Climbing My Family Tree, Part Two

Immigrants Bernard Paul Hubert von Meurers and Emilie Therese Nahrath

My great-grandfather, Bernard Paul Hubert von Meurers, was born in Dusseldorf, Prussia (Germany) on April 18, 1864. He was simply called “Paul” by his parents. He was the youngest of their four children.

Paul was born into what he described as an “aristocratic” family, with noble roots that tie back to when our ancestor, Matthias von Meurers, was Mayor of Breisig, which at the time was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, all the way back in 1588.

The von Meurers family was, in Paul’s words, “well to do.” He described his mother as a “society woman.” The family’s Coat of Arms was handed down from generation to generation from father to son. Original documents, written by various Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, detailing the elevation of key members of the family to the rank of Barron, were treasured family artifacts. The family home (known as the “Schultheissenhaus”), was built in Breisig in 1670 and still stands today. The initials WM (for Wilhelm von Meurers—Paul’s four times great-grandfather) are inserted into the sides of the window grilles on structure’s ground floor.

In 1865, for reasons yet to be discovered, Paul’s family immigrated from the family’s ancestral homeland on the banks of the Rhine River to Brussels, Belgium. Paul was only a year old at the time. Despite being born on Germany soil, to a long line of German ancestors, Paul always identified himself as Belgian, and in many official American documents he reported himself having been born in Brussels, which is not accurate.

Paul’s father, Johann Gottlieb (Theophile) Hubert von Meurers, died in Brussels in 1871 when Paul was just seven years old. His mother, Emilie Therese Nahrath (my two times great-grandmother), remarried to Heinrich (Henry) Friedlieb a year later.

Not long after their marriage, the family immigrated to the United States of America. Paul came with his mother, his step-father, his brother (Maximilien Henri Joseph von Meurers Sr.) and one of his sisters (Maria Catharina [Lena] von Meurers. His other sister (Maria Theresa Franziska [Fanny] von Meurers) was already married and she immigrated to the USA independently of her birth family.

According to family lore, Paul may have arrived in the United States as early as 1876, but in his autobiography, From the Shadow of Death, (published in 1915 and sold for 10 cents a copy) he reports he was 19 years of age, which would correspond to the year 1883.

We have documentation Paul lived with his family in Hoboken, New Jersey, as recorded in the 1885 New Jersey Census, but despite my best efforts, I have been unable to find the manifest indicating the ship that carried my great-grandfather to America.

Although not yet verified, it is highly likely Paul and his family passed through Castle Garden (now Castle Clinton National Monument in lower Manhattan). Over eight million people entered the United States through Castle Garden, which pre-dated Ellis Island (1892). Two thirds of all immigrants to the US passed through this facility during the years it was in operation (1855-1890). Paul would have witnessed the assembling of the Statue of Liberty from the New Jersey shores (the statue was dedicated in 1886).

Paul married Elizabeth (Lizzy) Weisgerber on August 25, 1888 when he was 24 and she was 26. Paul describes his wife as “a good woman.”  They set up house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and had five children together.

  1. Elise Caroline von Meurers was born May 11, 1889. She married John P. Lyons and had three children. Her descendants (my cousins), are in contact with the deMeurers family to this day. She died in 1984.
  2. Augusta Weisgerber von Meurers was born August 14, 1890 and died in 1902. Her family lineage, if any, is unknown.
  3. Theresa P. von Meurers was born in 1893 and died at the age of two.
  4. Paul Karl von Meurers was born May 29, 1896. He married Margaret Elise Richter. He died in 1988 without children.
  5. Pauline Marie von Meurers was born and died in March 1898.

There is evidence to show Paul Karl von Meurers was born in Brussels, which would indicate the family went back and forth from America to Europe after their initial immigration to the US. There are ship manifest records to show Paul Karl returned to Europe as an adult. Alternatively, Paul Karl may have inaccurately listed his birthplace as Brussels, as did his father. We know Paul’s brother, Maximilian, frustrated with his lack of proficiency in English and unable to find suitable work, permanently returned to Brussels and became father of a long line of Belgian cousins who live there today.

In his autobiography, Paul describes himself as an unfit husband. He refers to himself as having grown up a “spoiled” child, having his own way in everything. He attributes many of his problems to his addiction to alcohol, which began in childhood, as it was his family’s custom to regularly partake of beer and whiskey in their home.

He describes a life centered on the need for drink. He had an “uncontrollable” temper. He gave up a “good position” at work in Philadelphia. He sold all his possessions (including his wife’s rings and dresses) to pawnshops in exchange for money he used to purchase beer. He even admits to taking his young children to saloons with him, where he bought them alcoholic drinks.

While Paul was out drinking one night during the month of March, 1898, his wife Lizzy attempted to throw herself and their baby out a second story window. A sergeant had broken into the house in time to prevent her from “plunging into the street.” Lizzy was taken to St. Joseph Hospital where she died of exhaustion three days later. Paul was barred from seeing her in the hospital due to his inebriated state.

After his wife’s death, Paul became a “tramp and a bum.” He reports his children were taken in by his wife’s relatives, but there are US Census records that indicate Paul Karl von Meurers lived in the Philadelphia Municipal Hospital, a home for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the insane—and apparently for orphaned children. Later in life he and his wife, Margaret, lived with Charles Henri Weisgerber of Philadelpha (according to the 1930 US Census). Weisgerber was Lizzy’s brother (Paul Karl’s uncle) and he worked as a custodian at the Betsy Ross House. Paul Karl worked all his life as a “weigher” on the docks in Philadelphia. There is no evidence to indicate Paul Karl ever had any kind of relationship with his father, although they lived within a few miles of one another.

My grandfather did not speak of Paul Karl, and perhaps did not even know about him, but he did have some form of a relationship with Karl Paul’s older sister Elise von Meurers Lyons, and it is through that association we have a connection with the Lyon clan today.

Paul lived on the streets in Philadelphia. At one point he took refuge in the cellar of a “disreputable” house in a dirty alley, where he slept on ashes and covered himself with nothing more than old burlap and rags. The rats snatched the stale bread he collected from garbage cans from his hands.

On one occasion Paul was discovered there in the cellar in a “dying” condition. He was revived and taken to the Philadelphia Hospital, where upon his release he was supplied with new shoes, which he promptly sold to purchase alcohol. He collected empty whiskey bottles from the streets, for he received a free drink for each half dozen bottles he turned over to the saloon.

On Thursday, July 11, 1901 Paul married Helena Sturm in Philadelphia. There is a marriage license documenting the event, although Paul omits all mention of this spouse in his autobiography. There are no records of children from this marriage. We do not know if Helena died or if the couple divorced.

At some point, sick, exhausted, and “shaking like a leaf” for want of alcohol, Paul broke. He called out to the heavens for help.

“It was then between twelve and one o’clock in the morning. Holding myself to the railing of a house, I cried out: ‘If there is a living God—reveal Thyself now—take away the cursed desire for drink and once more make me a respectable man.’ I felt as if some one (sic) threw me down on my knees, and there I was at the feet of Jesus, crying like a child.”

From that moment on, Paul lived a very different life. He went from cursing God to serving him. As far as we know, he never again had another drink of alcohol. He began going around to businesses asking for old paper, which he recycled for pennies. He began saving his money and eventually found work as a janitor at the Wayside Mission.

At some point Paul changed his name from “von Meurers” to “de Meurers.” The precise reasons behind the change are unclear.  Family tradition suggested the name was changed upon immigration to the United States, which is not accurate. Although the timing is not precise, it is likely he changed his name about the same time he stopped drinking, somewhere around the year 1905.

Paul still went by von Meurers when he married Helena Sturm in 1901. I have not been able to find any record of Paul in the 1900 US Census. It is likely he was living on the streets and was not counted. We know he went by the name de Meurers by 1907. I have not found any official paperwork where he officially changed his name. Perhaps he changed it and the records have been lost, or perhaps he simply started using the new name without official government sanction.

A possible influence in Paul’s decision to change his name was the fact that he did not identify with his German roots, and wanted to make his name sound as if it had French or Flemish origins, to better correspond with his claim that he had been born in Brussels. It is also likely that in the years leading up to World War I (1914-1918) there would have been a great deal of anti-German sentiment in Philadelphia.

On New Year’s Eve, 1906, Paul got on his knees beside his bed and thanked God for “His goodness and guidance.” He asked God to give him a home once more. A year later, in 1907, Paul married Mabel Edna Sacues, my great-grandmother. Mabel was born on August 8, 1878, in Pennsylvania. She was 29 when she married my great-grandfather. He was 43.

Paul and Mabel had four children, all of whom were given his new last name:

  1. Paul de Meurers (my grandfather) was born May 25, 1908. He married Hazel Adelia Weldon. He died in 1991, having fathered four sons.
  2. Virginia de Meurers was born May 26, 1910. She married Alvin Cobb. She died in 2006 with no children.

And twins born on January 1, 1913.

  1. Pierre de Meurers, who died hours after his birth.
  2. Maximillien de Meurers, who made regional newspapers for holding the record of being the world’s the smallest living baby at just 1 ¼ pounds. Unfortunately, Maximilien did not survive long either, passing away on January 23, 1913.

And thus, Paul began a new life, with a new name, a new family, a new profession, a new religion, and a new sense of purpose.

Paul eventually received employment in a banking institution in Philadelphia. He almost lost the position after the first week due to the fact he was ineligible to qualify for a bond to work there, but after he shared the story of his salvation, the bank’s Board of Directors agreed to let him stay on. After nearly eight years the bank failed and Paul lost his job.

In 1915 Paul received a copy write for his autobiography. He spent the remainder of his life selling Bibles and testifying as a “living witness of Jesus and His love.” Numerous newspaper articles were published throughout the mid-Atlantic area advertising Paul’s appearances in churches, missions, and theaters.

Family lore tells us Paul rode around the “West” on horseback selling Bibles. The documentation uncovered thus far would indicate the “West” referred to western Pennsylvania.

In 1920 Paul lived in Voorhees, Camden, New Jersery, a dozen or so miles outside Philadelphia. Paul died December 15, 1926, at the age of 62, in West Berlin, New Jersey. He is buried in the Berlin Cemetery alongside Mabel, who died in 1947.

Like so many who came both before and after, immigrants Bernard Paul Hubert von Meurers and Emilie Therese Nahrath arrived in America in search of a better life for their family. In their case, they were already wealthy and well established in the Old World, and yet the appeal of the Land of the Free called them to these shores and they joined the incredible “salad bowl” of immigrants who came here for something better.

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My Family Tree:

  1. Matthias von Meurers

»

  1. Markus von Meurers

»

  1. Wilhelm von Meurers

»

  1. Adam Christian von Meurers

»

  1. Nicolas Wilhelm Englebert von Meurers

»

  1. Arnold Wilhelm Peter Friedrich von Meurers

»

  1. Maximilian Hermann Joseph Richard von Meurers

»

  1. Johann Gottlieb (Theophile) Hubert von Meurers and Emilie Therese Nahrath

»

  1. Bernard Paul Hubert von Meurers

»

  1. Paul de Meurers

»

  1. Weldon deMeurers

»

  1. Me (Alan deMeurers) 

 

Running count of my direct immigrants from Europe to North America = 5

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Reference Links:

https://familysearch.org/search/record/results?count=50&query=%2Bgivenname%3Apaul~%20%2Bsurname%3A%22von%20meurers%22~

https://books.google.com/books?id=RhEDAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=paul%20de%20meurers&f=false

 

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