Today’s account will be a difficult one for me to share. That is because there was an event early in my life that is brought back to my mind that I would just as soon forget. It involves a type of death that still haunts me. Before I get to that part of the story, let me set the scene.
Johann Birner settled in Altenburg sometime not long before 1849. He was not a part of the Saxon immigration in 1839, but he arrived here not long after it. In fact, Johann was not even a Saxon. He was a Bavarian. On October 11, 1849, Johann married Ernestine Goethe in Altenburg. Here is the Perry County marriage record for this couple.
I circled the name of the pastor on this record. It is Rev. Charles Gruber who was the pastor in Uniontown. His name is on this record because the Trinity, Altenburg pastor, Rev. Gotthold Loeber, had died in August of 1849. Rev. Keyl from Frohna had taken a call to another place by this time, and Rev. Loeber was covering both the Altenburg and Frohna congregations. However, when he died in 1849, Rev. Gruber had to perform this wedding in Altenburg. This marriage is not recorded in the Trinity church books.
Johann and Ernestine would have seven children, one of which died at a very early age. Their firstborn son, Henry Birner, was the subject of a previous post titled, Birner Hotel – Wittenberg. Henry was a blacksmith in Wittenberg, and his wife ran the Birner Hotel there. However, today’s story is about a different blacksmith who came out of this Birner family. His name was Friedrich Birner, Henry’s brother. A newspaper article about his death would refer to him as Fritz. He was born on March 20, 1857. Here is his baptism record from the Trinity Lutheran Church books.
Rev. Georg Schieferdecker performed this baptism and recorded it in the church books. It is written with his distinctive style. It would be later in 1857 that Rev. Schieferdecker would split from Trinity to establish Immanuel Lutheran Church in Altenburg.
Fritz would later become a blacksmith himself. In 1900, we find him with that occupation and living in Fountain Bluff Township just across the river in Illinois.
I included some of the census surrounding Fritz’s name to show some other names that you might recognize. First of all, under his name you find Ernest Groh. The Groh name has been the subject of several posts on this blog. Also, above Fritz’s name you see the name Brunkhorst. A small community developed in Fountain Bluff Township that became known as Brunkhorst Landing. It was also a spot where riverboats could stop. This is likely the area where Fritz lived in Illinois for quite a few years. We still see him listed in the 1920 census where he is 62 years old and still a blacksmith. Fritz would never be married.
Three years later, Fritz’s life would end in a very dramatic way. It was reported that on August 30, 1923, he fell into the Mississippi River and drowned. His body was not found until this date, September 2nd. Here is a transcription of an article in the Perry County Republican which was printed in the September 6th edition of that newspaper.
It is the fact that this article states that his remains were “caught” at Wittenberg that brings back horrid memories for me. When I was attending a youth group swimming event as a teenager, one of our group’s members drowned. I guess I will never forget standing on the shore watching some folks in boats “dragging” the water with grappling hooks looking for the body, which they eventually did find. To this day, I am not a big fan of being around water. I do not know if that was the technique used by the people who “caught” Fritz’s remains, but it must have been a terrible thing for the people of Wittenberg to witness. Here is a map which shows Brunkhorst Landing (top arrow) where Fritz fell in the water and Wittenberg (bottom arrow) where his remains were found three days later.
Here is the death certificate for Friedrich Birner. He was 66 years old when he drowned, which is just about my age.
It is interesting to note that Fritz’s brother, Henry, is listed as the “informant”. It is just my guess, but this may indicate that he may have been the one to identify the body, and he certainly must have been the one to help with the paperwork for this death certificate.
I find it also interesting that Fritz was almost immediately buried. It says he was found on Sunday evening and it says they buried him that evening as well. He was buried in the Trinity Lutheran Cemetery in Altenburg, but there is no gravestone there. I went out to the cemetery this morning to look for his grave. Here is what I found.
The gravestone on the right has a death date of July in 1923, and the stone on the left has a death date of October of that year. Most people buried in this cemetery are buried in the order that they died. There is an open space in between these two graves. I speculate that is where Fritz was buried. (By the way, you can see the steeple of Trinity, Altenburg in the background.)
I guess if anything good can come out of this story, it is the fact that the Mississippi River managed to carry Fritz’s remains back to his home in Perry County after he died.