Thursday, September 9, 2010

Who's your mama, little runaway?

Okay, so I spent a good part of the day scanning more photos and researching my maternal great-grandmother, Elsa Spaatz Kerner Haegermann, whom I remember well and loved deeply.
     The tale that had been told was that Elsa came to the US when she was 14 years old.  According to the story, she traveled alone.  This sounds pretty implausible.  Further, she was supposed to have run away from her home in Germany, stowing away on one of the many ships that sailed across the Atlantic. 
Why would she run away?  Something must have compelled her to leave the supposed safety of her home and cross an ocean to a land where she knew no one and had no relatives. 
     Try this on for size - the story that I was told was that the woman who had raised her, decided for some reason, to tell her that she was not her biological mother but that the woman whom she had thought of as her aunt, was in fact, her real, biological mother.   In those days (the late 1800's) in Germany, it was most likely most scandalous for a young and unmarried woman to give birth to a child.  Enter a loving older sister who presents the baby as her own and proceeds to raise the child for 13 some years.  Who knows what precipitated the unveiling of the secret.  Did her real mother tire of acting as "auntie"?  Did the teen-aged Elsa act out and cause her "mother" to wash her hands of her?  Did another family member "spill the beans?"  Regardless of how the truth was "outed", it was enough to disturb Elsa enough that she managed to find her way to the docks of Bremen and board a ship to the US.
So far, I've been unable to locate Elsa on any of the passenger lists that have been so carefully preserved by the Ellis Island historians.  Perhaps, in truth, she was a runaway.  She does, however, appear in the 1910 census and according to what is recorded there, she was born in 1879 and immigrated to the US in 1892.
That would have made her 13-14 when she made the crossing.  At the time of the 1910 census, Elsa would have been about 31 years old.  That particular census listed her as married to Leon Kerner with two children; Rosie born in 1898 and Martha born in 1899.   Leon Kerner, listed as a "button maker" was born in 1865 so he would have been about 15 years older than Elsa.  This is congruent with what my mother had told me...that Elsa's first husband had been considerably "older" than Elsa and that eventually, he "let her go" to be with the younger George Haegermann whom she later married.
     So, what is the dilemma?  Well, the pictures of Elsa are numerous.  She was a most beautiful young woman.  But there is one photo, a large portrait.  On the back of this is written in large script; "My Mother".  It is a picture of Wilhelmina Spaatz.  In referring to her as "My Mother", did Elsa mean that this was her biological mother or the woman that reared her?  When leaving home, did she keep this picture as a way to remember what was true or what she thought was true?  Would she want to keep a picture of the woman who raised her but in effect, lied to her?  Or, would she want to keep a picture of the woman who bore her but gave her up to avoid scandal?  Which photo would I want, which photo would you want?
     A popular slang phrase around 2005-2009 asks  "who's your daddy?" this family history, it has a whole new meaning...."Who's your mama, Elsie? Who's your real mama?".  I'm not sure we'll ever know for sure.


  1. Oh my goodness! I loved reading all of this! This is so interesting and I am grateful that you are doing this. How do I view pictures?


  2. What amazing history! Very intriguing. I like how you weave the adventure with reflections and a bit of humor! I'm so glad you are doing this, and that Alex shared it w/ me.