Saturday, October 15, 2011

John Kelly Stevens

John Kelly Stevens 1856 - 1929
When Theresa Blaising Stevens wrote her letter to Agnes Tully Stevens—the Chicago woman whose personal papers I’m examining for family history details—she was long widowed from her husband, John Kelly Stevens, but only recently bereft of John Kelly’s son, William. It seems strange in light of our culture’s derisive comments about stepmothers—everything from Cinderella stories to crime reports and even students’ term papers—to witness a stepmother who cared deeply for her husband’s children, but not only did Theresa practice that care in her everyday life, but many others from that time onward have also successfully demonstrated such virtues, despite the prevalence of Cinderella myths.

How Theresa, who never had any children of her own, came to be the stepmother of William and his older sister actually reflects the unfolding of sad events in John Kelly Stevens’ life. Theresa was actually the third wife of this well-liked Fort Wayne resident, so let’s take a moment to learn what happened to the first two women who—briefly—called themselves “Mrs. Stevens.”

The concept of “stepmother” was not foreign to John Kelly, who himself was raised by a stepmother, his own mother dying shortly after giving birth to John Kelly’s younger brother William in 1858. Perhaps that was just a sign of the times, as many young women then lost their lives either in childbirth or shortly thereafter. However, when that next generation came of age and married, it became a tragic repetition for the same event to befall John Kelly as a young husband and father not once, but twice.

Although I don’t have all the details to this story yet, somewhere in his early adulthood, John Kelly chose to move from his hometown in Lafayette, Indiana, to the modestly larger (by ten thousand people) city of Fort Wayne. By the time the 1879 city directory was published, John Kelly Stevens had established himself in his new home and was gainfully employed, listed in the directory as a moulder. By the springtime of that year, he was also happily married to a young woman whom I’ve seen referred to alternately as “Mary C.” and “Clara.”

It wasn’t long afterward that the couple became proud parents of a daughter. Listed, thanks to the laissez-faire manner of spelling in that century, alternately as Kathryn or Catherine, little Miss Catherine Louise was shortly followed by the arrival of a younger sister, Anna Mary.

In our current times, that would suffice a young couple struggling to establish themselves as an independent household, given the economic pressures of that stage in life. But that is not how the times dealt with young John Kelly. I can only begin to piece together the story from the shards of information I’ve been able to uncover from online records and the now-no-longer-existent Stevens family Bible. Somehow, in the midst of unexpected tragedy, a young man turned in desperation to seek the help of a stepmother.

Baby Anna Mary—or “Annie Marry” as the Stevens family Bible had it spelled—was born November 9, 1881, in Fort Wayne, eleven days prior to big sister Catherine’s first birthday. By the next week, it was apparent that something was desperately wrong, for the girls’ mother failed to recuperate from “confinement” and just three days before Catherine’s birthday, Clara passed away in Fort Wayne.

It must have been a desperate father who made the decision to send his baby daughter along with his now-deceased wife to the home of his father and stepmother, across the state from Fort Wayne in Lafayette. Clara was buried in the Stevens family plot at Saint Mary’s Cemetery on Old Romney Road, just down the street from the old Catholic church where the family worshiped. Her baby, barely over a week old, was now in the care of John Kelly’s stepmother, Eliza Murdock Stevens, who did as best she could. The child never seemed to thrive and finally succumbed to “lung fever” on January 29 of the new year.

I am not sure what became of older sister Catherine through this time. I presume she spent that time with her baby sister in Lafayette, although I’m sure, given the hardships of the times, that John Kelly must have returned to work in Fort Wayne. I suspect, however, that provision for an adequate home life for Catherine, reunited with her father, was uppermost in John Kelly’s mind when he courted a young Irish immigrant in Fort Wayne by the name of Catherine Kelly.

Kate (as she was called at the time) had immigrated with her family in 1869, perhaps settling in Fort Wayne to join her father John’s possible relative, Timothy Kelly and his family, and so that her father could benefit from the growing work opportunities afforded by the railroads crisscrossing the area.

By October, 1883, just shy of baby Catherine Louise Stevens’ third birthday, her father married the young Kate Kelly, providing his daughter a capable and, I’m sure, loving stepmother. A bit over a year later, a son was added to the family, whom they named William Henry Alfred Stevens.

Within a month, though, it became apparent that the same fate was to befall this second wife as had claimed the first. Perhaps because of economic hardship or the cash-strapped position of young families of all times, young Kate was buried not in the Stevens family plot in Lafayette, but at Fort Wayne's Catholic Cemetery, in the Kelly family plot co-owned by John, Kate’s father, and his relative Timothy Kelly.

Now having a four year old daughter and a month old infant son to care for, widower John Kelly Stevens must have relied heavily on his in-town in-laws for child care. Perhaps Kate’s mother, Johanna Falvey Kelly, became surrogate mother for Catherine as well as for her grandson William. It may have been at this stage in her life that the young Catherine Louise developed a close attachment to her stepmother’s relatives in the Kelly family.

By 1887, Theresa Blaising was in the picture, and by June of that year, she and John Kelly Stevens were married, and the family was reunited in one household. I often wonder why Theresa never had any children, but considering the track record of John Kelly’s wives, if Theresa was a survivor, perhaps that was a savvy decision on her part.

John Kelly Stevens and his third wife, Theresa Blaising, remained in Fort Wayne for the rest of their lives, as did his daughter Catherine. William, on the other hand, perhaps seeking better employment opportunities afforded by the larger cities or maybe just disgruntled with unnamed frictions from such a “blended” family life, chose to move to Chicago where, in 1912 as you’ve already read, he married Agnes Tully and established a lively household of his own. He remained in his newfound city home until his passing in May of 1946, one month before the letter from Theresa that I’ll begin sharing with you tomorrow.


  1. That is quite a story of human persistance - and dogginess in face of recurrent tragedy.

    There were several economic "downturns" in the time period this saga covers - Panic of 1873 and the Long Depression (Oct 1873–Mar 1879), 1882–85 recession, 1887–88 recession, 1890–91 recession, Panic of 1893 (Jan 1893–June 1894), and the 1899–1900 recession. The Panic of 1893 being the worse of them.

    I wonder what sort of moulder JF Kelly was - my family being in the foundry business for several generations had moulders of castings in it.

  2. P.s., I am in awe of your research here - mulitple marriages are the hardest thing for me to deal with in geneological "hunts". That and people called alternately by their fisrt of middle names - to add to the confusion.

  3. Very interesting! I will want to keep reading on this. I don't see any relationship with my family tree, but it is family history in general that is so interesting. In fact, I came across your blog from Intense Guy's blog and his from Forgotten Old Photos blog. I do genealogy on my and my husbands family tree and have been trying to figure out how to start a blog with family photos (some not identified, of course) to see if I can draw some long lost relatives to identify them. You are very good at making your posts interesting and makes one want to follow along and find out more.


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