Friday, February 25, 2011

The Search Begins

Jacob T. Feitner
It all started with a single photograph of a young man, with a thick mustache and wearing a tweed jacket and bow tie.  Written on the back in my grandmother's handwriting, it simply read "Grandpa Feitner".  He was buried at Lutheran Cemetery, she had told me, and had left behind a wife and 5 young children.  One of those children was her mother, Helen.

It didn't take much work to find out that Grandpa Feitner's name was Jacob (like his father, as I would later discover).  Jacob was born in 1867 in Manhattan and had an older sister, Anna.  After his father's untimely death in Brooklyn when Jacob was barely 11 years old, the trail goes cold. The New York City census of 1880 has no record of Anna Feitner, his mother or Jacob and Anna.  However, Jacob turns up later on, living in Manhattan on his own at the age of 15 in 1882.  His mother remarries in 1883, and lives with Jacob's sister Anna, who is a young widow with several children of her own.

Jacob builds a life of his own, becoming a highly skilled silk weaver; designing patterns for the bolts of silk fabric that were woven in a factory. He marries Alvina Clabes in 1888, who had also been a worker in the silk weaving industry and is likely to have met her while at work in the factory.  They have their first child, Albert Theodore in 1889 and a daughter Alvina M. follows in 1891.  Sadly, Albert dies just days before his third birthday of tuberculosis, a common cause of child deaths in New York City at that time. He too is buried in the family plot at Lutheran Cemetery, beside his grandfather he never knew.

Albert T. Feitner
Jacob and Alvina later have 4 more children: Elizabeth, John, Henrietta and Helen; living on the West side of Manhattan, moving from West 42nd Street to West 43rd and eventually to West 48th Street, living near his wife's family. 

In 1899, Jacob begins to show signs of a serious health problem.  Paralysis sets in on the left side of his face; an early symptom of leptomeningitis, a form of cancer.  In the spring of 1901, Jacob dies after suffering for nearly two years.  His burial at Lutheran Cemetery follows, and he is laid to rest beside his father and his son.

My grandmother mentioned that after his death, his wife Alvina took the children to the silk factory, demanding the pay that Jacob was owed.   I often wonder if working in the silk factory created this deadly disease in his body, and if his wife suspected that as well.

Whatever the cause, the reality was clear: Jacob died without a will, and for reasons that aren't completely understood, Alvina signed tax documents that left her without means to survive. Only 30 years old, and now a widow with 5 children, Alvina sends her daughters and son to live with her family.  It was the beginning of a new century, but Alvina never remarries.