Sunday, August 13, 2017
Searching for Aunt Abbie
I’m pleased and proud to introduce Julia DiMunno, my daughter, as my first guest author. I owe Great Aunt Abbie Kimber a debt of gratitude for piquing Julia’s interest in our family’s history. Thank you Julia for sharing Aunt Abbie’s story.
Greetings family and friends. My interest in Abigail Kimber began in March 2017. That was when I, just beginning to develop an interest in our family tree, shyly offered to record some of the Kimber letters for my mother. If any of you have been reading my mother’s blog for any length of time, I’m sure you know all about the Kimber letters--a series of letters written amongst the Kimber sisters and their mother, Keziah dating from 1848-1865. They offer a poignant snapshot of life among one family. After my offer, my mother’s immediate response was “You can be the voice of Aunt Abbie in her diary”. Great, I thought, but who’s Aunt Abbie?
Aunt Abbie, I learned, was my fourth great grandaunt, her sister Charity Kimber Clark being my direct ancestor. Over the next few weeks I read and recorded her diary, which ranged from September 10, 1864 to November 30, 1864. I lent my voice to her words and hopefully, I did her justice. I must confess, in the process, I developed a tenderness to this ancestor of mine. When the project was over I asked what became of her and was shocked at the answer. We do not know what happened to Aunt Abbie. We do not know when or where she died, or where she is buried. How could this be? Albeit she was unmarried and childless--a sprig on a larger family tree--she lived, and was an integral part of a family. She could not have simply vanished, a lone woman forgotten in the pages of time. My quest became to find her.
Let me first tell you a little about her. Abigail Lucy Kimber was born April 22, 1822 in Unionville NY. She was one of nine sisters born to Benjamin and Keziah Kimber. She was the only unmarried sister and was often sent from home to home to care for ailing family members. She spent most of her time between Orange County, NY and Bradford County, PA. This must have been a trying task at times. She was there to care for sister, Julia Ann Kimber Elston, in the months leading up to her death. Alongside her mother Keziah, she helped care for little nephew Ephern Doty, sleeping beside him in her own bed before he slipped away. In father Benjamin’s later years, it was Abbie who sat vigil at his beside watching his every breath. One diary entry from October 23, 1864 reads “It don’t seem as if I can live it he don’t”.
Aunt Abbie was not without her own problems. According to notes believed to be from Winifred Drake Ridall (Granddaughter of Jane Kimber and Moses Seely) “she had a great disappointment. A man wanted to marry her but she would not marry him unless he accepted the [Jones ?] children, which he refused”. The handwriting here is in the margin and difficult read, but I believe it refers to the Jones children (the children of deceased sister Susan Kimber and Caleb Jones). She may have had her own physical ailments as well. In one of the Kimber letters sister Sarah Kimber Mackney writes that she is going to send Abbie medicine to see if it helps. In another, Keziah refers to Abbie’s only being able to sit up in bed a little and needing a litter to travel in. When she was caring for Julia Ann, Abbie fell ill suddenly and the family thought that she could “not liv no time”.
Reading through the Kimber letters and Aunt Abbie’s own diary one can see evidence of what we now know as depression and anxiety. She makes multiple references of her gloominess and her nerves. One diary entry from November 14, 1864 reads: “O how pleasant death looks to me--it will relive my poor throbbing heart and this poor weak body of mine that knows no rest”. She was but 42 years old when she wrote this. I have no doubt that Benjamin’s death in 1866 exacerbated these feelings.
In 1874 at the age of 52, Aunt Abbie was admitted to the New York State Homeopathic Hospital in Middletown, a mere few weeks after it opened. This hospital was the first of its kind, offering a more gentle approach to the mentally ill. Likely living with Jane and Moses Seely in Troy, PA at the time, they would have heard about this new hospital from their Orange County relatives. I believe they were watching and waiting for this hospital to open in hopes that it could help her. One year later, according to the NYS 1875 census records, Abbie is still there and listed as “insane”. Thanks to the work of Mrs. Kathryn Decker Osburn (granddaughter of Phebe Kimber Decker) we know that Abbie was discharged from the Homeopathic hospital on March 23, 1876 and that her condition was “unimproved”. Kathryn even went a step further by writing to the NYS Department of Health and the Office of Vital Statistics searching for a date of death on Abbie. Her queries were answered stating that no records were found.
My search began where Winifred’s and Kathryn’s left off. My instincts told me that she may not have strayed far from Middletown after her discharge. She would have been about 54 years old by then, and after spending two years in the state hospital she may not have been well enough to travel back to Bradford County. I searched the 1880 census records for the remaining Kimber sisters and, as suspected, could not find Abbie with any of them. So then I began to look among the extended family, paying close attention to the Orange County relatives. Had one of the younger generation taken her in? After all, she had helped care for enough of them in her lifetime. I searched the 1880 census records for nieces and nephews hoping to find Aunt Abbie among them. This was no easy task, as my ancestor Charity alone had 12 children. I grew more disheartened with each search. A nagging thought formed in my mind--what if no one took her in? What if she was too far gone or hard to handle? Could she have gone to a home for destitute women?
I was still in the midst of searching among the Clarks, Deckers and Elstons, when, on a whim I did a Google search for the Orange County poorhouse. I was directed to ancestry.com’s Census of Inmates in Almshouses and Poorhouses, an index I didn’t even know existed. Lo and behold-- there she was. Miss Kimber was admitted to the Orange county poorhouse on March 22, 1876 at the age of 54. According to her admission form, she was admitted after spending 2 years “at Middletown”. Among the other demographic information,we learn that she was temperate, status of dependence was insanity, she was unable to perform labor, and that she “would remain” at the poorhouse. A single line at the bottom of the form gives us a tiny glimpse of the woman. It reads “this woman is noisy and fretful”.
I was elated to have found her, but dismayed to have found where she was and it led to further questions. I assumed that Aunt Abbie died in the poorhouse, but I can find no evidence of it. I believe that she died between 1876 -1880. I have been unable to find any more records for the Orange County Poorhouse, neither at the state or local level. Our local Orange County Genealogical Society holds the records for those buried in the old poorhouse burial ground, but alas, those years are missing and she is not among their other records. “Find a Grave” searches have yielded no results, as have searches for death notices or obituaries in local papers.
There may be another alternative. According to the notes of Winifred Drake Ridall, her mother, Isabel Seely Drake, thought that Aunt Abbie might have been taken home to Bradford County. She writes: “I know that she died before or about the time of my mother’s marriage, which was December 30, 1875 at Fassett, Pa. Grandfather lived at that time on the left hand side of the road after leaving Fassett on the way to Gillett, about opposite where the church now stands (1936). I do not know how long before this date he lived there. Mother told me that her aunt was in the state hospital in Middletown for some time, but she was taken out and brought to their home”. Her timeline is a little off. We know that Abbie was alive and still in the state hospital in 1875 and that she lived to see at least the first few months of 1876. But is it possible that she was taken out of the poorhouse and brought home to Jane and Moses? So far I have found no records of any death notices in the Pennsylvania newspapers and “Find a Grave” searches have yielded no results.
So family and friends, we have now arrived at our brick wall. Any information or suggestions are most welcome. I would love to know when and where she died. Above all, I would like to stand before her grave, place a bright bouquet of flowers on it and say “You were not forgotten”. Who knows, maybe with your help the next time you hear from me, it will be under the title of “Finding Aunt Abbie”
~ Julia DiMunno (4th great grandniece of Abigail Kimber)