Luck: Survivors

This week’s #52Ancestors prompt is “luck”. With the recent coronavirus outbreak, I have been pondering the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and how some of our ancestors survived that, and how some did not. My Colomy family seemed to be the lucky ones in having survived that epidemic. Indeed, if Bertha (Colomy) (French) Spratt was stricken and did not survive, she never would have met my great-grandfather George Edmund Pleau and had their son, my paternal grandfather! And of course, these words would not be written.

The Colomy’s were not unscathed by the epidemic, however. Like many others affected by the flu, Eleanor M. Colomy, Edwin’s second wife, contracted pneumonia and died on December 11, 1918, only three days after the doctor started tending to her. Just over a year later on December 28, 1919, Bertha’s second husband James Spratt also passed away from pneumonia, with “lagrippe” (the flu) being a contributory cause. Sandwiched between these two deaths, Edwin and Bertha’s father Frank’s second wife Ida died on June 1, 1919 of pyonephrosis (a kidney infection).

One death after another in the Colomy family. Courtesy FamilySearch.

What a devastating year the Colomy family had! I have to wonder if this drew the family closer together, or if perhaps each may have been too emotionally spent by their own grief to comfort each other.

Great-Grandmother Bertha Elizabeth Colomy: Between Percy and George

Once Bertha returned from her escapade with Percy St. Clair in 1892, she settled back at home in Lynn, Massachusetts. She witnessed the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and eventually got a job as a stitcher with one of the many shoe manufacturers in town.

Despite the stain on her virtue, Bertha still managed to attract a man her own age who asked to marry her. Frederick Morton French was a dry goods salesman in Lynn, and he and Bertha were married on June 27, 1900 by Rev. Tillman B. Johnson (probably of First Baptist Church). I know nothing about the nature of their marriage; but in any case, they were divorced before 1910. I found Frederick in the 1910 Census living with his family with a marital status of “D”.

For some reason, I could not find Bertha in the Census (typical of the family, I think!). However, I don’t think she was very far away. In 1911 she lived at 32 Autumn Street, just down the road from her mother Jennie and stepfather James Starbard. On February 11, 1911 she was wed to James Spratt by Donald H. Gerrish (of St. Paul’s Methodist Society).

On December 28, 1915, Bertha’s mother Jennie passed away, just four years after James. Bertha apparently inherited the house at 63 Autumn Street, for James is listed at this address in the city directory in 1916.

63 Autumn Street, Lynn.  Author's collection.

63 Autumn Street, Lynn. Author’s collection.

By a very odd coincidence, December 28 brought death once more in 1919. James had contracted and died of lobar pneumonia. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Pine Grove Cemetery. Once again, Bertha was a single woman. I don’t know how long it was before she met George Edmund Pleau, but it was obviously no later than February 1921 (nine months before the birth of my grandfather).

There are little bits and pieces about Bertha that I’ve gathered from my grandfather and aunt (who never knew her but knew of her). From the 1930 Census, I know she still played piano since she gave lessons. In fact, my aunt claimed that the piano that my grandfather had actually belonged to Bertha first. Bertha obviously loved music, and perhaps that is what attracted her to George. There had been some opera glasses in the family that were supposed to belong to Bertha. Finally, Bertha had a talent for painting. Growing up, a beautiful life-like picture of a leopard hung in my grandparents’ basement. My grandfather claimed that he also had her painting of a lion, which got lost in one of his moves. Today, my sister has this beautiful painting in her living room.

Painting by Bertha Pleau.  Author's collection.

Painting by Bertha Pleau. Author’s collection.

And so that is Bertha’s life up until her third marriage. The remainder of her time can be seen  here. I think her mother Jennie is deserving of the next look at the family.

Great-Grandfather George Edmund Pleau

When I first started delving into my family, perhaps my most elusive ancestor was my great-grandfather, George Edmund Pleau. I knew that he was my great-grandmother’s third husband and that he died when my grandfather was just a boy. Both my grandfather and father were named for him and supposedly were all part of a “long line of George Pleaus”, according to my grandmother. My grandfather had almost no information on his father’s family.

My aunt Cherie (known to our family as Cheryl) managed to determine that George was from Rochester, Monroe County, New York. Since my in-laws live close to that area, I had offered to do any on-site research for her. She adamantly refused my offer. At this point, I think she felt quite possessive about this family line, so I left it alone until after her death.

Once she had passed away, however, I began my pursuit, as I explained in About. The following is a basic outline of George’s life, based on my best information:

  • Born on December 27, 1875 in Rochester, NY to George Pleau and Emma LeClair, who were originally from Quebec.
  • He was the third child and second son in the family. His older siblings were Napoleon Charles and Cordelia. His younger siblings were Albert Joseph, Eugene Jule, Evelyn L., Ida (who died during childhood), Ella Jane, and Lucy (who also died during childhood).
  • His family moved often within the heart of Rochester.
  • Attended Our Lady of Victory parochial school, where he began to perform in musical plays.
  • Worked primarily as a shoemaker like his father and sometimes as a musician; particularly playing the piano.
  • Married Agnes Jeanette Kowiak on July 19, 1899 in Rochester.
  • Between 1900 and 1910, two children were born to him and Agnes and subsequently died.
  • In December 1910, he and Agnes bought a home at 17 Lochner Place in Rochester, which does not seem to exist anymore.
  • As of 1918, he had dark hair and brown eyes.
  • In 1918, he and Agnes appeared to be separated. He lived with his sister Evelyn.
  • Moved to Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts in 1919. The 1920 Census shows that he was a shoemaker boarding at Catherine Beard’s house at 41 Buffum Street. My theory is that, after the death of both his parents and in the face of his failing marriage, he probably felt he needed to get away from Rochester. I know that Lynn was even bigger in the shoe industry than Rochester, so perhaps it had more job opportunities.
  • Sometime before early 1921, he met widow Bertha (Colomy)(French) Spratt.
  • On November 22, 1921, his son (my grandfather) was born to him and Bertha.
  • In June 1922, he sold the deed to the Rochester house to his wife Agnes.
  • On July 22, 1922, he and Bertha were married in Bath, Sagadahoc County, Maine. She claimed it was her second marriage, and he claimed it was his first.
  • In October 1922, the Supreme Court in New York issued a final decree of divorce in favor of Agnes, the plaintiff. (Yes, you are reading this timeline correctly!)
  • By June 1925, George and his little family moved to Brooklyn, Kings County, NY. He worked as a shoemaker.
  • In 1927, they moved to Baltimore, Baltimore City, Maryland. He worked as a shoemaker and then as a salesman.
  • On the afternoon of March 4, 1932 he was struck by a car while walking at the corner of Harford Road and Glenmore Avenue, not far from where he lived on Mary Avenue.
  • On March 15, 1932, he died from his injuries in St. Joseph’s hospital.
  • On March 18, 1932, his funeral was held at E.I. Fanning & Son, with religious services at Church of the Messiah (an Episcopal church). He was buried in Baltimore Cemetery without a gravestone.

As you can see, I found a lot of information on George, primarily thanks to online city directories, census information and newspaper articles. What I don’t know is what he was like as a person. Was he funny? Did he sing tenor or bass? (My guess is bass, based on my grandfather’s voice.) Did he love his family? Maybe I’ll find out someday.