Friday, March 11, 2011

Ellis Bickerstaff - Life and Death

Ellis Bickerstaff, my great-great-grandfather, has been on my mind lately. I don't know why. He was born in 1840 or 1841. I thought maybe I was thinking of him because he was born in March but looking at the 1900 census, it tells me he was born in April. Why ever he's on my mind, I decided to share a little about him.

Ellis was the third son and sixth or 7th child of William and Susan (Holmes) Bickerstaff. He was born in Jefferson County, Ohio. He was married three times. His first wife, Emma Nelson, is my great-great-grandmother. Ellis and Emma had four children before Emma died on May 1, 1878:
->Susan, born about 1862
->John, born about 1864
->Edward Jesse, born 27 April 1871
->Alice, born 27 April, 1871. Alice died at less than a month of age on May 21, 1871.

What little else I know about Ellis can almost be summed up in the following statements: He served in the Civil War. His occupation was carpenter. He died on June 28, 1907 and is buried in Union Cemetery, Steubenville, Ohio.

The Union Cemetery interment records give the following information:
Place of Death: McKeesport, PA
Cause of Death: Gun Shot
Date of Interment: 1907/07/01
Occupation: CO. G 157th O.V.I. He is interred in Union Cemetery, not with his family but in the GAR Section, Lot 3-16.

I went to the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) in search of a Steubenville obituary for Ellis Bickerstaff and found one in the Friday, July 5, 1907, edition of The Steubenville Weekly Herald-Star. Large headlines tell that Ellis shot himself, then give a description of the events. What a shock to read that news while sitting in the microfilm room of the Ohio Historical Society! Yes, I absolutely grieve for my ancestors, both those who died and those who were left alive after tragedies like this!

While searching last night, I found a more benign and less descriptive obituary on the front page of The Pittsburgh Press, Saturday, June 29, 1907, edition. There are slight discrepancies between the two articles. I doubt I'll ever know which is more accurate.

Ellis' granddaughter who is also my grandmother, Emma Bickerstaff Meinzen, would have been days away from turning 14 when Ellis died. Were Ellis' grandchildren shielded from this awful tragedy? Was it so gruesome and horrifying to think about that they, therefore, didn't?

I'm hoping that the bit of information about Ellis having lived in Austintown, Ohio for the three years just before his death may shed some light on the Bickerstaff property puzzle in Mineral Ridge, Ohio.

I often wonder what serving in a war does to a person's mind. Perhaps the images seen during combat cannot be erased or buried. Perhaps a troubled person imagines the only way to remove the images is by removing one's self from life. Maybe memories of the war didn't impact Ellis' decision to choose death. I have so many unanswered questions about so many ancestors.
From The Steubenville Weekly Herald-Star, Friday, July 5, 1907, p. 2, col. 5
SUICIDE Of Former Resident of Steubenville
At His Home in McKeesport--Veteran of the Civil War--Prosperous Contractor.

The many old friends of Ellis H. Bickerstaff, a native and a former well known resident of Steubenville, who has made his home at McKeesport, Pa., for the past 15 years, will be sorry to learn of his death which occurred Saturday by his own hand.

His mind weakened by ill health Mr. Bickerstaff shot himself at his home on Grandview avenue about 7 a.m. Saturday. He fired two shots, the first bullet going through his hat and lodging in the upper frame of the doorway in a rear room. Mrs. Bickerstaff was in the house when the shot was fired, and ran from the building. As she left the house she heard another shot. She and her daughter-in-law, Mrs. John Bickerstaff, who lives close by were afraid to enter the house and called a neighbor, who found Mr. Bickerstaff lying in a pool of blood. He died before nine o'clock.

Mr. Bickerstaff, who had been suffering from nervous trouble, arose about 3 o'clock Saturday morning and procured a revolver. His wife asked him for the weapon, but he refused to give it to her. Later, in his absence, a search for the weapon was made, but without success.

Relatives say that of late he had been demented, but that he was harmless. Eight years ago he had a similar attack. He was a prominent contractor. Three years ago he moved to Austintown, O., near Youngstown and three weeks ago returned to Mckeesport [sic] to reside. He owned several houses and was stopping with his son, awaiting the removal of a tenant from the house in which he shot himself. His goods had just been placed in the house.

Mr. Bickerstaff was born and raised in Steubenville and lived here till about 25 years ago when he removed to McKeesport. He was a veteran of the civil war and was about 68 years of age. He had been married three times and his last wife survives him. These children also survive: Edward Bickerstaff. Mrs. George Curry and Miss Flora Bickerstaff all of Steubenville; one sister, Mrs. John Nelson and three brothers, Louis, John and Augustine, also of this city, a step-son, John, also survives.

Deceased was a member of the M. E. church and of Co. D, 157th O.V.I.

The remains of Mr. Bickerstaff were brought in on No. 10 Monday and taken to the residence of Mrs. George Curry, on South Fifth street, where the funeral services were held at 4 p.m. to-day, Rev. Boyer officiating.

From The Pittsburgh Press, Saturday, June 29, 1907, p. 1, column 6
Ellis Bickerstaff, a McKeesport Carpenter, Shot Himself in the Head

Ellis H. Bickerstaff, a carpenter, living on Grandview avenue extension, just over the McKeesport line, in Versailles township, shot and killed himself at 7 o'clock this morning.

His wife had just crossed the street to the residence of their son, John, when she heard two shots, and rushing back home found her husband had shot himself in the head.

She rushed to the house of Thomas Stewart, her nearest neighbor, and then Dr. W. C. McCune was summoned, but he could do nothing, as Bickerstaff was almost dead when the physician arrived. He expired a very few minutes later.

No reason whatever could be given for the suicide. Mrs. Bickerstaff said her husband appeared to be as usual when he arose this morning. He was not morose and had no cause for despondency. He was 68 years old and had lived at McKeesport for many years.


  1. How sad...

    I also blogged about one of my relatives who committed suicide this week.

    Sometimes, they just stay on your mind, don't they?

  2. As Dee says, very sad. My G G G grandfather supposedly committed suicide in his 70's in 1858 - his death certificate gives his cause of death as "drowning, supposed suicide". I found newspaper reports in the library in Perth and sat blowing my nose quietly over someone I had never known about. He drowned in the River Tay and his family said "he hadn't been himself of late" so I guess he was suffering from Alzheimer's. I regularly pass the little house where he & his wife brought up 12 children and always think of him.

  3. My name is Tanya Nelson Lindsey and my father was Joseph H. Nelson, my grandfather was William T. Nelson and his father was John T. Nelson and mother was Elizabeth Bickerstaff Nelson. I have followed this trail and believe that Eliabeth Bickerstaff Nelson was my great grandmother. I would love to know more about that side of the family. I am researching both my paternal and maternal families. Anything you might know, or could point me to would be great. I can be reached at

    Thanks for documenting your family (and mine).


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