Divorce, Abandonment, and Family Secrets

There has always been some secrecy surrounding the Heisinger side of my family. My grandfather did not know anything about his paternal grandfather, Charles Heisinger, because my great-grandfather, Walter Heisinger, never spoke of his father. We were not even sure of his first name, only that we all had inherited the Heisinger surname from a mystery man. Undoubtedly there was some painful history that my great-grandfather did not wish to share with his children, but it left us with a hole in our family history.

John Kugler Household, 1900 U.S Federal Census, Brooklyn Ward 28, Kings, New York; Roll 1066; Page 7A; Enumeration District 0502, accessed at familysearch.org.
John Kugler Household, 1900 U.S Federal Census, Brooklyn Ward 28, Kings, New York; Roll 1066; Page 7A; Enumeration District 0502, accessed at familysearch.org.

When I began researching the Heisinger side of the family, the earliest record I could locate for Walter was the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, when he was 3 years old living in the household of his grandparents, John and Ernestine Kugler, in Brooklyn, New York. Also in the household were Walter’s mother, recorded as Ernestine Heisinger, and Walters’s two older brothers, John (Jean) and Rudolph. Ernestine Heisinger was recorded as divorced. Locating this record helped explain why Walter never spoke of his father, if they were no longer living together when Walter was so young— but it did not help me to identify his father.

The Brooklyn Standard Union, 19 Dec. 1920, p. 3, accessed at fultonhistory.com.
The Brooklyn Standard Union, 19 Dec. 1920, p. 3, accessed at fultonhistory.com.

Tracing the family forward, I discovered that Ernestine (Kugler) Heisinger later remarried a man named Michael Landman. It would be this information that eventually led me to identifying Walter’s father. A newspaper article in The Brooklyn Standard Union on 19 December 1920 reported that Ernestine Landman, widow of Michael Landman, was granted the authority to administer her late husband’s estate after her stepson had contested her right, claiming that she had never divorced her first husband. The article mentioned that Ernestine’s first husband was summoned as a witness in the case, and that it was the first time Walter or his brothers had seen their father since he abandoned the family twenty years earlier. His name: Charles Heisinger. Finally!

With his name, I was able to track down and order the marriage record for Charles Heisinger and Ernestine Kugler from the New York City Department of Health. I discovered they were married in Brooklyn, on 27 March 1892. Luckily, the marriage record contained a wealth of information about both Ernestine and Charles. I learned that Charles’s full name was Karl Frederick Wilhelm Heisinger, that he was 25 years old at his marriage, and that he was born in New York City. Even more exciting, the groom’s parents’ names on the record enabled me to take the Heisinger line back another generation to Karl and Henrietta Heisinger, who immigrated to New York from Prussia in 1861.

After many years of wondering, I now know where my maiden name came from, and I have a better sense of the trials and tribulations that created the gap in my family’s history. I also can understand why my great-grandfather never spoke of his father. In my journey to find Charles Heisinger, I see how family history findings can both humanize our ancestors and maybe even help heal the pains of the past.

About Meaghan E.H. Siekman

Meaghan holds a Ph.D. in history from Arizona State University where her focus was public history and American Indian history. She earned her B.A. in history from Union College in Schenectady, New York, the city where she grew up. Prior to joining the NEHGS team, Meaghan worked as the Curator of the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, as an archivist at the Heard Museum Library in Phoenix, Arizona, and wrote a number of National Register Nominations and Cultural Landscape Inventories for the National Park Service. Meaghan is passionate about connecting people with the past in meaningful and lasting ways. She enjoys finding interesting anecdotes about an ancestor to help bring the past to life.

14 thoughts on “Divorce, Abandonment, and Family Secrets

  1. Very nice work.
    My situation with a serious gap in the lineage is due to an early death leaving many unanswered questions. Although I have worked on it for more than 35 years it is still a mystery.

  2. Nicely done. We have a great-grandfather who mysteriously appeared in the life of my great-grandmother, then disappeared after the birth of my grandmother. We aren’t even sure if he used his given name on the marriage certificate or where he is from. My sister and I are pretty good (and persistent) detectives, so we hope to solve our “Hunting William” mystery within our lifetimes.

  3. Wow. Great work. I have a similar situation in my family from around the same period. My second ggrandfather moved to Manhattan with his wife and two sons in 1904. He abandoned his wife and two sons sometime between 1904 and 1909 and reappeared in England in 1910, with a new wife!

  4. This sounds so familiar! My maternal grandfather was raised by a Dexter C. Wellen and at his marriage at 18 and in the 1900 Census and after Wellen was the surname he used, as did my mother, but prior to that he was Robinson, source unknown. He never discussed his parentage and forbad Dexter to discuss it. But my grandmother did get A story from Dexter. Supposedly, his father died in a train accident six months before Hubert was born and his mother died perinatally. I haven’t been able to confirm any of that. It didn’t help that the county courthouse did suffer one of those proverbial fires and records were destroyed.

  5. This subject could be a large and interesting book. I know of a few cases in my own research that are dramatic or disturbing, not to mention the difficulty in pinning down family names. It took quite an effort to track down the details on 3 spouses and 4 children of one woman, during the late 1880s in the California gold mining towns.
    These events also offer a sense of the attitudes of the time in which the abandonment or divorce occurred. Another one of mine ended up with the poor woman killing herself by consuming strychnine in front of the town’s offices in 1904 because of the abandonment and divorce. Just for fun, search for “divorce” in any field in your genealogy program on your computer, and see how many names appear.

  6. In Virginia the law was after seven years of abandonment the effected woman could legally declare herself a widow. Hence my beloved Granny Mary Small did so ….. however with a warrant in place just in case her husband Harry Leroy Small ever dared to cross into Virginia again. Interesting marriage that took place in 1900 in Maine between the two…. as the youngest child and red haired daughter of Mary Wing and Benjamin Wood, she against all family wishes – hers and his- went on to marry him. Harry had already married a 14 year old mill worker just before she gave birth to his daughter. The child now being raised by Harry’s father, Edwin Thomas Small. Decidedly Harry was the black sheep of the family. I have often wondered why this well educated and accomplished woman regardless decided to go and marry Harry ? No question of a pregnancy since her oldest child was born over a year afterwards. Perhaps she like many women just thought that she could reform his ways. But alas …. after migrating to Virginia and spending down the family resources, Harry left one morning about the year 1919 to proceed to Florida. It was never a family secret and Granny Small if anything grow even stronger and determined to make her own way this time — sans a husband!

    1. I have long felt that family abandonment in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was far more common than most people would have expected. I’ve come across two definite cases and two probable cases in my own family, of abandonment by the father. In my wife’s family we’ve come across one case of the more unusual situation of abandonment by the mother. I think one of the reasons this happened so often is that it was so easy, before the days of Social Security numbers and drivers licenses, to just “disappear”.

      1. Agree. Many families in Maine have reported such abandonment to me ….. a walk out like my own grandfather or even more sad – just leaving the wife and kids literally on the side of the road with the expectation that the towns people will care for them. A lot more convenient than a divorce and without any way to track the person, much easier. A sad commentary on marriage and responsibility— whence the “family secret”.

  7. I have two cases c 1870-80 in the Boston area where the women are listed on the census as widowed. Hah! Their respective husbands weren’t very far away and were known in the communities. One husband was “remarried” with 3 kids; he eventually married the mother of those children only after the first wife died. The husband in the other case lived with a “housekeeper”; after his death the wife litigated to get property returned from the housekeeper, hmm.

    Oh, and 3 more – a case of abandonment (gold rush) AND a Mexican divorce case since Massachusetts courts would not grant a divorce AND a man who married for a third time to a divorced preacher’s wife.

    Follow up on your grandmother’s stories. Newspapers are a great source for clues. If you haven’t found at least one scandal, you’re not looking hard enough.

  8. From everything that I’ve researched and read, that time period from 1900-1950 was tricky for families indeed! I’m glad you’ve discovered your family but still sad for what they had to go through.

  9. Locate the divorce records, if you haven’t done so already. They will give you a new perspective on this couple. I ordered the divorce papers for my father’s parents and learned a lot about my grandparents (and, coincidentally, made my sister very angry!).

  10. The Hamiltons of Waterborough states that my first cousin 4 x removed Carl Hamilton Fuller “married at Chicago, Ill., Feb. 9, 1903, Marion Alicia Keene, who died Dec. 6, 1907, daughter of Thomas Keene, the English Actor. She was a woman of rare attainments as a musician. They had no children.” I am now quite sure that Marion was no relation to the actor (Keene was a stage name and his only daughter had a different given name) and that Carl and Marion only lived as man and wife for a few months, as it was reported in a major Chicago newspaper that he had abandoned her 20 May 1903. Carl was born in Lynn, Mass. but claims on one document that he was born “on the high seas” and I think he had a tendency to over-dramatize things. Or lie!

  11. Thank you for sharing. I have a similar situation in my family history in Milwaukee Wisconsin around 1901-02. Fred Middlebrook Miller was married to Laura P. Brown. They had 4 daughters Sadie, Hazel, Althea and Marion. One day Fred abandons his family. Laura and the girls go on with there lives, never knowing what happened to Fred or why he left. It appears that she considered herself married until about 1915, when the state census records show she is widowed. It took me over 40 years of detective work, but I believe he changed his name to Fred Middlebrook Merten and started another family in Davenport, Iowa. His new wife (can not find a marriage record) was Mary V. Marx of the Fond du Lac area. They had 4 kids, Elsie, Everett, Francis, and Merritt (my grandfather). Fred was the Mayor of Rockingham Township around 1920 prior to merging with Davenport.

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