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October 13, 2013

GENEALOGY: Name, date-of-birth changes deter genealogists

Searching for someone through the records works best when you know the person’s first and last name, the date or year of birth, and as many other details about the person as possible. But what do you do when the first name has been changed, there have been multiple marriages changing the last name and the person lied about her age? This scenario happened to me in my search for a great aunt.

Born Essie Whitaker on March 20, 1890, in Carrollton, Ky., she was the younger sister of my grandmother. She can be found on the 1900 census, age 10, living with her parents and siblings in Jefferson County, Ind. This, and a few Madison, Ind., city directory entries, some pictures, and the memories of my dad, were basically all I had on her until I recently took up the search again.

Her first big move took place in 1909 when she accompanied her sister Clara Whitaker to St. Louis to marry Frank Dehler, who had gone over to St. Louis to open a small business. While Clara and Frank returned to Madison by the end of the year, Essie ended up staying in St. Louis.

My dad reported that Essie had married three times — or was it two? Louis Steiner (husband or fiancé?), August R. Dyck and Robert Hugh Evans. Back in the days of microfilmed censuses and paper indexes, I was not able to find her on any census with any of these husbands or last names.

However, when I more recently looked for her on Ancestry and Heritage Quest, I did locate her in 1910, living in St. Louis as a boarder in a house. She is listed as Elsie Steiner. Also living there is Louis Steiner. Elsie is age 20. They are listed as married one year. So it seems she married him around 1909.

But family members had reported that she visited the family in 1913 with her “fiancé” Louis Steiner, and that she broke up with him shortly thereafter and moved to Chicago. At that point, she legally changed her name to Elsa Genevieve, perhaps because she thought Essie was a hillbilly name. (Her sister had changed her name from Caddy to Clara for that reason). Her marriage record to Mr. Steiner, if there is one, has not been found.

In 1916, on another visit back home, Elsa married August “Gus” R. Dyck in Madison, Ind. Her marriage record lists her last name as Whitaker (not Steiner) and lists no previous marriages for her. Both are residents of Chicago. Her correct date of birth was given. Elsa and Gus can be found on the 1920 census living in Chicago. But she was at a different address in the 1923 Chicago city directory, with her husband nowhere to be found. In 1927, my dad visited them in Oak Park. He remembers that Elsa and Gus were having marital problems and they later divorced.

In 1930, Elsa Whitaker (not Dyck) was living in a boarding house in Chicago, listed as age 29 (she was actually 39) and single (not divorced). Another boarder in the house is Robert H. Evans, also single, age 24. From this point on, every record of Elsa shows her as 10 years younger than she was, presumably because she was actually 15 years older than Robert Evans and was lying about her age. In 1933, my dad again visited Elsa and husband in Chicago. Her marriage presumably took place between 1930 and 1933, but where is the marriage record? I haven’t been able to locate it in any of the Chicago marriage databases online. In 1940, she was on the Cook County census, again 10 years younger (40 instead of 50). She died in 1951, before her husband, and I recently found her memorial on Find A Grave. Her stone lists her birth date as 1900 instead of 1890. I believe her last husband never knew her correct age.

But where is her death record? Robert’s can be found in the Cook County databases. Where is her obituary? Robert’s can be found in the Chicago Tribune. This intriguing woman reinvented herself through a name change, multiple marriages, and finally changing the year she was born, until the lie was perpetuated on her grave stone.

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