It took me a long time to find the story of Maria Cohen, the seventh child of my great-grandparents, Jacob and Sarah, and once I did, I wished I hadn’t. Things started easily enough, as I was able to find a record in the Philadelphia marriage index identifying her husband as William Levi. They married on December 15, 1875. I was able to find them on both the 1880 and 1900 census reports with their sons Lewis, Jacob, and Isaac, but on both there were entries that were inconsistent with the facts I know about Maria. On the 1880 census, it says her parents were born in Germany, and in 1900 it says her parents were born in Russia, when I know that her parents were in fact both born in England.
Had the census taker received erroneous information or did I have the wrong Maria? Certainly her sons’ names, Lewis, Jacob and Isaac, were all names that ran in the Cohen family. The age given for Maria on the census reports seemed close enough. In 1880 Maria would have been 24; the census says she was 21 with two sons ages two and one. If she really married in 1875, that means she would have been only 16 when she married, which seems unlikely. In 1900, Maria would have been 44; the 1900 census reports it as 40. I am accustomed to census errors, and these were not any worse than others I’ve seen.
So this could be the right Maria Cohen, but I cannot be absolutely sure because after 1900 she and her husband disappear from the records. I cannot find Maria or William Levi on the 1910, 1920, or 1930 census. Perhaps they both died between 1900 and 1910, but I also cannot find any death records or burial records for either of them. At first I thought perhaps they all changed their names, but after a lot of looking I was able to find death records for three of their four sons, and that is where this story gets harder to tell.
The first record I found was for their oldest son Lewis, who died on May 4, 1915, from heart disease at age 38.
His wife Emma Fogle, whom he had only married five years before in 1910, lived another almost 50 years, but was buried beside him at Adath Jeshurun cemetery and apparently never remarried. Since the headstone is marked “father” and “mother,” there must have been at least one child born during that brief marriage, but so far I have not been able to locate that child.
This morning, after much looking, I found a death certificate for Maria and William’s second son Jacob, who also died at a young age. He died only a year and half after his brother Lewis on December 22, 1916, from tuberculosis. He also was 38 when he died. The death certificate reveals that he had been residing at the Norristown State Hospital for the Insane when he died and had been there for just over ten years. He also was buried at Adath Jeshurun.
I was already feeling sad for Maria and William for losing two sons before either reached forty years of age when the story got even worse.
In searching for records for Maria, William and their sons this morning, I was surprised to see a death record for a Benjamin Levy, son of William Levy. It was the first time I knew that Maria and William had had a fourth son, Benjamin, born in 1881. Since he was born in 1881, he was not on the 1880 census. Since he died in 1897, he was not on the 1990 census. I had missed him completely in doing my initial research of Maria and her family. I gasped when I found his death certificate and saw his cause of death: “found drowned.”
I looked to see if I could find any other information and found this story, quoted in its entirety from the Philadelphia Inquirer dated March 18, 1897.
The body of the young man which was found on Monday in the Delaware River at the foot of Callowhill street was that of Benjamin Levy, aged 16, who lived at 1580 Fontaine Street, and who has been missing since January 9. It is thought that he committed suicide.
Before going away, he said to his brother: “Good-bye, Jake, forever. I’m going to jump overboard.” He was not seen alive afterwards. It is believed he drowned himself because he had been rebuked for drinking.
(“A Young Suicide,” Thursday, March 18, 1897,Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA) Volume: 136 Issue: 77 Page: 10 )
Benjamin had been missing for two months when his body was found. I cannot begin to imagine how his family felt. Could it possibly be that just getting scolded for drinking led him to commit suicide? Or was there something else behind the story? Was there underlying mental illness, as was the case with his older brother Jacob?
Although the death certificate for Jacob said that he had been hospitalized since October, 1896, ten years, one month and 28 days before his death, this news story about Benjamin seemed to indicate that Jacob was still home when Benjamin committed suicide in March, 1897. One has to wonder whether Jacob’s mental illness was precipitated or at least exacerbated by his little brother’s death and thus whether Jacob’s death certificate was off by a year in describing his stay at the state hospital. Did Jacob feel guilty, knowing that his younger brother had talked about suicide but Jacob had not being able to stop him? How did Maria and William cope with these two traumas?
It was less than twenty years later that their son Lewis died in 1915, with Jacob dying a year later in 1916. Only Isaac remained, their youngest son. Fortunately, Isaac’s story is not tragic. In 1909, he had married Rose Hicks, who was a few years older than Isaac and had a son William from a previous marriage. Although marrying an older divorced woman with a child might have been somewhat unusual back then, given what this family had been through, that must have been small potatoes to them. In 1910, he and Rose were living at 133 Walnut Street in 1910 with several boarders, and Isaac, now using the name Harry, was working at a pawnshop.
In fact, it was his uncle Lewis Cohen’s pawnshop, as revealed in Harry’s World War I draft registration (and as confirmed by an address check for Lewis Cohen in 1917).
Harry, Rose, and Rose’s son William as well as her nephew were living on Reno Street in 1920, and Harry and Rose continued to live in Philadelphia at least until 1942 when Harry’s draft registration for World War II continues to provide a Philadelphia address at 222 North 52nd Street. Harry was working for the WPA in Philadelphia at that time.
It does not appear that Harry and Rose had any biological children of their own. I cannot yet find any record for Harry or Rose after 1942, nor have I yet had any luck locating any records for Maria or William after the 1900 census. I plan to contact Adath Jeshurun cemetery in Philadelphia to see if they have records for Harry/Isaac, Rose, Maria or William Levy. Since the other members of the family were all buried at that cemetery, I am hoping that I will be able to get at least some greater information about the others.
Genealogical research is filled with twists and turns. I spent many hours this week, focused on Maria Cohen and her family with William Levy, and until this morning I had found almost nothing except their marriage record and those two census reports. I went to sleep feeling that I would never know the rest of the story. Then with just a few lucky keystrokes this morning, I opened the door to a terribly tragic family story. I almost wish that I hadn’t. Careful what you wish for, as they say. I hope I can put some closure on Maria’s life. Only time, persistence, and lots of good luck will tell.
 Reuben was the sixth child, but I am skipping over him for now as I wait to hear from one of his descendants.