I have a soft spot in my heart for all of the aunts in my family tree, especially those without children. The reason for this attraction is that I find myself in the ironic position of being a genealogist without any offspring of my own. But, I do “have” children because I am an aunt! I’ll let you in on a little-known secret…when aunts are childless, they are able to give away a bigger piece of their heart to their nieces and nephews.Perhaps it’s because of my childless predicament that I am fascinated by one of my great-great aunts, Hilaire “Laura” Bergmeister Thuman. I know very little about her, but the portrait I have surmised from these few facts is worthy of my admiration. Hilaire is a somewhat mysterious figure because of the lack of information. My challenge was to write about Hilaire as a kindred spirit, a fellow aunt who clearly loved her nieces and nephews. But how do you write a biographical sketch when the details are few? These simple facts about her life may not tell readers everything about this woman, but hopefully it will show some of her key attributes that make her admirable.
Hilaire Bergmeister was born in Bavaria on 12 January 1870 to Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Dallmaier. She was probably their first child, but the unusual fact of her birth is that her parents did not marry until 11 April 1871. While illegitimacy was not uncommon in Bavaria at that time, I find it odd that the parents would marry some time later and have more children together. Hilaire’s birth date has not been found in the church records, but the date is consistently noted throughout her life in other sources including marriage, census, and death records. Her parents’ names are also evident through some of these records; the only mystery is why this couple did not marry until their daughter was over a year old.
Hilaire’s father Joseph was a flour merchant who came from a family of millers in the small town of Puch near Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm. According to the record of his marriage, Ursula was the daughter of an innkeeper from the town of Aichach. Their marriage occurred in Pfaffenhofen, and the couple went on to have more children together. According to the church records in the nearby town of Vohburg a.d. Donau, a daughter Maria was born on 17 November 1871. As I have no other record of this child, it is possible that the baby died; however, another possibility is that “Maria” is actually the record of Hilaire’s birth/baptism. Many females born in this region of Bavaria were named Maria, and they usually used their middle names in everyday life since every other girl in town was named Maria. However, the date of this child’s birth does not match what is known to be Hilaire’s birth, and Hilaire’s records were constant throughout her life as reporting her birth year as 1870 and her birthday in January.
Joseph and Ursula’s next child was a son, my great-grandfather Joseph Bergmeister. Joseph was born in Vohburg on 12 February 1873. Other sources record another son, Ignatz Nicholas, born on 23 April 1876, but his exact birthplace is unknown. It appears that Joseph may have traveled throughout the region as a flour merchant selling the goods his family produced at the mill in Puch.
At some point during Hilaire’s childhood, her father died. His death date is not yet firmly established, but by the year 1884 Ursula Bergmeister was remarried to Herman Goetz from Regensburg. She had at least two sons with him, half-brothers to the Bergmeister children: Herman, born on 14 May 1885, and Julius Andreas, born 9 November 1886. Both boys were born in Regensburg and it is presumed that the Bergmeister siblings lived with them.
One of the few Bergmeister photos shows Hilaire as a young woman. The photo studio was in Amberg, which is about 40 miles from Regensburg. She appears to be about 18-21 years old, so the year is between 1888 and 1891. I love the expression on her face. That mischeivous grin tells me she was the independent type…the sort of gal who was fearless and unconventional. Her emigration from Germany and her marriage to an older man, the next two “facts” in her life, add weight to my guess about her personality.
In 1893, a 23-year-old Hilaire boarded the SS Friesland in Antwerp, arriving in New York on 25 July. The passenger lists from this time period provide few details other than names and ages, so I lack the physical description or details on the destination that later arrival records provide. There was a 25 year-old “Rud. Bergmeister” on the same ship, but he is not listed with her. In fact, he is listed as a “professor” traveling in first class and the name does not match any known family members.
At some point after her arrival, Hilaire moves to Philadelphia. There is also a Bergmeister family living in Philadelphia at this time who came from Bavaria in the 1870s. However, no connection has been established between these two Bergmeister branches. Based on my research, Hilaire was the first member of my Bergmeister family to come to the United States. In the 19th Century, a young woman traveling alone and moving to a foreign country is rather inspiring, which adds to her allure.
Unfortunately there are no records to shed any light on Hilaire’s life in Philadelphia shortly after her arrival. In 1896, only three years after coming to the US, Hilaire married Maximilian Thuman, a cabinetmaker. Max, born in Regensburg in 1857, was 13 years older than Hilaire. Could they have known each other in Regensburg? It is unlikely, but possible. However, Max had been in the US since 1883 – if they were acquainted, Hilaire would have been only 13 years old when she last saw him.
At the time of Hilaire and Max’s marriage, she lived at 2827 Reese Street in Philadelphia. By 1900, the couple was living at 1033 Jefferson Street and Hilaire’s occupation is listed as “retail grocery”. Interestingly, one of the witnesses to Max and Hilaire’s marriage, Michael Hoffbauer, is a grocer at Hilaire’s old Reese Street address, so it is presumed that she continued to work there. Max and Hilaire bought a house at 6078 Kingsessing Avenue between 1900 and 1910, and they lived there until their deaths.
Beginning in 1900, Max and Hilaire welcomed the arrival of the first of Hilaire’s brothers from Bavaria. When Hilaire left Germany, her Bergmeister brothers were 20 and 17, and her Goetz brothers were still children aged 8 and 7. Despite their ages and the distance between them, communication must have continued through letters across the ocean. Because when each brother arrived in the US, their passenger list shows they were going to Hilaire and Max’s house and that the passage was paid for by their brother-in-law Max Thuman.
Joseph was the first brother to join Hilaire in the US. Joseph, a baker by trade, married Marie Echerer in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm in 1897, and they had a daughter, also named Marie, in 1898. In May, 1900, Joseph sailed on the SS Aragonia from Antwerp, Belgium, to New York City. Max paid for his passage, and his sister is listed on the passenger list as the relative who would meet him. Joseph stayed with the Thuman’s until he could find work and rent a house, and he is enumerated with them on the 1900 Census. The following year, Joseph’s wife and daughter made the long journey to join him in Philadelphia.
Next to arrive was Hilaire’s 16-year-old half-brother, Julius Goetz, in September 1902. He is recorded as a locksmith from Regensburg going to his brother-in-law Max Thuman. Julius also lived with the Thuman’s until he found work in a factory and a place to live. He later returns to live with them after his 1919 marriage for a brief time.
In 1904, Ignatz Bergmeister arrives in New York City in June. His passage was also paid for by Max, and the list annotates that he was “met by sister at the landing”. It is not certain if Ignatz lived in Philadelphia for a time or if he stayed in New York City. He marries in New York in 1907 and is living there in 1910, but since Hilaire met him in New York it is possible that he also came to stay with the Thuman’s in Philadelphia for a short time.
The last brother, Herman Goetz, came to America in 1911 at the age of 26. His passenger arrival record lists his brother Julius as his next of kin in America, but he lived with the Thuman’s for several years, including at the time of his marriage in 1913.
The Thuman’s were definitely involved with Joseph Bergmeister’s family. Joseph and Marie’s first son and first American-born child was Joseph, born in 1902. For his baptism, Uncle Max and Aunt Laura were his godparents. In 1905, Max was born, and the couple was once again godparents. In 1907, Julius had Aunt Laura as his godmother and his namesake Uncle Julius as his godfather. Their youngest child was Margaret, my grandmother, born in 1913. Aunt Laura again takes her place as godmother, and her godfather was Uncle Herman which explains Margaret’s unusual middle name, Hermina.
There is no evidence of what life was like for these immigrant families. How did they live? Were they happy here? Did they keep in touch with each other and visit?
The year 1919 would prove to be a tragic year for the Bergmeister families. Sometime during the year, Ignatz Bergmeister died at the age of 43. He left behind his widow Therese, 9 year-old son Charles, and 11 year-old daughter Theresa living in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Since Ignatz and his family have only recently been “discovered” and the research into his short life is ongoing, it is not know if Hilaire kept in touch with her sister-in-law and young nephew and niece.
The second tragedy to befall the family in 1919 (or possibly the first since I am unsure of the date of Ignatz’s death) was the death of Marie Bergmeister on 5 February. She died from myocarditis at the age of 44. Daughter Marie would turn 21 that month, Joseph and Max were teenagers, Julius was 12, and Margaret was only 6 years old. Marie’s death would greatly affect her husband Joseph, and his sister Hilaire stepped in to help with the children, especially Margaret.
The Bergmeister children’s lives would be further impacted by Joseph’s death eight years later at the age of 54. He died on 30 May 1927 from a kidney infection. By this time, eldest daughter Marie was 29 years old and unmarried with two children of her own: 6-year-old Marie and 2-year-old Mabel. Son Joseph was married for two years to Helen Pardis, and they had a 1-year-old daughter. Max, age 22, and Julius, age 20, moved in with their brother Joseph and his family. Young Margaret was an orphan at 14, and she always said, “Aunt Laura took good care of me.” It is presumed that Margaret lived with her aunt and uncle for some time as well as with her older sister.
Little else is known about Hilaire’s life. Descendants of each of Joseph’s five children all heard stories about Aunt Laura as “a good aunt” who “took care of them” after their parents’ untimely deaths.
I found this photo at my grandmother’s after her death. Though the photo was unlabeled, I immediately knew that this was the Thuman’s because of the striking resemblance to the younger photo of Hilaire. By the looks on their faces and the gleam in their eyes, I can tell that they were a happy couple. Hilaire still has that mischievous smile! It was probably taken in the 1930′s.
Max Thuman died on 26 November 1941 at the age of 84 from pneumonia. Hilaire only lived for another fourteen months, dying on 6 February 1943 from cancer. She was 73 years old. They are buried together at Mount Moriah Cemetery, which is located just across the street from their home on Kingsessing Avenue.
When you research someone’s life in genealogical records, you can only learn a limited amount of information…these are the facts you “know for sure”. But, there is more to the story of everyone’s life than just those few facts, those few snippets of life that are recorded in a church book or a county office or a cemetery. When I read between the lines of the facts of Hilaire’s life, what is the portrait I see?
Independent, spirited. Loving sister, wife, & aunt.
Thanks, great-great Aunt Laura, for being a “great” aunt – I’ll try to follow your example!
[This post was written for the 44th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Tribute to Women. Edit on July 1, 2008 - This post is being re-submitted to the 51st Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Independent Spirit. I don't normally re-submit an article; however, I felt it necessary this time. While the obvious reason is that I have just returned from a nearly 3-week long vacation and don't have much time to write a new one, the REAL reason is that I can't think of another person in my family tree that best fits the 51st COG topic. The Call for Submissions reads: "With the upcoming July 4th holiday, there is no more perfect time to honor someone from your family whose life can be summed up in one word – INDEPENDENT! Do you have a relative who was feisty, spoke their own mind, was a bit of a free spirit? Anyone who most people might consider a “nut” on the family tree but you know they really just followed a “different tune?” We all have at least one person whose character and habits may have made them seem “ahead of their time” and now is the chance to tell us their story." I thought long and hard about it...but none of my grandparents or great-grandparents really fit the "free spirit" label. Since this tribute to my great-great aunt tried to emphasize her independent nature, I simply couldn't devote this COG to anyone else. If you've read this before, my apologies...but if you're new here, I hope you enjoyed it!]