We’re just beginning to melt here after our snowfall this past week. Last weekend, sleeting rain turned into snow Saturday night and by Sunday afternoon we had about seven inches. And then the wind picked up and turned it into massive drifts across all the unfortunate spots like sidewalks and driveways. Seriously, how does that stuff know to create a humongous drift right across my footpaths and behind my car?! We were just beginning to melt from all of that when another couple inches were added this past Wednesday morning during rush hour. Don’t get me wrong, I love snow – I love to look at it while I curl up with my pups and a large cup of something warm. I do not love driving in it. But it could always be worse. We could be buried beneath feet of snow like New England so I’ll be happy with the little amount that we’ve been dealt with here in the Midwest.
Anyway, it’s about time I did another genealogy post. And this one breaks my heart. He’s currently a character in my WIP and every time he comes on page I break into tears. He’s my second great-grandfather, William Edward Sutliff. I’d say, “Enjoy” but if you have any heart at all you’ll probably be crying by the end. I advise gathering tissues and chocolate.
William Edward Sutliff was born on 21 December 1875, an early Christmas present to W.W. and Jane Young Corbett Sutliff. He was their third child, following two daughters, Carrie Belle b. about 1869, and Mary Eva b. 1871. William was W.W.’s first son, however, Jane had been married previously to Miles Corbett who was killed during the Civil War. With Miles, Jane had five children: Ellsworth b. 1853; Della b. 1855; John Haddon b. 1858; George b. 1859 d. 1860; and Athenia b. 1861.
William’s mother was an active member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization that was interested in social reform and believed in total abstinence of all harmful things, namely, alcohol.
William had a trying childhood. From the sounds of newspaper articles I’ve read discussing his family, it sounds like his parents separated shortly after William’s birth. A home his father had been living in burned to the ground in 1878, and following the fire, W.W. moved into a new abode, fully furnished and paid for by an insurance company. Was it arson to collect insurance money? Perhaps I’ll never know. However, there is no mention of his family, leading me to believe they were not in residence with him at the time. In the late 1890s, an article states that W.W. would be leaving shortly for a trip. But he never returned to his family, and eventually died in an old soldier’s home in Illinois in 1904.
The 1890s were a time of change for William. His sister Mary Eva married and eventually moved to Idaho with her husband. And in 1893, when William was 18, his mother passed away. Jane’s obituary states that she was a sufferer in both mind and body and required the help of one of her children at all times. Three years later, his beloved sister, Carrie Belle, with whom William lived, died following a botched abortion. You can read more about Carrie Belle’s tragic story here. Whether the tale of her elicit affair is true, or whether it was a result of a rape by a trusted physician will never be known. However, William was now truly alone.
On 21 June 1899, William married his childhood sweetheart, Myrtle Dubois. While her father had hoped for a more advantageous match, Myrtle chose to follow her heart. The young couple lived with her father until his death in September of that year. He had a large estate of which Myrtle received $100,000, roughly $2,420,000.00 in today’s worth.
In April of 1900, their first child, Lillian Madeline was born. She was followed the next year by Nellie Jane, and in 1902, the small family moved from Oxford Mills, to Manilla, Crawford County, Iowa. There, Myrtle gave birth to seven more children: Milburn Edward b. 1902; Evelyn May b. 1905; Jesse b. 1908; Irene Luella b. 1911; Gilbert Homer b. 1912; Margaret Louise b. 1916; and Mildred Larraine b. 1918.
But the growing family’s happiness would be cut short. In 1909, their son, Jesse, died of an illness. And in May of 1911, with a young baby Irene to care for, William and Myrtle lost their second oldest daughter, Nellie.
Two different times the family was quarantined with sickness: in 1916 with smallpox, and again in 1918 with scarlet fever. Both times Myrtle was pregnant. She survived the smallpox epidemic, however, she did not make it through the scarlet fever quarantine. On 24 May 1918, Myrtle gave birth to her last child, Mildred. Five days later, Myrtle passed away due to a combination of scarlet fever, complications from giving birth, and ultimately, septicemia.
Because of the contagions, her funeral was held on the front porch of their home while their friends and neighbors gathered in the yard. Following the funeral, William alone rode in a black buggy pulled by a black horse to bury his wife while the children remained quarantined at home. He was never the same.
In September of 1918, the United States issued a draft for men aged eighteen to twenty-one and thirty-one to forty-five. William now fit this criteria. Upon his draft card, he listed his oldest daughter, Lillian, as his next-of-kin, words that left an eighteen year old Lillian in charge of her mourning and still recovering siblings, four of whom were under the age of seven. When Lillian made the difficult decision to move to South Dakota and live with her mother’s mother, the family’s world was spun upside down.
With William at boot camp, the children needed to go somewhere. Lillian was with her grandmother, while thirteen year old Evelyn went to live with William’s half sister, Della. As the oldest male, Milburn, at sixteen remained at home. Both Irene and Gilbert, seven and six respectively, went to live with William’s sister Mary Eva and her family in Idaho. Baby Mildred was taken in by Della’s daughter Alice, and Margaret who was still sick and frail, was placed out for adoption. It wouldn’t be until 1941 when she would be reunited with her siblings, after more than twenty years apart. Little did anyone know that the war was only months away from ending. But for a broken man with nothing left to live for, perhaps he felt his children could be better raised by others.
By 1920, both William and Milburn had moved to Omaha, Nebraska. In the later years of William’s life, he suffered from severe alcoholism. I’ve found many newspaper articles of his reckless behavior. And while Milburn was living with his father, he immulated his poor behavior. Shortly after their arrival, Milburn was arrested for catcalling to women on the street. And both William and Milburn were in countless drunk driving car and city bus accidents (where they were both employed for some time).
In 1922, William remarried. Her name was Viola Hardwick, but their marriage was not a happy one. They separated a few years later and lived in a duplex on opposite sides of the wall.
Finally, in 1937, while selling newspapers on a corner in downtown Omaha, William dropped dead of a heart attack. His legacy is one of heartbreak and suffering as many of his children suffered from the alcoholism that had dug it’s claws deep within William’s fractured soul. Was it just a sign of the times? Did the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression that followed lead them down this path? Maybe. But like so many families, the cycle of pain and bad choices continue until you can see the light for yourself.
William’s life resonates a deep emphatic feeling inside myself. It’s easy to quickly judge someone based on the history of their mistakes. It’s far more difficult to ask the question, why? Why was that decision made? What other options were available? Studying and researching my family history has taught me that the why is much more important than the action itself. The why is where the stories lie, and if you can discover the why, you can discover yourself.