Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Sad Farewell for Rose (Allen or Ellis) Sheppard

One of the tough things about genealogy is that sometimes you find out about sad things that happened to people that you care about. Happily, sometimes you find out that things turn out all right in the end, but other times that sad note is the one your research ends on. And even though you may have never met these people personally, you can’t help but imagine what they and the people around them must have felt when tragedy struck.

Such is the case with my great-great-grandmother Rose Anne (Allen) Sheppard, her husband Samuel, and their daughter Katherine.

Possibly an image of Rose, found with Katherine's papers.
Rose is one of those people for whom I wish I had more records. Between state and federal census records, I’ve been able to find out about her life in 1905, 1910, and 1915. The 1913 Salem, NJ Farm Directory gives me a little detail as well. Between them, they tell me that she was the wife of a farm laborer in Salem County, New Jersey. Given that the major local crops were corn and potatoes – Salem produced 939,775 bushels of corn, 1,303,088 of white potatoes, and 459,592 of sweet potatoes in 1910 – Samuel probably came home exhausted from back-breaking labor. Rose herself sometimes did housework “out,” meaning as a domestic, which is not surprising given the types of jobs available for black women in her era. Overall, the family was probably poor but not destitute – they never owned their own home or farm, according to the records, but they did own a Bell telephone in 1913, and Samuel always seemed to be employed.

They probably also valued education; while the 1905 NJ Census says that neither Samuel nor Rose could read or write, both the 1910 Federal Census and 1915 NJ Census say they can. They either already knew how in 1905 and the information was incorrect, or they put in the effort and learned. And Katherine was in school when she was 7 and when she was 12.

Rose had been born somewhere in Virginia, but how, when or why she arrived in New Jersey, I do not know. We don’t have her birth certificate. Records suggest that she married Samuel around 1905, but we don’t have their marriage record either. The records are pointing more and more firmly towards her having had at least 2 sisters and 1 brother; one sister, Bertha, was close by, also in Salem County, and another, Eleanor, wasn’t too far away, in Washington, DC. But, we can’t find the siblings living together in 1900, nor have I found any vital or census records of their parents – they exist as ghosts on their daughters’ paperwork at this point. And Rose herself was proving difficult to find after 1915. By 1920, her daughter Katherine had moved to Washington, DC.

So what had happened? Two guesses came to mind: 1) She had died sometime soon after 1915, or 2) She and Samuel had separated or gotten divorced, and perhaps she had remarried. Sadly, my first guess was true.

On July 26, 1916, this notice appeared in the local newspaper, the Salem Standard and Jerseyman:
From the Salem County Historical Society clippings file.

As you can see, Rose passed away on July 16, 1916, when she was just 34 years old. What happened? This is where it gets heartbreaking. Here is a copy of her Certificate of Death:

Note: This document gives her parents' surname as Ellis. Other documents suggest her maiden name was Allen.

Rose was 7 months pregnant when she died. In fact complications from her pregnancy may have led to her death. For two weeks before she died, she had been attended to by a doctor due to uremia, who noted that Rose had albuminuria. According to the National Kidney Foundation, albuminuria is when you have too much protein in your urine; it generally signals that your kidneys are damaged. The condition is linked to kidney disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and also smoking.  

Uremia, according to WebMD, is “a serious complication of chronic kidney disease and acute kidney injury…It occurs when urea and other waste products build up in the body because the kidneys are unable to eliminate them. These substances can become poisonous (toxic) to the body if they reach high levels.”  Unfortunately, pregnancy puts an increased strain on the kidneys; if Rose’s kidneys had been struggling along due to diabetes or hypertension, her pregnancy may have been the thing that pushed them over the edge.

Some of the symptoms she might have experienced include: nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss, confusion, seizures, abnormal bleeding, and shortness of breath. How horrible for Rose to have experienced any of this! How horrible for Samuel and Katherine to have witnessed her going through this, especially with Katherine being 12 or 13 at the time. Imagine them worrying about their wife and mother and about the baby she was carrying, and then having to bury them both.

Rose’s death certificate says that she was laid to rest in the cemetery of Mt. Pisgah, an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Salem. While other headstones do exist, there is no tombstone for Rose, and no formal records of interments at the cemetery.

What happens next for the family? In September of 1918, Samuel registers for the “Old Man’s Draft” for World War I. Luckily, the war ends on November 11th that same year; no records yet found suggest he was called to serve. As for Katherine, a handwritten note among family papers states that she moved to Washington, DC on Christmas Eve. She would live there for at least the next 22 years, most of that time with her aunt Eleanor. But why did she leave her father behind, or why did he send her away? Did he think she would be better off with his wife’s family? Was their relationship strained by sadness (or something else)? We may never know. We do know she kept up with her cousins in Salem, the Kilsons, and that her son, my grandfather Louis, knew and told stories about them to his children. But what about Samuel, Louis’s grandfather, Katherine’s dad, and my great-great-grandfather? I’ve got a record request out – if we’re lucky, we’ll learn more soon.

And hopefully his story, though of course it inevitably ends, has a happier ending than that of his wife Rose. May they both rest in peace.

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