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  • An Invented Life

    Lilla (Hawkins) Wunderlich of Massachusetts, New York, Shanghai, and Germany

    This particular genealogical quest began with a picture of a dark-eyed boy in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit.

    A distant cousin had given me a Victorian photo album that had belonged to her great-grandmother, Jessie (Morgan) Hawkins (1822–1909) of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Only this one photo, taken in a Brooklyn studio, bore a caption. Written in an adult hand, the inscription reads, “For Grandmama, Merrie Christmas, from Percy.” Who was Percy? At that point, my knowledge of the Hawkins family was limited to the descendants of Jessie’s son John Hawkins (1851−1929), who married my great-grandmother’s aunt, Hattie Paine.[1] Their family contained no Percys. Assuming that Grandmama was Jessie Hawkins, I speculated that Percy’s mother must have been one of Jessie’s three daughters, Henrietta, Mary, or Lilla Hawkins—but which? My research into Percy’s identity was the initial foray into a complex quest that pulled me into the bewildering life of Percy’s peripatetic mother.

    To reconstruct their lives, I began with a mid-nineteenthcentury shipping manifest. Jessie Hawkins, her husband, James, and their four children had sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Boston aboard the brig Belle in May 1851.[2] They settled in Fairhaven, where one more child was born on 22 May 1853[3]—Elizabeth M. Hawkins, known as Lilla Dale.[4]

    During the next decade, the Hawkins family moved several times between Fairhaven and New Bedford. By the end of the Civil War, Jessie was a widow.[5] After a short stint in Boston, where they were enumerated in 1870,[6] Jessie and her children returned to New Bedford and, finally, to Fairhaven, where Jessie spent the last twenty years of her life. Two of her daughters married in New Bedford: Henrietta Hawkins, who had two husbands and died childless at 35, and Mary Hawkins, who wed Virginiaborn Union soldier John Chalkley. Since no Percy was found in Mary Chalkley’s family, Lilla was the only remaining candidate for Percy’s mother. After being listed as a dressmaker in New Bedford’s 1873 directory, Lilla seemed to vanish, leaving no further trace in Massachusetts records. Where did Lilla go?

    The answer surfaced in the administration of Jessie Hawkins’s estate. She died intestate on 19 September 1909,[7] when her heirs-at-law included her son John Hawkins of Fairhaven and daughters Mary Chalkley of West Point, Virginia, and Lilla D. Wunderlich—of Shanghai. The Shanghai reference took my research in a new direction. Speculating about why Lilla was in Shanghai, I made an initial assumption inspired by my youthful reading of the novels of Pearl S. Buck. Knowing the Hawkins family had belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church, I thought it worthwhile to investigate whether Lilla or her husband had been missionaries, like Pearl Buck’s parents. Looking back now, that theory seems ludicrous.

    The Court Case

    My search began prior to the advent of the Internet, and years passed without any worthwhile leads. When promising search capabilities were available, Percy’s picture pointed me to Brooklyn, where he had been photographed. My first major digital hit was a September 1901 New York Times article headlined “Blames Hugh M’Laughlin” and subtitled “His Neighbor Indignant Because Her Servant Was Arrested.” The story described a feud between Leila Wunderlich, wife of Dr. Frederick W. Wunderlich, 165 Remsen Street, Brooklyn, and her neighbor, Tammany boss Hugh McLaughlin. Mrs. Wunderlich had defied repeated orders to stop her servant from beating carpets outdoors. Infuriated by the influx of dust into his windows, McLaughlin pressed charges on the grounds that sanitary code ordinances were being violated. Mrs. Wunderlich evidently suspected ulterior motives: “Mr. McLaughlin is the person who is making all the trouble for me. . . . It’s because I won’t have anything to do with the McLaughlins. Everyone else on the block seems to worship them and bow down to them, but I am different.”[8]

    The ensuing fracas made the front page of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Readers were regaled with an elaborate description of the woman at center stage, who told reporters she was from Louisiana:

    The appearance of Mrs. Wunderlich in court created a sensation. . . . She was really what enthusiasts would call a dream of the milliner’s and dressmaker’s art. Mrs. Wunderlich wore one of the stylish pleated straw Gainsboroughs, with a huge ostrich plume, a waist of pink silk and costly lace insertion, a black satin skirt and patent leather Oxfords. She swept upstairs with her skirts held high from the contaminating influence of the soiled steps, and there was a swish about her progress that suggested yards and yards of rustling silk.[9]

    The case dragged on for several months and came to a climax in December, when the judge ordered Leila and her servant to pay a nominal fine or go to jail.[10] Was this feisty and haughty doctor’s wife indeed Lilla from New Bedford?

    Documenting the Husbands

    In the 1900 Brooklyn census, listed next door to Hugh McLaughlin, was a family consisting of D. [actually, Dr. Frederick] Wunderlich, a 59-year-old physician born in Germany; his wife, “L. D.,” 45, born in New York; and two children, Beatrice, 19, and P. B., 17, both born in New York, plus two foreign-born male servants. Dr. Wunderlich and L. D. had been married six years.[11] The 1905 New York State Census contributed the information that Percy Goehler [Koehler], 23, was Dr. Frederick’s stepson.[12] Searching further, I also found that Lilla probably moved directly from New Bedford to New York City: city directories from the late 1870s list Lilla D. Hawkins selling shoes on Broadway. In Manhattan, on 1 May 1879, she married a Bremen-born broker, Robert Koehler, who was seven years her senior.[13]

    They had two children: Beatrice Elsa, born 4 July 1880, and Percy, born 15 April 1883.[14] As Mrs. Robert Koehler, Lilla led a comfortable existence in a Brooklyn brownstone on Tompkins Place until her 45-year-old husband died from pneumonia on 10 April 1891. Dr. Wunderlich signed his death certificate. [15] The New York Tribune described Robert Koehler as “a popular broker on the Consolidated Stock and Petroleum Exchange.” His funeral was held from his home, with a private burial.[16]

    When Lilla wed respected and wealthy 52-year-old Dr. Wunderlich on 17 June 1893, she apparently ascended several steps on the social ladder. Dr. Wunderlich had arrived from Germany at 14 and had served as a hospital steward during the Civil War. By 1883, he was a surgeon at St. Peter’s Hospital in Brooklyn and maintained a private practice.[17] Contemporary accounts attest to his familiarity with the latest scientific knowledge, notably the work of Joseph Lister and Robert Koch.[18] If Dr. Wunderlich’s will is any indication, he treated Lilla’s children well.[19] Her daughter, Beatrice, married Sefton Trantor, a broker, in 1900, and they named their eldest child Frederika. Dr. Wunderlich paid for Percy’s education at Cornell University, where the latter was recorded as Percy Wunderlich Koehler. But then, at a time when one might expect Lilla to continue with well-established routines, something happened to disrupt the pattern. The 1910 census shows Percy Koehler, now himself a broker, still living with Dr. Wunderlich but in a rented apartment— an indication of slipping finances.[20] Though the doctor gave his status as married, Lilla was absent. Was she in Shanghai, as her mother’s 1909 estate papers implied?

    The Emergency Passports

    Searching through online passport applications and ship manifests yielded several hits for a Lilla Wunderlich, born in 1880 in New Orleans.[21] I first assumed that this could not have been the Massachusetts woman born in 1853, but a closer inspection of the documents revealed the New Orleans traveler was none other than the wife of Dr. Frederick Wunderlich! For vanity’s sake, some people deduct a few years from their ages, but Lilla was playing with more than twenty-five!

    Lilla’s destinations and her statements on the documents raise many additional questions. Her first solo documented European trip was in 1903, when she returned aboard the S.S. Moltke. In 1907, 1910, and 1912, from the American embassies in Berlin and Tokyo, she applied for emergency passports “for travel through Russia,” each time making the excuse that she did not have time to obtain a passport through regular channels. Her travel record is silent for the next five years, until May 1919, when she used an identity certificate issued by the Spanish consulate in Hamburg to apply at The Hague for an emergency passport to return to the United States. Claiming her American residence as New Orleans, she stated,

    I went to the Far East in 1910 for pleasure, and in 1914 came to Germany with my brother. In that year I met with a serious accident through a bad fall, breaking my ankle and injuring my back. For that reason I found it impracticable to return to the United States until the present date. . . . I have certain real estate interest in Louisiana and Tennessee.[22]

    Had she ever been to Louisiana or Tennessee? Lilla’s only living brother, John H. Hawkins, never traveled overseas; he worked as a house carpenter in Fairhaven. Did Lilla spend all of World War I residing in Germany and, if so, why? Once she received another emergency passport in 1919, Lilla did not return to Brooklyn, where Dr. Wunderlich now resided alone.[23]

    The Department of State File

    Expanding the Internet search for Lilla resulted in a breakthrough source: Purport Lists for the Department of State, 1910−1944—declassified diplomatic correspondence released to the National Archives. Lilla’s file, obtained from Washington, exceeded 250 pages.[24] Its contents revolved around Lilla’s petitions for assets and stock dividends that had belonged to a German officer who served in World War I. These assets, originally held in Shanghai, were seized in Hong Kong. When the Hong Kong Office of Enemy Debts closed, its pending cases were transferred to the British Clearing Office in London.

    The documents in the file disclosed the true reason Lilla journeyed so far from Brooklyn: she had been living with Captain Walter Treumann, twenty years her junior. Before the war, he worked as a captain for the Hamburg- America line and claimed residence in Shanghai. Perhaps the couple originally met in 1903 aboard the Moltke, a ship of that line. The relationship can be documented as early as 1909, when both were listed in the manifest of the Japanese steamer Kaga Maru en route from Shanghai to Seattle.

    In Shanghai, Lilla and Captain Treumann were certainly not missionaries; undoubtedly they participated in the glamorous sophisticated lifestyle typical of the era’s expatriates. At the start of World War I, when Treumann returned to Germany, Lilla followed. One surviving letter from 1915 in the State Department file confirms Dr. Wunderlich not only kept in touch with Lilla but also sent care packages containing soap and lotion. Lilla apparently had asked for more money, a demand the doctor could not meet: “It is a great relief for me to learn you have been able to secure sufficient money to keep you going. In my present state of finances it is impossible to for me to assist you.” Wunderlich concluded, “I am particularly pleased with the defeat of the Russians. I hope Austria has troops enough to give the Italiens [sic] a thorough beating.”

    Captain Treumann did not live to see Germany’s defeat. He died near the war’s end on 21 January 1918. His will, in German, drawn up only days before his death, disclosed his wishes with astonishing candor: “As my sole heiress, I declare Mrs. Lilla Dale Wunderlich, born nee Hawkins, formerly of Brooklyn, at present in Hamburg. This woman has sacrificed her whole life for me, always with love and devotion . . . I do not feel obligated to my sisters any bequest to make, they, during the time I was ill in Kiel in the University Nerve Clinic, were very nasty and loveless.”[25]

    Following Treumann’s death, the value of his estate was set at 57,000 marks, or $14,250. In addition to the issue of the seized stock assets, the estate was also subject to rampant postwar inflation and devaluation of the German mark. Much to Lilla’s chagrin, Treumann’s estate was mired in endless litigation. In her correspondence about the estate, spanning a fifteen-year period, Lilla conveyed the impression of a frail woman in distress, living on a modest Civil War pension. She pleaded her case far and wide, and even wrote to the Prince of Wales to implore him for assistance because she believed the British government had impounded Treumann’s funds. By 1934, when the claim was settled, the residual of Treumann’s stock sales amounted to a paltry £31.

    The Civil War Pension File

    Meanwhile, the once-prosperous Dr. Wunderlich had fallen on hard times. By 1920, nearing 80 and no longer practicing medicine, he applied for a Civil War pension. He died on 8 May 1921, before the process was completed.[26] His will, drawn up in 1906, left bequests to Lilla and her children. During the administration of the substantially reduced estate, since the addresses of the principal legatees were not known, a legal notice was placed in the Brooklyn Eagle.[27] The first to respond was Lilla’s daughter, Beatrice, who did not know the whereabouts of her mother or brother.

    Though Lilla was not in the United States for her husband’s funeral, within months she applied for a Civil War widow’s pension. Her file runs over 200 pages because Lilla had a difficult time proving that she was married to Dr. Wunderlich. His death certificate indicated he was divorced. In the estate file, Wunderlich’s executor stated that Lilla had been absent for the last fifteen years. Even the Borough of Brooklyn had trouble locating the marriage record.[28]

    Nonetheless, she prevailed. Using all the wiles of previous pleas, Lilla repeated that she was living in poverty and had no other source of income other than a pittance of savings. She rambled about wartime losses and why she lived abroad. Writing to the Bureau of Pensions from Seattle on 22 October 1926, Lilla lamented, “I am a cripple and unable to do anything for myself.” She described how Dr. Wunderlich lost his fortune as well as $30,000 of her money during World War I. Lilla then explained her return to Shanghai, “I thought to better myself by going to China as I could get a [house] boy there for $12 [a] month.” She returned to the United States because she “could live here 1/3 cheeper than she could in the East.” The same month she wrote to the Secretary of the Navy: “Now Your are a gentlemen with real power. Will you not use it and help me a lonely unhappy widow to get this help—I beg of you in Jesus name to help me . . . my months of anxiety was a night mare. I leave it now in Gods hands. I will never try again to receive my just due.”

    On 31 May 1932, Washington attorney Daniel Partridge III wrote to the Director of Pensions: “Mrs. Wunderlich is deserving and needy, and the pension check will seem heaven-sent to her.” Shortly thereafter, ten years after Lilla began the pension process, Partridge succeeded in obtaining for her a back pension of $2,900, with $30 a month thereafter. However, when Partridge sent her a bill for $750, Lilla vanished, prompting him to write to the Secretary of State seeking her whereabouts. Partridge reported that “A Government Agent was advised by the proprietor of the apartment house in which Mrs. Wunderlich lived that she had told the proprietor that she had inherited quite a bit of money and expected to do a lot of traveling.” Lilla returned to Hamburg during the first days of the Third Reich, and from there sent a note to Robert Skinner of the American Legation in Estonia on 20 February 1933: “I am writing this letter in bed having escaped death by Gods mercy.” When she sailed from Hamburg aboard the S.S. Manhattan on 4 April 1933, she returned to the United States permanently. Her remaining missives reveal deteriorating penmanship, clouded reasoning, and dubious return addresses, such as, in 1934, Radio City Music Hall![29]

    The Coda

    Mortality caught up with Lilla on 22 December 1939, when she died in Bayside, Queens, at age 86—not 80 as her death notice claimed. Following a funeral home service, she was cremated on Christmas Day.[30] Ironically, there was still more money in the Wunderlich trust than what had resulted from the years of litigating Walter Treumann’s estate.

    And what of Lilla’s children? About 1920, Percy had changed his name to Philip Koehler. Under that name, he completed Lilla’s funeral arrangements. His fortunes had fallen along with the stock market crash in 1929 and, in 1940, after months of unemployment, he was living in a Manhattan rooming house. During World War II, Philip worked for the WPA. He died in January 1963 at the age of 79. Beatrice (Koehler) Trantor also survived her mother. Her marriage to Sefton Trantor had ended in divorce; Beatrice had two children.

    Researching Lilla’s life leaves me contemplating astonishing episodes of deception and intrigue. In the 1870s, when Lilla left New Bedford for New York City, she probably dreamed of romance, wealth, and adventure. She found all three but not in ways she might have anticipated. One last discovery deserves mention: after reading dozens of letters in Lilla’s own hand, I realized the distinctive handwriting on Percy’s photograph—the one that brought me on a genealogical journey to Shanghai and back—belonged to Lilla.


    1John Hawkins’s only brother, Charles Hawkins (1848–1882) of New Bedford, died unmarried.

    2Boston Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820–1943; viewed at Ancestry.com.

    3Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841–1910; viewed at AmericanAncestors.org

    4No family precedent exists for this name. There are several contemporary women born in Nova Scotia or northern New England with the double name. A schooner named Lilla Dale was launched in 1859.

    5Jessie Hawkins household, Massachusetts, State Census, 1865, New Bedford, Ward 4; viewed at FamilySearch.org.

    6Jessie Hawkins household, U.S. 1870 Census, Boston Ward 12, Suffolk County, Massachusetts; roll M593_647; page 329B; viewed at Ancestry.com.

    7Bristol County, Massachusetts, Probate, Jessie H. Hawkins, Adm. #28084.

    8“Blames Hugh M’Laughlin,” The New York Times, September 25, 1901, 8.

    9“Mrs. Wunderlich Says McLaughlin Threatened,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 24, 1901, p.1.

    10This fascinating episode was featured in spring 2013 in Montrose Morris’s Brooklyn-based blog, brownstoner.com. The three-part series was titled “The Boss, the Wife, and the Rug Patrol.”

    11D. Wunderlich household, U.S. 1900 Census, Brooklyn Ward 1, Kings County, New York; Roll 1043; page 6B; viewed at Ancestry.com.

    12Frederick Wunderlich household, 1905 New York State Census, Brooklyn, 6th E.D., 26; viewed at FamilySearch.org.

    13The marriage record gives his full name as Ernest Frederick Robert Koehler. New York, Marriages, 1686–1980; viewed at FamilySerach.org.

    14New York, Births and Christening, 1640–1962; viewed at FamilySearch.org.

    15Copy of certificate of death with Civil War pension file, Frederick W. Wunderlich, WC 1225–910.

    16“Marriages and Deaths,” New York Herald, 12 April 1891, 19.

    17Peter Ross, A History of Long Island: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (Long Island, N.Y.: Lewis Publishing Company, 1902), 523–524.

    18“Improvement Follows the Use of Koch’s Lymph,” New York Herald, 15 December 1890, 4.

    19New York, Kings County Estate Files, 1866–1923, Frederick W. Wunderlich; viewed at FamilySearch.org.

    20Frederick Wunderlich household, 1910 U.S. Census, Brooklyn Ward 1, Kings County, New York; roll T624_958; page 4A, E.D. 11, viewed at Ancestry.com.

    21U.S. Passport Applications, 1795–1925, viewed at Ancestry.com; Seattle, Washington, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882–1957, viewed at Ancestry.com.

    22Each of Lilla’s emergency passport applications contains a wealth of detail.

    23Frederick W. Wunderlich, 1920 U.S. Census, Brooklyn Assembly District 1, Kings County, New York; roll T625_1143, p. 5B, E.D. 16, viewed at Ancestry.com.

    24Lilla Dale Wunderlich, RG 59, CDF 1910–29, 341.1153, National Archives

    25Ibid. A translation of Walter Treumann’s will from the German is part of the file.

    26Civil War pension file, Frederick W. Wunderlich, WC 1225–910.

    27New York, Kings County Estate Files, 1866–1923 [note 19].

    28A Certificate of Marriage, Brooklyn #2647, reproduced from a microfilm negative on 12 February 1931, was submitted to the Civil War pension file.

    29Civil War pension [note 26].

    30“Mrs. Lila D. Wunderlich,” Long Island Star-Journal, 26 December 1939, 2.


    Michael F. Dwyer , FASG, contributes frequently to genealogical journals. His earlier articles in American Ancestors were “The Path to Edward Bird: A Story of Identity, Assimilation, and Discovery” (spring 2012), and “Ellen Flynn, Speeder- Tender” (winter 2013). He may be contacted at michaelftdwyer@comcast.net.

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