Elsie Reinhardt

4 October 1896 – 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.

Reinhardt Family Plot, section 9, Lot 770
Reinhardt Family Plot, Section 9, Lot 770

Elsie was the middle child of seven born to Christ and Louise (Stoll) Reinhardt. The couple had met and married in Germany around 1886 and their oldest child, son Otto, was born there, but all their other children were born in Chicago after they immigrated to the US around 1890.

Sadly their next two oldest children – Wilhelm (b 1891) and Adolf (b 1892) – both died on 12 October 1899. I didn’t find any newpapert articles about accidents and the death record actually has Wilhelm’s death date as 13 October, but a bad accident is quite possible as is both boys coming down at the same time with something virulent and frequently fatal such as diphtheria or typhoid.

Christ and Louise’s other children all survived childhood and included Walter (b 1894), Elsie, Helen (b 1899), and youngest Harry (b 1901).

In 1910, only oldest Otto was working outside the home even though Walter was 15 years old, so it seems Christ’s work must have taken care of the family well enough to allow the children to attend school a bit past the normal time. His specific occupation shifted from census to census but overall it appears he worked as a carpenter in construction and furniture making contexts over time. Otto married in 1911 and Walter in 1914 and both had moved out of the family home by 1915.

Elsie was employed by Western Electric and had worked there for 2 1/2 years at the time of her death. Though she was not included in the 31st July 1915 Chicago Tribune special edition collection of obituaries, she was listed with the identified dead very early, on 25 July, and she was mentioned in a survivor story in that same paper, giving us a glimpse into her last moments.

Based on her friend Lillian Heideman’s story (titled “How Girl Escaped” which ran on page 3), Elsie boarded the Eastland that morning with her friends Lillian, Anna Tempanski, and Margaret Tomshen. None of the other girls are listed among the victims [update: Anna also died, but her name in the victims list is spelled “Tempinska” so I missed it in my initial search using the newspaper article spelling], and it seems possible Lillian was not yet aware her friend had died as that is not mentioned in the story.

Chicago Tribune, 25 July 1915, p3

I was one of the last to get on board… We had just checked our lunches and were in the washroom on the middle deck when the ship started to lean over. We became frightened and ran up to the upper deck where we found that the boat was leaning way over. The girls with me began to scream as water came up about their ankles, and the next thing I knew we were all struggling in the water. I went down and down. Water rushed into my mouth and nose. Then I came up. A man pushed a plank in my direction. I reached for it; it slipped from my grasp; and down I went again. After what seemed ages, I came up again and another man threw me a rope. Somehow I managed to get the rope around me and was pulled out.

I think we can imagine that Elsie’s story was likely very similar to Lillian’s except that she was unable to make it back to the surface in time or find a saving rope. Heartbreakingly, her mother is listed as the person who identified her on the Red Cross roster.

The family’s address had changed on the 1910 and 1920 censuses, but they seem to have been fairly stable financially on the surface; however, the Red Cross report following Elsie’s death paints a more precarious picture (even as it also has what appears to be just wrong information). The report says that the Reinhardts had recently lost a daughter prior to Elsie’s death, and if that is true, it was an infant born very late to Louise between 1910 and 1915 – possible but that would’ve been at least nine years after Harry’s birth. Another possibility is that the identity of who died could be wrong – an undated grave for Christ’s mother Marie Hackett Reinhardt stands on the family plot though she doesn’t appear to have lived with the family according to the 1900 and 1910 censuses, and it’s possible she died prior to 1900.

The Red Cross report also lists that Louise had developed a serious heart problem fairly recently, and I would think that a late pregnancy could put that kind of strain on her body, so, again, the daughter’s existence is possible if otherwise undocumented. However, as there are headstones on the family plot for other family members both before and after Elsie’s death, I’m inclined to believe that this was simply a misunderstanding of whatever information the family actually conveyed to their Red Cross contact. If such a daughter existed, I would expect a marker for her alongside her parents and siblings.

The Red Cross report includes the information that the family had taken up farming between the censuses and that it did not go well. After Elsie’s death, Christ continued to work; Helen went to work apparently for the first time outside the home (though it is not noted where), and Harry was working but was only able to pay towards his own board and not contribute to the family’s care.

The family had moved to Kolin Av prior to Elsie’s death. This house was a single-family dwelling on a large corner lot (and while the neighborhood is still there and largely intact, the Reinhardt house is long gone, replaced by a fenced-in lot full of cars), but whether that was where the family landed post-farm experiment or it tied to the farming somehow is unknown. (Or was the farm another odd inaccurate story like the lost daughter?)

Western Electric paid out $177.50 for Elsie’s funeral expenses, and the Eastland Fund Gift (managed by the Red Cross) for the family was $315. This was a bit more than was usual for the loss of an adult child so some of that was likely hardship compensation.

At this point only Helen and Harry were living at home with their parents, but by 1920, two major things had changed. The first was that Otto’s wife Ida died in 1916, leaving him a widower with two sons under four years old. At some point after this and prior to 1920, Otto and his sons moved in with his parents and siblings again. Very sadly, Louise died in 1918. Whether that was due to her heart issues or the influenza pandemic is of course not noted on her Illinois death record transcript.

The 1920 census lists Christ, Otto, Helen, and Henry all together along with Otto’s sons (erroneously listed as Christ’s sons). Otto and Harry were working for the railroad (as Otto also had been in 1910) and Christ listed himself as a partner in a furniture manufacturing firm, so some rebounding from their mid-decade hardships seems to have happened. They were all still on Kolin Av., and Helen was no longer working outside the home — one presumes she was caring for her nephews and the household.

In the 1920s, everyone either remarried or married for the first time — Otto first in 1920, Harry in 1923, Christ in 1925, and Helen around the same time in 1925 or 1926. Christ’s second wife was also named Louise which has led to much confusion in the findagrave.com records (I’ve submitted several update suggestions). Louise II was born Louise Vieth and had been previously been married to Leopold Basner. She and her son Carl were recent immigrants to the US (1921), and it appears she was widowed prior to that.

Walter had two daughters, naming his eldest after Elsie. Otto did not have children with his second wife, so his two sons, one of whom Elsie would have known and likely doted on as her first nephew, were his only children. It doesn’t appear Helen had children. Harry had two daughters, so there were six Reinhardt grandchildren that we know of.

Christ died in 1936 and joined his children, mother, and first wife on the family plot. Louise I’s headstone has the inscription “Mutter” and is beside Elsie. Christ was buried beside her and when Louise II died in 1941, she was buried on Christ’s other side. Otto died at just 53 in 1940. He is buried elsewhere at Concordia with his second wife, his first wife having been buried with her parents years before, also elsewhere at Concordia.

Walter died in 1963 in Des Plaines but it’s unclear where he’s buried; his wife died many years later in Michigan and was buried there, near where their daughter Elsie lived with her family. Harry died in 1973 and is buried with his wife at Clarendon Hills. Helen lived to 1980, both outliving all her siblings and living to the oldest age of any of her family members (80). She had been widowed in her late 50s and died 30 years to the day after her husband, having never remarried.

RIP Reinhardt family

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Thank you to the Eastland Disaster Historical Society for providing additional documentation in support of this project.

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