No. 14

Donner Party Bulletin


Bertha Keseberg Mystery Solved

       Sometime around 1999 I began corresponding with Marilyn Acuff, a great great granddaughter of Louis Keseberg. Marilyn has been researching her family history for some time and has shared a lot of fascinating information. One of our most perplexing problems has centered on Louis and Philippine Keseberg’s daughter Bertha.
       We first hear about her in C. F. McGlashan’s History of the Donner Party, two chapters of which are dedicated to Keseberg. McGlashan first visited the notorious cannibal on April 3 and 4, 1879, prepared to confront him with all the charges against him, but Keseberg’s tale of woe, his poverty, his wretched existence, won the historian’s sympathy.
       Chief among Keseberg’s difficulties were the two "idiot" daughters whose sole caregiver he was. In all the Kesebergs had had eleven children, all girls except for the infant son who died at Donner Lake. Only four of Keseberg’s daughters were alive in 1879.

       One of these, Lillie [Lily], now lives in Sacramento with her husband. Another, Paulina, a widow, resides in San Rafael. Bertha and Augusta live with the father at Brighton, Sacramento County. Both these children are hopelessly idiotic. Bertha is twenty-six years of age, and has never uttered an intelligible word. Augusta is fifteen years old, weighs two hundred and five pounds, and possesses only slight traces of intelligence... Both are subject to frequent and violent spasms or epileptic fits. They need constant care and attention. Should Bertha’s hand fall into the fire, she has not sufficient intelligence to withdraw it from the flames. Both are helpless as children. The State provides for insane, but not for idiots... Their helplessness and violence

render it impossible to keep any nurse in charge of them longer than a few days. While [Keseberg’s] wife lived, she took care of these children; but now he has personally to watch over them and provide for their necessities. While at work, he is compelled to keep them locked in a room in the same building. They scream so loudly while going into the spasms that he cannot dwell near other people. He therefore lives isolated, in a plain little house back of his brewery.

       Marilyn was positive part of this statement couldn’t be true, because she had actually known Bertha Keseberg.
       Bertha was born 23 July 1859 in Sacramento, the ninth child of Louis and Philippine Keseberg. On 26 March 1873 Bertha’s next oldest sister, Matilda, married Frederick Kummerfeldt. They had a baby in December but the mother died two months later. Kummerfeldt, left with a tiny infant, married 14-year-old Bertha on 22 March 1874, just under a year after he had married her sister. (Sadly, the baby died only nine months after her mother, in November 1874.)
       Bertha and Frederick had one son, Frederick Jr., born in 1875. Frederick Sr., who was in the wood and coal business, died in 1897, when Bertha was 37 years old. Many years later, in 1922, Bertha married Richard Catlett, a farmer who lived near Placerville.
       Marilyn's childhood memories of her great grand aunt are of a sweet little old lady in her eighties. "Auntie" wasn’t retarded and didn’t have fits; though stout, she was perfectly normal and the only unusual thing about her was the long, old fashioned clothing she wore. Bertha Catlett, the last surviving child of Louis and Philippine Keseberg, died in Sacramento on 17 December 1949 at the age of 90.


Donner Party Bulletin No. 14
       But how on earth did McGlashan get the idea that Bertha was an "idiot"? Marilyn and I discussed this several times over the years in the course of our intermittent correspondence. McGlashan had visited Keseberg in a confrontational spirit; did Keseberg mislead McGlashan in order to elicit his sympathy? Did he perhaps exaggerate Bertha’s condition? Or was the error or exaggeration on McGlashan’s part?
       We know that there really were two afflicted Keseberg daughters from letter by William C. Graves, who knew the family between about 1866 and 1873, when Louis was managing Sam Brannan’s Calistoga distillery. On April 1, 1879, Graves wrote McGlashan, "They had 5 or 6 daughters when they moved from here [Calistoga]     one of them is only about half witted and another is an Idiot." This confirms what McGlashan wrote, that one was more severely affected than the other. However, McGlashan informs us that Bertha was the more "challenged" of the two, so it’s not simply a matter of exaggerating her condition.
       Another problem is that McGlashan gives Bertha and Augusta’s ages as 26 and 15, respectively, in 1879; Augusta’s age is correct, but Bertha was actually only 19.
       Marilyn and I wrestled with the problem sporadically until August 7, 2004, when I had one of those headsmacking "duh!" moments: I finally realized that Bertha had been married to Frederick Kummerfeldt for five years by the time McGlashan visited Keseberg in the spring of 1879. She wasn’t shrieking and having convulsions behind a locked door in her father's brewery; she was quietly keeping house for her husband and son. McGlashan must have gotten the names wrong.
       With this insight, the pieces fell neatly into place. McGlashan had recorded the names of the four surviving Keseberg girls correctly, but he confused which was which. Bertha was the daughter living with her husband in Sacramento and Lily the widow living in San Rafael -- facts which Marilyn knew from other sources -- leaving Paulina and Augusta as the two daughters with epilepsy and mental retardation. This would explain why we had been unable to find anything about Paulina and her alleged marriage while Bertha is easy to find in genealogical sources. McGlashan said the elder of the
 two "idiot" daughters was 26 in 1879; Paulina was 25, much closer than Bertha's age of 19. And this solution also explains the fact that only Paulina and Augusta are buried next to their mother in Sacramento's Old City Cemetery; their sisters, who all married and had children, lie elsewhere with their own family members. 
       What a relief to finally get this straightened out! Bertha Keseberg’s memory can now be rescued from 125 years of misunderstanding and misinformation.

The Missing Keseberg Child

       C. F. McGlashan wrote that Louis and Philippine Keseberg had had eleven children. Two, Ada and Louis Jr., died in the Donner Party disaster, and there were eight more daughters born in California: Amelia, Lily, Paulina, Julia, Matilda, Bertha, Ida, and Augusta. So who was the eleventh child? Was Ada not the first? Had there been another tragedy, a stillbirth or an infant death, at some point?
       In the course of our correspondence Marilyn sent me a photocopy that solves the mystery: Ada had had a twin.
       The records of the Evangelische Staatskirche of Berleburg, Germany, list Juliane Karoline and Mathilde Elise, daughters of Johann Ludwig Christian Keseberg and his wife Elisabeth Philippine. They were both born on 17 April 1843 and baptized the following 5 May. Below Mathilde Elise’s name are a cross and the date "27 July 1844," indicating that she died nearly two months after the Kesebergs had arrived in the United States from Germany.
       This solves the mystery of the missing eleventh Keseberg child plus it gives us Ada’s date of birth, but it also raises a question: how did the surviving twin, Juliane Karoline, get the nickname "Ada"?

Donner Party Bulletin is edited by
Kristin Johnson
Salt Lake City, UT


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