Oh Susannah! A 107 Year Mystery
by Jenine E. Trayer
“Yep, we are related,” said Marlene with an enormous grin.
“You’re kidding me!” I replied. How interesting it is that blood finds blood, I thought. Marlene and I met each other as adults with no realization that we were connected.
Marlene went on to explain that we share a 3rd great grandfather – George G. Bentz. As a result, his daughter, Susannah Bentz, was my 2nd great grandmother. Marlene has been into genealogy for years and has made significant contributions in recording graveyard residents in our tri-county area. She has the mega research to back up any claim she makes, so when she told me of our shared lineage – I knew it to be true. I dutifully added Susannah to my family tree and set about getting the documentation to back up my own family books. Now, Marlene isn’t your standard genealogist – she is also a story collector. We have a shared love of going deep into the history and the lives of the people we research, and we both enjoy visiting the graveyards to take pictures of the tombstones and add the photos to our individual family collections. As we stood in Barrens Salem Union Church Cemetery on a bright summer day, Marlene showed me the gravestone of Susannah’s husband – Cornelius Baker.
“Where is Susannah?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” said Marlene. “There’s no marker for her and I ought to know, one of my projects was researching the church records and recording this cemetery.* Some say she remarried and that she isn’t here. Maybe with a new husband. Others say she is here, that they just never marked the grave. Regardless, she’s not in the church records. I don’t know where she is. It is a mystery.”
Can you hear me rubbing my hands together? Can you see me grinning? I just so love mysteries.
There are folks in your family tree who sit quietly, watching you plod through inaccurate records, wrong attachments, and what seems like 6 million Jacobs. Then, there are those that no matter what you are doing, or whose tree you are researching, decide that it is high time you pay attention to them and insert themselves somehow, some way, in your daily schedule, even if you haven’t looked at that particular family tree in months – or in my case — years. They have a mystery, and they have decided that you are the person that is going to solve it.
That was Susannah.
And she haunted me. Oh! Not all the time! Here and there. Life is busy. Five years would pass before I got back to Susannah and figure out where the heck she went. Ancestors do not vaporize – they just play hide and seek. Now and then I would ask Marlene if she’d found anything further on Susannah.
Susannah was an interesting character. A spitfire. Brave and courageous. A woman, at least for one day in her life, to be greatly admired.
Clowns to The Left of Me – Jokers to the Right – Here I am – Stuck in the Middle With You**
June 27th, 1863 dawned with a light mist across the rolling Barrens – a valley of green farms sliding easily into their growing season, clutches of woods brimming with life strangely silent as dawn struggled over the horizon. Rain the night before left the land smelling sweet, and morning came late under the overcast sky. Susannah moved silently through the near empty house into the yard out front, stoking the fire in the brick oven outside – she was baking bread today. As much as she could. She knew that the welfare of her family depended on it. She’d spent the night working by sputtering candles – praying that the dough would rise right. It wouldn’t make do to have this bread fall flat.
An electrified shiver ran down her spine. For a moment she forgot to breathe. The fear that they weren’t safe clawed at her throat. What if it all went wrong? gnawed at the back of her mind like a rat chewing on a maple stick. Out in the yard she patted the old horse and whispered in his ear. He had a part to play today. Yes, he did.
No. They were fine. She knew that. In her gut she knew it. She had done the right thing and she would face this day with as much courage as she could possibly muster. Moving inside she kneaded the dough for the second time. Absently, she stroked the handle of the butcher on the table.
Crawling. They were everywhere. 8,000 confederate soldiers flooded into a 30 mile radius in less than 24 hours. They were in Dillsburg to the north, 9 miles away, and down south in York – just 13 miles. They were in Hanover, more southern still – 21 miles. And in the town of Rossville, just by-n-by, they’d taken over the station. Everywhere.
There were rumors. Some said the confederates weren’t so bad. Treated you nice-like. Offered to pay you with their phony money. Others, though, they said that they could be mean. Burn you out. Defile you. Kill your children. Steal all you had. It was hard to know which rumors were true. Some? All? None? At 31, Susannah fully understood the risk. Sweat trickled coldly down the small of her back. A week ago she’d put a plan into place. Her part was the last to carry out.
Flour caked on her apron, her hair stuffed under cloth so the color of it didn’t show.
She slipped that old butcher knife in a hidden pocket on the underside of her apron. She’d stitched it just for that purpose a few days ago. She hoped that she wouldn’t have to use it; but, this was war.
The dough on its last rise, she re-checked everything – the house, the barn, the yard. Nothing. Not a single fresh chicken feather. Not a piece of clothing that didn’t belong to her, not a scrap of extra food and definitely not a weapon other than the hidden knife. The only thing prominently visible — a large, empty basket she’d made for herself sitting on the front porch steps, and a garden with herbs coming into season – too soon for the other vegetables.
She stood in the doorway.
Willing her heart to slow.
It wouldn’t be long now. She could feel it. Again her eyes skimmed what they would see and she was satisfied.
Just herself, the old horse, that basket, and a half rotted quilt thrown over the bed.
They came after most of the loaves were out of the oven. Because it was overcast she wasn’t exactly sure of the time. She knew that the aroma would draw them, she just didn’t know how long it would take.
“You there! Old woman!” and the tight exchange began. They went through the house, the barn, and checked the back woods. She lied. And she lied. And she lied.
“No, I have no husband. I am a widow. He died in an accident on a neighbor’s farm two summers ago. No, I have no children. I am alone. Sadly, I have not been blessed with such a treasure. I bake bread for market and the neighbors. No, I have no livestock other than the old horse out there in the yard. He and I – that is all there is. I buy the supplies I need with the bread I bake. See? I just finished it for sale today. That is how I survive. Take it. You can have it.”
When one of the soldiers made a move to plow through her garden she stepped forward, her hand quickly grasping the handle of the butcher knife hidden beneath her apron; but, she didn’t pull it out. Not yet. It was just a garden. Not worth dying for. Instead, she said, “You there! You stay out of my garden. Nothing yet come in. Look close and see for yourself. You don’t have to tromp through it and ruin what ain’t there. If you come back around harvest, what will there be for you to eat then if you destroy it now? Take the bread. Use my market basket there on the porch to carry it. Go on and take it!”
They gathered up the bread and discussed the horse, determining that it wasn’t worth the trouble of taking. One soldier muttered that they should just drop the bag of bones where it stood, startled when Susannah whipped the knife out from under her apron brandishing it wildly, slicing the blade through the air like her German Berserker ancestors. “Take the bread!” she bellowed. “Leave the old horse be! It is God that comes between thee and me!” In all honesty, Susannah wasn’t sure if they meant herself or the horse. But, as God was her witness, she wasn’t taking any chances for both their sakes.
The soldiers laughed. Shook their heads. Someone mentioned with crumbs falling from his mouth that it was good bread, even though the baker was old and obviously touched in the head.
And they were gone.
Susannah watched them from the front porch until they were only specks in the road, gripping the butcher knife in a shaking, sweating hand. Finally, when they rounded the bend, she sat down in a billow of dirty apron and dusty dress on the porch step, her stiff fingers slowly uncramping. The blade thudded softly on the wooden boards of the porch and skittered into the grass beyond the rail. She bowed her head, closed sticky eyes, and clasped both hands over her heart in gratitude.
The soldiers did not come back, nor did they go down the road and head up to what is known today as Ski Roundtop. In the telling of this story, you must understand that the mountains here are not like the great Rockies or the southern Smokies. From the air they look like the humps of the Lock Ness monster, soft and undulating. Here, for seven days in the fragrant woods, protected by that gnarled old stump of a mountain, hid Susannah’s husband and three children with two wagons of supplies, all her livestock, and her most beloved possessions.
In the early morning of the 29th of June and the afternoon of the 30th of June (depending upon who was stationed where) the confederate soldiers in Susannah’s area received word that they should advance to Gettysburg. They cleared out of York without harm; but, battled with Union soldiers in the streets of Hanover on the 30th with a toll of 350 dead (only 21 miles away from Susannah), wounded or missing, and marched an exhausting trek through Dillsburg — this time robbing the stores and the post office, and stealing all the horses as they headed toward the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, with more than 51,000 casualties, including 7,863 dead. Susannah would learn later that she’d brandished her butcher knife at the infamous J.E.B. Stuart’s Calvary.
It is unclear on precisely which day Susannah took on the horsemen – it could have been anywhere from the 27th of June through the 1st of July, as cited by the historical accounts in the endnotes of this article. As she had only one visit by the soldiers, the correct date may actually be the 1st of July, as Rossville is smack in between York and Dillsburg, and the Calvary moved from York, through Rossville, and into Dillsburg en masse on that day on their way to Gettysburg. Susannah lived just outside of Rossville. A few of the soldiers could have broken off from the column in search of animals and food, scouting a particular radius as the men moved along. However, as the confederates appear to be milling around in the area of Dillsburg and Rossville during the entire 7 day period – it is difficult to tell.
Susannah’s family returned by the 3rd of July to their home because her son, Daniel, then aged 5, recounted to all who would listen later in his life that they heard the cannon fire of Pickett’s charge on the 3rd of July as he stood on his mother’s front porch. He told the story so often through his 80-odd year lifetime that it was even mentioned in his obituary, the only change being that he was 8 years old in the newspaper clipping rather than 5.
Life moved forward for the Baker family after that fateful day. Susannah birthed a total of 7 children who all lived into adulthood and had children of their own. She survived the death of her husband, Cornelius, now interred at Barrens Salem Union Cemetery in York County.
And then she disappeared.
For 107 years.
Genealogy Interrupted – The Search for Susannah
The mind is a funny thing. You present yourself with a genealogy mystery and thoughts prick at it repeatedly. Shaking it. Turning it upside down. Relating other things to it and then pushing them away. Five years after Marlene and I stood in that graveyard on that pleasantly warm day, I found myself wondering once again what happened to Susannah; but, this time I was determined to ferret out the answer. Not too long ago the state of Pennsylvania opened up its death certificate collection much to the delight of many a genealogist. Oodles of mysteries could now be solved (or be created where there wasn’t one to begin with) and Marlene and I both celebrated our good fortune.
Susannah wasn’t there.
You have got to be kidding me.
How could there not be a death certificate?
We were both disappointed. One night I sat down, determined once and for all to figure out what the heck happened to Susannah. I spent all evening and into the wee hours of the morning going wide – a term Marlene uses for checking all children and all siblings. I checked every census of every sibling (argh), and all of her 7 children, all of their spouses, and all of their children (just in case she’d moved in with a grandchild late in life). I checked public on-line trees. I dug into obit research (hear me weeping – south central Pennsylvania newspapers of this tri-county area are still not on-line even though the capital city of the state is here). Confusing, too, was that my Susannah (funny how you put ownership rights on them) seemed to have a clone running around at the same time with the same first name and maiden name. Born one year earlier than my Susannah; but, with a different list of children – therefore there were two Susannah’s with a Bentz surname born a year apart. Every time I thought I’d finally found her? It was that other Susannah. To get the obit with all the information, I needed a date. Without the date – no internment information (in this case) could be found. And, without the date I couldn’t travel to the York Historical Society and look in the microfiche of the prominent newspapers of the time, nor could I go through the archives for any will or probate information without a date, or near date, of death.
Bang head on desk here.
This is ridiculous.
I went out on my front porch and looked at the starry sky. I took a deep breath and I said to no one in particular, “I will find out what happened to you, Susannah. I know I will.” I went back into the house, sat down at the computer, and thought. It was not logical that the death certificate was not there. Granted, she could be one of those odd ones that the record never got transcribed, or was lost; but, something told me this wasn’t the case. I’d pulled several others that night without a problem. There was one thing I’d noticed – as with all genealogy records – these new records also had errors – transcription errors, written errors, lousy handwriting, and witnesses who didn’t know bupkis about their own relatives.
It’s a given.
You get used to it.
So, I said to myself, “Let’s assume someone, somewhere, made a mistake. And, let’s assume that even though I set my search wide enough to account for that – it didn’t work. I will misspell the name as many ways as I can possibly think of, and try that.”
Bingo! First shot out the gate. It was a transcription error based on horrendous handwriting, both on Susannah’s last name AND on her parents’ last names (father and maiden mother) – which is why my search wasn’t working the way I needed it to. And what a shock it was when I read where she had gone. No wonder no one knew where she was. It was a family secret. They just said they didn’t know where she went because where they put her was an embarrassment. During my research, I could not understand why, in old age, Susannah was not with one of her children – it was absolutely common for the times and I’d found many other folks in my tree that way. One daughter was taking care of a senior parent already– her husband’s – so she would have had her hands full. The lot of them must have gotten together and voted, is all I can think of, because
They put her in the Harrisburg State Lunatic Hospital.
And you know what those places were like back then.
After hitting that print button for Susannah’s death certificate (it now being 5 in the morning) I texted Marlene that I’d finally found her. I was so excited that I just couldn’t wait. I’m sure Marlene was not particularly amused.
Susanna Bentz Baker died of dementia in 1909 at the age of 73. Perhaps she was violent – perhaps not. She was under the care of the doctor who signed the certificate from July of that year until her death in September. It is uncertain if she only entered the hospital in July, or if she was committed before. Five years after her husband’s death she is listed as a servant in a stranger’s home, and there is no census information covering the time from the servant listing to her death – a total of 9 years. When her husband passed, she would have been about 59 years of age. The next census after her husband’s death shows her at 63 functioning in the role of a servant. What circumstances led to the estrangement of mother and children after the death of the father, forcing Susannah to take on the role of hired help? Or, perhaps, being the independent individual that we know she was, it is possible she refused to live with any one of them – opting to make her own way now that she had the opportunity and freedom to do so.
Her place of internment is still not known; but, now I have solid avenues to pursue. Although the death certificate said she was removed to Dillsburg, she may not be in the same cemetery as her husband as there are several graveyards in the area.
I will find her.
And I will put her story to rest.
Sometimes, we who live in the present experience difficult hurtles in our lives. We tend to be somewhat narcissistic – forgetting that those who have gone before us have also struggled – and won the greatest battle on their life path. Stories of our ancestors, particularly if they displayed some kind of mental prowess, compassion, unconditional love, courage, or fortitude of spirit can light the way in our own dark night of the soul, reminding us that we, too, hold the keys to our own destiny, and we can win just as those who have gone before us. Too often we look at history as facts and figures and forget the humanity – not realizing the power of the individual chronicle – the uniqueness of that one life – and the gifts that their actions have given us.
Thank you, Susannah.
Sources and Endnotes:
- The historical time-line of this piece is a bit garbled; however, it does tell the reader of the thefts in Dillsburg and an assumption of how many men marched or road through the streets of that town as seen by an eyewitness of the time. Local History of Dillsburg, PA by A. N. Eslinger – (originally a locally printed chapbook now found on-line) “On June 28th, 18G3, part of the Confederate Army came into Dillsburg on Sunday afternoon. This was part of Gen. Ewel’s Corps. They were under the command of Col. Jenkins. They camped overnight just a short distance south of the borough. They sent squads of their soldiers into Dillsburg for provisions, such as bread, meat, coffee, and tobacco, and offered to pay for it in Confederate script, but it was worthless to our people. They left the camp on Monday morning the 29th, after taking all the good horses in the borough and from the farmers all around the county. On the following Wednesday, July 1, 1863, the battle of Gettysburg opened in the cannonading could be heard distinctly and Dillsburg, and on the same day Stewart’s Calvary passed through Dillsburg. They numbered probably about 8000 under the command of Gen. Fitz Hugh Lee and Gen. Wade Hampton. They robbed the stores and Dillsburg, and the post office of all the money and stamps and even the postmaster’s overcoat, and all the goods they could find in the stores. And burned the Garrison in Carlisle while Hampton led his brigade about a mile outside of the town and camped at Mumper’s farm. Before morning they got word to come to Gettysburg immediately so they all left during the night for the battlefield. This was the last of the Confederate Army in Dillsburg and it was a happy riddance to our town and the vicinity.” —http://www.archive.org/stream/localhistoryofdi00esli/localhistoryofdi00esli_djvu.txt
- Weather on the days of this story – “A Gettysburg man by the name of Rev. Dr. Michael Jacobs, a math professor at what was then called Pennsylvania College, had a strong interest in weather and recorded his observations three times a day, every day, even during the battle. As a result, the “Meteorology of the Battle“, was published, and it gives very specific details on the weather at the Battle of Gettysburg and the role it may have played in battle. Susannah lived approximately 25 miles from Gettysburg. “The rain continued at intervals until Saturday, June 27th at 7 a.m. the precipitation being 1.2 inches.” The following two days being overcast with an average temperature rising slowly into the 70’s. The 28th and 29th were overcast. http://www.gdg.org/Research/Other%20Documents/Newspaper%20Clippings/v6pt1l.html http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/battle-of-gettysburg-150th-ann/14824506
- http://www.yorklinks.net/cw/ – on June 27, 1863, the Confederate Army marched on York County soil. Entering Western York County along present-day Lincoln Hwy., Route 462 and East Berlin Roads, an entire division of rebels entered York County. Hanover Junction rail station was raided on June 27. On June 28, York became the largest northern town occupied by the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Also on June 28 a skirmish was fought in Wrightsville. The burning of a mile-long covered bridge halted the Confederate advance. On June 30 the two opposing carveries clashed on the streets of the town of Hanover in southwestern York County – a daylong battle that involved over 6500 soldiers and resulted in over 350 killed, wounded, or missing. The Confederates were then recalled to Cashtown and Gettysburg.
- Had all gone according to plan, over 30,000 Confederate soldiers would have been in York County on June 30, instead they were sent to Gettysburg for a battle of epic proportions that would unfold in the first days of July. Oddly enough, nothing in York was burned or destroyed other than a covered bridge to stop their approach during the brief occupation. This most likely due to General Lee’s standing orders: “Lee gave strict orders for his army to minimize any negative impacts on the civilian population. Food, horses, and other supplies were generally not seized outright, although quartermasters reimbursing Northern farmers and merchants with Confederate money were not well received. Various towns, most notably York, Pennsylvania, were required to pay indemnities in lieu of supplies, under threat of destruction.” –source — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Gettysburg
- Susannah Bentz – Born 30 January 1836 in Warrington, York, PA. Death: 30 September 1909 – historical source – death certificate.
- Pickett’s Chargewas an infantry assault ordered by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee against Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg in the state of Pennsylvania during the American Civil War.
- Susannah’s Civil War Story was told to Marlene Badger in an interview with John Baker, son of John Rae Baker.
- The Harrisburg State Hospital was known as Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital from 1851 to 1937. It’s rumored to be the site of some violent poltergeist activity. The hospital was closed in 2006 and the building currently is used for office space. The movie “Girl, Interrupted” starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie was filmed here.
- Marlene’s Research — http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/bentz/geneal/bentz/barrens.html
**Stuck in the Middle with You – Steelers Wheel (Song)