The Woman at the Window PART I

This post is part of series on recent family history research I’ve been working on and some of the methods that family historians and genealogists use. If you’d like to learn more about your own family history but don’t know where to start, you can find out more here.

Bellevue Cemetery is situated on the corner of 17th Street and Princess Place Drive on the fringes of Wilmington, North Carolina’s historic district. I pass it often on my drive across town from my own home to that of my parents, while on the way to work, or running errands. At some point in the late autumn of 2019 I began feeling the urge to pull in, to walk about the headstones and magnolias in the well-kept grounds that the previous year had been thrown into disarray by Hurricane Florence. I always made up some kind of excuse, brushing off the magnetism that drew me toward the burial grounds. I would come back later.

Lest anyone believe that I had no real reason to visit Bellevue, or that I was losing my mind, my great-great grandmother, Mary James Fulcher Seitter, was buried there in 1911. Her headstone stands lonely in a decent-sized lot facing south toward Princess Place. The rest of her family are buried at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Wrightsboro. I knew I needed to check in and ensure that her gravesite was in good order. I’m also a historian, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the dead. Graveyards and cemeteries are like a treasure trove of information for us, and I do admit I’m a bit of a taphophile. Let alone the fact that one of my major areas of research interest is in early American attitudes toward death.

Bellevue Cemetery, Wilmington, NC

In late January 2020, I needed to spend an afternoon at the New Hanover County Public Library’s North Carolina Room to do some research on an article for Salt magazine. My mother, who has long been fascinated by our family history, joined me in order to learn more about doing research. Perhaps we could find something new among the stacks.

When we arrived at the library on Chestnut Street, I directed her to call up the surname file for the Seitters from the Bill Reaves Collection. God bless Mr. Reaves. His extensive collection of newspaper clippings and ephemera has long aided my research into Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear’s history. As I sat with a box of files related to my own research project, my mother carefully inspected each of the tiny clippings in the folder that the library staff had brought out to her. There were the requisite wedding and birth announcements, the advertisements for family-run businesses, and the somber obituaries. But there were also stories like that of a great aunt who eloped in South Carolina and an elaborate party held in October 1905 for my great-grandfather and his brother who shared a birthday.

At one point, my mom had a puzzled look on her face — a death announcement for my great-great grandmother in her hand. I asked her what was wrong and she confessed she was a bit confused. I took the clipping and read through it once, then twice, and probably a few more times before I fully comprehended what it had to say:

“Mrs. Seitter has been a sufferer for some time past and her death was not altogether unexpected. The deceased lady is survived by her husband and several small children, as well as a brother-in-law, Mr. G. F. Seitter, of this city. It is a peculiarly sad coincidence that Mr. G. F. Seitter was called upon to mourn the death of his wife only a short time ago. 

“She was at the Walker Memorial hospital, following injuries she received when she fell from a window at the family residence, corner Second and Princess streets.”

Wilmington Dispatch, October 30, 1911

At first the vague pronoun usage made it seem as if Mary James Seitter had died from the accident described in the column, but that was not the case. George Frederick’s wife was the victim.

In 1884 my great-great grandfather Charles Frederick [Carl Friedrich] Seitter arrived in Wilmington from the small German town of Ensingen in Baden-Wurttemberg. Three of his siblings joined: his brother Jacob, who would also become a successful truck farmer and agriculturist; another brother, George Frederick, who started a tailoring business in the city; and their sister, Wilhelmina, who married Charles Richters, a grocer in the North Fourth Street community of Brooklyn. Charles Frederick settled in the growing community of Wrightsboro just a few miles north of town where other truck farmers were experimenting in growing vegetable crops like lettuce, beans, and the like. He married Mary James Fulcher of Morehead City in March 1888 and the two would go on to have eleven children (my great-grandfather Albert being one of them). 

Mary James Fulcher Seitter with son Carl Seitter, Jr.

Sadly, after a long term struggle with cancer, Mary died in October 1911. The Wilmington Dispatch ran the announcement of her passing and noted that her husband’s brother, George Frederick, had experienced a similar loss, though much more unexpected, just a few weeks earlier. As my mother and I sat with that clipping and exchanged puzzled, but amazed looks, we knew we had to find out more. What happened to Katie?

We shuffled back through the file, noting an earlier marriage announcement between George Frederick Seitter and Katie Leslie of Wilmington in October 1895. A few heart-breaking memos on the death of an infant and a crime-blotter report on a break-in at the Seitter’s tailor shop on Second Street in 1910 were also there. There was no indication as to why, how, or when, Katie had met her demise after falling out of a window.

Wilmington Morning Star, May 12, 1906

The library was soon closing, but we were more determined than ever to find answers. We packed up and went to have dinner together as a family, but all the while we felt a nagging sensation of needing to know. Had Katie, in her grief over losing a child, met an untimely end? Was it an accident, or was something more nefarious afoot? I had not even known that George had married a woman named Katie — all I had previously seen was his marriage to a woman named Alice. Nothing seemed to make sense.

As we absent-mindedly decided on what to do about dinner, I sat at the kitchen island with my laptop: a historian on a mission. I pulled up online newspaper databases and searched every reference to the Seitter surname in 1911 issues of Wilmington newspapers. Within minutes, I had the full story.

To be continued …

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