One of the joys of conducting research into one’s own family is the discovery of stories and people that you never even knew existed. Sometimes we don’t know about them because they may have lived during a period, or in a place, with very poor records. Occasionally we never hear of them because they are so far distant from our family that they seem unimportant to our own story. Then there are those cases where it may be that the persons or experiences were so traumatic that the family merely never spoke of them at all. I think this story may be just such a case. No one in my family had ever mentioned the fact that my great grandfather, George Bentz, had been married and fathered children before his marriage to my great grandmother, Caroline Billingham. Nonetheless, there they were.
Among the many photos that I inherited from my mother is the header image for this post. For a long time I had difficulty figuring out what I was looking at in this picture. I recognized the man in the boat as my great grandfather George Bentz but I could not identify the woman or the child based on the family history that I was familiar with. It was one of those mysteries that, to a historian, needs to be solved and explained.
I wasn’t lucky enough to meet my great grandfather as he died in 1948, long before I was born and before many of even his grandchildren got to know him. His wife, my great grandmother Caroline Billingham Bentz (b. 1896), lived far longer and I was blessed to be able to meet her and speak with her when I was a child. She died in 1983 and luckily I still have memories of her. Towards the end of her life she was living with my nearby grandparents and I remember that, when we would visit, she would always give us a penny. She was a sweet woman.
The only story I knew of my great grandparents was their story. It wasn’t until my interest in the history of my own family developed that I discovered that there was a story to my great grandparents, and specifically my great grandfather, that I had never heard. It is entirely possible that no one heard it, but it is a story worth telling.
George Bentz, my great-grandfather, was born in 1891 in Trenton, New Jersey. As these blogs continue you will discover that my history was created in two crucible cities, Trenton New Jersey and Fall River Massachusetts. This is a Trenton story. George was the son of Louis Bentz (sometimes appearing as Lewis as well), an iron worker and the only surviving child of a German immigrant. George’s mother passed away when he was around nine years old and George subsequently went to live with his older brother Louis at 201 Hewitt Street while he attended school.
Shortly after the death of his first wife, George’s father remarried and George returned to living in their home at 305 Lamberton Street. He lived there in 1910 with his father, his step-mother Alice, his brother William and a boarder named Robert Major. His schooling completed, George at 19 had acquired a trade and was working as a potter. Apparently while working at one of the many potteries in Trenton, George met a young woman named Lillian Emma Bethke (b. 1896). Based on a series of images, it appears that George, Lillian and my great-grandmother Caroline moved in the same social circles (see images below).
Lillian Bethke was the daughter of Gustave and Caroline Bethke. Gustave was a German immigrant while Lillian’s mother had been born in Pennsylvania and the family lived on the 600 block of Beatty Street in Trenton. Gustave passed away in 1905 and his wife became the head of the rather large household that included nine children. Virtually all of the children were employed in one way or another by 1910 and it was around that time that Lillian met George Bentz.
She was around 15 when she met George and their courtship was a short one, for they were married sometime in the early fall of 1911. He was 20 and Lillian was 15 when they were married and by July of the following year Lillian gave birth to a son, George Elmer Bentz. Unfortunately for the couple George would only live for two months, dying in September 1912 from what the doctor’s determined to be acute bronchitis. It is impossible to know what impact the death of their first child had on the couple, though based on the newspaper clippings below it was obviously traumatic and unexpected.
George and Lillian Bentz were living on Beatty Street near the Bethke family at the time of George’s death and continued to live there for the next several years. Two years after George’s death the couple had another son and named him Louis Robert Bentz. George Bentz was still working as a potter in Trenton, eventually with the International Pottery Company located just off of South Stockton Street. He was employed there when he registered for the draft during World War One.
It’s impossible to know what happened between 1917 and 1919, or what emotional toll the loss of their first child had taken on the couple, but by 1920 Lillian and George separated. Lillian and Louis returned to her family’s home and she went back to using her maiden name while George moved into a boarding house. A year later, George would marry my great-grandmother Caroline Billingham.
Lillian moved on with her life as well, becoming a music teacher and offering her services as such in the local paper. Eventually she would remarry as well, wedding chauffeur Christian Stemhagen in 1924 and moving to South Broad Street. George and Lillian’s son Louis would eventually take Christian’s last name and become Louis Robert Stemhagen. It would appear that Lillian’s marriage to Christian Stemhagen ended sometime after 1930 as he is found in the census records of 1940 living in a rooming house alone and Lillian is living in her son’s household on Christoph Avenue with her new husband Andrew Szesze.
Louis Robert Stemhagen (Bentz) was working as a fireman in the State House in 1940 and was married to Marjorie (Sweet). The two had married in 1936 and had two sons by 1940, Robert and Richard. Louis died after his natural father, but before his mother, in August 1968. Marjorie passed away in May 1975. They are buried together in Greenwood Cemetery in Trenton. Their two sons both passed away in 2010.
Lillian, a widow since 1977, outlived Louis Robert by over a decade, dying in November 1981 in Trenton. Her early career as a music teacher led to future jobs as an organist and a choir director before her death. Like her son, she and her husband are buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Researching this family story has left me wondering if Louis Robert’s family ever knew of his actual father, of this entire family to which Louis and his descendants are related. I can only hope that they are, or at least, stumble upon this post and discover what I discovered.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.