Augusta Polke Adler

23 December 1884/5 – 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.

Augusta was the second oldest of Gustav and Pauline (Ziervogel) Polke’s six surviving children (of 8). The family immigrated when she was an infant, though there seems to have been some confusion as to her birthday. Official records in the US mostly say she was born in December 1885, but the 1900 census lists her birth as being in December 1884 along with the family’s immigration year as 1885. As this was much closer to the events in question and the family immigrating in 1885 would have meant Augusta was actually born in the US if December of that year were her birthday, it seems most likely that she was actually born in 1884. This would make her 30 and not 29 at the time of her death.

In 1900, all the children were still living at home with their parents, and both Augusta and her oldest sibling, sister Anna, were working as Action Makers for Pianos which sounds interesting.

In November 1908, Augusta married Edward “Eddie” Adler, a Chicago-born child of immigrants and one of the youngest of 9 children (8 surviving). Seven months later, their son Clarence was born. Eddie was a little younger than Augusta and worked as a cabinet maker for the telephone company around the time they married. The telephone company in question was Western Electric where he had been working since August or September of 1905 according to WE’s records.

Their entry in the 1910 census has some confusing bits to it as it lists two children: Clarence born just under a year earlier at the time of the census, and Edward, only 2 or 3 months old at the time of the census. However, Augusta had answered that she had only one child living of one child born and Edward Jr never appears in any other records – birth, death, later census records, or obituaries. My theory is that this phantom infant was listed under the wrong family by the census taker. If he did exist as Augusta’s child, it seems he died quite young, well before his mother’s passing. In 1912, son Raymond was born, completing the little family.

Augusta does not have an obituary in the Chicago Tribune July 31st special edition, but on the 25th, she was listed (as Miss Adler) among the missing; on the 26th she was listed among the identified dead. The coroner’s report listed her brother-in-law Charles Lange (sister Anna’s husband; married in 1913) as the person who identified her. Where Eddie was in all this is unclear, but his absence would soon become permanent in the lives of his wife’s family and his children.

Tracking Eddie after 1915 is complicated, but his draft registration from June 1917 claims a wife and two children; there is no evidence he had remarried at this point and little evidence the boys were in his care, though it’s possible both circumstances were true. He was still working at Western Electric, now as a machine operator, and he claimed a draft exemption on the grounds of his work being in the public interest.

What’s interesting is the next record he appears on is a birth certificate — almost exactly 9 months after his draft record — for a son, Russell Adler, born to a woman named Katie (nee Koehler) to whom he was not yet married. Katie was a twice-married, and perhaps already twice-divorced, mother of four at the time of their mutual youngest child’s birth. If Katie was the wife Edward was claiming, she was not yet legally so.

His next appearance in the public records was an enlistment in the General Service Infantry on 2 October 1918, just under six weeks before Armistice, though he could not have had any idea this was so close on the horizon. Still it seems odd and also seems likely to have been voluntary — perhaps he’d lost his WE job; perhaps scandal surrounded son Russell’s birth; perhaps Katie’s second husband was not yet ex and was looking for revenge; perhaps Edward just wanted to escape his responsibilities or needed to get out of town until things blew over. Whatever the case, his military service came to an end a month after Armistice, making his service just about two months long. It’s likely he never left the US and possibly didn’t even get out of Illinois.

One might think at this point, he would make an honest woman of Katie, but he doesn’t show up on the 1920 census at all that I can find, and Katie’s entry listed just herself and all five of her children, all using her first husband’s last name of Brennan while she and her oldest son worked doing laundry to support themselves. She also listed herself as divorced. After her first divorce, she’d reverted to her birth surname but perhaps it was safer to be a Brennan than a Schenk if the second husband was a problem. It’s also the case that her three older children were Brennans so it may have been a matter of simplicity or a way to deflect nosy questions to claim the name for her entire family.

In 1920, Augusta’s children Clarence (10) and Raymond (7) appear to have been technically orphaned and were living with their maternal grandparents as well as an uncle and an aunt still at home. In 1928, their grandfather Gustav died, and by 1930, the census listed them living only with their now-widowed grandmother, their aunts and uncles all married and/or moved away*. By this time, they had both left school and were working as machinists — Clarence at Western Electric and Raymond for a printer.

*As there were so many immediate family members for Augusta, I focused my research more narrowly and did not look into the fates of her siblings

1930 found Eddie finally married to Katie and working in the meat packing industry. All of Katie’s children were living with them but not Eddie’s children from his first marriage. It seems fairly clear that either there was some rift between Augusta’s family and Eddie that left the boys in her family’s care for good or that Eddie abandoned them and started over with Katie, focusing just on their shared son and Katie’s four older children.

In 1948, Eddie died. His brief military service granted him a military marker, and Katie has a similar, simple flat marker and is buried beside him. A gap without a marker divides Katie from her son Thomas who also had a fairly brief military service in 1943 of about 7 months total during which it’s possible he was injured, though I couldn’t confirm this. Regardless, he died in 1950 at only 42 years old.

The empty gap is where Augusta is buried. Her lack of a marker supports my theory that Eddie wanted to forget his first family entirely. Perhaps it was instead a series of misleading public records and a coincidental headstone destruction that gives this impression, but to me, this omission feels very disrespectful.

Augusta’s parents and her sister Anna and family are buried nearby in Section 13. Her son Raymond is also buried at Concordia, though I’m not sure where. Very sadly, both her sons died relatively young, though both had married and each had two children. Raymond died in 1950 at just 38 years old; Clarence in 1957 at just 47. Clarence apparently converted at some point and is buried at St. Casimir’s in the city. It does not appear either served in the war, but both would have been in their 30s by that time and would have had children at home so that’s not surprising.

Augusta’s mother Pauline lived to be 91 years old (d 1947). In 1940 after her grandsons had married and had their own homes, she lived with daughter Minnie’s family. When Pauline died, she was buried on a lot that would later be shared by her oldest daughter Anna (d 1962) and Anna’s husband Charles (d 1974) who’d identified Augusta’s body so many years before.

RIP Augusta and loved ones

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