Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Franz and Catherine


According to a passport application, Franz J Bernhardt was born April 23, 1833 in the Village of Cursdorf in Germany. What brought him to America is unclear, but sometime before 1857 (the birth of his oldest child), he took up residence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – specifically, Philadelphia.

His parentage is unclear – in fact, no documentation has been found at all to definitively link Franz to his parents or any siblings. He does share a tentative connection with Louis Bernhardt, a tailor who was born in Germany in 1829 and who also resided in Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia City Directory for the early 1860’s, Franz (also a tailor) shared an address with Louis. It’s unclear if this was living space or work space; perhaps it was both. What is clear is that the two were distinct individuals, both working or living at 240 Spruce Street at various points in their lives. Clearly theirs is not a father/son relationship, but they could certainly be brothers, or possibly cousins.

The first documented evidence for Franz Bernhardt, tailor, was an entry in McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory for 1858. Francis Bernhardt, tailor, was listed at 3 Turner. The incorrect name gives pause, however, review of subsequent documentation shows that this was a common misspelling (or perhaps an Anglicized version) of his name. There is no evidence to indicate the existence of another tailor of this name in Philadelphia around this time; also of note is that the death certificate for his oldest child, a girl born in 1857, claims she was born in Philadelphia, so it’s likely that this is a listing for Franz.

Anna Catharina was also German-born – census data and death records indicate she was born in somewhere around the German state of Lower Saxony. The fluidity of the German states, during this time period and beyond, makes it difficult to ascertain precisely what is meant by these birthplace claims – but it seems that Franz and Catherine were not from the same region, possibly indicating that they met after immigrating to America.

In any case, they did meet, apparently marrying sometime before 1857. They are found on the 1860 US Federal Census listed as “Bernhalt”. A discrepancy is noted, however: the ages of their children on the census does not coincide with the ages on their death certificates. Yet, given that most of the details for the family are strikingly similar, this discrepancy can be explained away, most likely to respondent error.

Not long after the recording of this census the family began to experience a series of losses that no parent should have to endure – the deaths of multiple children. Between 1859 and 1865 Catherine gave birth to five children - and lost four of them. During this time period, large cities like Philadelphia had significant problems with contagious illnesses – diseases that were frequently fatal to young children.

8 month old George died in 1861, from variola (small pox). Rudolph (George Rudolph) was claimed by “fits” two years later, dying at the age of four, likely the result of a fever from illness. John, who was born the year Rudolph died, passed away in the beginning of his third year. His death was followed all too soon by the death of his brother, Herman, three months later. His death was attributed to convulsions (commonly called “fits of fever”). Franz Jr. was born less than nine months later, indicating that Catherine was possibly pregnant when Herman died.

It appears that sometime around 1866 the couple and their remaining children, Anna Marie Elizabeth and Franz, Jr., left Philadelphia. The disappear from all records around this time. It’s unclear why the left – perhaps the tragedies they experienced in Philadelphia were just too much for them. As it turns out, they had returned to their homeland of Germany, returning in November of 1871 aboard the SS Main into New York, bringing with them a new son, Wilh (likely short for Wilhelm). After returning to America they had three more children – Charles and John, born in New York in 1872 and 1874, and Emma Catharina, born in Philadelphia around 1875.

Unfortunately, their return to Philadelphia brought a return to despair – Emma Catharina died of pneumonia when she four months old in 1876. Her death was followed by the death of oldest child, Elizabeth, at the age of 21 in 1878. And to make matters worse – to add a dark topping to this bitter cake – Catherine herself died at the end of 1879, the result of uterine cancer, a diagnosis that could be considered a cosmic twist of a the stabbing knife of fate.

In a sad turn of events, within two months of Catherine’s death, William, Charles, and John had moved into the Western Home for Poor Children – a home for orphan and half-orphan children in Philadelphia. It was a temporary home – white, Protestant children of both genders could live there until they were 14. Franz Jr, being 15 at the time of his mother’s death, remained with his father, apparently working in the capacity of apprentice to his tailor father.

It’s unclear how long the boys remained in the home – they were enumerated there on the 1880 census. They could have left together or separately when each boy turned 14. It’s also unclear if they ever returned to live with their father, although it’s likely that at least William did  as he grew up to be a tailor like his father and older brother.

In 1898 Louis Bernhardt, the tailor Franz lived and worked with, passed away. It was shortly before this time that Franz returned to Germany for a visit; he then returned to Germany after Louis’s death. It’s hard to think that this timing was a coincidence – it’s possible that Franz, realizing that his own life was coming to a close – felt a need to visit his homeland one last time. No matter the reason, it was his last trip home.

Franz died March 18, 1905 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Franz J Bernhardt b: 21 Apr 1833 d: 18 Mar 1905
   m:before 1858
     Anna Catharina Smidt b: 1836 d: 11 Oct 1879
       1. Anna Marie Elisabeth b: 1857 d: 13 Aug 1878
       2. George Rudolph             b: 1859 d: 3 Ap 1863
       3. George                                  b: 1860 d: 18 Jan 1861
       4. John                                      b: 1863 d: 21 Jan 1865
       5. Herman Henry             b: 30 Mar 1864 d: 17 Apr 1865
       6. Franz                                    b: 27 Dec 1865 d: 16 Aug 1954
       7. William                              b: 1870 d: 24 Jun 1910
       8. Charles                               b: 1872 d: 15 Dec 1924
       9. John Augustus              b: 17 Mar 1874 d: after 1930
      10. Emma Catharina        b: 1875 d: 9 Mar 1876

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