My Great-Grandmother’s Tragic Early Life.
When I was about three-years-old, I went to visit my grandparents. A woman, older than my grandmother, Kate, was at their house as well. I remember her as being very thin, with delicate bones, and of average height. She had white hair which was casually arranged in a wispy cloud on her head, and her kind green eyes always had a warm twinkle. My father explained that she was his grandmother– my great-grandmother. I remember considering this. I already had two grandmothers– one was called Baba, and the other, Kate, was just Grandma. In order to save myself some confusion, I decided the easiest thing to do would be to simply call this new grandma “Great”.
Great and I spent a lot of time together during my childhood. She let me put curlers in her hair, taught me to sew, took me for walks, and pulled splinters from my hand. She seemed to be a very uncomplicated soul who required very little in life to be happy. She always had a warm smile and when she held my hand, I could feel the strength and energy in her grip. One of my fondest memories was a song she used to sing to me, “Hoppe Hoppe Hare”, which I’ve found here. I’ve always thought it was a German nursery song, but a Google search seems to imply that it might in fact be Swedish, since most of the results returned are of that heritage. When I was about seven-years-old, I asked her about her family and she told me she was Austrian. My awed response was, “You’re Australian?” Supposedly, my Aunt Joan had the same conversation with her a generation earlier.
As I’ve gotten older, I learned that Great’s life was much more complicated than it seemed. I was told that she was born around 1893 in Denver and adopted by a wealthy woman when she was a little girl. Grandma Kate said that the woman came to her house to select which child to adopt and when Great learned this, she said, “Pick me! Pick me!”, and so the woman did. Unfortunately, pictures of Great as a beautiful young woman often showed her wearing an expression of sadness, revealing that perhaps this event didn’t create the happy ending she expected.
Another story that was mentioned in the family is that the woman already had a grown son who was a doctor and when Great became old enough, she was forced to marry him. This must have been especially difficult for her since she had been raised to think of him as her brother. As they were on a train heading to New York to meet their ship which would sail them to Europe for their honeymoon, he placed a chloroform doused handkerchief over her nose and raped her. Great somehow managed to jump the train and worked as an indentured servant in Minnesota for a time, before eventually making her way to Montana, where she claimed her own homestead and finally met and married my great-grandfather, Tom O’Reilly. Strangely enough, although I’ve never been able to find a marriage record for Great and the doctor, a ship’s manifest reveals that Great’s new husband and adoptive mother continued on to Europe without her in 1910. I assume this trip was the honeymoon intended for Great and William Feist.
I find it ironic that the only great-grandparent I actually knew is also the one whose background is the most convoluted. Great’s adoption records reveal that she was already nine years old when she was adopted and the “wealthy woman” who took her in was named Pauline Riebe. It also showed that Great’s birth name was Albertina Wilka. The record went on to state that henceforth, her name would be “Minnie Riebe”. Unfortunately, the name of Great’s real mother was illegible, so I’ve never been able to find out who she was or where she came from. Grandma Kate once told me that she thought Great’s original family name was Wilka, so some of the pieces were starting to fall into place.
Great’s marriage record to Tom O’Reilly lists her father as Antone Wilka and mother as Pauline U. (Youderian) Wilka. Research seemed to prove that Pauline Wilka, Pauline Riebe, and Pauline Youderian were all the same individual and that she seemed to have originated in Germany, but spent most of her childhood and adult life in Wisconsin before arriving in Denver. At 51 years old, Pauline had already been married several times and had numerous children before taking on my great-grandmother.
I uncovered several unusual details about Pauline. In 1865, she married her first husband, August Feist, at the age of fourteen in Wisconsin. It appears that she gave birth to her son, William, who was born either during this marriage or just as it was ending and a new one beginning, as the records are a bit murky on his actual birth date. (William was the son who later became a doctor and was the man Great was forced to marry).
Pauline’s second marriage was to Emile Gustav Priebe in 1869 in Green Lake County, Wisconsin. Note how her new husband’s last name was different from the one she later used in Denver by one letter– “P”. Between her marriage to Priebe in 1869 and her next one in 1880 (also in Green Lake County), she had four more children. On the Green Lake County, Wisconsin census dated the 10th and 11th of June, 1880, those four children were living with only Pauline (Emile wasn’t in the picture) and she was receiving partial support from the city.
On July 6th of that year, she married August W. Mittelsteadt. Perhaps the most disturbing element of this whole story was that by October 24th, all of her children– except for William were dead. In fact, the four children that she had with Emile Priebe– Clara, Earnest, Albert, and Minnie– all died between October 14th, and October 24th of 1880.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the deaths of Pauline’s children were due to some sort of local epidemic or disaster that I have yet to uncover. However, I don’t know about you, but Pauline seems like a pretty suspicious character to me. She even seems pathological and sociopathic, or at the least narcissistic. I can’t help but be frustrated with a whole new set of questions this information raises. Why and how did her children die? Did she kill them? If so, was it because she was overwhelmed financially? Perhaps when Emile Priebe disappeared from her life, even the support she received from the city wasn’t enough to care for the whole family. Was this why she went on to marry Mittelsteadt? Did he have money? And if she did indeed kill her children, why allow William to live? Why kill them after she found someone else to help her support them? Was it because Mittelsteadt already had a slew of children of his own? And why did she use the name “Riebe” after arriving in Colorado? Why did she adopt Great — and especially — why did she rename her Minnie, after one of her own daughters who had died? Was this actually some form of guilt or remorse? It appears that Antone Wilka was Great’s real father and according to one of my cousins, at some point, Pauline married him. If so, and Pauline really was the villain she appears to be, I’m angry about it. I’m angry on behalf of Great and all of Pauline’s children who never had the chance to grow up.