Monday, October 14, 2013

Life Without Possibility of Papa

"The widow, together with four little daughters, aged ten, eight, 
seven and five years, respectively, survive."

Nameless though they may have been, Patrick Phillips’ wife and four little girls faced an uncertain future in Fort Wayne after his sudden passing in May of 1912.

Having been sensitized to the plight of children who, at an early age, have lost a parent—writing about their stories beginning here and here—I couldn’t just leave that newspaper excerpt lie. Nameless is virtually the same as faceless, as far as remembrances go. I can’t just walk away from these five without letting their struggle be remembered.

We already know that young widow’s name, of course, for it was our exploration of the Kelly family that led us to zoom in on John and Johanna Kelly’s second daughter, Mary. We’ve already found her as a newlywed in widow Johanna’s household in the 1900 census.

The 1910 census provided us a handy listing of the four surviving children of Patrick and Mary Phillips’ household. Helen, the oldest, arrived a little more than a year after Patrick and Mary were married. Just over two years later, she became big sister to Grace, who entered the household the same year her grandmother exited it.

I often wonder if Patrick wished for a son by the time daughter number three appeared. A year and a half after Grace’s entrance, younger sister Margaret joined the family in March, 1905. By March, 1907, the youngest daughter—alternately documented as Celeste M. and Mary C.—ended the listing as shown in the 1910 census.

With daughter number four, let us not be tempted to assume that was the completion of the family. Apparently, Patrick and Mary had two more children, though I’ve not been able to find any record of whether they were stillborn, died in infancy, or succumbed in early childhood.

Considering the tragedy that befell the family in 1912, I often wonder how much of their father these young girls might have remembered. At the age of five, particularly, it is doubtful there were any memories at all—especially in an era preceding that of ubiquitous photography. Even the older children may not have had many recollections of their father. I recall one co-worker telling me she was twelve when she lost her mother to cancer; as much as she loved her mother, she only had vague memories of her.

As far as I can tell, the Phillips girls’ mother never married after Patrick’s death. In an age in which it was more common for young widows to remarry, Mary never took that opportunity. Perhaps there was no such opportunity in her case. On the other hand, I remember Marilyn Bean telling me how complete the devastation was when she lost her own husband at a young age—there never was anyone else for her after that point, young children at home or not.

Of course, there is no way to truly know what the dynamics were in the Phillips family leading away from that devastating loss. There is no diary left, journaling Mary’s every thought. There are no records of the children’s pleas for their Papa to come back, nor a distraught mother’s desperate attempt to explain to such young ones why that no longer could be so.

There were, however, faint traces of childhood activities reported in the community sections of Fort Wayne newspapers from which I can glean a sense of what life was like for this family after the loss of husband and father. From these pieces, we’ll take a few days to consider what the signs might tell us.


  1. I wonder how she made a living after her husband died. Four girls to feed and clothe, it cannot have been easy. :(

    1. You know it had to have been hard for her. Things were changing after the turn of that century, though. Thinking back to Will Stevens' half sister Kathryn and how she worked as a seamstress up until about that same time, it reminded me to take a look at the Fort Wayne city directory. Evidently, there were a number of women working outside the home just a few years after Mary was widowed, so it may have been possible she found a way to support herself.

  2. The railroads were pretty stingy but they may have provided a pension for her. They often had "benevolent societies" since they also had a lot of widows to "deal with."

    1. I remember running into benevolent societies up in Chicago when researching our Tully line, but it seemed those were more church-based. Another thought might be the fraternal organizations, too. The more I read about this family's case, the more I want to dig in and get some hands-on research done. Unfortunately, it will be a long time before I get to travel back to Fort Wayne...


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