Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Succession of Deaths in the Family - Sympathy Saturday

By all accounts Elvira Gerner was a strong woman.  She was the capable farmer's wife; the area midwife; the person neighbors called upon to prepare bodies for burial; and the mother of 16 children, all born alive and at home.  Strength was her character. 

February 1899 Obituary of Christian Gerner from Butler Citizen
Butler Citizen, February 23, 1899
I have no recorded or verbal history of her and her husband Fred's relationship with Fred's father, Christian Gerner.  When answering questions as informant for her husband's death certificate, Elvira left blank the spaces for the names of her father- and mother-in-law.  Does that indicate grief or sorrow causing absent-mindedness or a lack of knowledge?  If a lack of knowledge, then surely Fred and Elvira's family were not close to his father.  But we don't know either way.

And yet experienced Elvira may have been the person called upon in February, 1899, to prepare Christian for burial.  In fact, compassionate Elvira may have been the person at Christian's side as he struggled through and succumbed to pneumonia.

Christian was 79 when he died on February 18, 1899.  Death certificates had yet to be created so there's no way of knowing when the pneumonia began or how long a doctor had attended him.  Sacramento's The Daily Union of July 19, 1899, page 4, gives this information about congestive pneumonia.  "It is very apt to occur as the culminating difficulty of some long sickness, carrying off a great many old people and feeble people who have been invalids for some time.  In this disease the lungs seem to fill up and the weak vital forces are unable to throw off the accumulations."  Considering his age it is possible Christian could have had congestive pneumonia, but it's only conjecture.

As the oldest male in the family, Fred may have been the executor of Christian's estate but no will has surfaced to give indication of how Christian chose to govern his affairs after his death.  Neither do we know who notified the rest of the family and how if they weren't already at Christian's side.  To my knowledge, no details survive.

We have no way of knowing how long it was before the estate was settled and life returned to some semblance of normal for 46-year-old Elvira and her family:  there were 11 children living at home during this time.  Their ages ranged from 2 years to 25 years.  She and Fred were living in Parker Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania, no doubt close to the home where Christian died.

Obituary of Rebecca (Smith) Bartley in Butler Citizen
Butler Citizen, January 4, 1900
And then 10 months later came another death in the family.  This time is was Elvira's own mother, Rebecca (Smith) Bartley.  Rebecca died of stomach cancer on December 29, 1899, at the age of 80, leaving behind Dixon, her husband of over 60 years.  The months before her death must have been busy ones for Elvira.  Elvira's sister, Jane, lived at home but surely Elvira spent time helping both of her parents, especially tending to her mother during her illness.  Again, we have no idea how long cancer had ravaged Rebecca's body.  Perhaps her passing was a sweet  release from pain and suffering.

Death Notice of Jane Bartley in Butler Citizen
Butler Citizen, February 8, 1900
Less than two months later, on February 6, 1900, both Elvira and her father had cause to mourn another loss:  that of sister and daughter, Jane.  Jane had been the daughter who lived at home, the one who took care of her mother, Rebecca; the one who continued to take care of her aging father, Dixon.  Jane was just 52 when she succumbed to pneumonia.

For Elvira?  To lose two close family members in two months must have been heartbreaking.  Though she had a young family who needed her care and attention she surely mourned the losses.  As for Dixon?  Just four days after his daughter's death, on February 10, 1900, he wrote, or possibly rewrote, his will.    

Death was not finished with the Bartley household.  

Death Notice of Dixon Bartley in Butler Citizen
Butler Citizen, April 26, 1900
On April 23, 1900, Elvira's father, Dixon, passed away.  It was just a little over two months after his daughter Jane's death in February, and less than four month since his wife's death on December 29.  Cancer and old age were cited as the causes of death.

Even when we know death is imminent due to advanced age or illness; no matter how firm one's foundation of faith, we grieve the loss of loved-ones.  Losing three immediate family members in four months must certainly have filled Elvira with deep sorrow.  But from what we know she had a strong faith.  She also had a family with young children who needed her.  Elvira carried on. 

My sympathies to Elvira.


Copyright © 2014 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Hello Nancy, I so enjoyed reading about Elvira but what a difficult life she had. I'm full of admiration for her and all strong women.
    When my father died, the cause on the death certificate was recorded as pneumonia but prior to that he had suffered three strokes. The doctor at the hospital referred to pneumonia as ‘the old mans friend’ because it often ‘carries them away’ when they have had enough of living. It was hard to hear at the time, but in hindsight, it does make a lot of sense.

    1. Thanks for sharing what your doctor said about pneumonia, Barbara. I'd never heard that before. It would be very hard to hear as a close relative lay dying.

  2. There was little time to rebound emotionally, that's for sure. In telling about 3 deaths, you have painted a beautiful picture of Elvira. (And good for you in noticing this pattern -- now I wonder if I have missed something similar.)

    1. Thank you, Wendy. I'm sure I would not have noticed this pattern except that I saw all four names on the same page of the minister's record book (that one I beat to death with posts). I know it wasn't uncommon at that time to lose many family members over a period of weeks or months, and it would probably have been much harder to lose young, vibrant children. I think being a care-giver over a long period of time may be even harder.

  3. It speaks volumes that Elvira could carry on after all this in such a short time. Time and time again we show how resilient our ancestors could be. After finding similar tragic events in my search or reading about others, I often wonder if I could be as strong as Elvira in your story - I hope I never have to find out. Excellent post!

    1. Thank you, Christopher. Oh, me too, wondering how strong I could be. In many ways I think we have it fairly easy these days, though not always, of course. But I would hope I could be as strong as her. We never know until our mettle is tested.


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