Edna Michaelis

5 March 1897 – 24 July 1915

The Eastland, one of five chartered excursion boats meant to ferry employees, their families and friends from Chicago over to the Michigan City shore for the annual Western Electric Company picnic, keeled over into the Chicago River while still at dock, trapping hundreds inside its hull and leading to the deaths of 844 of the 2,500 passengers aboard at the time of the incident which became known as The Eastland Disaster.

Edna was the youngest of seven children (five sisters and one brother who did not survive infancy) born to German immigrants William and Mathilda Ostenberg Michaelis. The couple appear to have married in Germany and then immigrated in 1881 fairly soon after. That puts almost the entire first twenty years of their lives in the US in the black hole of the lost 1890 census for us, but it is possible to find a few birth records for their daughters and son.

In 1900, William was working as a miller and all the girls were living at home with only the oldest, Emma, going out to work, but in 1910, he had a solid railroad job working as a freight handler and all but Edna had either married and moved out or were working outside the home. At the time, they lived on Robey Street (now Damen Avenue) in — if I’ve identified the correct building — an adorable red brick two-flat on what is one of the rare stretches of residential Chicago street one can imagine a time-traveler might recognize if they were transported there now from 100 years ago.

It’s possible Edna is the Edna Michaelis mentioned in the 12 June 1910 Chicago Tribune Bird Lovers’ League page as a new Chicago member. This is a group that appears to have been aimed at children though she would have been about to age out of what was considered childhood in that era. Still, I like to think of her being a bird enthusiast, joining that little club and getting her badge in the post.

Though there is no record of when Edna started working or if Western Electric was her first employer, but at the time of her death, Edna worked as a file clerk there. She had a sweetheart named Philip Wren who also worked at the company. Together they boarded the Eastland on their way to the picnic, and together they perished in the disaster.

Edna’s nearest-in-age older sister Mae passed away nine years later in 1924 at the age of 30 without ever having married. I couldn’t locate the 1920 census for the girls’ parents and, I presume, Mae, so I don’t have any clues if she was still working at that point. The following year, William died, and both were buried with Edna and little Eddy at Concordia.

Mathilda moved to Detroit to live with Emma and her family and passed away just six years later. Her death certificate specifies Concordia as her place of burial, so it’s unclear why her death date isn’t inscribed on the headstone, but she is with her husband and children.

MITCHELL* —Miss Edna, 18 years old, 817 N. Robey-st., was drowned with her sweetheart, Philip Wren, who had escorted her to the Eastland outing. She is survived by her parents Mr. and Mrs. William Mitchell and by the following sisters: Mattie Mitchell, Mrs. Emma Soeder, Mrs. Elsie Abegg, and Mrs. Clara Doss. Funeral services were held Wednesday, with interment in Concordia cemetery. Miss Mitchell was an employee of the Western Electric company.

Chicago Tribune, 31 July 1915
*The family’s name is incorrect

Emma and her husband were both buried at Forest Home after they died, though they lived in Detroit for their entire married lives. I presume family ties for both of them led to that decision.

Edna’s second oldest sister Elsie — who outlived her husband William by almost 35 years — is also buried at Forest Home (he is at Rosehill).

The only sibling not buried in Forest Park near the rest of her family is middle sister Clara who lived many years in Indianapolis and then moved out to Los Angeles with her husband later in life and died there. Both she and her husband are buried in Indianapolis.

Though I couldn’t find an obituary for Mathilda, it did warm my heart to see that both Edna and Mae were mentioned in their father’s obituary. Sometimes with these histories, it feels as if the dead were forgotten or pushed away to avoid the pain of their usually long-ago loss when they are left out of a list of loved ones, so a remembrance like that is lovely.

RIP Edna and family and for your sweetheart Philip, too.

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