Would spotting an article attributed to The New York Times and featuring your family member tempt you to check it out? How about a World War era story billed as an "international romance" and mentioning that relative by name?
Searching for distant cousins—those relatives we discover while exploring the collateral lines in our family tree—can lead us to some fascinating stories. Now that I'm connecting the relationships between my mother-in-law and the descendants of her third great-grandfather, Mathias Ambrose, I've stumbled upon another such unexpected story.
It all started when I reviewed documents suggested by the "hints" at Ancestry.com for John Francis Spearman. Born in 1889, John Francis was connected to Mathias by his paternal grandfather's mother, Elizabeth Ambrose. Elizabeth, in turn, was a daughter of Mathias' oldest son, Jacob. This research routine, which I partially described yesterday, is a practice I engage in simply to help me identify where DNA matches belong in the family tree.
While almost every DNA relative's discovery is accompanied by the usual search for census records as well as birth and death records, occasionally other documents will show up which merit consideration. In John Francis Spearman's case, the first such document which grabbed my attention was his passport application.
Drawn up in August of 1916, Spearman's application caught my eye for one point: the reason he gave for taking an international trip during that time. According to the record, John Francis Spearman was requesting to travel to Germany, oddly enough during a time of war—and not just any war, but one reputed to be among the deadliest global conflicts in history. His reason for traveling during that dangerous time? "To be married."
I could hardly believe my eyes when I read that. This was no time for love and marriage, particularly in Germany. I had to read further.
As it turned out, John Francis Spearman—born in Steubenville, Ohio, so obviously a United States citizen—had been serving in Germany as part of the Red Cross since the outbreak of the war. He was a physician and surgeon, according to a later application for a reciprocal license from the state of Wisconsin. That later document provided his dates of service in Germany as August of 1914 through November of 1915. The fourth page of that occupational application even included a photograph of Dr. Spearman in his uniform, including Red Cross armband.
This second trip to Germany was not just a return to service at the war front. As he explained in a letter included with his passport application, Spearman was engaged to marry a German woman, and the date for the wedding was approaching that fall. As the certificate of marriage, issued by the American Consulate at Breslau, Germany—now part of Poland, known as Wrocław—indicated, Spearman's bride-to-be was Marie Hedwig von Raczeck, a resident of Preiswitz (now also part of Poland).
A 1915 newspaper article published in Topeka, Kansas—home of John Francis' cousin—filled in the blanks on the romance with details which supposedly originally appeared in The New York Times. Apparently, when Dr. Spearman stepped up for wartime service with the Red Cross in Germany, he knew little German. At his post in the foreign country, a local volunteer nurse by the name of Marie was assigned to serve as his interpreter, not only on rounds but also as his assistant when writing up case histories. As the newspaper article observed, "From history to romance proved only a short step."
Of course, having discovered such an unusual story concerning one of my mother-in-law's distant cousins, I wanted to learn more—at least to discover what became of the couple. I did locate a 1920 census entry for John F. and May Spearman in Illinois—Marie went by the nickname May—but not long after, the young couple must have divorced. That, at least, was what was indicated on her death certificate in Pennsylvania in 1924, making that international romance a short-lived loved story. She was only thirty when she succumbed to a suspected heart ailment.
As for John Francis Spearman, his, too, was a short-lived story, for only a couple years later, he died at the age of thirty six. With what seemed like barely a blip on the radar of life, theirs was a story which, having discovered it, left me wondering how to read between the lines in this family history vignette.