Reuben Cohen 1854-1926: You Really Do Not Want to Read This

As I wrote in an earlier post, I skipped over Reuben Cohen, my great-great-grandparents’ sixth child and fifth son, in order to wait for some information from one of Reuben’s direct descendants.  I have to admit that I had other reasons as well.  My initial research indicated that Reuben and his wife Sallie Livingston had twelve children.  The thought of researching another huge family was a bit overwhelming.  In addition, my preliminary research had uncovered a number of very sad stories about those children, and I just did not have the heart to research, write, or even think about them after researching the story of Reuben’s older brother Hart.  Little did I know that his sisters, whose lives I’d not previously researched very far, also had more than their fair share of heartbreak as well.

Once I returned to the story of Reuben and did more research, I learned that his story was worse than I had even originally thought. His life started out well.  He was born in April, 1854, and grew up at 136 South Street with his parents and siblings. By the time he was sixteen he was working as a clerk in a store, presumably his father’s pawnshop.  In 1878 when he was 24, he married Sallie Livingston, and in 1880 they were living at 1725 Bainbridge Street and already had two children, Sallie R., who was a year old, and Jacob, who was a month old.  Reuben was working as a pawnbroker at 635 South 17th Street in 1881.

Reuben Cohen 1880 census

Reuben Cohen 1880 census

Originally I thought that the 1880s must have been fairly happy years for Reuben and Sallie, as Reuben continued to work as a pawnbroker and their family continued to grow.  In addition to Sallie R. and Jacob, I originally found that five more children were born between 1881 and 1890:  Minnie (1882), Hortense (1887), Rae (1887), Reuben, Jr. (1888), and Arthur (1890). The family continued to live at 1725 Bainbridge Street.

Then in 1891, tragedy struck.  Little Hortense, only three years old, was run over and killed by a cable car owned by the Philadelphia Traction Company.

Hortense Cohen death certificate

Hortense Cohen death certificate

The company had only been in business since 1883. I found this gruesome description of the accident in the June 14, 1891 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[According to a witness who saw the accident], the child, who was with two other children, started across the street to reach the house of her grandmother, Mrs. Livingstone, at 607 South Ninth Street, with whom she had been living. When she had crossed the tracks she saw a carriage coming, and she made an attempt to run back.  The child got bewildered, and as she reached the middle of the track the car struck her. The front wheel jammed the head against the track. It required the united efforts of [three police officers] to lift the car off the child’s head.

(“Killed by a Cable Car Little Hortense Cohen Becomes Bewildered and is Run Down,” Sunday, June 14, 1891, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA),  Volume: 124   Issue: 165   Page: 5) The conductor and gripman were arrested.  Little Hortense was taken to the hospital where she died.

This story raises so many hard questions.  What was a three year old child doing alone without an adult? Who were the other two children, and how old were they? Were they her siblings? What a terrible impact this must have had on them as well as the rest of the family.  And why was Hortense living with her grandmother?  Were any of the other children living with Mrs. Livingston?  I don’t have any answers to these questions.

Obviously, times were different.  There were no helicopter parents, and children were much more likely to be left to their own devices than children are allowed to be today.  Also, cable cars were a recent addition to the city streets, and perhaps parents and children were not yet aware of the dangers they presented, nor were these companies likely regulated to any degree to prevent such accidents from occurring.  But one thing must have been true even in those days: the absolute horror the family must have endured after losing a child in such a terrible way.

Somehow the family went on.  My original research found that two more children were born in the next few years:  Lewis in 1892 and Penrose in 1894.  The family moved from their Bainbridge Street home sometime after Hortense’s death. In 1893 Reuben’s store was at 625 South 17th Street, and he and his family were residing at 623 South 17th Street.  They remained in that residence for many years.  In 1895 Violet was born, and in 1896 Irene was born, bringing the number of children living in the family to eleven.

Then another tragedy occurred in 1896.  Two year old Penrose died from some form of capillary bronchitis.  Perhaps someone can help me decipher and interpret the rest of the description of his cause of death.  As if the family had not suffered enough, a year and a half later baby Irene, only a year old, died also from capillary bronchitis.  The family had lost three young children between 1891 and 1897.  The last child, Simon, was born in 1898, bringing the number of children to nine out of the twelve that I first thought had been born to Reuben and Sallie.

Penrose Cohen death certificate

Penrose Cohen death certificate

Irene Cohen death certificate

Irene Cohen death certificate

I wish I could say that that was the end of Reuben and Sallie’s heartbreak, but I cannot.  There was a period of relative calm.  In 1900 the family was living in Cape May, New Jersey, at the time of the census.

Reuben Cohen and family at 208 Ocean Street 1900 US census

Reuben Cohen and family at 208 Ocean Street 1900 US census

They were living back in Philadelphia by 1902, so I do not know whether the time in Cape May was a long stay or perhaps just a shorter stay for the summer.  I do know from one of Reuben’s descendants that Reuben owned a home in Cape May built in 1864 at 208 Ocean Street that eventually became the home of his son Arthur and his descendants.  It seems that during Reuben’s life this was not the year-round home, but perhaps just a summer home.  Reuben must have been quite successful to have two residences.  I found the house currently listed for sale on Trulia.com,with a description of the house and many exterior and interior pictures, such as this one.

208 Ocean Street, Cape May, NJ

208 Ocean Street, Cape May, NJ

1900 also was a good year for the family in other ways.  Their daughter Sallie R. was married that year to Ellis Samuel Abrams in what appears to have been quite a society event. There had been a large engagement party the year before at Reuben and Sallie’s home where an orchestra played throughout the evening “behind a bower of palm trees.”  The guest list was very long and included many of the aunts, uncles, and cousins I have written about on the blog: the Wolfs, the Sluizers, the Hambergs, and, of course, many Cohens.(“Melange of Events,”  Sunday, December 31, 1899, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA) Volume: 141 Issue: 184 Page: 14)   Before the wedding took place on May 21, 1900, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a drawing of Sallie R., announcing the upcoming nuptials.  Clearly the Cohen family was part of the elite of Philadelphia Jewish society.

Sallie Cohen

Sallie Cohen

But all the business success in the world was not worth the personal losses that the family suffered. In 1907, Sallie R.’s young husband Ellis died from acute appendicitis.  He was 30 years old, and they had only been married for seven years.  They had had two children, Dorothy, born around 1905, and Simon, born around 1907.

Ellis Abrams death certificate

Ellis Abrams death certificate

Then, two years later, in 1909, Reuben and Sallie’s son Jacob died of cardiac failure secondary to tabes dorsalis, or late stage syphilis.  He was only 29 years old when he died.  From his death certificate it appears that he had been sick and under a doctor’s care for five months before he died in December, 1909.

Jacob Livingston Cohen death certificate

Jacob Livingston Cohen death certificate

And then, just four years later in 1913, Jacob’s older sister Sallie R., Ellis’ widow, Reuben and Sallie Livingston’s oldest child, died at age 34 from nephritis, kidney disease.  That left Sallie R. and Ellis’ two children, Dorothy and Simon, orphaned at ages eight and six, respectively.

Sallie J. Cohen death certificate

Sallie J. Cohen death certificate

On the 1920 census, both children were living with their grandparents, Reuben and Sallie.  So far, I have had no luck finding out what happened to them next.

Reuben Cohen and family 1920 census

Reuben Cohen and family 1920 census

But what I did find was even more disturbing.  In doing some last minute checks for additional documents on Sallie J. and Jacob, I found their headstones on FindAGrave.  And to the left behind Jacob’s headstone, I spotted a headstone with eight names on it.  Some were familiar:  Hortense, Penrose, Irene.  But five were new to me: Maria, Fanny, Joseph, Hart, and Edith.  Who were they? When I saw it, I sighed so loudly that my husband wondered what was wrong.  I took a deep breath and then started looking for these other five children.

Since none of these names had appeared on either the 1880 census or the 1900 census (and since the 1890 census was destroyed by fire), I assumed that they were born after the 1880 census and died before 1900 census.  Eventually I found all five of these children, all of whom died before they were four years old.

As I mentioned above, I had originally thought that the 1880s were a happy decade for Reuben and his family, but this additional research revealed the opposite.  After Sallie R. and Jacob were born, the third child, Hart, was born in 1881.  He died February 27, 1883, when he was seventeen months old from uremia.  In between Minnie was born in 1882.

Hart Cohen death certificate

Hart Cohen death certificate

The next child, Maria, was born in September, 1883, meaning Sallie was pregnant with Maria when Hart died.  Maria died in Cape May, New Jersey on August 2, 1886, just shy of three years old, from paralysis caused by diphtheria (also evidence that the family had been spending summers in Cape May for quite some time before 1900).

Maria Cohen death certificate

Maria Cohen death certificate

But in between Minnie and Maria, Reuben and Sallie had had two other children, both of whom died before they were a year old.  In January, 1884, Fanny was born, and six months later in July, 1884, she died from enterocolitis.  On April 17, 1885, Joseph was born, and he died on August 9, 1885, not yet four months old.  Thus, in each year from 1883 through 1886, Reuben and Sallie buried one of their children. Perhaps that is why some of the children were living with Sallie’s mother?

Fanny Cohen death certificate

Fanny Cohen death certificate

Then came the tragic accident involving three year old Hortense in June, 1891.  What I had not known before I found the additional names on the headstone is that in July, 1891, the very next month, Sallie had given birth to Edith.  Perhaps that was some relief, but only for a very brief time because Edith died less than a year later on April 24, 1892, from “Diptheritic Laryngitis.”  I am not sure what that means, but it seems like it must be some complication from diphtheria. And then, as described above, Penrose died in 1896 and Irene in 1897.

Finally, there were the untimely deaths of Jacob L. and Sallie R. as adults.  So between 1883 and 1913, Reuben and Sallie had lost ten of their seventeen children and also had two young grandchildren who were left without either a mother or a father. Aside from Hortense, who died from an accident, all the other young children died from an illness that today would likely have been either prevented by a vaccine (diphtheria) or treated with antibiotics or somehow otherwise controlled by medicine.  Reading about all these babies’ deaths made me aware once again of how grateful we all should be for the developments of 20th century medicine.

How did Reuben and Sallie go on? It is unfathomable.  But they did. Did they find strength in the seven children who survived? Or did these deaths leave them bitter, angry, depressed? How does a marriage survive all that stress? Did they find strength in religion? In their large extended family? I do not know; I only know that in the last few days as I researched this family’s saga, I also was spending time with my newborn grandson and my four year old grandson, both of whom are so precious to me, not to mention their parents and other grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and great-grandparents.  Seeing either grandson cry over even the smallest pain or disappointment breaks my heart.  I found myself so disturbed by reading about Reuben and Sallie’s children that I was not sure that I could bear to write this story down. But then I had to do it, if only so that those little children could be perhaps more than just names on a headstone.  Someone should know that they lived and were loved.

Reuben and Sallie had seventeen children (at least—perhaps others lived who have not been recorded somewhere).  They were married for many years.  Somehow there was enough love to keep them together so that they could continue to raise the children who survived, including their two grandchildren from Sallie R.

Reuben died on December 31, 1926; he was 72 years old.  His wife Sallie died four years later in 1930 when she also was 72.  There were seven children left who survived them, and almost all of them lived long lives, but I will leave their stories for a later post.

10 thoughts on “Reuben Cohen 1854-1926: You Really Do Not Want to Read This

    • Thank you! I am a little nutsy about this stuff. Now that I am retired, I am free to devote more time, and I find it all so fascinating and satisfying. This story, however, has haunted me for days now.

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  1. That is something I am reminded of time and again–how grateful I am for what we have today as far as medical knowledge. I grieve for the parents and siblings when I find these tragic losses. As you mention, it is not just the deaths from illness, but there were horrifying accidents, too.

    Kate @ BJJ, Law, and Living

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    • Sometimes I just cannot stand to look at one more death certificate. People’s lives were so much harder in so many ways. We take so much for granted now. Thanks for your thoughts.

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  2. Such a sad story, but I did want to read it – so I did! The other detail on the cause of death for Penrose, the first word looks like Remitting but not sure on the second word.

    I cannot fathom how families managed to carry on with the loss of so many children. I know they were different times, but you’d have to be pretty heartless to not feel that sorrow every day, especially losing ten!

    Great post Amy.

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    • Thank you, Alex. I really had a hard time with this one. And if I found it hard to read and write about each of those deaths, I can’t begin to imagine what it was like living through each of them. But we do tend to see things through the eyes of our times. We can hope they had other resources and coping mechanisms and cultural attitudes that helped ease the pain of these losses.

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  3. Pingback: The Surviving Children of Reuben and Sallie Cohen, Part I: Minnie, Rae, Reuben, Jr., Lewis and Violet Mae « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  4. Pingback: A Man of Character and Integrity: A Profile of Reuben Cohen, The Pawnbroker « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  5. Pingback: Was the Census Taker Incompetent? Lewis Cohen 1862-1924 « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  6. Pingback: Seeing the Forest: In Memory of Jacob and Sarah Cohen and All their Children « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

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