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Saturday, March 4, 2017


Ludovicus Selgrath was christened in Sankt Ingbert, on 18 April 1834.  His parents, Jacob and Gertrude Selgrath, took him and his elder siblings to a new life in the United States later that year. (Family tradition always said the family came from Bavaria, but St. Ingbert is a community in Saarland. Having looked at the history, I note that the little community, along with Ensdorf, the village I knew about, were handed over to Bavaria after their territory was taken away from Napoleonic France. It was not until much later that Saarland was given its own status as a state.) In Pennsylvania, Ludwig’s name became Americanized and he was known as Lewis from then on.

Not much is known about Lewis’s early life. His father’s profession isn’t known, and Lewis’s early training could have been anything. One of his brothers was a general laborer, one became a shoemaker, and another worked on the railroad.
Irish track worker,
mid-19th century

When Lewis turned 27 years old, the U.S. Civil War had started. Lewis had two enlistments: he was a part of Company D, 15th Pennsylvania Infantry, and he served in Company B and Company D, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry. His rank was Sergeant.

Lewis didn’t marry until he was 40 years old—he married Rachael Thomas in the Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 25, 1874. Their only child, Malcolm Lightwood Selgrath, was born there on 26 September 1877.

If Lewis had a job that required him to travel, it might help explain why his wife and son were living with her brother and sister-in-law John G. and Emma Thomas when the 1880 census taker came around on June 9. Ray, as she is called in the census, may have been temporarily separated from Lewis, but evidently not permanently. Still, this is only speculation. Perhaps Lewis was one of the drifters—men who had become permanently detached from their homes by the War, or by something else, and who could never afterward settle down.

Lewis died on 27 February 1894 in New York City—there is no evidence that Ray was living there, so perhaps he worked on a railroad or was a traveling salesman. In Pennsylvania later in the spring, Ray applied for a government pension based on her husband’s war service, which was granted. She probably hadn’t been divorced from Lewis if she were claiming a widow’s benefits. She went to live with her brother Samuel after Lewis died, still living in Philadelphia. Rachael Selgrath died in October 1916.

Meanwhile, Lewis and Rachael’s son, Malcolm, lived something of a roving life.

Before he had turned 21, Malcolm and 23-year-old Grace Bennett of Ashley, Pennsylvania, were going together, and two days after Malcolm’s 21st birthday, they married on 28 September 1898. Their daughter, Adeline, was well on the way and was born a little over two months later, in December.

Malcolm didn’t stick around. A little over a year later, the 1900 census-taker found Grace and her toddler daughter living with Grace’s widowed grandmother, her father, and two uncles in her hometown of Ashley.

Before 1910 Grace got herself divorced from Malcolm, married a man named Johnson, and had another daughter. In an effort to make herself more respectable, she also changed the birth date of her daughter Adeline to October 1899, 13 months after her marriage to Malcolm instead of three . . . she could not have foreseen that over a hundred years later we could easily look up the registration of that birth, made at the time it happened, and guess the reason for the discrepancy.

In 1910 a census taker found 32-year-old Malcolm in Weston County, Wyoming, working as a hired man for a wealthy sheep rancher who had four other hired hands. Weston County is very rural Wyoming, on the eastern border of the state roughly west of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Maybe sheep-herding wasn’t exactly Malcolm’s forte, because seven years later when his daughter, Adeline, at the age of 19, married 44-year-old Stanley Wilbert in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, Adeline put on her marriage license that he lived in Philadelphia and that his occupation was “clerk.” Apparently she could only guess what her father did for a living. Obviously Malcolm did not attend the wedding—as Adeline was said to be only 18, her mother had to give permission for the marriage.

The next year when Malcolm had to register for the World War draft, he had gone to Minneapolis, Minnesota and was working as a machinist for the C. M. & St. P. Railroad. The draft registration is dated 12 September 1918.
Machinist working in a railroad shop, about 1937

Malcolm continued to drift somewhat and evaded the census takers in 1920, 1930, and 1940. But he did register for the World War II draft, as required. The year was 1942 and at that time Malcolm was living in Canton, Ohio. Canton is south of Cleveland and Akron, and northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On the line asking for the name and address of someone who would always know his whereabouts, he lists a Masonic Lodge in Iowa, a tiny community about 100 miles west of Mason City, Iowa. What connection could he have had there? Is there a railroad there where he could have worked as a machinist? Did he do something else?

I do wonder why the Selective Service asked men as old as Malcolm was then to register for the draft. He was 64 that year. Did they really think it might become necessary for men of that age to serve in the military? It was a terrible war, to be sure, and perhaps that contingency underlines how very serious it was seen to be to stop the rampant nationalism of that era. One hopes the dangers of such ideology can still be recognized and stopped in today’s world.

Four years later, Malcolm was living in the Stark County Home located just north of Canton, Ohio, in Plain Township, a tiny section including the railroad yards. He died there of asthma, complicated by chronic heart disease, on 7 July 1946, two months before his 69th birthday. The death certificate reports his usual occupation was that of a machinist and that he was “single,” not divorced. There is no indication that his ex-wife or daughter were ever notified. Probably they had completely lost touch with him.

Drifters cannot be tethered.

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