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Oh Susannah! Genealogy Interrupted Bentz Baker #genealogy

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.

More secrets!

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.”  —
  • 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.
  • – 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 —
  • 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.


**Stuck in the Middle with You – Steelers Wheel (Song)



Genealogy Family Secrets

Researching Indirect Relatives May Provide
Unusual Stories Not to be Missed

Today’s Post:  Dead Line Child — William Byron Baker — 22 May 1930 to 29 February 1936 — Fact that can Read Like Fiction
By J. B. Trayer

When Marlene Badger first started showing me her hard researched do’s and don’ts of genealogy she made one point perfectly clear — Always Go Wide, meaning just don’t focus on your direct blood line alone, take the time to gather information on siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., of your direct relative.  Family Group Sheets are imperative for a variety of reasons, especially when you can’t find something on your direct ancestor, yet plenty appears for a brother or sister in genealogical data.  Somewhere within their information you may discover what you need for your own direct-line research.

There is another advantage — a purely emotional one. Once you encourage yourself to go wide, you’ll find a plethora of interesting stories that can be added to your own collection on the general family name.  Sometimes you’ll get so emotionally attached to these indirect relatives that you just can’t seem to stop yourself from researching further, even if you know in your heart the information has no relevance to your own direct line.  You become caught in the story they left behind, entranced by something… a strange newspaper article, a haunting photo, or a group of census records that just don’t add up and the mystery carries you along until you have satisfied yourself with the conclusion.  This is especially so with children who shared this earth for a short period of time.  They won’t leave a direct blood line for you to follow; yet, there is a part of you when you find them that just won’t quit.  They need to be acknowledged, and you find yourself putting just as much importance on them as your own direct relative.

Every family has stories and anecdotes of indirect relatives, and in the telling over the years, you can bet that a great deal of the embellishment has no basis in fact.  Yet, they are fun stories, interesting facts, or tearful memories that make up the tapestry of your combined family history.  Most importantly, this history belongs to you, and if you are so lucky, your children and great grandchildren.  When you are interested in genealogy it is most often not for yourself alone that you research — it is for those to come.  Your eyes are always on the future, even though your nose is buried in the past.

When writing down a family story realize that you may not always know the right answers, and you can couch your verbiage in a way that explains this very fact.  Newspaper articles, obituaries, diaries, census records, wills, etc., can help support what you’ve been told.  It is okay to draw conclusions as long as you are clear this is your analysis.  Someone else in the family may study the same story and get an entirely different end scenario of the events.  That’s okay.  People make judgments based on their beliefs, their background, and their current emotional situation in life.  These conclusions are not always logical.  Things like religion, politics, and self-esteem can, and will, pummel your story from another relative’s point of view.  Truth is an enigma, after all.

Such is the case of William Byron Baker, a little boy who died tragically of an unknown malady at the age of six.  Billy would have been my uncle, had he lived to adulthood.  His brief sojourn here on planet earth and in the Baker family left a lasting impression on all who knew him, and these memories are those I heard from several older family members as I grew up.  Billy came to the forefront of my interest this past month when I decided I would drag out that proverbial shoebox of stuff I hadn’t gotten around to organizing in my family notebooks.  Sometimes, you are so concentrated on making headway on your direct line pedigree that you leave the more recent historical information you have to gather a bit of dust.  You already know the information, even have a few photos, so the mystery that might drive you isn’t really there.  We forget, I think, that just because we know this information, others in the family do not.  I’d promised myself that I would scan a large number of pictures into my gedcom file, and update my tree on-line as well.  As I was working through the photos — scanning, annotating, and inserting them into my private tree and the one on-line — I came across several of Billy that I never really paid attention to.

Hmmm, I thought, as I looked at some of the snapshots.  So…just who did have a camera in 1934?  Several of the photos weren’t professional.  I wondered who, in my family at that time, could actually afford a camera.  And, how interesting, that the only photos I have of those years in that family unit…are of Billy or have Billy in them with his mother and brother (my grandmother and father).  I realized that I’d never written Billy’s story for my genealogy notebooks, about his unusual meeting with death, nor what happened…afterwards.  My mind drifted to what I remembered hearing about Billy.

The Story of Billy Byron Baker

William Byron Baker at approximately 5 years of age

August.  Sweltering.  I am a teenager not yet driving and my normally over-protective mother has allowed me to ride my bike across town to frequent the local pool on one condition — I must always check in with my Grandfather Baker who lives one block away from the swimming club.  I have no problem with this.  My Grandpa Sam is pretty cool, even if he is in his early eighties.  He gives me rock hard cookies he baked himself, homemade iced tea, and pocket change for the pool vending machine on a regular basis.  He also shares with me, that blistering summer, stories of family and life in the early part of the 1900’s that I will take with me to my grave.  I don’t realize this then, of course, I’m too busy relishing my new found freedom from a West Virginia bred Scorpio mother who never did lose her distrust of her Pennsylvania relatives and co-workers.  Oh yeah.

We always sat in the kitchen, my grandfather and I.  He had his chair, facing the back door.  I had mine, angled toward the white wooden cupboards filled with a variety of mismatched dishes.  The cupboards were particularly special in this house because they were hand painted by my grandmother and decorated with distelfinks of her own design long before I was born.  Although she passed a year or two before, her presence could still be felt with those magickal birds of good will.

Sunny.  That kitchen, even though it was positioned primarily in the shade of an old cherry tree.  It is how I remember those afternoons, though.  Bright.  Cheerful.  Plastic tablecloth sticking to your elbows.  Dappled light.  That funky, country smell that I still don’t know where it comes from; but, if you’ve ever experienced it, you know what I mean.  Its not bad.  Just…different.

And stories.

But, it wasn’t until I really dove into genealogy that I experienced a strange clicking moment.  You know, like when you are turning the dial on a safe and suddenly the combination softly snicks and the door swings magically open and a true treasure evokes a jaw dropping moment?  Like that.


William Byron Baker Studio Photo 1934/1935

There’s so much I could tell you about Billy — William Byron Baker — and these things are always mixed with poignant sadness.  I never met Billy.  How could I?  He died in 1936 at the age of 6; yet, his death resounded through the family with such heartbreak that it resonates in my own life.  Indeed, I deal with the results of Billy’s death now, seventy-five years later, with the behavior of my father, a man whose fear of loss is so astronomical that he sits paralyzed by it in a big, old recliner, watching the western channel all day.  A thousand times, it seems, I’ve heard various stories about William Byron.  My Dad even has a toy that belonged to him.  A wooden monkey that climbs up and down a stick.  It sits safely in a drawer near my father’s chair.  It is one of the few things he remembers these days — Our Lady Dementia his only mistress.

The short saga of Billy’s death is very unusual. It is a tale of death, justice, and perhaps…revenge.  My sources are from two people — my grandfather and my father — told at different times by father; but, so painful, only once by my grandfather.

On that summer afternoon.

In August.

In the sanctity of the Baker family kitchen.

“Neighbor boy hit him with a rock in the back,” said my grandfather.  “Never healed.”  He shook his head.  “Left a hole that just kept getting larger.  By the time he died, it was as big as a softball.  To this day we don’t know what it was.  Doctors couldn’t do anything.  Your grandmother even went to a Braucher.”

“What’s that?” I asked, as I crunched through one of those concrete snickerdoodles my grandfather loved to make.

“A Pow-Wow.  Faith healer of sorts,” he answered.  “Your great grandmother was one; but, she was long dead, so your grandmother found a man to come.”  He shook his head again, his faded blue eyes staring at a tragic mental scene I could not see.  “They couldn’t do anything, though.  They said we called him too late.”

“What happened to the nasty boy who hit Billy with the rock?” I asked, my own fury slowly burning at the injustice of it all.  “How dare that mean boy hurt Billy!  Just a little boy!  Only six years old!” I said.  “As my father tells it,” I went on.  “He and Billy were outside the house, and this awful bully ran up behind Billy and slugged him with the rock square in the back.”

My grandfather nodded.  In the Baker family there has always been a lot unsaid on any subject.  It isn’t a gossipy family, in general, this unit.  Almost entirely German and Scottish stock, closed mouths on personal business has always been the norm.  It went, unsaid then, that day with my grandfather, my Dad’s entire telling of the story.  My father, at the time, was aged nine.  He was supposed to look out for Billy.  That was his job in the pecking order of the family, the others available for baby duty being older, male, and uninterested in watching out for their littlest brother, who to hear my father tell it, was viewed as a burden by his older siblings.  Until my father began to lose his mind, he carried the guilt for not standing up for Billy his entire adulthood.  He was supposed to protect Billy.  He didn’t.

All this went unsaid.  My grandfather knew the guilt my father carried.  He made no mention of it.  My attention drew back to my grandfather, who was strangely silent until I looked straight at him.  I was hoping that he would answer my question of what happened to the bully.  He didn’t.

Instead, he said, “All the neighbors made fun of your grandmother for calling that Pow-Wow in… you know, when your great grandfather died, D.B.?  They burned everything.  All of his personal things.  All his papers.  They say the Johnstown Flood was a terrible thing.  That was back in ’36.  Your grandmother was never the same, after that.  Took a lot of life out of her.”

I could understand the loss of a child and my grandmother’s heartbreak.  How the flood that occurred almost three hours away driving distance and my great grandfather’s papers related to Billy, I wasn’t sure.  Indeed, at the time, I didn’t know a thing about Johnstown or the horrific disaster that occurred there.  By now I’d lost interest, itching to get to my friends, swimming fun and maybe an ice cream or two.  As I peddled down the street toward the distant sound of splashing and delighted squeals I forgot all about the morose story of little Billy, his wasting disease, or my father’s small part in it.

Lottie Grace Baker, Living Relative, William Byron Baker and Skip the dog.

My question of what happened to the boy who threw the rock went unanswered for thirty-eight years.

Now, you might think that my grandfather, at eighty, was just letting his mind wander; but, don’t you kid yourself.  He lived to be 100, and stayed in his home taking care of himself into his late nineties.   Unlike my own father now at approximately the same age as when my grandfather first told me Billy’s short story, his mind was needle sharp.  I attributed his side-dance verbal thread of Billy, D.B., and the flood to the way conversations sometimes go with human stream of consciousness speech (something my entire family is in a habit of doing) and thought nothing of it.  After awhile, I forgot all about it.

In the ensuing years I remembered pieces of the conversation with my grandfather that day for a different reason.  He’d mentioned the Pow-Wow man and that my great grandmother had practiced.  Curious I began to do research and eventually found a man to teach me.  In the meantime, I also learned that my Great Grandfather — D.B. Baker (my grandfather’s father) — was quite a character as well as a graduate from Dickenson College.  In his lifetime he wrote a book, sold textbooks, farmed, and taught school.  His best friends were judges and bankers, politicians and such — let me be clear about this — of a small town.  He had a very varied net of interest — including the occult, and wrote copious letters to relatives in Germany to further his research.  Which is probably why his sister burned all his papers.  This was another story I picked up that summer, verified by my father when he still had his wits about him.  Don’t panic, though.  When I say the word — occult — I’m talking about astrology, phrenology, healing herbs, Braucherei (Pow-Wow) etc. — not devil worship.  These subjects, at the time, were all lumped together under the word — occult, and so for the sake of historical accuracy — we’ll just keep the same label.

Fast forward to 2009.  Dementia patients go through stages which are varied according to personality type.  There are periods of rage or at best anger, normalcy, crystal clarity of the past, and a return to childish behavior, etc.; but, no retention of the day before.  It is as if the hippocampus takes a vacation for long periods of time and the information of the now doesn’t follow the bridge to the long-term memory banks.  This means that you never know what is going to come out of the patient’s mouth.

We are sitting at the dinner table — my father, my husband, and some of my adult children.  We are talking about history.  My father, who takes three hours to eat a meal (no kidding, he chews in ratcheted slow motion) looks up from his plate and says, “You know, so-and-so that hit Billy with that rock?  Rock as big as your fist.  He died in that flood.”

“What flood, Pop?” asked my husband.

My father gave him an irritated are-you-stupid? look.  “Johnstown!  The Johnstown flood!”

I glanced from my father to my husband, who passed me a silent what-the-heck expression.  “Wait,” I said.  “How did the kid who hit Billy with the rock die in the Johnstown flood?  Lemoyne isn’t anywhere near Johnstown.”

“The boy moved,” said my father.  “He hit Billy with the rock!” he said, shaking his fork at no one in particular.  “Billy died.  That family sold everything and took off within the month.  Good riddance to bad rubbish.  They were a crude lot.  Violent people.   Went to Johnstown.  Nasty bastard was dead in no time flat, like Billy.  He got what he deserved, just like old D. B. said he would. ”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked.

My father shrugged.  “You didn’t need to know.”

And just like that, I heard a snicking sound in my head.  And my jaw dropped.

You see, my Grandfather Sam (the original story teller) was a pretty slick fellow indeed.  He was always careful what he said and to whom he said it and how he said it.  That Baker thing of no-gossip?  Grandpa Sam certainly understood that if he told a teenager unusual facts they might drift back to her mother who (unlike most of the family) couldn’t normally keep a secret to save her soul, and who may not approve of the unveiling of said knowledge, let alone how it would go through the rest of the family like a Tsunami unlike the world has ever seen.  And so he said nothing of D.B.’s prediction that day.  Nor the untimely demise of the bully.  My mother simply wouldn’t have approved.  Instead, he gave me side-step data, and if I was smart enough, and I thought about it long enough, I would eventually put it together myself.  D.B. had made other predictions during his lifetime that have come true, including the idea of cell phones, television, and something like Skype — no kidding — and remember, he lived before Star Trek.


I didn’t think this was a prediction, and to this day I’m certain there’s more to it than that.  D.B. (Grandpa Sam’s father) was known to have a tremendous temper.  When you look at D.B.?  Think of a Banty Rooster on crack (except he didn’t do drugs), and that was only when he was angry in the key of minor.  Major fury would make a category five hurricane look like a pansy attempt at destruction.  As a grandparent myself, invested in the lives of my children…I wouldn’t stand down at the death of a grandchild.

I don’t think he did, either.


Historical Information:  William Byron Baker (22 May 1930 to 29 February 1936)
Samuel Cornelius Baker (13 June 1891 to 20 September 1991) Billy’s Father
Lottie Grace Knaub Baker (28 July 1891 to 10 March 1971) Billy’s Mother
Living Family Member:  Brother, my father
Daniel Bentz Baker (D.B.) (10 April 1859 to 14 May 1940)

Story Location: Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, USA

Burial Site of aforementioned family members: Dillsburg Cemetery, US Route 15, Dillsburg, PA.

Johnstown Flood: On March 17, 1936, Johnstown experienced a devastating flood caused by heavy runoff from melting snow and three days of rain.  The 1889 flood is not the only flood in Johnstown’s history that caused significant loss of life and property damage. The most famous of these occurred in 1936 and 1977.  Source:

Distelfink: Stylized gold finch (bird) used primarily in Pennsylvania Dutch artwork symbolizing luck, success, and happiness.  Distelfink means thistle-finch in German European and painting them on birth certificates, marriage certificates, hex signs, and home furniture was a common practice in South Central Pennsylvania.

How This Story Relates To Your Own Work
And that’s how I left the end of the story that I recorded — open.  The reader, depending upon his or her own background will now be left to draw their own conclusions.  What did D.B. do?  Did he take his political and family connections and put them to use by so denigrating the bully’s family that they picked up and moved the month of Billy’s death?  Only to vacate into the arms in one of the worst disaster’s of Pennsylvania history?  Or, did D.B. focus his intent on justice in a different way?  Those with more colorful imaginations will draw one conclusion from the belly of mystery and magick.  Those with a belief in an avenging God will think another.  What doesn’t change are the few facts we have:

The kid hit Billy with a rock.
Billy died.
The bully moved.
The bully died within the month in a terrible disaster.

The genealogical facts we have are Billy’s death date and the date of the Johnstown flood.  Upon research, we find the flood date fits the memories of both story tellers.  We tie the flood to the event of Billy’s death through two first person accounts through their narratives.  We also have pictures of Billy, which help to boost the story and give the reader an emotional tie to the child.

Too, Billy’s story is actually two stories — you read about Billy in 1936, and you read about memories of the family unit as time progressed past his death through the eyes of the storyteller.  You learn a little bit about each person mentioned within the story, which makes them seem more real.  Tags like the distelfinks my grandmother painted makes it plausible that she might, indeed, consult a Pow-Wow as that was a strong belief within her childhood.  D.B. was smart (Dickenson College), a character (his temper), and a researcher on the occult as well as other subjects (letters to Germany).  And so forth.

What I’m trying to express to you here is that your genealogical work and what you share with future generations does not have to be boring.  Too often we are accustomed to reading genealogical accounts that are so full of dates and relationship information that the real meat of the story gets lost.  By the end of paragraph one, you are yawing and maybe you’ll get to the end.  To me, that’s what the Ahnetafel or Register Reports are for — and if you like that, that’s fine.  Just don’t forget that there is room for creative expression in your work.  By adding the historical data at the end of the story we’re allowing the reader to relish the story for what it is without sacrificing the facts to fiction.  Many facts in this tale read like fiction — the setting for example, in the kitchen that hot summer.  Although it moves like fiction — it isn’t.  The added touch of photos of Billy throughout the story helps the reader to remember this is a story about Billy even though the major characters in the telling are other folks.  Finally, the postcard type Photoshop 9 collage that will go on my title page in my notebook allows the reader to see all the characters for themselves.

Those interested in facts alone can find them at the end of your story with as many notes as you wish to provide.  In the story of Billy I included the birth and death dates of all the real-life characters, where they are buried, and a cited source for the flood date and the devastation as a result.  I chose my source — a bricks and mortar museum that will hopefully exist in the future, even though access information for the facts is currently on the web.  I also added the definition of a distelfink.  Just because I know what it is doesn’t mean the reader is familiar with this type of stylized art form.  If your inner researcher is truly in panic mode that the facts must prevail, consider using footnotes, or even better — endnotes.  That way you can still satisfy that inner itch for accurate data and still keep the flow of your tale moving in hopes of keeping your future reader interested enough to actually get to the end!

Finally, some of you reading this article are asking — Do you know the name of the bully?  Yes, is your answer.  I didn’t include it for a variety of reasons, and am still undecided whether or not I will put it in the family account.  Our family, as you have read, sees the injury done to Billy and his resulting death as a murder with Billy the victim and the bully the cause of his demise.  Why should the bully be remembered at all other than the fact that Karma definitely operated here with an unusually swift sword?  On the genealogical side, however, there is credence in adding at least his full name and a record of his death in the flood.  What would you do?

Did you find this article helpful?  If so, please leave a comment.  Didn’t find it interesting?  Tell me why.  We can all learn from different points of view and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.  Have a good story of your own?  Please do share!  Thanks for reading!

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