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Merry Christmas, frohe Weihnachten, veselé Vianoce

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

As we enjoy this blessed holiday, may we also remember those less fortunate, grieving, as well as our own generational journeys. There are two chapters in Spitting Image that recount especially difficult moments in my biological family's history, and as a Christmas gift to you my friends, family, readers and fans, I am posting them both here today - one German and one Slovakian. Merry Christmas, love one another, and love God.

Springwells, Detroit 1885 - First Christmas in America

The ease of their transition and the speed of their assimilation could not have prepared them or anyone in this rapidly growing community for the “most pitiable and horrible tragedy that has been recorded against Wayne County in years,” according to the Detroit Free Press.

On the morning of December 16, 1885 Fred’s mother Charlotte awoke early as usual. She rose before the sun just as she always had in Germany to prepare meals for the school and work day. Little Otto was only 5 years old, but Herman, Gustave, and Ida attended the Springwells School founded by Father Gabriel Richards. They were looking forward to the last three days of school before Christmas break. Their home was already decorated with the tannenbaum and CMB 1885 was inscribed in chalk above the doorway signifying the initials of the Three Kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They giggled constantly about the gifts Christkindl (“Christ Child”) would bring them on Christmas Eve and teased about the Americanized version, “Chris Kringle.” As Charlotte made breakfast for the children, she noticed a dim reddish glow in a reflection on the glass of the kitchen wall clock. She turned to find the cause, but nothing in the room proved revelatory. The outdoor darkness and the electric light in the kitchen created a mirror effect on the glass, but Charlotte thought she could see people, men, running southward. She cupped her hands around her face to shield the reflection and saw faces masked in shadows with glowing, ruddy highlights. Fred’s father Johann appeared in the kitchen doorway just as the doorbell rang—"Das Haus von Herrn Knoch brennt!" called a voice from the porch. "The Knoch house is on fire! Bring buckets!” Without opening the door, Johann bounded up the stairs and ordered August to join him. The men stepped into their boots, threw on overcoats and crossed the street to Fred’s home. Fred greeted his father and brother at the door with a bucket in each hand and the three men joined the procession headed only a couple of city blocks away to the farm of Frank and Susan Knoch.

Johann’s heart sank as the Preuss men came within direct sight of the flames illuminating the entire pre-dawn horizon. They took their respective places in the bucket brigade line that stretched nearly a quarter mile from the nearest creek, but it was already becoming clear that their efforts to save the house were futile. Word spread that the family could not be reached and someone had seen movement through the windows earlier, but no one had emerged and no one was able to enter to save the young family. Frank, Susan, their 2-year-old George and baby Frank Jr. all perished that morning.

The close-knit community took the loss squarely on the chin, but the uppercut that sent them to the mat was the revelation by authorities that the deaths had not been accidental. Wayne County Physician Dr. F.W. Owen determined through autopsy that Frank and Susan had been fatally shot by a .22 caliber pistol found next to a sewing machine in the charred wreckage. A hatchet blade found in the ashes had been used, it was determined, to chop George’s head into pieces. There were too little remains of the infant Frank Jr. to determine the circumstances of his demise.

Weeks later Fred and Herman sat in the dining room of their parents’ home discussing the horror that had gripped their neighborhood. Charlotte poured coffee as August opined. “Sheriff Stellwagen swears he will find the murderer, but everyone remains in fear. Frank and Susan had no enemies, and we all know one another. This must have been done by someone from outside.” Fred disagreed, “Everyone is more fearful that the person who did this is from within our own community, August. Frank had two brothers, Gustave and Herman, and you know Herman was committed to an asylum for a while. Sheriff Stellwagen is talking with them and their mother, I have heard.” Charlotte shivered at the thought of Frank’s own family being complicit in his gruesome death. In German she spoke, “Was für eine hasserfüllte Sache das war!” (Such a hateful thing this was.) Only a monster could summon such hate and anger to kill his own brother’s family.” August was not convinced. “You know Aleck, the man that boarded with them last summer? Have you seen him lately?” “I saw him driving a manure wagon to Detroit the week after the murders, but not since,” added Johann entering from the kitchen. “They had to move the inquest from the courthouse to the hall above the Fort Street Saloon because so many people wanted to listen. Newspaper reporters and people from all over the country are following this with great interest. Even the New York Times is writing about this horrible thing that happened in our home,” he lamented.

Word reached the sheriff on New Year’s Eve that Frank’s mother, who had become ill, wanted to make a statement. Those involved assumed that it would be a confession or incrimination of her sons. The prosecuting attorney accompanied the sheriff to her home the following day, but Elizabeth had fallen into a coma and died early that morning. Authorities suspected poisoning, but an autopsy performed by candlelight in the living room of her home revealed a skull fracture. Herman and Gustave were arrested and public sentiment against the brothers raged over the headlines, Mother Murdered! The boarder, Alec, was found the following summer and proved to be ignorant of the events. According to the Detroit Daily, the community believed “that the present generation will not see the mystery solved and that further investigation will be fruitless.”

By the time Fred fell in love with and married Anna Behrendt in 1887 the case was at a standstill and the widespread fear was beginning to dissipate. Their first daughter, Augusta Wilhelmina “Minnie” and the 11 children that followed would only know of the dreadful massacre through bits and pieces of the story their father and uncles would tell when they were older. They refused to allow their own memories of one terrifying Christmas to steal the joy and magic of the holiday from their children in the years that followed. Minnie would later notice a sadness in her mother at Christmas—not constant, but fleeting and reflective—that she witnessed on a few occasions. As she became more aware of the history, she never asked her mother or father about it because she understood the pain these memories inflicted upon them.

Staunton Illinois 1932 - The Year Without a Christmas

Paul James Kapilla was the 6th son of Michael and Mary and in 1904 was the first to be born in Illinois. The family worked hard and coal mining provided economic stability if not grandeur and luxury for them. Everyone did not follow Michael into the mines, however. At the onset of World War I the eldest boys Mike Jr., John and George enlisted and served with distinction. Mike Jr. was a saloon keeper and John was a tire builder for the Morgan-Wright Company. All three had moved from the family home in Staunton to the industrial hot bed of Detroit. Younger siblings Paul, Joseph, and Frank still lived with their parents and attended schools in Staunton. The addition of Joseph and Frank brought to 8 the number of sons that Michael and Mary produced, and Andrew was the only one of them to follow his father into the coal mines.

Andrew Kapilla was the fourth son of Mike and Mary and the third born in America. He married Anna Bednar in 1923, 5 years after joining his father in the Mowequa Coal Mine. Andrew and Anna were blessed with two children, Clifford and Shirleyann. Andrew was one of 115 miners earning $6.10 to produce 30 tons of coal each day and counting themselves fortunate to do so at the height of the Great Depression. On Christmas Eve, about half of the miners enjoyed the holiday with their families, and 54 reported to work as usual. At 8:15 a. m. Mary and Mike were having breakfast, discussing preparations for the holiday meal that evening when they heard the steam whistle blow. They were momentarily paralyzed. Although 7 of their sons had recently moved to Detroit where manufacturing and other jobs were plentiful, they still had one in Staunton and he went to work at the mine that morning. The steam whistle was an alert that something was wrong. Mike and Mary were already dressed and needed only to don their rain coats and grab umbrellas. They hoped and prayed that Andrew was safe, but there was no discussion about waiting to hear news or turning on the radio. That whistle meant trouble for someone, if not their son, and they would be there to help in any way possible. Hundreds of family members like Mike and Mary filled the streets and headed for the mine in the cold December rain.

Before they were within site of the entrance to the mine word spread that an explosion occurred deep within and trapped many of the miners. State rescue workers, the fire department, the Red Cross, and the Mowequa hospital mobilized quickly. Townspeople pitched in to provide meals for the rescue workers. The Illinois Central Railroad provided sleeping cars and food for the rescue teams as well. Rescuers warned that the explosion was caused by poisonous gas, and all feared the collapse of shale and rock some 2,000 feet from the entrance may have crushed the mine’s ventilating system. The rescuers swung picks and shovels as relentlessly as the cold rain drenched the families and remaining miners who were kept back from the mouth of the mine.

There was no Christmas in Staunton in 1932. The crews labored for 2 days to recover the fallen men. Back pay and insurance payments did little to assuage the grief of their loss. The death toll, 54 souls, was the second largest for any mining disaster in the state since 1909. While Christmas would never be the same for Mike, Mary, and Anna, the legacy of Andrew in their children and grandchildren remained a source of strength and comfort throughout their remaining years.

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