Friday, January 11, 2013

The Passion of Nellie

Great Grandmother Nellie Cramer Dean and Daughter Etta
Circa 1904

My cousin Debbie sent me the photo several years ago in a batch of scans from her mother's (my Aunt Dot's) collection.  At Aunt Dot's funeral, my cousins and I talked about our wayward and disappearing Grandfather Frank Dean.  As the oldest cousin and grandchild, I was the only one, we assumed, who'd ever seen the mysterious man in person, and I was the only one who "knew the stories."  We talked about the book I'd already started fooling with.  I hadn't gotten too serious up until then.

Leaving the funeral, I knew I would work harder on this pet project.  For my family.  I wanted to tell the story for them and their children and grandchildren, as well as my own descendants.

But first I had to discover the rest of the story.  Where did Grandfather Frank go after my father threw him out of the home?  We all knew that story.  The "big fight."

Where did he go?  The word among the adults, Grandma and my aunts and uncles, was that he remarried and had "new" children.  For my Grandma, a strict Catholic, divorce was not an option, and Frank was labeled a bigamist.

I've written these stories here on the blog, even up to my finding my grandfather's new family this past year. I've already written about his parents, John and Nellie, a documented recitation of the facts.  I lacked more personal stories for these particular characters in my story.

As I continued the research on this part of my family, I became more interested in Nellie, more than any of the other ancestors.  I'm not sure why.  I can only say I've had a passion to "know" her.

Maybe because she was the mother of the grandfather who was forced to go missing before I ever knew him.  The only person I'd ever known to be a bigamist.  The man who had the audacity to hurt my Grandma.  Who forced my father to be brutal and feel guilty about it the rest of his life.

The man not even a priest thought worthy of forgiveness when he was dying.  Wasn't every human worthy of  forgiveness?  That's what we learned in Catholic school.  Was this grandfather so evil  that a priest would not visit his death bed?

Who was his mother?  If she'd not died at age 42, would it have made a difference in Frank's life?  If his only sibling wasn't placed in an institution for the "feeble minded," would that have impacted Frank's life?

I've wondered a lot about Nellie.  I tried to picture her in my mind.  What did she look like?  Would I be able to know anything about her if I could see what she looked like?

And then, out of nowhere, I found out.

About a week ago, digging through the digital images on my hard drive, the ones my cousin Debbie sent me, I happened on one in particular that I hadn’t been able to identify and never went back to.  A woman kneeling beside a child with a round, chubby face and dark hair.  I thought it was a pic of my cousin Terry Dean.  But who was the woman?  I didn't recognize her.

I clicked and brought the photo to life and immediately saw the caption “Etta and Mother.” 

I’d found Nellie.

This was obviously a photo left to Grandfather Frank when his mother, Nellie, passed away, and ended up in my Grandma’s possession when Frank was thrown out.  When Grandma died, my Aunt Dot became it’s owner. 

How could I have missed this? 

And hadn’t I, just days before, thought how much it would mean to me if I could just see a picture of Nellie?  Was this some kind of eerie intention sent into the universe, or a wish granted by God? 

I stared at the face of my Great Grandmother a long time, studying every feature for clues.  The building in the background suggested to me this was taken on the grounds of the Columbus Institute where Etta had been placed.  Blowing the image up, I could see figures walking along a path in front of the building, young people who seemed not able to walk by themselves.  One of the figure's legs were twisted. . And they looked like they were wearing black hats similar to those worn by Amish men and boys.

Was Etta living in the institution then, and her mother was visiting her?  Who took the picture?

In 1910, according to the census, Etta was living with her mother and brother and new step-father. Etta is 8 years old, brother Frank, is 12.  They are listed as step-children of head of house, Joseph O'Flaherty, an Irishman, a plumber by trade.  They lived on Cutter Street in Cincinnati's West End, where today modern, middle-class condominiums now stand.  

The children's father, John Dean, had died sometime after marrying Nellie in 1900 and the birth of Etta in 1902.  Nellie and John had to postpone their marriage until John got a divorce from his first wife, by which time their son Frank was two years old. 

In one of the city directories, Nellie was living with her son (Frank) as a widow.  Her last name is listed as Dean.  Then in 1910, about a month before the 1910 census, Nellie became Mrs. O'Flaherty.

If Etta was living with her mother and step-father in 1910, when she was eight, is it possible that she was in the Columbus Institute off and on, that she lived at home and had to return to the institution sometimes?  Was there out-patient care?  

Research of the institution shows that the inmates, or patients, were being educated, the main focus being on self-care and occupational training, like a trade school.  These were typically children who couldn't learn in a regular public school.  

Nellie died on June 4, 1918.  Etta would have been 16.  The Columbus Institute census for 1920 lists Etta as a resident at age 18.  My grandfather was 22 when his mother died, and a year later would marry my grandmother, on May 7, 1919.  

The longer I studied Nellie’s face in this photo, the more the story came to light.  This was the hard countenance of a woman who had been hurt by life more than once.  She became pregnant with her first child by a married man, living with her mother and five sisters plus her illegitimate son and an extra boarder, in a crowded, poor inner-city apartment.  She was a mother who gave birth to a second child, a daughter, who had to be institutionalized as mentally impaired.  Life had been hard on Nellie.  

Maybe she made wrong decisions, paid the consequences of bad mistakes. Maybe she was a good woman, a good mother who loved the wrong man at the wrong time.  Maybe those mistakes affected my grandfather and contributed to his lifestyle.  Possibly his alcoholism was passed down from his father John.  

The photo doesn't answer all of these questions, but I think I know enough to add to Nellie's original story, to add some personal feelings, write a few human scenes to bring her to life on the page for her descendants.  

So it is with writing these stories.  You get the chance to go back and fix things up if you're not over-zealous to be done with the book.  


  1. A sad story, one that took courage to live through I am sure. Good luck with the book on your family!

  2. Thanks for commenting. Yes, it is sad, and I think she looks courageous in the picture.

  3. Hi BettyAnn! You've just been nominated for the Wonderful Team Member Readership Award! Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and post comments. You can find the post here:

  4. Thank you, Debra! Cool idea, your award. I'll have to think of something like this for 2013. See you at the Family History Writing Challenge next month, and thanks again for the award. Your blog is so inspirational.

  5. My heart goes out to poor Nellie. I like your point of not being over zealous to be done with the book. Stories take time to come out and we have to patient to allow them to surface.

  6. Thanks, Andrea. I do want to be done with this book, and I'm getting close. It just depends on how much time I devote to it. That's the hard part. And I'm serious about the cousins finding me and giving me new stories! Thanks for the comments.