Once you open the closet door (a mystery solved)

. . . the skeletons will come marching out, whether you like it or not.

I've solved the mystery of my great-grandfather, Maximilian Joseph Langer's illness and death.  To read up on the history of the mystery, go here, here, here, here, here, and here.  (Or search for Langer and read up from the bottom.  Or just read this.)

If you want to dig into your family history, you should be prepared to shovel up a few things that don't smell so nice.  When I was a girl, I used to fantasize about my great-grandfather, Maximilian Langer, thinking that because of his name alone, there must have been something grand about him.  Also, the fact that he was a chimney sweep enchanted me -- I clearly had no idea of what a chimney sweep's life was like, other than what I saw in Mary Poppins (it involved a lot of dancing and not all that much soot).  I imagined him big, but he must have been small, otherwise he wouldn't have succeeded in that line of work.

Well, the reality of my great-grandfather's life was somewhat less romantic.  The few city directories he appears in identify him as an "Arbeitsman," or laborer, which means he wasn't a licensed chimney sweep or a guild member, but rather some kind of assistant or apprentice, never to reach status in the guild.  By the time he would have been involved in that profession, it's likely that people wouldn't have been going down the chimneys much any more but instead were using mechanical means to clean them, but it was still a dirty job that could lead to all kinds of illnesses and job-related conditions.

A chimney sweep (not Max)

So what's the big mystery about Max Langer?  Well, to recap, he and Wilhelmine Schulze were married on the 26th of April, 1884, in Bremerhaven, Germany.  He was 44 years old; she was 25.  At the time, it seems that Maximilian was living with a possible relative of Wilhelmine, Conrad Schulze, who was 42 years old.  Though I haven't established the connection between Wilhelmine and Conrad, it's likely they were related, and maybe that's how Wilhelmine and Max met.

They were together for 11 years, from April, 1884, through December of 1895.  During that time, they had three daughters:  Sophie (1886), Hanni (1890), and Lina (1893). 

In January of 2013, I discovered that Maximilian died in Goettingen, some time prior to 1909 (the year of his daughter Sophie's marriage).  This was very strange to hear -- I wondered what would have brought him from Bremerhaven to Goettingen, 180 miles from his home.  Divorce?  Having to care for his aged mother?  I just didn't know.  I wrote to the City Archives in Goettingen to ask if they had a record of his death in 1896.

Max Langer's death certificate

The official found the record.  In the exchange of emails with the woman at the archive, I sensed that something was a little off -- it was hard to put my finger on it, but it seemed that she was reluctant to just tell me outright in an email the circumstances of his death.  She told me it wasn't a regular death certificate but a "marginal note" in the record book.  Finally, she just went ahead and sent me a scan of the document, at which point I could decide whether I wanted to order the official one or not.  A facebook friend helped me translate it, and this is what it said:

"Göttingen, January 31 1896. To the Registrar signed below was sent by the Board of the District-Lunatic Asylum in Göttingen the following written report: 

"Maximilian Joseph Langer, labourer, 55 years 6 months 8 days old; Catholic religion; residing in Geestemünde, Lehrer Chaussee Nr. 42; born in Oberglogau in the province of Silesia on the 21st July 1840; married to Wilhelmine, nee Schulze, of Geestemünde, son of the Oberglogau couple (deceased), master weaver Anton Langer and Barbara, nee Kura; died in the District-Lunatic Asylum in Göttingen at the twenty-ninth January of the year 1896 at two o´clock past midday.  The Registrar Borhut"

Wow.  No wonder she was reluctant to tell me -- my great-grandfather died in a "lunatic asylum."  Rather than answering questions, this raised more -- Why was he there?  What was wrong with him?  Why was he, obviously not a wealthy man, hospitalized at a university-affiliated hospital, almost 200 miles from his home?

 The asylum at Goettingen

In February of this year, I emailed the current institution to ask whether they had historical records that might tell me why my great-grandfather was there and what caused his death.  The woman I wrote to told me she had passed my email on to a colleague who could better answer my questions, and I would hear from him. I waited.  For five months.

In the meantime, I started researching the asylum.  I was haunted by the idea that my great-grandfather was in some kind of Bedlam-like institution, chained to the wall and so on.  But I found a history of the asylum written by its director, Dr. Ludwig Meyer and began painstakingly translating it.  I learned that Dr. Meyer was an extremely progressive psychologist, who believed in "no-restrictions" hospitalization, in making the hospital as much like home as possible, and in treating patients with respect.  I was relieved.

Finally, I thought I would try one last email to see if I could get a response.  My friend Harriett, who teaches German at U.C. Berkeley, helped me craft an incredibly polite second email that gently asked if a response from the colleague were still possible.  It was.

Today I received an email from the director of the hospital museum.  He tells me that my great-grandfather was admitted on December 5th, 1895, and died on January 29th, 1896, of "spätsyphilitische chronic inflammation of the nerve tissue s with its progressive destruction (dementia )," which means, dementia from end-stage syphilis.

Wow.   This sent me into a bit of a tailspin, but my impulse is always to find out more, to research.  So I did that, and learned that syphilis in the 1800's was very common, because there was no effective way to treat it.  But it was shameful, because it was often seen as God's revenge for engaging in inappropriate sex, so sufferers would often take pains to hide the lesions that would come and go.  

Of course, my first thought was about my great-grandmother Wilhelmine and her three daughters -- how was it possible that they had not contracted the disease?  Clearly, they didn't have it; they all lived to ripe old ages, 96 for my grandmother Sophie, for example.

I learned that there are four stages to syphilis:  the primary stage involves a genital chancre; the secondary stage involves a kind of generalized rash; in the third stage, the disease is latent or hidden for up to 20 years and the sufferer is not contagious; and the last, late stage is a catastrophic illness that results in serious physical effects, including paralytic dementia, brought on by nerve damage.

Since the age difference between Maximilian and Wilhelmine was so large (almost 20 years), it's easy to imagine that he contracted the disease some time before (maybe well before) their marriage.  He went through the first two stages and was in the latent period for at least the 11 years in which he and Wilhelmine were married and had three daughters.  Then he passed into the late stage and declined fairly rapidly, it appears.

Lina was born in 1893, and Maximilian was admitted to the hospital in Goettingen in December of 1895, so in those few years, he must have gone rapidly downhill.  And why wasn't he put into a hospital in Bremerhaven, where he lived?  Because Dr. Ludwig Meyer, head of the asylum, had a special interest in the psychological effects of late-stage syphilis, and so Maximilian was undoubtedly sent there, not so much as a patient but rather as a research subject.  That confirmed my guess about why he was there.

Dr. Ludwig Meyer

He didn't last long -- he entered the asylum early in December and by the end of January, he was gone.  I wonder what his family -- especially the children, who were all still 10 and under, knew.  At the time, an ethical dilemma was being discussed about syphilis in the medical profession:  should families and even the patient himself be told what the actual disease was?  Was it cruel to add the burden of the stigma to an already suffering patient and his family?  Sometimes they even disguised the treatments, so the patient wouldn't know what was really wrong with him.  I suspect that if Max's children learned anything of his illness, it was much, much later.

One of the things I truly love about genealogy is the opportunities it gives you to learn about times and places you've never known about; what life was like in Jamaica, NY, in the 1800s; the Silesian weavers' revolt, one of the first labor uprisings in history; the ship line industry in Bremerhaven, and so on.  I never dreamed, though, that I'd be looking up syphilis and learning about its nightmarish end-stage. Family histories are full of surprises.

Maximilian Langer turned out not to be the grand chimney sweep of my imagination, but I've learned about a human soul who must have suffered much during his lifetime.  My friend who also does family history says that when you find out about an ancestor and write about them, you are both honoring them and helping them to rest more easily.  I like that idea.

So I say, rest in peace, Maximilian, from your great granddaughter.  I'm glad to have solved the mystery of your life and death.



  1. Fascinating story! I too am trying to do research on my German ancestors. My favorite discovery is that of my great uncle. He was an Antiquities dealer in pre-war Berlin and one of his customers was Sigmund Freud!

  2. The things we find out! Thanks for stopping by, Mark.

  3. OMG Elise, that is a strange case, the poor man! his poor family! Well done on getting to the bottom of it though.

  4. This is my first visit to your site. You're a tenacious researcher and a fine writer. I always tell my writing students to tell the truth with love. You've done that here.

    1. Thanks very much, Dara and Dawn! Having retired from 30 some years in the teaching writing biz, I'm glad to hear I haven't lost my chops. :)

  5. Elise, what an eye opener! Sometimes the quest to uncover the story of our ancestors involves a journey of self-discovery as well--a time to reflect on how we are processing these surprises as we encounter them.

    1. Thank you, Jacqi -- it is definitely a journey of self-discovery. Who am I? Where have I come from?

  6. Great post Elise! I am working on a future post for my blog that also includes a lunatic asylum but it is in the US.


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