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  • Kristin Wenger

A Tale of Three Wenger Wives (#52Ancestors week 33: Family Legend)


Exactly 100 years ago, panic began to grip our nation.

In September of 1918, soldiers at an army base near Boston suddenly began to die. The cause of death was identified as influenza, but it was unlike any strain ever seen. As the killer virus spread across the country, hospitals overfilled, death carts roamed the streets and helpless city officials dug mass graves. It was the worst epidemic in American history, killing over 600,000 — until it disappeared as mysteriously as it had begun.[1]

I had heard of the 1918 flu epidemic, but prior to watching the American Experience documentary, “Influenza 1918,” I had not realized its scope and severity. The impact this virus had on families who lost loved ones, many of them in the primes of their lives, must have been staggering.


I then recalled a comment written in the family heritage book assembled by Eric’s grandparents in 1999:

The page featuring Milton and Elizabeth (Nolt) Wenger, Eric’s great-great grandparents



A close-up shows the statement that caught my attention:

Three of Milton’s brothers lost their wives in the influenza epidemic of 1918.


After watching the documentary, I was interested in finding out which wives had died, how old they were, how many children they left behind, and how the families coped with such a great loss.


My research led to a curious conclusion. Three of Milton’s brothers did have wives who had all died in the same year. However, the year was 1910 and none of the women died of influenza.


DAVID AND LIZZIE

The first to die was David Wenger’s wife, Elizabeth (Rohrer) Wenger, who was called Lizzie.

Lizzie (Rohrer) Wenger [2]


Lizzie’s death certificate states she died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 15 February 1910.

She was only 28 years old. [3]


Lizzie’s funeral (18 February 1910) was the first funeral service in the new Groffdale meetinghouse.[4]

Wenger. -- Sister David M. Wenger of New Holland, Pa., died on Tuesday, Feb. 15; aged 28 y. 11 m. 14 d. Her funeral will take place on Feb. 18. The main services will be held at the Groffdale M. H. Interment in the adjoining cemetery. The departed sister was a faithful and loving wife and mother and was loved by everyone who knew her. The bereaved brother with his little flock of three children have the sympathy of the whole Church. Her sickness was consumption. She was prepared for the end, and most calmly approached her departure. Her peace and fortitude were certainly marked evidence of deepest faith and trust in her Savior and Redeemer.[5]

Note: I almost didn’t find this obituary because Lizzie was only listed by her husband’s name.


When she died, Lizzie left three children: Norman, age six; Anna, age four; and Clement, age two. [6] How did David cope?


Initially, his single sister, Lizzie Wenger, moved in with him to care for the children. [7] In September 1912, he married Ida K. Musser, and they went on to have two more daughters, Ruth and Edna.[8]


David and second wife Ida on a trip to Gettysburg. Ida is holding their daughter Ruth. The three children born to David and Lizzie (Clement, Anna, and Norman) sit left to right. [9]



ELAM AND ALICE

Elam and Alice’s family was enumerated in the 1910 census on the 18th of April. [10] She died just six days later. [11]


This 1910 census record shows Elam and Alice had been married for only three years.

They had two very young daughters: Esther (age two) and Mabel (eight months). [12]


Death certificate for Alice, only 26 years old [13]


Alice’s obituary provides more details.[14]


Wenger.--Sister Alice, wife of Bro. Elam M. Wenger died of inflammation of the bowels after an illness of twelve weeks. She was born near Strasburg, Pa., Jan. 8, 1884, and died near Farmersville, Pa., April 24, 1910; aged 26 y. 3 m. 16 d. She united with the Mennonite Church in her seventeenth year, of which she remained a faithful member to the time of her death. She was married to Elam M. Wenger Nov. 15, 1906. She was the mother of two children. During her illness she had a desire to be with her Savior. She had her favorite hymn, "There's a beautiful land on high," read to her quite frequently which was also sung at her funeral. Services were held at the Strasburg Mennonite Church by Elias Groff and Ben Weaver. [15]

Elam also remarried. On 12 January 1914, he married Anna Myer and they had three daughters together: Edna, Alta, and Grace. [16]


Elam was buried with both wives at Groffdale Mennonite Cemetery. [17]


Youngest daughter Grace added this helpful note of explanation to the family’s genealogical card at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society in 1986. [18]



MICHAEL AND FANNIE

In July of 1910, Fianna (Fannie) was the third wife of a Wenger brother to die in less than six months. Enumerated on the same page as Elam’s family in the April 1910 census, we have a snapshot of the family shortly before her death.


Michael and Fannie had been married for 15 years and had seven living children, ages one to fourteen. [19]


I discovered their eighth child was a little girl named Ada who had died shortly before her second birthday in 1903. [20]

Wenger.-On July 6, 1903, near Farmersville, Pa., Ada N., only daughter of Bro. Michael M. and Sister Fannie Wenger, aged 1 Y., 11 M., 25 D. She died of tubercular meningitis. Her sickness was thought at first by the family physician to be from teething, but she grew worse and suffered much till her spirit took its flight to the world where no suffering is known. Funeral services on the 8th at Groffsdale M. H. by Bro. N. H. Mack in German and by Bish. Benjamin Weaver in English from Luke 18:16. "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." She leaves her parents and four brothers. May God bless them in their bereavement. Aunt Lizzie. [21]

Notice Aunt Lizzie was an integral part of another brother's family. Also, services were conducted in both German and English.

Fannie died of pulmonary tuberculosis, the same disease that had caused her sister-in-law Lizzie’s death. [22]


Wenger. Sister Fianna M., wife of Michael M. Wenger, was born near Hinkletown, Pa., Aug. 31, 1877, died of tuberculosis July 31, 1910; aged 32 y. 11 m. During her illness of eleven weeks she patiently bore her suffering with consistent Christian resignation and expressed a desire to be at rest. On Sept. 30, 1894, she was married to Michael M. Wenger which union was blessed with eight children of which seven besides her husband survive her. In the year 1897 she was received into the Mennonite Church with the Groffdale congregation, where she was known as an exemplary member. Besides her quiet and unassuming nature, she also obediently yielded to conscience. Funeral services were held Aug. 2 at the Groffdale Mennonite Church, conducted by J. H. Mosemann and Benjamin Weaver. Text, II Cor. 5:1. She left a world of sin and care, No more life's toils on earth to share. To be with Christ, fore'er to dwell, To know no more the sad farewell. [23]

FAMILY LEGEND

The loss of a young wife and mother must have been devastating. I couldn't help but picture Eric, his three brothers, and their wives (including me). What if three out of the four women died in our twenties or early thirties, leaving our children motherless and our husbands young widowers?


After pondering the enormous loss, I came back to the original statement that had started my search. Milton Wenger had three brothers who lost their wives to the influenza epidemic of 1918. It was definitely rooted in truth. Three Wenger brothers did experience the deaths of their young wives all in the same year. In the end, it makes no difference if it was the flu epidemic or tuberculosis; 1918 or 1910. But I was curious how the details of the story became a bit muddled over a few generations. Can you see how easily this can happen when we are recording family history that happened before we were born and simply repeating what we recall being told?


I found this an interesting example of why we should always seek out the original records when possible. Oral history is wonderful, but we are human. If we were not present at the actual event or not even born yet, find those sources that were recorded at the time to make sure your family story is accurate and not just legend.



Sources:

[1] “Influenza 1918,” PBS American Experience (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/influenza/ : accessed 10 September 2018).


[2] “Elizabeth (Lizzie) Rohrer Wenger,” photograph, shared by Ancestry.com user jmark1441, 1 May 2011.


[3] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 15716, Lizzie L. Wenger, 15 February 1910, Lancaster County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963," database with digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 September 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1963, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[4] Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, genealogical card file for Wenger, David Musselman (1876-1942); “Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Mennonite Vital Records, 1750-1940,” database with digital images, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=60592 > Weber, S – Wenzel, Richard > images 2471 and 2472 of 4103).


[5] “Wenger, Sister David M.,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 2, No. 48, February 24, 1910, page 767; transcription, Mennonite Church USA Archives (http://mcusa-archives.org/MennObits/10/feb1910.html : accessed 10 September 2018).


[6] 1910 U.S. census, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, New Holland Borough, Enumeration District (ED) 126, sheet 8-A, dwelling 191, family 193, David Wenger household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 September 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 1355.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, genealogical card file for Wenger, David Musselman (1876-1942); “Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Mennonite Vital Records, 1750-1940,” database with digital images, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=60592 > Weber, S – Wenzel, Richard > images 2471 and 2472 of 4103).


[9] “David M Wenger & Family, Gettysburg 1914,” photograph, shared by Ancestry.com user jmark1441, 1 May 2011.


[10] 1910 U.S. census, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, West Earl Township, Farmersville, Enumeration District (ED) 39, sheet 2-A, dwelling 26, family 26, Elam Wenger household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 September 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 1355.


[11] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 36694, Alice Wenger, 24 April 1910, Lancaster County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963," database with digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 September 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1963, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[12] 1910 U.S. census, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, West Earl Township, Farmersville, Enumeration District (ED) 39, sheet 2-A, dwelling 26, family 26, Elam Wenger household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 September 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 1355.


[13] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 36694, Alice Wenger, 24 April 1910, Lancaster County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963," database with digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 September 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1963, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[14] “Mrs. Elam Wenger,” The New Holland Clarion (New Holland, Pennsylvania), 30 April 1910, page 1, column 5; digital image, PowerLibrary: Pennsylvania’s Electronic Library (http://digitalcollections.powerlibrary.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/nhclar02/id/2816/rec/1 : accessed 10 September 2018).


[15] “Wenger, Sister Alice,” Gospel Herald, Volume III, Number 7, May 19, 1910, page 111; transcription, Mennonite Church USA Archives (http://mcusa-archives.org/MennObits/10/may1910.html :accessed 10 September 2018).


[16] Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, genealogical card file for Wenger, Elam Musselman (1882-1956); “Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Mennonite Vital Records, 1750-1940,” database with digital images, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=60592 > Weber, S – Wenzel, Richard > images 2527 and 2528 of 4103).


[17] Gravestone photo, Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 10 September 2018), memorial page for Alice Harnish Wenger (8 Jan 1884–24 Apr 1910), Find A Grave Memorial no. 75579625, citing Groffdale Mennonite Brick Church Cemetery, Leola, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA ; Maintained by Miabeth (contributor 47091766) .


[18] Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, genealogical card file for Wenger, Elam Musselman (1882-1956); “Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Mennonite Vital Records, 1750-1940,” database with digital images, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=60592 > Weber, S – Wenzel, Richard > image 2528 of 4103).


[19] 1910 U.S. census, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, West Earl Township, Farmersville, Enumeration District (ED) 39, sheet 2-A, dwelling 30, family 30, Michael Wenger household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 September 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 1355.


[20] “Wenger, Ada N.,” Herald of Truth, Vol. XL, No. 30, July 23, 1903, Page 240; transcription, Mennonite Church USA Archives (http://mcusa-archives.org/MennObits/1903/jul1903.html : accessed 10 September 2018).


[21] Ibid.


[22] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 66749, Fianna M. Wenger, 31 July 1910, Lancaster County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963," database with digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 September 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1963, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[23] ‘Wenger, Sister Fianna M.,” Gospel Herald, Volume III, Number 19, August 11, 1910, page 303-304; transcription, Mennonite Church USA Archives (http://mcusa-archives.org/MennObits/10/aug1910.html : accessed 10 September 2018).