A promise to Magdalena

The obituary, yellow and brittle, had a line that landed like a sock to the solar plexus: “Besides his wife and children, his aged mother, Mrs. Magdalena Miller, and three sisters survive him.” That sentence appears in the 1905 obituary of my great-grandfather, Joseph Schlegel Jr.

His “aged mother,” my great-great-grandmother, died three years later at the age of 87 in Celestine, Ind. I’d read the obit before when I found it among my grandmother’s papers, but I’d been distracted by the circumstances of Joseph’s death: He died at age 50, leaving his wife and nine children, five of whom still lived at home.

Before this second reading, I thought Magdalena had lived her whole life in Germany. This discovery inspired me to do some more research. There’s not a lot of concrete information available about Magdalena, but it’s possible to draw a sketch of her life that makes me feel pretty humble.

She was born in The Grand Duchy of Baden in 1821. Now part of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, Baden is famous for its healing waters. It’s also where the Southern Indiana spa village of West Baden got its name.

Because of the oppressive chauvinism of the day (women were often listed under their husband’s names or completely invisible), I am so far unable to find immigration documents for Magdalena, but she probably came to America in the early 1850s, when getting out of Baden was good.

There was drought, famine, political unrest, overpopulation and war, plus it was pretty much impossible to get a good Wi-Fi signal. The potato famine that brought millions of Irish to America also swept across Central Europe, and the invention of the power loom put countless mom-and-pop clothing makers into abject poverty. Many ended up on boats bound for America, and eventually Kentucky and Indiana, where the land was cheap and the hipsters were microbrewing beer like nobody’s business.

I found the ship’s manifest for Magdalena’s husband Joseph Sr.’s voyage to America: He traveled from Baden to Le Havre, France, where he boarded the ship President Fillmore, which arrived in New York on March 7, 1854. From there he made his way to Louisville, where Joseph Jr. was born in November. It’s possible that Joe Jr. was conceived en route, but I have no proof that Magdalena was even on board. (Nor was an 1854 ship likely conducive to romance: “If the President Fillmore’s rockin’, don’t bother knockin’ because there’s no door and also we are too seasick for sex.”)

Upon closer inspection, an ominous word appeared on the manifest: “steerage.” There are first-hand narratives online describing steerage travel in the 1800s, and it doesn’t sound pleasant. Hundreds of passengers were crammed below deck with only salted fish to eat and “tea remindful of chopped corn-brooms,” according to one account online. “No woman in steerage had a moment’s privacy,” said another. “A large proportion of passengers throw back to their Darwinian ancestry about the third day out. Their talk is lewd and insulting; brute strength is in the ascendant; and, without shame, both sexes show the animal side of their natures. Some of them remain for days in their berths, where, without changing their clothes, they eat, sleep and are sick with the utmost impartiality, and without the blessing of soap and water.”

After about 40 days of this, my ancestors would have landed in the United States and headed west to Louisville. The savage Louisville they landed in was auctioning slaves at Second and Main and holding popular public hangings at 18th and Broadway. And the Civil War loomed, eager to destroy young men on an unprecedented scale.

That ship’s manifest is the last document I can find regarding Joseph Schlegel Sr. In the 1870 census, Magdalena is married to Francis Q. Miller and she, Joseph and a daughter, Rosey, are living with him.

So, if my research and conjecture are accurate, my great-great grandmother fled famine and war, crossed the ocean in a wave-rocked cattle car to a foreign land with a foreign language, and buried at least one husband and one son, all without indoor plumbing or streaming Netflix. Not to mention the everyday struggles of being a woman on the frontier.

And so I hereby pledge not to whine the next time my flight is delayed, my phone’s battery dies or there’s a 20-minute wait at the sushi bar. My mother would advise me to “Offer it up to God,” but in this case, I’ll offer it up to Magdalena.