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Oh, Willy… where are you?

Okay, we’re going to play Where’s Willy? here. Not the Canadian currency game, and not the children’s book… This is my hunt for my father’s cousin. He disappeared and I haven’t (yet!) been able to find him.

Willy Walter Benschura

Willy Walter Benschura was born on 6 May 1905 in Gera, the capital city of the Reuss jungere Linie (Junior Line) principality in what later became the German State of Thüringen.1 He had one brother, Alfred, born in Gera a year earlier, on 16 May 1904.2

Their parents, Paul Alfred Benschura and Martha Pauline Geissler, my grandfather’s sister, didn’t marry until 31 July 1906.3 And they divorced in February 1923.4 Almost exactly a month after the divorce was entered, Martha landed at Ellis Island, alone,5 her teenaged sons left behind with their father.

The young men came to America together a short time later, arriving at Ellis Island on 9 January 1924. The ship manifest said they were going to stay with their mother, Martha Geissler, in Chicago; it named her father, Hermann Geissler, as their grandfather and nearest relative in Germany.6

Alfred filed his declaration of intent to become a citizen almost immediately after arriving in Chicago. It was filed in the Cook County Circuit Court on 24 May 1924.7 He was naturalized in the U.S. District Court in Chicago on 23 May 1929.8

Willy filed his declaration a year later than Alfred, in the Chicago court, on 17 April 1925.9 But he didn’t act on that declaration. Instead, he filed a second declaration in Chicago’s federal court on 28 February 1936 and was finally naturalized on 14 December 1938.10

Both Alfred and Willy were living with Martha in the 1930 census, although listed there as stepsons. Martha, shown as a 46-year-old widow who was born in Germany, was head of household. Her occupation was shown as seamstress in a furniture shop. Alfred was shown as age 26, single, a painter at a hotel, and Willy as age 25, single, a die marker at a leather factory.11

Willy married Elly Marie Kessler on 20 February 1932 in Chicago.12 In 1940, Alfred, shown as Fred, was still living with his mother Martha in rented quarters on Lill Avenue;13 Willy and Elly were living in rented quarters on Fullerton.14

Martha died in Chicago in 1949.15 Willy’s wife Elly died in Chicago in 1957. Her death certificate says she was married and living at home on North Mildred at the time she was admitted to the Cook County Hospital for diabetes.16 Alfred died in Orange County, California, in 1960, having never married.17

The next sign of Willy is in 1962, when he married in California. The hitch is, the California marriage index lists his bride under two different names: Irene Averino and Irene V. Gallas.18

She may have been Irene Averino Gallas; her obituary was published in the Chicago Tribune on 6 January 1966, giving her name as Irene Gallas Benschura, and naming a son, Dr. Harry Gallas of Beecher, Illinois. The notice identified Irene as the “wife of Willie,” suggesting he may still have been alive then.19

But what happened to Willy? He might as well have vanished into thin air.

His name doesn’t appear in the Social Security Death Index. There’s no newspaper account of his death. In fact, other than his wife’s obituary, there’s no Benschura named in any article in any of the major online news services. There’s no listing for a grave in Findagrave or any other online service. There’s not one single genealogical record anywhere in the United States for anyone named Benschura who isn’t Martha, Alfred or Willy or one of Willy’s two wives. And, today, there’s not a single Benschura household anywhere in the United States with a telephone listing…

My research plan at this point:

1. Check the Chicago city telephone directories, to see if I can track the Benschuras into the 1950s and 1960s. The Newberry Library has a terrific collection of these directories.

2. Obtain a physical copy of Willy’s 1962 marriage record from California. Were there witnesses or other indicators of who his FAN club was (that’s Friends, Associates and Neighbors, of course.)

3. Obtain a physical copy of Irene Gallas Benschura’s death record if I can figure out where she died. The death notice spoke of a memorial service in Beecher, Illinois, and the Benschuras are not named in the Cook County death index through 1988. So where…?

4. Check with the funeral homes that handled Martha Benschura’s and Elly Benschura’s funerals. Willy’s arrangements may have been handled by one of them.

5. See if I can find descendants of Irene Gallas Benschura. Two children were named in her death record.

6. Cross my fingers…


SOURCES

  1. Naturalization petition 171783, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Willy Walter Benschura, 13 Sep 1938, approved 14 Dec 1938; FHL microfilm 2131354.
  2. Naturalization petition 71107, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Alfred Benschura, 11 Feb 1929, approved 23 May 1929; FHL microfilm 1468268.
  3. Marriage record, Paul Alfred Benschura and Martha Pauline Geißler, 31 Jul 1906; Ahnenforschung Familie Geissler u. a. in Gera, Stadtarchiv, Gera, 22 Jun 2009.
  4. Ibid., marginal note.
  5. Manifest, S.S. President Arthur, 19 March 1923, p. 125 (stamped), line 2, Martha Benschura (NARA T715, roll 3269).
  6. Manifest, S.S. George Washington, 9 January 1924, p. 137 (stamped), lines 15-16, Alfred and Willy Benschura (NARA T715, roll 3439).
  7. Cook County, Illinois, Circuit Court, Book 320: 67, Declaration No. 157767, Alfred Benschura, 24 May 1924.
  8. Naturalization petition 71107, Alfred Benschura, 11 Feb 1929, approved 23 May 1929.
  9. Cook County, Illinois, Circuit Court, Book 338: 151, Declaration No. 166581, Willy Benschura, 17 Apr 1925.
  10. Naturalization petition 171783, Willy Walter Benschura, 13 Sep 1938, approved 14 Dec 1938.
  11. 1930 U.S. census, City of Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 16-1579, p. 20B (penned), dwelling 173, family 538, Martha Geissler household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 31 Aug 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 484.
  12. Naturalization petition 171783, Willy Walter Benschura, 13 Sep 1938, approved 14 Dec 1938.
  13. 1940 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 44, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 103-2827, page 40389(A) (stamped), sheet 11(A), household 248, Martha Benschura and Fred Benschura; digital image, Archives.gov (http://1940census.archives.gov : accessed 31 Aug 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 1010.
  14. 1940 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 33, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 103-2091, page 29955(B) (stamped), sheet 12(B), household 281, William Benschura; digital image, Archives.gov (http://1940census.archives.gov : accessed 31 Aug 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 988.
  15. Illinois Department of Public Health, Death Certificate 18330, Martha Benschura, 17 Jun 1949, Bureau of Vital Statistics & Records, Springfield, IL.
  16. Illinois Department of Public Health, Death Certificate 75481, Elly Benschura, 28 Oct 1957, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Springfield, IL.
  17. “California Death Records,” database; entry for Alfred Benschura, 2 September 1960, Rootsweb.com (http://vitals.rootsweb.ancestry.com/ca/death/search.cgi : accessed 31 Aug 2012).
  18. “California, Marriage Index, 1960-1985,” database, entries for Irene Averino and Willie W. Benschura and Irene V. Gallas and Willie W. Benschura, 9 Apr 1962, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 31 Aug 2012).
  19. Gallas, death notice, The Chicago Tribune, 6 Jan 1966, p.D2.
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