“Are you writing about yourself?” No, actually my name is William Peter Achnitz III.
The person I am going to be writing about for Week 2 of the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” Challenge is my 2nd great-grandfather, William Achnitz, or better known in Germany as Wilhelm Achnitz (I think?).
This ancestor is really interesting. Not only is he another William Achnitz, but my grandfather (William Peter Achnitz Sr.) referenced him under two different names: William of course and “Big Jake.”
Now, just to be clear my grandfather never knew either of his grandfathers since they had both passed away before he was born. So, everything he knew about them was from family stories passed on by his grandmothers and parents.
There are two things that I always remember my grandfather saying about his grandparents:
1) “Can you believe both of my grandparents were named William and Catherine?”
2) And in reference to my cousin Shane’s height: “Maybe one day you’ll be as tall as my grandfather, Big Jake.”
Now, I have no idea whether or not there is any truth behind his legendary size (apparently he was 6’8’’), but what I do know is that there was a set of brothers in Germany with the last name Achnitz and two of them were Wilhelm and Jacob. The person I am related to though has always used the name William when in America but his suspected birth year coincidentally aligns more with Jacob. Did he maybe use his brother’s name when he made the journey across the Atlantic? Or did he just shave a couple of years off his life when asked how old he was to feel a little bit younger?
Without further ado, here is the list of brothers I am talking about:
- Johann Achnitz b. 29 Nov 1850
- Martin Achnitz b. 17 Nov 1852
- Peter Joseph Achnitz b. 19 Feb 1855
- Wilhelm Achnitz b. 28 June 1857
- Jacob Achnitz b. 10 Feb 1860
- Ferdinand Achnitz b. 27 July 1862
All this information comes from baptismal records that I found on FamilySearch. However, I have not seen any of the FHL microfilm so I really just know what they have listed on their site. It would be nice if one day they made these images available online as I’m sure it would help a lot of people out in their research. It certainly would have helped me.
Anyways, as per those records, they were all born in Nörvenich, which is a town in the Rhineland of Western Germany and their parents were listed as being Michael Achnitz and Caecilia Schumacher. However, William never uses either of those names on any of the documents that I have found to date in America.
So, I don’t really know anything about his life while he was living in Germany, but at some point he must have gotten married because he came to New York City with his first wife Elsie on the ship Waesland on July 24, 1890. According to the United States Germans to America Index, he was listed as a merchant and his last place of residence was Cologne, Germany, which is about 40 minutes away from Nörvenich. Census records also align with this date making me feel pretty confident that they arrived in America in the year 1890.
Here’s where his age does not seem to align correctly as he is listed as being 28, which would mean that he was born in 1862 (the year Ferdinand was born). Elsie was listed as being 22. Their last names were also spelled ‘Agnitz’ on the immigration record, which I’m coming to find was a common variation of the surname ‘Achnitz.’
As could be expected, for an immigrant that just came to America at the turn of the 20th century, William Achnitz had to work and establish a career. It turns out that he moved around quite a bit during the 1890s. However, he managed to hold down a job as a baker.
These were the only directories that I found him in before 1900 and he does not appear before 1891. Therefore, I’m pretty confident that his immigration record is accurate.
By the turn of the century, we start to see what William’s family looked like:
This census lists him as having been married to Elsie for 10 years, meaning they would have gotten married in the same year that they came to America. We also see that William is actually 12 years older than Elsie rather than 6. This would have made Elsie only 19 when she married William. Perhaps, William was embarrassed by the fact that he was so much older than Elsie and stated a younger age on his immigration record. They are also listed as living at 807 Amsterdam Avenue, which happened to be the same address as the bakery. In fact, it turns out that William and Elsie owned the bakery that was below their residence. And this wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill local bakery that sold baked goods. It was actually an industrial-sized factory that produced baked goods.
The American Dream come true? William Achnitz – the owner of Amsterdam Bakery. Until the unspeakable happened…
William and Elsie’s youngest son, little William, at only 4 years of age, was struck and killed by a train called the “Dolly Varden.”
Then, this happened…
Turns out that William Achnitz had now lost his youngest child, his wife, and his remaining living children all within 1 year’s time. Records from Ancestry.com indicate that Elsie had left the country with Bernard Meiers as well as William’s three remaining children and eventually they made their way to Australia. Additionally, election rolls from Australia show that Bernard was a baker in Australia just like he had been for William in Manhattan. They remained in Australia for about 10 years before making their way back to Manhattan and it is unclear if William was ever aware of their return to New York City.
Now, I do not want to speculate on who was “right” and “wrong” in this scenario because for all I know William Achnitz could have been an abusive husband and father. Nevertheless, this man certainly experienced one tragedy after another. Also note that he is referenced under the name Ross Julius Achnitz in the second article. It seems unlikely that this was a mistake or typo on the part of the newspaper. And I really can’t think of any logical reason why he would use a completely different name. It just seems really odd to me and as you will continue to see none of the information he ever gives seems to align correctly with the original baptismal records I found on FamilySearch.
A couple of years after Elsie’s disappearance, William eventually met my 2nd great-grandmother Catherine Dischler. They got married on May 9, 1905.
As you can see, on the marriage certificate of William Achnitz and Catherine Dischler, William lists his parents as William Achnitz and Elizabeth Smith. Also, his age of 45 in the year 1905 would suggest he was born in 1860 (the year Jacob was born). However, the parents on the baptismal records are again Michael Achnitz and Caecilia Schumacher. So, I can’t really say with confidence that either of these records are accurate because this man is consistently inconsistent with the information he provides about himself.
Anyways, William Achnitz had what would be his last child and would end up being Catherine’s only son.
This is the only census I can find William and Catherine in together. Again, their is inconsistency in the information given as we know for a fact that William came to America in 1890, which would have meant he was only in America for 25 years rather than 30. Another thing that struck me as odd is that they moved and he was now a janitor. How does a well-known, prosperous baker become a janitor?
Upon doing some digging, I found that William took out a chattel mortgage with a man named Mr. Goetz:
Based on these two listings, it seems likely that William Achnitz defaulted on the chattel mortgage and Mr. Goetz was transferred ownership of the bakery. It also seems as if he was allowed to continue working at the bakery for a few years, but then at some point he is listed as being a janitor and a superintendent.
Unfortunately, William passed away on November 3, 1923 at 11:2opm at his residence of 57 105th Street due to multiple heart complications. He was listed as being 63 years of age.
When I ordered this document, I was really hoping for some leads, but as you can see it is probably safe to say that my 2nd great-grandmother who was the respondent did not know the names of his parents – just the fact that they were obviously both born in Germany. He is buried at the same cemetery as his son William Achnitz, so my guess is that they are buried together. If anybody knows where Lutheran Cemetery is please let me know, because I have not been able to find anything listed at the 954 Amsterdam Avenue address.
William Achnitz clearly lived a life filled with tragedy. He lost nearly everyone in his life and in a sense he lost even his livelihood when he lost his business. He also seems to have had a whole slew of health complications which culminated with his heart failing at the end of his life.
Now, I’m not sure if any of this was of his own doing, but what is clear is that if none of these tragedies happened, I do not exist. And that is pretty profound to think. I stem from that one kid he had with his 2nd wife and it’s crazy to think that without his 1st wife leaving after the tragic death of their youngest child, my great-grandfather is never born. My grandfather is never born. My father is never born. And I am never born.
People want to understand why genealogy is important. This is a case in point. A lot of things had to go right for us to be here and in the case of my 2nd great-grandfather William Achnitz, a lot of things had to go wrong.