A Sad Sad Story and the Re-writing of a Reputation

My Grandma Brice always seemed to have a sadness about her. I heard stories, from my Mom, about how Grandma’s mother left the family when she was young and that her father, who had a drinking problem, put all the children in foster care. My Grandma, who was the second youngest surviving daughter, was the only sibling to never find a foster family to care for her.

I have to question myself as to why I haven’t looked into my Grandma’s sad story. There is such an emphasis in genealogy to look into your “Blood Line”; search for the ancestors whom you are descended from. Where does that leave the adopted… those whose “Blood Line” has been severed? I guess I haven’t looked into the Brice’s because, genetically, I’m not connected. My blood is not their blood. My Mom was adopted.

But it’s nature vs nurture. My Mom was raised by Jack and Hannah Brice from infanthood to adulthood. They were not her birth parents, but behaviours and expectations and moral also get passed on from generation to generation. My Mom is as much of a product of the Brice’s as she would be from any “blood relation”. I guess that makes me a by-product.

So I decided to delve into my Grandma Brice’s family history. Why did her mother “abandon” the family? Who was she and where did she come from?

First step: check the 1911 Canadian Census.

Hannah Brice was born in 1910 and it was nice to see her little one year old self accounted for on the top of the Census page.

In that census the family is living in Bridgeburg ON (now Fort Erie). They are:

  • Samuel Bews, born November 1878 in England, age 32
  • Johanna Bews, born July 1886 in USA, age 25
  • George A. Bews, born May 1906 in USA, age 5
  • Elizabeth G. Bews, born August 1908 in Canada, age 3
  • Hannah L. Bews, born May 1910 in Canada, age 1

So, according to the birth dates of the children, sometime between 1906 and 1908 the Bews moved to Canada.

Second step: look up my Grandmother’s Birth Registry.

The Registry lists her full name as Hannah Loretta Bews, born on May 26, 1910. Her parents are Samuel Bews and Johanna Coleman and they were married on October 30th, 1907 in Buffalo NY.  Dr. Douglas attended the birth and on the date that Samuel registers the birth (June 6, 1910) he puts their address as Crook St. Bridgeburg ON.

So, now we know that they came to Canada sometime after Oct.30th, 1907 and before August 1908 when their oldest daughter was born. But even more important than that we now have the name of Grandma’s mother: Johanna Coleman. The Census tells us that she was born in USA. My own Mom has told me that she remembers visiting her Aunt Emma & Uncle George Coleman in Harrisburg Pennsylvania when she was a child. Another interesting thing comes to my attention. Samuel & Johanna’s oldest son George is born a year and a half before they are married! Assuming George was born full term that means that Samuel and Johanna were together as late as Summer 1905.

Third step: check out the 1900 US Census. From the 1911 Census I know that Johanna was born in July 1886. She would be 14 in 1900.

I find Johanna living with her aunt and uncle, John & Ellen Coleman, in Buffalo, NY. They have 2 children (Celia & John), 3 American boarders, 3 Irish boarders, 1 Polish boarder, a Mother-in-Law, and 2 nieces living with them (one niece is Johanna, the other is Elizabeth). It is unlikely that Johanna & Elizabeth are sisters because Johanna’s birth date is listed as July 1886 and Elizabeth’s is listed as June 1886. Celia, their cousin, is also 14. I can imagine the three of them as close friends and confidants! I hope there was some joy, during this time, for Johanna. I wonder why, at such a young age, that Johanna is not living with her parents. Are they still in Pennsylvania? Was the Uncle George Coleman that my Mom visited when she was a child really Johanna’s brother? Sadly, the 1890 US Census has been lost in a fire and that would have held many clues for Johanna’s early years.

Fourth step: Check death registry for any Bews that died in Bridgeburg Ontario. There I find little Mary Bews, born to Samuel and Johanna on January 21st, 1921. That is my birthday! (52 years earlier). Mary lived for 4 hours and died of dropsy. She was buried the next day on January 22nd. On the registry her mother’s, Johanna’s, birthplace is confirmed as Pennsylvania. My Grandma would have been 10 years old when her little sister came into life and died on the same day. What a sad day that would have been.

My Mom inherited many of my grandparents old papers after they passed away. One of the items found was the foster papers relating to my Grandma and her siblings. In it they say that the mother (Johanna) LEFT in 1921 and the children went into foster care because the father could not look after their needs. There are also 2 other children listed: Kathleen (born in 1913) and Carl Bews (born between 1913-1921).

My Mom told me that Grandma mentioned her own Grandma Bews occasionally. She was a very matriarchal woman who was an integral part of the family, the solid rock, perhaps. My Grandma remembered her as always being angry with her father. Mrs. Bews was disappointed in her son, in his drinking and his lack of responsibility toward his family. She was witnessing her sons family falling apart and there was nothing she could do about it… apart from a stern tongue lashing, perhaps!

Apparently my Grandma and her siblings often stayed with Grandma Bews after school.  She lived on the same street. In the 1911 Census this “Grandma Bews” is also living on Crook St., Bridgeburg ON. Her name was  Grace and she lived with her two sons, 36 year old Thomas (a sea man fro the M.C.R. (Michigan Central Railway)) and 34 year old John (a baker in Bridgeburg). Were these the only siblings of my Grandmother’s father?

Fifth step: Check earlier Census’ in Canada and England for Grace Bews. I was able to find her as a middle age Mom in the 1891 Census of Canada, along with her family:

  • William Bews, 40 (Carpenter)
  • Grace Bews, 46
  • Thomas, 16
  • Hannah, 15
  • John, 14
  • Samuel, 12
  • Charles, 9

I search for Charles Bews (the third “Uncle Bews” for my Grandma) in the 1911 Canadian Census. I am able to find him living within walking distance on Jarvis St., with his young family. He, like his older brother Thomas, worked as a sea man for the M.C.R.

The 1891 Census tells us that all of Grace & Williams children were all born in England. And so I look in 1881 Census of England and find them, 10 years younger, living in Devonshire, England:

  • William, 30
  • Grace, 36
  • Thomas, 6
  • Anna, 5
  • John, 4
  • Samuel, 2
  • Sarah, 10 months

There are more questions to search here. Where is Hannah/Anna in 1910 (likely married)? Did baby Sarah die before the family came to Canada? (She does not appear in the 1891 Census). That’s the great thing about genealogy. One answer only opens up more questions. It’s a continual quest.There is no end to genealogy.

But let’s focus back on the original question: Why did my Grandmother’s mother, Johanna, “abandon” the family in 1921?

Did the grief of losing baby Mary, in January 1921, cause her flee her family?

Sixth step: Johanna’s death registration.

There are two kinds of  exhilarating discoveries for a genealogist: those split second moments when you realize you’ve found what you’re looking for, and those shocking moments when you find something you weren’t even looking for but it changes the whole outlook of your family tree. Johanna’s death registration fell into the second category for me. I was looking for her death registration and I found it… but what I found in it made my heart sink. Here is what I read:

  • Johanna Bews died on February 6, 1922
  • she died in the Ontario Hospital, Barton, Wentworth County (Hamilton)
  • before arriving at the hospital she lived in the Welland House of Refuge
  • she was attended by a physician (Dr. H.A.McKay) between Jan.20-Feb.6, 1922 (indicating the length of her hospital stay)
  • Johanna died of “Exhaustion of General Paresis”

As my eyes raced over the document, I thought: Oh, she was young. She died where? she arrived from WHERE?! She died of…. what is that?!

And here’s what “that” is:

General paresis is mental instability caused by brain damage from untreated syphilis. (Yes, syphilis. This is where my heart sunk). It is also known as General Paresis of the Insane. It occurs 15-20 years after the initial infection. Symptoms include loss of speech function, loss of arm and leg musles, short and long term memory loss, dementia, hallucinations, and all manner of mental instability.

15-20 years before her death would have been sometime between 1902-1907. We know that Samuel and Johanna were together as late as the Summer of 1905. Did Samuel give her syphilis? Quite possibly. Did she know she had syphilis? Probably not. What we do know, though, is she had syphilis during her later pregnancies (and possibly all her pregnancies). And syphilis passed through the womb results in only a 50% chance of infant survival. We know of 6 children born: George (1906), Elizabeth G. (1908), Hannah Loretta (1910), Kathleen (1913), Carl (?) and Mary who lived and died on the same day (1921). [As an aside, Elizabeth G. always went by the name Grace. I knew her personally as Great Aunt Grace. She is the  namesake of my oldest daughter. Until only a few weeks ago I was unaware that Great Aunt Grace was named after her Grandmother, Grace Bews].

Samuel worked at the Rail Road and when he was home he drank heavily. He was unfit to care for his  wife as she slipped further and further into her mental breakdown and he was certainly unfit to care for his children who needed him more and more as they lost their mother to her disease.

The solution that Samuel came up with was selfish but not surprising. He drove Johanna to the Welland House of Refuge and left her there. He returned to his children and told them their mother had left them. Then he put them into foster care and left them as well.

Samuel’s mother, at this point, was too old and ill to fight him on his irresponsibility. According to her death record Grace Bews died at home on Crook St., on March 22, 1922, just one month after Johanna died.

I struggled with whether or not I should post this story. There is a shame attached to having syphilis. But what I find more shameful is that for 90 years Johanna’s reputation was dragged in the mud for something she did not do. What kind of mother abandons her family and leaves them with their drunken father? Not Johanna. She was a victim of her disease. Johanna’s body was ravaged by a poison that she could not control.  Samuel was motivated by shame and alcohol to remove his problems.  He removed his wife, told his children that she had left them, and then he removed his children as well.

My hope is that Johanna Coleman Bews be validated as a Mother who never abandoned her children, a Wife who struggled to be supportive of her alcoholic husband, and a Women who lived with a disease she may have never know she had.

In case you’re curious, Samuel Bews, died on June 21, 1936 from an acute heart attack. He died in the Welland Hospital and on the death registry his brother Thomas acted as the Informant. There is no indication that Samuel ever had contact with his children again after they went into foster care. Samuel Bews  breathed his last, alone, at age 59.

Published in: on 16 April 2011 at 11:10 pm  Comments (4)