Losing My Census in Search of a Brother That Never Was

Have you ever looked at a genealogical record and seen what you expected to see rather than what was actually there? Recently I started organizing data in anticipation of the 2012 release of the 1940 Census, and that includes reviewing addresses and enumeration districts from the 1930 Census.  This is how I realized that for nearly the last ten years I’ve misread one of my family’s entries.

By 1930, my grandmother’s parents were deceased.  My grandmother, Margaret Bergmeister, was only 17 years old and the youngest in the family.  Her siblings included a sister, Marie, and three brothers: Joseph, Max, and Julius. When it came to researching my families, the Bergmeister’s were the easiest. My father remembered a lot of information about his aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Unlike some other branches of my family, the Bergmeister’s didn’t try to hide from the census-takers or make up information. But after reviewing the 1930 entry, I’m left with another mystery on my hands.

Julius, Margaret, Max, Joseph, Marie - October 10, 1959

I’ve already indicated that my grandmother is nowhere to be found in either the 1920 or 1930 Census. The reasonable theory is that she was living with her aunt or visiting at the time of the Census and was simply left out of the family’s lineup (this includes by her own father in 1920). In 1930 she may have been living with the aunt or her sister, but neither household included her. Her oldest brother, Joseph, was 27 and married with two children in 1930. Also listed with his household were his two brothers. When I first found the entry, and in all the years since, it was a “given” to me that they were Max and Julius.  The names that were enumerated, however, were Julius and Gustav.  Since there are many errors on the census, I never thought much about this mix-up in names.  Until now, that is…

As I reviewed the 1930 entry, I realized that Julius is listed with the correct age, followed by “Gustav” who was a year younger.  But Max was older than Julius, so how could that be him?  Then I realized that Max’s daughter, my dad’s cousin, was born in 1930 so Max was likely already married and living on his own.  After a new search, I found 25-year-old Max (indexed under the surname Bergmuset) living with his wife, Sophia.

When did Joe get a brother named Gus?

Back to Joseph and his brothers…  Um, Gustav who?  He is listed as 21 years old, one year younger than Julius.  There’s just one problem…the Bergmeister’s didn’t have a brother named Gustav.  Or did they?  Census paranoia has now set in…could there be another brother that probably died in his 20s and therefore wasn’t know by his nieces and nephews or talked about by his brothers and sisters?

I went off on a wild goose chase to see if there may have been another brother. I’ve encountered plenty of mis-information in census records before, but I always blamed the fact that my ancestors were immigrants and likely spoke in heavily accented English.  But in this case, Joseph and his brothers were all born in Philadelphia – understanding the language would not have been a problem.

After consideration, I’ve determined that the entry for Gustav is likely a mysterious mistake and not a previously unknown sibling. First, there is no oral history of this brother – I’ve met many of my second cousins, and the family stories all have the same information. My father and several of his cousins who are older than my father have no recollection of another brother. There is no sibling named Gustav listed with the family on either the 1910 or 1920 census (but then again, my grandmother, born 1913, is fully absent from both the 1920 and 1930). If there had been a brother who died before my father and his older cousins were old enough to have known and/or remember him, that brother would have likely been buried with his parents.  That grave, purchased in 1919 upon the death of the mother of the family, had room for six, but there is no Gustav buried with them.

Finally, the most compelling reason that I doubt the existence of this brother is that there were two other children born in between Julius and Margaret that would make the birth year of 1909 (based on being 21 in 1930) impossible.  The Bergmeister’s had two premature infants who died on the same day they were born: Charles in July 1909 and Laura in November 1911.  Julius was born in June, 1907, so it is conceivable (pun intended) that another child could have been born in 1908 – but not in 1909.  But in the 1910 census, mother Marie is listed as having borne 5 children, 4 of whom are living – this would include baby Charles’ death and the births of Marie, Joseph, Max, and Julius, but no Gustav.

So young Gustav remains a mystery.  I even considered that perhaps his is the brother of Joseph’s wife, Helen Pardus.  After a quick search of Helen’s family in the earlier census records, I found many siblings – but no Gustav or any brother for the approximate year.  Joseph Bergmeister has a cousin named Charles Bergmeister who was born in 1909, but he is enumerated with his mother in Elizabeth, NJ and there is no indication that either branch of the two families were ever in touch after the deaths of their fathers, the brothers Joseph and Ignatz Nicholas Bergmeister (Joseph died in 1927 and Ignatz in 1919).

I chalk Gustav up as yet another census error. Although my grandmother is missing, I’ve found others counted twice and now a phantom brother.  I’m confident that there is no brother Gus…but as a skeptical genealogist, the parish church were the Bergmeister family was baptized will be getting a call this week!

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