There are a few surprises I’ve come across in my own tree but one in particular, has caught the curiosity and attention of not just myself, but many of my relatives: my grandfather’s ‘missing’ older brother Henry.
My grandfather died suddenly in 1974 at the young age of 46--so I never have the privilege of meeting him. His other biological siblings (he was adopted by his aunt) all died when I was quite young, and long before Genealogy ever became an interest of mine. Although Grandpa was adopted, since it was his biological aunt who adopted him, he knew who his biological siblings were, and had life long relationships with them. My mother and her siblings met these two siblings too, and remember them fondly. But it wasn’t until about two years ago that we learned that my grandfather had three siblings--not two. Grandpa had another brother we knew nothing about.
About two years ago, while searching for my biological great grandfather on Ancestry.com, I came across a birth index in Cleveland for a child named Henry Edward Salecker born on the 18th of November, 1924. Upon first reading the index, I noticed the spelling of Henry’s last name Salecker which was different from how my great grandfather, his father, and his children spelled their name: Saleker. Other relatives in the family did choose the more common ‘c’ spelling of the name, but those on my direct line almost always omitted the ‘c’ from their last name--something that goes as far back as my 3rd great grandfather Johann Andreas Saleker in the 1830's. And so I began to think this was perhaps a child of an ancestor on a different part of my tree. However, noted in the index was the name “Gust”--a short version of Gustave--my grandfather’s biological father’s name.
Immediately I requested a copy of the full birth certificate from Cleveland City Hall and when I received it, there was no question. My grandfather indeed had another brother, Henry Edward Salecker--the parents listed on the certificate were the names of my great-grandparents: Gustave L. Salecker and Julia Dixon. I began to pour through records I had on my great grandfather and came across his obituary. That’s when I remembered something unusual about it. Listed among his children was the name Henry. When I first came across the obituary several years ago, I assumed this was a mistake, and was in reference to my own grandfather, Walter. That wasn’t the case at all. Not only did my grandfather have another biological brother, but he was alive at the time of Gustave’s death (1965) and was known at the very least, by my great grandfather. My assumption that perhaps Henry died at childbirth, was incorrect.
I began to scour records online looking for any reference of Henry. I came across only one record that mentioned him--the 1940 census, in which he was listed as an inmate at the Cleveland Boys’ School in Hudson. A facility created to house orphan and mischievous boys who did not have a home to support them. Much to my disappointment, I have been unable to find any institutional records that might tell the story as to how Henry ended up there. So I had to rely on other sources to fill in the blanks.
No one in the family seems to remember Henry--though some cousins of ours had vague recollections of a story about a brother in jail. My grandfather and his two known biological siblings were not in fact, raised by their father. Gustave’s wife Julia died at the age of 29 in 1929 from complications of a postpartum infection leaving Gustave with 3 children to support on his two. Two of the children went to live with their grandparents, my grandfather was adopted by his biological aunt, and apparently Henry was sent to the Cleveland Boys’ School. Why Henry was sent to an orphanage and not his other siblings, was unclear to me at this point--so I tried to dig further.
I did receive information from Cuyahoga County as well as the City of Cleveland that boys who were placed in the facility usually were placed their officially by their family or, were ordered to do so by the court. In either case, official court documents would have been filed regarding the placement of the children and so I requested several searches for information about Henry. Nothing turned up.
A few weeks later, I was going through my family archive which is essentially a file cabinet filled with folders--one for each direct ancestor on my line--where I keep copies of records, photographs, and notes about my research on them. I was adding something to my grandfather’s file and decided to go through his records since I was in there anyway. I came across a copy of an insurance form he had filled out after he married my grandmother. I never paid much attention to it, as at first glance, it doesn’t appear to have any particularly relevant information to my research. Upon turning it over, I noticed a section that was dedicated to family history. And among those questions was a box where he was asked to provide information about his brothers and sisters. Low and behold, my grandfather indicated that he had 2 brothers (not one, as we always thought) and doing the math, the estimated date of birth for Henry lines up almost exactly. So, not only did my grandfather have another biological brother--he knew about his existence, and that he was living.
I continued to search hopelessly online, trying to find any trace of him anywhere--birth records, marriage records, death records--anything that could lead me to what happened to great uncle Henry. Nothing turned up.
When I can’t seem to find the information I’m looking for, Google becomes my best friend. Searching for his name, I looked through pages and pages of results, looking for anything online that might reference him. And then I came across an extract from a court case in 1962 in Fort Dodge Iowa. The case involved a man who went by the name Henry Edward Cameron and how he was writing bad checks. It was stated that the man was also known as Henry Edward Salecker. I was intrigued.
Reading the court case, I wasn’t exactly convinced this was our same Henry Edward Salecker. You might think ‘well gee, that’s a pretty unique name’ and you’d be right. But it’s also possible that someone was simply using his name--or someone who just by chance had the same name as he. I needed something else to help me understand if this was the Henry I was looking for.
I continued searching for court records under the two names, and found numerous articles about a vagrant who seemed to hang around Fort Dodge and some other closer towns during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. This Henry was arrested for many things--petty theft, vagrancy, public intoxication, and other low-level offenses often given to those who wander the streets. A beginning to a sad story for sure, but I needed to know if this was my great uncle or not. Then, my answer came.
I wrote to the archives at the Iowa Supreme court where the case involving Henry was held. I was hoping that they might have additional information, a mug shot, receiving papers, something that might give me more insight into this man’s life. The representative said that they didn’t have anything other than the court proceedings on file, but that there was testimony recorded from Henry directly. I finally found the entry and upon reading it, I’m not afraid to say that I started to choke up:
My name is Henry Edward Salecker. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. My parents are deceased. I don’t know of any brothers or sisters. I received some education while I was incarcerated in an orphanage where I was placed when I was awful young, approximately two years of age. I went through the 4th grade. The first day that I hit Fort Dodge was October 26, 1961. Being a man who was a stranger, I lived as frugally as a vagabond.
The details provided lead me to believe that this man and my grandfather’s ‘lost’ brother are the same person. There are some details that are incorrect--while Henry’s mother was indeed deceased, his father Gustave, was still living but he would die three years later. And his siblings were alive and well. Of course, it’s entirely possible he wasn’t aware of any of that. Seeing as we don’t know if he had contact with the family or not, assuming the latter, he may have thought he was completely alone in the world.
Henry becomes a mystery after that. He served time for his crime, though I have been unable to obtain any records of time served from the jail directly. What happened to him after that, I haven’t discovered yet. Considering the kind of life that Henry led, it’s unlikely that he would be alive today at 94 years old. Did he ever marry? Have children? When did he die? Where? These are all a complete mystery (so far) to me and my family.
Learning about great uncle Henry did have a huge impact on me. Not just as a Genealogist, but simply as a person. I think about how Henry’s life turned out--the disadvantages he was handed--things that were completely out of his control. I think about how different his life would have been if he had the care, support, and family life every person should be entitled to. Whatever became of Henry, and regardless of the kind of man he was, learning about his life has completely changed the way I look at those begging on the streets for pocket change. I see my uncle Henry in them too and suddenly, those few dollar bills in my pocket seem better served in their hands rather than my own.