The other day, I had what I like to call a “Monk Moment.” You know that point in an episode of the TV series “Monk” where the detective Adrian Monk would smile and say, “I think I just solved the mystery.” Following this, he would reveal how the crime was committed, prefaced with the words “Here’s what happened…”
Presented for your reading pleasure is my solution to “The Mysterious Case of Sophia B.”
For several years now, I have been obsessed with wanting to know how my great-grandparents, James M Dobbs of Marietta, Georgia, and Helen von Spiegel of Dallas, Texas, came to be married in New York City. He was a world-traveling widower, and she was a salesgirl working in a department store in Dallas. From his first marriage to a world-renowned pianist named Emma Hahr, James had a daughter named Emita. In 1898, Emma and their infant son died, and in his grief, James left the country for a few years. According to a passport application, James sojourned in London in 1900.
In 1901, James and Helen were married in New York City. There was a 13-year age difference between the two. My maternal grandfather, James M Dobbs, Jr., was born in Dallas in 1902.
Some years ago, from census records, I figured out that before moving in 1872 to the boomtown of Dallas, Helen’s parents and her two older siblings lived in Savannah, Georgia. In the 1870 census for Savannah, Georgia, I first learned of Helen’s parents, George C Spiegel, an Immigrant cigarmaker from Sachsen, Germany, and Sophia B ___, a 24-year-old mother of a year-old son, and a native of New York City. Besides discovering a blurb in an Atlanta newspaper from 1901 announcing that the former consul-general to Chile, James Monroe Dobbs, had married Helen von Spiegel in New York City, I had hit a brick wall.
Then about three years ago, a second cousin, whom I had never met, contacted me to tell me that she had several photographs of my grandfather, his mother, Helen, and other of her family members. She wanted to send them to me. She is the granddaughter of my grandfather’s half-sister, Emita, and I am forever grateful for her sending me these photographs. I am incredibly thankful since I could share them with my mother a few months before she left us. In fact, it was the last time that I saw my mother alive.
Since that time, I have been obsessed with two photographs that were part of a package of pictures sent to me in the summer of 2019. One photo was labeled “Mrs. George C Spiegel” and taken at a Savannah studio. It must have been made around 1870.
The second photograph looked to have been taken around the same time or possibly earlier. The picture is of a smartly dressed middle-aged man standing beside an ornate-looking cabinet. On the back of the photograph is written “Precht, grandfather of Helen D Spiegel.” The photographer’s stamp on the back of the card gives the studio’s address as “No. 13 Avenue A., NY.” Seeing this, I went to the 1860 census to look for “Sophia Precht” in New York City. That is how I discovered the family of John and Catherine Precht living on E. 12th St. between avenues “B” and “C” in what is now known as Alphabet City, a section in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village. In the 19th century, the neighborhood was known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.
In addition to finding the family in the 1860 census, I also found them in the New York state census of 1855 and the US Census of 1850. In 1855 they appeared to be living at the same address on E. 12th St. In 1850, the family lived on Delancey Street in what is now the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. In 1860, the family consisted of the parents, John and Catherine Brecht, plus six children aged 18 to 7 years. John, an immigrant from Germany, was employed as a cabinetmaker. Catherine was also born in Germany. The eldest child, Margaret, was 18 years old in 1860 and employed as a seamstress. She and all the other children were born in New York. The eldest son, George, was 16 years old and was employed as an apprentice cabinetmaker. Next on the list of children was 15-year-old Sophia, followed by her sister Catherine, age 11, Edward, 8, and John, 7.
I found Sophia’s parents and some of her siblings enumerated in the 1870 census – twice. It appears that their neighborhood was counted more than once that year. The first time was in June. John and Kate Precht, their daughter Kate, and sons Edward and John were still living at the same address on E. 12th St. John, Sr.’s occupation is listed as a cabinetmaker. In their late teens, his sons John and Edward are listed as apprentice cabinetmakers. Daughter Catherine is 21 years old and is shown as employed as an “operator.” Since the invention of the telephone was six years away, it is unclear what is meant by “operator.”
In December 1870, their neighborhood was counted again for some unknown reason; however, the household is recorded as consisting of the parents, John and Catherine, and the two youngest sons, Edward and John. It is unknown why their youngest daughter Catherine did not make the record of the second enumeration of their neighborhood. I have found only one marriage record for Catherine, dated October 1879.
Spoiler alert: the 1879 marriage record will become crucial to the plot in a moment, but first, I need to describe what I found in two other records. It was something I could not ignore and was the source of my obsession with these nagging details.
I figure that John Precht must have died sometime between 1870 and 1880. He does not appear in the 1880 US census. That year, the family continued to reside at the same E. 12th St. address. Then, the family consisted of the mother, Catherine, age 61; her eldest son, George, age 35; her youngest son, John, age 27; and her daughter-in-law, Josephine, age 26. The unusual thing about this record was that her son George is listed with the last name “Smith.”
I thought maybe this George was not Catherine’s son, but instead, he was a boarder who had been mislabeled. Other than that, I did not think all that much about George’s last name until later, I discovered a transcript of an index (not the original record) of my great-grandparents’ 1901 marriage record from the state of New York (“New York, New York City Marriage Records, 1829-1938”). This record lists Helen’s mother’s name as “Sophie Smith.”
It is believed that Sophie died sometime between 1880 and 1887. Since she was certainly not present at my great-grandparents’ wedding in 1901, how is it that she came to be listed as “Sophie Smith” and not as Sophia Precht or Brecht? While this could be explained as another mistake, it seemed way too coincidental that in another record from 20 years earlier, her brother was listed with the name “Smith.”
Neither of these revelations made any sense at all. Why would the two siblings be using the name Smith? Since I was unsure of what year Sophie died nor where she was buried, one theory I had was that the marriage between her and George C. Spiegel did not end in her death but rather in divorce. I imagined Sophia leaving Texas, returning to New York City to be with her family, and eventually remarrying. Yet, I knew this was extremely unlikely, considering there was zero evidence to support this.
So, up until last night, this is all that I knew. In reviewing what I had recorded about Sophie and her family, I realized that I had lost track of her sisters, Margaret and Catherine. It often helps to review what other researchers have found, and one place to easily do this is at familysearch.org. This is where I found the 1879 marriage record for Catherine Precht. This record is also a transcript from the “New York City Marriage Records, 1829 to 1938.” On the surface, the record appeared to have a few errors. Although it was attached to Catherine Precht and purported to show the record of a marriage between her and a man named Max Goss, it listed her name as “Susann Precht.” In addition, although her father’s name is listed as “John Precht,” her mother’s name is shown as “Susanna Herbert.”
When I found a variation of that name on another marriage record transcript, I knew something unusual was going on. The second record (see here) is very confusing. The record event date is June 12, 1867, and it purports to show a marriage between John Precht, born 1815, and Susanna C Horbelt, born 1819.
Why another researcher attached this record to family members of Sophia Precht made no sense to me. Still, I was not about to discount it as a mistake. My next step was to pursue this further at Ancestry.com. At this site, I found confirmation that Sophie’s mother, Catherine Precht, was also known as “Susanna Catharina Horbelt.” The big reveal came from a photograph of a woman labeled with both names.
When I saw that this other researcher had the exact same photograph of John Precht that I had – albeit in better condition – I knew I had stumbled onto something that called for closer scrutiny.
Now comes the Monk Moment where I say, “Here’s What Happened…”
Here’s What Happened…
Susanna Catherina Horbelt, my great, great, great-grandmother, was born in 1819 in Germany. According to immigration records, she and her family arrived on October 31, 1832, in New York from Bremerhaven aboard the SS Isabella. She was 13 years old when she arrived. Their city of origin was listed as Sommerhausen, Germany, a town on the Main River, southeast of Würzburg, in the kingdom of Bavaria.
Here comes the bombshell… In 1842, Susanna Catherina Horbelt married John George Schmidt (1817-1846). The record I found shows that Catherine’s first three children – Margaret, George, and Sophia – were fathered by John George Schmidt.
Apparently, Herr Schmidt died the year that Sophia was born. Susanna Catharina is believed to have married John Precht sometime around 1847 (not 1867). In other words, Sophia was a “Schmidt,” not a “Precht.” (On a side note: Recently, the actress Julia Roberts had a similar family history revelation; see “Julia Roberts Is Blown Away To Learn She Isn’t Really A Roberts.”)
The revelation that Sophia Precht and her brother, George, were born “Schmidt” would explain why they were later associated with the surname “Smith” – the English equivalent of a common German occupational surname derived from the German word “Schmied” meaning “blacksmith” and/or “metalworker”.
Susanna Catharina’s other three children, Catherine, Edward, and John, were sired by John Precht, who appears to have died in 1875.
Helen’s grandmother died in 1903 at 84. For whatever other reasons Helen may have had for holding her wedding to James M. Dobbs in New York City, having the wedding close to where her elderly grandmother lived would have been reason enough.
I am still not sure what to make of the 1867 marriage record. I suspect the year of the event is a typo and that the event, the marriage between John Precht and Catherine Horbelt, really occurred in 1847.
Preliminarily, I have recorded that Susanna Catharina’s father was named George Dietrich Horbelt (1790–1850) and that her mother was Johanna Augustina Werther (1783-1855). Next stop, is the US Census of 1850.
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