My Mother’s Side, Part 2: Tragedy Comes to the Nicholas Family


Documents and Denouements

Last week, I took documents gathered while researching my genealogy and organized them to help me form a narrative. I discussed how my great-grandmother, Ida Mary Nicholas, née Andrews, and her husband, John, left Carmarthen, Wales, in the early 1880s to start a new life in Chicago, USA. In the process of telling this story, I learned some things about American history and new details about my ancestors.

This week, I’ll pick up where I left off, discussing a series of deaths in the Nicholas family that occurred within just a few years. John, my great-grandfather, outlived his wife and two of his children, and I wonder if he ever regretted having left Wales.

The Death of John’s Wife (or Ex-wife?) in 1926

By 1920, apparently Ida Mary and John had separated. Maybe they had divorced. The census of that year shows my great-grandmother as “Head” of the family, living on Monroe Street. She’s still marked as married, but the entry for John — living with their son, Leo, on Madison Street — says he’s divorced. Their daughter/my grandmother resided with her mother. She was also named Ida Mary, but I’ll just call her Ida for clarity.

The 1920 census shows Ida Mary as head of the family.

Of course, I don’t know much at all about this parting of the ways. The usual documents are silent on that part of story. One thing I do know is that the John and Ida Mary are buried side-by-side, which suggests the break-up wasn’t too ugly. I hope…

Ida Mary died first. It was in 1926, and by then, Ida, her namesake, had married a man named Hooper.

My great-grandmother’s obituary notice appeared in the Chicago Tribune (September 1, 1926, p. 36). Back in Carmarthen, her life seemed not to stray too far from King Street, something I discuss in Part 1. In Chicago, Madison Street was where she had lived early on and, according to this notice, where she resided when she died.

The Violent Death of John’s Son in 1932

Ida Mary and John’s first born was Leo George, their only child born in Wales. As discussed last week, he was born in or around 1880, and by 1900, he was married and working alongside his father at a Chicago grille works company. (Grilles are ornate panels or screens often made of wood.) By 1918, though, he had taken a job as a guard in the Cook County penal system, as shown on his WWI registration card of that year. This might have been a part-time job because the 1920 census says he worked as a cabinet maker, still a woodworker and, I suspect, still making grilles. This latter document also shows that he, his wife, four daughters, and one son were living on Madison Street, further west from where the 1900 census shows him. In other words, he had moved to a house up the street to accommodate his growing family.

The 1920 census suggests Leo George, Ida Mary and John’s first born, had adapted well to Chicago. Below his children (though unseen here) are a number of lodgers — not unusual in the early 20th century — the last of which is Leo’s father, marked as divorced.

Leo was still a jail guard in 1932. This is the year that Jack Lawrence was an inmate being held for trial on the charge of murdering a police officer. Lawrence had gotten into a fight with another prisoner, and Leo was assigned to accompany him to the doctor’s office. But, somehow, Lawrence had managed to get a gun into the secured facility. He shot Leo three times and then went on a rampage, running from one floor to another. He threatened two other guards, demanding to be set free from the jail. These guards both avoided being shot. Soon, “dozens of guards armed with rifles and tear bombs were posted at vantage exits,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. That’s when Lawrence turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.

The shooting death of Leo Nicholas, my granduncle, was covered on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune (June 23, 1932). In the same issue, the picture above appeared beside one of murderer Jack Lawrence (p. 9). It’s the only picture I have of any member of the Nicholas family.

The news of Leo Nicholas’s violent death was reported in newspapers as far away from Chicago as Connecticut and Nevada.

The Deaths of John’s Daughter and John Himself in 1933

My grandmother’s obituary notice appeared in the Chicago Tribune (January 27, 1933, p. 16).

My maternal grandmother died when she was in her 30s. Unlike her brother’s, Ida’s death didn’t make the front page. I don’t know what caused her death. Beyond the fact that she once was, I don’t remember her being discussed in my family. Not by my mother, who would have been only four-years-old when her mother died. Not by my grandfather, who outlived Ida by six decades (without ever remarrying). I don’t remember our ever visiting her grave, and not until I plunged into genealogy research did I learn that she’s buried with her parents rather than with her husband. It makes sense that she would be, I guess. Ida didn’t live long, but she had lived longer as a daughter than as a wife and mother.

Ida Hooper, née Nicholas, remains a mystery to me, her grandson. However, I think more about how her father must have suffered. In the wake of splitting with his wife, she, their son, and their daughter all died in the span of seven years. Did the weight of all this contribute to John’s own death, which occurred just a few months after Ida’s?

My great-grandfather’s obituary notice appeared in the Chicago Tribune (May 23, 1933, p. 16).

John was survived by two daughters, as his obituary notice says, and the 70-something man had probably played with several of his grandchildren, too. Ninety years later after his death, a great-grandson named Tim would use his blog to try to tell something about this man’s Welsh origin, his immigrant experience, and his American sorrows.

Once upon a time, Ida Mary Andrews married John Nicholas, and together, they journeyed to Chicago. I know some interesting things about a few of the relatives they left behind in Wales. Next week, I’ll jump back in time — and back across the ocean — to talk about the Andrews family. I promise that post will be more upbeat than this one. After all, the Andrews combined candy-making with bicycle-riding!

— Tim

Go to “My Mother’s Side, Part 3”

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