The Stories Your Grandparents Don't Talk About
Updated: Jan 1
We all have them. The stories at which our grandparents only hint and won't satisfy us with answers, usually because they are too painful to think about.
I grew up with a vague story usually referred to as the time Grandma G.G. (my great-grandmother Edith Menges Morris) was kidnapped by that terrible man (her step-father Fred Warner). I was told Warner took Edith to his sister's house near White Pigeon, Michigan, just over the state border from the Menges family farm near Bristol, Indiana. I don't recall Grandma G.G. ever telling me the story directly. She may have as we spent many hours together during the first twenty-one years of my life. Any reference to Warner would elicit the response from her, "That terrible man." But Edith's daughter and my grandmother, Lois, repeated what little she knew of the story many times. The picture shown above was for many years believed to have been taken around the time of the kidnapping, although new evidence indicates it was probably taken earlier.
Three generations removed, there was a certain thrill of sensationalism about the story when I was younger. But as I matured the story generated more questions than answers. Why did Warner kidnap Edith? What made him so terrible? What did his sister think about the whole affair? How did Edith get back home? And did her mother, Anna Maria (pronounced Ma-rye'-ah), know what she was getting into when she married him? How did she get tangled up with him anyway? In recent years I've gone digging for some answers and uncovered some surprising details.
First of all, apologies to family members who I've led to believe that Frederick D. Warner was our man. There are many reasons I've been tracking Frederick D. Warner of Muskegon and Kalamazoo for the last several years as the most likely candidate for Edith's step-father. Born in 1853, he was only three years older than Anna Maria so the age proximity fit for a husband. He had a sister who lived in Schoolcraft, Michigan, just up the road from White Pigeon. And most telling of all, he killed a man when he was only 18-years old and served a sentence in the Michigan State Prison. There was a discrepancy between middle initials. The Muskegon Fred Warner's middle initial was D, Anna Maria's husband's middle initial was M. But I had not been too concerned about this because we all know that variations in names are common.
I recently discovered a treasure trove of details about the saga played out on the old Menges family farm between Fred M. Warner and the Menges sisters, Anna Maria and Amelia, published in the Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) as they occurred between the years 1899 and 1902. After careful consideration of these details, I now believe that Frederick M. Warner born in 1847 is our man. This makes him nine years older than Anna Maria.
At the time these events played out Anna Maria was a mid-forties divorcee supporting an elementary school-age daughter and her spinster sister, Amelia who was around 50-years-old and suffered some form of seizures or mild mental impairment. With no assistance from their brothers, the women were left to make a living from the farm the best they could with the help of hired men. Fred M. Warner became one of those men sometime in 1898 or early 1899.
Warner was a native of Alpena and Saginaw counties in Michigan where his parents had settled after migrating from New York state. His father was an early resident of Bay County where he was first an Indian trader and later a fisherman. Warner was 18-years old when he enlisted in Company A of the Michigan 7th Cavalry Regiment on March 11, 1865 at the tail end of the Civil War. Likely the only Civil War action he saw was the Appomattox campaign from March 28 to April 9. Battles in which the Michigan 7th Cavalry Regiment fought during this time include Dinwiddie Courthouse (1114 casualties), Five Forks (3830 casualties), Sailor's Creek (8848 casualties), Appomattox Station (1048 casualties), and Appomattox Court House (664 casualties). Likely the regiment was present at the surrender ceremony on April 12. After the grand review in Washington, D.C. following the war, the Michigan 7th Cavalry was posted to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where it participated in actions against the Indians in the District of the Plains and Dakota before Warner mustered out on December 15, 1865. As a soldier in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, Warner served under the likes of Generals Phil Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer. But a hero this did not make him.
It is difficult to say where Warner went wrong. At 18 he was really still a child facing the horror of battle and its devastation. The casualties listed above for each battle include dead and wounded for both the Union and the Confederacy. Did this scar him for life? Or was he already mean-spirited as a teenager? Did the hard-living of the nineteenth-century soldier turn him into an alcoholic? It is unlikely that any battle injury caused him disability or led to alcoholism. In the 1890s Warner received veteran's disability for a "left inguinal hernia, piles (hemorrhoids), and rheumatism," and during the last fifteen years of his life spent time in and out of the federally-operated Northwestern Branch Soldier's Home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Michigan Soldier's Home in Grand Rapids.
What he did between 1865 and 1896 is sketchy, but the picture emerging is that of a troubled and unsettled man. By matching birth year, birth place, occupation, and physical description, it appears that Warner served time in both Pennsylvania and Michigan. There are three separate records of incarceration. First, in 1878 he was sentenced to a year in the Jackson (Michigan) State Prison for larceny. This record indicates he had been working as a cook and he was received from Saginaw County on February 22, 1878. After Warner's discharge on Christmas Day of the same year, he returned to his parents' home, according to an 1883 Alpena city directory, where he apparently tried his hand as a sailor. By 1884 he had moved to Pennsylvania. where he was incarcerated in the Allegheny County Workhouse for drunkenness for thirty days beginning November 29, 1884. He was assigned to work in the kitchen and his previous occupation was also listed as cook. With things obviously not working out for him in Pennsylvania, he returned to Michigan unreformed. In 1885 he began a seven-year sentence in the Jackson Prison for robbery from which he was released April 14, 1889.
It is ironic that I would never have discovered the Michigan prison records if I had not first mistakenly believed Frederick D. Warner to be Anna Maria's husband. It was his prison record I discovered first and only found Frederick M. Warner's records while searching for the other Warner.
Warner was first admitted to the Northwestern Branch Soldier's Home in Wood, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, on March 31, 1896. This home was part of a federally-run system established at the end of the Civil War to provide for crippled soldiers, a precursor of the Veterans Administration. Admission to these facilities was voluntary and by the 1890s they were open to any indigent veteran, not only those who were physically disabled.
In his admission record Warner listed his sister Vie Cameron of Dunbar, Wisconsin as next of kin. He also indicated Dunbar, Wisconsin as his place of residence. His discharge on August 31, 1896 is a bit fuzzy, which leads one to wonder if he left without a proper discharge. Warner would later return for three more stays ranging from two to four months between 1907 and 1909. According to a Kalamazoo pension agent searching for Warner in the summer of 1899, Warner also spent time in a Grand Rapids, Michigan Soldier's Home between 1896 and 1898. (The 1898 Grand Rapids city directory also confirms Warner's status as a Soldier's Home inmate in 1898.)
It is curious that the correctional facility records consistently record Warner's occupation as cook, while the Soldier's Home records, as well as the Alpena city directory, state he was a sailor. If he was spending his time on a Great Lakes freighter that might account for the lack of records until he showed up in Bristol. Is it possible he was a ship's cook?
How Warner ended up a hired hand on the Menges farm in Bristol, Indiana is a guess. Perhaps he was one of the hobos that both Edith and Lois claimed frequented the area. Edith went so far as to suggest that the hobos had their home marked as a stopping point because of the frequency with which these traveling men stopped to beg a meal at their door. The Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) indicates he arrived in February 1898. Before long, everyone in town knew who he was and they did not particularly like him.
According to her daughter, Anna Maria was "weak-minded" (not to say she was of low intelligence, but rather not assertive enough) and warm-hearted. This may have been just the combination a man with Warner's checkered past could exploit. Perhaps she felt sorry for him and thought she could help him in return for the muscle he could provide the farm. The first report of trouble was printed July 21, 1899 when Warner was arrested for physically attacking a neighbor with whom Anna Maria was engaged in a land dispute. This altercation may have resulted in a jail sentence for the November 24, 1899 Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) reported that Warner received a pension payment of $860 upon his release; money that the Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) claimed he spent within six weeks of his release.
Despite what are to us obvious red flags, Anna Maria married Fred Warner on December 2, 1899. They were married in Goshen, Indiana by a justice of the peace. Given Warner's background and track record for arrests and prison time, one wonders why Anna Maria agreed to this. Was she really that naive? Or did he threaten her somehow and she felt she had no choice? Or was she just that desperate to keep a man on the farm?
There was no happiness or paradise in this marriage. With Warner's reputation for violence, drunkenness, and being a spendthrift, the marriage really did not have a chance of success. Through the years, Edith's children and grandchildren gathered the impression of much abuse to both Anna Maria and Edith. While Edith never shared any real details, she dropped hints such as a reference to hiding behind an organ in the parlor, begging Warner not to touch her. But it now appears that Warner's abuse was not limited to his wife and step-daughter. In November 1900, Warner was arrested by Elkhart, Indiana, officials based on an affidavit filed by Amelia Menges. The Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) reports the glee of Goshen officials, who apparently had been spending quite a bit of time trying to control Warner, that he was now in the hands of Elkhart. Whatever motivated Amelia's affidavit, not only landed Warner in jail, but finally gave Anna Maria the gumption to file for divorce.
The divorce was finalized on March 22, 1901. But there was to be no relief from Warner's presence. According to the Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) of March 29, when Anna Maria arrived home with her divorce decree, Warner insisted he was staying to "look after them." The paper leaves out details and while he officially moved to Elkhart, he continued to harass the women. It was during this time that family lore indicates he stole the old German family Bible out of the farmhouse. And it was most likely during this period, between March 1901 and June 1902 that he kidnapped Edith. She was seven or eight-years old (she turned eight on November 19, 1901). Unfortunately, to date I have yet to verify details about any possible Warner relatives in the vicinity of White Pigeon, how long she was gone, or how she was located and returned home.
While the Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) never reported on the kidnapping or the stealing of the Bible–the two events which continue to rankle in our family–the paper provides plenty of other evidence to make these two stories entirely plausible. On April 18, 1902, the Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) reported that Fred was still serving time "for an assault and battery upon the person of Amelia Menges." He was released shortly after this and must have finally decided to leave town permanently. In June 1902, the Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) announced that his Michigan relatives were looking for him.
Warner surfaced again in the summer of 1903 when he was arrested in South Bend, Indiana for the theft of a watch stolen off a fellow war veteran. As the Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) had claimed all along, Warner was supposedly an itinerant umbrella mender by occupation. As stated above, Soldier's Home records indicate he returned to Wisconsin for a time. But ultimately this very unhappy man met his end in Mishawaka, Indiana by stepping in front of a moving Grand Trunk train on October 23, 1909. Whether suicide or accident, he was inebriated at the time. Fred Warner is buried in a pauper's grave shared with three unrelated men in Mishawaka. The Bristol Banner (Newspapers.com) reported that he was survived by one sister in Bay City, Michigan.
Did Warner suffer from PTSD? Neither Civil War medicine nor psychiatry had any understanding of this condition. And society looked down upon men broken by war. So this is a relatively untouched field which historians are now beginning to study. Scholars like Lesley Gordon and Michael Adams are finding plenty of evidence to support the idea that Civil War soldiers did in fact suffer from PTSD, although no one should think it widespread. Gordon has made an in-depth study of the 16th Connecticut Regiment, and concluded that these young men between 18-years old and somewhere in their early twenties, sent into battle without adequate preparation, suffered for the rest of their lives. "Upon returning home, many of the survivors became invalids, emotionally numb, or abusive of family" (Horwitz). Drug or alcohol abuse was also problematic among such soldiers. This regiment was particularly hard hit by both the battle of Antietam and imprisonment at the notorious Andersonville, Georgia prison. They suffered a great deal more than Warner likely did during the last few weeks of the war. And yet, it was not unusual for the Civil War armies to send immature, untrained, inexperienced 18-year old boys, such as Warner, into battle. That alone would be traumatic.
Who knew there could be two such violent men in the state of Michigan both named Fred Warner? Warner has always been the villain in our family lore. But uncovering the circumstances which may have shaped him, gives me a bit more compassion. Anna Maria made some terrible decisions, subjecting herself, her sister, and her daughter to abuse. But Warner was likely emotionally disturbed as a result of his war service and he wasn't in the right place to get the help he needed. Instead he terrorized a vulnerable household of women and their community.
Horwitz, Tony. "Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD?" Smithsonian Magazine [online] (January 2015).
Northwestern Branch, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. National Park Service.
Plante, Trevor K. "The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers." Prologue Magazine, v. 36 no. 1 (Spring 2004).