At Play In The Archive
When my Grandma Kathi died, I inherited a treasure trove of century-old photographs that once belonged to Margaret, the mother of her late husband, Robert Lessiack. Almost none of the images are labeled with anything other than a date or a location — so frustrating, yet so intriguing. The people in the photographs must have been so familiar to my great-grandmother, so completely part of her every day life, that she didn’t feel the need to write down a single name. Now, 100 years later, I look at the same faces and scramble to reconstruct their lives from the barest of clues.
I’ve had enormous fun poring over all these snapshots of Margaret’s life, trying to sort them into logical groups, recognize and identify faces that re-occur in image after image, and painstakingly correlate what I think is going on in the picture with what little data I’ve been able to find about the Spielmann family. I’m on slightly firmer ground once my grandfather enters the picture(s), but not entirely — mysteries surround him too. But, my focus for the moment is on Margaret’s family of origin.
I’ve already shared what I know about Margaret’s mother, my great-great-grandmother Fanny. Margaret’s father, Herman, is almost as mysterious, and unfortunately, I know more about his death than I do about his life. I think that the man at the center of this photograph is my great-great-grandfather Herman.
Working from that assumption, I believe this is a picture of a much younger Herman. These are the only two pictures I have of him.
I wasn’t sure, but my daughter Grace (16, an artist, and the family-archivist-in-waiting if ever there was one) pointed out the similarity between the man’s ears in both pictures. “Everything else changes over time, but ears don’t change much, right?” I think she’s correct, even though the huge moustachio threw us off a bit.
According to a variety of sources, Herman was born in Vienna, Austria in July of 1866 and he married Fanny in 1891. They went on to have eight children, the eldest of which was my great-grandmother Margaret.
According to census data, Herman’s occupation varied a bit over the years, but I know he spent much of his later life on ships. When he arrived in the US on the SS Trave in 1892, he was listed as a Merchant. Later, when the SS Trave brought the rest of the family to America in 1897, he was listed as a Clerk. The 1900 census identifies him as a Collector, though of what is not specified. The 1910 census lists his occupation as Steward in the steamship industry (consistent with his uniform in the photograph and later information that I uncovered), and finally, the 1920 census lists him as a Bookkeeper for an importing company.
Based on the dozen or so manifests on which he appears, ships and shipping figured heavily into his career. He spent a good deal of time on the SS America as Smoking Room Steward, which seems like quite possibly the worst job in the world as it would involve breathing in second-hand smoke all day long. Incidentally, one manifest offers the detail that Herman was only 5′ 5″ tall, though another lists him as 5′ 6″.
I’ll save the details of Herman’s many journeys for another post, but this one has a sad ending. At the age of only 57, while employed as Smoking Room Steward on the SS America, Herman died of stomach cancer in Bremerhaven, Germany on February 25, 1924. Because he was an American citizen, the event was remarkably well documented according to the arcane rules of international diplomacy. When he died, Herman was owed $28.33 in seaman’s wages from the United States Lines. An additional $25.00 was found on his person at the hospital, Stadtisches Krankenhaus in Bremerhaven. Herman’s hospital bill was settled (out of his wages) to the tune of $12, along with a payment to a Dr. Lubben “for personal services” of $4. Alas, these bills are entirely in German, so it’s difficult to sort out the individual services for which he was charged. The consular office charged Herman’s estate $1 for the trouble of returning his personal effects, but this charge was later contested by someone at the State Department and refunded. Fanny ultimately received a check for $36.33.
$36.33. It seems like a very small amount. I hope that Herman enjoyed his work as a seaman, because the rewards clearly weren’t financial. According to the inflation calculator at DollarTimes.com, “$36.33 in 1924 had the same buying power as $489.40 in 2014. Annual inflation over this period was 2.93%.” $36.33 wasn’t nothing, but it surely wouldn’t support Fanny and the kids for long.
Fanny, who resided at 237 Palisade Avenue, West Hoboken, NJ at the time, was notified of Herman’s death by mail and telegraph on February 26th. According to a letter from the American Vice Consulate in Bremerhaven, “The body of Herman Spielman was embalmed at the expense of the United States Lines and returned to New York for burial, and the clothes and effects were likewise handed over to the United States Lines for delivery to the widow of the deceased…” A separate letter notes that, “The body and effects are being returned to his family in Hoboken on the S.S. President Roosevelt on March 8, 1924.”
It’s poignant to imagine Fanny and the kids sorting through Herman’s effects so carefully enumerated and returned by the American Consular Service.
This wan little list, devoid of any real luxuries save a deck of playing cards, feels unspeakably sad, doesn’t it? Poor Herman.