READER STORY

Lynne Dixon’s fam­ily his­tory fea­tures scan­dal, sui­cide and do­mes­tic abuse

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ynne Dixon’s fam­ily his­tory reads like the plot of a pi­caresque novel, with he­roes and hero­ines trav­el­ling far and wide, suf­fer­ing dra­matic tri­als and emerg­ing as steely sur­vivors. At times, some of them broke the rules, com­mit­ting bigamy or at­tempt­ing to gain money un­scrupu­lously. They were Vic­to­rian ‘ad­ven­tur­ers’, how­ever, and their lives can be read as a nar­ra­tive of tough times.

“We have quite a small fam­ily and my sis­ter Pam and I be­gan re­search­ing to dis­cover more about our im­me­di­ate an­ces­tors,” says Lynne. “My great great grand­fa­ther is the first colour­ful char­ac­ter we found. His name is Wil­liam Al­der­man and we think that he mar­ried four times.”

Wil­liam was born in 1823 in Chal­font St Peter, Buck­ing­hamshire, to a fam­ily of agri­cul­tural labour­ers and Lynne be­lieves that his father was an al­co­holic. “Some­how, Wil­liam man­aged to turn his for­tunes around and pull him­self out of poverty by be­com­ing a sub­con­trac­tor on the rail­ways.”

The peri­patetic na­ture of his work meant that Wil­liam was hard to pin down on cen­suses and Lynne had to trawl through reams of Vic­to­rian records to find him.

“I dis­cov­ered a mar­riage record for Wil­liam to El­iz­a­beth Collins, who I think died in child­birth. Wil­liam then mar­ried her sis­ter, Mary, in 1853 in Ber­mond­sey. This came as a big sur­prise. In Vic­to­rian times, it was il­le­gal to marry your widow’s sis­ter be­cause Canon Law dic­tated it to be im­proper. This was the first sug­ges­tion of Wil­liam’s mav­er­ick streak.”

Wil­liam and Mary had chil­dren, in­clud­ing El­iz­a­beth, who was Lynne and Pam’s great grand­mother. The trail then went cold for a time un­til a dra­matic twist in the story emerged. “In 1872, Wil­liam left his wife and six chil­dren to jour­ney to Aus­tralia. A lady called El­iza Miller caught his eye and they set up home to­gether,” adds Lynne.

“It’s my hunch that Wil­liam went to Aus­tralia look­ing for work but in­stead found a whole new life and de­cided to stay. There’s no mar­riage record for the cou­ple but they did have a son, Wal­ter.”

Wil­liam’s rov­ing eye led to fur­ther ro­mance and a big­a­mous mar­riage with Estelle Dowl­ing, whom he mar­ried in Hobart in 1887. “I can’t find any di­vorce record for Wil­liam and Mary, so I’m sure this was an­other il­le­gal mar­riage. Wil­liam re­turned to Bri­tain only once on a visit when his sis­ter was dy­ing and he passed away in Aus­tralia in 1903.”

Lynne is philo­soph­i­cal about the colour­ful na­ture of Wil­liam’s life. “His char­ac­ter flaw was his eye for the ladies, but he was also a go-get­ting, self-made man, who carved out a good ca­reer for him­self.

“Wil­liam’s life was so fas­ci­nat­ing that it in­spired me to dis­cover more about his chil­dren. How­ever, this search led to a chal­leng­ing se­ries of brick walls.”

The time was the early 1990s, be­fore the days of the in­ter­net, and Wil­liam and Mary weren’t listed on any cen­suses. Lynne re­called her great grand­mother had at­tended Bed­ford School, so in com­plete frus­tra­tion she trawled through the en­tire 1871 census for Bed­ford.

A ‘eureka mo­ment’ came, al­though not un­til al­most at the end of the reel, when she found the fam­ily liv­ing there with­out their father. Fresh de­tails of the six chil­dren emerged. Wil­liam had worked in Savoy, Italy, for a time and two of the chil­dren, Wil­liam and El­iz­a­beth, were born there. Mary, Sa­muel, Emma and He­len fol­lowed in the UK.

A State­side con­nec­tion

“I was cu­ri­ous about their lives and wanted to dis­cover how they fared af­ter their father left. A State­side con­nec­tion popped up from a let­ter writ­ten by my great aunt in the 1950s, which re­vealed that He­len had em­i­grated to New York. We also found Sa­muel in an Amer­i­can census.

“A fam­ily mem­ber re­called a red-haired aunt who had em­i­grated to Canada with an Ital­ian count. I was in­trigued by this glam­orous char­ac­ter and won­dered which of the sis­ters she might be. I be­gan some ran­dom searches for Emma Al­der­man on Ances­try and the re­sults were as­ton­ish­ing.”

Emma was born in 1860, so she was only 12 when Wil­liam left for Aus­tralia. The story then jumps for­ward to Au­gust 1880, when she mar­ried the ex­otic-sound­ing Os­car Joseph Emil Galin­ski. They lived in Bat­tersea in 1881 and had a child, Lil­lian. Frus­trat­ingly, the fam­ily dis­ap­peared at this point, with no men­tion of them on the 1891 census.

“Think­ing lat­er­ally, I won­dered if there might be a con­nec­tion to He­len in Amer­ica. We struck it lucky with a pas­sen­ger man­i­fest from 1882, when Emma, Os­car and Lil­lian Galin­ski trav­elled from Rot­ter­dam to New York. The fam­ily stayed on be­cause the Amer­i­can 1892 census re­vealed that Emma and her two chil­dren, Vic­tor and Lil­lian, were liv­ing with her brother and sis­ter

Wil­liam’s char­ac­ter flaw was his eye for the ladies, but he was also a go-get­ting, self-made man

He­len and Sa­muel. I was baf­fled by this census, how­ever, be­cause Lil­lian’s age and birth­place were wrong and there was no men­tion of Os­car.” Lynne and Pam jug­gled three web­sites,

ital­ian­gen.org, ances­try.co.uk and fam­i­lysearch.org, to de­ci­pher the mys­tery. “Com­pletely out of the blue, we found Bri­tish di­vorce pa­pers for Os­car and Emma. This was as­ton­ish­ing given that di­vorce was so rare and scan­dalous at the time.”

Di­vorce pro­ceed­ings were be­gun in De­cem­ber 1881, just 18 months af­ter the cou­ple mar­ried. It was a court­room drama. Os­car was ac­cus­ing Emma of adul­tery with a wealthy mer­chant Archibald Fin­nie and was hop­ing to claim dam­ages of £1,000. Emma de­nied the adul­tery, which is re­puted to have taken place at The Lang­ham ho­tel in Lon­don, and Archibald ac­cused Os­car of just want­ing the money. “The tim­ing of the di­vorce pro­ceed­ings was very per­plex­ing, two months af­ter the birth of Lil­lian and three months be­fore they sailed to Amer­ica.” The di­vorce pro­ceed­ings were dis­missed in 1882.

What does Lynne de­duce from this tan­gled love tri­an­gle? “I be­lieve that Os­car was a wheeler-dealer, who tried to make his way as a mer­chant. Archibald was very rich, so per­haps he of­fered the cou­ple money to em­i­grate to Amer­ica, thus end­ing this very un­for­tu­nate episode.

“Af­ter such drama, I can un­der­stand the ap­peal of a fresh start on a dis­tant con­ti­nent. How­ever, their ar­rival in New York was marked with des­per­ate tragedy be­cause four days later their baby daugh­ter Lil­lian died. Emma must have given birth to an­other daugh­ter in 1886, whom she also called Lil­lian, and that is why we were con­fused by the Amer­i­can birth record.”

How­ever, Os­car’s ab­sence from the 1892 census was still a puz­zle. Comb­ing through an 1892 New York direc­tory Lynne found a tiny scrap of ev­i­dence. It men­tioned ‘Galin­ski, Lil­lian [Emma of­ten called her­self this], widow Os­car’. “Could this be our Emma and had Os­car died? He had, and by his own hand. On

fam­i­lysearch.org we found a death record for Os­car in Philadel­phia, which stated that he com­mit­ted sui­cide by shoot­ing him­self.

“This was such a shock dis­cov­ery. A lo­cal news­pa­per, the Brook­lyn Daily Ea­gle, gave fur­ther de­tails un­der the head­line ‘He fin­ished it’. Os­car was stay­ing in a Philadel­phia ho­tel and tried to ‘smother him­self with gas’. Po­lice were alerted but by the time they ar­rived, Os­car had shot him­self.

“He was clearly a trou­bled man who had tried to make a go of things on a dif­fer­ent con­ti­nent. Per­haps his busi­ness deal­ings weren’t go­ing well or he had run up debts. Emma and Os­car had also been hit by tragedy, los­ing baby Lil­lian on ar­rival in New York and their one-year-old son Os­car a few years later.”

Emma was left to bring up their two sur­viv­ing chil­dren, Lil­lian and Vic­tor, on her own. “Later in the 1890s, she bounced back in true Al­der­man style when she mar­ried Frank Richard Her­ri­man, a doc­tor who later served in the armed forces. Emma was aged 38 at the time and Frank was 21.”

Emma and Frank lived a set­tled and com­fort­able life in New York, with­out any hint of strife. The story doesn’t end here, how­ever, for Lynne was about to make a dis­turb­ing dis­cov­ery that would throw fresh light on Emma’s first mar­riage.

“Last year, I was go­ing through a small writ­ing desk in­her­ited from my un­cle and found an old note­book con­tain­ing tran­scribed copies of a se­ries of anony­mous let­ters. Th­ese dated from around 1880 and

were writ­ten to Emma’s brother-in-law, Wil­liam Wise. The writer tells Wil­liam that Emma was be­ing mis­treated by her hus­band and begged him to in­ter­vene. This was only three months af­ter the mar­riage. An­other let­ter, dated Jan­uary 1881, re­vealed that Emma was in Char­ing Cross Hos­pi­tal as a re­sult of Os­car’s abuse. He was also de­scribed as a drunk­ard, who lives off the small amount of money that Emma has put by. It was a ter­ri­ble dis­cov­ery to make.

“The only clues to the au­thor’s iden­tity are the ini­tials, JL and NN. Also, all were re­ceived at The Lang­ham ho­tel, where the al­leged adul­tery was sup­posed to have taken place. I would love to find out who wrote them.

“About a month later, Emma’s first daugh­ter Lil­lian was con­ceived. Fif­teen months later, she was cross­ing the At­lantic with her hus­band and baby hav­ing been through the di­vorce pro­ceed­ings.

“The let­ters are deeply wor­ry­ing and make me won­der why Emma stayed with Os­car. Per­haps she thought that he would change and turn over a new leaf in Amer­ica. They also shed light on his char­ac­ter and the na­ture of his death.

“I think Emma be­came a steely char­ac­ter in or­der to sur­vive the tri­als of her life. I’ve con­nected on­line with a de­scen­dant of her daugh­ter-in-law who said that Emma was a strong-willed, ma­tri­ar­chal fig­ure, who could be in­ter­fer­ing. I find that un­der­stand­able be­cause her early life was tough. She was abused by her hus­band, lost two chil­dren in New York and had to fend for her­self af­ter Os­car’s sui­cide.

“I’m glad she found sta­bil­ity in her se­cond mar­riage. She lived a long life and passed away in 1941. The big re­grets are that we don’t have a pho­to­graph of her and there are no di­rect de­scen­dants to share her story.

“A few years ago all I knew of Emma was that she may have been a red­head who ‘ran off ’ to the Amer­i­cas. What we have dis­cov­ered of her for­tunes in Vic­to­rian times has been as­ton­ish­ing and re­ward­ing.”

Lynne and Pam have proved the maxim that the truth is far stranger – and more be­guil­ing – than any work of fic­tion.

Left: Lynne and Pam at The Lang­ham ho­tel; Above: Os­car and Emma’s di­vorce pa­pers

Emma’s death cer­tifi­cate from 1941 shows that she was liv­ing in Brook­lyn, New York

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