Alma Schoenke

4 May 1890 – 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.

Alma was both a middle child and the oldest child in her family. When her parents married, her mother — Friedericke Kraul — had been recently widowed when her first husband Louis Behrens died in March 1884. They had at least four children together (Louise, Anna, Marie, and Louis Jr), and life was likely very difficult for them as not only had her husband died but her father who had also lived with the family according to the 1880 census had died in 1881.

Alma’s father — Christian Schoenke —- was a recent German immigrant a few years younger than Friedericke and from all indications had not been married prior to when he and Friedericke wed in September 1884.

Alma was their oldest surviving child together, though records indicate she had at least two older full siblings who died in childhood prior to 1900. Along with these two, Marie Behrens also died prior to 1900, and according to Friedericke’s 1900 and 1910 census answers about number of children born and number still living, she lost one other child prior to 1900, though I was unable to establish if it was a Behrens or Schoenke baby.

Alma was 16 years younger than her oldest half-sister Louise and would have only been six years old when Louise married. Alma was eleven years older than her youngest sibling Helen who was 14 years old when Alma died.

In 1900 Anna and Louis Behrens were still living at home; oldest Louise had married in 1896. Alma’s younger siblings were her nearest-in-age brother William who was just one year her junior, and little brothers Edward and Fred. A year later in 1901, youngest Helen (also known as Lena) was born. The 1910 census shows all the Schoenke siblings still living at home but Anna and Louis had moved away in the intervening years.

schoenke family plotIn 1910, Alma was 19 years old and working as a cashier at a department store; William was 17 and working at Western Electric as an inspector; Edward was 15 and working as a punch press at a factory. It’s possible Edward was also working at Western Electric, but the census does not state that outright. Whether he was already employed there or became an employee prior to 1915 or never worked there at all is also unclear as the next five years are lost to the census gap. Alma’s obituary is unfortunately too vague to clarify these details, either. According to its report, Alma and Edward were together on the Eastland, but only Edward was saved. No other family members are mentioned as having been with them. It’s possible both were William’s guests, and he was simply left out of the story or that they chose to take an earlier boat than he wanted to.

The wording in the obituary is wrenching: “Miss Alma, 25 years old… went down while her brother, Edward Schoenke, was being saved.” It goes on to say she was survived by her parents and four siblings, but at the time of her death, while she did have four surviving full siblings, she was survived by seven brothers and sister — Louise, Anna, Louis, William, Edward, Fred, and Helen. While the older and younger children of Friedericke were several years apart in age, later public records and obituaries indicate they did all consider themselves immediate family.

The Western Electric roster does not list Alma and the Red Cross roster adds no clarity as to Alma’s connection to Western Electric at the time of her death if any (her occupation was still cashier per the Red Cross roster). I also didn’t find a probate record for Alma. Whatever happened in the aftermath and whatever relief the family received, if any, is unknown.

Report of the Relief Committee
Red Cross – Report of the Relief Committee, p126

Edited 16 December 2022 — thanks to some additional info from the Eastland Disaster Historical Society pointing me to the correct record in the Red Cross Disaster Relief report (which is anonymized and it can be very difficult to impossible to match the summaries with specific people), I was able to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the Schoenke family at the time of Alma’s death. Though Christian’s 1910 census responses which stated that he was a sweeper in the car industry — likely rail or streetcar considering the time period — and had not been unemployed at any time the prior year, seemed to indicate a fairly stable household, the Red Cross report indicates that by 1915, he was only employed parttime. Edward and Fred had a “small express business” together that was not a guaranteed income. Alma and apparently her little sister Helen were the only ones with steady wages, and the family relied most on Alma’s work. It seems at least for a time, Edward went to work for Western Electric in the aftermath of the disaster. Based on these criteria, the Red Cross and Eastland Fund paid out a total of $315 to the family, but this does seem to be the only relief they received.

The next time we see the family is on the 1920 census, and it’s clear Edward has had a very difficult intervening five years. In 1916, he married Albina Cote and together they had two children: son Edward, born 7 months after his parents wedding, and daughter Alma Dorothy, born on 29 August 1918. Tragically, Albina died the next day and was buried beside her sister-in-law and daughter’s namesake on the Schoenke family plot.

In 1920, Edward and his son were living with his parents and two younger siblings but little Alma Dorothy (who would go by Dorothy) appears to have been living with cousins of some kind, probably on her mother’s side of the family — I could not establish the exact connection. Friedericke died shortly after the census in March of 1920 and was also buried with her daughter on the family plot.

Later in 1920, Edward remarried to a young woman who appears to have to have had a son out of wedlock about a year prior. Edward also appears to have adopted the boy in some fashion (Charlie, who very sadly died in WWII in France on 24 April 1945), as he used Schoenke as his surname, but Edward is not mentioned anywhere as his father in the various records around his enlistment and death in the war so it may not have been a legal adoption. Edward and his second wife Clara had five more children together.

Edward Schoenke
Edward Schoenke, buried in Select Singles

Christian Schoenke died just three months after young Charlie, adding another loss to Edward’s roster, and I think it may have been due to the early tragedy of surviving the Eastland and losing his big sister as well as the losses of his first wife and mother so closely together that shortened Edward’s life. He died in 1950 at just 55 years old, the first of all his siblings who’d survived young adulthood to pass away. He’s buried alone over in the “Select Singles” section of Concordia, and it’s unclear as to why as his younger brother Fred was later buried on the family plot so at the time of Edward’s death, there was a space. Perhaps, as Fred never married and by 1950 was quite unlikely to do so, it had already been set aside for him by the family.

Edward’s second wife Clara was Catholic making theirs an apparent two-faith marriage (which explains why Edward was not buried where she could later join him). She and several of their children — including Alma Dorothy — are buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery elsewhere in Cook County.

Over the next 20 years, all of Alma’s surviving siblings passed away: William later in 1950; Anna in 1953; Louise in 1961; Louis in 1962; Fred in 1969; and youngest Helen in 1970. Louis married but had no children and Fred never married, but the rest had several children. Alma’s namesake died in 1986, 71 years after the aunt she never met.

RIP Schoenke family

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