Thursday, September 6, 2012

Another Victim of That White Plague

The 1916 company newsletter that Agnes Tully Stevens kept with her personal papers—complete with check marks and doodles—provided a glimpse into Chicago life as well as a look at work in the then-emerging field of electrical engineering. Two obituaries in that newsletter, as well as a reference to another employee’s death, stood as a reminder that, despite being a new century, it was still part of an era in which young adults, all too often, saw their life cut short. Whether by communicable disease, as we are reminded in today’s obituary, or by physical ailments for which medical science had not yet devised an adequate response, life was still liable to those many misfortunes which we only now take as rare occurrences.

Frank M. Roth—someone unrelated to the Tully family and for whom I know nothing other than what I’m able to find online today—was such a reminder. With a story similar to those of the tuberculosis-ridden priests with whom Agnes used to correspond, Frank Roth was born and raised in Chicago, but spent his last days hoping for the cure promised by New Mexico’s warm, dry antidote to hometown weather.

While the company article concerning Mr. Roth spoke in great detail about his career’s advancement, it mentioned very little about his private life. I thought it odd that the article listed his home address and yet offered not a word further about that home—whether he was married or had children. I wondered if this 1880 census reference to a young Frank Roth in the home of Michael and Mary, with three brothers and a thirteen-year-old big sister, might give the right childhood picture. Would this March 6, 1878, birth record for the son of a “Mich. Roth” and Maria “Worttragen” be his? Or was his Holland-born mother’s name actually “Von Wortragen” as a later birth certificate indicates for a brother born right after that 1880 census was taken? Or maybe it was spelled with a “V” as another child’s birth certificate indicated. Those German-sounding names seemed so hard to capture.

If Frank were the child of that 1878 birth certificate, could he be the one in the 1910 census, married to Gertrude? With a nephew named William Heavey from Pennsylvania? Would this be the Chicago entry for their November 16, 1901, wedding? Gertrude’s maiden name Heavey would further corroborates the 1910 household member William. And though the photocopy of the actual census form is damaged at the bottom of the page—right on Frank's entry, as it turns out—it is still possible to make out the occupational entry as engineer and the employer as Edison, just as it should be.

And there is the death certificate for Frank in faraway Albuquerque, where he lived his last days until March 26, 1916. Taking a closer look, the certificate reveals he was widowed at the time of his death. What had happened to Gertrude—if, indeed, she was his wife? Could this be her own death certificate, dated March 12, 1911? If so, why was the informant Agnes Fluegge rather than her husband? Was this her sister? Was Frank already too incapacitated, himself, to have provided the information? And if she died of “nephritis dropsy” and myocarditis, would she have been too ill to have borne children?

From all these sterile pieces of paper one could reconstruct a life story—if, indeed, these are the tokens of Frank’s circumstances. They may not be—as I said, as far as I know, we are not related to these people. But if they are, they serve to remind us—related or not—that life wasn’t always the way we now take for granted. Those trophies of life we now nearly accept as owed to us—health, happiness, prosperity—were not woven into the fabric of life for those living only as far back as our grandparents’ and great-grandparents memories. How much life has changed in a century.

Frank M. Roth, Ass’t Engineer
At N.W. Dies March 26

            Last Sunday evening it became known that Mr. Frank M. Roth, Assistant Chief Engineer of Northwest Station, had died at 3:55 p.m., that day in Albuquerque, N. M., where he has been for some time on account of poor health.
            Mr. Roth entered the Company in August, 1894, as an elevator operator in the old Edison building. A little later, September 1, 1895, he became a clerk under Mr. Marden in the Salesroom in the same building. Leaving the sales work on May 16, 1898, he went to work for Mr. Seuel in the Underground Department.
            Mr. Roth was later an operator in the old Adams Street Substation from October 1, 1898, until October 21, 1900, at which time he took up Construction work in the Southern District under Mr. Alexander.
            He remained in the latter position until December 15, 1904, when the new 56th Street generating station was started, at which time he became Chief Electrician of that station, where he remained until August 15, 1906, when he became Assistant Chief Engineer of the Harrison Street Station.
            September 15, 1911, he was transferred to the position he has held until his death.
            The funeral was held Friday the 31st, at 3:00 p.m., from his home, 1137 North Franklin Street, to St. Joseph’s Church, and thence to St. Boniface’s cemetery.


  1. A splendid job recreating the probable life of Mr. Roth. Still, I want to know what that arrow in the margin is pointing to.

    1. Wendy, if that newsletter were from a year much later than 1916, I'd say someone was doodling while on the phone...

  2. His find a grave memorial states some of his family relationships.

    Gertrude's Find A Grave Memorial# is 63066168.

    I'd like to know what the middle initial "M" stood for...

    1. Thanks for finding that, Iggy. Looks like it contains a partial transcription of his obituary from the Chicago Tribune. As I suspected, none of those names seem familiar to me. Hopefully, someone researching that line will find this useful.


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