Monday, March 28, 2011


Four of my great-grandfather's friends participated in the Revolutions of 1848 before emigrating to America. Like him, they contributed to the well-being of New York and their adopted country during the second half of the nineteenth century. Unlike him, they married women who became prominent citizens themselves. I've written about these things in three previous blog posts.[1]

My great-grandmother, in contrast to the other four wives, was not a well-known personage. Her obituary in the Brooklyn Eagle says she was quiet and retiring, a home-maker and helpmeet. Her name appeared in newspaper reports when she sailed with her husband on trips to Germany, visited the White House, participated in the wedding of a child, or celebrated a significant anniversary. Otherwise she was quite invisible. Her husband mentioned her only once in his extensive writings.[2] The obit speaks of the support she gave her husband and the small family she raised with him, but its main focus of the is the evolution of the area in which the family's home was located from rural countryside to a tangle of apartment buildings and railroad yards.

{Obituary, Hannah Eliza Windmuller, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 3, 1929}

Hannah Eliza Lefman Windmuller was called Annie. The first child born to Henry Lefman and his wife Sarah, she was raised in the German-American community of Hoboken, New Jersey, just a ferry ride from downtown Manhattan. Although her siblings, including a sister, were given excellent educational opportunities, there's no record that she went to school at all.[3]

Her ancestors, who had settled in New York when it was still New Amsterdam, included one man famed for his robust defense of religious freedom and another notorious for antagonizing his neighbors and breaking the law.[4] If her mother Sarah leaned one way or the other — the defense of a moral principal or self-indulgent flouting of social convention — it seems to have been toward the latter. Family records and a bit of research have provided me with very little information about Sarah Lefman but what is known is not flattering. In 1840 her husband put a public notice in the New York Sun disowning her debts and 18 years later Annie's husband Louis wrote a letter to Sarah's mother warning her against a generous impulse to give Sarah some financial support.

Some aspects of the life of Sarah's granddaughter, Clara, may slightly suggest that she was an indifferent mother. Clara was my grandmother. My father remembered her as being inattentive to him and his siblings. She smothered love on her pet dogs but was apparently not a warm and caring mother. She also had a contentious relationship with her husband, my grandfather, and, though they did not divorce or even live separately, she never forgave him for an affair he had with another woman during a summer in which she took her children to Germany to meet his extended family there. Though living in the same apartment, my father said that for many years — in fact decades — they rarely spoke to one another. Other family members have said that no man could live up to her image of the perfect man, who was personified in her own father. Apparently she did not believe her mother to be so free of flaws. According to a cousin, she felt her to be cold and unloving.

This is the public announcement by Henry Lefman disowning his wife's debts. It's the item on left beginning with the word "Caution."

{New York Sun, 1840; Henry Lefman announces that he will not honor debts incurred by his wife, Sarah}

A few months later, in what may be a related event, Lefman announced that he was bankrupt.

{Henry Lefman declares bankruptcy: Evening Post, Thursday, Feb. 3, 1841}

I thought perhaps Henry and Sarah were living apart in 1840 when he disowned her debts, but if so they surely reconciled thereafter because the couple had four more children after that year, the last one born in 1860 when he was 56 and she 44. It doesn't seem likely that Sarah's spending habits improved, however, because I have this letter my great-grandfather wrote her mother in 1868 advising her not to help Sarah reduce her indebtedness by settling a mortgage that Sarah held.

Here's a transcription of the letter:
New York, November 13 /68

Mrs. Abby Wolf Present

Dear Madame!

I understand that you intend to buy the mortgage, which your daughter Sarah gave upon your property in Rahway NJ and that you will agree to pay the full value for it.

I have asked my lawyer today and he is of the opinion, that said mortgage is of no value, while you live, and will never be of any value, should your daughter Sarah not survive you.

Under such circumstances I would strongly advise you against the purchase of said mortgage, unless you ... buy it for a trifling amount.

If you were very rich and you could afford to pay all your daughter's debts, it would be well to pay this one as well, but you should certainly not embarrass yourselves, because somebody has made a foolish mistake.

My wife and son are well in Boston -- My best regards to your family.

Louis Windmuller
This is a photo of Sarah Lenington Thorne Lefman taken in 1850.

{Our very limited file of family memorabilia includes a portrait of Sarah taken this year. The family appear to have been traveling in Germany because, as you can see, the studio, A.H. Heckmann, is located in Osanbrück at Johannesstrasse 68. Osnabrück is not far from Henry's home town of Telgte. My great-grandfather, Louis Windmuller, went to high school in Osnabrück at the Gymnasium Carolinum and so did another relative who migrated to New York: Bernard Roelker. In fact the Roelker family were centered in Osnabrück and it tempting to hypothesize that there was some link between them and the Lefmans, though what it might be I cannot say. Sarah was 34 when she sat for this portrait.}

Annie's father wrote this to her when she was 18. I have no information about its context.
For my Daughter Annie E. Lefman

The performance of Duty insures the protection of God. ... Read useful books, practice your piano forte, your German, your French, your History of your own Country as well as of Europe in which you have to extend your little store as also your other Studies, try to become efficient in all Household affairs, in cooking, washing, ironing, baking, cleaning, and useful economy.

Read over the above Rules and maxims very often at least once a week -- Recollect they are written by your best Friend at Home No. 15 Union Place, Hoboken, NJ, the 22 Day of February 1854 (the Birthday of the Father of your glorious Country George Washington.)

Keep a Journal in which you write every Evening the Passages you meet during the Day.

Be Virtuous and clever my dear Daughter and let your Deeds, actions and everything be such that they bring Honour to Yourself and Family, this is the sincere with of your affectionate Father

Henry Lefman


[1] Here are the three blog posts on the "Forty-Eighters." [2] This is an extract from a letter to the editor of the New York Sun that Louis Windmuller wrote on February 1, 1893:
Some years previously [to 1857 - so this would be very soon after his arrival in New York] I lived in the boarding house of Mrs. F., 54 Barclay street, and my best girl was in Bloomfield street, Hoboken. She was sitting in her father's parlor on a fine winter evening waiting for me to take her to the firemen's ball, where I had been rash enough to invite her. Not minding the warning of my friends, I started in my "swallow tail" on regulation time, by the Chancellor Livingston [a ferry across the Hudson], but did not get far before we were stuck fast in masses of ice. The wheels [of the steamboat] absolutely refused to turn: with our assistance some of the deck hands finally allowed themselves to be lowered by ropes, with lanterns in one hand and shovels in the other, to remove the obstruction from the blades of our paddles. By heroic efforts they finally succeeded so as to be able to move. We effected a landing at Hoboken about midnight, and I met a reception from my lady as cold as the ice was in the river. We arrived at the ball in time for supper and the champagne soon revived our spirits; but I will never forget the worry of that long evening.
[3] There is information about the education that Henry and Sarah Lefman gave their education in these two blog posts: [4] The first was William Thorne. About him see love, peace and liberty condemn hatred, war and bondage. The second was Henry Lenington. About him see evil practices unto the disturbance of Christian order and peace.

1 comment:

Heather Kuhn Roelker said...

I had to post as I noted that you also have a Roelker line in your research. I have tracked my Roelkers to Wallenhorst and Lechtingen just north of Osnabruck. Perhaps there is some distant connection...