Bill Von Rissen

Family history

William “Bill” Von Rissen, our paternal grandmother’s uncle, is the subject of much family lore.  He was born in Cincinnati on the 21st of February, 1888, and as a young man was a clerk and a teamster (that is, he drove a team of horses).  In 1912 he married Lillian Pruitt.  They adopted a son and named him William Von Rissen, Jr.

The movement to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages began in the mid-nineteenth century as a way to solve the problem of alcoholism in the home and workplace.  The Prohibitionists were finally successful nationwide in 1920 with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning the sale of alcohol except for medical and industrial uses.  In the succeeding 13 years, until the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, many people got rich making bathtub gin and smuggling liquor in from Canada and elsewhere, to satisfy the nation’s craving for alcohol.  They were called ‘bootleggers’, purportedly because illicit liquor was sometimes hidden inside the seller’s boots.

Uncle Bill Von Rissen was a bootlegger during Prohibition, and well known on the west side of Cincinnati.  We did not realize how well known he was until about twenty years ago. Grandpa Tully and our Aunt Jane had taken Grandma Tully to the hospital for an outpatient procedure. While they were in the waiting room they talked about a book they had both read about George Remus, a notorious Cincinnati bootlegger.  But they couldn’t remember his name.  “I know it begins with R,” one of them said. An elderly man who was also in the waiting room said, “Are you talking about old Bill Von Rissen?” No, no, Aunt Jane said, looking around to see if Grandma had walked in—Grandma was a little sensitive about the source of Uncle Bill’s money.

One day Grandma had opened up about him—just a little. She said that when she was a little girl, Uncle Bill would store bootleg liquor in the basement of his house on Grand Avenue. Uncle Bill would smuggle it in from Canada, using a Star automobile with a false floor under which the booze would be hidden.  “Help your Uncle Bill bring in the pop,” her parents would say, and they would all lug the cases downstairs.

Surprisingly, there is very little mention of Uncle Bill in the newspapers—so evidently he was successful! There was a series of articles about his wife Lillian and their son, William Von Rissen, Jr.  In May 1931, Lillie was arrested for possessing whiskey—79 pints of it, “said to be the best liquor seized by police in years,” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.  But the charge was dismissed in June when it was discovered that the affidavit authorizing the raid on the Von Rissen home had not been signed.

The day after the dismissal, Bill and Lillie’s son William was arrested by Federal prohibition agents on a charge of possessing and transporting liquor. William was doing so, however, at the behest of Judge George Tebbs, who had directed him to take the liquor seized from his mother’s home to a Cincinnati hospital. According to a June 27, 1931 Enquirer article, “Federal agents had been “urged on” to make the seizure of the liquor from the young man by police who were “sore” because the case against the mother had been thrown out of Court by Judge Tebbs due to a defect in the affidavit.” The case against William, Jr. was subsequently dismissed.

Lillie Von Rissen passed away in 1938, and Bill Von Rissen passed away in 1958.  Their son William lived until 1991, and we remember him for his lakeside property in Delhi.

1926 Star Scorpio, by DeFacto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Irene Von Rissen

Family historyIrene Von Rissen is our first cousin, twice removed—our paternal grandmother’s first cousin on her father’s side.  She was born in 1897, in Cincinnati, to John and Rose Von Rissen.  She worked as a bookkeeper, an inspector (of what we do not know), a beauty shop operator and a clerk, and died at the age of 86 in 1984.

Why write about Irene?  Irene was married in February 1916 to 35-year-old William Collins, a railroad engineer.  They separated in April and divorced in July.  The July 21, 1916 Cincinnati Post article about the divorce is worth posting in full:

‘Most Liberal’ Husband Wins Divorce Decree

Wm. F. Collins, 35, of 1409 Pleasant-st., was referred to as the most generous husband who had ever appeared in the Court of Domestic Relations Friday.

Collins testified in the divorce suit brought against Mrs. Irene Von Rissen Collins, 18, of 1505 Linn-st., that he married on Feb. 25. He said that on Feb. 23 he gave his bride a check for $50 for wedding clothes and on Feb. 24 $150 for a wedding cloak, another check for $840, one for $75 for more wedding clothes and a check for $205 for wedding and engagement rings.

Gives Blank Check

He further testified that on Feb. 28 his wife asked him for $10 and he presented her with a signed blank check, which she filled in for $50.

On March 9, he said, he gave his wife a check for $4500, which she asked him to put in another bank on a time deposit.

He said his wife packed up her clothes and left him April 4, leaving a note.

Collins said his wife remained away from home until 1 or 2 a. m., stating she was taking music lessons.

Collins testified that on the day his wife left she sent a moving wagon around to his home and carried off the pianola he purchased her as a wedding gift.

Note Refers to Piano

Mrs. Collins refers to a pianola in her farewell note. It reads as follows:

“Do not try to find me, as it will be useless, as I have gone for good. Please pay Aunt Lillie, as I need the check. I took only what belonged to me. Do not say one word to Aunt L. or Uncle W., [Lillie and William Von Rissen—more on them in a future post.—P.T.] as they haven’t anything to do whatever with this. I am leaving on my own accord. I cannot live with you any longer. I am taking the piano, as it is mine. It was given me before I was married.”  “IRENE.”

When summoned to court Mrs. Collins appeared with an eye blackened and one shoulder and an arm in splints, injuries she sustained in a motorcycle accident Sunday.

She told the Judge she spent $2500 of her husband’s savings in “buying clothes and having a good time.”

Collins was granted a divorce on the ground of neglect.

____________

According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, in 1915 (a year before Irene and William’s marriage):

  • Men made an average of $687 a year (women about half that).
  • The average house cost $3,200.
  • A new car cost $2,000.
  • A loaf of bread cost 7 cents.
  • Women’s shoes cost $7-$10.

____________

Irene went back to her maiden name, and lived with her mother Rose (her father John died in 1917 at the age of 42) on Linn St. until she married Paul Devanney, a plumber, in the early 1940s.  The only subsequent newspaper mentions of Irene are society notices when she visited relatives in Clarksburg, Indiana, and her obituary in 1984.

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The Death of George Theetge

Family historyThe first three stories in this series were about our mother’s ancestors.  But our father’s ancestors had more of a reputation for lawlessness.

Family lore is that our paternal grandfather’s maternal grandfather, Percy Theetge, killed a man in the early 1900s, then fled to Kentucky for many years, returning to Cincinnati in poor health. His wife Mae had remarried after declaring Percy dead years before, but took him in when he returned.  Dad remembers his great-grandfather Percy living in a room in Mae’s house.

So naturally I started searching for information about Percy Theetge.  There were a few articles about him in the 1920s, concerning car theft and an attempted robbery.  And Percy did disappear for a while in the early 1900s—Mae listed herself in the 1910 U. S. Census as a widow. But there was nothing about Percy being involved in anything as serious as a murder.

But there was murder in the Theetge family.  In late October 1893, Percy’s father George was gunned down by his neighbor after a long-running feud between the two.  The Cincinnati Enquirer reported the murder in great detail and with little sympathy for the victim.

George Theetge

George William Theetge was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana in 1845 to William and Eve Theetge.  William and Eve had at least seven children who survived to adulthood. George was the oldest son and became a carpenter like his father.  In 1864 George married Sarah Elizabeth Hoffman and they eventually had eight children, Percy being the second youngest. They moved several times between western Cincinnati, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and Petersburg, Kentucky.

Holding Grudges

George Theetge had a history of holding grudges, and from time to time this led to violence.  In July 1879 a simmering feud between George Theetge and Andy Leonard, both workers in a Petersburg, Kentucky distillery, led to a near-fatal fight.  The previous year in another altercation between them, Theetge had wielded a knife so savagely that the blade had stuck an inch into a wooden board that Leonard had held in front of him as a shield. The fight was broken up, but the hatred remained.

In the 1879 incident, reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer, Theetge and Leonard ran into each other on a Petersburg street. John Feely, a local teamster, stepped between them to break up the fight. In fury, Theetge stabbed at Feely, striking him in the arm and abdomen.  Feely was dangerously wounded, and it was feared he would die.  Theetge was forcibly taken to his home but left after a few minutes, taking with him a knife and pistol.  He found Leonard, who had armed himself with piece of lumber four feet long, four inches wide and two inches thick. Before Theetge could fire, Leonard struck him in the head with the two-by-four several times, until, according to the Enquirer, “Theetge’s head resembled a piece of pounded beef more than the head of a human being.” It was assumed that Theetge would die. Leonard was quickly charged with assault, but just as quickly acquitted.

Theetge, in the meantime, miraculously recovered from his injuries, and was arrested for the attack on Feely.  However, although Feely was expected to die, he was recorded as living with his wife and children in the census of 1880.  There is no record of George Theetge ever being convicted of the attack on John Feely.

The 1879 fight was one of a series of violent incidents involving Theetge, which culminated in his death in 1893.

“Deadly Was the Awful Combat”

From the Cincinnati Enquirer, October 31, 1893.

In 1893 George Theetge and his family were living at Cullom’s Station, in the Riverdale section of Cincinnati near the Indiana border. One of their neighbors was William Zurweller.  Theetge and Zurweller had previously worked together at a local rolling mill, and there was bad blood between them.

On October 30, George Theetge passed Zurweller’s house on his way home.  He threatened Zurweller’s children, saying that he would kill them and their father too.  The children went inside and told their father, and Zurweller got his revolver and went out to confront Theetge.  Theetge also had a gun which he tried to fire.  But when the gun jammed, he used it as a club and repeatedly struck Zurweller in the head with it.  Zurweller responded by firing six bullets into Theetge at point-blank range.  They continued to grapple with each other until Theetge fainted from loss of blood.  Zurweller returned to his home, and Theetge died on the street before several onlookers. He left his wife Sarah and eight children.

The Enquirer noted that Theetge had gotten into several ‘scrapes’ at his previous home in Petersburg, attacking Doc Tully (no relation that we know of) with an axe and in return being shot in the arm, and in a separate incident shooting at one of his own sons with a double-barrelled shotgun. After that incident, he was forced to leave Petersburg and moved to Cullom’s Station, just eight months before his death.

Wearing the Burial Suit

William Zurweller turned himself in almost immediately, and was tried and acquitted in George Theetge’s death.  Sarah and the younger children were left destitute, so much so that a friend of the family, Tom Conway, gave them a suit of clothes in which to bury George.  In a final sordid twist, a few weeks later Conway saw John Theetge, one of George’s sons, wearing the suit.  According to the Enquirer, “[t]he matter has aroused the bitterest feelings down in Riverside and there is inciting talk heard. If the son is given a coat of tar and feathers it will be no surprise to the denizens of that part of the city.”

The Evil That Men Do …

The coverage by the Cincinnati Enquirer was extensive and very much in the ‘yellow journalism’ style of the era.  It is all very entertaining to read over a century later, when all who were directly affected are long dead. But it is sobering to think of the family life of Sarah and the children, with a husband and father who was so filled with rage and hatred.

George died at the age of 48, and given his history it is amazing he lived as long as he did. Most of his children were grown or nearly grown when he died.  For good and for ill, his legacy lived on in them and their descendants.  Percy and his younger brother Albert got into several scrapes of their own, including car theft and attempted robbery.  But they are not recorded as having committed the kinds of violent acts their father perpetrated. So while certain habits persist through generations, families do evolve over time—and it is hoped for the better.

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Pauline Eng

Robert Jackman and Pauline Eng, from Eileen ODonnell’s collection

Pauline Eng Jackman Mirrielees Eschenbrenner is the subject of this post.  She was our maternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother (so, for members of the family, she was Great-Grandma Ritter’s mother).  There are many mysteries in Pauline’s life, starting with the year of her birth.  She was born in 1860, 1861, or 1865, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Frederick Eng and Charlotte Schmidt Eng, who both emigrated to the U. S. from Germany around 1850. Pauline’s first marriage, to R. W. Jackman, took place in 1880, and they quickly had two sons, Robert in 1881 and Charles in 1883.

Sometime before 1887, R. W. either left the family or died, and Pauline married Archibald O. Mirrielees.  Charlotte Violet (Great-Grandma Ritter) was born in 1894, and Pauline Catherine was born in 1896. Archibald Mirrielees died in 1905.

This is where it gets murky.  Archibald’s death date of March 3, 1905 is recorded in the Spring Grove Cemetery archives. But on the 12th of May 1904, there is a Hamilton County, Ohio marriage license for George Eschenbrenner, age 26 (according to census records, he was actually 21), and Pauline Jackman, widow, age 34 (she was between 40-44).

Confirming the fact of the marriage is a Cincinnati Post article in December 1904, reporting a bizarre tale of marital discord.  ‘Carried Off Young Husband’ is the headline, and the story was that Eschenbrenner left his wife and went back to his mother’s house, only to be pursued by Pauline and her two sons, Robert and Charles Jackman, and forcibly taken back to his marital home.  The story notes Pauline’s age as 50. A few days later in the paper’s Police Court Docket, Pauline Eschenbrenner and Charles Jackman are listed as having been charged with disorderly conduct, with the charges dismissed.

The Bellingham (Washington) Herald picked up the story on December 21, 1904, and wildly exaggerated it.  “Twenty Year Old Lad, Married to Sixty-Year-Old Widow, Went Home to Mother, But Was Not Allowed to Stay.” The tone of the story was humorous, so it is difficult to know how much of it to believe. But the article indicates that Pauline had an estate worth $150,000 and that may have been the attraction for Eschenbrenner. Be that as it may, in November of 1919, a divorce was granted to Pauline from George Eschenbrenner, on the grounds of his absence since 1912.

Family historyPauline died two years later, in 1921. Many questions remain: What happened to Pauline’s first husband, R. W. Jackman?  Were Pauline and Archibald Mirrielees divorced before his death in 1905, freeing her to marry George Eschenbrenner in 1904? How did the domestic disturbances in 1904-05 affect Charlotte and Pauline Mirrielees, who were 10 and 8 years old at the time?

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Frank Reting – Santen

Family historyIn my search for information about ‘Aunt Mamie’, I found reference to another family secret.  A newspaper article from February 1902 quoted Mamie on the disappearance of her father, Fire Company Captain Frank Reting.  She said that he had been depressed and threatening suicide in recent days, and further searching for him would probably be fruitless.

Disappearance?

Frank Reting was born to German immigrants in Cincinnati, Ohio on December 21, 1855.  He married Alice Eyler, another child of German immigrants, in 1875, and they proceeded to have 6 daughters, five of whom survived to adulthood.  After early struggles as a laborer and driver, Frank joined the Cincinnati Fire Department in the early 1880s, becoming a Captain in 1893 at the age of 37.  He was still Captain in 1899 when his second-oldest daughter Mamie shot Edward Grafe, the father of her child, killing him in what became a very public case.  Mamie was acquitted in 1900.

Reting continued to serve as Captain of Fire Company #1 through 1901.  On February 7, 1902, he called Assistant Fire Marshall Bunker and requested a leave of absence, which was granted. He spent the next day at home, telling his daughter Mamie that he was thinking about throwing himself in the Ohio River.  He left the house that evening, and that was the last that the family saw of him.  His friends at the fire station were optimistic that Reting would return, but he did not.

His wife Alice died a year later in January of 1903.  “Pneumonia; exhaustion due to worry & grief,” was the cause of death, according to her entry in Cincinnati Health Department Birth and Death Records. An article in the Cincinnati Post about her death indicates that by that time Frank Reting is assumed to have disappeared, not died.  The family was left poverty-stricken by his departure, and the Fire Department paid for Alice Reting’s funeral.

Where did Frank go?  The record is murky for several years, until he turns up in 1905 as Frank Santen, married to 27-year-old Lillie Mueller, in East St. Louis, Illinois. (I am grateful to Michelle Diane Vardiman Fansler for posting her genealogy of the Reting-Santen family, and her detailed account of her search for information about Frank and Lillie.)  It is unclear how Frank and Lillie met, but, perhaps significantly, Lillie had endured a family tragedy of her own.

At the age of 16 in 1894, Lillie had witnessed the murder of her mother, Mary Mueller, by her father Louis, who then committed suicide. Lillie was at that time married to John King, who died of pneumonia in 1897.  In 1899 she married Frank Hughes and is listed as having had a child, who did not survive. (There is very little information about Frank Hughes before or after his marriage to Lillie. Could ‘Frank Hughes’ be another alias of Frank Reting?)

Frank Reting and Lillie Mueller had experienced very public family tragedies, both in Cincinnati, which perhaps drew them to each other.  What possessed Frank to abandon his family we will never know, but the estrangement was not permanent. There are photographs of an elderly Frank and Lillie with his daughters by Alice—Mamie, Nellie, Gertie, Alice and Kitty.  Lillie died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, and Frank lived as a widower until his death in 1937 at the age of 81. He did not move back to Cincinnati.

_____________

Old newspapers are a fascinating source of information–about ancestors (if they got themselves in the paper), how historic events were experienced by people living at the time, and everyday life–food, entertainment, cost of living, etc. Many old local papers have been digitized, but by no means all. For example, the newspapers of Ketchikan, Alaska are only available on microfilm and are not indexed.  What stories are hidden within these and other papers, documents and records?

 

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Aunt Mamie

Family historyAbout the time I graduated from high school, Grandma Maly, our mother’s mother, told us a story about her Aunt Mamie:

 

When Aunt Mamie was young her boyfriend got her pregnant. Not only did he refuse to marry her, but laughed at her when they met on the street.

So, she got a gun and shot him.

So many questions!

Did he die?  “Oh, Patty, I don’t know.”

Did she go to prison?  “Patty, that’s the whole story; I don’t know any more.”

She did know that the baby was her cousin Helen, who grew up, got married and lived a long life. And we had a picture of Aunt Mamie as an elderly lady—she looked fierce!

But that was all we knew. Aunt Mamie married into the family, and no one knew her maiden name. I somehow assumed she grew up in New York City, which did not turn out to be the case.  So when I started searching for articles about the incident I couldn’t find anything, either in online newspaper indexes or later in full-text databases.  I remember thinking that this was probably a typical family story, one that became more dramatic and gaudier as it was passed down over the years. The truth was probably very ordinary.

A few weeks ago I was searching in Ancestry.com, looking for information on Aunt Mamie’s husband, Charley Jackman, our great-grandmother’s half-brother.  I found his obituary, with the married name of their daughter Helen.  I looked her up and found her marriage certificate, which included … Aunt Mamie’s maiden name.

When I looked up the name: Mamie Reting, many articles appeared that had been saved by another family history buff. In Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank.com there were still more articles.

The family story was true.

Mamie Reting claimed that in September of 1898, Edward Grafe, who worked in a local printer’s shop, had locked her in the shop and, in the words of the Cincinnati Enquirer, “accomplished her ruin.” She became pregnant and had the baby in May of 1899. Over the following months she repeatedly confronted Grafe, insisting that he marry her and make their child legitimate.  He refused to do so.  In November 1899 Mamie met him on the street outside the printer’s office.  When Grafe again refused to marry her, she shot him four times in the back.  He died a few days later, steadfastly insisting that he was not the father of Mamie’s baby.

The grand jury went back and forth about indicting her for the murder, and finally went forward with the indictment in late January, 1900. Mamie was taken into custody, with her baby. “Jailer Rushman and his wife have provided her a comfortable room and she takes her meals with them,” according to the Cincinnati Post.

At the trial in March, 1900, Mamie’s defense attorney, Rogers Wright, claimed that Mamie was temporarily insane at the time of the murder. In the preceding months she attempted suicide at least once, and she did not sleep for days before the shooting. In addition to the testimony of family and friends, the defense called four doctors who testified that Mamie was “undoubtedly suffering from melancholia, and the worst form of it.” After the fourth doctor’s testimony, the prosecutor asked the Court to instruct the jury to find Mamie Reting not guilty, on the ground of insanity. They did so on March 21.

Mamie was directed to be examined before the Probate Court and released into the custody of her father, Cincinnati Fire Chief Frank Reting.  She was otherwise free.

The story was picked up by the Associated Press and printed in newspapers across the country. But after the acquittal, there were no more stories about the case. According to the 1910 census, Mamie married Charles Jackman two years after the trial.  They raised Mamie’s daughter Helen and remained together until Charles’ death in 1949. Mamie died, aged 86, in 1964.

In every family there are stories—and secrets. Now that an increasing variety of information is available online, through family history programs, cemetery indexes, newspaper databases and other sources, some of these stories can be verified, and secrets revealed.

In fact, in researching Mamie Reting’s story another family mystery emerged.  But that is for another post …

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Kaleidoscopic reading

When I’m stressed or nervous about something, I often listen to radio or a book to get to sleep at night.  It has to be words, not music—something to get me thinking about something else than what is making me nervous.  I purchased several audiobooks while I was driving across the country last December, and listened to them via the Audible app on my smartphone.   So when I was looking for books to listen to at night, I thought, “Why buy a new book if I’m going to be sleeping through most of it anyway? Why not listen to the books I already have?”

That’s what I’ve been doing.  I start a book at the beginning, and hear maybe a half hour of it before falling asleep.  Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and listen to 10 minutes or so before falling back asleep, and other times I sleep straight through. I wake up eight hours into the book and listen for another 10 minutes before getting up for the day.  And if I have my smartphone in the car, I hear another 20 minutes as I drive to work and 20 minutes going home.

The next night I start with Chapter 2 or 3, and the night after that with Chapter 4 or 5, and so on.  It is a fascinating way to experience a book.  It is not what the author intended, of course.  But if there is one thing I learned from deconstruction courses in college (and it’s probably just the one thing), it is to be free from the tyranny of the author!

These are the books I have listened to in this way:

  • The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough
  • The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
  • Pacific, by Simon Winchester
  • Alaska, by James Michener
  • She Got Up Off the Couch, by Haven Kimmel
  • The Time-Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer
  • The Adventure of English, by Melvin Bragg
  • One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson

A few of these books are episodic—Pacific, Time-Traveler’s Guide, and One Summer—and these are perfect for kaleidoscopic listening.  I go to sleep to the Babe and Lou Gehrig, and wake up to Sacco and Vanzetti.  I miss the ending or beginning of a story one day, to pick it up the next—“Oh, so that’s how the Sydney Opera House finally got built!”

Other books are linear, but episodically so—The Boys in the Boat, She Got Up Off the Couch, The Wright Brothers, Alaska.  These I read straight through, either before or after listening to them. However compelling the stories that make up the progression (and the stories in She Got Up Off the Couch are particularly entertaining on their own), the progression itself is an important element.

The Adventure of English was a book in which the progression of the book was the story.  There were fewer stories that stood on their own.  I spent a significant amount of time puzzling out what century we were in—not conducive to sleep!

What I have not (yet) done is tried listening to a book of ideas this way, or poetry, or short stories.  Often in these works there is, not a progression, but a subtle structure and flow.  What would be lost, and would anything be gained, in listening to such a work kaleidoscopically?  Would it be like looking at a picture or work of art kaleidoscopically?  Here’s a picture I took on a trip to Nova Scotia a few years ago:

And here is the kaleidoscope version (yes, there is an app for this!):

Here is a picture of my Dad when he was a young boy (Happy Father’s Day, Dad!):

And here is that same picture kaleidoscoped:

Pictures of people lose far more than they gain by this process, but landscapes or abstract works—not so much, perhaps.  It is just different.

 

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