As I've explained in the first post of this Generous Ones series, I am really interested in telling the stories of generous people. After completing posts about Antonio Gasperino, I turn to my great grandmother Johanna Schwickardi.
Johanna saved a family - a family that would become her own. She is a generous one because when she married John J Curry in 1901 she took on not only a husband who had lost his first wife and youngest child, but John’s two living sons and the father of his first wife. She was 23 years old.
I imagine that she knew right away that her life would change when she met John in the year 1900. I imagine this because Johanna and John did not live in the same neighborhood or go to the same church or work in the same place. They must have met only briefly, perhaps on the street or in a store. She didn’t have much time to decide that he was the one. No one in our family knows anything about how they met.
He was Catholic and she was Protestant. He was the son of Irish immigrants escaping starvation and she was the daughter of German immigrants who built a cigar factory. He worked the lumber yards, and she was a clerk. Their worlds had no anchor or mooring, and so everything was possible. Even the match they made.
Scholars have noted that New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s changed how people from different backgrounds interacted.
“You had to go uptown, you had to go downtown, wherever it was.
People moved. …. The city .. moved people around and put them up against each other,” as Peter Collier has written.
And so I imagine that in the bustling, busy, and chaotic city, John J. Curry caught the eye of Johanna Schwickardi, and she decided to save him and his two motherless boys.
In order to understand Johanna, we need to travel back a bit.
Johanna’s mother Louisa had taken her own chance on love as a young women. Her baptismal name was Justine Henriette Luise Seegers, but she was known by Louisa. Her family had come to the United States from Bremen, in what is now Germany, when she was only nineteen years old, in 1868. Louisa’s father had owned a cigar factory. Louisa fell in love with Adolph Schwickardi, a young musician from Bonn who had also come to the United States.
Johanna Schwickardi was born in 1877 to Louisa and Adolph Schwickardi. Census records report that she was born in Connecticut, but I haven't found her birth record yet. Johanna was the fourth child to be born to Louisa and Adolph. Her oldest sibling was Margaretha (Maggie) born in 1870. Next oldest was her brother Adolph, born in 1872. And finally her sister Lillie, born in 1875. The family is recorded as living on Sixth Street in New York City in 1880. (Their last name is listed as Schwicker, and her father's occupation is recorded as a music teacher.)
Johanna's parents, however, were never officially married. In fact, Adolph Schwickardi was married to another woman, Carrie Powers, and they had a child - Appolonia - who was born in 1870 - the same year as Maggie.
Johanna's early childhood was extremely turbulent. By 1883, when Johanna was 6 years old, her father was no longer with the family, having moved permanently to New Haven, Connecticut, where he described himself as a bachelor and where he was involved in the musical life of the city. In 1885 Adolph is listed in the New Haven directory as a music teacher. He eventually became the organist at St. John's Cathedral in New Haven.
Johanna’s sister Maggie died of diptheria at the age of 13 in March of 1883. Single mother Louisa and her four young children were living in a tenement on 2nd Street, and the type of crowded conditions in the tenements facilitated the spread of disease.
Only a few months after Maggie’s death in September 1883, Louisa married William (Wilhelm) Schmidt, another musician. Three more children were born: Wilhelm ( born in 1884), Julia (born in 1887), and Margaret (born in 1889). The family is listed in the 1900 census - and Johanna is listed as Johanna Schmidt. Johanna grew up with these children - and stayed close to them. Johanna's Bible contains records for the marriages of Julia and Margaret.
By 1900 Johanna's brother Adolph had grown up and moved out, Maggie had died, and sister Lillie was residing at the Craig Colony in Groveland, NY - an asylum for epileptics. She was 25 years old and, according to census records, could not read or write. Future censuses note her residing at the Manhattan State Hospital for the insane (1910) and the Willard State Hospital for the insane (1915). We may never know her diagnosis or when she was first committed.
When her mother married Wilhelm Schmidt, perhaps Johanna was happy. Happy because she saw her mother smile. Happy because there was food on the table. And happy because there was music again in the household. Did Johanna remember the music that her father had brought to their lives before he left for Connecticut - the viola, the piano, the beautiful voice?
But I can also imagine Johanna as still quite lonely - even as her mother and stepfather gave her new half-siblings to share the house with. Her sister Maggie was dead and Lillian was committed to the asylum. Her brother Adolph had moved out and we know little of her relationship with her biological father. There was plenty of trauma that shaped Johanna’s early life.
Having come through this tumultuous time, by 1900 Johanna was a 23 year old clerk. When she met John J Curry this year, what did she see in him? What was his story? My next post - Part 2 - will describe him and how he got to New York City where he would meet the generous Johanna.