Week 3: A Tough Woman – Christina Merkel

When I looked at this week’s prompt, Tough Woman, from Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors, several people came to mind. Would I write about the woman that was tough for me to research- because although her parents and siblings are “known” on numerous online trees, I cannot find one shred of evidence that connects her to anyone other than the man she married and the children they had?? Or do I write about the woman who had it tough? Looking at the lives many women led in the past, from the lens of my own experience, there is no shortage of hard luck stories in my tree! Large families lived in small quarters and had to make do with little of anything. Even some of the modern conveniences of the time were out of reach of many of my forefathers and foremothers. Thinking about those women, one person in particular came to mind, both as a woman who led a difficult life and as someone tough to research. My grandmother, Christina Merkel Serviss died more than a decade before I was born. I never had the opportunity to meet or to get to know her. Through the documents, and limited memories of things my late mother told me, I am attempting to tell some of Christina’s story. Christina was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1889 to German immigrant parents. I always thought she was the first child born into the family, but her birth record states otherwise. It tells that she was the third child born to her mother. She was the first child born tough enough to survive, both others had died. She is the oldest child in the family as they are listed in the 1900 US census. That document reports her mother to be mother to 8, 6 of whom were living, confirming that there were actually 2 more children that had died.

1900 Census for the William Merkel Family.  The circle denotes mother of how many children and how many living.

1900 Census for the William Merkel Family. The circle denotes mother of how many children and how many living.

In total, there were would be 11 children in the family, 8 would live. Christina would be 15 when the youngest was born, in such a large family, it is likely that assisting with care of her younger siblings would be part of Christina’s responsibilities. Her parents spoke mostly German. Her father was a hard working carpenter. About 1910, Christina married Frank Serviss. Frank’s father, who had died before they married, had also worked as a carpenter, perhaps that is how they met. When Christina and Frank first married, they lived with Christina’s family. From 1910-1933, Christina spent much of her time pregnant and having babies. That’s right, 22 years and 14 to-term pregnancies. Physically, Christina was a tough woman. Of the 14 children Christina gave birth to, only 10 made it to adulthood. One of the most heartbreaking to imagine was the death of 19 months old, Frederick in March of 1918.

Frederick Serviss Death 27 Mar 1918.

Frederick Serviss Death 27 Mar 1918.

He died at the age of 18 months from broncho-pneumonia. Contributory cause: exposure. As a parent myself- and looking through a 21st century lens, I can’t even imagine the pain Christina must have felt.   Frederick was her 5th child, and 3rd son. Christina wouldn’t have been able to dwell on her feelings too much, at that time she had a 7 year old girl, a 5.5 year old girl, a 4 year old boy and an almost 3 year old boy at home.   She was also pregnant with her 6th child. Two years later, she lost another child. Another baby, John died in the late spring of 1920, also from pneumonia. He was 10 days old. Then on New Years’ Eve, 1924, daughter Ella, age 5, died of diphtheria. In 1938, Christina’s 17 years-old son Arthur died of heart failure caused by rheumatic heart disease. To many of our ancestors, living in small apartments with many people was the customary way of life. Tenement housing was common for immigrants and in largely-immigrant neighborhoods. Older style tenements were dark and poorly ventilated. Even the newer style buildings were cramped, and filled to the brim with inhabitants. Disease and illness often thrived in these close quarters. tenement yard Yard of tenement, New York, N.Y. Courtesy: Library of Congress digital file from original http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/det.4a18585 Christina’s own health was also poor. She suffered from diabetes and progression of her disease resulted in amputation. Through all this, Christina was able to raise some truly wonderful children that grew up to be really important people in my life. My mother was able to tell me stories of fun that she had growing up. The family remained close-knit through adulthood. I wish I could have known her some. She died at the age of 65 in November 1954.

Christina has also been a tough woman to research. Finding her birth record was a challenge- it was “fact” that she had been born on the 10th of February, 1890. This fact was known by family and confirmed by both her death certificate and the funeral home memorial card my mother had saved.  In actuality, when I did find the record, it was for a female child, last name Merkel, born 10th February 1889. The birth was registered in 1889.  It’s funny that I am accustomed to taking dates with a grain of salt usually, but I think because she was such a close ancestor, I took the date I “knew” as set in stone.  Which, technically, it is set in stone: FindaGrave memorial # 30910553 (click for link)

Birth registration for the female child Merkel.  This was a year before the expected date and the date noted on the death certificate and funeral card.

Birth registration for the female child Merkel. This was a year before the expected date and the date noted on the death certificate and funeral card.

Despite her being a relatively recent ancestor, I have had a hard time finding information on her. (Perhaps it is not actually despite her recentness but more due to it and due to privacy barriers ). I have been told that there were actually 17 children of which 14 lived; I have not been able to find or confirm the existence of the additional 3. The longest gap between births comes at the end- her two youngest children are about 3y 2m apart, all others seem to between 1-2 years.  The births of Christina’s children are almost all less than 100 years ago, thus they can be difficult to search. Though I have checked enumeration districts page-by-page for Christina’s family in 1910, I have not been able to locate her, her parents and siblings, nor her husband in that census.  I’ve also not found them in either 1905 nor 1925. The marriage for Christina and Frank is estimated from the birth of their first child, and Christina’s reported (1930 census) age at first marriage of 21yrs.  A marriage certificate does not seem to exist, neither in the NYC nor NYS archives for Christina Merkel and Frank Serviss.

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