Day of celebration suddenly becomes more special
Published in the Duluth News Tribune
The story of my Great-Great Aunt Josie’s death in 1905 had so many holes in it, it bothered me. The basic story that carried over the generations was that Josie died at the age of 12 or 13 of a gunshot wound during a hunting outing with her family. Apparently my Great-Great Grandmother Josephine, Josie’s mother, laid the gun on the dock near a rope that anchored their boat to shore. While the family prepared to embark on their expedition, the rope somehow wrapped around the trigger of the gun and when the gun fell, it was accidentally discharged.
I asked my mom, “How could that even happen?” I couldn’t envision the event.
“I don’t know,” Mom answered.
“So, Josie was sitting in the boat with her dad?”
“Yeah, that’s how the story went. No one really knows for sure. There might have been some kind of a blame game that went on between my Great-Great Grandparents. Something about the rope, and who did what.”
It was such a sad thing to imagine. I had to ask though, “why would they take the gun in a boat? I thought they were going hunting?!”
“What I gathered was that the day of the accident, they were going to take the boat across the lake where the hunting was good. I was told J.J. often brought a gun along to shoot the muskies. They got pretty big in that lake.”
Both my mother and I paused in a sort of reverence.
Mom concluded, “that’s what I remember being told. Nobody really talked about it though. It was one of those subjects that your Grandma told me, wasn’t allowed.”
If that story wasn’t sad enough, I soon learned that no one knew for sure what day Josie died. And that part made me feel neglectful to her memory. Josie was only a child, but that didn’t make her life any less important. In fact, that made it worse. She never got the chance to become an awkward teen. Go to college. Get married . . . How could we grieve such a tragic loss without a date?
I took a day to stew on it.
The next morning, I Googled Cable, WI cemetery. I found a contact name for the local graveyard, Greenwood Cemetery.
Kelli, the deputy clerk, answered the phone with a friendly voice.
I almost panicked. I wondered, is this woman going to think I’m crazy for caring about someone who died over 115 years ago?
“I’m looking for specific dates of birth and death for a person buried in your graveyard back in 1905.”
I explained what little I knew about how she died. “. . . the gun fell over and it accidentally discharged.”
Kelli’s voice was kind when she offered to email the people who could help me. The response was immediate, I soon had three more strangers offering to help me solve my mystery. There was Cody, the mapper. Jim, the graveyard caretaker. And Carol, the secretary of the Historical Society.
Each person seemed to understand the importance of my request. Cody and Kelli even offered to visit the gravesite and check for a date. But with the record snowfalls the past weeks, accessing the graveyard and records was going to have to wait, understandably so.
It was a quiet afternoon later that week when I started my internet search on accidental deaths by guns. I was sure my Aunt wasn’t the first. I figured if I knew more about the hunting season back in 1905, I’d be able to narrow the date of Josie’s death.
My first Google search was ‘1905 Wisconsin hunting season.’ I didn’t find anything there, so I Googled ‘Wisconsin gun accidents 1905.’
It was quite depressing to read through the death reports and the many ways a gun had been misfired. There were so many children whose lives were lost, but I still hadn’t found any of the specifics I was looking for. What I didn’t know was my next search was going to lead me to the answer.
I typed the words Josephine Kreeger accidentally.
I felt my breath catch when I saw the name on the top listed result;
Ottumwa Tri-weekly courier., August 15, 1905, Image 5
. . . Miss Josephine Kreeger of Cable, Wis., formerly of Eddyville, was killed July 25 by the discharge of a shotgun . . .
‘Wow,’ I whispered, my mind started to race. The sun was probably shining warmth on the Kreeger family faces that day. Young Josie was most likely wearing a grey pleated dress when she died.
I clicked on the supplied link to the Ottumwa courier. The newspaper page print was too small to read, so I had to enlarge the page.
The story was titled, A Sad Accident. Josephine Kreeger, formerly of Eddyville, killed in a strange manner.
The Ottumwa paper quoted the Washburn Times saying; Another sad accident occurred in n this locality Tuesday, July 25, when Josephine, the 13-year0old daughter of J.J. Kreeger, was accidentally shot and instantly killed. Mr. and Mrs. Kreeger and daughter were going down the river on a raft to pick berries. While Mr. Kreeger and the little girl were endeavoring to haul the raft upon the shore, the gun, which was lying upon the raft, accidentally discharged, a charge of the buckshot entering the breast of the girl just above the heart. Justice Gibbons immediately summoned a jury and held an inquest of the body. The jury returned a verdict of death by the accidental discharge of a gun.
I felt the tears well in my eyes thinking of the moments leading up to the accident, and then the horrible nightmare my Great-Great Grandparents had to live through.
After all my searching I figured I understood the reason why my Great-Grandmother Nina, Josie’s only sibling, didn’t want anyone to talk about what happened. I’m sure it was at times, too painful to endure.
With the facts in place over 115 years later, it was as though it was my turn to mourn the loss of my Auntie, like it just happened yesterday. I wished I could wrap my arms around my great-great grandparents. Tell them that I loved them . . . It wasn’t their fault . . .It was a bad accident . . .
I emailed my friends in Cable and told them they could stop their search. I gave them the news of my findings, it felt like I was rewriting history. My family wasn’t on a hunting trip, they were going berry picking. They had a raft on a river, not a boat in the lake. The wholesome innocence of the plot almost made the event sadder. The tragic ending would forever remain the same.
A few days later I contacted the historical society of Wisconsin. With a date of death, it was possible to order a certificate. I still wanted to know what Josie’s birthdate was. For $15.00 I could easily get that answer. I ordered my copy on February 26th.
I went to my mom’s that night and shared with her the information I found. We talked for hours about the Kreegers, and the life they had homesteading their property in the Drummond area. Mom told me the story again of how no one was allowed to go into Josie’s room after she died. Great-Great Grandma kept her room like a shrine. But this time, I understood why. The Kreegers had no one to talk to but each other. Their families lived in Illinois, there weren’t phones to connect with loved ones. Their only living daughter, I’m guessing, didn’t want to see them cry. Moving through their grief must have been especially difficult.
On March 5th I got an email that the death certificate was available and ready for download. When I opened it and found Josie’s date of birth, I couldn’t help but smile. We had something happy to remember. We had her birthdate, November 21st, 1892. That date couldn’t have been any better.
I called my mom right away. “I’ve got Josie’s birthday,” I sang into the phone. “It’s November 21st.”
Mom laughed a gentle tone, “that’s Del’s birthday.”
Del is her oldest son, my oldest brother.
To think for over 60 years, my family was already celebrating that special day once a year for someone we loved.
And that, my friends, is where I will leave this story’s end. You can bet our family will honor little Josie’s birth once a year, and it will be a happy day for us all.