Tomorrow is World Mental Health Day, with the “objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.” We’ve come a long way in the awareness, acceptance and support for the treatment of mental health issues. But what about our ancestors? Many of us have come across ancestors who may have been dealing with mental health issues.
Gerhard Linnemann was my great-great grandfather, and for a long time I didn’t know a lot about him. His daughter, Elizabeth, was the only grandparent that my father knew as a child. He knew that she was born in Germany and had two brothers that lived nearby in Monessen, Pennsylvania. But that was it. My father never knew that Elizabeth’s parents had lived in Monessen too.
A couple of years ago, I was digging deeply into the Linnemann family and other ancestors in Monessen. In searching Monessen’s the Daily Independent newspaper on Ancestry.com, I came across a notice that the funeral of Gerhard “Lineman” had been held the day before. I assumed that this was Elizabeth’s brother, also named Gerhard. I went to search the editions from earlier in the week and they were not there. Those gaps in record collections – ugh!
That fall, I traveled to Monessen with my father, brother and sister for a family history trip (so much fun!). We went to the Monessen Public Library and spread out to start researching. I went right to the microfilm machines to search the newspapers and this is the front-page news that I found for 9 June 1918:
Gerhard Lennemann committed suicide yesterday afternoon around 4 o’clock in a bedroom of his home, corner of Schoonmaker avenue and Tyler pass. With a strap drawn tightly about his neck and tied fast to the foot of a bed, the victim of his own rash act was found. He unbuckled his belt from his waist, circled it about his neck and after tieing himself to the bed dropped to the floor where he was found when dead. At the time of the tragedy there was no person about the place. Members of the family had gone out for a Sunday afternoon walk and had asked Mr. Lennemann to accompany them, but he said he preferred to remain at home. It is stated that there was no hint at suicide and no member of the family thought of such a thing. The deceased was about 60 years of age and leaves a widow and several children. About six years ago he was injured in a coal mine and at times he seemed to feel irrational as a result of that trouble. He would take spells of anger and brooding, and it is thought that in a despondent state of mind he decided upon a short route to death. The widow and children survive.
This was not what we were expecting! I called my father over to read the headline, to his great surprise.
The good news was that I had a date and cause of death, but was left with so many questions. At this time in 1918, Gerhard was about 56 years old, and had four grown sons (three in the Monessen area) and a daughter Elizabeth (my father’s beloved grandmother), who had just given birth to her second child only a month earlier, and lived just a few blocks away.
I was able to find a death certificate and coroner’s report for Gerhard “Lenemann,” as he was named in the newspaper article. The coroner’s report was witnessed by Chris and George Lenneman [his sons], and Mike Walko, [?] Laird and Lieut. Abright, with a “decision” of “Suicide by hanging.” The death certificate confirmed the family’s address, his occupation of coal miner, cause of death as “Suiside by hanging to head bed”, and his place of burial in Grandview Cemetery.
I have not been able to locate Gerhard in the 1910 census in either Pennsylvania or West Virginia (where they may have also lived), nor found any coal mining records for him as of now. If he was injured 6 years before his death (around 1912), he most likely would not have been in Monessen, so more research is needed to see where the Linnemanns were before their arrival (probably around 1916).
So, was Gerhard really “mad”? Was his “anger and brooding” and “despondent state of mind” due to the coal mining accident? Or was there a mental health issue of depression or anxiety or something else? There are so many questions, and I will most likely never find those answers to these. This part of researching my family – wanting to know so much more about the actual person, their “whys” – can be agonizing.
And then there was the rest of the family … Gerhard’s widow, sons and daughter. One son was serving in World War I (when did he find out about his father?), and another would enlist in the next month. His daughter had two young children. And his widow. The losses she had already endured before her husband’s suicide were numerous. I’ll save her story for March and those strong women.
Back to the research trip with my family … my father, shocked, had never heard anything about Gerhard or his death from his family (or that he had ever left Germany). Again, his grandmother Elizabeth (Gerhard’s daughter) was the only grandparent that he knew, and he had actually lived with her as a child in Pittsburgh, and later she with him New Jersey. In all that time, she never once mentioned her father or his suicide. Was she still grieving or maybe angry? Or embarrassed by his possible mental health issues? Or had she just moved on, as so many of our ancestors were required to do to survive?
Some stories stay hidden and aren’t passed down to children and grandchildren. And then they are unearthed by a great-great-granddaughter almost 90 years later.
“World Mental Health Day – 10 October,” World Health Organization (http://www.who.int/en/ : accessed 29 September 2017).
“Local Notes” and “Card of Thanks,” Daily Independent (Monessen, PA), 13 June 1918, p. 1, col. 5; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 29 September 2017).
“Man Tied Belt Around Neck and Strangled Self While Family Is Absent,” Daily Independent (Monessen, PA), 9 June 1918, p. 1, col. 1; microfilm, Monessen Public Library, Monessen, PA.
Pennsylvania Department of Health, death certificate 69108 (1918), Gerherd Lenemann; Bureau of Vital Statistics, New Castle.
Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, “Coroner Record Dockets,” database, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania (http://www.co.westmoreland.pa.us : accessed 29 September 2017), entry for Gerhard Lenemann, no. 273, 9 June 1918.
“Woman Found Dead in Bed,” The Monessen Daily Independent (Monessen, PA), 30 July 1935, p. 1, col. 2; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 29 September 2017).