As I have mentioned before, my great-great-great grandfather Jacob was relatively prolific with regards to wives and children: he had at least 2 – maybe 3 – wives with whom he raised at least 7 children over a span of 30 years. This meant that my great-great-grandmother Ella, who was born to Jacob’s last wife, had a bunch of half-siblings, some of whom were almost old enough to be her parents. One of those siblings nearly old enough to be her parent was her oldest (as far as I know) brother, Max.
For a long time, the picture above has hung on the wall at my grandparents’ house even though we didn’t know who that man was in the carriage with Ella — because it is a quite amazing artifact of bygone years and clothes and transport, it was there anyway. When we decided, through a mixture of research and conversation and examination that maybe it was Max, the photograph became much more than a neat picture of Nana Ella all dressed up in a buggy.
I only found out about Max because I stumbled across the documentation of his death in some roundabout way that I don’t quite remember. I probably stumbled across his name by fluke somewhere – in a death index for Chicago, or maybe in the online index to Cook County coroner’s inquests. Whatever the case, I found him.
Max’s story is this:
He was a tinsmith who came the United States with his sister Bertha Wiener and her family in 1902. He lived with another sister, Rose, who first came to America in 1893 and ran a boarding-house/saloon in Chicago. Then, on July 13, 1904, he hung himself from a rafter in the coal shed behind Rose’s house. There was an inquest, during which Rose, her bartender and a third man acted as witnesses. The jury issued a verdict stating that: “The said Max Holcman now lying dead at 8914 Green Bay Ave in said City of Chgo, County of Cook, State of Illinois, came to her [sic] death on the 13 day of February AD 1904 from strangulation by hanging himself with a rope around his neck tied to a rafter with suicidal intent, while temporarily insane in the coal shed in the rear of 8914 Green Bay Ave on Febr 13 AD 1904.”
The family gave out the story that Max had fallen off of a roof in the course of his work as a tinsmith, which involved a lot of roofing and working on roofs, in order to minimize the stigma of the suicide and his story was forgotten, at least among my branch of the family. At the time of his death, Max’s sisters were all living in Chicago; his father, his brother and his youngest sister were still in Europe. I am curious sometimes to wonder if the story of Max’s death was accurately transmitted to Europe, or if the family there was left in the dark. I wonder this because the story of the roofing accident comes from the grandson of the brother who lived in Europe, who heard this story as the simple truth about Max. I don’t know enough about how the Holzmann family worked to know if they would have lied to their father and their brother, to keep them from the sad truth as other branches of my family might have (would have). I also wonder if it was something about America itself that drove Max to suicide, though it would seem that there was also something in the genetic hardwiring he inherited that contributed to it (a first cousin killed himself by drinking Lysol at the age of 33, leaving a wife and three young children). I also wonder about his feelings towards Chicago, about the sense of dislocation he might have felt at being a very small fish in a very large pond – just another immigrant in a city full of them – when he came from a small small place where he would have most likely been quite assured of his place in society and where people probably knew him.
Whatever the case, I am glad I have at least one photograph that I tell myself is of Max and his little sister, hopefully on a day when they had a nice time.