The Mysterious Case of Sophia B.

Sophia B. Spiegel – Savannah, GA – c. 1870

Using a little detective work, I believe I have found the family of one of my great-great grandmothers in three 19th-century US Census records. The mother of my great-grandmother Helen Spiegel Dobbs was previously found in two US census records: 1870 and 1880. She died sometime between 1880 and 1887 (the year her husband remarried). She is found in the 1870 census in Savannah, Georgia and the 1880 census in Dallas, Texas. The family moved from Georgia to Texas sometime between 1871 and 1872. We know this because the 1880 census shows that Catherine “Cassie” Spiegel was born in Savannah in 1871 and that Helen “Nellie” Spiegel was born in Dallas in 1872. That is all we knew up until yesterday. (This is discussed in my book in the chapter titled “Brick Walls & Puzzle Pieces”)

In the summer of 2019, I received a packet of photographs from a distant cousin. Two of the photographs were quite old. Both were dated from the 1860s. One of the photographs was taken in a photographer’s studio in New York City. And the other was taken at a studio in Savannah Georgia.

The photograph taken in Savannah Georgia is denoted as the mother of my great grandmother, Helen D Spiegel whom I know to be Sophia B. Spiegel. At the time what I knew of Sophia is that she was born in 1846 in New York City, that both her parents were born in the Bavaria, and that she died sometime between 1880 and 1887. She was listed in the 1870 U.S. Census age 24 living in Savannah Georgia, married to George C Spiegel, age 31, a cigar maker, and their son George, age 1. The record shows her birthplace as New York.

US Census 1870 – Savannah, Chatham, Georgia – pg 298

In the 1880 US Census she is living in Dallas Texas with her husband George, their son George, and four more children: two boys and two girls. One of those daughters was my great-grandmother, Helen, who was born in Dallas in 1872. The 1880 census record added some more information about Sophia. Her name was entered as “Sophia B.”, it gave her birthplace as New York, and it noted that her parents were both born in Bavaria (Even though Germany was now unified, the US was still keen on tracking which part of the German Empire people came from and that is great for family historians).

US Census 1880 – Dallas, Dallas, Texas – ED 56 pg. 26

The second and probably oldest of the photographs sent to me the summer before last was marked on the back with the following info:

“Precht, grandfather of Helen D. Spiegel”

Precht – New York – c. 1870

Now, for the first time, I had a last name for a previously unknown ancestor whom I only knew was born in Bavaria and lived for a time in New York (I assumed it was New York City for reasons I describe in my book).

It was only a couple of days ago that I thought of this photograph for the first time since the summer before last. It was when I discovered that through my local library I had free online access to US census records from 1790 to 1940 that I caught genealogy bug once again and decided that I would make another attempt at finding Sophia B in the 1860 and 1850 census records. This time I was going to try searching for Sophia Precht.

My first pass at searching the census records for her was unsuccessful. Then I remembered the “B” in “Sophia B.” and I thought “why not try searching for “Brecht” or perhaps “Breck”?”

None of those terms gave positive results for the 1850 census. Yet I struck gold with “Brecht” in 1860 US Census. It was New York City’s Ward 11 District 1 where I found the family of John Brecht, a cabinet maker with a wife and six children. One daughter is named Sophia. She is listed as age 15 and birthplace New York. Here was a match with our Sophia B. Another little detail to note is the mother and one of sisters were both named Catherine – a name Sophia B. gave to one of her daughters.

1860 US Census New York Ward 11 District 1

With a quick search of the internet, I was able to locate a listing of New York City wards in 1860s and determined that Ward 11 was located in the East Village; specifically it was the area known in the 19th century as “Little Germany” or as the German speakers called it “Kleindeutschland”.

Below I have transcribed the details from this record:


Year of Birth

Place of Birth


John Brecht



cabinet maker










apprentice to cabinet maker













We already know from the 1870 census, Sophia was married and living in Savannah.  But I wanted to find out more about her family; specifically I wanted to know what happened to my great, great, great grandparents. So, I searched for “John Brecht” in the 1870 census without success. Next, I tried “John Precht” and I got a hit again in New York City’s Ward 11.

In the margin of the page and beside the entry is written “East 12th street between Avenues ‘B’ and ‘C’ “This is an address in Manhattan’s East Village in an area then known as “Little Germany” or Dutchtown. (The area is now called Alphabet City after the three avenues A, B, and C that run between E. 14th St. and Houston St.).

1870 New York Ward 11 District 02 (2nd ED)

In this record the ages, birthplace, and occupations all match for the parents. The two youngest children, Edward and John, match the 1860 census.

For, the 1880 census, I searched for John Brecht and John Precht without success. It appears that he died sometime in the previous decade because we find Catherine Precht age 61 as living with her son John and her daughter-in-law Josephine. John’s occupation is listed as “cabinet maker”. There is a person named George Smith who is listed as her son. It is odd but the age of the man does match the age of her son George. The place for this section of the census is listed as enumeration district 375 in Manhattan New York City.

1880 NYC ED 375
Catherine “Cassia” Spiegel (l) &
Helen “Nellie” Spiegel (r) – Dallas, TX – c. 1875

Now you might be thinking that the evidence is not all there. If you are like me, it feels like it needs a little something else to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit… but wait, there is more!

Looking for more clues, I went back to the photo of Herr Precht and had a closer look. Lo and behold, there is a clue printed on the back of the photograph that lends weight that the family who lived in 19th C. Alphabet City Manhattan was the family of my great-great grandmother, Sophia B. Spiegel (1845- bef. 1887) .

Engraved on the back of the card is the address of the photographer’s studio – No. 13 Avenue A N.Y. – which would have been around East Thirteenth St. in Manhattan’s East Village along Avenue “A”. That place was maybe no more than four blocks from where the Precht family lived on East Twelfth St. between avenues “B” and “C”.

As I find more, I will post here. To find out more about my search for my family’s history and tips on how you might make your own discoveries about your family history, please see my book Gathering Leaves by D. M. DeBacker available on Kindle from Amazon.

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