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