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Friday, March 3, 2017

Mixed Up Marriages

I was doing some research on the 19th-century Selgrath family of Pennsylvania when I found another one of those somewhat odd situations that do come up when you’re dealing with human beings and all their flaws.

Jacob and Gertrude Selgrath packed up their six children in 1834 and moved from their home in Bavaria to a new home and future in Pennsylvania, in the United States of America. Their eldest, Nicholas, was in his mid-teens, and the youngest, Ludwig, was a small baby, having been born in the spring of the year of their emigration. After Nicholas came two daughters, Magdalena and Katharina. Next came Johann, Franz, and then little Ludwig. Magdalena and Katharina were married before 1840—they were not enumerated with the rest of the family in the summer of 1840 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

We have no record of Jacob’s occupation. Nicholas married and worked as a general laborer, providing well for his family of six children. Magdalena married a miner and had six children (she probably had more children, either stillborn or died at birth). Katharina married a shoemaker and had ten children. John married and had two children. He served in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. Frank married, became a carpenter, and also served in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. He had six children. Lewis too served in the Union Army, came home, lived in Philadelphia until his marriage when he was 40 and then moved to New York City. He had one son.

John, the subject of this story, married when he was 25 and with his bride, 18-year-old Eliza Biessel, lived next door to his sister Katharina and her husband. John had become a shoemaker, having been apprenticed for a time to his older brother-in-law. John and Eliza had two children, a boy, Francis, born about four years after their marriage, and a girl, Ella, born five years after that. They had a third child, a boy born in February 1862, who died 11 months later of smallpox. This was after they had moved to Philadelphia, to the northeast section called Frankford. Sometime during that time period, John served in the Union Army in the Civil War.

In 1870 the census taker didn’t do a thorough job and left out many of the questions he was supposed to ask. The page listing John and Eliza with 16-year-old Francis and 11-year-old Ella is blank as to occupation, value of household, birthplaces, parentage, education, and all those other little demographic categories that were supposed to be gathered that year.

During the next ten years the household changed dramatically. Apparently John’s wife Eliza died. His son Francis married a Scottish woman named Sarah, and they had two children: a boy in 1874 and a girl in 1876. And then they got a divorce, and Francis moved out, leaving Sarah and the two little children living with his father. Ella moved out too—maybe she got married, or maybe she sided with her brother and went to keep house for him—or maybe she died. I can’t seem to find any records about her from 1870 onwards.

The 1880 census taker came around on June 4th that year and found John, a widower, working as a “laborer”—what happened to his shoemaking profession? We’ll never know, but considering that he did serve in the army during the Civil War, perhaps he came home wounded in a way that prevented his doing fine work. Keeping house for him is his daughter-in-law, Sarah, who had been born in Scotland. William is the 6-year-old grandson and Mary is the 4-year-old granddaughter. John is reported to be 50 years old. Actually he was 55 that year. Sarah is 25 years old.

Apparently the housekeeping included a May-December romance, for in 1900 we find that the census taker reports John and Sarah are married. They say they’ve been married for 24 years, but that would mean 1876—and they weren’t reporting a marriage four years after that, so they must have decided to change their story somewhere along the way. Or they just can’t “do” math. Maybe their romance was what broke up the marriage between Sarah and Francis—who knows.

I had to smile when I saw their birth dates. The 1900 Census was the only U.S. census back in those days to ask for the month and year of birth as well as the age on the last birthday. Sarah reported that she had been born in April 1855 and was 45, which was probably true. But maybe she didn’t want such a large age discrepancy between her and her husband, because she reported his birth date as March 1834 (there is a christening record from the Catholic Church in the small town in Bavaria where he was born; it says he was christened on 15 March 1825). The next question, “How old was John on his last birthday?” was answered, 76. (You shouldn’t make things up when you can’t do math.)

Fortunately perhaps, John’s son and Sarah’s ex-husband Francis didn’t mourn the situation forever. He stayed in the Philadelphia area awhile and married a woman from there named Mary Hingert, and they had two sons. Their son Francis James Selgrath was born in 1885, and their son Samuel was born in 1889. Sadly, Mary died in 1894. Francis moved himself and his young sons to Wilmington, Delaware and remained there. His troubles were not over yet, as he suffered the death of 17-year-old Samuel in 1906. His son Francis James married Elsie Jones and gave him a grandson in March 1909. But again sadly, Francis James died in an accident in 1921.

Maybe you are wondering whatever happened to those young children whose parents divorced and whose grandfather became their stepfather? William, when he was in his early twenties, married a woman a couple of years older than he was, Caroline Krauter. His sister Mary married a man named George Hale and lived in the small town where her grandmother Eliza Biessel had grown up. I suspect they went to live with relatives after their mother took up with their grandfather. It would have been pretty weird for them in that household . . .

I don’t know when Francis died, or where he went after his younger sons had both died. I hope he didn’t hang around and marry his former daughter-in-law . . .

Some family skeletons should just stay in the closet, huh?


  1. I always knew that I was not the only weird person in the family! This proves that an ancestor was far more weird than I. I love the graphic of the skeletons getting out of the closet.

    1. Ha ha. You are definitely not the only weird one in the family! I claim a share of weirdness too you know. But stay tuned. There are more out there!


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