Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Freiheit family - my grandpa's memory and a fluke clipping

Ah, the family "discovery" story that inspired me to blog in the first place. This is definitely a story that I want to put in writing so it's not forgotten.

So far everything I've written has been about my maternal grandmother's family.  There is still some blogging to do there but this is for a different line.  A few months before my maternal grandfather passed away (unexpectedly), I sat down and talked to him and asked him about his ancestry.  I still have the sheet of notes that I took.  On his father's side he remembered his grandparents and great grandparents dates - even getting the month right for his grandfather's brother's birth.  He was sketchy on his mother's side and promised to get me more but then he passed away.

Julia Freiheit Hugmeyer w/son Marvin
The story that inspired me the most was of his father's mother's family.  His grandmother was born Julia Freiheit November 10th, 1873 at Onekema, Manistee Co MI (or so he said - I can't find a birth record for her).  Her parents were John Freiheit and Minnie Helm (yes, he remembered his great grandmother's maiden name even though she died 12 years before he was born).  Looking back I'm amazed and saddened that I didn't get to collaborate more with him.

My grandpa said that John was a "Prussian nobleman" who, in his disgust with happenings at home, sold all of his belongings and moved his family to America.  He had been a bouncer here in America and was known as "Mecklenberg John".  A further conversation with my uncle  confirmed the story and added that he was "Baron von Freiheit" in Prussia.  My grandpa also said that his grandma had a sister who was an opera singer who ran a boarding house and was murdered, and that a play called "The Boarding House Murder" was written about it.

Not having much to go by other than his story I sought out their death certificates at SeekingMichigan to find their parents names.  Of course, as I expected - nothing.  It did confirm that Minnie's father's name was "Helm".  I then dug through census records and compiled the following siblings for Julia:
Mathilda (John Neitzke) 1858-1933
Caroline (George Meinkoth) 1860-1910
Emma (never married) 1869-1942
Hattie (Herbert Dickson) abt 1873-

The 2 oldest sisters showed born in Germany while Emma and Hattie were born in MI (and of course no birth record was found).   I researched the known siblings of Julia as far as I could.

I contacted descendants of Mathilda and Caroline, I visited the cemetery in Manistee, I went up to the historical museum in Manistee and met with a local researcher who helped me scour the newspapers (that aren't microfilmed - they lay flat in a back room - it was weird flipping through 100 year old newspapers that felt like they'd crumble at any second).  I found no record of John and Minnie at all, other than their headstones at the cemetery, census records and these death certificates.  Every person I contacted that was descended from them had never heard the Freiheit name and even the researcher could find nothing, no obituaries - absolutely nothing.

My quest to find them stalled out for quite awhile after someone on a German message board told me "Freiheit means freedom in German - they probably changed their name when they got to America, you are unlikely to ever find them".  One day I stumbled on the ship record listing their arrival here in America which gave me another child named Anna, born abt March 1867.  They arrived in America (destination Delaware, was told probably means Baltimore) on the ship "Maria" September 13th, 1867.  Minnie was not listed as Minnie but everything else lined up.  The log listed that they sailed from the port of "Bremen".

With this new information I sought out a German researcher.  A Google search led me to Robert Albert Jr. of  I'd never hired a researcher before but his level of expertise was good and his rates appeared fair.  I sent him my 4 German brick walls with all of the information I had and he decided to try to knock down the Freiheit one first.  He and I probably emailed for 18 months on this family to no avail.  He looked at resource after resource and was absolutely stumped.  He told me that he was going to try the church records from Manistee.  He explained to me that German church records were often quite full of information, saying "So and so, of such and such village died - he was born of so and so of this village, and so and so of this village", and so on and he was hopeful that we would find a clue there.  He had ordered a film that didn't pan out but clipped a random church death record to show me what I could expect if he did find them.  The woman's name was Frederica Springborn and although I couldn't read the record (in German) I couldn't get that Springborn name out of my head.  Robert had done some research in the census records and found that there was a Springborn family living not too far from John and Minnie in Manistee and he was a saloon keeper (who better to need a "bouncer")?

I went through my information yet again to see if I had overlooked something.  Springborn?  Where had I seen that name?  A-ha!  I had glossed over it as just bad information when I had seen it the first time - their daughter Caroline's death certificate lists her mother as Minnie Springborn.  I sent this off to him and told him I wasn't sure if it meant anything but it sure was a coincidence if nothing else.  The Springborn census records listed they were from Mecklenberg and their children were named very similarly to John and Minnie's children.   

On 11/10/2010 I got this email:

You are not going to believe what I just found and I am shaking. I wish I had your phone number. I know that it is midnight there, but oh my GOD!!!! Call me if you can when you get this. I don't care the time, and you can leave a message with your phone number and I will call you back!

Robert Albert


With all the Springborn coincidences and everything tying together Robert looked in a book (of transcriptions done by a gentleman in Germany) of marriages that he'd had in his library the whole time (the parish where Frederica Springborn's death record said she was born) and there was John and Minnie!  Minnie had been previously married to a man named Johann Friedrich Theodor Springborn.  With this new information he was able to find (and I now know) that their family was: 
  • Johann Heinrich Theodor Freiheit who was born at GroƟ Nemerow, Germany August 17th, 1825, son of Joachim Heinrich Freiheit and Elisabeth Sophia Frederica Hagen.  He had a sister Johanna Carolina Elisabeth Freiheit who married Carl Christian Theodor Ebel.
  • Sophie Christiane Wilhelmine Helm who was born October 15th, 1834 at Strasen, Germany, daughter of Johann Joachim Helm and Maria Dorothea Kienscherper.  She had a sister Sophie Wilhelmine Henriette Helm.
They were married November 6, 1857 at Godendorf, Germany and had the following children (at Godendorf):
  •  Mathilda Henriette Sophie Freiheit, November 10th, 1858
  • Caroline Marie Dorothee Freiheit, September 6th, 1860
  • Auguste Henrietta Caroline Freiheit, September 22nd, 1862 (vanishes)
  • Georg Johann Friedrich Freiheit, November 22nd, 1864 - died August 29th, 1866 at Wokuhl
  • Anna (from the ship log) doesn't appear anywhere.  It's theorized that they moved shortly before leaving Germany and she was born in a port city.  She's not with the family in 1870 so she died somewhere between Delaware and Manistee.
Minnie had been previously married to the Springborn January 6th, 1854 at Strasen and had a son Heinrich Carl Christian Springborn April 7th, 1855 at Strasen.  I can't find anything on either her 1st husband or her son.  All of these cities are in Mecklenberg, just as my grandfather had said.  There is nothing to indicate that he was a nobleman but I'll chalk that up to family lore.  

What are the chances of Robert clipping and sending me the Springborn record?  The microfilm had hundreds and hundreds of death records on it.  He picked one at random that had good information and sent it to show me what to hope we could find.  Had he not picked THAT record this brick wall wouldn't have come down - of that there is no doubt in my mind.  When I called him and talked to him (yes, it was after midnight.......I'd waited years for this conversation) he told me the Mormons believe that our ancestors want to be found and that there was no doubt in his mind that they wanted us to find them because too many things had to happen just right for this discovery to be made.

Of the sisters of Julia I'd found the death records for all but Hattie and I knew they didn't run boarding houses and hadn't been murdered.  Hattie vanishes from the Grand Rapids MI city directory after 1926 but I found a Hattie Dickson in the 1930 Indianapolis census as the "proprietor" of a "rooming house".  She's in the city directories there from 1930 until her death in 1937 (November 22nd) at 608 N. Delaware "furn rooms".  I'd found my boarding house sister!  I found a transient death record here in Grand Rapids since she's buried in Oakhill Cemetery but it didn't list a cause of death.  Via another wonderful genealogy connection I managed to get an article from the November 22nd Indianapolis Times, page 11.  
Indianapolis Times November 22nd, 1937, pg. 11

I've looked everywhere to find a play written about it and haven't found it.  Given that it was in 1937 and probably wasn't a smash hit it's probably lost to time.  I'm not sure how I'd ever prove she was an opera singer but let me tell you, my grandpa was right about so much of his ancestry, pulled from his brain spur of the moment, that I wouldn't bet against it!

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