There are lots of stories still to be told from the stack of family memoirs I received from my Grandpa Reed back in 1974. One of those stories, about his cousin Grace, caught my attention: Stephen Curtis married Belle Willard and they were separated after many years of marriage during which they had the four children listed, Grace, Mavis, Doris and Wallace. Grace married William Weber and they had two children, Frederick and Reginald, after which, while she was still young, William shot and killed her. He was acquitted in court, but there is no doubt in the minds of those who knew about the circumstances, that it was a cold-blooded murder. He was a German, born in Germany, and regarded his wife more as a chattel than as a companion. He was hard and cruel, taught his little boys to endure without crying such torments as being lifted by the ears, was very cruel to his wife during the years she lived with him, and her life was a very unhappy one. They lived in Grand Rapids.
After I discovered how much the internet could contribute toward researching my family history, I decided to try to find out if this story was true, and when and where it happened. First I went to the Western Michigan Genealogical Society database
page and searched the Western Michigan newspapers, which covers 1910 to 2011. There was only one entry for Grace Weber, which was an obituary published in the Grand Rapids Herald on 3 March 1913.
Being on a budget, instead of ordering the obituary for $5 from the Western Michigan Genealogical Society, I requested it as an interlibrary loan from my local library system. In a few weeks I received a copy of the front page of the Grand Rapids Herald for Monday, March 3, 1913.
I knew the story didn't end there, so on my next trip to the Library of Michigan in Lansing, I read through several weeks' worth of microfilmed issues of the Grand Rapids Herald. I was rewarded by a photo of Grace and a mug shot of William.
(Grace Curtis Weber was born in Michigan in November 1881, the daughter of Stephen and Belle Willard Curtis. She married William R. Weber, who was 16 years her senior, on 19 Feb. 1905 in Battle Creek, Michigan. William was born in Germany in 1865, and had been married once before. They had two sons, Frederick (Fritz) and Reginald, who were 7 and 5 years old at the time of the shooting.)
Grand Rapids Herald, March 4, 1913
As my grandfather had noted, William was acquitted of murder. But that wasn't the whole story, by any means. The citizens of Grand Rapids followed the details of the trial, as day after day the drama was enacted in court. The journalists reported that Grace Curtis Weber's mother had written a letter warning her against her husband, that they had been separated, and that Grace had started divorce proceedings. At the time of her death she was working as a housekeeper in a private home, when William appeared (carrying a loaded revolver in his coat pocket) and asked to see her. They were alone in the front parlor when three shots rang out, and Weber ran for the street. He was soon apprehended, and brought to trial.
As usual, my grandfather's notes only told part of the story. William's first trial ended when the jury couldn't agree on his guilt or innocence, and the judge ordered another trial for May. This time around, over 120 prospective jurors were carefully examined. Once again, expert witnesses were called in, and the shooting was again enacted in the courtroom. The newspaper reporters, the attorneys, the judge, and the wider community fully expected to hear a verdict of "guilty".
When the jury announced their verdict, the reaction was stunned outrage. The Herald ran a front page article that said,
William R. Weber, charged with the murder of his wife, was declared not guilty by a jury in superior court which for the last two weeks has been trying the case. The verdict was rendered at 10 o'clock yesterday forenoon and jury and respondent were promptly discharged.
But so far as the court was concerned the case did not end here. Showing his anger and disgust in every word, Judge Stuart bitterly arraigned [sic] the jury for what he termed an outrage upon the city of Grand Rapids. He followed this by excusing three members of the regular panel who had been upon the jury because he said he did not think they were competent to try cases in court.
Verdict Was Absolutely Unexpected
The verdict was unexpected by practically every man and woman in the big crowd in the courtroom. E.N. Barnard, attorney for the defense was perhaps the only man who really felt confident all through that he would win. When the words "not guilty" were pronounced by the foreman of the jury, something like a gasp of astonishment swept around the room. Weber dropped into his chair and sobbed a moment and then began shaking hands with his friends and tried to shake hands with the court.
For just a moment, Judge Stuart looked the jury over then he turned loose the things which had been accumulating within him.
"Gentlemen," he began, "this is an outrage upon justice in this community. Aside from all other considerations, you have taken the story of the respondent as entirely true. You apparently have had no regard for what any one else has said or of the surrounding circumstances. I am frank to say to you that this community has been outraged by such a verdict and I cannot but express my feelings to you at this time.
"Unfortunately, there is no appeal on the part of the people. The verdict must be accepted, but I do hope that if this system of wife-shooting without
punishment continues in this city the people will awake to the fact that something must be done to insure certain punishment for crime and that every story told by a respondent in a courtroom cannot be accepted as a fact.
"I might suggest that men contemplating the shooting of their wives usually do not take two or three witnesses with them. Gentlemen, if this verdict is your view of justice I differ with you very decidedly."
The news continued for the next few weeks. The judge proclaimed his disgust with the jury system, which enabled competent men to be excused for cause, because they didn't want to take the time to serve their civic duty. Weber demanded his revolver back, and the clerk of the superior court refused. In June, Weber happened to see Judge Stuart at the Kalamazoo train depot, and rushed up to him, shaking his hand and proclaiming his innocence. The judge made his distaste very evident and said coldly, "I have no desire to try the case again here in a railroad station."
And there were several outraged letters to the editor, one of which, from Mrs. Mary E. Hay, ended with:
"The cruel injustice of the whole thing, a devoted mother lies in her grave, two sweet children robbed of their mother, and the man that carried a loaded revolver walks the streets a free man."
As a genealogist, I am devoted to telling my ancestors' stories. And as long as I tell stories such as this one, of Grace Weber's untimely death, my ancestors will live on.
It's not in the same league as the Edmund Fitzerald, and with a happier ending (all hands saved, not all hands lost), but there's no doubt that shipping on the Great Lakes was a precarious enterprise. I grew up hearing stories of the wreck my great-grandfather Herbert Randall survived in 1916, arriving on his doorstep in Manistee, Michigan, after a telegram had informed his wife Claudia of his death in Lake Erie. I have the good fortune to be in possession of the original front page of the Manistee News-Advocate of October 21, 1916, torn and yellowed by time.
The headlines were biggest in Manistee, but news of the shipwreck was published all over the country, from Vermont to Iowa to Ohio. Most of them reported merely that the crew was safe, having been picked up by two different ships, but the Manistee paper had a long interview with Herbert Randall:
Arriving home in the clothes in which he was saved, without vest and in his working cap, Herbert K. Randall, chief engineer of the Marshall Butters which went down in Lake Erie last week, tells a thrilling story of the rescue of the crew.
"It was a terrible thing, but I don't think that a man of us entertained fear. We were too busy, each man working for himself, to be afraid of the possible ending." said Randall last night.
"When we passed through Detroit there was a fresh southeast wind blowing, but not strong enough to detain us any until we had passed the southeast shoal by about 45 minutes. It was at 12:30 Friday afternoon that the squall struck us. We were six or eight miles from the shoal light at the time. When it was first noticed that a storm was coming the captain came aft and asked us to work her up stronger. This took us about 20 minutes. Heavy seas began to roll about this time and we noticed that the ship was leaking, taking in water fast.
"I understood what this meant and went forward and asked Capt. McClure to put her into the sea or before it. Instead of doing this Capt. McClure put her in the trough, in an attempt to throw her deck load off and lighten her. We were loaded with lath and a small amount of lumber above decks and had we been successful in getting rid of this load we might have ridden the gale longer. As it was she would not throw and we ran in the trough for a few minutes longer, watching the water meanwhile. We had the pumps going but the water kept gaining on us steadily and I again reported to the captain.
"We had seen the steamer Billings about five miles to leeward and Capt. McClure blew the alarm signal. They apparently did not hear us, for they paid no attention. In about 15 minutes another alarm signal was blown and then another. Finally the watchman on the Billings saw the steam from our whistle and the boat came about and started for us at once.
"The steamer Hartwell had been in the distance all this while and seeing the Billings was heading for us, she also changed her course and came towards us, standing to shortly after the Billings had arrived.
"By now the wind was blowing a hurricane, the seas were tremendous and our deck load was going by the board. Heavy pieces of planking were lifted off the deck and sent hurling through the air. Pieces of boards and shingles caught in the whistle, causing it to blow continually. It was a horrible sound and when I could stand it no longer, I risked my life and climbed up to where I could cut the cord.
"About this time we got the starboard boat launched and eight of the crew, including myself, got in and cast off. The captain of the Hartwell hollered, "Come on with your boat," and we headed for the steamer. It was a terrific pull to get to her. The seas were rolling higher than the house tops - the wind so strong that you had to yell to a man only a few feet away to make him hear you.
"After about 20 minutes we were able to get aboard the Hartwell. Looking back to the Butters we could see the rest of the crew, five men, standing on her deck. I guess we all lost our nerve then. It was awful to see them standing there helpless.
"It was just one-half hour after this that the Butters broke up and went down. A few minutes before she went under the captain and one fireman took to the yawl and the other three jumped into the water.
"The steamer Billings after being compelled to make three circles, picked up three men who were in the water and the captain and fireman got aboard without serious difficulty.
"Remember that all this time the wind ws blowing 75 miles an hour and that the seas resembled small mountains. The Billings rolled terribly while standing by to pick us up. It was hard to get aboard without being smashed to pieces against the ship's side.
"The Hartwell turned about and began a run before the wind. She was consigned to Fairport, but it was impossible to make the harbor and she went on to Erie. She turned here and went into the wind. It was 5:30 Saturday afternoon when we finally made the Fairport harbor.
"We had all lost everything we had but were mighty glad to get in as we were."
As I said, I'd given up on genealogy. Permanently. Or so I thought. Through the 1990's and into 2000, I refused to get interested, even when I saw books on Genealogy and the Internet on my library shelves.
In 2003, my 99-year old grandmother, who lived in Michigan with her daughter, my Aunt Ethel, was beginning a long, slow decline. Aunt Ethel called and asked me if I could do some online research into assisted living or adult family home facilities in their area. Being the librarian that I am, I immediately went to the Library of Michigan website. I did find a state-wide review of facilities, and was able to give my aunt some names and phone numbers of places to check out. In the process of exploring the library website, I noticed a sidebar that said, "Search the 1870 census index for Michigan." Immediately I thought of my great-great grandfather Stacy Clay Thompson, whom I'd never been able to find, either in Pennsylvania, where he was born, or in Michigan.
So, not expecting much, I typed his name into the search box. In seconds I had my answer - 14-year old Stacy Thompson was living in Blair, Grand Traverse County (where I never thought of looking for him), boarding with another family and attending school.
To say that I was impressed was putting it mildly! Immediately I thought, "Ooooohhhh - this has possibilities!" So I plugged in another name, that of another great great grandfather, Marshall Jackson Chase, who (according to family notes) had taken his small family from Ohio to Michigan in the 1850's. Once again the search found him in seconds - living with his wife Mary Ann, their two children George Carlos and Florence, and his sister-in-law and niece, Louisa and Eva Catlin. I had no idea they ever lived in Lansing.
It didn't take me long to swing into action. I knew I needed an up-to-date genealogy software program, so I went online to read some reviews, and chose Legacy Family Tree, because it was available for download immediately, was user-friendly and a reasonable price. I decided early on that I would be entering all my information from the beginning, using the binders of original records and family papers that I'd collected. I subscribed to Ancestry, and started reading online genealogy newsletters.
I was on my way!
By 1990, I had been researching my family history for about 16 years. I'd made a couple of research trips to Michigan, written countless letters to libraries, archives, distant relatives and courthouses, and spent endless hours at the Seattle Public Library and National Archives on Sand Point Way, cranking the handles of microfilm machines.
I had determined that my parents were sixteenth cousins three times removed (or something of the sort), and traced certain lines back to the 1400's, plugging in names and dates from printed books and genealogies on the shelves at the Seattle Public Library. I was a member of the National Genealogical Society for a year, but the NGS Quarterly was way, way above my head. I was entering all this information into my database, the DOS-based Roots III, and printing out pedigree charts and narrative reports on my dot-matrix printer.
Then I had to stop everything to cope with a difficult pregnancy. After my son was born, I now had to find someone to watch both my children (not just one) in order for me to go research. The problem was, there wasn't really anything else for me to find. I was tired of brick walls that would never get torn down, and my heart just wasn't in it any more. I figured I had found all I was ever going to find. When my computer crashed, I didn't bother to replace Roots III, and though I kept all my records and printouts, they just gathered dust, packed away in boxes under my bed or in the closet. Genealogy had lost its fascination, and I figured that was more or less permanent.
In all of my 16 years of research, I had not yet learned that there is ALWAYS something more to find!
This happened many years ago (probably before the concept of indirect evidence was really embraced by the genealogy community), but I still remember it clearly. My children were small, and occasionally I used to leave them with my mother or mother-in-law so that I could go do research. Still on the trail of my Prosser ancestors, I knew (courtesy of The Luggage Tag
) that my great-grandmother Ruth (Prosser) Strunk Chase had a brother named Charles Prosser. On one of my many visits to my local Family History Center, I had seen (probably on the microfiche IGI) a marriage record for a Charles Prosser and Amanda Qua in Gaylord, Otsego County, Michigan. I didn't really expect there to be any connection, because none of my Prossers had ever lived in Otsego County, but I sent for the microfilm of the original record anyway. When I threaded the microfilm into the reader, and came to the record, it was all I could do not to squeal my delight. For not only was this Charles Douglas Prosser born in Hillsdale, but one of the witnesses to the marriage was Crawford E. Strunk - my great-grandmother Ruth's first husband, and Charles' brother-in-law.
Not only is this indirect evidence, it is also primary information. This was the first record that provided Charles' full name and the name of Lottie's mother. It also led me to additional information - such as the fact that Ruth (Prosser) Strunk had been appointed postmistress in Gaylord in 1887!
Genealogists get to be good at reading between the lines - and in seeking out historical and cultural information about those people that we are researching. I've been researching one William M. Kiker, from Anson County, North Carolina, and it was only a few days ago that I found his compiled military service records (CMSR) online at Fold3
(formerly known as Footnote). There are about 23 cards online, digitized images of the muster rolls that were taken every few months. Most of them just note "Present", and it's only by reading the regimental history of the 43rd Regiment, North Carolina Infantry, that I discovered that William Kiker fought at Gettysburg in July 1863. One card, dated July/Aug. 1864, says simply, "hands of enemy".
William was captured in May 1864, and according to another card, was transferred to Elmira, New York, on July 8, 1864.
I started wondering - what was in Elmira? Why take him there, instead of one of the other prison camps? So (naturally) I looked it up. I discovered that Camp Elmira (known as Hellmira by the Confederate soldiers) was opened just two days before William arrived there, and housed over 12,000 prisoners. Over the following year (which included a particularly harsh winter) one quarter of those soldiers died from disease, malnutrition, or exposure. On William's North Carolina pension application was noted the fact that his eyesight was failing, and he was in very poor health. No wonder.
But William wasn't the only one in his family who was involved in the Civil War. His brothers Louis J. and Frank D. Kiker also served, in the same unit. Louis, although wounded, survived the war. Frank did not. He died of a fractured leg at White House Landing, Virginia, June 10, 1864, a month before William was taken captive.
Reading between the lines helps to put faces to these names; to start wondering what life was like for them before, during, and after the war. Although all of my Civil War ancestors fought for the Union, my children have ancestors from Mississippi who fought for the Confederacy and were also taken prisoner.
Sometimes, instead of the stories driving us to find the records, it's the other way around.