The First Wernsdorfer

My Trip to St. John’s Cemetery

Queens, New York

I absolutely love genealogy.

So, in addition to researching my own family tree, I’ve naturally done quite a bit of research on my wife’s tree as well. In many respects, I’ve actually been more successful researching my wife’s family tree than my own. And because of that, I feel like I’ve connected with her ancestors in a way as if they were my own ancestors.

For me, finding an American progenitor is an awesome accomplishment. A progenitor is the first of your family name. So, in this regard, we are looking for the very first of your name in America. In my tree, I have found all of my progenitors and all of them are European immigrants that came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

My wife’s tree is very different. A number of her branches have deep American roots dating back to the 1600s. However, in this post, I am going to focus on our trip to visit The First Wernsdorfer – George – who like many of my ancestors was the first one of his name to come to America from Germany.

George, according to his death certificate, was born on July 22, 1859 in Germany. His life story is an interesting one and definitely one characterized by hard work and determination.

On August 1, 1885, George left his homeland of Germany, where he was a farmer, to come to America.

immigration
From The Germans To America Index

From what I am able to tell, the first job that George took in America was as a hostler in Brooklyn. A hostler is a man employed to look after the horses of people staying at an inn. I don’t think there are too many hostlers nowadays in Brooklyn. Certainly this was a hard job and definitely not the most glamorous. However, it was the beginning of a new life in a new country for a man that would work hard every single day of his life.

1888-directory
From The 1888 Brooklyn City Directory
1889-directory
From The 1889 Brooklyn City Directory

In 1892, we see George with his first wife Elizabeth and his two daughters, Barbara and Louise.

1892-census

On January 5, 1899, something tragic happened. George’s wife, Elizabeth Wernsdorfer (nee Moser) passed away, leaving George to care for their two daughters and two sons. I have not purchased Elizabeth’s death certificate yet. Therefore, I do not know exactly what happened to her. She is listed as being buried with an infant though. So, I am assuming that she died while giving childbirth.

locate-a-loved-one

From the above screenshot of the Locate A Loved One search results, we can see that both Elizabeth and her child were buried together in 1899. The other Wernsdofers shown in the search results were children of George and Elizabeth’s son, John Wernsdorfer and his wife Dorothea.

About 8 months later on October 15, 1899, George married Barbara Thomann. In the 1900 Census, we see that George is living in Brooklyn with his second wife Barbara and his children from his marriage with his first wife Elizabeth (Barbara, Elizabeth aka Lizzie, John, and George).

1900-census
In 1900, George is listed as being a driver. I did not know what kind of driver he was at this time, but as you will see later in the post, he was an ambulance driver for a hospital for many years.

Here is the marriage certificate for George Wernsdorfer and Barbara Thomann.

marriage-certificate

In 1905, Barbara and George have had their first child together, a son named Joseph.

1905-census

In 1910, George is still listed as a Coach Driver. His eldest child Barbara has moved out and is probably married by this time. His second daughter Lizzie is working as a book binder. His eldest son John is working at a gas company and both George and Joseph are in school.

1910-census

By 1915, George is listed as a hospital driver. John has moved out and is now married to Dorothea. George and Elizabeth still have the same professions and Joseph is still in school.

1915-census

Through the 20s and 30s, George and Elizabeth eventually moved out, getting married, and starting their own families. Elizabeth (1890-1964) married a Peter Joseph Bogensberger (1891-1944) in 1921 and had two children. George (1896-1966) married Augusta S. Luckner (1902-1983) and had five children.

The elder George Wernsdorfer continued working as an ambulance driver for St. Catherine’s Hospital for many years. One significant highlight that happened during his career was his efforts in trying to put out a blazing fire at St. Catherine’s Hospital. See article below.

newspaper-article
From The Brooklyn Standard Union, Wednesday, October 28, 1925, Page 1

From farming in Germany, to picking up after horses during turn of the century New York City, to driving an ambulance for St. Catherine’s Hospital in Brooklyn for decades, George Wernsdorfer worked hard every single day of his life. He literally worked until the day that he died, which also happened to be at St. Catherine’s Hospital.

death-certificate

As you can see, at the age of 78, George Wernsdorfer who was still working at St. Catherine’s Hospital, died at 9:30 in the morning on September 9, 1937, at St. Catherine’s Hospital. Now, obviously much older, it appears he had made a transition from ambulance driver to the much less stressful job of gardener at some point in the 1930s.

What a remarkable journey. George, the First Wernsdorfer, worked hard to make it in this country. He literally died working, which I am confident is something he loved. Who works until their 78? Not many.

George without a doubt gave his family members more than he had and he taught them the value of hard work. Without his dedication and work ethic, I am confident that things would have been much different for the generations that came after. Thank God for George! It was a pleasure visiting you.

wernsdorfer-1

wernsdorfer-3

George is buried at St. John’s Cemetery with both of his wives Elizabeth and Barbara. Barbara passed away on December 8, 1937, about 3 months after George.

As you can see, there are only 3 names inscribed on their headstone. However, they have children and grandchildren that were buried there as well with them.

One of my main goals with Flat Tire Genealogy as I have expressed in many of my other posts is to make sure that all of our ancestors are remembered. Please support this page and share it with others because all of the money that I make from these efforts is going to go towards adding the names of those that have been forgotten to their headstones.

I hope you enjoyed this last post in my Trip to St. John’s series. Please stay tuned for much more content in the coming weeks and months!

As always, keep on digging.

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#52Ancestors – Week 2 – William Achnitz

“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:

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.

1891 Directory
1891 NY City Directory
1892 Directory
1892 NY City Directory
1897 Directory
1897 NY City Directory
1898 Directory
1898 NY City Directory
1899 Directory
1899 NY City Directory

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:

1900 Census
1900 Census: William, his wife Elsie, and their 4 kids – Annie, Carrie, Mattie, and William

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.

1902 Corporation Directory
From Polk’s (Trow’s) New York Copartnership and Corporation Directory, Volume 50, 1902

The American Dream come true? William Achnitz – the owner of Amsterdam Bakery. Until the unspeakable happened…

New York NY Times 1902
From The New York Times, Sunday, August 24, 1902

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…

Elsa's Disappearance
From The Evening Telegram, New York, Thursday, March 19, 1903
New York NY Herald 1903
From The New York Herald, March 19, 1903

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.

Marriage - William and Catherine AchnitzAs 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.

John Achnitz BirthYes, another William. My great-grandfather was born with the name William Achnitz as well. However, he eventually started using the name John and William became his middle name.

1915 NYS Census William Achnitz
1915 NYS Census: William Achnitz, his wife Catherine, and his son John

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:

Chattel Mortgage
Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, Volume 67, 1901
Goetz
Trow Business Directory of the Boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx, 1913

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.

1916 Directory
1916 NY City Directory
1917 Directory
1917 NY City Directory
1918 Directory
1918 NY City Directory
1922 Directory
1922 NY City Directory

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.

William Achnitz DeathWhen 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.