended with the marriage license application. Her parents’ names were on the document, but I could not find any other records with that surname.
I knew that Katie died around 1910, so I decided to look for an obituary using “Katie Lilly” as a search string. That step ended the search for Katie Hibner, and suddenly, the brick wall came tumbling down. Katie’s maiden name wasn’t Hibner; it was Huebner .
And Katie Huebner didn’t have to die on that December day in 1910.
Katharina (“Katie”) Hübner was born on 16 April 1878 in Kirchbrombach, a village in the Brombachtal community of Hesse, Germany . In 1881, the family immigrated to the United States and settled in Altoona. They were known as the Huebner family, though the surname was often misspelled as Hubner or Hibner .
Katie married George Lilly in February 1897, and over the next ten years she gave birth to five children. They were a typical Altoona family; Katie managed the household and cared for the children, and George worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, or PRR.
George and Katie seemed to have a good marriage, and their names appeared in news articles about parties and happy events . But in the summer of 1910, something changed in the Lilly home.
In June 1910, George made the news when he deserted his wife and children. According to reports, he borrowed almost $200 (using the family’s furniture as collateral), collected his $80 paycheck, and disappeared for two months .
On 17 August 1910, George finally returned home. Sadly, he was “in a drunken condition,” and he caused a disturbance at the family’s home.
Perhaps Katie had dealt with this type of behavior in the past, but during the summer of 1910 she reached her tipping point. During George’s absence, she secured a warrant for his arrest on the grounds of desertion and non-support. On that horrible August evening, the warrant was finally served .
George was jailed when he could not post bail. Shortly thereafter, though, Katie had a change of heart, because the case apparently never went to trial. Katie and George reconciled, and he moved home.
It is easy for us to question Katie’s decisions from a modern perspective. Today, women in abusive marriages have options and resources. Today, women have rights, and they certainly have choices.
That was not the case in 1910. If Katie had ended the marriage, she and her children would have faced the stigma of divorce in a small town. Additionally, she lacked the funds and skills to support her large family, and she apparently was unwilling to ask her parents or siblings for help.
It is also possible that Katie believed George had changed his ways, and that this time, things would be different. After all, the children needed their father, and she had nowhere else to go, did she?
Was there really a choice at all? Not for Katie in 1910.
Less than four months later, Katie’s “choice” would have devastating consequences.
The Tragic Christmas of 1910
On 6 December 1910, less than four months after she reconciled with her husband, Katie died “of ectopic gestation following an operation for appendicitis .” While reporters may have put a politically-correct spin on the cause of death, Katie’s physician did no such thing. The death certificate was clear: Katie died of ectopic gestation.
Had it happened just a few weeks earlier, Katie may have survived. Medical care was better in larger cities, but December 1910 brought one of the heaviest snows in years to Altoona. Trains were delayed or stopped, and travel was treacherous at best .
Had it happened just a few years later, Katie also may have survived. Altoona was just starting to utilize the latest methods for treatment of ectopic pregancy, but in December 1910, abdominal surgery was still extremely risky.
Certainly, Katie may have survived if the timing was different, but it’s even more tragic to consider that her death didn’t have to happen at all. Less than one decade later, the nation’s first birth control clinic would open its doors. But in 1910, the Comstock Act of 1873 was still in effect, and birth control was a federal crime.
For Katie, the choices were few, and they were pitiful. On a cold and snowy December morning in 1910, she paid a hefty price for the choices available to her.
Katie, like so many other women, paid with her life.
Five children were left without a mother on that December day in 1910. One of those children was my grandfather, who was just three years old at the time.
Katie was laid to rest on 9 December 1910 in Altoona’s Oak Ridge Cemetery . Her gravestone does not give her married name, but instead simply says “Katharina Huebner.”
After placing his sons in a group home/orphanage, George Lilly remarried just one year and five days after Katie’s death. Though the boys were eventually allowed to return home, their mother’s name was probably rarely (if ever) mentioned. In the decades following Katie’s death, her story would be lost due to the silence of her husband and her extended family. By the late 1900s, even the location of her grave would be forgotten.
Katie may have remained lost to my family forever, had it not been for a vacation detour, the kindness of a neighbor, and a descendant’s need to know more.
I wish I could call my dad and tell him what I found. “You were almost there!” I would say. “You were less than two miles away – so close! I’m so sorry you couldn’t put flowers on your grandmother’s grave.”
If only I could have told him.
It is difficult to write about Katie. She lived a life of restriction, of missed opportunities, of choices that were never really choices.
Though there are no photos of Katie, she may have looked like her daughter Elizabeth, who bore a strong resemblance to the Huebner family. I believe that Katie was patient and maybe a bit too trusting. She was dedicated to her children, extremely proud, and fiercely private.
But no one knows what she was really like. All we know is that Katharina “Katie” Huebner lived a life that was much too short. Her life could have been so much better…if only.
If only George had been a better husband.
If only she had access to better healthcare.
If only she could have told her family about her situation.
- “United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9RK7-P4L?cc=1727033&wc=QZZ4-T6F%3A133638001%2C140399001%2C140424601%2C1589088944: 24 June 2017), Pennsylvania>Blair>Altoona Ward 4>ED 43>image 6 of 53; citing NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, n.d.).
- “Married,” Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, 27 Feb 1897, p. 8, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Pennsylvania, County Marriages, 1885-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VF3D-PQG: 24 September 2017), George Lilly and Katie Hibner, 26 Feb 1897; citing Marriage, Cambria, Pennsylvania, United States, various county courts and registers, Pennsylvania; FHL Film 1,294,607, image 624 of 807.
- “Deaths of a Day,” Altoona Tribune, 7 Dec 1910, p. 5, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; Wiesbaden, Deutschland; Bestand: 916; Laufende Nummer: 236. Ancestry.com. Hesse, Germany, Births, 1851-1901 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. Original data: Geburtenregister und Namensverzeichnisse. Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Wiesbaden, Deutschland.
- Year: 1881; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 442; Line: 37; List Number: 1410. Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
- “Chat About People,” Altoona Times, Altoona, Pennsylvania, 20 May 1907, p. 12, col. 7. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “The Concordia,” Altoona Tribune, 22 Jan 1910, p. 12, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “Wife-Deserter Pinched,” Altoona Times, 18 Aug 1910, p. 1, col. 7. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Aldermanic Court News,” Altoona Tribune, 18 Aug 1910, p. 4, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “The Death Record,” Altoona Times, 7 Dec 1910, p. 11, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1967; Certificate Number Range: 115641-119400. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1967 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA. Ancestry.com operations 2014. Original data: Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1963. Series 11.90 (1,905 cartons). Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.)
- “Under Blanket of Snow,” Altoona Tribune, 7 Dec 1910, p. 1, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Find A Grave, database & images (https://www.findagrave.com: accessed 25 Aug 2019), memorial page for Katharina “Katie” Huebner Lilly (16 Apr 1878–6 Dec 1910), Find A Grave Memorial 107296437, citing Oak Ridge Cemetery, Altoona, Blair County, Pennsylvania, USA; Maintained by contributor 47004249.
It is bittersweet that your father never found his grandmother’s story and grave. You tell such a moving story, putting it all into context, even if somewhat speculative. We always have so many more questions than answers.
I agree…I wish I knew more about her. My grandfather kept a journal when he was on the USS Texas – I hope to get a look at it someday soon . Maybe it contains information that we all missed?
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What is his side of the family, brothers/sisters? Just maybe they may have a picture of Katie & family
I’ve contacted cousins on that side, but so far we’ve had no luck. Still holding out hope that someone has a photo!
Beautifully written! Thank you.
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Thank you so much!
Thanks for sharing, it’s great to break down a brick wall even when the details reveal a tragedy. Katie’s story is a reminder of the risks women endure in pregnancy, thankfully modern medicine address most.
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It makes sense why there was so much mystery surrounding her death. No one talked about things like that in 1910. So sad for everyone.
A heart wrenching tale in many ways, and undoubtedly difficult to write. Yet you must feel gratified to have solved this family mystery and welcomed Katie back into the family fold. I wonder about her maiden name on the tombstone and whether there is an additional story there. Who paid for the plot and stone? Why not her married name?
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I’m wondering the same thing. I suspect that there was a lot of bad blood between the two families, but haven’t been able to find anything out yet. Hers is such a sad story. I often wonder how different my grandfather would have been, had she survived.
What a sad story, but how wonderful that you’ve put so many pieces together. I’m sure your father would be pleased to know that you visited his grandmother’s grave.
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I’m still searching for a photograph of her. Maybe someday I’ll track one down!
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I hope so!
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