Adoption, 1892

When Bertha Wintermantel Gretsch, the widow of Jacob, died in late March 1892, she left her three children orphaned. Her oldest son, William Charles had just turned fifteen. Bertha’s only daughter, Dora was 4 months short of her fourteenth birthday and her youngest child Ralph was more than half way to his thirteenth birthday. All difficult ages for children and the adults who care for them.

After Bertha’s death, two separate sets of documents were filed to the surrogate court in Kings County concerning the guardianship of the three orphaned Gretsch children. These papers reflect the closeness of the Gretsch family in Brooklyn at the time. They also reflect the beginning of a family separation that would 70 years later prompt Dora, Bertha’s only daughter to write to her brother’s son, William “Seems a great pity that we were kept apart so many years but we will have to try and make up for lost time”

All the parties mentioned in the guardianship papers are closely related. Mrs. Ursula Wintermantel was Bertha’s mother and the children’s grandmother. She is the only member of the Wintermantel family mentioned in these papers. The eight Gretsch family members were half siblings or first cousins of the children.

All the Gretsch’s mentioned were grandchildren of Casimir and Maria Dorothea Wild Gretsch married in Simmern, Germany on June 4, 1815 just days before the battle of Waterloo. Their two eldest surviving sons, William and Jacob, were both born in Simmern, in the early 1820’s. Each son would be married three times in the course of their lives. These multiple marriages produced a large discrepancy in the ages of their offspring. The marriages also produced many half siblings, complicating even more the connections of the family in Brooklyn at this time.

William the oldest of the sons from Simmern, settled in Mannheim. His oldest sons William and August, were born in Speyer. The children of his second wife Anna Maria von Gerichten were all born in Mannheim. Several of his children played an important role in the guardianship of his brother’s children in Brooklyn in 1892. They include William Casimir, Frederick, Louis, Philippine, Carl and Jacob.

Jacob the more adventurous and artistic younger brother from Simmern, is reported to be the first in the family to come to America. Jacob and his first wife Rosina Artz had two daughters who were born and died as infants in Trier before the family came to American. All of Jacob’s children who lived to adulthood were born in Brooklyn. They include Emilie, Wilhelmina, William Charles, Dora and Ralph.


In 1892, Bertha and her children had been living at 340 Stockton Street in Brooklyn. In a letter many years later dated March 2, 1961 Dora wrote to her older brother’s son, William, “We had one flat on Stockton and just grandmother and Herman had two rooms on the same floor but in a different apartment.” Dora’s girlhood recollections are verified by the 1892 New York State Census which shows Mrs. Wintermantel and her 29 year old son Herman living in the same building as the widowed Bertha and her three children.

It must have been shortly after this census record was taken that Bertha died. She was 46 years old. The cause of death was nephritis. This condition, a weakness of the kidneys had probably plagued her for years. Years later her oldest son William Charles would recall his mother in a letter to his granddaughter as “being a Semi Invalid”.

Bertha was buried in Brooklyn at The Evergreens Cemetery in a section called Cedar Vale next to her husband Jacob and his second wife Anna Artz.


Jacob Gretsch died in April of 1883 years just one month before the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge known at the time as The East River Bridge. Having brought with him from Germany a technical education, the whole process of the building of the bridge must have intrigued him from the time of its very beginnings. Setting our sights on this moment in the family history i.e. the second half of the 1900 century in Brooklyn, we can use the construction of the East River bridge, as an anchoring point from which to imagine the early and daily lives of the Gretsch family. For the bridge at the time it was built was the big news of each day to the people who lived in Brooklyn.

Anna Artz Gretsch who was also buried with Jacob had died in 1872. She was the mother of Jacob’s second daughter, Wilhelmina Gretsch born on May 10, 1869. Also in Jacob’s household at the time of Wilhelmina’s birth was Jacob’s oldest daughter, 15 year old Emilie. Emilie was the daughter of Jacob and his first wife Rosina Artz, Anna’s sister. Anna had raised her sister’s child as her own since her sister’s death in the late 1850’s. Thus Jacob’s oldest daughters, Emilie and Wilhelmina were half sisters and also first cousins.

The final survey was being taken for the building of East River Bridge in the spring of Wilhelmina’s birth. This was the last technical chore that had to be done before the actual construction would begin (1). Jacob worked at that time in Manhattan and often took the ferry across the East River. He also lived not far from the ferry crossing where the final survey was being made. No doubt he often stopped and took a close hand view of Colonel Washington Roebling and Colonel Thomas Paine taking their measurements and sightings near St Ann’s Church and the Fulton Ferry. Perhaps, Jacob even exchanged some comments with Colonel Roebling in their mutual native language.
At this time, one can imagine Anna preparing for the birth of her first child and talking with her husband about the possibilities that the bridge offered. Perhaps, there were even long evenings of Jacob making drawings of the bridge as they envisioned together how it might look stretched across the East River. Drawing and sketching were skills that came easily to Jacob. He would have used them throughout his education and brought them into his profession as engraver. Fifteen year old, Emilie, who was herself a painter joined in the conversations and the imaginary drawings as the little family all awaited the birth of a new baby.

Emilie and Wilhelmina never married. They lived together until Emilie’s death in 1938, in the big house on Decatur Street which they jointly purchased the year after Bertha’s death. In April of 1938, the ashes of Emilie Gretsch, the keeper of family history would be buried in the same plot as her father and her two stepmothers. There is no record of exactly when Rosina Artz, Emilie’s mother died or where she was buried.


On April 28, 1892 William C. (Casimir after his grandfather) Gretsch filed a petition to the Surrogate Court of the County of Kings, In the Matter of the Guardianship of William C (Charles) Gretsch, Infant Over Fourteen Years Of Age. The petitioner, William Gretsch 50 years old, was the oldest of Gretsch family group living in Brooklyn. He was also a first cousin to the orphaned Gretsch children. He is also the only one of the grandchildren playing a role in this story who ever met his grandmother, Maria Dorothea Wild who died in Simmern in 1850.

In 1892, William had for about 20 years been operating a successful wine and liquor business in New York. Although he was married, he had no children of his own. Sometime around 1900, he would return to Germany and live there until his death. Perhaps, he had these plans to return to Germany already in mind when he filed these guardianship papers. Perhaps that is why his petition suggested that Louis Gretsch his younger and half brother be made guardian of the orphaned boy.
Louis had recently joined William in business and there was an obvious connection between them. Louie and his wife Clara had two small children Clara born in March 1890 and Olga born in November of 1891(?). It was certainly understood that Louis would take over the business when his older half-brother William returned to Europe. Louis’s older brother, Frederick who had come to America just one year before Louie, had not been interested in joining the family liquor business and started his own business in musical instrument. Curiously, Frederick, known as Fritz plays very little role in these papers. Perhaps, that is because he has a large family of his own, six soon to be seven children. Also by this time his musical business is quite busy and he like his brother William has employed through the years several family members. These include I think, his wife’s father, his sister’s husband and his younger brothers Carl and Jacob.

Louis was with William on April 28th when the papers for guardianship were filed. Louie also signed papers consenting to the guardianship. It’s interesting that the younger children, Dora and Ralph, are not mentioned in this first petition.

Five weeks later, on June 3, 1892 Emilie Gretsch filed a similar petition to the same court. Emilie age 33 was a half-sister to the three orphaned children. They had all lived in the same household while their father Jacob Gretsch was alive.

Again Dora describes the living arrangements in the family after Jacob’s 1882 “Uncle Frank never lived at Stockton Street. Frank left for Mexico while we were still at Lewis Ave. (where Jacob died). He was instrumental in getting Grandmother, Herman, Carl, and Aunt Emma who married Conrad Bentzing over from Germany then cleared out and left them on Mother and Aunt Jordon. Millie and Minne never lived on Willoughby Ave. It was Hart Street and then to Gove and then to Decatur Street and now we have buried all that under the blizzard of ’88”.

It must have been a hectic household in the mid and late 1880’s with relatives coming from Germany and moving in with the young fatherless family. Sometime in this time frame, Emilie and Wilhelmina (Milly and Minny) who were not after all related to these relatives of their father’s third wife, moved out of the household on Lewis street. However, as we can see by reading in between the lines of Dora’s letters, relationships were kept open between the Wintermantal and Gretsch families. This is best exemplified by the marriage of Bertha’s sister Emma Wintermantal to the young widower, Conrad Bentzing.

Pauline Gretsch, Conrad’s first wife was a niece of Jacob and first cousin to Emilie and Wilhelmina. Pauline was also the elder sister of Louie who would become the children’s guardian. Pauline had come to Brooklyn shortly after the birth of Bertha’s first child William born in 1877. She was probably sent for to help out with the new baby. In February of 1878, four months after Pauline’s arrival, Philippine the youngest sister of all of the Gretsch’s from Mannheim arrived in America. Jacob’s children, her young cousins called her, Aunt Beenchen. Soon after Bena arrived, Conrad and Pauline were married and moved to New Jersey.

Aunt Beenchen, who had first come into her uncle’s Brooklyn household to help care for the children in 1879 returned later after Jacob’s death in 1883 to again help with the children. William Charles writes that after Papa’s death ” mother tried to carry on with the house as best she could with us children but it was too much for her, although we had an upstairs maid and a cook and Mama being a Semi Invalid, my oldest sister (Emily 18 years older) who was teaching school asked a sister of Papa’s to come and take over. Aunt Beechen. Well, believe you me talk about a disciplinarian, a real ‘Hun’”.

Aunt Beenchen was not the sister of “Papa” but his niece. The fact that William called his much older cousin “Aunt” signifies a power that she had over him that a cousin would not necessarily have. She was also much older than her young cousin.
At the time of Pauline’s death in the late summer of 1885, she had been living at Lewis avenue with her cousins, his sister and the Wintermantel family for almost four months. For the last two of those months she had been cared for by Dr.Herman Bender in Brooklyn.

Most likely, Pauline fell ill in New Jersey where she lived with her husband Conrad and her two young daughters 4 year old Pauline and two year old Wilhelmnina. It was likely decided that she should come to Brooklyn and be nursed by her sister Philipine in the household of her cousin’s family.

As we know from William’s letter Pauline’s sister Bena was at time living at Lewis Street caring for Bertha and helping to “discipline” the children.

It’s easy to imagine that Emma Wintermantal who had recently come from Germany was sent to the Bentzing household in New Jersey to care for the young family while Pauline was ill. Some time after Pauline’s death, Emma married Conrad and took on Pauline’s role as wife and mother to the young family.

In June of 1892, at the time of this petition, Emilie was in the middle of her long career as a school teacher in the public schools of Brooklyn. She was living away from the family with her half-sister Wilhelmine who kept house for the two unmarried sisters. Perhaps, Emilie saw her petition as an opportunity to bring the family together again: a chance to bring her two younger siblings under her own care.
Emilie petitioned, In the Matter of the Guardianship of Dora Gretsch and Ralph Gretsch Infants, under Fourteen Years of Age. These children had not been named in the earlier petition of William Gretsch filed on April 28th. Emilie too asked that Louis Gretsch be made guardian of these younger children, siblings to William.


It is not known why the first petition, William’s petition, only mentioned the oldest boy. Perhaps, when the family first gathered on the night of Bertha’s death, the fifteen year old William balked at the idea of having to stay with his older sisters. Perhaps, in their initial grieving, it was decided that the older boy William who clearly had preference for his cousin and namesake would be allowed to go home with him. It might have seemed best for the younger children to go to the familiar household of their older half sisters, Emilie and Wilhelmina.
Nor do we know why the second petition was filed five weeks later than the first petition. Perhaps, Emilie busy with her duties as a teacher didn’t have time to submit her paper work to the courts until school was out and her duties lightened. Perhaps, it was not certain that Louis Gretsch would accept the guardianship of these younger children. Perhaps, Emilie had other plans for the guardianship of her youngest siblings. Perhaps, she was hoping that she herself, a working woman and able to support the children would somehow be appointed as guardian. Perhaps, she took this time to consider her options. We can imagine that the subject was much discussed among the family members.

Whatever the discussions, in the end, it was decided that for legal purposes Louis would be called on to be guardian of all the children. Louis, a young married man with two young daughters presented the most traditional household in which to care for the orphans.

Emilie’s petition called for witnesses to be summoned to court if they wished to show any reason why Louis would not be a suitable guardian of these children. Ursula Wintermantal, the children’s grandmother who had lived so close to them on Stockton Street was summoned. She however, was the only member of the Wintermantal famly mentioned in Emily’s petition. We know from Dora’s letter that there were several family members around, Aunt Emma, Aunt Jordon, Herman and Carl. For whatever reason they were never called. It was the Gretsch family who was taking control of these children. Seven Gretsch relatives of the orphaned children including Emilie and William the petitioners themselves were delivered formal papers to appear in court July 12, 1892.

These requests to appear before the court were all delivered on Saturday, July 2. The exact address of each summoned witness is recorded. A close reading of these records show just how carefully and incorrectly these records were recorded. It also allow us a distant glimpse into the whereabouts and the relationships of the family members on that long ago Saturday in July. Ursula Wintermantal the children’s grandmother was at 73 Melrose Street in Brooklyn. I have no idea who she was living with there. Wilhelmina and Emily Gretsch were at home at 33 Central Street. Emily resting from a busy week of teaching and Wilhelmina busy with house work.

Philipine Gretsch who we saw earlier taking care of both her ailing sister and her uncle’s family on Lewis ave is married now at home at 319 Marcy Street. It’s interesting to muse about her name being given here as Gretsch. Philipine just weeks away from the birth of her second child was no doubt also in the company of her one year old daughter Johanna when the papers were served to her. Its interesting that her name is given at this address as Gretsch although, her married name was Morgner and Morgner was the name cited earlier in the petition.

William Casimir Gretsch was at his Wine and Liquor business at 98 Fulton Street in Manhattan. Carl Gretsch who was not yet married one year was unable to be found at his brother Fred’s home at 20 Hart Street. Therefore the papers were left with Fred Gretsch to be handed to Carl later. Apparently, Carl and his wife of only one year Sophie were living with Carl’s older brother and their six children. Fred the head of the household at 20 Hart Street was not summoned to court himself.
The address for young Jacob Gretsch, the youngest of the Gretsch siblings from Mannheim presents the most perplexing difficulties although it is carefully record as 319 Hart. Jacob was living according to the census with his sister Philippine at 319 Marcy. Yet, his address was somehow record as a mixture of the Gretsch family on Hart St and Philipine home at 319 Marcy. Jacob was searched for and not found at 319 Hart Street. Since he was not there they were left with Philippine Morgner.

Perhaps, the clerk as he wrote down the addresses merely miscopied the numbers and the street names. But why would Philippine be recorded once as Gretsch and once as Morgner?
What does stand out is that in these papers documenting the search for Gretsch family members in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Philipine’s name appears twice. This suggesting something of her importance to the family and her ability to connect the scattered siblings. Certainly, it suggests a closeness between Philippine and her younger brother that brings to mind the earlier closeness of Philipine and her older sister, Pauline. This weave of siblings is left out by Emilie years later when she records the history of the Gretsch family in America through the success of its male members.

There is no record as to whether or not any of those summoned actually appeared in court. However, on July 13, custody of all three children was given to Louis Gretsch.


I wonder if the children ever went to live with Louie after these papers were signed. Maybe, the entering and signing of the papers was just a legal formality, which was agreed on in some degree by each family member.
Maybe it was already decided that William would live with his older cousin William and that Dora and Ralph would live with their half sisters Emilie and Wilhelmina. Perhaps, these arrangements were already in place. Perhaps, there was never any thought at all that the children would actually ever live with Louis’ family. His guardianship might have been merely a device to protect the children under the legal care of a male relative. At the same time, with Louie as guardian other choices could be made by the family and not the courts as to the care of the children.


Less than nine months latter, in April of 1893, Emilie and Wilhelmina bought a large house on Decatur Street. The purchase of this house must have put some economic strain on the unmarried sisters. I found Emily’s name in an 1897 Brooklyn address book with the occupation “dressmaker” next to it. Perhaps, Emilie and Wilhelmina made some extra money to pay off their mortgage early by sewing on the side.
At the time of purchase, the sisters took a six year mortgage from the previous owner, Stuart Walsh. This arrangement allowed them to make regular payments on the house. Perhaps, this home was brought with the thought that all three children would live with their older sisters or perhaps just Dora and Ralph. We might never know for sure. However, we do know that Emilie and Wilhelmine were purchasing a larger living space and that for many years their youngest sister, Dora lived with them there.

In August of 1893, another daughter Wilhelmine Gretsch was born to Louis and his wife. This was their third child to be born in just over three years. It’s easy to imagine the perplexities of knitting into one family the three orphaned teen age Gretsch children and Louie’s three young children. Perhaps, it was never assumed that these children would actually live with Louie’s family.

In thinking about all these things it is interesting to note that while Emily took an active role in filing the petition paper for the care of the younger children, Wilhelmina remains silent, legally speaking. Wilhelmina does appear equally with Emily on the mortgage papers for 617 Decatur Street and it is Wilhelmina who will run the household that develops there.

Perhaps, Wilhelmina made her influence felt in other ways less tangible than those of her worldly older sister Emily. When Louie and Clara youngest daughter was born soon after Wilhelmina and Emily moved into their new larger home, they named the new baby, Wilhelmina. Perhaps, this was done in respect to Louie’s father William who had died years earlier in Germany. The naming of this infant suggests a certain closeness with Louie’s cousin Wilhelmina. Perhaps, she endeared herself to them by accepting the care of these orphaned children and relieving Louie and his young family of this duty.

Or perhaps, the naming of Louis and Clara’s youngest daughter had to do with the popularity at the time of the young Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands who came to the throne at the age of 10 in 1890. The young Queen Wilhelmina was a world wide popular figure much like Princess Diana at the end of the twentieth century.


Years later in 1958 the once young boy William Charles Gretsch would make a list of all the places he had lived in his lifetime. He began the list in 1898 on Lafayette Street in Brooklyn. There is no mention of his cousin Louis who was made his guardian in 1892. In 1898 also, he records that he was married in the home of Willaim Gretsch also on Lafayette Street but one block away from William’s own address.
It would appear that William didn’t want to record the time he spent with Louis Gretsch, if indeed he spent any time with him at all there. It is also obvious that he is underlying his relationship with William Casimir Gretsch by being married in his home.

By the time of the 1900 U. S. Census, Bertha’s children had grown up. William is married and living in West Hoboken, New Jersey. Dora is working as a stenographer. She is living at the house on Decatur Street with Emilie and Wilhelmina.

According to the census Ralph is living with Heman Wintermanel again as they were in 1892.This time they are both living at the home of Karl Jorden, who was Ralph’s uncle. Grandmother Wintermantel is not there nor is her daughter who was married to Mr. Jordon. Again Dora in a 1961 letter to William clears up the relationships “Aunt Anna who was Aunt Jordan ……..” Apparently, Karl Jordan has taken into his home his wife’s family. Also listed at this house is Karl Jordon’s son and first cousin to the orphaned Gretsch children. He is 23 years old and his name is listed as Frederick M.O. Joran. A house keeper and her young daughter are also listed at the same address. Apparently, the family was comfortable enough to have live in help.

In 1917 , Emilie wrote a chapter on the Gretsch family for Volume II of Schelgel’s German-American Families in the United States. Here she gives very little information about William Casimir Gretsch who filed the first petition papers for William’s guardianship. Although, he was the oldest member of the Gretsch family and the most successful, she neglects to mention either his business or any role that he played in the Gretsch family. Nor does she give much space to Louis Gretsch who was granted the guardianship of her half-siblings William, Dora and Ralph. Nor is there any mention made of the business agreements between William and Louie Gretsch.
Rather, Emilie concentrates on Frederick Gretsch, the brother of William and Louis. Frederick is only mentioned in the 1892 guardianship petitions as a relative living in the county of Kings. He was never summoned as a witness. He was never asked to take more of a role in the care of these children. Perhaps with his thriving music manufacturing business and his 6 children, more could not be expected of him.
Whatever the reasons, it is in the lives of Frederick and his offspring where Emily chooses to couch the family history. Not in the lives of Frederick’s brothers William and Louie nor of her own brother William. This complicated tapestry of the Gretsch family in America is forgotten in pursuit of a simpler weave.
Frederick like his older brother William had come to America and started a successful business. Yet, it was only Frederick’s success in America that Emilie extols. Most of her article in fact deals with Frederick, his sons and the business they created. Perhaps, Emilie was disdainful of the nature of William’s business. Since it was a liquor and wine business, she might have wished to distance the family from it. Also, by the time her article is written, both Louie and William are dead and the once successful business has disappeared.

There may have been a less tangible reason for the divide which Dora alludes to in her 1961 letter. Emilie and her cousin William were both the senior members of the Gretsch family in Brooklyn. It’s possible that these two cousins had different ideas of how this family would define itself in America. Since Emilie was a writer, she would write the history the way she wanted it remembered. The history that she wrote left out William Casimir and his success.

Emilie’s young half brother William might have been drawn to his older cousin and namesake in ways that he wasn’t drawn to his oldest sister, Emilie. His cousin was successful, wealthy and foreign born. His older sister was a school teacher who had never ventured far from Brooklyn. Differences, jealousies and plays for power in the family structure might have separated the older cousins William Casimir and Emilie. Perhaps that is why each filed their petitions separately. Quite possibly the same misconceptions and misunderstanding laid the ground work for the divide which kept Emilie and her younger brother William apart through the next generation.

Perhaps, these petition papers were the beginning of the obvious separation which Dora mentioned so sadly in her letter. The first papers were filed for young William, 14 years old. They were submitted by his cousin William, the successful owner of a liquor business who obviously was looking for protection of the young boy. Six years later young William would marry a woman Emilie strongly disapproved of, in the home of his cousin William who had filed the first petition papers on his behalf.
From then on, the separation would be quite tangible.

On September 19, 1936, Emily wrote her will. She left to her brother William the sum of $1.00. Everything else she left to her sister, Wilhelmina. She appointed M.O.Jordan as executor of her will. This is the same M.O. Jordan we saw in the 1900 census who was a first cousin to William, Dora and Ralph. It would be interesting to know what M.O. Jordan thought of this family split between his first cousin William and his client, Emily Gretsch to whom he had no blood relation


In the summer of 1961, William Charles Gretsch, Jacob and Bertha’s son would visit Manhattan and Brooklyn with his daughter Lucille. Together they walked to the places that William remembered as a child. Chances are they didn’t stop to visit my mother, Mrs. William Walter Gretsch, who lived nearby in Queens. By then the descendants of the boys born in Simmern, Jacob and William were so estranged that relationships were never recalled. Although, in the earlier part of the century my father was called Willy Walter to distinguish him from his playmate and distant cousin, William Charles, now even the nick name had been forgotten

1961 was the same summer that my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was a widow then with four teen-age children. When she died two years later, four Gretsch teenage children would be orphaned. A guardian would be named a larger house purchased and chasms between siblings delineated. History repeated itself.

September 30, 2001
Revised, September 30. 2004
Gretchen Elsner-Sommer

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