That French Connection, And a Little Drama

I don’t know why, but it has always bothered me about what happened to Sadie Truman Hermsdorfer Gill; Rosetta’s daughter from her first marriage, Daniel’s step-daughter, Ken Sr’s half-sister.  Sadie is an odd duck for me.  I don’t quite know what to make of her.  My initial impression of her was that she was a bit of a drama queen.  This impression was initially based on the content and tone of two letters that Eleanor and Ken received from Sadie sometime after their marriage, which pleaded for money but asked not to mention it to her husband or to Rosetta.  The fact that it was addressed to both Ken and Eleanor, and mentions Rosetta, and a new baby puts the date of these letters between 1920 and 1927, I suspect 1923 or shortly after.  

Why do I care what happened to Sadie and her descendants? Well, I just do.  And by tracking down these descendants, I can possibly rule out or associate some DNA matches with us.  Sadie’s descendants will be half-cousins to us through Rosetta.  And, as I already said, it bothers me not knowing what happened to her.   I have my reasons.

I know about Sadie’s movements up to 1927 when she traveled with Rosetta and Daniel to Corunna, Michigan to visit Johnson relatives.  Next on their vacation tour was the Rhoads family farm just west of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This was the year Rosetta died, while visiting Clarence Rhoads.  I can place Sadie with Rosetta on the way to Indiana from Michigan through a letter that Rosetta’s sister, Mary, wrote – addressed to Rosetta and Sadie – discussing how the visit would do Rosetta some good.

But what happened to Sadie after Rosetta’s death remains a mystery.  As do some pockets of her life leading up to her second marriage to Benson Ensign Gill (say that three times real fast). 

Even her three sons from her first marriage fall off the face of the earth.  Literally, and I can prove it now – and how.  So, how does this lead to a French connection?  I am glad you asked, but before I can answer that I’ll have to continue on with my little side trip down Truman-Johnson lane.

I started with Sadie.  She is last found in Ensign’s 1930 household, living at the Edge Water Beach Hotel on Sheridan Road in Chicago (her letters to Ken and Eleanor were written on stationery from this same hotel).  Then in 1940, Ensign is enumerated as a widow living with his daughter from his first marriage in Wheaton, Illinois.  Now, this could mean Sadie died, but since Ensign is living with his first wife’s child, his marital status could refer to the fact that his first wife died.  No sign of Sadie, no death certificate in Chicago, and no burials in Chicago – at least not as Sadie Gill.

Ok, so what happened to her three Hermsdorfer sons; Frederick, Harry, and Arthur?  Can they help me find Sadie? They disappear before Sadie does.  I thought perhaps they all died, but surely not all three after reaching adulthood!  Well, there was that pesky war over the great pond.   So I followed their military trail.  

But these boys have a back story that contributes to their picture.  The events surrounding Sadie’s first marriage add to my suspicion that she might have been dramatic and was perhaps attracted to other dramatic folks.  But in fairness, it may not totally be her fault.  In 1894, she filed for divorce from her first husband, Frederick Charles Hermsdorfer citing cruelty.  He was a bartender.  I have nothing against bartenders, but in context, he worked in a pretty unfavorable profession for the time.  Sadie (as Etta S.) is reported “dangerously ill” in 1895 and Frederick Charles departs for Los Angeles, California in 1898 to be treated for consumption, he dies there in 1899.   The return of his body back to Indiana was also publically aired in delays and legal battles between his father and the authorities in California.  In his will, Frederick Charles named his father (George) as administrator and George immediately files bond to be the legal guardians of his minor grandchildren.  Interestingly, her divorce lawyer was the first father-in-law of Daniel’s second wife (Mary Fellows Meiser) who beat Daniel in a custody case over the Meiser orphans upon the death of Mary.  Also interesting is grandfather, George Hermsdorfers, Will is contested by his surviving children.  It’s an interesting family.

Having secured custody, George Hermsdorfer or Hermsdorf raised Frederick George (Fred) and Harry James (Harry) in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  Fred is working for a company called F.E. Harmon by the time he’s 15 and works his way up from a clerk to an upholsterer in 1906 by the age of 17.  Once he’s of legal age he skips town to Stark County, Ohio, and continues to work as an upholsterer.  He marries a “very young girl” while in Ohio and, well… she was expecting sooner than they would have liked, so they moved to Chicago before her due date.  This young family tragically ends with the death of the young wife and their three-year-old daughter within days of each other.  A new Fred appears in Chicago.  This may be our Fred who has married a second time, surprisingly in New York (though there is an explanation).  This Fred is now a foreman in the steel industry by 1920.  This second marriage looks like it ended childless upon his death in Chicago in 1926. 

The middle boy, Harry, moved to Chicago to be with his mother and brother.  Fred is married to his first wife by 1910 and his household includes Sadie (as Edna S.) and Harry.  He soon finds his way to Dutchess County, New York to work in the poultry business – probably in sales.   His presence in New York could explain how Fred ended up marrying there – while on a visit (though his bride was also from Illinois, so a vacation ended in marriage?)  In 1917, Harry enlists in New York and is assigned to the 308th Infantry (company B), which shipped out as part of the American Expeditionary Forces to France.  Having survived the war, he returned stateside for a discharge on 5 March 1919, moving back to Chicago to live with his mother and step-father on Montrose Avenue.  Ensign was a glove buyer for Carson Pririe Scott Department Store, and it seems he helped Harry break into the same field.  Harry continued to use his birth name variation of Hermsdorf until sometime after his first marriage in Michigan.  His trail turned cold until I pick him up as Harry J. Gill, a Manufacturing Agent of Perrin Glove Company, Inc. and married to a different woman.  His military trail validates this name change in the Veteran’s Master Index where they have recorded an alias of Harry James Hermsdorf, of the 308th Infantry as Harry James Gill who died in Seattle, Washington in 1947. If he had any children by either of his wives, they are still hiding.  There is family ephemeron in our treasure trove that had Seattle origins as well, I wonder if this was Harry’s family?

Harry was not the only name convert.  Instead of living with his paternal grandfather, the youngest, Arthur, was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Rosetta, in Roanoke, Huntington County, Indiana. Newspaper articles are rich with Hermsdorfer goings-on.  It’s odd that probate only mentions two sons of Frederick Charles in regards to guardianship.  Arthur was born well before Frederick Charles went to Los Angeles and it would be assumed that Frederick Charles would have made his will before leaving for California with consumption.  This leads me to suspect that Arthur’s legitimacy is in question.  And the dates support this. 

Arthur can’t decide which year he was born; 1894, 1895, or 1896.  The census nearest his birth year and his headstone all agree on December 1896.  Sadie filed for divorce in November 1894.  Do the math. This would also explain how Arthur ended up with Rosetta instead of his paternal grandfather.  And it could also explain his death certificate and name change.

Poor Arthur.  While Sadie, Fred, and Harry had reunited in 1910, Arthur was still living with Rosetta and Daniel.  Though, Sadie had not abandoned him; the newspapers do report that she visits him and Rosetta.  And he does eventually end up with his mother.  By 1917, Arthur is living on Montrose Avenue with Sadie, Ensign, and Ken.  Like Ken and Harry, Arthur finds himself in military service with the 33rd Division, 108th Engineers, Co. E.  The 108th Engineers were also attached to the American Expeditionary Forces in France.  Arthur came home a month after Harry, and also returned to Montrose Avenue in Chicago. Arthur opted to use the variation of Hermsdorfer through World War I.

Arthur was better than Harry at disappearing.  Like Harry, it is the Veteran’s Master Index that located Arthur and identified his alias, Arthur William Gillis.  But he also used William Arthur (sometimes just “A”) Gillis, and Arthur William Gillis.  In 1932 he could be the William A. Gillis living in Pheonix, Arizona with a Mrs. Marjorie E. Gillis, a native of California.  Then in 1940 we find Arthur Gillis in Oakland, California with a wife, Edna, and his mother-in-law, Sarah E. MaGill.  But in 1942, in his World War II draft filed from Turlock, California he names Mrs. S.E. MaGill instead of his wife Edna.  By 1950, he returns to Phoenix where he died in 1959.  The informant on his death certificate was one Edna Gillis, his wife.  The 1940 census confirms that Arthur and Edna did not have children together (Edna was 41 and not getting any younger). Edna’s obituary also validates this.

I admit, until I found a little more evidence, I wondered if Edna aka S.E. MaGill, aka Margorie E were more aliases of Sadie – but they are not.  Arthur did manage to meet a woman named Edna whose mother’s initials were also S.E., for Sarah E.  Odd yes?  My suspicions were fed by Sadie’s penchant to do some curious and inconsistent things.

  1. Between her divorce in 1894 and second marriage in 1911, she was listed in one Chicago city directory as a nurse, but as a cashier at a clubhouse in the census.  Since her first husband was a bartender, I feel it’s more likely she was a cashier.  City directories were publicly available, was she passing herself off as a nurse to her mother and step-father, or training to be a nurse?  
  2. Was her illness in January 1895 stress from the divorce and subsequent separation from her children, or did she have a miscarriage?  Aha, the 1910 census does record that she had given birth to 4 children, 3 were still living.
  3. Who was Arthur’s biological father?  Was her divorce a result of infidelity that triggered a violent reaction from her bartender husband?  Incidentally, his nickname was “Smick”, a Northern Irish derogatory slang for a lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behavior.  Did she have one last fling with him in 1896 after the divorce or did something worse happen to her?
  4. In the 1910 census, she is identified as Fred and Harry’s sister, not their mother and she’s claiming to be five years younger.  
  5. Her habitual name changes included her 1911 marriage to Ensign.  Her marriage record uses her legal name, Sadie Hermsdorfer, but she used “Sadie Rhoads” and claimed Daniel as her father on her announcements (she married Frederick Charles before Rosetta married Daniel).  Her total known aliases now number seven (to include the use of her birth name, and both of her step-father’s surnames.)
  6. It seems she was still keeping secrets when she wrote those letters to Ken and Eleanor begging for money but asking to keep her situation from her mother and husband.  Her situation involved a problem with being weak from hemorrhaging. Miscarriage in her 50s? Not likely, but still curious – and alarming.

And now, that French connection…  I wrote once about how Rosetta might have thought her mother was French because she reported this on her brother’s death certificate (incorrectly, her mother was born in Ohio and her grandmother was born in Virginia).  On Arthur’s death certificate – under the name Arthur W. Gillis – Edna records his father’s name as Fred (unk) from France and his mother as Sadie De Trumain also from France.  George Hermsdorfer was a German immigrant and his children were all born in Indiana.  Sadie was also born in Indiana – and every member of her family was well aware of this.  So, either Arthur lied to his wife, Sadie lied to Arthur, or it’s more of the family reinventing themselves.  Sadie would have also been present at the death of her Uncle John, did she take Rosetta’s mistake and run with it? And then, Arthur did spend time in France during the War. What is Rosetta, Sadie, and Arthur’s obsession with French origins?

But the French connection isn’t the biggest mystery.  It was just a headline. My red herring. I wonder why Harry and Arthur changed their name?  In doing one of my little side-by-side timeline projects the magical year when they left Chicago for the far west and changed their names is curiously 1931, the year Daniel died.

Sadie’s death certificate and burial have not been found.  A 1930-1940 death shouldn’t be this hard to find unless it didn’t’ happen when and where I expect it to under the name I am looking for.  Was their relation to the Hermsdorfer bunch so emotionally painful for them that they chose to change it so late in life?  What triggered it?  Did Sadie influence her boys to change their names? Was her death their final break from any Hermsdorfer ties?  OR were they erasing their German heritage on the eve of the Second World War?

I guess Sadie and her boys will just have to be that mystery I will never solve and it’s time for me to put them to bed.

One thought on “That French Connection, And a Little Drama

  1. Wow! That was a ride! In terms of the name change, I know that anti-German sentiment caused a lot of problems over here in the UK during WWI and WWII, and a lot of families changed their names, as well as street names being changed, certain biscuits being renamed and the German Shepherd becoming the Alsatian. The most apparent was King George V changing the name of the royal family to Windsor in 1917. I don’t know how ‘bad’ things were in the US, but its certainly a definite possibility!

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.